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Russian incursions

April 4, 2010

An increase in incidents where Russian warplanes have infiltrated the sovereign airspace of EU and NATO countries is causing concern among European defense chiefs. Experts believe the Russian bear is flexing its muscles.

A Tupolev-160 warplane during combat training flight near the Engels air force base in the Saratov region, about 700 km (450 miles) southeast of Moscow
Russia has been testing the West with Tu-160 bombersImage: AP

In the most recent reported incident, two Tu160 Blackjack bombers, capable of travelling at 2,220 kmph (1,379 mph) and carrying up to almost 40,000 kg (88,000 lb) of ordnance including either cruise or short-range nuclear missiles, infiltrated British airspace over Northern Scotland on March 10.

In this case, the Tu160s were intercepted by two RAF Tornado F3 fighters and, after a four hour stand-off, the Russian long-range bombers eventually left the borders of UK airspace and the RAF planes returned to base.

The incident over Stornaway was far from an isolated case. Defense analysts have been recording a steady increase in airspace violations by Russian military aircraft over the past five years after such incidents dropped off considerably at the end of the Cold War. The RAF admitted afterwards that air crews had been successfully scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft on more than 20 occasions since the start of 2009.

Analysts say that the incursions - increases in which have been recorded over Scandinavia, Northern Britain and in most European countries along the Russian border - have become more aggressive and brazen in recent months and represent a definite change in Russian military behaviour patterns, a sign that the Kremlin is embracing a growing tendency to flex its military muscles in the post-Cold War era.

It is believed that these incursions are part of a new strategy intended to test Western response times to increasingly aggressive incursions. Each time intercept aircraft are scrambled, the Russia pilots obtain valuable information on reaction times which are then complied for analysis by military planners and warplane designers. The concern is that, should Russia ever want to invade airspace for hostile reasons, its pilots will know exactly how European air forces operate.

Powerful Putin behind increase in aggressive incursions

Wearing a flying gear Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin holds his souvenir, a mock-up of a supersonic Tu-160 strategic bomber
It is believed that Putin ordered the return to the skiesImage: AP

A British Ministry of Defence official, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph newspaper, said that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was suspected of being responsible for ordering the show of strength, a point of view Margaret Klein, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, agrees with.

"Prior to 2007, there were no regular patrol flights by Russia's strategic bombers," Klein told Deutsche Welle. "They were mostly grounded and only took part in military exercises. On Putin's order, regular patrol flights of Russia's Tu-160 und Tu-95 were resumed in August 2007. Since then, Russian strategic bombers have increased their patrols over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans and are sometimes intercepted by British, American or Canadian aircraft. Russian authorities, however, have denied accusations that Russian airplanes have violated the airspace of European, NATO or North American countries."

Margaret Light, a Russia expert at the Department of International Relations & Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, agrees that Russia is showing the West that it should still be taken seriously as a military power.

"Part of the increased activity can simply be explained by the fact that Russian pilots, who had no real flying practice throughout the 90s, are now actively flying," she told Deutsche Welle. "As for the infiltration, it is one of the myriad ways the Russians try to prove that Russia is a great power that should be treated with the respect due to its great power."

Bomber patrols hint at new Russian strategic focus

Klein believes that sporadic violations of European airspace by Russian helicopters or transport aircrafts may be just a mistake but she suggests that cases of strategic bombers flying near European and NATO borders or even intruding them is another situation entirely.

Russia's strategic bomber Tu-160
Blackjacks could be asserting Russian power in the ArcticImage: AP

"The intention of this seems to be to send a message to Western countries: that Russia is back as a great military power, capable of global power projection," Klein said. "The patrol flights serve mostly as a symbol to demonstrate the resurgence of Russia as a military power."

"Moreover, there may be a second intent in the patrol flights of strategic bombers as many of them seem to be conducted in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. This could be to underpin Russia's claims in the Arctic region, which is rich in natural resources, and to make clear to the other states bordering the Arctic that Russia is capable of defending its claims."

Russia will be in a better position to do this in the coming years as the Kremlin continues to pursue a programme of upgrading its air fleet.

Kremlin pursuing air force upgrade

In March, Putin urged his country's military industry to start working on a new strategic bomber after finishing work on the Sukhoi T-50, its new fifth-generation fighter jet.

A Russian-made Sukhoi T-50 prototype fifth-generation fighter jet
Moscow wants to follow up the T-50 with a new bomberImage: AP

"We should not confine ourselves to developing just one new model," Putin said in a statement that underlined Moscow's eagerness to update Russia's offensive capabilities. "After the fifth-generation fighter jet, we must think and get down to work on a next-generation, long-range aircraft, our new strategic missile carrier."

It is thought that the compiling of reaction time information by Russian bombers may have something to do with the design and production of this new aircraft.

The new strategic bomber would join the T-50 fighter - a jet intended to compete with NATO's first generation 5 fighter planes, the US F-22 Raptor and the not-yet-in-service F-35 Lightning II - in a new look air force.

The new bomber would replace the current fleet of Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers, both built during Soviet times, and is seen by experts as the next step in a major overhaul of the Russian air fleet.

Russia needs new equipment - and to meet NATO challenge

Moscow plans to commission 1,500 new planes and helicopters to modernize the air force by 80 percent, the Kremlin said in a statement in March.

An F-22 Raptor taxies down on runway after landing at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa
Russia wants to counter the threat of NATO's F-22 RaptorImage: AP

Light believes that Russia's push for new technology and a new fleet of military aircraft has, at least in part, to do with the growing influence of NATO and the bloc's more advanced technology.

"On the one hand, Russia's plans to revamp simply reflect the fact that throughout the economic chaos of the 90s, Russia's military forces were neglected," she said. "The result is that they badly need updating and modernizing. As for the planned expansion, it reflects the extent to which Russia finds the eastward expansion of NATO threatening. But this is a message that Russians frequently convey verbally, so it isn't anything new to the West."

Light agrees with those who say that Russia is also reacting to NATO's push for more sophisticated hardware but believes Moscow's need for modern equipment is the driving force.

"Russia certainly does feel threatened by the huge advantage - in sophistication and in numbers - that NATO and the US has in conventional arms. But as I said before, there are also serious endogenous reasons for the upgrading."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Michael Knigge