Home Air NATO jets scramble to intercept Russian Tu-160 bombers

NATO jets scramble to intercept Russian Tu-160 bombers

IL-72 MIDAS refuelling aircraft
Royal Norwegian Air Force photo of one of the Russian aircraft, an IL-72 MIDAS refueling aircraft.

Fighter aircraft from Belgium, Norway, and the UK scrambled on Friday, November 12 to escort to Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers flying near allied airspace.

The operation follows two consecutive days of Tu-160 flights over Belarus in what was interpreted as Russia’s expression of support to Belarus in its row with the EU and the migrant crisis in Poland.

In the High North, Norwegian F-16s took to the sky after a Norwegian P-3C aircraft identified a group of Russian military aircraft. While most of the group returned to Russia, two Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear-capable bombers continued to fly south over the North Sea.

Royal Air Force Typhoon fighter escorting a Blackjack bomber on November 12. Photo: Royal Air Force

As the Russian bombers travelled further, they were intercepted by UK and Belgian air forces. NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre in Uedem in Germany coordinated the allied intercepts.

The Russian bombers did not contact air traffic control, provide flight plans or transmit transponder codes, posing a potential risk to civilian flights. At no time did the Russian bombers enter allied airspace. All interactions were safe and professional.

“We are always vigilant,” NATO deputy spokesman Piers Cazalet said. “NATO fighter jets are always on duty, ready to scramble 24/7 in case of suspicious or unannounced flights near the airspace of our Allies. Today’s intercepts show the speed at which NATO can react in the air to any eventuality.”

Seemingly coinciding with the Russian bomber sortie is the approach of a Russian Navy Northern Fleet task group to the Strait of Gibraltar. The group of ships is composed of Udaloy-class destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov, oiler Akademik Pashin, and a rescue tug. At the same time, the Royal Navy canceled an open day event for its Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon in Gibraltar that had been scheduled for Saturday, citing operational reasons. While it wasn’t specified, open source intelligence analysts have pointed to the possibility of the destroyer getting underway to meet the Russian task group at sea.