LONDON — A Russian fighter jet fired a missile at a manned British surveillance aircraft flying over the Black Sea in September but the munition malfunctioned, according to U.S. defense officials and a recently leaked classified U.S. intelligence report. The incident was far more serious than originally portrayed and could have amounted to an act of war.
According to two U.S. defense officials, the Russian pilot had misinterpreted what a radar operator on the ground was saying to him and thought he had permission to fire. The pilot, who had locked on the British aircraft, fired, but the missile did not launch properly.
In October, Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, described the close call in a briefing to Parliament members as “potentially dangerous” after the Russian fighter jet “released a missile in the vicinity” of the British aircraft. But one of the leaked documents said the Sept. 29 event was a “near-shoot down.”
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The dance between surveillance aircraft from the United States and other NATO countries, and Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea has played out for years, especially after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Tensions have only grown as Ukraine increasingly relies on Western-gathered intelligence to push back against the Russian invasion that began last year.
Last month, a Russian warplane knocked into a U.S. surveillance drone over the Black Sea, hitting the drone’s propeller and causing it to crash in international waters. The collision was the first known physical contact between the Russian and American militaries since the war in Ukraine started.
The two U.S. defense officials with direct knowledge of the near shoot down in September confirmed the seriousness of the encounter between the British plane — a four-engine aircraft known as an RC-135 Rivet Joint — and two Russian Su-27 fighter jets. The British aircraft is often manned with a crew of around 30 people and is capable of intercepting radio traffic.
The defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the British Rivet Joint was listening to intercepted communications between a Russian radar controller on the ground and one of the pilots of the Russian Su-27s dispatched to monitor the aircraft.
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The British Rivet Joint was in international airspace off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea. The pilots of the Russian aircraft were not in visual range of the British patrol but were equipped with missiles capable of hitting it, the officials said.
One of the officials who was briefed on the encounter called it “really, really scary.”
Asked to comment on The New York Times’s reporting and the leaked document, a British defense official said in a statement, “A significant proportion of the content of these reports is untrue, manipulated, or both. We strongly caution against anybody taking the veracity of these claims at face value and would also advise them to take time to question the source and purpose of such leaks.”
In his October briefing to lawmakers, Mr. Wallace said that he took his concerns following the incident to the Russian military, including Russia’s minister of defense, Sergei K. Shoigu. The Kremlin indicated there had been a “technical malfunction,” Mr. Wallace said, adding that he did not consider the incident a deliberate escalation by the Russians, according to a Reuters report at the time.
Mr. Wallace said that in the wake of the incident, surveillance flights were initially suspended, but then were restarted with fighter aircraft escorts. Now, British Rivet Joints patrolling over the Black Sea fly with at least one Typhoon fighter jet alongside.
The September episode has eerie echoes of a time during the Cold War when Soviet fighter jets scrambled to intercept what they feared was a hostile aircraft that was actually Korean Air Lines Flight 007, a Boeing 747 passenger jet. The airliner had accidentally flown into Soviet airspace, and after a Soviet pilot gave a partial description of the passenger jet to a ground radar station, he was given permission to fire.
All 269 people aboard were killed after two air-to-air missiles slammed into the aircraft.
With tensions high and miscommunication a staple of wartime environments, NATO surveillance flights are now flying farther away from Crimea than permitted by international law. Instead of 12 miles off the coast, which counts as international airspace, the U.S. military is currently observing a wider limit of about 46 miles, which is described in one of the leaked documents as a “SECDEF Directed Standoff.”
The classified documents also point to a number of air-to-air incidents involving Russian aircraft and NATO planes and drones that occurred since the Sept. 29 near shoot down. From Oct. 1 to Feb. 22, British, French and American flights reacted to six different events in which Russian aircraft approached their patrols, from distances of six nautical miles to just 100 feet.