A Russian fighter jet “released” a missile near an unarmed British surveillance plane during a recent incident over the Black Sea, the U.K.’s defense minister revealed Thursday. The Russian side claimed the missile release was the result of a technical malfunction, but the incident could have risked harming a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally and setting off a broader, potentially nuclear-armed conflict.
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In testimony before British Parliament on Thursday, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace revealed a British Royal Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft was on a routine patrol when it encountered two armed Russian SU-27 fighter jets in international airspace over the Black Sea on Sept. 29. Wallace said one of the Russian fighter jets “released a missile in the vicinity of the RAF Rivet Joint beyond visual range.”
Wallace did not specify in what manner the Russian fighter jet “released” its missile. It is not clear if the missile was fully activated or simply detached and fell off of its mounting pylon on the Russian fighter jet.
Wallace said he notified the Russian military of the incident and the Russian side claimed it investigated the missile release and determined it was the result of a “technical malfunction.”
Had the Russian fighter fired a missile that hit the British surveillance aircraft, it could have set off a direct conflict between Russia and the U.K.
The U.K. has supported Ukraine against invading Russian forces for months. Russian officials and state-television personalities have seethed at the British support for Ukraine and have threatened to directly target the U.K. over their support to the Ukrainian military.
If Russia and the U.K. do go to war, it could trigger NATO Article 5, which calls for the U.S. and other NATO allies to act in the collective defense of the U.K. The U.S., U.K. and France are all nuclear armed NATO allies and a war with nuclear-armed Russia would dramatically increase the risk of a global nuclear exchange.
In his comments to Parliament, Wallace said the RC-135 and the two Russian Su-27s interacted for about 90 minutes during this encounter. Wallace said the RAF surveillance aircraft was able to complete its patrol and return to base.
Wallace said U.K. forces had temporarily suspended such surveillance patrols over the region but said RC-135 are once again flying the patrols, now with armed fighter escorts.
“I want to assure the [House of Commons of the British Parliament] that this incident will not prevent the United Kingdom support for Ukraine and resistance to Russia’s illegal invasion,” Wallace added.