It’s a return the former times as NATO forces detected and intercepted various groups of Russian military aircraft over the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Black Sea on Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 October 2014. The Russian operations represent an unusual level of air activity over European airspace and are described by NATO as ‘significant military manoeuvers’.
In the very early hours of Wednesday 29 October, NATO radars detected and tracked eight Russian aircraft flying in formation over the North Sea in international airspace. Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16 aircraft, presumably from Bodø airbase, scrambled, intercepted and identified the Russian aircraft, which included four Tu-95 Bear H strategic bombers and four Il-78 air-to-air tankers. Two Tu-95 Bear H bombers eventually continued south-west, heading down the Norwegian coast. The Russian aircraft continued over the North Sea, by which time Typhoon fighters from the United Kingdom scrambled in response.
The Bears continued down over the Atlantic Ocean and ended up west of Portugal, where the two Russian aircraft were intercepted and identified by Força Aérea Portuguesa F-16s from Monte Real airbase. The Russian aircraft then finally turned back heading north-east, flying to the west of the United Kingdom and back towards Russia.
Also on Wednesday 29 October, NATO radars spotted four Russian 2 Tu-95 Bear-H bombers and 2 Su-27 Flanker fighter jets flying over the Black Sea in international air space. Turkish Air Force fighter aircraft intercepted the Russian aircraft and NATO continued to track them in international airspace.
It doesn’t end there. Russian aircraft – two MiG-31 Foxhounds, two Su-34 Fullbacks, one Su-27 Flanker and two Su-24 Fencers – were seen flying over the Baltic Sea in international airspace, including Portuguese F-16 Fighters assigned to the Baltic Air Policing mission were scrambled in response and the Russian aircraft returned to Russian airspace.
One day earlier, on Tuesday 28 October, another flight of seven Russian combat aircraft was detected while flying in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. These also included Foxhounds, Fullbacks , Flankers and Fencers. German Typhoon fighter jets from NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission intercepted these flights, while Denmark and non-NATO members Sweden and Finland also sent up fighter aicraft.
According to NATO, the Russians did not file flight plans or maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic control authorities. They were also not using on-board transponders. This could pose a risk to civil aviation as civilian air traffic control cannot detect these aircraft or ensure there is no interference with civilian air traffic.
According to a statement by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) – in which both the US and Canada co-operate – two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters of the 90th Fighter Squadron scrambled quickly on Thursday from their homebase of Elmendorf AFB in Alaska to fend off two Russian Air Force MiG-31 (МиГ-31 / NATO: Foxhound) long-range interceptors, two Tu-142 or Tu-95 (Ту-142 or Ту-142 / Bear) bombers and two IL-78 (Ил-78 / Midas) tankers.
The Russian Air Force package flew right into NORAD’s air defence zone, and made it to about 40 to 55 nautical miles off the coast. Something the Americans consider utterly rude and provocative. Two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-188 Hornets later intercepted two Russian Bears, when the long range bombers cruised over the Beaufort Sea.
Although these incidents by itself happen more often – 50 times over the last five years for NORAD alone – the Russian Air Force and Naval Aviation recently have increased their air defence probing flights near or in the airspace of other nations. The NORAD zone extends to 200 miles of the coast, which is officially international airspace but both Washington as well as Ottawa consider it to be no playground for military aircraft of other nations.
Russian air activity is of growing concern to countries like Finland and Sweden and it has caused NATO to increase its fighter strength on the northeastern and southeastern flanks. For example: earlier only four NATO fighters took care of showing presence in NATO-member states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from one airbase.
But during the course of several months this has now been increased to at lest 18 aircraft on three main operating bases: Šiauliai in Lithuania (currently home to 4 Portuguese Air Force F-16s and 6 RCAF CF-188s), Ämari in Estonia (currently home to 4 German Air Force EF2000s with another 2 in reserve in Germany) and Malbork in Poland (currently home to 5 Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s).
The Russian bear is clearly awoken over the Ukrainian and Crimea (Krim) situation. While it is unclear what the Ukrainian air forces are capable of and what their exact readiness situation is (see our article here), it is perhaps even more unclear what exactly the Russian bear is hiding in its den. One thing is sure: Russian military aviation is a formidable force that dwarfs Ukrainian capabilities.
According to Monday’s reports, Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers were intercepted Sunday night by Ukrainian Flankers, without shots being fired. The Flanker is now probably the most numerous fighter aircraft in the theatre, with Russian numbers far exceeding those of Ukraine. The Russian Air Force has dozens and dozens of these formidable aircraft at its disposal, although many are slightly outdated by today’s standards.
As recent as December 2013, it was reported that a Russian Air Force fighter unit flying Flankers was moving to Baranavichy airbase in Belarus, a short 150 km (80 nm) flight from the Ukrainian northern – and Polish/NATOs eastern – border.
Next to Flankers, the Russian Air Force is equipped with large numbers of MiG-29 Fulcrum-C and MiG-29SMT aircraft. The Russian Navy also flies MiG-29K Fulcrums and Su-33 Flankers, albeit in smaller numbers. These naval aircraft are meant to fly from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, but can easily be deployed from land bases like Belbek Airbase, that Russian ground forces took at the beginning of March during the first days of the Crimean conflict.
Su-35 ‘Super Flanker’
The newest Flanker version is the thrust vectoring and highly capable Su-35S Flanker-E, of which Vladimir Putins’ Russia ordered 48 in 2009. Deliveries run until next year. All of these ‘Super Flankers’ are based at Dzemgi airbase in the Khabarovsk region near China. But with the large ‘planned’ exercise – involving 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, over 120 helicopters, 880 tanks and up to 80 ships – happening close to Ukraine, the Russian could be tempted to deploy some of the top dog Flankers closer to any possible action. The exercise ended on 4 March, with Putin ordering troops back to their barracks, according to Russian press agency Interfax.
A Flanker-derivative is the Su-34 Fullback, a medium range bomber designed to replace the obsolete Su-24 Fencer. Of these heavily weaponised Fullbacks, 32 were delivered by December 2013. According to Sukhoi sources the production facilities already started constructing another load of 92 aircraft. The Su-34 can carry up to eight tons of weaponry and deliver the payload to a target up to 680 miles (1,100 km) after lift-off without aerial refueling.
An older, but very capable ground attack aircraft is the Su-25 Frogfoot, used quite extensively in the 1994 Chechnya war and the 2008 South Ossetian war. Say the Russian equivalent of the US tank killing A-10 Warthog.
Russia’s long range bombers are the Tu-22M Backfire, Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-95MS Bear, with supposedly 16 of the former and 62 of the latter available. The Tu-160 Blackjacks are able to utilize the Raduga Kh-101 cruise missile, capable of delivering a payload of up to 880 pounds (400 kg) at a distance of 6,000 miles (9,600 km) after being launched from the belly of the Blackjack. So they never even have to come close to the best of Ukrainian air defence: the S-300 SAM systems with a max range of 200 km. All of Putins bombers have been flying long-range training missions over the last couple of years.
In a league of their own are the 122 MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors that Russia is said to have. The type was introduced in 1981. Sixty Foxhounds will be upgraded to MiG-31BM standard, with final delivery expected in 2020. The Foxhound will then soldier on until at least until 2028, possibly 2038. Although probably not the first choice of the Russian Air Force brass when things get out of hand, sending in a few Foxhounds to sweep clean the Ukrainian airspace must not been ruled out.
Russia’s most menacing attack helicopters are the Kamov Ka-50 Black Shark (NATO-name Hokum), Ka-52 Alligator, Mi-28NE Night Hunter and the Mil Mi-35M Hind, a renewed version of the famous Mi-24 Hind. Forces in the Russian Western District are known to have been equipped with the types. Numbers of Hinds and Mi-8 or Mi-17 Hips were allegedly seen over the Crimea the last few days, heading for Russian controlled or soon to be controlled locations.
Transports Reporters, Ukrainian military, locals and even the Russian Ministry of Defence have together reported tens of Ilyushin IL-76 Candid strategic airlifters heading or landing at Anapa (Krasnodor), Kershones Airbase in Sevastopol and Gvardeyskaya Airbase near Simferopol. Although public satellite images show a lot of these aircraft have been sitting around for years, doing nothing, they are still the backbone of the Russian transport fleet. The tanker version of the IL-76 is the IL-78 Midas, while the AWACS version is the A-50 Mainstay, of which Russia is supposed to have 26 in service.
Sporting its coloured star as always, the red bear is rising again. No matter what the operational status of the entire Russian armed forces is, the Air Force has no shortage of military aircraft. If war is the outcome, the Ukrainian opposition will clearly be the underdog.