A Russian pilot tried to shoot down an RAF surveillance plane over the Black Sea because he mistakenly thought he had permission, it has emerged.
The pilot of the SU-27 fighter jet fired two missiles at the RAF aircraft on September 29 last year, with Russia claiming the missile had malfunctioned.
But, after speaking with Russian defence officials, Mr Wallace accepted their explanation and drew a line under the incident.
Now, three senior Western defence sources have told the BBC that one of the Russian pilots thought he had been given permission to target the British aircraft.
The pilot of the SU-27 fighter jetfired two missiles at the British military plane, with the first missing the target rather than malfunctioning as was claimed by Russia at the time
An RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint spy plane had been flying over international waters near Crimea at the time of the incident in September
Communications that were intercepted by the RAF plane show the Russian pilot received an ambiguous command that was along the lines of ‘you have the target’, one source said.
While the first pilot took this as an order to fire at the RAF reconnaissance plane, the second pilot thought the opposite and swore at his comrade when he fired his first air-to-air missile.
The missile had been successfully launched but failed to lock onto the plane, the sources said, meaning that it was a near-miss rather than a ‘technical malfunction’ as Russia had claimed.
The first pilot then released another missile which fell from the wing, suggesting that the weapon either malfunctioned or the launch was aborted, sources said.
The ambiguous command given by the Russian ground station showed a high degree of professionalism from Vladimir Putin’s men, the sources added.
Meanwhile pilots and staff working for Nato use incredibly precise language when giving and receiving orders – meaning that it would never be open to interpretation.
Had the Russian missile blown Rivet Joint out of the sky, the UK and its Nato allies may have been forced to declare war.
Member nations agree that an armed attack against one or more of them ‘shall be considered an attack against them all’, according to Article 5 of Nato’s founding treaty,
If such an attack does occur, each Nato member will assist the country that has been attacked with any action ‘it deems necessary’.
The RAF regularly flies sorties over the Black Sea’s international waters, as well the Baltics and eastern Poland, to gather intelligence.
The role of the Rivet Joint aircraft is to hoover up electronic transmissions and communications – the plane is also known as a ‘nuke-sniffer’ for its ability to detect radioactivity.
The Ministry of Defence said it will not release details of the intercepted communications.
An MoD spokesman said: ‘Our intent has always been to protect the safety of our operations, avoid unnecessary escalation and inform the public and international community.’
Video footage shows the Russian fighter jet approaching the American drone from behind in March and beginning to release fuel as it passes, the Pentagon said
After the clash, the onboard camera shows a broken propeller (L) and a comparative operational propeller (R) turning. Russia previously said it did not make contact with the drone
British and US aircraft continued to conduct these reconnaissance flights after the hair-raising incident in September but RAF surveillance aircraft are now escorted by Typhoon fighters while the US resorts to the use of unmanned surveillance drones.
Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in March that it is important to keep the Black Sea and the skies over it open to all nations.
‘The Black Sea is a critical international seaway supporting many of our Nato allies, including Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, and does not belong to any one country,’ he said.
Ryder’s comments came after another aerial incident in which Russian jets dumped fuel on and ultimately crashed into a US surveillance drone in March.
Drone footage showed the shocking moment Moscow’s Su-27 jet approached the US MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from behind and clipped its propeller over international airspace on March 14.
US forces had to bring down the $32million surveillance drone in international waters after the encounter, sparking a race between Moscow and Washington to recover it.
Russian ships were spotted at the crash site on March 15 trying to find the debris, though the Pentagon insisted the parts could not be retrieved and any intelligence had been wiped.
Moscow insisted its jet did not make contact with the drone, and instead blamed ‘sharp maneuvering’ for the crash.
But experts say it was likely an accidental clash as Russian pilots adopted increasingly aggressive tactics to force the drone to change course.