F-35s Intercept Russian Spy Plane, Fighter Jets at Edge of NATO Airspace in Central Europe

Getty Images / Luftwaffe Twitter

A pair of F-35s stationed in northern Europe were dispatched to intercept a trio of Russian warplanes, including two jet fighters, on Monday evening after being detected flying towards NATO airspace with their transponders off.

Three Russian aircraft, an Il-20M intelligence-gathering (‘spy’) plane and two SU-27 Flankers — a Russian analogue to the U.S. F-15 Eagle — were intercepted near the Russian-Polish border on Monday. While they did not enter NATO airspace, they were said to have approached Poland from the Kaliningrad Oblast, a small Russian exclave on the Baltic wedged between Poland and Lithuania with their transponders turned off and also flew in neutral airspace over the Baltic, Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza reports.

The NATO aircraft that intercepted the pair were Dutch F-35s, attached to the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission based out of Malbork airbase. The Dutch Ministry of Defence said of the interception on Monday evening: “Two Dutch F-35s carried out a first interception from Poland. It concerned 3 aircraft: a Russian IL-20M Coot-A that was escorted by two SU-27 Flankers. F-35s escorted them from a distance and handed over escort to NATO partners.”

Germany took over the interception from the Dutch first-response F-35s and published images their pilots took of the Russian aircraft.

Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reports the Russian aircraft at the time of interception were flying “on the border”. The Netherlands has eight aircraft stationed in Poland as part of the NATO task force, part of a rotating deployment which sees different member states take responsibility for policing the skies for months at a time. De Telegraaf reports the interception is the first Dutch warplanes have undertaken in their two-month deployment so far.

While the intervention of Russian aviation on the fringes of NATO airspace is not unknown — the UK’s Royal Air Force frequently shadows Russian bombers in the North Sea in what are generally thought to be tests of NATO’s ability to react quickly to the appearance of Russian planes — the interception of an escorted intelligence asset over Europe comes amid weeks of concern of Chinese aerial spying, and the Ukraine war.

The United States has now downed several ‘UFOs’ over North America said to be solar-powered Chinese spy balloons in recent days, acts the Chinese themselves have vacillated between condemning and mocking. The interest in hostile observation of Western countries has spread across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisting the Royal Air Force was on standby to defend the nation’s airspace if necessary.

The UK Ministry of Defence, meanwhile, says it is to review whether the country is doing enough to protect its skies from high-altitude intrusion.


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