September 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Over the Black Sea, Moscow Escalates Its Military Provocations

September 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

Over the Black Sea, Moscow Escalates Its Military Provocations

Following a major North Atlantic Treaty Organization bomber exercise, two Russian Su-27 fighters conducted a reckless intercept of a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber in international airspace over the Black Sea on Friday. The aggressive actions of the Russian pilots suggest the NATO unity and military capability demonstrated by the bomber exercise may have rattled leaders and military planners in Moscow.

According to NATO, the “Allied Sky” exercise included six U.S. B-52 bombers overflying all 30 NATO countries. Four U.S. bombers participated in Europe, and two in North America. Fighters from 20 NATO countries apparently escorted the bombers.

“Training events like this help ensure that we fulfill our core mission: to deter aggression, prevent conflict, and preserve peace,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Following the exercise, one of the U.S. B-52 bombers flew into international airspace over the Black Sea. The two Russian Su-27 fighters approached the bomber, and at least one of the fighters displayed its weaponry to the B-52 crew. Then, according to the U.S. Air Force, the Su-27s crossed “within 100 feet of the nose of the B-52 multiple times at co-altitude and while in afterburner causing turbulence and restricting the B-52’s ability to maneuver.” A video released by the Pentagon appears to confirm this account.

General Jeff Harrigian, the top U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, expressed concern that “[a]ctions like these increase the potential for midair collisions, are unnecessary, and inconsistent with good airmanship and international flight rules.”

The U.S. bombers are based at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota but were operating temporarily out of Royal Air Force Fairford in the United Kingdom.

U.S. bombers flying out of Fairford is nothing new. Recently, however, the Air Force has been transitioning away from long-term bomber deployments in favor of shorter, four- to five-week bomber task forces (BTFs) operating out of Fairford or Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

These BTFs are part of a continued Pentagon effort to deter aggression and assure allies while making U.S. military operations less predictable for adversaries.

In fact, Russian displeasure with such bomber deployments to Europe is well-known. The exercise last week laid bare an enormous liability for Russian forces: bombers taking off from Fairford can almost immediately employ standoff weapons against Russian targets.

The NATO bomber exercise also underscored an important fact: Even as high-level political relationships among some NATO allies are strained, NATO military ties remain strong. It is telling that even as Putin attempts to woo some European leaders and sow division within the alliance, NATO is still able to present such an extraordinary show of alliance unity and force that Moscow could never replicate.

Moscow’s frustrations might explain the actions of the Su-27s. Admittedly, Russian intercepts of U.S. aircraft in the Black Sea are nothing new. But the actions of the Su-27 pilots were particularly aggressive and disdainful of normal rules of conduct. And while such methods have been employed before toward U.S. Navy P-8s, using afterburners to cause turbulence for a U.S. strategic bomber represents a notable escalation.

In order to deter additional aggression from Moscow, the U.S. military should continue to conduct such aviation exercises and seek to expand the number of BTF bases. In addition, NATO must also work to strengthen its ground deterrence capability in the Black Sea region. These efforts can help make clear to Moscow that it cannot use military force to accomplish its political objectives at an acceptable cost.

Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Maj. Shane Praiswater is a visiting military analyst. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department, or any other government agency. For more analysis from Bradley, Shane, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Bradley on Twitter @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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