NATO radars detected and tracked one unidentified aircraft flying in the vicinity of Allied airspace in the Baltic Sea on Tuesday, 21 October at approximately 9 a.m. CET. Fighter jets from NATO Ally Denmark (F-16) were scrambled, as were Portuguese F-16 aircraft from NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission in order to identify the aircraft and maintain the security of Allied air space. Non-NATO fighters from Sweden were also involved in the intercept.
The aircraft was identified as a Russian IL-20 (intelligence collection aircraft). The Russian IL-20 took off from Kaliningrad and commenced flying over the Baltic Sea towards Denmark. The Russian aircraft was first intercepted by Danish F-16’s and as the IL-20 headed further north it was intercepted by fighters from Sweden. The Russian aircraft headed south again and Portuguese F-16’s were scrambled. At 12:53 p.m. CET the IL-20 approached Estonian airspace from the northeast. The Russian aircraft entered Estonian airspace near the island of Saaremaa for a period of less than one minute, which represented an incursion of about 600 meters into NATO airspace.
Portuguese F-16s made visual contact with the IL-20 and escorted it until it was further away from NATO airspace. NATO jets assigned to the Baltic Air Policing Mission were available throughout the duration of the Russian flight and the IL-20 was continually tracked using Allied assets on the ground and in the air.
Scrambles and intercepts are standard procedure when an unknown aircraft approaches NATO airspace. However, such flights pose a potential risk to civil aviation given that the Russian military often do not file flight plans, or use their on-board transponders. This means civilian air traffic control cannot detect these aircraft nor ensure there is no interference with civilian air traffic. NATO Allies protect their airspace on a 24/7 basis and NATO tracks all flight activities over Europe.
NATO air defence efforts are focused on stopping unauthorized incursions into NATO airspace and on preventing acts of airborne terrorism.
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