Russia’s Reaper Run-In

March 16, 2023

Clear skies and tons of sunshine this late-afternoon Thursday here in California’s Central Valley — a nice respite from all the rain, snow, and just plain shitty weather. The situation reportedly back to the norm on Sunday when more rain is forecast to wet-on the region again.
Enjoy while we can.

Beyond the horror politics of nationwide Republicans — indeed, cruelty is the entire, total point — to stop for a second and take a gander at the incident Tuesday in the Black Sea when a Russian jet played footsie with an American MQ-9 Reaper drone and eventually knocked it out of the sky.
Vlad Putin’s people at first claimed not happened — just a shitty operation.

Yet like a shitload of other nasty, ugly shit, there’s video:

Nutshell via The Washington Post this afternoon:

U.S. officials said the drone was flying in international airspace about 50 miles off the coast of Crimea — the Ukrainian peninsula Russia seized in 2014 — when two Russian Su-27 fighter jets buzzed it. The footage shared Thursday appears to show two separate passes by the jets, which sprayed a cloudy white stream. U.S. officials said the Su-27s dumped fuel on the drone before one of them collided with its rear propeller, prompting U.S. personnel operating the craft remotely to bring it down in international waters. In the video released by the U.S. military, the propeller stops spinning and a chunk of it appears to be missing after the second pass by the Russian fighter.

Although it’s conflict, yesterday at a press conference Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff downplayed the incident: ‘“As far as an act of war, I’m not gonna go there. Incidents happen, and clearly we do not seek armed conflict with Russia, and I believe at this point we should investigate this incident and move on … We know that the intercept was intentional. We know that the aggressive behavior was intentional … We also know it was very unprofessional and very unsafe … The fact that we operate in proximity to each other is not particularly unusual, and we do try to establish deconfliction channels in order to make sure that our forces are physically separated and we don’t have incidents like this,”

However, knowing asshole Putin not at all other than a genocidal warmonger, it might become commonplace:

Ralph Clem and Ray Finch at The Bulwark this morning took a look at the future of shit like this happening again and again. Clem is a retired Air Force Reserve major general with a career in intelligence, and currently, a senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public affairs at Florida International University, while Finch is a retired Army field artillery officer, and now an analyst on Russian military affairs at the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, cover the bases.
Although The Bulwark is a rightwing,’conservative,’ venue, it does make a certain point on occasion — such as now:

Our research found that between 2013 and 2021, almost three thousand military contacts—planes or ships shadowing each other—took place between Russia and NATO, from the North Atlantic and Arctic to the West Coast of the United States. Each side accounted for about half of these intercepts. These encounters were most frequent in areas where military forces were most highly concentrated, such as the Baltic Sea area, or in regions where hostilities were actually underway, like the Black Sea.

These types of events happen regularly. Within the past month, U.S. Air Force jets twice intercepted Russian aircraft near Alaska, Norwegian Air Force fighters have done the same thing twice in airspace off the Norwegian coast, Dutch aircraft escorted Russian jets away from NATO airspace near Poland, and, just two days ago, British and German fighters investigated a Russian aircraft near Estonia.

Why do these incidents occur? Both Russia and NATO are determined to safeguard their territory and maintain a vigilant watch over areas close to home. Aircraft and warships approaching sovereign airspace and waters are tracked carefully by radar and other means and, if the approach is judged to be a potential threat, interceptions are ordered. Such responses send the message that the country is capable of defending its territory and determined to do so.

After the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, NATO quickly moved to shore up its air defenses in its eastern member states by establishing quick reaction alert bases, first in the Baltic countries and later in Romania and Bulgaria. With these assets in place, air intercepts could be conducted more frequently. Together with an expansion of military exercises in eastern Europe, the overall tempo of activity increased significantly.

Both sides conduct air and naval patrols to gather intelligence and probe the defensive capabilities of the respective parties, but these activities also demonstrate the capability to mount an attack on a potential adversary. Show-of-force missions by long-range bombers, although couched in terms of assuring allies of a commitment to collective defense, are also intended as geopolitical signaling.

So the combination of defensive and offensive demonstrations generates the large number of contacts occurring each year. But the manner in which such events actually play out is a major factor in assessing the escalation risk involved. Generally, pilots maintain a safe distances apart and don’t maneuver in such a way as to make a collision more likely. Russian pilots, acting on orders to be aggressive or on account of incompetence, frequently violate these norms.

In the case at hand, it appears that after the Russian fighter pilots attempted to dump fuel on the American drone, one approached from the rear, miscalculated the closing speed, and struck the aircraft, disabling its propeller (located at the back of the drone) and causing it to be guided to a water landing. In any number of other encounters, Russian fighters have approached U.S./NATO aircraft in an unsafe manner, posing very real threats of collision.

Worse, in October 2022, a manned British Royal Air Force intelligence aircraft was approached by Russian fighters over the Black Sea, during which encounter one of the Russian aircraft released a missile, apparently inadvertently, leading the UK’s Minster of Defense to state that the Russians are “not beyond making the wrong calculation or indeed deciding that the rules don’t apply to them.” Following that event, the RAF began escorting its intelligence flights with fighters.

The current state of affairs is, therefore, more problematic than ever, especially with large-scale warfare in progress as Ukraine fights to stave off the massive Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022. In that connection, Russia’s air force has upped its operational tempo at the same time that NATO has expanded its airborne intelligence flights, and the contact zone between the parties has become much more active. As Osprey Flight Solutions, an aviation consultancy, has demonstrated, this heightened state of tension has repercussions even for civil aviation, with GPS jamming and the possibility of misidentification now widespread.

In this environment, the risk of a more serious incident occurring has grown significantly. Both the Russian and U.S. responses have been, so far, uncompromising. Moscow is reiterating longstanding complaints about intelligence flights near its borders, essentially threatening to do more of the same. Adding fuel to the fire, Russia has also stated that it intends to recover the drone. The U.S., meanwhile, stresses that international airspace is open and that it intends to continue operations near Ukraine. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that “the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”

Although Secretary Austin and his Russian counterpart, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, spoke about the incident, it will take more than a phone call to preclude such events happening again. Rather, sustained discussions about the deconfliction of military operations should be undertaken despite the current recalcitrant mood. To allow events to occur unbounded by protocols is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, taken with a grain of nuclear salt.

And to finish off the role of Reaper’s pose:

And back to a ‘hot‘ cold war with the Russkies, once again here we are…

(Illustration out front: Pablo Picasso’s ‘Agonizing Horse,’ found here.)

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