At the time, the incident caused a diplomatic uproar that was quickly lost in the bloody fighting on the ground.
Now, the troves of classified Pentagon documents that have been leaked online suggest that the Russian aircraft was much closer than previously believed to shooting down the British spy plane, which would potentially trigger a war between NATO and Russia.
In September, a Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft was conducting a routine surveillance mission over the Black Sea. NATO aircraft have been flying around Ukraine and Russia in international airspace, monitoring the situation on the ground and passing useful intelligence to the Ukrainians.
As the British aircraft was flying, it was approached by two Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jets. This isn’t uncommon, as the Russian Aerospace Forces have been intercepting NATO aircraft around Ukraine and eastern Europe even before the start of the war on February 24, 2022.
Then, one of the Russian fighter jets launched a missile that missed the British spy plane.
At the time of the incident, British Minister of Defense Ben Wallace had said that the U.K. “don’t consider this a deliberate escalation by the Russians,” adding that the incident highlights “quite how dangerous things can be when you choose to use fighters in the way the Russians have done.”
Following the incident, the British military suspended aerial surveillance operations over the Black Sea for some days. When the missions restarted, all surveillance aircraft were accompanied by fighter jets.
But the incident was more serious than initially thought.
According to the New York Times, which has access and was the first outlet to publish the Pentagon leaks, there was a critical miscommunication between the Russian pilot and the ground station that could have caused a war between Russia and NATO.
The Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet pilot didn’t understand what the radar operator on the ground told him and he thought he had permission to open fire against the RC-135W Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft. The Russian pilot then locked the British aircraft and launched an air-to-air missile. Disaster was averted because the missile didn’t launch properly.
Had the missile launched properly and downed the Royal Air Force aircraft, it would most certainly have meant war with NATO. The transatlantic alliance is united by Article 5, which stipulates mutual defense in the event one member is attacked.
NATO, however, could have chosen to take the hit so as to prevent an escalation, using the incident as an excuse to send even deadlier weapon systems to Ukraine.
A few weeks ago, a Su-27 Flanker downed a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle again over the Black Sea. In the incident, the Russian fighter jet didn’t use a missile – which would amount to a direct attack, and thus an act of war – but harassed the drone by releasing fuel on it and eventually downing it by hitting its propeller.
A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.