Royal Air Force Tornado F.3 fighters scrambled to intercept two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers that were reportedly headed into British airspace on Tuesday. The Bears, which were also tailed by Norwegian F-16s, turned back.
Some observers believe Tuesday’s near-incursion was Russia’s response to the U.K. booting out four Russian diplomats suspected of involvement in the November murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB spy-turned-political protestor living in London. Moscow insists it’s all a misunderstanding, according to Russian newspaper Kommersant:
“The reports that Russian bombers were heading in the direction of British airspace do not accord with reality. Such flights have been carried out and are carried out according to a plan of preparing crews for long flights,” said Russian air force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky. “We planned flights in international airspace in advance and informed interested countries about them.” The Russian Foreign Ministry was even more blunt in its remarks: “Everyone is free to fly wherever they like, as long as they don’t violate [any laws]. So there isn’t any story here,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Kritsov told Kommersant.
Actually, the story is that the Russian air force managed to put bombers in the air at all. Top Gun-esque encounters (“I was inverted” – see pic at right) like Tuesday’s were commonplace during the Cold War but were pretty rare in the 1990s as Russia and the West enjoyed mostly friendly relations … and as the bloated Russian air force rusted away for a want of fuel, funding and purpose. “The short-term outlook of the Russian air force is not good,” Heikki Nikunen wrote in 2000. “Many necessary projects will have to be either postponed or rejected due to lack of resources. At the same time lack of every day operating resources, especially flight hours, makes it difficult to maintain decent standard of training and makes recruitment and basic training of new personnel difficult.”
There has been something of a turn-around under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hard-line regime, which has enjoyed an influx of oil cash that has fueled 20-percent annual increases in defense spending. Russian fighter pilots now fly as many as 60 hours per year and the air force has begun delivery of its first new fighters in more than a decade. And the past couple years have seen a spike in bomber incursions as Russian crews take to the air again to re-learn forgotten skills.
Alarmists call this a harbinger of a new Cold War. But the alarmists are wrong. Putin has revived some of the old Soviet political organs, but the Soviet military is long gone and won’t be coming back. Even the busiest Russian pilots still fly only a third as many hours as their Western counterparts. And the Russian air force’s much-heralded fighter buys are enough to sustain a long-term air fleet smaller than Great Britain’s. More spending doesn’t represent a return to 1983 — and friskier bombers are no reason to fear a diplomatic show-down. They simply mean that the once-comatose Russian military is responsive again. Not thriving. Just surviving.
Politics aside, Russian bombers are plain awesome to look at. Watch this video for a parade of Bears, Backfires and Blackjacks:
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