30 Jan 15, Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning Andrew Brookes, himself a former Royal Air Force pilot with 3,500 hours logged on Victor, Canberra and Vulcan based reconnaissance and strike tours and who is perhaps better known today as a writer, aviation journalist and Chief Executive of The Air League, was quite right linking the latest and potentially most dangerous act of Russian aggression in the skies around Britain to the opening of the public inquiry in London into the death of Alexander Litvinenko from radiation poisoning in 2006.
But just because Russia has a perfect right to say that it is not pleased with something that may be occurring in another sovereign state and that, in this case, it may bear more than a level of guilt, does not mean that we can afford to turn a blind eye to this new level of Russian aggression. The noticeable increase in the use by Russia of tactical air and underwater reconnaissance missions around UK sovereign territory should be an object lesson to us that Russia still poses a great threat to peace and stability in the world. That ageing yet still very powerful Russian aircraft that had originally been designed as bombers should so blatantly choose to endanger life this week by breaking long standing international agreements aimed at ensuring the safety of all those flying in commercial and military aircraft within international airspace is confirmation enough of the new found threat being posed by Russia.
With transponders off and having ignored all international air traffic safety protocols designed to reduce the danger of mid-air collision, two more Russian Tu-95 Bear H aircraft, shadowed by Royal Air Force Typhoon aircraft, decided to circle the UK earlier this week without a care in the world of the havoc and potential danger this would cause.
Not surprisingly this particular threat to UK security and air safety did cause serious disruption and potential danger to civil aircraft flight traffic particularly to aircraft flying over or within the extremely busy North Sea and English Channel route segments.
That danger to civil air traffic was avoided is due to the efficiency of work done by the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) Force based at RAF Boulmer located near Ainwick, Northumberland. This unit is responsible for the compilation of what is termed a Recognised Air Picture (RAP) covering all UK airspace and approaches. The CRC monitors the RAP 24/7 365 days a year and is there primarily to detect and identify all aircraft that come into or near UK airspace. RAF Boulmer personnel provide tactical control of the Quick Reaction Alert Typhoon aircraft capability based on Typhoon aircraft located at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Coningsby and that can then be scrambled and launched within minutes of command to intercept any unidentified aircraft. At the same time warnings are provided to the Civil Aircraft Authority and to air traffic control system operator NATS.
Russian Bear aircraft with their distinctive counter-rotating propeller engines have been flying around the coast of the UK testing our readiness to intercept for almost as long as anyone can remember. The Russians are entitled to fly in international airspace and to tease our capability readiness so long as they stay outside of the twelve mile limit of UK sovereign air-space. They must also obey normal air safety protocols and international agreements in respect of safety and freedom to fly. By ignoring safety protocols and particularly in this case by turning transponders that signal to receiving ground systems where they are located Russia is once again showing a form of unacceptable aggression that we cannot afford to ignore.
The number of flights by Russian Bear aircraft has risen substantially in recent years. Looking at the whole issue of incursions by Russian aircraft close too or sometimes even within UK airspace the House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) concluded in 2009 that while such flights did not pose a direct threat to the security of Britain or NATO they could endanger civil aircraft flying in the same area and risked causing serious accidents. It went on to say that “they are not the actions of a friendly nation and that they risk escalating tension” noting also that “Russia should not be making such flights without informing the appropriate authorities”.
“The Government should take a more robust approach in making clear to Russia that its continued secret incursions by military aircraft into international airspace near to the UK is not acceptable behavior.”
The report authors also noted that although these aircraft had rarely entered British territorial airspace that under international civil aviation rules the Russians are supposed to notify the authorities of flights which pass through the wider UK flight information region. Britain should, the committee said, adopt a “practical and hard-headed approach” in its dealings with Russia adding that “however desirable co-operation with Russia may be, it should not come at the price of accepting the legitimacy of a Russian sphere of influence”.
That was in 2009 well before Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its blatant interference and incursions into another sovereign state, Ukraine. Since then we have had the sadness of the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine that killed all 298 people on board and that substantive evidence shows was clearly shot down by Russian seperatists. Western governments have placed strong sanctions on Russia and, not helped by the 50% fall in the oil price over the past year, both the Russian economy and its currency have been in freefall.
And yet Russia still has more than ample strength to tease us and to show that it is not only still a nuclear power it has massive conventional capability as well. That the flurry of activity this past week can be linked to the Litvinenko inquiry can hardly be doubted but that does not stop the need to ensure we take far greater cognisance of Russia’s aims and its strengths. We should take greater not too of how Russia has until this year dramatically increased its spending on defence and that overall this is now double what was being spent fifteen years ago.
In its 2009 report the HCDC concluded by saying that “the Government should adopt a hard-headed approach to engagement with Russia, based on the reality of Russia’s foreign policy rather than abstract and misleading notions of shared values”. That was as I suggested earlier after Georgia but before Ukraine.
It isn’t only Russian Bear aircraft that have been testing UK defence capability it is Russian submarines as well. And while Russian Bear aircraft have been very quickly located by our own force structure or NATO and if necessary quickly challenged by the Royal Air Force through Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force deployment we have not found it so easy to locate Russian submarines in our waters. We all know the reason why and that our Government having decided to scrap Nimrod capability without putting into effect a replacement plan we now find ourselves at the mercy of our French and US allies to locate Russian submarines in OUR waters.
That the Royal Navy do their best to find Russian subs using everything they have at their disposal is without question of course but to deprive them of the underwater submarine reconnaissance protection that had for so long been well provided to them by the Royal Air Force still beggars belief.
And in finishing I wonder what, had he still been with us, Sir Winston Churchill would have made of the inadequacies so apparent today in our overall defence capability? I wonder what he would have made of our inability to locate Russian submarines sailing within or very close to UK sovereign territory unchallenged. As we recall the fiftieth anniversary of his funeral today perhaps we should stop awhile and remember how fortunate we were in his day when defence, security, foreign affairs and diplomacy sat at the top of the UK political agenda.
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