Such incidents demonstrate the risks associated with conducting military operations in contested airspace. But what do they tell us specifically about Russian intentions and more generally about escalation risk?
First, the Russians may be harassing NATO intelligence-gathering aircraft because they are providing Ukraine with data to assist its fight against Moscow. They may also be seeking to deter or limit NATO surveillance flights over the Black Sea by playing on Alliance concerns about escalation risk. Indeed, after the 29 September incident, the UK temporarily stopped its Rivet Joint aircraft flying missions. NATO’s unarmed surveillance aircraft are, of course, flying outside NATO airspace in proximity to Crimea, presenting Russian forces with one of their only opportunities to interact with Alliance aircraft. Doing so with armed aircraft fulfilling NATO’s air policing role could lead to a self-defence response, while Alliance aircraft involved in supplying security assistance to Ukraine will normally fly over NATO countries.
Second, there is clearly a difference in escalation terms between engaging in activity that leads to the loss of a UAV and the downing of a manned aircraft. The Reaper incident may have been the result of reckless flying by the Russian aircrew involved. But it may also be a demonstration of Russia’s willingness to interact more forcefully and kinetically with an unmanned system, because doing so does not come with the same escalation risk associated with potential or actual loss of life. By contrast, a Rivet Joint may have a crew of up to 30 personnel to effectively perform its functions.5
The hostile downing of an American drone is not a novel event. On 20 June 2019, an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down a US RQ-4A ‘Global Hawk’ surveillance drone in what US CENTCOM stated was international air space, while the Iranians claimed otherwise.6 Although the US planned a retaliatory strike against Iranian radar and missile sites on 21 June, US President Donald Trump called it off shortly beforehand. In doing so, Trump Tweeted, ‘10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone’.7 Did the lack of kinetic retaliatory action signal that the US would not respond to its drones being targeted in situations where it has a concern over escalation, thereby giving adversaries greater freedom to engage UAVs without fear of a significant response?
Third, the question then arises: to what extent might Russia be engaging in limited probes through its air interactions with NATO aircraft, manned or otherwise, to test the resolve of NATO members? Art and Greenhill describe a limited probe as a situation where ‘the challenger provokes a crisis to reveal the nature and extent of the defender’s commitment’ particularly if the challenger ‘believes the defender’s commitment is uncertain.’8
Fourth, the above incidents illustrate the importance of taking steps to reduce the chances of inadvertent escalation. In a 2008 RAND study, Morgan et al flagged three ways to do this: ‘working to recognize in advance the paths by which inadvertent escalation might occur in a particular situation’; ‘sensitizing leaders, strategists, and planners to the possibility and nature of inadvertent escalation in general and its potential risks in specific contingencies’; and ‘warning adversaries about inadvertent escalation risks they may not have recognized.’9 The relevance of these approaches was brought to sharp relief in Wallace’s remarks to the Commons on 20 October, when he said the Rivet Joint incident was ‘a reminder of quite how dangerous things can be when you choose to use your fighters in the manner in which the Russians have used them’. He further stated that, ‘We are dealing with a President and with Russian forces who, as we have seen from the Rivet Joint incident, are not beyond making the wrong calculation or deciding that the rules do not apply to them.’ All the more important in such circumstances then that the UK maintains, as Wallace emphasised, a ‘professional link with the Russian Ministry of Defence’ so there can be dialogue on ‘important engagements at times like this.’10