RAF ‘sent message to Putin’ by intercepting dozens of Russian planes in Estonia

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RAF Typhoon jets prepare for take off for a training exercise in Estonia (Image: PA)
RAF Typhoon jets prepare for take off for a training exercise in Estonia (Image: PA)

Royal Air Force (RAF) "sent a strong message to Vladimir Putin" today by intercepting dozens of Russian planes in Estonia, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said.

RAF led a Nato air policing mission in the Baltic country, an operation praised by Mr Wallace, who said the military group has unwavering commitment of the United Kingdom and its allies in safeguarding European airspace and standing against any potential threat to their borders.

His comments come as RAF personnel have returned to the UK after leading the air policing mission in Eastern Europe for four months, during which pilots intercepted 50 Russian aircraft and flew for a combined total of more than 500 hours. The members of the 140 Expeditionary Air Wing (140 EAW) had been deployed to Amari Air Base since the start of March, along with a squadron of RAF Typhoon fighter jets, to conduct Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) intercepts of Russian aircraft transiting close to Nato airspace.

RAF ‘sent message to Putin’ by intercepting dozens of Russian planes in Estonia erideuiqtqiqdrinvRAF led Operation Azotize, the UK's commitment to NATO's Baltic Air policing mission (PA)

The deployment, named Operation Azotize, began with RAF pilots flying missions alongside the German Air Force – during which the first ever air joint air intercept between Nato allies took place, as British and German Typhoons shadowed a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft and transport aircraft.

Mr Wallace said: "Hundreds of RAF pilots and personnel have spent months away from their families, working round-the-clock alongside our allies to keep Europe’s skies safe.

Red Arrow pilot forced to send out emergency alert after bird smashes into jetRed Arrow pilot forced to send out emergency alert after bird smashes into jet

"The UK’s successful leadership of Nato’s air policing mission in Estonia, resulting in the interception of dozens of Russian aircraft by the RAF, sends a strong message to Putin that we stand united with our allies against any threat to our borders."

RAF ‘sent message to Putin’ by intercepting dozens of Russian planes in EstoniaAn RAF officer flies in a Typhoon jet alongside two USAF F-22 Raptors in Estonia in May (UK MOD Crown copyright)

Personnel from 140 EAW were always ready to quickly intercept Russian aircraft that didn’t follow the usual communication rules with Nato air traffic agencies and didn’t file proper flight plans. This behaviour created a safety risk for all the planes flying in the area and Nato aircraft had to closely monitor these Russian planes to ensure everyone’s safety.

Once the RAF took full control of the air policing mission, their Typhoon fighter jets regularly intercepted Russian fighters, long-range bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft.

There was a 21-day period when they intercepted Russian planes a total of 21 times. During the course of the deployment, operations were conducted in co-ordination with the Portuguese and Romanian Air Forces, which jointly led the Nato air policing mission in Lithuania.

Defence Minister Baroness Goldie said: “Following a successful deployment to Estonia from our strategic airbase at Lossiemouth, I pay tribute to the commitment and dedication of personnel from 140 Expeditionary Air Wing for their role in protecting Nato airspace over the last four months.”

RAF ‘sent message to Putin’ by intercepting dozens of Russian planes in EstoniaA member of the ground crew checks an RAF Typhoon jet after it's return from exercise (PA)

On Wednesday, the leader of 140 EAW, Wing Commander Scott MacColl, officially passed on the responsibility of the air policing mission in Estonia to the Spanish Air Force.

Air and Space Commander, Air Marshal Harv Smyth, said: “The RAF is committed to its role within Nato of collective defence, to ensure the strength and unity of the alliance and to deter and defend against threats to Nato security. While in Estonia, 140 Expeditionary Air Wing has excelled, participating in 12 major Nato and Joint Expeditionary Force exercises in addition to the Air Policing role.

“I am extremely proud of the whole force’s hard work and dedication. Now that they are back in the UK, their focus will be straight back to providing UK quick reaction alert where they will help ensure the safety and integrity of UK airspace, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

The Nato Baltic Air Policing mission was set up in 2014 at Amari base in Estonia and Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Allies participating in the mission take turns every four months, deploying to the air bases in Eastern Europe.

Martina Bet

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