Did A Russian Pilot Attempt To Shoot Down An RAF Plane? Here's What We Know So Far

An incident over the Black Sea last year sparked international concern.
A Russian air force's Su-27 fighter jet, one of the types of planes involved in last year's incident.
A Russian air force's Su-27 fighter jet, one of the types of planes involved in last year's incident.
via Associated Press

A Russian jet was said to have “malfunctioned” and aimed a missile at a British spy plane when it was over the Black Sea last year – but new versions of what actually happened are now coming to light.

Here’s what you need to know, and why it’s a big deal.

What is the latest version of events?

A tense incident, lasting around 90 minutes, occurred over the Black Sea last September.

Two Russian Su-27 fighter planes were instructed to shadow a British plane – RC-135 Rivet Joint – which had a crew of around 30 on board at the time.

The RAF plane was flying through international airspace south of Ukraine on a surveillance mission on September 29, 2022.

The British plane managed to intercept the Russian planes’ communications, although the UK’s Ministry of Defence will not release it.

Still, it’s been reported that the Russian pilots could be heard debating whether they had been told to strike the plane from ground control.

Then, the first pilot released an air-to-air missile at the RAF spy plane. The BBC reported that he believed he had permission, thinking his radio operator told him “you have the target”.

This ambiguous phrase meant the pilot launched the missile.

Luckily, it missed the RAF plane, because the plane didn’t lock on to the target.

The Russian pilot of the second jet then responded with frustration to the first pilot, starting a row between them over what just happened.

According to the BBC, this pilot “remonstrated and swore at his wingman when he fired the first missile” – only for his colleague to fire another missile at the RAF.

Luckily, this one failed too, falling from the plane’s wing. This was allegedly due to a malfunction or a launch abortion.

Since the incident, the UK spy planes are now accompanied by Typhoon fighter jets from RAF Akrotiri when travelling through the international airspace south of Ukraine.

Why is this different to original reports?

Russia initially claimed at first that the incident was caused by a “technical malfunction” – a claim the UK’s ministry of defence seemed to accept.

Then-defence secretary Ben Wallace subsequently admitted that the incident happened three weeks later in the Commons, saying a missile was launched near the RAF plane.

Wallace said: “We do not consider this incident to constitute a deliberate escalation on the part of the Russians, and our analysis concurs that it was due to a malfunction.”

Speaking after the latest reports, an MoD spokesperson said Wallace explained what happened in an effort to maintain “transparency and safety” around the Black Sea.

″Our intent has always been to protect the safety of our operations, avoid unnecessary escalation and inform the public and international community,” the spokesperson said.

Ben Wallace was defence secretary up until he resigned in August.
Ben Wallace was defence secretary up until he resigned in August.
Future Publishing via Getty Images

What has changed since the original reports?

Leaked documents published online showed that US military was describing what happened as a “near shoot-down”.

Earlier this year, two US defence officials told the New York Times that the Russian pilot had misunderstood his instructions.

However, the UK ministry of defence then offered a pretty ambiguous reply to the leak documents, saying: “Significant proportion of the contents of these reports is untrue, manipulated or both”.

Now, three senior Western defence sources told the BBC that Russian communications at the time suggested the missiles were not launched because of a malfunction.

Why is this a big deal?

As the New York Times reported: “The incident was far more serious than originally reported and could have amounted to an act of war.”

As a NATO member, any attack on the UK risks not only bringing Britain into the war but the whole of the organisation. That means 29 European countries, along with two North American nations, could end up being roped into the war in Ukraine.

So the MoD is very careful to try to avoid any escalations by being transparent about when these flights are going to take place.

But, its reluctance to reveal the full details of the communications between the Russian jets may come down to an attempt to keep its intelligence gathering means a secret.

In the meantime, the UK is the only Nato state to conduct crewed missions over the Black Sea.

Back in March, another country did have an issue with Russia’s air force, when a US surveillance drone was intercepted and damaged by two Russian fighter jets.

It was the first time the two countries’ air forces had come into direct contact since the Cold War.

However, Russia insisted that its warplanes were not to blame, and that the US aircraft just manoeuvred sharply and hit the water.


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