The shootdown yesterday of a Russian aircraft by a Turkish F-16 is a worrisome development, but historically speaking, incidents involving the United States or NATO countries and Soviet or Russian forces have been fairly common. These include ground, naval, and air incidents. Indeed, there was a long tradition of the Soviet Union shooting at aircraft and people who entered their territory or even come close to it. Even in the post-Soviet era there have been similar incidents with Russian forces. As bad as these events can be, they have yet to lead to war and are usually either swept under the rug or dealt with on a diplomatic level.
Consider 12 of the more notable confrontations:
1. In November 1951, Soviet fighters shot down a U.S. P2V Neptune over the Sea of Japan, 18 miles from the Soviet coast. All ten crewmen were lost though the Navy did not declare them dead until 1952. The Navy publicly claimed that the aircraft was engaged in a weather reconnaissance flight and only after the end of the Cold War did it admit that the plane was on a signals intelligence collection mission.
3. In September 1958, four Soviet MiGs intercepted and took turns shooting at an American C-130 with tail number 60528 which was on a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Armenia. 60528 crashed and the 17 crewmembers were lost. Because of the classified nature of the mission, the U.S. government was initially reluctant to ask the Soviets about the aircraft. When it finally did, a week and a half later, the Soviet Union denied all knowledge of the incident. The National Security Agency and its partners, however, knew the Soviets were lying because they had collected SIGINT on the intercept. It was not until the 1990s that Russian President Boris Yeltsin released Soviet-era records on the incident. The NSA has subsequently released its own materials, including audio recordings of the Soviet pilots as they intercepted the doomed American plan. Today a C-130 painted with tail number 60528 is a centerpiece of NSA’s National Vigilance Park.
4. On Mayday in 1960, a CIA U-2 reconnaissance plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down near Sverdlovsk in the center of the Soviet Union. The incident proved a major embarrassment to the United States. Not knowing that Powers had survived, President Dwight Eisenhower denied it had been a spy flight. He was soon shown to have lied, when the Soviets produced Powers. When Eisenhower refused to apologize, the Soviet delegation walked out of a planned summit meeting in Paris just as it was due to begin. The negotiation for Powers’ release is the plotline of the new Tom Hanks thriller Bridge of Spies.
5. In September 1961, just a month after the completion of the Berlin Wall, two Western German F-84F Thunderstreaks strayed into East German airspace as they participated in a NATO exercise called CHECKMATE. With Soviet fighters in hot pursuit, French and American air controllers in Berlin directed the pilots to dash to Berlin instead of turning into the pursuers who were between them and the West German border. Though, by treaty, no West German forces were allowed in Berlin, the F-84F’s safely landed at the French-controlled Tegel Airport in West Berlin. Rumors circulated afterwards that the planes were somehow smuggled out of Berlin, but in actuality, the French buried them. The Soviet Union protested the incident and the West German pilots and their squadron commander found themselves relieved.
6. On May 10 and 11, 1967 the destroyer USS Walker, engaged in a U.S.-Japanese anti-submarine warfare exercise in the Sea of Japan, was twice bumped by two different Soviet destroyers. In one of the incidents, the Walker was holed in the bow above the waterline. In an exchange of diplomatic demarches, the United States accused the Soviets of harassment and the Soviets responded that the U.S.-Japanese maneuvers “close to the Soviet shores cannot be regarded as anything else but a premeditated organized provocative military demonstration.” Historian David Winkler notes that the incident became a political issue in the United States and even led House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford to suggest that the U.S. Navy should be authorized to fire in future such incidents. The Lyndon Johnson administration chose a different route, however, and the next year proposed opening negotiations with the Soviets which four years later led to the Incidents at Sea Agreement.
7. In November 1970, the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal collided with a Soviet Kotlin class guided missile destroyer, which had been shadowing it off the coast of Crete. Seven Soviet sailors were thrown overboard by the impact and two of them were lost. The British ship was holed above the waterline but was able to continue participating in the NATO exercise LIME JUG.
8. Events on Turkish borders are not new either. In August 1982, Turkey and the Soviet Union exchanged diplomatic protests after Soviet border guards shot and killed two Turkish border guards in Cildir, Turkey. The Soviets claimed that the Turks had crossed into Soviet territory and been killed in a gunfight.
9. In March 1985, a Soviet sentry shot and killed U.S. Army Major Arthur Nicholson, a member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in East Germany. Nicholson and a sergeant had been watching a Soviet exercise when the shooting took place, but they were not in a restricted zone at the time. Following the incident General Glenn Otis told his Soviet counterpart that the United States believed the killing was approved and ordered by the Russians. A Soviet diplomat was expelled from the United States and plans for a joint U.S./Soviet celebration for the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII were cancelled.
10. In February 1988, two Soviet ships bumped an American Aegis cruiser and a Spruance-class destroyer conducting “freedom of navigation operations” in the Black Sea. The Pentagon reported that shortly before the incident, one of the Soviet ships radioed to the Americans “Soviet ships have orders to prevent violation of territorial waters….I am authorized to strike your ship with one of ours.”
11. In July 1990, the Norwegian government protested to the Soviet government after five Soviet soldiers penetrated 110 yards into Norway chasing a Norwegian fisherman whom they said had been poaching on the Soviet side of the border. The Soviets shot at the fisherman but he was not harmed.
12. In February 1992, the Baton Rouge, an American nuclear submarine collided with a Soviet nuclear submarine off the Russian naval base at Murmansk. There were no casualties and neither boat sustained serious damage both sides agreed that the incident took place more than 12 miles off the Russian coast. However, the Russians accused the Americans of being within restricted waters.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.
B.J. Armstrong is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is a naval officer and a researcher with the Laughton Naval History Unit in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. Armstrong, an award winning historian, is editor of the 21st Century Foundations series from the Naval Institute Press, which includes his books 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era and 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.