Fighter jets were scrambled from the USS Ronald Reagan after two Russian planes came within one nautical mile of the aircraft carrier.
Russian naval reconnaissance planes flew past the U.S. warship as it sailed in international waters to the east of the Korean Peninsula. 7th Fleet officials told the press that two Tupolev Tu-142 Bear aircraft were as low as 500 feet above the Reagan, writes Erik Slavin for Stars and Stripes.
Russian aircraft fly close to U.S. aircraft carrier
A number of incidents involving Russian aircraft have occurred of late, but this latest is perhaps the most serious. Four F/A-18 Super Hornets were scrambled from the flight deck of the Ronald Reagan in response, said 7th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Lauren Cole.
The Ronald Reagan was in the area on scheduled maneuvers with South Korean navy ships. After the presence of the Russian planes was detected, U.S. officials attempted to make radio contact but received no reply. A U.S. escort ship later followed the planes after they withdrew.
Officials at the Russian Embassy in Seoul could not be reached for comment on Thursday. This is far from the first time that Russian aircraft have engaged in provocative actions. Several times in the past 12 months Russian planes have entered other countries’ airspace or flown close to U.S. and NATO ships.
Russian aviation practices called into question on multiple occasions
A Russian SU-24 fighter jet made 12 passes over the USS Donald Cook in April, and the Pentagon specified that they were “close-range, low-altitude” flights. The ship was in international waters in the Black Sea near Romania at the time. According to NATO officials Russian fighter planes violated Turkish airspace on several occasions in September.
Japan has also accused Russia of violating the airspace over the northern island of Hokkaido. The incidents have called Russian navy aircraft safety practices into serious doubt.
According to U.S. Navy officials, Washington understands that Russia and any other nation has the right to operate where international law allows. “We are advocates of any country being able to operate within international norms,” Cole said. “We do caveat that with the fact that all of these operations need to be conducted in accordance with the rights and regulations of other countries, and within a safe manner.”
Lack of radio contact violates good aviation practice
The USS Ronald Reagan functions as a floating airport, boasting an air traffic control center to coordinate with planes. During flight operations a carrier control zone is implemented, covering a 5-mile radius and up to 2,500 feet in altitude.
There was no confirmation from Navy officials whether flight operations were underway when the Russian planes flew past. “Even if we don’t have flight operations ongoing, we are still very cognizant of what is going on in the airspace, within a good distance,” Cole said.
In general aviation practice two-way communication is expected when an aircraft comes within a certain distance. This is the case even at commercial airports, according to international aviation guidelines.
The Russian flyby was not the only incident for the U.S. Navy in Asia this week. USS Lassen provoked protests from China after it sailed within a 12-nautical-mile territorial zone imposed by China around a reef claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea.
Busy period for U.S. Navy in Asia-Pacific region
According to the U.S. the maneuver was part of a demonstration of “freedom of navigation” because the waters are international and accessible by any nation. For its part China claimed that the move presented a violation of its “indisputable sovereignty.”
Subi Reef is believed to be completely submerged in its natural state, although China has reclaimed the land from the sea. Subi is one of a number of reefs that have been built on by Beijing as it attempts to strengthen its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Under international law territorial claims cannot be generated by submerged objects, although China has repeatedly attempted to claim sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea. The issue has led to increased tensions in the region due to competing claims from a number of countries including China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
The U.S. has intervened in an attempt to maintain freedom of navigation in the vital shipping lanes. The South China Sea also boasts rich fishing grounds, and there is speculation that oil and gas fields may also be located in the area.
As China grows increasingly assertive in the region, the U.S. has stepped in to support the claims of its regional allies. The Obama administration has little to lose by taking a tough stance on the issue given criticism at home for its lack of action in the face of Chinese provocation.