What Are Russian Bombers doing in European and North American Airspace?

A Tu-142 and a MiG-31, were photographed outside Norwegian air space on Saturday, March 7th. Photo: Norwegian Air Force

The Soviet-era Tu-95, Tu-142 and Tu-160 were never been maintained well enough to fly long distance and return to base safely. One major problem NATO and NORAD may face that these aircraft malfunction over European and North American airspace, then the aircraft has to emergency land or break into pieces over European or North American airspace killing scores of civilian population.

Both NATO and NORAD have scrambled fighter aircraft in response to a spike in long-range Russian air activity over the North Atlantic and near Alaska over recent days.

Growing Intrusions By Russian Bombers

The two organisations have reported at least four incidents between them from 7 to 11 March, all of which involved Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) Tupolev Tu-142 ‘Bear’ long-range maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Tupolev Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ bombers and escorting fighters and tankers flying in international airspace but close to areas of interest of member nations. The Tu-95 aircraft escorted by MiG-31 entered into Irish airspace, British and Spanish Typhoons escorted the Tu-95 out of Irish and European airspace.

The most recent event took place on 12 March, and saw the NATO Combined Air Operations Centres (CAOCs) in Uedem in northern Germany and at Torrejon in Spain direct Royal Norwegian Air Force (RoNAF) Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons, UK Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons, and French Air Force Dassault Rafales to intercept and shadow a pair of Tu-160 bombers and accompanying Ilyushin Il-78 ‘Midas’ tankers that flew through the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap down to the sea off the west coast of Ireland, before returning to Russia.

The day before, on 11 March, the CAOCs at Uedem and Torrejon directed NATO fighters to shadow a Russian flight of Tu-142s and their MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ fighter and Il-78 tanker escorts over the North and Mid-Atlantic. In this incident, RoNAF F-16s, RAF Typhoons, French Air Force Rafales, and Spanish Air Force Boeing F/A-18 Hornets were all involved.

Two days before this incident, on 9 March, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) directed US Air Force (USAF) Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Boeing CF-18 Hornet fighters to intercept and shadow another flight of two Russian Tu-142s and their escorts off the coast of Alaska.

The entry into Irish-controlled airspace by Russian air force Tupolev TU-95 “Bear” strategic bomber aircraft last week was unsurprising. We have been here many times before. In 2017 the Royal Air Force scrambled Typhoon combat aircraft from its Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) stations to respond to another sortie by Russian strategic bomber aircraft that skirted close to Irish sovereign airspace, which extends to 12 nautical miles off the Irish coast.

Over the last decade Russian bombers have flown a series of provocative missions close to Ireland’s northern and western seaboard – on occasion skirting or even entering Irish airspace. An obvious question arises: why would Russia seek to provoke a neutral country like Ireland?

The principal reason is that, from a Russian perspective, Ireland is a significant piece on the geopolitical chessboard.

Ireland lacks the air defence capabilities to deter or defend against such provocative sorties into its airspace. The Russian air force knows that it can approach or even enter Irish airspace with far less immediate and serious consequences than if it did the same to other north Atlantic countries such as Iceland where there is a Nato air policing mission – or Norway, which has a well-resourced air force capable of quickly intercepting suspected incursions.

The Russian aircraft were identified as Tupolev TU-95 ‘Bear’ bombers, which are also deployed as long-range maritime patrol planes. Photograph: British Ministry of Defence

A small nation like Ireland without a credible Air Force means that the Russian Air Force can test RAF response time and the extent of British-Irish air defence co-operation – useful intelligence for the Russian military. The Russians also hope to stretch RAF resources.

The UK has participated in Nato’s Icelandic air-policing mission and is also an important contributor to the Baltic mission over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It has no QRA stations in Northern Ireland; the RAF deploys Voyager air-to-air refuelling aircraft from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England to ensure that its Typhoon aircraft can monitor Russian long-range sorties off the west coast of Ireland.

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Aviation Hazard

The Government must now consider what response, if any, it will offer to this latest provocation. Russian incursions may not only be wounding to Irish sovereignty. They also carry a potential risk to life. Russian military intelligence aircraft frequently turn off their transponders in an attempt avoid detection, a tactic which could have resulted in a collision with a Scandinavian Airlines civilian aircraft in 2016.

The Soviet-era Tu-95, Tu-142 and Tu-160 were never been maintained well enough to fly long distance and return to base safely. One major problem NATO and NORAD may face that these aircraft malfunction over European and North American airspace, then the aircraft has to emergency land or break into pieces over European or North American airspace killing scores of civilian population.

Even without transponders, Russian air incursions are arguably more detectable than other Russian intelligence activities. The Royal Navy has reportedly monitored Russian submarine activity, including the nuclear-powered Akula-class submarine, in the Irish Sea, which has added to growing concerns about how to protect UK and Irish critical national infrastructure including transatlantic fibre-optic cables that lie in Irish coastal waters. The ability of the Irish Naval Service to deter and detect maritime intelligence gathering is extremely limited.

The ability of the Irish Naval Service to deter and detect maritime intelligence gathering is extremely limited.

Possible Cyber Attacks on EU

Russian interest in Ireland also extends to beyond the more traditional military theatres of sea and airpower. The rapid growth of the Russian embassy in Dublin suggests that Ireland is now seen as a growing priority for Moscow – in itself unsurprising given Ireland’s emergence as a global communications and technology hub. Meanwhile, the lack of cyber “top cover” in the form of an Irish signals intelligence service means that Irish businesses and multinationals are vulnerable to cyberattack from Russia.

Irish Neutrality Challenged

The Irish Government is drafting the State’s first national security strategy. Irish sovereignty or neutrality means little to those who wish to gain an intelligence advantage in this era of hybrid conflict.

In the short term, Ireland will continue to rely upon the RAF to deter and monitor Russian or other aircraft that enter Irish airspace without permission

The new national security strategy must also consider what policing Ireland’s airspace and territorial waters should look like in the future. European air defence is becoming increasingly co-operative – the Nordic countries’ air forces train and deploy together, while the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg jointly patrol the air space of the three countries.

In the short term, Ireland will continue to rely upon the RAF to deter and monitor Russian or other aircraft that enter Irish airspace without permission. There is no treaty that spells out such a formal defence relationship, but an operational reliance on the UK is obvious. In the medium to long term it is difficult to countenance the State developing the expensive air defence and training systems to police Irish airspace alone.

As a long term solutions, small nations like Ireland, Latvia, Estonia, Luxembourg and Lithuania will have no choice but spend billions, sacrify national priority to build up their sovereign air policing and air defense system capability to deter further intrusion by the Russian bombers.

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