A recent Russian aerial intercept of an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over Europe was "reckless and unprofessional," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman, also said Russia’s transfer of advanced air defense missiles to Iran will not alter U.S. plans for military action to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear arms.
During a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon Dempsey dismissed the latest threats by Moscow to target U.S. missile defenses in Europe as "Russian rhetoric" that "goes back a long time," but that has not led to a breakdown in communication between the two militaries.
"And those channels remain open, as they do for dealing with things like unprofessional or reckless intercepts," Dempsey said. "And this intercept was in fact both unprofessional and reckless and foolish, actually, in the sense that it was conducted for no apparent reason."
The incident in question took place April 7, when a Russian Su-27 fighter flew within 20 feet of a U.S. RC-135U reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea.
Dempsey’s comments characterizing the Russian action as reckless and unprofessional represent an escalation of rhetoric on the part of the Pentagon’s top military official. Earlier a Pentagon spokesman said only that the intercept was "unsafe" and unprofessional.
Defense officials said the intercept was a near collision, and that the Su-27 was conducting a threatening pass over the RC-135.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported the encounter on April 10.
A day later a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed the incident but denied the pilot acted dangerously and claimed the RC-135 was operating without its signal transponder, a device that allows air traffic controllers to track commercial and military aircraft.
Dempsey said the U.S. military has contacted Russia "through appropriate channels" and asked for an investigation to "determine whether it was purposeful, or if it was an isolated instance by a hot-blooded pilot."
"But it's serious," the four-star general said, adding that he has not yet received an answer from the Russian about the encounter.
No details of the RC-135 mission were disclosed. However, defense officials said the aircraft, which conducts electronic intelligence gathering, was probably spying on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where Moscow is said to be deploying nuclear-capable Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear weapons.
A report published recently by the European Leadership Network stated that provocative Russian aerial maneuvers and generally aggressive actions have increased sharply and appear to be military testing of NATO and U.S. defenses.
The report found that NATO last year conducted more than 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft, a threefold increase from the previous year. Eleven encounters were described as serious and posing a risk of potential military escalation.
The actions include harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and mock bombing missions, according to the report.
The increase in the provocative aerial encounters would indicate that the actions are not random activities by rogue pilots as Dempsey suggested may have been the case in the RC-135 intercept.
In the last five years, Russia has protested to the United States over what Moscow claims are threatening U.S. missile defenses deployed in Europe. The United States insists the defenses are not designed to counter Russian offensive missiles, but Moscow has rejected those claims.
On Thursday, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the general staff, said during a defense conference in Moscow that U.S. defenses in Europe would be targeted by Russian forces.
"Nonnuclear powers where missile-defense installations are being installed have become the objects of priority response," Gerasimov said, in a reference to former Soviet satellite states Poland and Romania.
Russia also has increased the threat posed by Iran by announcing that it will reverse an earlier ban on sales of S-300 air defense missiles.
Asked how the new Russian missiles in Iran would affect the U.S. military option of taking out Iranian nuclear facilities, Dempsey said: "The introduction of the S-300 ordinance, the derivative that they export, the S-20 Charlie air defense system, we've known about the potential for that system to be sold to Iran for several years, and have accounted for it in all of our planning."
"The military option that I owe the president to both encourage the diplomatic solution and if the diplomacy fails to ensure that Iran doesn't achieve a nuclear weapon, is intact."
According to Russian press reports, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the RC-135 was detected by air defense radars steadily flying toward Russia’s border.
Konashenkov said "no emergency situation" was reported during the encounter.
In addition to provocative intercepts, Russian nuclear capable bombers have been increasing missions near the United States and Europe.
A defense official said there have been no recent encounters of Tu-95 Bear bombers flying near U.S. or Canadian coasts. However, the official said Russia is expected to begin spring military training in the near future and could conduct new flights into air defense identification zones.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, appearing with Dempsey, said the United States has been pressuring Moscow politically and economically as a result of Russia "fomenting trouble" in eastern Ukraine.
"I'm not an economist, but I understand that those sanctions are having an effect on Russia, along with plummeting oil prices," Carter said. "Those are the two factors bringing pressure to bear upon the Russian economy, and so the first line of pressure for us is economic and political. And we're doing that."
Carter said there is abundant evidence of Russian covert meddling in Ukraine.