BUNGLING Russian pilots put the world one step away from war after firing two missiles at a UK spy plane, former British commanders warned today.
During the 90-minute interaction, one of the jets fired two missiles near the RAF plane after he thought he had permission.
According to a Western source, the pilot misinterpreted the words “you have the target” as permission to fire.
Sources said the first missile launched successfully but failed to lock on to the target – suggesting it was a failed intentional shootdown rather than a “malfunction” as Russia has claimed.
General Sir Richard Barrons, former chief of the UK Joint Forces command, warned a “badly-controlled escalation” has the potential to spark a war.
And Colonel de Bretton-Gordon, a former tank commander and chemical weapons expert, said the near-miss shows how the world is just one step away from a “huge conflict”.
He told The Sun: “Had the Russians shot down this British jet, that would have been an Article 5 incident – Russia attacking Nato.
“That could have brought Nato into the war, which would in effect would turn into a war.
Most read in The Sun
“It shows we are one misjudgement or mistake away from a huge conflict, which is why we must make sure Ukraine wins this – so Nato doesn’t have to get involved.”
Colonel de Bretton-Gordon said it was “unbelievable” that the Russian pilots managed to miss a spy plane the size of a Boeing Dreamliner.
“This just shows unbelievable reckless incompetence,” he said.
“This Rivet Joint is a big jet – the size of a Dreamliner. It’s a big plane. If you can’t hit that, it’s unbelievable that they missed.
“We know one of the missiles malfunctioned and we know the poor state of the Russian equipment – so it’s not surprising.
“Both sides have kept it quiet for very good reasons. But it underlines how incredibly s*** the Russian forces are.
“We know half the troops in the trenches are full of vodka and drugs. It might be the same for the pilots too.
“The sooner this rag-tag army is kicked back into Russia, the better.”
General Barrons said the near-miss showed a “very disturbing lack of professionalism”.
He also warned that “tensions are really high” – and an incident such as this can quickly spiral into a major conflict.
“What’s happened here that there has been a conversation between the Russian jets and Russian controllers on the ground and it portrayed a very disturbing lack of professionalism and training,” he told The Sun.
“The message given was ambiguous. That should never happen.
“The pilot seemed to think it was appropriate to try and shoot down an unarmed British aircraft.
“At the heart of this is too much aggression and lack of training.
“If this had happened, it couldn’t have been portrayed as an accident.
“How do you then control the escalation? This is the great peril of our times.
“We are living at a time of great tension between Russia and the West.
“And one of the risks lies in badly-controlled escalation because something like this happens.
“Wars often start for really bad reasons and spiral out of control.”
Then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Britain suspended patrols following the incident which he described as a “potentially dangerous engagement”.
The UK had accepted Russia’s explanation.
Speaking to the BBC, Western sources said the vague language used by Russian ground forces shows a high degree of unprofessionalism.
They compared it with Nato pilots who use very precise language when giving orders.
A secret intelligence leak revealed that the US military described the incident as “a near shoot-down”.
“The incident was far more serious than originally portrayed and could have amounted to an act of war,” the New York Times reported.
The Ministry of Defence said it will not release details of the intercepted communications from the Russian pilots.
In response to the revelations, an MoD spokesperson said: “Our intent has always been to protect the safety of our operations, avoid unnecessary escalation and inform the public and international community.”
The near-miss comes just months after Russia took out a US drone over the Black Sea near Russian occupied Crimea.
A Russian Su-27 jet struck the propeller of the MQ-9 Reaper drone – causing it to crash into the sea.
The incident marked the first time since the height of the Cold War that a US aircraft was brought down by the Russians.
The US military warned it was one of several recent “aggressive” and “dangerous” actions by Russia that risk “escalation” into war.