The US air force RC-135 reconnaissance plane. Photo: Supplied
Washington: In an encounter reminiscent of the Cold War, an American reconnaissance plane crossed into Swedish air space last month as it sought to avoid being intercepted by Russian fighters, US military officials said on Sunday.
The episode, which was only disclosed in recent days, occurred July 18 when Russian aircraft approached an Air Force RC-135 electronic surveillance plane as it was flying in what US officials said was international air space over the Baltic Sea.
"The aircraft commander, acting in a professional and safe manner, manoeuvred the aircraft to avoid a possible encounter by Russian aircraft," the US European Command said in a statement.
Tensions between the West and Russia have grown over Ukraine, and US and NATO officials have accused Russia of funneling arms to separatists in Ukraine and carrying out cross-border rocket and artillery attacks against Ukrainian government forces.
In recent months, the United States and other NATO nations have sought to reassure Eastern European allies by modestly increasing their military presence in and near their territory. This has included the deployment of 600 US troops on training missions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as a stepped-up allied effort to patrol the air space over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The United States has also expanded its intelligence-gathering, including reconnaissance missions by RC-135 aircraft. The aircraft is used to monitor electronic communications, including radar signals, and the Air Force says it can detect and pinpoint transmissions ''throughout the electromagnetic spectrum''.
According to the Swedish news media, the episode on July 18 occurred as the RC-135 aircraft was flying near Kaliningrad, a heavily militarised Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania that includes a major port for the Russian Baltic fleet.
After being approached by Russian aircraft, the RC-135 pilot sought to avoid the encounter by manoeuvring his aircraft into Swedish air space, flying over Gotland Island.
Sweden is not a member of NATO, and the European Command said in its statement that the RC-135 had been directed towards Swedish territory ''incorrectly by US personnel''.
The plane left Swedish air space after Swedish air traffic controllers informed the aircraft of the mistake. The European Command statement said it would work with the Swedish government ''to prevent similar issues before they arise''.
The episode follows other encounters between Russian aircraft and US warplanes or ships. On April 12, Russian SU-24 attack jets flew near a naval vessel, the USS Donald Cook, which was operating in international waters in the Black Sea.
One of the Russian aircraft made 12 low-altitude passes near the ship, which had been sent to the Black Sea as part of the Obama administration's attempt to reassure Eastern European allies. The Pentagon said the ship was never in danger, but criticised the Russian actions as provocative.
On April 23, a Russian aircraft flew close to an RC-135 that was flying over the Sea of Okhotsk, between Russia and Japan.
On Friday, President Barack Obama spoke with President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine. According to a statement issued by the White House, Mr Obama repeated his concern about Russia's increased support for the separatists in Ukraine.
Mr Obama also repeated his concerns about Russian compliance with the 1987 treaty banning US and Russian missiles with a range of 482 kilometres to 5400 kilometres. The Obama administration recently concluded that Russia violated that accord by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile.
New York Times