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Here's how US Navy sub hunters prepare themselves for 'unsafe' intercepts by America's rivals - P-8A attached to VP-1 conducts intercept training with a EA-18G Growler attached to VAQ-209.jpg ...
*Mid-air intercepts can be "disconcerting" for pilots that have not experienced
them before even if they are at a safe distance.
*US Navy P-8A Poseidon crews, which fly bulky aircraft capable of hunting
submarines for long stretches over open ocean, go through training designed to
expose them to the maneuvers an intercepting tactical aircraft might execute to
*While the majority of intercepts are safe and professional, some, as has been
the case with several recent Russian intercepts, are definitely not.
US military aircraft are routinely intercepted by Russian and Chinese fighters
in international airspace, and that can be a jarring experience, especially if
the encounter is "unsafe."
Intercepts that the US and NATO characterize as "unsafe and unprofessional" are
not the norm, but are a sizable portion of all these aerial encounters. "I see
it a lot," US Navy Capt. Erin Osborne, Wing Ten commodore, told Insider.
Three times in two months this year, Russian Su-35 fighter jets "unsafely"
intercepted US Navy P-8A Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft over the
In one instance, a Russian fighter conducted a high-speed inverted maneuver just
25 feet in front of the US aircraft, a move that could have come straight out of
the movie "Top Gun." In another close call, two tactical aircraft closed in on
both sides of the P-8, restricting its ability to safely maneuver.
Boeing P-8A Poseidons are militarized 737-800ERX aircraft that carry a crew of
nine, are armed with torpedoes and high-end sensors. They're built to conduct
maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare missions.
Successor to Lockheed's P-3 Orion, the P-8s provide advanced maritime
intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and are among the
best submarine hunters in the world. P-8 crews regularly patrol the seas,
tracking subs, supporting drug interdiction missions, collecting intelligence,
and carrying out search and rescue operations.
Another part of the job is sometimes being intercepted by foreign military
"We expect to be intercepted. I expect them to come out and take a look at us
and see what we are doing," Osborne, who oversees the training, manning, and
equipping of Navy P-8 squadrons, said.
She said that because "most of our interactions with other militaries are very
professional," P-8 crews do not go into a situation with an presumption that an
intercept will be unsafe. But they are prepared for that possibility.
"If you've never been intercepted, it can be disconcerting because you're not
used to having someone in that close proximity to your aircraft," Osborne said.
"We do training so that the crew feels comfortable with that."
The US Navy uses its own tactical aircraft, like the EA-18G Growler pictured in
the above photo from a recent training exercise, to expose P-8 crews to
maneuvers they might see.
During the training, the tactical aircraft will form up on the P-8s to help
crews understand how close is too close. "We want them to understand what is
unsafe, what is unprofessional," Osborne explained.
They will demonstrate, for example, an under run, which is when an aircraft is
forming up on the P-8 but suddenly cuts underneath the aircraft. "If someone's
never seen that before, they won't understand what they are looking at," Osborne
During an intercept, regardless of whether or not it is unsafe, a P-8 crew has
very limited options, as the P-8 lacks the maneuverability that an approaching
tactical aircraft has.
"We can't predict what they're going to do. The only thing we can do is make
ourselves predictable to them," Osborne said, explaining that the crew maintains
steady airspeed, course, and altitude. "There's really not a whole lot else you
"If they're doing barrel rolls over your airplane, there's nothing we can do.
There's literally no maneuver that gets us out of that, and we wouldn't want
to," she said, telling Insider that "the safest thing in that scenario is to
just hold what you got."
Osborne said that intercepts are typically silent affairs, although there is
always the possibility of nonverbal communication, such as eye contact or hand
gestures, between the US aircraft and the intercepting aircraft.
How long an intercept lasts can vary greatly by incident, but eventually, the
aircraft go their separate ways, with all involved returning home safely in most
There have been tragedies though.
In 2001, for example, a pair of Chinese J-8 fighter jets intercepted an EP-3E
Ares II signals intelligence aircraft about 70 miles from Hainan. One of the
J-8s collided with the US Navy plane, resulting in the death of Chinese pilot
Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei and forcing the EP-3 to make an emergency landing in China.
Such incidents are extremely rare, as most intercepts, be it US stealth fighters
intercepting Russian bombers near Alaska or foreign fighters intercepting US
planes in various places around the world, are usually safe and professional.
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