An encounter with an aircraft can generate some tension. The first dilema is to correctly classify the contact, which requires an accurate identification first, to rule out by-passers who just happen to be flying around, and from that point on a number of new hypothetic situations may arise. When we report a civilian airliner, the job doesn´t quite stop there (it´s safety which is always a paramount concern whilst waltzing away along our sector of interest), because measures have to be taken into account in order to guarantee its safe passage. But when our contact has been positively identified as from a country not exactly at the top of the list of friendly nations, then classification can be quite an issue. And in some cases, we must be prepared to be overflown. And that does not mean striking our colors. Quite the opposite.
The balance of power represents a unique paradox. On the one hand, all nations want to avoid falling over the slippery slope of the affairs of other nations. But, on the other hand, by not getting involved the consequences may be disastrous as a situation may develop in which eventually, and much to our dismay, we may have to finally intervene in order to actively aid in its termination or resolution. At the end of the day, it all boils down to one core idea, or center of gravity, if you will: maitaining the status quo.
Something similar happens in our small tactical world of our own. It´s in our own nature as professional armed forces; we tend to avoid escalating situations. It´s not a question of fear of engaging a potential enemy (in fact, we all have a card up our sleeve with a trick to annihilate any unit we bump into), it´s a question of being a good professional and knowing when and how to maintain a situation as it is, but always to our advantage in case all hell should break lose.
It´s a very common situation to run into aircraft which overfly our ships with one intent or another. Naturally an obsolete aircraft overflying a top-of-the-line man´o´war generates all sorts of media headlines, very often with a ridiculous interpretation on their part. On one occasion I was even tempted to ask a journalist what he expected the ship to do, shoot it down?. But of course it was obvious that for him the story ended right there, with no one-minute thought dedicated to the possible, in fact certain, consequences of such an action. I restrained myself from asking him under the certainty that he had no reasonable explanation for such a hypothetical action.
The Black Sea is becoming a playground for overflight situations as we keep reading in the daily press. And if a nation dedicates resources for the overflight of warships, it´s because it acknlowledges their existance, capabilities and resolution. Otherwise, they´d ignore them. A media component is also a factor, as mentioned before; nobody would be surprised if a state of the art aircaft overflies a state of the art man´o´war. But if it´s an obsolte aircraft making the top hat stunt, the ship´s nation media rapidly produces headlines suggesting things like “are we as prepared as we thought?”. Which is good, as this casts attention away from the fact that, to the sailor, this situation is always a great opportunity to study patterns, signatures, and electronic intelligence. And let the press print what they well please.
An overflight is not a problema but, as James Hacker elegantly put, “all but an opportunity”. It not only aids in the study of our adversary, but also represents a good measure of the proficiency and professionalism of a ship and its crew. Their ability to maintain status quo is an excellent indicator that everything is under control and that, should the chips come down, they will be ready to regain the initiative.
Overlfiers, bring them on!