Two Russian Blackjack bombers, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, have been intercepted by RAF fighters over Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, and escorted out of British airspace.
The action was described as “not unusual” by Wing Commander Mark Gorringe, of 111 Squadron, scrambled to intercept the bombers. He said that RAF crews had been involved in similar incidents on more than 20 occasions since the start of 2009, equivalent to once every three weeks.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed yesterday that two RAF Tornado F3 fighter jets from RAF Leuchars, in Fife, had been alerted in the early hours of March 10.
The aircraft shadowed the supersonic Tu160 bombers as they flew in the direction of the Clyde estuary, before the Russians turned north towards the Antrim coast. The Russian aircrfat left British airspace and after four hours, the Tornado crews were stood down.
The MoD took the unprecedented step of issuing photographs of the two Russian aircraft.
Wing Commander Gorringe accepted that the public would be surprised by the frequency of such incidents. “Our pilots, navigators and indeed all the support personnel at RAF Leuchars work very hard to deliver the UK Quick Reaction Alert Force 24 hours a day, to defend the UK from unidentified aircraft entering our airspace, or aircraft in distress,” he said.
Experts say that the Russian missions have a mixture of motives. “There is probably a little bit of submarine-watching around the Clyde, there are naval exercises scheduled about now off the Scottish coast and there is probably a bit of muscle-flexing, saying “Hey, we are still here’,” said one defence source.
“These guys are not in contact with air traffic control in the UK. Any aircraft has to be identified, because one day there could be a risk.”
During the Cold War, Britain’s northern air defences were frequently tested by Soviet aircraft.