The waters of the Barents Sea have been teeming with activity in recent months as the United States and its allies have increasingly conducted reconnaissance flights in the neutral waters. Last week Russia responded to three different incidents and sent MiG-31 fighter jets to "intercept" NATO aircraft that flew near its border.
According to Russia's National Defense Control Center, Russian airspace control systems detected an aerial target over the neutral waters of the Barents Sea approaching Russia’s state border. "A MiG-31 fighter from the Northern Fleet’s air defense quick reaction alert forces was scrambled to intercept the target," the center told state media. "The crew of the Russian fighter identified the air target as a Norwegian Air Force P-3C Orion patrol plane."
A day earlier a MiG-31 from the Russian Northern Fleet was also scrambled on to identify, intercept and escort two reconnaissance aircraft that included a U.S. RC-135 and a UK Sentinel. According to a report from Tass, Russia's National Defense Control Center picked up the NATO aircraft on radar approaching the Russian Border.
"The Russian plane's crew identified the air targets as the US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane and the UK Royal Air Force's R.1 Sentinel reconnaissance plane," the Control Center told state media.
The RC-135 is based on the Boeing 707 commercial airliner, and it first entered service in 1961. The United States Air Force operates nearly 400 of the Cold War reconnaissance aircraft. The Raytheon Sentinel is a far newer airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft that is based on the Bombardier Global Express airframe. The Royal Air Force (RAF) operates five of the aircraft, which entered service in 2005.
Twice in a Day:
Earlier the same day the Control Center also detected another aircraft in the region near the Russian state border, and a MiG-31BM fighter was also deployed.
"A MiG-31BM fighter from the Northern Fleet’s air defense quick reaction alert forces was scrambled to intercept the air target and prevent it from violating the Russian state border," the Control Center said in another statement to Tass. "The Russian fighter's crew identified the air target as a Norwegian Air Force P-3C Orion maritime patrol plane."
The P-3C Orion is a four-engine turboprop anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and maritime surveillance aircraft that was originally developed for the United States Navy. It is based on the L-188 Electra commercial airliner. The Royal Norwegian Air Force operates four of the aircraft, which are based at Andøya Air Station in Nordland county in northern Norway.
After all three of the NATO aircraft flew away from the Russian state border, the respective MiG-31 fighters reportedly safely returned to base. The Control Center said both sorties were performed in strict compliance with the international air law of using the airspace, and it added that none of the NATO planes violated Russia's airspace or state border.
Close Up With the MiG-31:
Thursday's sorties involving MiG-31s were just the latest incidents involving the Cold War-fighter that was designed as a home-defense interceptor. At the end of the last month, Russia scrambled one of the fighter jets to intercept another Norwegian P-3C Orion over the Barents Sea.
Perhaps this is NATO's coy way to get a closer look at the Russian interceptor. Codenamed "Foxhound" by NATO, it was never widely exported and for that reason has maintained a certain mystique in the west. Moscow maintains hundreds of fighters and it remains a crucial part of Russia's multi-layered air defense network.
It has also been reported that the fighters could be armed with long-range, multiple-warhead missiles as a defense against hypersonic missiles. However, it is more likely the system would be employed on the MiG-41, the developmental project that is believed to replace the Cold War-era MiG-31 – while the latter would just serve as a testbed for such a platform.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.