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For Decades, Russian Fighters Have Played Cat & Mouse with US Spy Planes

The Russian air force has honed its skill at catching US spy planes over many decades - but the Americans keep probing Russia's defenses

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider


Recently, reports of Russian fighters intercepting  US aircraft have appeared as regularly as information about the preparations for the Victory Day parade. 

On April 14th, an Su-27 intercepted an American RC-135 spy plane over the Baltic Sea. The American generals didn’t like this maneuver, claiming that the Russian pilot acted wrongly and threatened the security of the American pilot. The latter changed course out of fear for his safety. 

On April 21st, a MiG-31 jet intercepted a US Navy P-8 Maritime Patrol reconnaissance aircraft near Kamchatka. This time American military expressed satisfaction with the actions of the Russian pilot, declaring that he had behaved correctly. 

These kinds of incidents have become more frequent with the deterioration of Russian-American relations. At the same time, the West by tradition accuses the Russian side of dangerous maneuvers. In other words, it’s holding the wrong end of the stick, since these interceptions are a reaction to the not very friendly actions of NATO’s aviation that have intensified reconnaissance flights around the airspace near the Russian borders. If they were not rebuffed, the spy planes would intrude into our air space. 

At the same time the maneuver that the Pentagon has called ‘dangerous’ is not only effective but is also the only means to force a potential intruder approaching our frontier reverse course. Of course the closer the approach, the more emotions American pilots experience, not having faced such a level of disrespect and hostility to their arrogant behavior this century from any other potential foe. Thus, in mid-2014 over the Baltic Sea the pilot of an Su-27 approached the RC-135, which is an awkward plane to fly, to within about eight meters. The American pilot was so frightened that he took off and intruded into the air space of Sweden! Fortunately the Swedish had a more friendly response. 

Aircraft interception

Using precise terminology, everything mentioned above has nothing to do with an interception, being a mere demonstration of intentions and capabilities. Interception is an air defense exercise aimed at either destroying the target or forcing it to land.

The operational sequence is as follows. Radar stations detect a target. Then they calculate its coordinates, distance, speed, direction. Then they identify its trajectory pattern. A command to launch an air defense missile is issued, or an interceptor takes off knowing the speed and the direction of the flight. This is called the targeting of the interceptor. Following instructions from the ground, the interceptor approaches the target at some point of its trajectory at an attacking distance. It takes up a position that is comfortable for an attack and either fires at the target, or launches a missile. 

Speaking about forced landings, attacking the fighter with warning shots demonstrates the seriousness of intentions. A warning missile shoot is impossible because the missile has a targeting homing guidance system. 

A fighter-interceptor hAS higher requirements, and in relation to the speed and altitude range is aimed at air dominance. Because it has to fight against spy planes that are usually also high-speed high-flying planes (the RC-125 in question isn’t one). 

The Soviet MiG-25 interceptor that is still operating in Third World countries, including the Ukraine, has a maximum speed of 3,000 km/h and a ceiling of 27,000 m. We operated it from 1970 to 2012, armed with four guided missiles. 

The Su-27, with a more modest speed and altitude(2500 km/h and 18,500 m) has more serious weapons. First, there is a cannon the MiG-25 didn’t have. Second, there are 10 attachment lugs ? since the plane belongs to the class of heavy fighters. 

And finally, no doubt the best interceptor in the world, the MiG-31 modified as the MiG-31BM. Despite the fact that it is has operated since 1981, with a new radar and armament control system it now belongs to the generation 4++. The plane has a cannon and is equipped with eight short-range, medium-range and long-range missiles (to 300 km) in different combinations. The MiG-31BM is capable of destroying not only any plane but also cruise missiles. Its maximum speed is 3,000 km/h, its dynamic ceiling is 29,000 m and the operating ceiling is 20,600 m. 

Rivals

In the mid-1950-s, the Boeing RB-47 Stratojet ‘shone’ in the sky. It had subsonic speed and a ceiling of 13,000 m but great power. It shot back with two cannons and had a considerable survival capability. Due to its heavy payload (to 11 tons), it carried a large amount of spying equipment serviced by three officers. In 1954, the sixth Soviet MiG-17 failed to do anything against the American plane near the Kola Peninsula. That very year three more intrusions into Soviet airspace went unpunished. However, then starting in 1955, the US Air Force said goodbye to another downed spy plane almost every year. 

The most impressive was the intercept by Captain Vasyli Amvrosiyevich Polyakov  in 1960 over the Kola Peninsula by a MiG-19.  After Polyakov reported to the checkpoint that he had identified visually the type of plane and its origin, he was given the order to force the intruder to land. Pilot RB-47 William Palm didn’t obey the signal: ‘Attention! Follow me’. Then there was a command to kill the target. Since Polyakov was at a distance of 30 meters from the American plane, it was impossible to use unguided missiles. He fired a series of shots from a 30mm cannon. Two engines of the spy plane caught fire and began losing altitude. Three airmen evacuated the plane using parachutes and inflatable rafts. The commander died in the water from freezing. The two crew members were picked up by the trawler ‘Tobolsk’. The three reconnaissance operators didn’t leave the plane for some unknown reason and sank with it.  

In 1956, the spy plane Lockheed U-2 appeared, and still has the highest aerodynamic qualities (lift-drag ratio) among current aircraft. In fact, it is a jet-propelled glider, capable of flying at an altitude exceeding 20 km, turning off its engine from time to time. For four years, Soviet fighter aviation could not reach that altitude. U-2’s performed 24 flights over USSR territory during that period, detecting the location of the Baikonur space station and a series of other strategic places. 

However, on May 1st 1960, the ZRC-75 was shot down by the latest Soviet missile. Since then U-2 impunity became a thing of the past. The same missiles shot it in both China, Cuba and Vietnam. The pilots of this wonderful aircraft never pushed their luck again in our air space. 

The U-2 has been modernized  many times and is still in the service. But the pilots consider it less important for reconnaissance than a kind of art, like sky poetry.  

The legendary Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, that was operational until 1998, was capable of accelerating to 3.3 m, flying at the altitude of 25,600 meters. Due to its great manouverability,  it could avoid missiles. Stealth technologies were used in its creation, however, it turned out to be ineffective. Under high speed, the body heated up considerably and caused a serious audio feedback loop within the infrared band. Its jet-powered exhaust was even more noticeable. 

It easily ‘visited’ Kamchatka for a long time, collecting intelligence data. However, it didn’t cross the border. After the MiG-31 appeared, the easy life of American pilots ended, even though they were not in mortal danger. The pilots of the MiG-31 came across the Blackbird in neutral areas several times, waiting for it to surpass the interceptor at its murderous speed. After that, they ‘captured’ the American plane, keeping a bead on it, with the beam of the guidance system. The SR-71 sensing its was about to ‘be fried’, reversed its course away from Kamchatka to its Okinawa base, without having performed the combat mission. 

The spy plane ‘grazed’ the Kola Peninsula. Here the MiGs used the same tactics of conditional interception. But on May 27th 1987, an SR-71 was carried away and came over our territory. It was driven out to a neutral zone according to the same scenario. 

At the end of the 1980’s, flights by Blackbirds considerably decreased, finally to zero.  Attempts to restart the project in 1993 turned out to be ineffective. The official version is that was because of the expense  of operating such a unique aircraft. However, an opinion expressed not only in Russia but in the US as well, was that MiG interceptors that are capable of resisting this plane influenced the reluctance to use the SR-71. Also, with modifications, the S-300 air defense missiles could easily catch the Blackbird in the sky no matter its acceleration. 

As for the RS-135 and R-8, which were conditionally intercepted in April, they don’t cause the slightest problem. The first was developed in the mid-1960’s. The second began operating in 2013. These are in fact passenger jets that have the same flying characteristics. The first is equipped with spying devices, the second patrols the sea in search of submarines. However, it’s not a good idea for it to approach the Russian coast, as the pilots would get an unwelcome surprise. 


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