An Air Force RC-135 electronic intelligence jet was flying a surveillance run some 60 miles off the Russian Far East coast, north of Japan, on April 23 when the incident occurred, according to defense officials familiar with the incident.
The Su-27 flew to follow the RC-135, and at one point rolled sideways to reveal its air-to-air missile before flying within 100 feet of the cockpit in an attempt to unnerve the crew.
The showdown was video-recorded by the aircrew.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said the Su-27 intercepted the RC-135U as it conducted a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk during the afternoon of April 23.
“The Su-27 approached the RC-135U and crossed the nose of the U.S. aircraft within approximately 100 feet,” Warren told the Free Beacon in a brief statement. “Senior department leaders have communicated our concerns directly to the Russian military.”
A defense official said the incident was a “reckless intercept” and one of the most dangerous aerial encounters for a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft since the Cold War.
The RC-135 flight was part of Air Force efforts to increase regional spying under the U.S. pivot to Asia. Last month, two Global Hawk drones were deployed to Japan for spy missions in the region. Other electronic spy aircraft also have increased flights in recent weeks.
The RC-135U is code named “Combat Sent” and specifically collects electronic intelligence from radar emissions. The surveillance flight was collecting data on the increasingly-capable air defense systems in the region. A normal crew for the aircraft includes two pilots, two navigators, three systems engineers, 10 electronic warfare officers and six area specialists.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a former commander in Alaska, voiced concerns about the provocative Russian action.
“The dangerous intercept by a Russian Su-27 is far worse than we experienced during the Cold War,” McInerney told the Washington Free Beacon. “In my four plus years as the Alaskan [North American Aerospace Defense] region commander at the height of the Cold War, we never saw such recklessness by the USSR.”
McInerney added: “President Putin sees weakness in the current American leadership and is trying to intimidate us. It apparently does not bother this administration.”
The U.S.-Russian aerial close call came two days after Japanese warplanes intercepted two Russian military aircraft conducting anti-submarine patrols near Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.
Kenneth deGraffenreid, former White House intelligence adviser during the Reagan administration, said the aerial encounter could have turned deadly, based on Moscow’s history of using force in illegal actions against aircraft transiting international airspace.
According to deGraffenreid, the Russians since the late 1940s have shot down 70 U.S. aircraft. That figure includes the Russian shoot down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983, killing all 269 passengers.
“This has been Russian policy for over 70 years and the Russians are reverting to a very deadly and ugly practice of the Cold War,” he said.
Disclosure of the U.S.-Russian aerial faceoff comes as the Obama administration last week approved Russia’s use of upgraded sensors on aircraft used to overfly sensitive U.S. and allied military installations in Europe under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.
“After careful consideration the United States has decided to certify the electro-optical sensor for the Russian Federation’s AN-30 Open Skies Treaty aircraft, which is used in Open Skies flights over Europe,” the administration said in a statement.
The upgraded sensors were opposed by Congress and U.S. military and intelligence officials over concerns the new equipment will increase the national security risk posed by Russian aerial spying.
The certification, under consideration for the past several months, is the latest round in a battle between House Republicans and the administration over the Russian spy flights.
The fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill contains a provision that would prohibit using any funds to certify the upgraded Russian aircraft sensors.