Flying 30 miles off Russia’s Black Sea coast on Jan. 25, a Russian fighter buzzed an RC-135U Combat Sent surveillance plane carrying a crew from Offutt Air Force Base’s 55th Wing.
The SU-27 fighter flew within 20 feet of the U.S. jet, then banked sharply up and away, according to the Washington Free Beacon, which first reported the incident. The blowback from the afterburners shook up the crew of the RC-135.
It was at least the sixth close encounter involving 55th Wing aircraft and Russian or Chinese fighters since the start of 2014. Most of them involved the wing’s two RC-135U Combat Sent aircraft, the job of which is to identify electronic land, naval and airborne radar signals from foreign militaries.
The incident prompted a nod of recognition from 55th Wing veterans who played similar cat-and-mouse games with Soviet MiGs frequently during the Cold War.
Aircrews call it “thumping” — the aviator’s version of a baseball hurler’s brushback pitch. A fighter jet zooms up behind a lumbering reconnaissance craft, then blows past with afterburners blazing, pulling up and away just in front of the larger plane so its jet wash disrupts the airflow around it.
“When that stuff hits you, it kind of gets your attention,” said retired Col. Jim Thomas of Bellevue, a former RC-135 pilot who once commanded the Offutt-based 55th Operations Group.
“It’s meant to shake your airplane and just intimidate you,” said Max Moore of Bellevue, who experienced many thumpings as a navigator and 23-year veteran of the wing. “What is happening now was routine back during the Cold War.”
The recent encounters also may bring back memories of the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a reckless Chinese fighter pilot collided with a Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft while thumping it off the coast of China. The fighter crashed, killing the Chinese pilot. Lt. Shane Osborn, a Nebraskan, managed to land the crippled EP-3 in China, where the crew was interned for 11 days before being released.
“That’s what can go wrong if an intercept isn’t done in a professional fashion,” said Carl Rhodes, director of the Rand Corporation’s Force Modernization & Employment Program. “Some of these (recent) encounters were not very professionally done.”
In a professional intercept, the fighter jet pulls up next to a recon aircraft and flies close. It places itself between the airplane and the land it is protecting to discourage any closer movement — serving as an escort until it breaks off and goes home. There are no unpredictable movements.
“This is a military operation,” said Robert Hopkins III, an author and historian of U.S. reconnaissance flights, who flew 55th Wing missions in the 1980s. “It’s designed, unequivocally, to make the RC-135s go away.”
Cold War recon crews shared a grudging camaraderie with their adversaries of the era — particularly the highly skilled Soviets. At times, it resembled an elaborate game, and the players respected each other, said retired Col. Michael Cook of Bellevue, former 55th Wing chief of staff who flew RC-135 recon missions in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I was never uncomfortable,” Cook said. “We had a professional aircrew and, on their side, they were professional pilots, too.”
Sometimes they would fly close enough to show each other written messages, flash centerfolds of scantily clad women or offer one-fingered salutes.
“I don’t know how many times the Russians flipped me off,” Hopkins said.
A few times, though, the missions got uglier. On Nov. 17, 1970, Moore was the navigator aboard a 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing KC-135T, flying a mission over the Arctic near Murmansk as part of a program called Cobra Jaw. While the American jet flew a figure-eight pattern offshore, two MiG-17 fighters raced up, each tucking itself under a wing of the U.S. plane. Then they opened fire with their cannons — thankfully for Moore, straight ahead, parallel to the jet’s path, instead of aiming toward it.
As with all such encounters then and now, linguists in the back were listening to the fighters’ Russian radio communications with their commanders on the ground. Moore said the crewmen breathed relieved sighs when the order came back to continue escorting the jet.
“If they’d wanted to kill us, they could have killed us,” Moore said. “Being intercepted was routine. The incident on 17 November was not routine.”
Not every Cold War encounter ended so well. Russian, Chinese or North Korean fighters attacked at least 44 Air Force and Navy reconnaissance planes before 1960, Hopkins says in his forthcoming book “Spyflights and Overflights: U.S. Strategic Aerial Reconnaissance — The Early Years, 1945-1960.” Twenty-nine were destroyed, killing more than 100 crew members.
With the world facing nuclear Armageddon, the stakes seemed incredibly high.
“We always felt that when we went out to fly, this might be it,” Thomas said. “War was imminent in those days. We knew war could come to our homes in 30 minutes. We believed we were preventing that.”
Hopkins said the wing gained valuable intelligence with each encounter about how their adversaries would react in tense situations.
“Ultimately, these were all really good things,” he said.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. reconnaissance jets flew less frequently, and the cash-strapped Russians intercepted them less often, and with less-experienced pilots.
Without the threat of nuclear annihilation, the stakes fell. The intelligence gleaned wasn’t worth the risk of losing a plane and crew. Hopkins believes the intense furor over the 2001 EP-3 incident made military and political leaders a lot more cautious.
“Hainan Island changed everything,” he said. “Everyone in the RC community lives in a secret fear. They don’t want the loss of an RC-135 on their watch.”
In the past two years, the intercepts have stepped up again. Hostility ratcheted up after Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the Crimean Peninsula, on the Black Sea, from Ukraine and sponsored a rebellion in the eastern part of that country. A March 2015 report by the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank, detailed 16 “serious” or “high-risk” encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft or ships in the previous year.
“The Soviets have become very protective of the Black Sea,” Thomas said. “It’s their internal ocean.”
Putin was a KGB spy before the fall of the Soviet Union, and many observers see him returning to that mindset.
“It’s part and parcel of his effort to start a new Cold War,” said John Pike, a military analyst and director of the website Globalsecurity.org. “Mr. Putin is of the view that the Cold War wasn’t such a bad thing after all.”
When recon crews experienced close calls in the Soviet era, no one would have dared to mention them in public. Nowadays, encounters are discussed at Pentagon press conferences, to the dismay of Cold War veterans.
“In those days, they kept them quiet,” said Larry Tart, a Russian cryptologic linguist who flew similar Air Force missions in the 1960s and 1970s. “It happens, and an hour later it’s on the news.”
Last month’s incident, for example, drew a public rebuke from the Pentagon.
“(T)he Russian pilot acted in an unprofessional manner that put both the American flight crew and himself at risk,” Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We have addressed our concerns on this matter appropriately.”
The Pentagon’s retort caused a few veterans to roll their eyes.
“Those of us who flew back then have to kind of chuckle at the overreaction,” said retired Brig. Gen. Reg Urschler of Bellevue, an Air Force fighter pilot who once commanded the unit when it was known as the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing. “This would have been nothing for us back then.”
What worries some veterans is that a risk-averse nation and military seem unwilling to accept the dangerous nature of the recon flights.
“It’s the lack of commitment to tell the RC crews to stay the course,” Hopkins said. “If it gets dangerous, we’re just going to come home.”
Just a few days after a hairy encounter last September between Chinese fighter-bombers and an RC-135 over the Yellow Sea, the U.S. and China signed an agreement laying out rules governing such encounters. They added it to an earlier agreement covering encounters at sea.
“I don’t know that the intercepts are going to go away, on anybody’s part,” Cook said. “You just want to make sure they are done safely.”
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