NATO fighters scrambled to intercept Russian jets during ‘professional’ encounter
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 16, 2019
NATO jets were scrambled twice in two days to intercept Russian aircraft flying along the Baltic coastline toward Moscow’s military hub in Kaliningrad, the British Defense Ministry said Thursday.
The quick reaction intercepts were the first for the British detachment that took over the NATO mission in Estonia last month.
“RAF Typhoons are policing Baltic skies and providing a rapid response to any approaches towards NATO airspace,” said Mark Lancaster, minister for British armed forces.
On Tuesday, British Eurofighter Typhoon jets took off from Estonia’s Amari Air Base in response to two Russian Sukhoi SU-27 Flanker fighters and one IL-22 aircraft bound for Kaliningrad. The next day, the Typhoons mobilized to escort the same formation, which was on its way back to Russia. The Ilyushin IL-22 is a four-turboprop electronic warfare plane.
During the past five years, intercepts have become more frequent around the Baltics. Allies have complained that Russian military planes flying near NATO territory often do so with their transponders turned off — a safety concern since the planes can’t be identified by traffic control.
However, intercepts are generally routine aviation encounters and those this week in the Baltics were no different, according to one of the pilots involved.
“The Russian pilots and crews behaved in a professional and calm manner with nothing untoward,” said U.K. Wing Commander Paul ‘Pablo’ O’Grady, who carried out Tuesday’s intercept.
For years, NATO warplanes have patrolled the skies around the three small Baltic states as part of an air policing mission. The mission, launched in 2004 because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania don’t have jets of their own, rotates among other alliance’s member states.
While the U.K. is currently leading the effort in Estonia, a flight of Hungarian air force JAS-39 Saab Grippen fighters is operating out of Lithuania. During the intercept on Tuesday, Hungarian fighters assisted in escorting the Russian formation as it headed to Kaliningrad.