A Russian SU-24 Fencer roars over the USS Donald Cook earlier this week (US Navy photo via CBS News). 

Many observers were stunned by video and still images of Russian SU-24s buzzing the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea this week.  According to the Navy, SU-24s made low passes over the Arleigh Burke class destroyer on successive days (11 and 12 April) as it operated off the coast of Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave located between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Coast.  During the first encounter on Monday, a pair of SU-24s (Russia’s answer to our long-retired F-111) made at least 20 near the American ship, flying within 1,000 yards and at altitudes as low as 100 feet.

The following day, two Russian KA-27 Helix helicopters circled the vessel, apparently taking photographs.  Then, the SU-24s (NATO code name “Fencer) returned, executing dangerously low passes over the Cook, flying a simulated attack profile.  A senior defense official told CBS News the Fencers were so low, their jet exhaust created wakes in the water.     

But members of the Cook crew took the incident in stride.  After all, the Norfolk-based DDG experienced a similar encounter in 2014, while patrolling in the Black Sea.  After returning to port, the ship’s skipper affirmed U.S. plans to operate in international waters, a claim that was echoed up the chain of command.  A spokesman at U.S. European Command headquarters criticized the Russians for their “unprofessional” and “aggressive” conduct.

Surprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry went a step further, claiming the American vessel had the right to shoot down the Russian jets because of their provocative actions.  But Navy officials quickly down-played that possibility, noting the Cook never received electronic indications that the SU-24 crews were preparing to employ weapons against the destroyer.

And, given the restrictive rules of engagement often employed by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate questions about the commander’s authority to engage the SU-24s, given the lack of attack indicators (other than some extraordinarily aggressive flying).  Navy skippers don’t want to start World War III–or lose their careers–because of aggressive maneuvering by Russian ships and planes.

During the Cold War, such behavior was commonplace; Soviet intelligence “trawlers” routinely interfered with U.S. carrier groups, trying to interrupt flight operations.  During one legendary episode off the coast of North Vietnam, a fed-up naval aviator named John Wunche decuded to get even.  Preparing to land in a KA-3 tanker, Commander Wunche got the wave-off from his LSO on the USS Bon Homme Richard and prepared to go around.  Meanwhile, the Russian intel collector–known as an AGI–tried to maneuver in the carrier’s path.

Wunche spotted the intel collector dead ahead and in just a few seconds, became a Navy hero.  He leveled his KA-3 at about a hundred feet and opened all the fuel dumps, spraying the Soviet vessel with a generous coat of jet fuel as he thundered overhead.  Wunche roared away as the intelligence trawler slowed to a dead stop, and the carrier passed astern.  The Russians had to shut down all power systems and break out the fire hoses, to prevent an idle arc from igniting the jet fuel and turning their ship into an inferno.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a carrier–or a pilot like John Wunche–on-scene to assist the Donald Cook earlier this week.  But NATO air assets were in the region, and their apparent inactivity remains one of the mysteries of the “buzzing” episode.  For more than a decade, NATO members have maintained an aerial quick reaction force, to protect the airspace of its Baltic members.  At any given time, small detachments of NATO fighter aircraft and support personnel are stationed at bases in Lithuania and Estonia.

In the past, elements of the so-called “Air Policing Force” have responded to Russian provocations.  Earlier this year, NATO admitted that its fighters reacted when Russian aircraft conducted a mock nuclear strike against Sweden in 2013, and Stockholm’s air force was caught unprepared.  The air police detachment is controlled through the NATO Combined Air Operations Center at Ramstein AB, Germany.  CAOC personnel have access to a melded, all-source surveillance picture, utilizing air, land, naval and even space centers.  It’s a given that the radar picture from the Cook was a part of the display, so NATO knew what the Russians were up to, and tracked them long before they passed near the U.S. vessel.

So, why were the RAF Typhoons and Portuguese F-16s (currently assigned to the air policing mission) never vectored to assist the ?USS Donald Cook?  Or if they were, why did controllers keep them away from the Fencers that were buzzing the ship?  The SU-24 is not an air-to-air platform; it’s designed to attack targets low and fast and only carries short-range IR missiles for self-defense.  Scrambling the Typhoons and/or the F-16s might have persuaded the Russians to head for home–and demonstrated a bit more resolve from the Atlantic alliance.

But the Russians have learned that NATO doesn’t match aggression with aggression.  So, the Fencers (and other elements of Putin’s air force) will return.  When the first arrow in your quiver is the sharply-worded diplomatic protest, this type of problem tends to persist.