Russia’s Defense Ministry insisted on Thursday that Monday’s jet fighter intercept of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane, in which the Russian pilot flew within five feet of the American aircraft, was perfectly safe.
The Ministry suggested, however, that the U.S. should stop flying in international airspace near the Russian border just to be sure, because American pilots are suffering from “depression and phobias.”
The Russians initially claimed their fighter approached to a “safe distance” merely to identify the American plane, but that story became difficult to sustain after the U.S. Navy released video footage of the encounter, clearly showing the Russian pilot’s incredibly close approach.
More videos taken by various cameras on the U.S. plane were released on Thursday, showing the Russian plane flying almost wingtip-to-wingtip before it suddenly broke into a completely unnecessary high-speed turn that brought it within 10 feet of the American EP-3’s nose, subjecting the crew to violent turbulence:
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) January 31, 2018
“For the Russian fighter aircraft to fly this close to the U.S. Navy aircraft, especially for extended periods of time, is unsafe. The smallest lapse of focus or error in airmanship by the intercepting aircrew can have disastrous consequences. There is no margin for error and insufficient time or space for our aircrews to take corrective action,” explained U.S. Navy Task Force 67 commander Capt. Bill Ellis.
The Russian Defense Ministry still disputes the U.S. State Department’s characterization of the encounter as an “unsafe interaction,” and insists it will continue making such interception flights to “maintain reliable protection of Russia’s airspace.”
The ministry then taunted American pilots for complaining about close approaches to their planes.
“If the awareness of this is a reason for U.S. air pilots to feel depression or succumb to phobias, we advise the U.S. side to exclude the routes of such flights near Russian borders in the future or return to the negotiating table and agree on their rules,” the Defense Ministry statement jeered.
The U.S. State Department pointed out that Russia is a signatory to the 1972 Agreement for the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA), which forbids this type of dangerous and unnecessary interception.
The Diplomat recalls that a similar dangerous intercept of a U.S. EP-3 aircraft by a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in 2001 resulted in a midair collision that killed the Chinese pilot and damaged the American plane, forcing it to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airbase.
Fourteen years later, the U.S. and China signed an agreement similar to INCSEA intended to prevent further incidents, but the Diplomat notes that China and Russia both have a long track record of ignoring such agreements when it suits them, and both are apprehensive about the amount of intelligence advanced American surveillance planes can gather while remaining in international airspace.