COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., August 4, 2014—A U.S. RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft flew into Swedish airspace last week as the Russians launched a fighter jet to intercept it.
CNN reported that the aircraft, in international airspace, altered its course when the Russians began tracking the plane using land-based radar. CNN was told by administration officials that the use of land radar tracking by the Russians was an unusual move.
That is not true at all: there is very likely something more behind the story that we are not being told.
The Rivet Joint program is a Cold War-era mission many decades old. Specially-configured C-135 aircraft fly on the periphery of Russia collecting intelligence.
The aircraft likely knew they were being tracked by Russian radar from their own intercept of Russian radar signals. This is quite routine.
During the Cold War, other types of U.S. aircraft would purposely penetrate Soviet airspace to gauge Russian reaction. Besides tracking by ground-based radar sites, reactions could include tracking via ground-to-air missile radar and launching fighter jets.
Often, Soviet or Russian jets would fly alongside U.S. reconnaissance aircraft for a distance and even fire warning shots. This activity was ignored by U.S. aircraft, which would continue their mission in international airspace.
The existence of the U-2 spy program was famously made public in 1960 when pilot Gary Powers’ U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union. Over the years there have been many other attempts to intercept U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. It was a Cold War game of cat-and-mouse.
U.S. reconnaissance aircraft fly in international airspace. It is highly unlikely, given today’s GPS navigation technology, that the RC-135 aircraft was anywhere other than where the pilots thought it was. Still, the aircrew has the authority to abort the mission if they feel the aircraft is in danger.
Such action would normally take the aircraft on a 90-degree course away from Russian airspace—which in this case apparently took them into Swedish airspace.
The key is that the pilots would have had to believe the aircraft was in danger, and merely being tracked by radar or even the launch of Russian fighters would not have been sufficient cause. At least, that was true of Cold War rules of engagement.
If there is nothing more to the incident than what was reported by CNN, then it shows how weak our position vis-à-vis the Russians has become.