Armageddon, anyone? This probably isn’t the first time this has happened during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and it probably won’t be the last. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paying attention because a little-reported event that took place over the Black Sea at the end of September could have ended very badly indeed. On September 29, an unarmed British RC-135 was on a routine patrol over the sea when it was “shadowed” by two Russian SU-27 fighter jets. That, in and of itself isn’t all that surprising since fighter pilots do that sort of thing all the time in international airspace. But in this instance, one of the SU-27s “released a missile.” The RC-135 wasn’t struck or damaged and apparently wasn’t in any serious danger, but that may have been more of a matter of luck than anything else. The Russians have acknowledged that the event took place and they’re blaming it on a “technical error.” (Sky News)

A missile was released from a Russian aircraft near an unarmed RAF plane on a routine patrol over the Black Sea, the defence secretary has revealed.

In a statement updating MPs on the war in Ukraine, Ben Wallace said the incident happened on 29 September and that Russia has acknowledged it took place in international airspace.

The RAF RC-135 aircraft was on routine patrol over the Black Sea when it was “shadowed” by two Russian armed SU-27 fighter jets.

As I mentioned above, these cat-and-mouse games go on between pilots of adversarial nations all the time. Back when I was serving on an aircraft carrier during the cold war, our jets were frequently trailed by soviet fighters and we did the same to them. For many fighter pilots, it’s probably just a way to pass the time and demonstrate their bravado.

But that doesn’t mean that the potential for a disastrous encounter doesn’t exist. Shadowing is one thing, but setting loose an air-to-air missile is another matter entirely. Missiles don’t just fire themselves. If the Russians really have an issue with SU-27s firing missiles randomly, they need to bring them back into the shop for some serious maintenance.

Pulling back a bit to look at the larger picture, try to imagine what would have happened if the British plane had actually been shot down in this fashion, perhaps killing the plane’s crew in the process. What happens next? Can the UK and its allies (including the United States) simply let that stand with nothing but an apology, assuming Mad Vlad was actually willing to apologize for the “error?”

Even worse, keep in mind that the RC-135, though it was unarmed, was accompanied by a couple of  British fighters. Would they wait and ask for orders from their base or would they determine that they were now in an active dogfight scenario and move to take out the Russian planes? At that point, escalation almost becomes automatic. A NATO ally would have been attacked by Russian military forces. Article 5 in the charter immediately goes into effect.

Sure, it’s possible that cooler heads could pick up the hotline in several countries and put the brakes on before any ICBMs started flying. But are we 100% sure that’s how it would happen? I don’t know about you, but I’m nowhere close to being that certain. This incident only further highlights the issues related to engaging in a proxy war against Russia as we are currently doing. War is never neat and clean and wholly containable. It’s an unpredictable beast by nature. And as my World War 2 veteran father always used to tell me, “bad things happen in war.”

We’ve kept our engagement in Ukraine fairly “tidy” for the most part thus far. But I doubt that situation will hold forever. And the government needs to have a far more open and honest conversation with the public about precisely whose interests are being served here and what the net benefit is to the United States if we continue pursuing this project in the way we’ve been handling it thus far.

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