BBC: Britain's RAF on constant alert for Russian 'Zombies'

Russian Air Force Il-20 ('Coot-A') being escorted by a NATO Eurofighter Typhoon.
Russian Air Force Il-20 ('Coot-A') being escorted by a NATO Eurofighter Typhoon. Source: NATO

Since Britain's Royal Air Force took on the NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission last month, relieving the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) after an historic joint holding of the role, there has been little let up in the need to be vigilant on Russian "Zombies", the BBC reports from Ämari Air Base.

The RAF has been on rotation at Ämari in the past, most recently in 2019.

"Zombie" in this context refers to a military or other aircraft of Russian Federation origin which is observed to be acting suspiciously, or, as is often the case, flying very close to Baltic Airspace (and sometimes within it) when flying to and from the Kaliningrad exclave and the Russian "mainland".

There are three main actions, or in this case lack of action, which pushes a Russian plane into the "Zombie" category, RAF Wing Cdr Scott MacColl tells the BBC, adding: "Either it won't have filed a flight plan, or they're not squawking [communicating] or they're simply not responding to Air Traffic Control. Sometimes it's all three."

As to what a NATO jet, flying from Ämari - the RAF are using Eurofighter Typhoons, as had the Luftwaffe on the previous rotation - or from Šiauliai in Lithuania, would do once up close to a "Zombie", MacColl says that the rules of engagement are classified, but essentially the aim is to protect NATO airspace.

The RAF have conducted eight intercepts out of Ämari so far on this tour, he adds, while the invasion of Ukraine starting last year necessarily changed things (NATO Baltic Air Policing Mission jets have in any case been intercepting and escorting Russian planes on an almost weekly basis since the role began in the wake of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war-ed.).

Photographing the Russian planes (see image) is routine.

Another unnamed pilot says: "We don't know what aircraft we're going to go and intercept. So we pull up alongside, we identify the aircraft and then we get further words, further mission sets from the Ops Centre and we respond to what they tell us to do."

On the ground, Brig. Giles Harris, the commander of the U.K.-led NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) Battlegroup, also talked to the BBC.

The eFP is a separate entity from the Baltic air policing mission, though necessarily works closely with it and the Estonian Defense Forces when on exercise.

Brig. Harris said: "Nato's challenge here in the Baltics is to deter Russia, but without escalating."

"The battle groups [in the Baltics] should be enough of a deterrent," says Brig Harris. "If Russia invades, then we go east and fight them."

The eFP is based at Tapa, around 120km east of Ämari, and in Tallinn, while heavy equipment such as the British Army's Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks are offloaded at the port of Paldiski.

Back at Ämari, downtime can often be interrupted by a need to switch on.

Eurofighter Typhoon. Source: BBC

One pilot said: "We respond to any alarm as if it's the real deal. So we run to the aircraft, don our kit, get the engines going, strapped in, speak to the [Control] Tower, speak to Operations on the radios, get our clearance and we then we taxi out and get airborne as quick as we can."

The Eurofighter Typhoons are armed and "on state", ready to scramble if needed, the BBC reports.

The latest alert turns out to be a false alarm, as the "Zombie" turns north and away from NATO's borders.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: BBC

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