Russian pilot 'tried to shoot down RAF plane'

'Ambiguous' communications triggered the potentially deadly incident in 2022, defence sources say

Russian Federation Air Force Su-27
Russia claimed at the time that the Su-27 fighter jet fired at as a result of a 'technical malfunction'
(Image credit: US Air Force Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)


A Russian pilot attempted to shoot down an RAF surveillance plane last year, sources have told the BBC.

Moscow said at the time that a missile was released as a result of a "technical malfunction". But three "senior Western defence sources" have now told the broadcaster that communications intercepted by the targeted RAF plane "give a very different account".

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According to the insiders, two Russian SU-27 fighter jets "encountered" the RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint plane in international airspace over the Black Sea on 29 September 2022. One of the Russian pilots is alleged to have released an air-to-air missile after their ground station controller reportedly used "ambiguous language" that was "to the effect of 'you have the target'". 

The missile "failed to lock on to its target", the BBC reported. Despite being "sworn at" by his fellow wingman, who "did not think they had been given permission to fire", the pilot allegedly then released a second missile that "simply fell from the wing", suggesting it "either malfunctioned or that the launch was aborted".  

The defence sources said the "loose" wording that triggered the launches revealed "a high degree of unprofessionalism by those involved".

Following the incident, then defence secretary Ben Wallace  told MPs that "our analysis concurs that it was due to a malfunction". But leaked US intelligence documents indicated that the altercation "could have amounted to an act of war", The New York Times reported in April. 

In response, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said much of the leaked information was "untrue, manipulated or both". 

The MoD may have been "reluctant to give the full details" of what had happened because "neither side wanted an escalation", said the BBC – and because "the UK would not want to publicise the extent of its intelligence gathering". 

Following the latest revelations, the MoD told the site that "this incident is a stark reminder of the potential consequences of Putin's barbaric invasion of Ukraine". 

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Julia O’Driscoll is the engagement editor. She covers UK and world news, as well as writing lifestyle and travel features. She regularly appears on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, and hosted The Week's short-form documentary podcast, “The Overview”. Julia was previously the content and social media editor at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, where she interviewed prominent voices in sustainable fashion and climate movements. She has a master's in liberal arts from Bristol University, and spent a year studying at Charles University in Prague.