A Russian pilot attempted to shoot down a British spy plane over the Black Sea, it has emerged.
The pilot wrongly believed he had permission to fire after receiving a vague command from senior officers. He fired a missile, but it failed to hit the target – an RAF surveillance plane.
The RAF plane had been flying a surveillance mission in international airspace when it encountered two Russian SU-27 fighter jets.
A Western defence source told the BBC the words the two pilots received were to the effect of “you have the target”.
One interpreted this as tacit permission to shoot but the other did not, swearing at his wingman when he fired the first missile, according to the report.
Sources said the language indicates a high degree of unprofessionalism by those involved and led to a fight between the two pilots.
One reportedly launched an air-to-air missile, which failed to lock on to its target.
Despite his comrade remonstrating with him, he then released another missile which fell from the wing, suggesting the weapon either malfunctioned or the launch was aborted, according to the report.
Yorkshire Party Deputy Chair, David Herdson warned: “This came very close to being exceptionally serious.
“Casual commands from the Russians, mixed with pilots’ everyday use of live weapons against live targets, could easily have killed up to 30 RAF personnel. That would have brought Article 5 into play.
“The easy response would be withdraw from the area, to avoid the risk of future similar incidents. That would be the wrong call.
“The aircraft there are doing an important job and are also entitled to be there. They cannot be allowed to be chased out by Russian recklessness.
“If the Russians get the message that if pressed hard, NATO will withdraw, then they will press harder – especially when the aircraft in question are capable of actively aiding their enemy. Showing weakness invites them to continue to harass with live fire.
“Nor is it just the Black Sea. Russia made clear yesterday its opposition to NATO training in the Baltic.
“Well, tough. Not only do the likes of Estonia and Finland have a right to train there, they have a need to, and to co-ordinate with their allies.”
He added: “Western governments need to prepare for the eventuality of a similar incident ending in a much worse outcome.
“That’s not just about fighters accompanying patrol craft; it’s about what the bigger diplomatic and military response would have to be.
“NATO’s position also needs to be made clear to Moscow. The biggest risk is uncertainty. Russia has talked tough but has generally acted with restraint when put under pressure. As long as it’s known where the line is, it hasn’t crossed it.”
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