During the Cold War, Soviet fighters harassed and even shot down American aircraft. Some were flying in Soviet airspace gathering intelligence. Francis Gary Powers was the best-known airman to be shot out of the sky by the Soviets, but others died during shootdowns. For example, the entire crew of a C-130 was killed by Soviet fighter pilots, two years before Powers was shot down and paraded for the media. Other American missions to gather intelligence on “ferret” flights were also intercepted by Soviet fighters and stopped with violence.
Most ferret missions ended with no loss of life. But sometimes the pilots and crew never came home. Their families weren’t told the truth. Often, wives and children, moms and dads were told that their aircrew family members were simply “lost.” Accidents or mechanical failures were the go-to excuses. In total, over 200 service members lost their lives via Soviet fighters shooting them down during the Cold War. Sometimes those encounters came in international airspace.
Fast forward to the 21st Century. The Soviet Union has been dashed on the rocks of history. Russia has replaced the Soviet Union but with a desire to bring it back. Instead of a power base in a Politburo, a former KGB thug now controls Russia. How hot is the war in Ukraine getting?
Close military encounters between Russia and the west have jumped to cold war levels, with 40 dangerous or sensitive incidents recorded in the past eight months alone, according to a report published on Monday.
The report, Dangerous Brinkmanship by the European Leadership Network, logs a series of “highly disturbing” incidents since the Ukrainian crisis began earlier this year, including an alarming near-collision between a Russian reconnaissance plane and a passenger plane taking off from Denmark in March with 132 passengers on board.
But the above article isn’t discussing current events – it’s about Russian brinkmanship, from 2014. Putin has been pushing the west for over a decade. The “hot war” with Ukraine as the flash point for potential NATO didn’t start last year, it started during Obama’s presidency. Russia’s new war of aggression is over a year old now. Before the war in Ukraine started, America had Black Sea assets in place to monitor the war but those ships at sea were withdrawn. What was left was for America to put unmanned 32-million-dollar Reapers into the air to monitor the Russian movement and ships at sea. Like it or not, we are in a de facto “cold war” with Russia and yesterday it got a little hotter.
The US Air Force had tasked an MQ-9 Reaper to fly over international waters with the likely mission to monitor Russian assets. There is no doubt, and apparently no dispute, the Reaper was over international waters when it was intercepted by two SU-27s. Buzz Patterson, a retired Air Force Lt Col (and RedState contributor), told me that the Russian fighter pilots made a total of 19 passes at the Reaper. The SU-27, known as Flanker by NATO, is Russia’s front-line fighter. As such they should be piloted by the better or best Russian fighter pilots. In reality, that isn’t saying much.
A former fighter pilot I spoke to described Russian pilots as generally ill-trained. Some Soviet fighter pilots were “badass” but they have long since retired. Some of the lack of training is due to a lack of money. In short – training fighter pilots is very expensive.
Russian pilots, like Soviet-era pilots, lack training and flight hours as a general rule. Like any skill, flying simulated combat missions takes lots of repetition and training. Without it, rust builds up. All the pilots I spoke to told me that the Russian pilot who clipped the Reaper demonstrated a lack of training and made several critical errors. I was also told that the SU-27 pilots were following command and control orders. They weren’t harassing the Reaper on their own – they were told to do what they did. To be clear, they weren’t told to crash into the Reaper – that is fantasy stuff out of a Hollywood movie. No pilot is going to slam his fighter belly against another aircraft. If their intention was to down the Reaper, they would have shot it down. Also, the Russians continue to use Soviet-style centralized command. In short, pilots have little individual latitude. Someone was telling them what to do. They were under orders to dump fuel on the Reaper, not slam into it.
The Flankers made several passes dumping jet fuel on or around the Reaper. They were doing so to damage the sensors – or “blind” the bird. It was on the last pass we’ve seen that the Russian wingman lost sight of his lead on his “re-join.”
I was told, “Never lose sight of your lead. Stay within ‘fingertip position.’ Manage your relative altitude airspeed and closure.” The Russian pilot didn’t do that. One can see the wingman lose sight of the Reaper, start to dump fuel, and then make contact with the Reaper’s propeller. All the pilots I spoke to would “love to hear” the audio from the pilot.
The Reaper crashed into international water. Buzz Patterson told me that we had warships in the Black Sea but they were pulled out. We don’t have any assets in those waters that can be tasked to recover the wreckage.
Russia will get there long before we can, and they will recover the wreckage. And, depending on what shape the Reaper is in, Russia will have access to our technology, like “sensors and engine design.”
Buzz Patterson added: “Biden should demand that Russia pay for the 32 million dollar Reaper it destroyed. He won’t but he should.”
This isn’t the start of WWIII. But our cold war with Russia just got a lot hotter.
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