The USAF operates the RC-135 Rivet Joint already for decades. (Image Master Sgt. Scott Wagers © USAF)

Analysis: “RC-135 over Sweden fleeing from Russians”

The USAF operates the RC-135 Rivet Joint already for decades. (Image Master Sgt. Scott Wagers © USAF)
The USAF operates the RC-135 Rivet Joint already for decades. (Image Master Sgt. Scott Wagers © USAF)

LATEST UPDATE 4 AUGUST 2014 | The US Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint that illegally penetrated Swedish air space and flew right over two of Sweden’s most strategic islands in the Baltic Sea on 18 July 2014 was on the run for the Russians.

The US European Command has acknowledge the analysis put forward by on 2 August on its Facebook page. “U.S. European Command acknowledges that a US RC-135 aircraft was vectored into Swedish airspace on July 18. The aircraft commander, acting in a professional and safe manner, maneuvered the aircraft to avoid a possible encounter by Russian aircraft. The US aircraft was directed towards Swedish airspace incorrectly by US personnel, and vectored out of the airspace once the Swedish air traffic controllers informed them of the error.”

Sources within the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs already confirmed the nationality of the plane over the weekend, in a telephone conversation with Swedish quality newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, although that seems to have been done by mistake.

Russian fighter jets – likely one or two Russian Naval Aviation Su-27s – were either scrambled from the Russian Kaliningrad enclave situated between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea, or happened to be airborne at the time of the RC-135 flight. Late Saterday night 2 August US officials confirmed the Rivet Joint was fleeing the area. Although the initial explanation was that the crew was “very concerned” about a ground based Russian radar system that was tracking the aircraft.

Radar track
Judging the leaked radar track the fairly sudden break left from a northernbound route and subsequently unlawful entering of Swedish airspace, the overflight of the northern tip of Gotland, the hiding within the Swedish airspace over the island of Öland, it already looked very much like an unplanned getaway. Moreover, sources say the big US Air Force four-engine requested – and was denied – clearance all the way through southern Sweden, via Jönköping and Göteborg and from there possibly to RAF Mildenhall in the UK. Although US EUCOM says the plane’s crew corrected the mistake as soon as they were made aware of the illegal entry by Swedish air traffic control, this does not seem to be correct. According to Swedish sources Swedish radar was already tracking the aircraft for 1.5 hours prior to the incident, with ATC personnel fully aware of the RC-135s every move.

International airspace
What exactly happened in the air or why the USAF crew didn’t have a back-up plan to use the few miles (4 km) of international airspace between the Swedish islands of Gotland and Öland in case of a possible Russian intercept, is unclear.

Good guys
What we do know is that Sweden didn’t sent up any fighter aircraft to intercept the trespasser. If that was because the duty commander feels the Americans are the good guys, or that there was no fighter or fighter pilot available due to budget restraints is unclear. Meanwhile US diplomatic and military channels have been opened to persuade Sweden to open its airspace automatically for US aircraft next time a similar incident occurs. No word yet from the Swedish side about this.

Long run
Several theories exist that go further than both the official Swedish and US statements. One of them is that the US used the Russian fighter jet – hardly not the first time the Russian sent one or more up – as an excuse to test the Swedish reaction or to probe overflight possibilities of Sweden in the future. Earlier this year Sweden granted NATOs E-3 Sentry Airborne Surveillance and Control planes free overpass from Norway to Central Europe and vice versa in order to monitor Russian activities in Ukraine.

© 2014 editor Marcel Burger