A close encounter between Russian jets that buzzed a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer in the Baltic Sea is raising fears of a potentially fatal mishap.
It’s unlikely trained U.S. sailors would shoot down a jet, but experts say Russian pilots are playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game where any mistake could be fatal.
“Flying planes at a low altitude, you make a little motion, you miscalculate, and you either hit the ship or you go into the water," he continued. "And then there are questions about who caused this and so on, and it turns into an incident. And the incident can escalate, and it’s dangerous. It’s not a joking matter.”
On Monday, two Russian Su-24s made numerous, close-range and low-altitude passes while the USS Donald Cook was conducting landing drills with helicopters.
Then on Tuesday, a Russian helicopter circled around the ship seven times at a low altitude. About 40 minutes later, two Su-24s made 11 close-range and low-altitude passes.
Video and photos released by the Pentagon show the jets just off the side of the ship. Reports indicate they were as near as 30 feet from the ship.
The Pentagon said the flights appeared to simulate an attack.
The Obama administration has publicly raised concerns about the incident and filed a formal complaint with Russia.
On Thursday, Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryOvernight Defense: Obama defends Manning commutation after backlash | Mattis clears Senate panel Kerry: Trump can’t instantly undo Obama actions ‘All or nothing’ leaves us nothing MORE said the sailors could have shot down the jets.
“It's unprofessional, and under the rules of engagement that could have been a shoot down, so people need to understand that this is serious business, and the United States is not going to be intimidated in high seas," he said in an interview on CNN Espanol.
Legally, Kerry is correct, said Larry Brennan, an adjunct professor of maritime law at Fordham University School of Law and former State and Defense department adviser.
The sailors wouldn’t shoot at the jets unless they confirm there is a missile lock on the ship, he continued, but cautioned that confusion can cause mistakes.
“Wars and battles and conflicts happen often by accident historically,” he said. “We think electronics and communications prevent that. They help a lot, but it requires us to be careful in how we do things and what risks we’re willing to take.”
Cmdr. Charles Hampton, commanding officer of the Cook, said his ship had been tracking the jets from 100 nautical miles away.
“This ship is designed to detect and track contact such as this, aircraft such as this from up to several hundred miles away,” he said at a press conference in Lithuania on Thursday. “It’s right in line with our training and our scenarios that we practice on a regular basis.”
The Cook has had previous experiences with these situations. In 2014, two Russian fighter jets made what the Pentagon called “provocative” moves near the ship in the Black Sea.
But many military experts said factors at play made it unlikely the U.S. would make a fatal mistake.
Rick Hoffman, a retired Navy captain who commanded a frigate and cruiser, said a commanding officer, who would likely have at least 18 years of experience, would know not to shoot at the jets.
For one, Hoffman said, officers would be able to identify whether the jets are armed and whether there are any electronic emissions suggesting a missile lock.
Further, the United States and Russia are not at war.
“Only in 'Top Gun' does war suddenly break out between two war planes without some other geopolitical conflict,” he said.
Tony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and Intentional Studies, likewise said the United States wouldn’t shoot at a jet without being in a combat zone.
If the Russians were going to attack, he said, the jets would have launched an air-to-ship missile much further away from the ship.
“This is not, in spite of a fair amount of commentary to the contrary, the kind of profile a Russian aircraft flies if it intends to attack as U.S. ship unless it intends to ram it, which is not particularly likely,” he said.
The real risk from such fly-bys isn't the U.S. overreacting, but a Russian pilot making a critical mistake, he said. Even if Russia sent in its best pilots, accidents happen, said Cordesman.
But Cordesman said the fallout from such an accident would be mostly political.
“It would almost immediately become a propaganda exercise,” he said. “Neither side is going to get itself in a position where an accident is going to lead to any kind of combat.”
Past incidents, such as the downing of Russian fighter jets after they flew over Turkish airspace last year, highlight the concerns about Russian pilots, said Cropsey from the Center for American Seapower.
“It might have gone through the skippers’ minds as this was happening that the Russians tend to be sloppy,” Cropsey said. “If you can make a mistake as big as flying over someone else’s territory, you can make a mistake as small as dipping down a couple hundred feet.”
An escalation to a war is unlikely, though possible, he said.
But Cropsey said the incident in the Baltic Sea was alarming, and could lead to Cold War-like tensions.
“We’re sort of going backwards here,” he said. “This used to be what was described as the cat-and-mouse game between Soviet and U.S. naval forces in the Mediterranean and all over the world. We’ve seen this before.”