April 20, 2016 / 4:10 PM / 4 years ago

Commentary: Why Vladimir Putin should rein in his 'Top Guns'

In the movie Top Gun, there is a running gag in which hotshot fighter pilot “Maverick” - played by Tom Cruise - insists on repeatedly “buzzing” U.S. Navy control towers in his F-14 Tomcat.

An U.S. Navy picture shows what appears to be a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft making a very low pass close to the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in this picture taken April 12, 2016 and released April 13, 2016. REUTERS/US Navy/Handout via Reuters

Every time he achieves something in the air, he requests permission for a high-speed, low-level flyby. It is always denied - but that maverick Maverick does it anyway.

In reality, though, flying fast-moving aircraft is one of the world’s riskiest occupations. And while sparring in the skies - even the bloodless posturing common between nations in time of tension — is what some aviators live for, there is little tolerance for truly unnecessary risks.

When two Russian Su-24 jets made what U.S. officials described as several “simulated attack runs” on the destroyer Donald Cook in the Baltic last week, the United States military appears to have suffered a comprehensive – but understandable – sense-of-humor failure.

In a press release, the United States European Command described the actions of the Russian aircraft as “unsafe and unprofessional”, warning that they brought with them a significant risk of sparking unintended conflict.

There is unquestionably a degree of theater in the current U.S. outrage and public complaints. Whatever Secretary of State John Kerry might say, the U.S. Navy is unlikely to blast unarmed Russian military aircraft from the sky, even if they come uncomfortably close – at least not without a shooting war already underway.

Like the Russians, U.S. military aircraft and warships have a tradition of making their presence felt in places they are not always wanted – albeit in international waters and airspace where they have every legal right to be.

In the South China Sea, for example, U.S. and allied “freedom of navigation operations” deliberately send ships and aircraft through areas Beijing claims it has exclusive economic and other rights to – claims which are largely disputed by just about everybody else.

In January, the Chinese government made a very similar complaint over what it described as an “unprofessional and irresponsible” passage by the destroyer Curtis Wilbur that came within 12 miles of a Chinese-controlled island. U.S., Australian, Filipino, Indonesian and other aircraft regularly challenge what that governments say are illegally declared Chinese air-defense zones around disputed islands.

Beijing, too, frequently sends warships and aircraft to inspect U.S. and other foreign forces operating in international waters near its territory. These operations, some experts worry, bring with them the same risk of accidental confrontation and escalation.

In general, however, U.S. officials say Chinese forces have become increasingly professional in their interaction with U.S. and other counterparts. Military units keep a respectful distance from each other, they say, tend to communicate clearly and effectively in English and avoid operating aircraft or vessels so close together that things might become unintentionally dangerous.

That is a serious relief for U.S. commanders, who have been trying to build relationships and a basic understanding of rules of the road for several years. Speaking at a conference in Washington, in March, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said very real progress had been made on making sure U.S. and Chinese warships could establish direct bridge-to-bridge communications in an emergency.

“By and large, there is more and more abiding by that rule set as we go forward,” he said, according to an official transcript. “I’ve got good communication with my counterpart [in China]. In the event that something happens that raises questions, we can get in touch with one another.”

In the Persian Gulf, U.S. naval officers also admit a grudging respect – or at least appreciation – for the way in which Iran’s armed forces also tend to operate clearly and effectively. Any U.S. forces approaching Iranian territory are swiftly warned away in English. Iran’s more politicized Revolutionary Guard units, however, are seen as much less predictable and prone to pushing the envelope – as they did earlier this year when they detained two U.S. Navy patrol boats they accused of briefly entering Tehran’s territorial waters.

When it comes to aerial and maritime confrontations with Russia, there does seem to be a clear feeling in U.S. and NATO circles that Moscow – or at the very least, some of its personnel – are simply taking too many risks. Many U.S. officials believe they would not do so without encouragement from the very top.

In the case of the mock attacks on the Cook, the key complaint appears to be the sheer speed and proximity with which the Russian jets approached. The U.S. vessel was carrying out flight operations with its own helicopter at the time, something its commander felt compelled to suspend.

A Russian military helicopter circled the U.S. warships shortly afterward in a move that appeared much less dangerous, but was still clearly an attempt at intimidation.

U.S. officials say the incident fits with a much wider pattern of behavior that has repeatedly seen Russian aircraft probe the airspace of the Baltic states in particular. In some cases, aircraft have been accused of actually crossing the boundary. 

Some of these incidents have resulted in near misses, Western officials say. Last year, Sweden protested after it said a Russian surveillance aircraft operating without an identifying transponder came dangerously close to a civilian airliner. In December, NATO described recent Russian actions as a threat to regional civil aviation. At the end of last week, shortly after the incident with the Cook, Washington said another Russian jet performed a potentially dangerous barrel roll around a U.S. surveillance aircraft also operating in the region.

With Russia’s military reach and clout now grown to a scale not seen since the Cold War, such incidents may not be limited to its immediate neighborhood. Russian complaints that it is unfairly scapegoated, however, may occasionally be justified.

Last year, a Northern Irish fishing boat was nearly capsized after snagging what its crew believed was an unidentified submarine in its nets. With no British submarines said to be involved, some experts suggested a Russian vessel might have been responsible. In September, however, British officials revealed it had been a Royal Navy submarine after all.

Part of the problem may be that current Russian military doctrine appears to heavily prioritize keeping the details of Moscow’s military activities as opaque as possible. It’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed some of the advantages of this – Russian irregular forces – or at least, forces without clear military insignia – were able to secure much of the peninsula before Western governments really knew what was happening.

On land, the United States and NATO are now prioritizing coming up with doctrines and strategies to manage something similar, particularly should confrontations happen in the formerly Soviet states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They are all now members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the founding charter of which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all.

Offshore and in the air, matters should be more clear-cut – not least because of a 1972 U.S.-Soviet agreement on managing incidents at sea, a treaty the United States says last week’s flyby in the Baltic breached.

No one expects Russian posturing to cease – indeed, many U.S. and Western officials concede it often makes sense from Moscow’s perspective. The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, however, starkly underlines the risks of blurring lines of military responsibility too much.

Russian President Vladimir Putin might wish to rein in his fighter jocks in. At least a touch.

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is also founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21; , a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank operating in London, New York and Washington DC. Prior to that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he also has been an officer in the British Army Reserve.

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