A U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint spy plane reportedly violated Swedish air space in order to dodge Russian fighter jets, according to a Swedish media outlet.
According to DN.se, on July 18 the RC-135—a four-engine Boeing with sensitive receivers for detecting radar signals and other electronic emissions—was flying a surveillance mission over the Baltic Sea near Russia when Russian jets rose to meet it … and the American plane turned and fled across Sweden.
U.S. signals-intelligence aircraft from Mildenhall air base in the U.K. regularly have been flying sorties in international air space over the Baltic ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. The SIGINT planes help Washington monitor Russian troops’ movements.
On July 18, the Russians twice sent fighters from Kaliningrad to intercept the RC-135.
Ordinarily, US and Russian warplanes intercepting each other isn’t a big deal. Stay in international airspace, and both sides wave to one another and snap some pictures, maybe show a Playboy centerfold to the Russians.
But things haven’t always been so friendly, especially for electronic intel birds. There’s a long list of ELINT birds shot down, either by the Russians, the Chinese, or the North Koreans. The most recent incident that comes to mind is the mid-air collision back in 2001 that led to an EP-3E making an emergency landing in China.
But it has been a long time since that happened. As one wag on Facebook noted, it’s almost as if the Rivet Joint crew listened in on orders to the Russian fighters to engage.
Sweden will no doubt lodge a protest with the US, as is right and proper. And I’m sure the mission commander will have to answer some tough questions from the chain of command. On the other hand, the mission commander is ultimately responsible for the safety of his aircraft and crew. And he was the man on the scene.