The drone incident in the Black Sea highlights the loose rules around avoiding ‘accidental’ war

A Russian Su-27 fighter jet releases fuel as it approaches the rear of a US Air Force MQ-9 in what the Pentagon says was “an unsafe and unprofessional interception” over the Black Sea. Credits: Video from US European Command

The extraordinary footage from a Russian fighter jet intercepting a US drone over the Black Sea earlier this week shows how potentially disastrous such encounters can be outside of actual war zones.

The drone’s own video released by the Pentagon captures the Russian plane apparently spraying the drone with fuel and then deliberately colliding with it. The incident is consistent with similar aggressive displays by the Russian air force in the region, the Pentagon claimed.

But aside from such abuses associated with the war in Ukraine, the Black Sea confrontation shows how easily these military interactions can lead to the “accidental” outbreak of war.

We are also seeing these encounters of the military, navy and aviation more and more. In 2021, it was reported that Russian aircraft and two Coast Guard ships were shadowing a British warship near Crimea.

And last year, the Australian Department of Defense said a Chinese fighter jet harassed one of its military aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea. The risk of these dangerous ‘games’ triggering something more serious is obvious, but there are few rules or regulations to prevent this.

Reckless conduct

All armies must adhere to basic international security law, but there are major exceptions and separate regulations that fill the gaps.

Historically, the US and the Soviet Union led the way in establishing some rules to control incidents on and over the high seas during the Cold War. The basic rule was that both sides should avoid risky maneuvers and “keep well clear to avoid the risk of collision”.

To reduce the risk of collision, vessels in close proximity should be able to communicate and, where possible, be visible. They must not simulate attacks on each other.

Russia later copied this agreement with 11 NATO countries, and in 2014 an Indo-Pacific version – the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea – was added. While it’s primarily between the US and China, at least half a dozen other countries have pledged to abide by the agreement. through the.

Additional rules for air-to-air military encounters followed. These helpfully added that “military aircrew should refrain from using rude language or unfriendly physical gestures”. Other rules emphasized professional conduct, safe speeds and the avoidance of reckless behavior, “aerobatics and simulated attacks” or the “firing of missiles, weapons or other objects”.

The US and Russia added a more specific agreement for aviation safety in Syria during the time they operated very close to each other and when close air calls were reported.

But these are all “soft” rules. They are not treaty obligations with compliance mechanisms and are only adopted voluntarily by some countries.

In addition, there are no precise definitions of “safe” speeds or distances. New technologies, such as drones and other interception techniques, add another level of unregulated complexity.

Test rocket

Few things are as terrifying as missiles flying into or over another country without permission or warning. The original Soviet-era rule included mutual notification of planned missile launches. But this only applied to intercontinental or submarine-launched missiles, not short-range weapons or missile defense systems.

Apart from some UN voluntary codes, the only other binding missile notification agreement is that between Russia and China. China and the US do not share launch notification information, nor do the other nuclear powers.

Some, such as North Korea and Iran, even violate missile bans directly imposed on them by the UN Security Council.

War games and hotlines

Soldiers have to practice. But this gets risky when pretending can look like an actual attack, especially when fear and paranoia are added to the mix.

North Korea is a modern example of this, but there have been incidents in the past where large-scale wargames almost led to a nuclear exchange. For example, in 1983, misinterpreted military intelligence led the US to move to DEFCON 1—the highest of the nuclear threat categories—during a tense period of the Cold War.

There were agreements about the notification of major strategic exercises between the US and the Soviet Union, but despite advance warning, even those did not define what best practice looks like (such as allowing or disallowing observers for an exercise to look identical looks like a full exercise). -blown attack).

More importantly, there is no international law governing such questions – perhaps most critically, how leaders should be able to communicate directly, quickly and continuously.

A “hotline” was first agreed in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis. While a direct link doesn’t guarantee that the phone will necessarily be answered or that the subsequent conversation will be sincere, it does at least provide a channel to avoid confusion and de-escalate quickly.

A second-tier hotline that commanders on the ground can communicate directly with is also helpful, like the one that now connects Russian and US militaries to avoid an accidental clash over Ukraine.

But such dual systems are the exception, not the rule. Nor are hotlines particularly stable — the one between North and South Korea, for example, has been broken and restored several times. And they are not required by international law – symbolic of a wider situation where the risks of being wrong are very real indeed.

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