Thursday, September 08, 2016

The "Unsafe" Intercept over the Black Sea

Any intercept is extremely hairy - so I am glad everyone is alive and well. Each day you make it back from a flight is a good day.

A somewhat detailed account of the intercept may be found here. These situations are extremely dangerous because the P-8 or the RC-135 is typically flying pretty slow and the interceptor has to come up along side. Given the large wing-tip vortex that the much heavier spy plane has, it takes serious piloting skill and luck to pull off something like this.

Unfortunately this kind of intercept happens almost every week. Each day US spy planes fan out across the world to keep a wary eye on conflicts, and they routinely end up in a bizarre game of chicken against Russian or Chinese interceptors.

I find it laughable that the Russians are complaining the P-8A was operating without its transponder on. Umm... hello Russia - it is a spy plane - why would it announce its presence to the world. Do Russian AF planes turn on transponders when they are outside civilian airways? - No they don't - so why should the US do so?

I don't find the idea that the P-8A was hacking into some Russian information network credible. There are far easier ways to hack into a Russian network - especially one in the Black Sea. The only thing the P-8A was likely doing is monitoring electronic emissions from the Black Sea Fleet.

A lot is being made of what happened - people are going around saying Putin is crazy (he certainly plays the crazy card a lot) - but I think this was just an accident. I don't think this incident reflects any major shift in Moscow's thinking of the world or of its relationship with the US or vice-versa. 

A few things to remember - Russia is the only superpower that has never dominated the seas. Over the last five hundred years,sea lanes of communication have accounted for 80% of the world trade. Sea based trade is a massive economic engine that has fueled humanity's growth - we are what we are today as a world because goods, services and ideas flow freely across the sea.

Russia has seen very little of that trade. Their ports are frozen most months of the year. The only warm water port that this massive nation has *is* Sevastapol in Ukraine. While nations like Britain, US. India and China have grown massively rich off the sea based trade, the Russians have found themselves stranded in their geographical corner clutching their nuclear weapons!

When people think of Russian nationalism - they always think of the Kremlin, the S-Directorate, and the Russian Army. But the true reserve of Russian nationalism, the real bottomless pit of Russian national ambition is the Russian Fleet. A prime stakeholder given its control of nuclear armed boomers - the Fleet shapes Russian national thinking in ways we do not anticipate. We forget that the Fleet (especially its Submarine arm) was as much at the forefront of the Cold War as the S-Directorate was.

I suspect what happened was purely the result of a tired and inexperienced Russian pilot making a perfectly understandable mistake. Luckily no one was hurt and we should be thankful for that. If the Russian pilot was being aggressive, then I suspect the real reasons for it may lie in Fleet HQ in St. Petersburg and not in the Kremlin.

If the US P-8A did something that stepped on Russia's toes, then it is likely that the event was inadvertent. For example if the P-8A stumbled on some super secret weapons test either in the Baltic or in the Black Sea - I doubt that was the intent of the mission. I doubt the US grudges Russia its secrets.

The US and Russia have more to gain by cooperating with each other than by getting into it over things.


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