RAF Typhoon jets were sent up to escort two Russian aircraft spotted off the south-west coast of Britain on February 19. The incident is the latest in what have been almost monthly intercepts near what the UK likes to call the "UK area of interest" over several years.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: "RAF quick reaction alert Typhoon fighter aircraft were launched yesterday after Russian aircraft were identified flying close to UK air space. The Russian planes were escorted by the RAF until they were out of the UK area of interest. At no time did the Russian military aircraft cross into UK sovereign air space."
The news was quickly jumped on the British media which responded with headlines like: "RAF scrambles jets after Russian bombers spotted near Cornwall coast" (Guardian) and "Cornwall: Live updates after RAF jets warn away 2 Russian bombers off Cornish coast" (Mirror).
However, these high-level meetings are nothing but a regular series of exercises by the Russian air force, whose British counterparts treat as ‘wing-waving' since they have been happening for decades. There are many stories of previous ‘intercepts' during which the pilots smiled, waved and gave each other the thumbs-up sign.
Alleged Disruption to British Aviation
The UK Ministry of Defence said fighter jets were scrambled 17 times in 2013, 21 times in 2012 and 20 times in 2011. Very few of these were for civilian aircraft. It said in 2014 it scrambled eight times to escort Russian military aircraft, which many believe are sent to test western response times. In 2013, the number of scrambles was also eight.
In January 2015, The Russian ambassador to the UK was summoned to the British Foreign Office over the alleged disruption to UK civil aviation by another Russian Air Force flight. The British Foreign Office said on that occasion, that the Russian aircraft had not entered sovereign British airspace and had been escorted by RAF Typhoons throughout the time they were in the "UK area of interest". The Foreign Office told Sputnik at the time:
"While the Russian planes did not enter sovereign UK airspace and were escorted by RAF Typhoons throughout the time they were in the UK area of interest, the Russian planes caused disruption to civil aviation."
"The Russian aircraft manoeuvres yesterday are part of increasing pattern of out of area operations by Russian aircraft," the UK Foreign Office said.
High-Level Porn and Pictures
However, these mid-air intercepts date back to the Cold War when Russian bombers (such as the Tu-95 Bear), were regularly spotted by western and NATO forces. It was known, in the UK, as "buzzing" NATO airspace. As far back as the 1970s the regular intercepts were greeted with smiles on both sides.
US Navy Phantom jet pilot Steve Rudloff told The Aviationist:
"I took off and intercepted a Bear, and in retaliation for the vodka I flashed the [Playboy] magazine centrefold, getting a hearty smile and a thumbs-up in response. We were always taking pictures of them, and vice versa. We were more than willing to take our oxygen masks off and let them get pictures."
Russia said in January its aircraft did not breach international regulations or any nation's borders. A Russian Air Force spokesman said flights are performed with strict adherence to international regulations on the use of airspace over neutral waters without violating states' sovereign borders.