NATO cites 'unusual' Russian air activity as intercepts rise
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 30, 2014
STUTTGART, Germany — Russian jets are conducting a growing number of patrols near NATO territory, prompting a spike in the intercepts carried out by alliance aircraft this year and raising concerns about air traffic safety, alliance officials said.
Since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, Russian aircraft have increased their activity near Russia’s borders with NATO, according to the 28-nation alliance. And in the past two days, Russian aircraft formations have grown in size, prompting NATO to scramble multiple fighters in response.
“These sizable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace,” Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, a spokesman with Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium, said in a statement.
So far this year, NATO has conducted more than 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft, which is three times more than were conducted in all of 2013, according to NATO. In response to Russia’s increased activity in the region, NATO has beefed up its air policing mission in the Baltics from four to 16 jets.
Scrambles and intercepts are standard air policing procedure when an unknown aircraft nears NATO airspace. However, NATO officials say flights over international airspace also pose a potential risk to civil aviation since the Russian military often do not file flight plans and fly with their on-board transponders turned off, making them invisible to civilian air traffic control.
On Wednesday, NATO radars detected and tracked eight Russian aircraft flying in formation over the North Sea. In response, F-16 aircraft from the Royal Norwegian Air Force were scrambled to shadow the formation that included four Tu-95 Bear H strategic bombers and four Il-78 tanker aircraft.
Six of the Russian aircraft then turned back to the northeast toward Russia, while two of the bombers continued southwest, parallel to the Norwegian coast, NATO said in a statement.
That set off a series of NATO intercepts from multiple countries as alliance fighters monitored the two Russian aircraft, which traveled over the North Sea and over the Atlantic Ocean west of Portugal before turning north for the west coast of the United Kingdom. By late Wednesday, the Russian aircraft appeared to be headed back to Russia, NATO said. F-16s from the Portuguese air force and British Typhoons were scrambled while military radar tacked the movements of the Russians.
“The bomber and tanker aircraft from Russia did not file flight plans or maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic control authorities, and they were not using on-board transponders,” NATO stated.
Also on Wednesday, NATO radars detected and tracked four Russian aircraft — two Tu-95s and two Su-27 Flanker fighter jets — flying over the Black Sea in international airspace. Turkish air force fighter jets intercepted the planes, NATO said.
The Russian air force routinely uses its Tu-95s, powered by massive counter-rotating turboprops, for long-range maritime reconnaissance and search-and-rescue patrols. Like the B-52 Stratofortress, its U.S. counterpart from the 1950s, the Bear has been continuously modernized and upgraded and is expected to remain in service for another two decades.
Meanwhile, German Typhoon aircraft on Tuesday intercepted seven Russian fighters flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. In this case, Russian aircraft had filed a flight plan and were using transponders, but did not maintain contact with civilian air control as is standard protocol, NATO reported.
A German air force spokesman said allies have grown accustomed to scrambling jets in response to Russian activity, but said what is unusual in recent instances is the size and scope of the Russian formations.
“The special character of this situation was that we not just had to deal with one, but with seven, planes,” the German spokesman said.
Russia maintains a major air force base in Kaliningrad, home to Russia’s Baltic fleet, and training flights are routine in the region. NATO officials have stated they don’t oppose Russian maneuvers in international airspace, but that they should follow flight protocols, such as filing flight plans and making their movements visible to civil air traffic control.
Marcus Klöckner contributed to this story.