David Wood writes: Several times a week, a U.S. Air Force pilot takes off from the Royal Air Force base in Mildenhall, England, and heads for the northernmost edge of NATO territory to gather intelligence on Russia. One of these pilots is 40-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Webster, a veteran of many such expeditions and a hard guy to rattle. On a typical flight, his four-engine, silver and white RC-135 jet will rise gracefully over the old World War II bomber bases in East Anglia. It then flies over the North Sea and Denmark, taking care to remain within international airspace. When Webster reaches the Baltic Sea, the surveillance operation begins in earnest. Behind the cockpit, the fuselage of his plane is crammed with electronic equipment manned by some two dozen intelligence officers and analysts. They sit in swivel chairs, monitoring emissions, radar data and military communications harvested from below that appear on their computer screens or stream through their headphones. Inside the plane, it is chilly. The air smells faintly of jet fuel, rubber and warm wiring. The soft blue carpet helps absorb the distant thrum of the engines, and so it is also surprisingly quiet—at least until the Russians show up.
As the Polish coast fades into the distance, Webster may swing left to avoid passing directly over the heavily armed Russian base at Kaliningrad. This is where, without warning, a Russian SU-27 fighter may materialize as if out of nowhere, right outside the cockpit window, flying so close that Webster can make out the tail markings. No matter how often this happens—and lately, it has been happening a lot—these encounters always give Webster a jolt. For one thing, he and his crew can’t see the planes coming. Although his jet is carrying millions of dollars worth of the most sophisticated listening devices available to man, it lacks a simple radar to spot an incoming plane. So the only way Webster can find out what the Russian jet is doing—how close it’s flying, whether it’s making any sudden moves—is to dispatch a junior airman to crouch on the floor and peer through one of the 135’s three fuselage windows, each the size of a cereal box and inconveniently placed just below knee level.
In normal times, being intercepted isn’t a cause for concern. Russian jets routinely shadow American jets over the Baltic Sea and elsewhere. Americans routinely intercept Russian aircraft along the Alaskan and California coasts. The idea is to identify the plane and perhaps to signal, “You keep an eye on us, we keep an eye on you.” These, however, are far from normal times. Every few weeks, a Russian pilot will get aggressive. Instead of closing in on the RC-135 at around 30 miles per hour and skulking off its wing for a while, a fighter jet will careen directly toward the American plane at 150 miles per hour or more before abruptly going nose-up to bleed off airspeed and avoid a collision. Or it might perform the dreaded “barrel roll”—a hair-raising maneuver in which the Russian jet makes a 360-degree orbit around the 135’s midsection while the two aircraft hurtle along at 400 miles per hour. When this happens, there is only one thing the U.S. pilot can do: pucker up, fly straight and hope his Russian counterpart doesn’t smash into him. “One false move and you may have a half second to react,” one RC-135 pilot told me.
By now, it is widely recognized that Russia is waging a campaign of covert political manipulation across the United States, Europe and the Middle East, fueling fears of a second Cold War. But it’s less understood that in international airspace and waters, Russia and the U.S. are brushing up against each other in perilous ways with alarming frequency. This problem, which began not long after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea in 2014, has accelerated rapidly in the past year. In 2015, according to its air command headquarters, NATO scrambled jets more than 400 times to intercept Russian military aircraft that were flying without having broadcast their required identification code or having filed a flight plan. In 2016, that number had leapt to 780—an average of more than two intercepts a day. There has been a similar increase in Russian jets intercepting US or NATO aircraft, as well as a significant uptick in incidents at sea in which Russian jets run mock attacks against American warships. [Continue reading…]