“Bears will gather rather closely in numbers at good spawning sites.” –Wikipedia-
In yet another ”first”, the Russian Air Force’s Long Distance component (VVS-DA, corresponding to USAF’s Strategic Air Command) have flown Tupolev Tu-95MS (NATO reporting name: “Bear-H”) strategic bombers over the Baltic Sea. The uniqueness of the move was properly summed up by former Swedish Air Force pilot Mikael Grev.
“I remember all the intelligence briefings that included ‘but they doesn’t operate over the Baltic Sea, so we can dismiss these’ “
Unlike the Tu-22M3 (“Backfire-M”) of “Russian Eastern”-fame and the Sukhoi Su-34 (“Fullback”, unofficially known as “Hellduck”), which accompanied at least some of the sorties, the Tu-95 does not have any useful wartime mission over the Baltic Sea, with the possible exception of a scenario where the territory of the Baltic States is in Russian hands. In this way, this move is similar to the introduction of the MiG-31(BM?) (”Foxhound”) into the theatre in late October. In the case of the MiG-31, it is a specialized long-range interceptor, mainly meant to intercept enemy long-range bombers and cruise missiles far out in the Arctic and eastern parts of Russia, and is poorly suited for the fighter vs fighter-combat likely to be seen in Europe in case of war.
With this in mind, we need to make a distinction on three types of flights that the Russian Air Force (and to a lesser extent the Russian Naval Aviation, AV-MF) conducts over the Baltic Sea. Firstly, we have transit flights, i.e. moving a plane from point A to point B, usually between Kaliningrad and mainland Russia. These are more or less peaceful, but the use of transponders and informing civilian air traffic controllers of the flights would be appreciated from a trust-building and air safety point of view.
The second kind of flights are exercises. These are made up of aircraft practicing their wartime missions, and as such can be counted in the category of steps taken in preparations for war. Here we have such famous incidents as the mock attacks on strategic Swedish targets during the Russian Eastern, as well as the mock attack on Danish Bornholm by Tu-22M3’s equipped with live missiles during the Folkemødet political festival, during which several important political figures visited the island. While training for war is the everyday task of armed forces around the world, the manners in which these are conducted make them provocative. There is ample Russian territory over which similar missions could have been flown, with the only difference being in the political message they send.
The third kind is the purely demonstrative flights. When a heavy interceptor or strategic bomber appears over the Baltic Sea, they are operating in an area where they would be very vulnerable in the case of a war. There is no rational reason for sending them through an area filled with civilian aircrafts for a normal navigational exercise, when the better part of e.g. the Arctic Sea is empty. The sole reason is to make a statement, and a rather aggressive one, that is.
The last sentence was the core message of this post.
In this particular case, it seems like the Tu-95’s have been out in numbers over the Baltic Sea three days in a row, further adding to the strength of the message in question. The first rumors appeared on Saturday the 6th of December, which also happens to be the Finnish Independence Day. The following day, Sunday the 7th, Baltic Air Policing intercepted four Tu-95 as well as two Tu-22, which was confirmed by the Latvian defence forces.
Today, Monday the 8th, the largest strike package so far was intercepted by Baltic Air Policing, with Latvian Defence Forces giving today’s tally of intercepted planes as four Su-27 (heavy fighter), four Su-24 (heavy ground-attack plane), four Su-34, two MiG-31, one Tu-22M, one An-12 (heavy transport), one An-26 (medium transport), and four Tu-95. It is unclear which planes flew together whit which, but an earlier tweet indicated a different array of transports, including Il-76 and An-72, which could mean that all planes listed indeed flew together. As far as I have found, the flights on the 6th have not explicitly been confirmed by western authorities, but in a Twitter-discussion the day after, Estonian president Toomas Ilves noted on the rumors of flights two days in a row that “NATO is providing escort service to these Tu-timers”, which seems to indicate that there had indeed been flights both days. Note that the Latvian NBS seems to only report intercept by BAP-flights operating out of Siauliai, Lithuania, and not those flying out of Äimari, Estonia. If the Tu-95’s would have turned around over the Northern parts of the Baltic Sea, they would likely have been escorted only by aircraft operating out of the later base.
Of note is that the first flights on the 6th apparently were followed by an Il-76 (“Candid”) flying with transponders, probably trying (unsuccessfully) to fool Finnish and NATO surveillance into not launching their QRA.
The main sources for the flights are:
6th of December:
7th of December:
8th of December:
In addition, NBS has stated that a three-ship formation of Tu-134 transports have appeared over the Baltic Sea yesterday. This is highly unusal, as the type has largely been retired from service.
Edit 9/12/2014 16:26 (UT +2)
The escorting Il-76 was Il-76TD registration RA-76638, with Tupolev Tu-154 RA-85042 flying the same track sligthly earlier. Both planes flew from Moscow to Kaliningrad, before diverting back to Moscow without landing. Both tracks are found on Flightradar 24/7’s Facebook page.