July 20, 2007 (by Lieven Dewitte) - Norway scrambled two of its F-16 fighter jets over the North Sea on Tuesday after Russian Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" bombers got a little too close to their coast for comfort.
RNoAF F-16A block 10 #290 from 332 skv is intercepting a Russian Tu-22M2 'Backfire-B' in the early eighties. The aircraft crashed on September 15th, 1987. [Photo by Espenjoh]
It wasn't clear whether the Russian flights were related to escalating diplomatic crisis between Russia and Great Britain, which also sent out jets of its own.
Hours after the Tu-95MS bombers turned back, two Russian Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers were observed flying westwards, west of the Barents Sea, early this morning, again prompting the Norwegian military to dispatch F-16s. Those flights where in the region between Stavanger and Aberdeen, the heart of the British and Norwegian oil industry.
Although it has been since the end of the Cold War since there were such numerous sightings of Russian aircraft this far south, they didn't do anything wrong. Both times the Russian bombers stayed within international airspace the entire time. It would be pure speculation to guess why they did what they did.
Military officials downplayed the incident, calling the dispatch of Norwegian jets "routine" and the long flights a "natural part of Russian training".
Helge Blakkisrud, a Russian expert from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), also played down theories the Russians are stoking tensions which have been running high with the British since Russia refused to extradite a key suspect in the poisoning of a Russian dissident living in London. The two countries have since resorted to expelling diplomats.
"It can be a signal that the Russians are rebuilding military might, but I don't think that's linked to the latest crisis," Blakkisrud said in an interview with Aftenposten.no. "As far as I've understood, this was part of a large training mission that's politically approved far in advance."
The British defense ministry confirmed that two of its Tornado jets were also dispatched because Russian bombers were in the area.
From Russian side, a military spokesman today accused British and Norwegian fighters of trying to intercept Russian bombers which were flying over neutral waters near European countries' coastlines.
"The crews of the Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers on planned flights over the neutral water area of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans reported that they witnessed Tornado and F-16 interceptors of the British and Norwegian air forces approaching them," Interfax news agency quoted Alexander Drobyshevsky as saying.
"British and Norwegian interceptors approached our strategic bombers four times," the Air Force spokesman said, noting those Russian planes will fly over the neutral water near the coastlines of Britain, Norway
Two Tu-95MS strategic bombers and two Tu-160 armed with missiles, as well as two Il-78 refueling aircraft were on the flight, which took off on Friday, he said.