top of page

INCSEA and the Persistence of Dangerous Intercepts

By: Dale Ton

In January, a Russian Air Force fighter jet intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the Black Sea. During the two-hour-and-forty-minute encounter, the Russian jet maneuvered to within five feet of the American plane and passed closely in front of it, placing the American plane in a dangerous position flying through jet-wash. Following the incident, a State Department spokeswoman denounced the dangerous intercept as a violation of international law, citing, in particular, the 1972 Agreement for the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA).

INCSEA was the result of numerous unsafe encounters between American and Soviet ships and aircraft during the Cold War, which prompted the United States and the Soviet Union to seek to curtail the risk of tragedy and escalation resulting from such encounters. The agreement—which was amended in 1998 and currently binds the Russian Federation—imposes various requirements on American and Russian commanders to avoid unsafe encounters. Article IV mandates that air commanders shall “exercise maximum caution and prudence in approaching the other Party’s vessels and aircraft” and shall not “simulate attacks . . . against the other Party’s ships and aircraft” or “perform aerobatics over ship and[or] in the immediate vicinity of aircraft of the other party.” The agreement also required both parties to meet annually to discuss and review the agreement; the most recent INCSEA conference was held on July 25, 2017, at Newport, Rhode Island.

The most recent incident over the Black Sea, however, is not unique. Notwithstanding the continuing validity of INCSEA and other U.S.-Russia agreements aimed at preventing maritime and aerial accidents, similar unsafe encounters have only become more frequent in recent years. A few examples are illustrative: in April 2014, a Russian fighter jet flew within 100 feet of the nose of an American reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Okhotsk. A year later, in April 2015, a Russian fighter jet intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea at a dangerous distance and speed. In 2014 and 2016, Russian aircraft accosted the American destroyer USS Donald Cook; both instances saw Russian fighter jets making numerous low passes over the deck of the ship, with the latter occasion also featuring Russian helicopters flying low and close to the ship. Only two days after the 2016 encounter with the USS Donald Cook, a Russian fighter jet performed a barrel roll within 50 feet of an American surveillance plane. In September 2016, similar to the incident last month, a Russian fighter jet flew within 10 feet of an American surveillance plane over the Black Sea. In February 2017, four Russian aircraft performed low and fast passes over the USS Porter as it transited the Black Sea. These incidents, which involve Russian jets performing unsafe tactics and flying in “simulated attack profiles” directed at U.S. ships and aircraft, have violated the clear terms of the amended INCSEA.

Given the ever-brewing tensions between the United States and Russia, INCSEA and the similar treaties that followed it are insufficient to address these dangerous intercepts that continue to occur with alarming regularity. To be fair, the existence of such treaties is a positive factor that certainly has some effect in deterring more rampant misconduct. However, in the wake of Russia’s blatant breaches of the treaties, neither the pointed accusations levied by U.S. authorities nor the legal effect of the agreements themselves are sufficient to adequately respond to such violations. After all, this sort of muscle-flexing behavior is quite effective for Russia to at once assert its geopolitical influence and showcase its military readiness. Close calls involving jets and ships are undeniably newsworthy affairs that quickly and inevitably find their way to the worldwide audience, helping to direct the spotlight of global attention onto Russia. In all likelihood, absent more vigorous response on the part of the United States, Russia will continue to deploy its air and naval assets in confrontational settings that compromise political stability and human life. The United States must rely more heavily on other diplomatic tactics, including further strengthening ties with regional allies and increased use of economic sanctions, in order to prevent future incidents. International law may serve as a deterrent, but it is no cure.


bottom of page