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The Unfriendly Skies: “Unsafe and Unprofessional” Intercepts of US Aircraft by Russian Jets

April 21, 2020

Episode Notes:

Twice in the past week, Russian fighters have intercepted U.S. P-8A maritime patrol aircraft operating in international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea in a manner the US Navy has called “unsafe and unprofessional.” In both incidents, the pilots of the Russian aircraft flew within 25 feet of the U.S. plane, which was maintaining a steady course, speed and altitude. In the first encounter, which occurred Wednesday, April 15, a Russian fighter flew within 25 feet of the U.S. patrol aircraft while inverted. In the second, which occurred Sunday April 19, the Russian aircraft closed to within 25 feet in front of the U.S. plane, exposing the U.S. plane to jet blast and wake turbulence, creating a risk to the safety of flight. In the second encounter, the U.S. pilot decreased altitude in order to achieve more separation from the Russian fighter jet.

To help us understand what this might mean, we are joined by Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses and a fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, DC. His research focuses on Russia and the former Soviet Union, specializing in Russian armed forces, military thought, capabilities, and strategy. Previously, he served as a program manager and subject matter expert at National Defense University, advising senior military and government officials on issues in Russia and Eurasia. Mr. Kofman is also a senior editor at War on the Rocks. He also runs a personal blog on the Russian armed forces.


[ 01:52 ] These sorts of incidents happen with some frequency between U.S. and Russian forces. Is there anything unusual about these particular incidents, either in terms of where they occurred, or what other events are going on at the same time?

[ 02:43 ] How closely controlled do we think these types of encounters are? Do pilots take off with instructions to harass a U.S. aircraft, or is there some room for an individual pilot’s risk tolerance, aggressiveness, or even boredom?

[ 03:50 ] What should we read into these encounters? If the Russian government is signaling, are they signaling to the U.S. to a domestic audience, others? And what are they trying to say?

[ 05:27 ] Can you contextualize these encounters in light of overall U.S.-Russian interaction in the region?

[ 06:54 ] Is there any message to be taken from the fact that the aircraft intercepting the P-8 was an Su-35—one of the newest and most advanced in the Russian inventory?

[ 08:16 ] What options does the U.S. have when confronted with such?

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