DRAMATIC footage is being released of the moment a Portsmouth warship was swarmed by 17 Russian jets as she led a Nato fleet through the Black Sea.
The action took place earlier this year as HMS Duncan sailed 30 miles off the coast of Crimea – the closest any British Royal Navy warship has come since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.
The worrying display of airborne aggression, captured on camera by a Channel 5 documentary crew embarked on Duncan, has been branded ‘unprecedented’ by naval top brass.
At points the warplanes hurtled just a few hundred feet away from the £1bn destroyer, while brazenly ignoring repeated warnings from the ship.
The Russian pilots were flying so dangerously close to Duncan’s high-powered radar system that their jets’ electronics could have been scrambled, causing the planes to crash – and potentially sparking a major international incident.
READ MORE: All you need to know about HMS Duncan
It was the culmination in a build up of intimidation tactics in the Black Sea, which saw Duncan being shadowed by multiple Russian warships - including a specialist spy ship designed to hoover up key intelligence about Nato vessels.
Commodore Mike Utley, who was leading the Nato task force from Duncan, said: ‘HMS Duncan is probably the only maritime asset that has seen a raid of that magnitude in the last 25 years.’
The commodore felt Moscow’s bully-boy tactics were a blatant attempt to try and deter the fleet from coming any closer to Crimea.
He added: ‘I think their tactics are naive. What they don’t know is how capable the ship is.
‘When you see that much activity, I think it reinforces the nature of what people expect at the moment and why there is a challenge from Russia.’
The footage is due to form part of a four-part documentary, Warship: Life at Sea – the first episode of which begins on Channel 5 tonight.
It follows the Type 45 destroyer and the 280 men and women on board as they take part in one of their most challenging deployments to date.
The raid took place on day 37 of Duncan’s deployment. Jets circled the ship before eventually turning back to Russian airspace without a shot fire.
But as the last of the Russian planes left, one of the pilots sent an ominous farewell message to Duncan’s crew, saying: ‘Good luck, guys.’
One of Duncan’s sailors felt the message could have been a warning to the ship if they ever went toe-to-toe with the Russians, while another said: ‘They had 17 aircraft, we have 48 missiles – I think we’re going to win that one.’
Earlier, Duncan had been forced to launch its Merlin Mk2 helicopter to hunt down a Russian spy ship spotted on radar.
Lieutenant Commander James Smith was charged with finding the Moma-class ship.
Speaking of Duncan’s actions in the Black Sea, he said: ‘They may consider it to be escalatory, we certainly don’t. But it depends on how you spin the narrative. The one thing the Russians are very good at is spinning a narrative.
‘We have to demonstrate and create our own as well. They can scream and shout all they want but we still have the right, as do all these units, to be where we are operating how we are.’
Commander Eleanor Stack, Duncan’s captain, was full of praise for her crew’s ability to keep a cool head during their time in the Black Sea.
The 40-year-old said: ‘To me it felt unprecedented. There were more aircraft than we have seen in a long time.’
As well as following Duncan’s time in the Black Sea, the documentary also reveals what life was like when the ship took to the frontline in a major Nato-led bombing campaign in Syria.
The assault was launched following a deadly chemical attack by the Syrian government, which killed 75 people – including children.
Duncan was tasked with protecting the strike force from both Russian and Syrian attack.
Warship: Life at Sea begins tonight at 9pm.