It seems evident that 6 October was a day of heavy Russian military air traffic in the Gulf of Finland, reminiscent of certain episodes during the second half of 2014. Unfortunately, another episode also reminded of 2014, in that the Russians twice intruded on Finnish airspace. The first intruder was a single Su-27P, ‘red 42’ (RF-92414), which briefly entered Finnish airspace over the sea south of Porvoo 16:43 local time. It was intercepted by Finnish QRA, which duly photographed the armed Russian fighter.
The Russians had time to deny this incident, before the next intrusion took place at exactly the same place a few hours later. Another Su-27P in the ‘Red 4x’ sequence flew the same route inside Finnish airspace, and was documented by Finnish QRA at 21:33.
Both aircraft carry a mix of short-range highly manoeuvrable R-73 IR-missiles, mid-range R-27T IR-missiles, as well as long-range R-27ER semi-active radar-seeking missiles. This varied load-out is nothing new, and e.g. on this photo taken by US fighters during the Cold War the same missiles (though in older versions) are found on the same stations.
In theory the mix gives the Su-27 and unprecedented ability to target different airborne targets near and far, though in reality the different versions of the R-27 are starting to show their age. The lack of an active radar seeker on the R-27ER is also a significant handicap.
As noted, both intrusions took place at the same location, outside of Porvoo. A map released by the Finnish Border Guards leave little doubt that the intrusions were intentional, as both fighters flew the same track with a few hours in between. Both fighters entered Finnish airspace flying straight towards Kallbådagrund lighthouse (and in the general direction of Helsinki), and then turning parallel to the border just inside of it, before dashing out at the same location.
Notable is that while earlier intrusions have often been by cargo planes, and have often been blamed on the weather (in the cases where the Russians have conceded that they indeed have intruded on Finnish airspace), the weather during 6 October was good, with no reason to deviate. It is extremely rare that Russia have made these ‘visits’ with fighters, and the use of armed fighters to send a message like this is a step up in rhetoric.
An interesting question is related to the general state of readiness for the Finnish fighters. The closest permanent QRA is stationed at Kuopio-Rissala airbase in the central parts of Finland, from where the flight time would seem prohibitively long (especially as there has been no reports of supersonic flights by the Finnish Air Force).
The air force naturally refuses to give any details regarding the alert level and where the fighters that intercepted the Russian air traffic were based. During 2014 it was acknowledged that the air force temporarily based Hornets on civilian air fields in the southern parts of the country, including Helsinki-Vantaa international airport, to reduce intercept times. Finnish MoD Jussi Niinistö praised the reaction times of the Hornets, and noted that in addition to the two intruding Su-27P’s an unspecified number (‘several’) of identification flights were made. He also noted that this took place on the same day that Finland signed the bilateral defence cooperation deal with the US, and that the Russian behavior did not affect this in any way. It seems likely that the Finnish Air Force had some kind of prior knowledge, or that they were able to change their stance and react very quickly to the sudden increase in air traffic.
The QRA duty for the Estonian airspace is currently handled by a detachment of German Eurofighters, which, like their Finnish colleagues, had flown a number of identification flights during 6 October. If the intruder was photographed is not yet known. The Eurofighters currently operating out of Ämari air base are five aircraft from TaktLwG 74, homebased in Neuburg. The raw performance of the Eurofighter when it comes to climb rate and acceleration makes it right at home when it comes to these kinds of intercepts, and according to open sources the German fighters reached 848 knots (~1.3 Mach) during their missions, the highest speed noted in any intercept over the Gulf of Finland during 6 October.
Another part of the puzzle came on 7 October, when Estonian sources claimed that the ro-ro vessel Ambal then in transit was carrying Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The vessel is operated by Anrusstrans, which sports a small and varied fleet of cargo vessels and tugs. The vessel arrived in Baltiysk on the evening of 7 October. Crucially, she had been transiting the Gulf of Finland during 6 October, leading some to speculate that the Russian fighters had been escorting her. It is possible that the air and sea traffic was part of an exercise aimed at practising how to transfer reinforcements to Kaliningrad, an operation which would require air superiority over the Gulf of Finland and eastern parts of the Baltic Sea during the transit, though a traditional escort mission where fighters would follow a lumbering merchantman at (relatively) close range seems unlikely. It is also unclear if the Iskanders are the only units moved to the exclave during the last days, or if other units have been transferred as well.
Russian Navy BSF's Buyan-M Class Corvettes 603 Serpukhov & 602 Zeleny Dol (in order of transit, 1 mile apart) southbound on the Bosphorus pic.twitter.com/vpE9n1Imjf
Of further interest is the fact that on 5 October it was reported that two Buyan-M class corvettes that had transited the Bosphorus seemingly heading towards Syria, instead could be heading for the Baltic Sea. The introduction of these highly capable corvettes armed with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Baltic Sea would add significant fire power to the Russian Baltic Fleet.
Due to the popularity of the Tu-95 ”Bear” post, and by popular demand, here comes a write-up over the rest of the planes that have figured over the Baltic Sea and in the news recently, including the Il-20 involved in the near-miss with a civilian airliner.
The Antonov An-12 “Cub” is a heavy transport aircraft designed in the 50’s for transporting general cargo as well as dropping paratroopers. The general layout is very similar to that of the western Lockheed C-130, but the An-12 is quite a bit larger. In spite of its replacement, the Il-76 (see below), entering service already in 1974, the sturdy An-12 have proved to be a durable design, and a large number still flies for both civilian and military users. Civilian aircrafts are regularly seen at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, and are easily told from military transports by the fact that they aren’t fitted with twin 23 mm cannons in their tail. Interestingly enough, the former Antonov Design Bureau/current Antonov State Company is situated in Ukraine.
The Antonov An-26 “Curl” was developed from the earlier An-24 as a medium transport for the Russian Air Force, and was in turn further developed into the An-30 and -32. Over 1,400 An-26’s were produced during an almost 20 year long production run that started in the late 60’s. The aircraft is still in use in many air forces around the world, and while most of the aircrafts are general transports, a number of minor variants are also in use, such as the An-26RTR electronic warfare variant and the fire-fighting An-26P.
The Antonov An-72 “Coaler” is a medium transport easily identified by being one of very aircrafts that have their engines mounted above the wings. This gives the aircraft both the ability to take off from and land on short runways, as well as its nickname Cheburashka, from the big-eared animated character.
The plane is used mainly for general transports, and is operated in some numbers by both civilian airlines and the Russian armed forces. A special version for use in Arctic conditions is named An-74.
The Ilyushin Il-20M (“Coot-A”) is based on the by now largely retired Il-18 airliner. The Il-20 is fitted with an array of different sensors to perform intelligence gathering operations by flying close to enemy territory and “listening” to different signals, e.g. active radars and radio traffic. It is also equipped with cameras and side-looking radar used when searching for ships and ground targets. However, as noted by Swedish defence blogger and air force officer Wiseman, it is not capable of looking out for other aircraft, a deficit that apparently played an important part in a number of near-misses with civilian aircrafts over the Baltic Sea.
Il-76 “Candid”, is the go-to-plane for most of the transport needs of the Russian Armed Forces. The plane is a large four-engined jet-transport, and is certified to operate from rough and unpaved landing strips. The large rear cargo ramp is used for loading/off-loading cargo, as well as for unloading paratroopers and their vehicles either in mid-air or on the ground. Aside from the standard transport versions, the most important variants are the dedicated air-to-air refueling variant named Il-78/Il-78MD and the Beriev A-50 AWACS plane, both of which are also regular visitors over the Baltic Sea.
The Mikoyan MiG-31 (“Foxhound”) is one of the most specialized fighters/interceptors in the world. It is a large aircraft, being as long and high as a World War II-era Boeing B-17, the famous “Flying Fortress”. The reason for this are its missions, it is designed to have the reach (and hence the fuel load) to operate far out over the Arctic and northern edge of the Pacific, where it is to intercept American strategic bombers before they can release their cruise missiles, and to escort own Tu-95MS strategic bombers so that they can safely attack North American targets with their cruise missiles. As such, it is not maneuverable enough to fight modern fighters such as the F-18C Hornet on equal terms, but over the Arctic enemy fighters should be few and far between. The planes currently in service are mainly of the upgraded MiG-31M/BM-versions, but particularly in the eastern parts of the country the older baseline MiG-31 sans suffix is still in service.
The equipment it carries is also tailored for this mission. It has one of the largest radars ever fitted to a fighter, and carries some of the longest ranged missiles produced in the form of the R-33 and the upgraded R-37 (MiG-31M/BM only). The ranges of these are quoted as far above 100 km, potentially over 300 km for the R-37 (to be taken with a grain of salt). The radar also makes it possible for the aircraft to share data with the A-50 airborne command aircraft, or to act as a mini-AWACS itself, by having the navigator/weapons officer of the MiG-31 direct other fighters within range. Of note is that the navigator has very limited vision of the outside world, as his job is mainly to operate different sensors and weapons.
Note for non-aviation geeks: “MiG” is spelled with upper case “M” and “G”, and lower case “i”, as there were two designers leading the original design bureau. This is opposed to more or less all other Soviet/Russian designations, where only the first letter is capitalised.
The Su-24 “Fencer” is a heavy attack/strike aircraft that became operational in the early 70’s. Like the Tu-22M of the same vintage, it features variable geometry wings, being able to sweep the wings back for better high-speed performance. Also in common with its bigger cousin is the fact that it is in use both by the Russian Air Force and by naval air units. The Su-24 can employ a vast range of weapons, ranging from an internal 6-barrelled 23 mm gun to rockets, bombs, and missiles. It can also employ short-ranged air-to-air missiles for self-defence, but in practice it would fare poorly against enemy fighters due to poor maneuverability. The current version in service is the second generation Su-24M, but the plane is starting to show its age, and is about to be replaced by the Su-34 (see below), a process that will take several years.
The Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” marked the start of a family of fighters and fighter-bombers that eventually would dethrone Mikoyan-Gurevich’s design bureau as the leading manufacturer of Soviet/Russian fighters. The plane itself is known for its long range and large weapons load, as well as its extreme maneuverability. The original baseline Su-27 has since been developed into a bewildering range of different one- and two-seater variants, some of which are pure fighters while others have a multi-role tasking that also includes strike missions. The different designations include Su-30/33/34 (see below)/35/37 (prototype only), as well as the Chinese unlicensed copies designated J-11/15/16. The latest version is the Su-35S, and deliveries to the Russian Air Force are ongoing. A naval variant named Su-33 is used onboard the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov.
With its large radar, and a large weapons load including highly-maneuverable heat-seeking missiles, the Su-27 would be a though adversary for most fighter aircrafts currently in service. This is not to say that for example the F-18C Hornets of the Finnish Air Force couldn’t defeat it in combat, but depending on the version of the Su-27/30/35 they could find themselves being the underdog.
The Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” (unofficially also “Hellduck”, due to its beak-like nose) is one of the newer acquaintances for the Finnish Quick Reaction Alert, having only started to appear on a regular basis over the Baltic Sea during the last year. Unlike the Su-24 it slowly replaces, the Su-34 is able to meet most fighters on near equal terms, meaning that the need for a dedicated fighter escort is much lower. The sensors and weapons are also markedly more modern. The large cockpit with the pilot and navigator/weapons officer seated side-by-side is very large for an aircraft of its size, making it possible for the crews to move around during long missions, and featurs both a toilette and a small galley.
Of interest is that the pictures released by the Finnish Air Force are taken from slightly below the Russian aircraft, and as such they show the load-out of the planes. The planes seem to have been armed with two Vympel R-73/74 (“AA-11 Archer”) advanced heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, as well as two light free-fall bombs. The later may be inert practice rounds, while the missiles seem to be live rounds. This load-out is not something that would be used in case of war, and is probably exercise related.
The plane has also been associated with the designations Su-27IB and Su-32, as these were given to different prototypes of the Su-34.
The title Tu-22 is a bit misleading, as the original Tu-22 “Blinder” was the Soviet Union’s first supersonic bomber. A late 50’s design, it was featured a sleek design, engines mounted on top of the rear fuselage, a short range due to the inefficiency early jet engines, and an extremely high accident-rate, due to its high landing speed. All these Tu-22B/R/P/K/U have been retired.
The Tu-22M “Backfire” is the successor to this plane, and started life as a completely new design under the designation Tu-26, but as it was easier to “sell” the politicians a new version of an old airplane as opposed to a completely new one, the designation was changed. The Tu-22M entered service in the early 70’s, and also saw combat with the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan.
Like its predecessor, the Tu-22M was designed to be blistering fast, and the main tactic is to approach a target at low level, relying on its speed to avoid interception by enemy fighters. It then employs cruise missiles to take out individual targets with great accuracy from outside the range of enemy air defences. This kind of attacks were practiced against Sweden during the Eastern of 2013 (the so called “Ryska Påsken”-incident), as well as against Denmark this summer. During the later incident the aircrafts involved actually carried live missiles. The aircraft also has a maritime strike role, being used hunt down enemy ships, and especially aircraft carriers in case of war.
Tu-134 “Crusty” started its life as a short-range passenger plane in the mid 60’s, and was widely used throughout Eastern Europe. A number of the early versions were equipped with glass noses, to aid the navigator when navigating by traditional use of map and basic flight data. A devastating accident in 2011 sped up the plans to retire the aircraft due to safety concerns, meaning that today almost no civilian Tu-134’s are in use. The Russian Air Force, however, uses a number of modified aircraft for training bomber pilots. These have the same radar and instrumentation as the Tu-22M3 and Tu-160, and are easily identified by their long pointed noses. These are sometimes known by the nickname Buratino, from the Pinocchio-like figure created by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. It was a civilian Tu-134 that was hijacked and flown to Helsinki in July 1977.
As the Tupolev Tu-95 has made headlines recently, I decided it is time for a brief explanation of the plane and its capabilities.
Together with a small number of Tu-160 and a large number of the smaller Tu-22M3, the mighty Tu-95 make up the combat aircrafts of the Russian Long Range Aviation (VVS-DA), the air force branch responsible for long-range strikes with nuclear and conventional weapons. The Tu-95 first flew back in 1952, and traces it lineage back to the Tupolev Tu-4, itself an unlicensed copy of the WWII-era Boeing B-29 Superfortress. However, its size, role, and age, corresponds more to the same manufacturers B-52 Stratofortress, with one important difference: while both planes first flew in the early 50’s, the last B-52 rolled of the production line in 1963. The Tu-95’s currently in service are no more than 20-25 years on old on average.
Like its American rival, the role of the Tu-95 have evolved from that of a traditional bomber equipped with a large number of internally carried free-fall bombs to that of a launching platform for cruise missiles. The current version of the Tu-95, the Tu-95MS, is a true second-generation development of the aircraft, and incorporates changes to the airframe first developed for the Tu-142 maritime patrol/ASW version of the plane, including a larger wing area and the deletion of all gun turrets except for the tail unit. To comply with the START/SALT-treaties, a number of planes designated Tu-95MS6 lack external hardpoints, and as such only carry six cruise missiles internally in a revolving mount. The rest of the planes are equipped with an additional four underwing hardpoints, capable of carrying a further ten cruise missiles (on each side there is one twin mount between the inner engines and the fuselage, and one triple mount between the engines). This variant is then called the Tu-95MS16. As far as I understand, these are the only differences between the versions, and I have no idea what kind of effort it would take to convert a Tu-95MS6 to a Tu-95MS16, nor have I been able to spot the differences between the two versions despite having studied underside pictures of a number of different aircraft individuals.
Aside from the Tu-95MS, the only other version of the “Bear” currently in service are the aforementioned Tu-142 long range maritime patrol aircraft, a number of which have also been exported to India. Of the “true” Tu-95’s, all older bomber versions, including the Tu-95K, have been retired, and the same holds true for the Tu-95U trainer version. A number of modified Tu-134UBL transport aircrafts are used as pilot trainers by the VVS-DA, being easily identified by their long nose housing the same radar equipment as a Tu-160. However, it is unclear if they are also used for training crews for the markedly different Tu-95. In any case, these long-nosed planes are the most likely culprits in the case of the reported formation of Tu-134’s that appeared over the Baltic Sea last Sunday.
Although I have never seen a Tu-95, most sources describe them as simply awe-inspiring. They stand over 12 m tall when on the ground, and the large swept wings measure 50,04 meters tip to tip. Power comes from four of the most powerful turboprop engine ever produced, the Kuznetsov NK-12MA, each driving two contra-rotating props, with a diameter of 5,6 meters. The plane has a service ceiling of 12 000 meters, and can reach a top speed of 925 km/h. Even with a sizeable weapons load of over 11 ton, it has an unrefueled range of 6 400 km. The Kh-55/Kh-55SM cruise missiles have a range of around 2 400-3 000 kilometers, giving the aircraft/missile combination a huge reach, which further can be enhanced through the use of inflight refueling. As of late, many of the bombers have also been adorned with names and crests of Russian cities, a move one can understand, given that the planes are roughly the same length as a Hamina-class fast attack craft…
All in all, it is an impressive piece of engineering, and has long ago earned its place in the books of aviation as a true classic. Its main weakness lies in it being terribly vulnerable to modern long-range SAM systems, and naturally to enemy fighters if operating unescorted. As such, the tactics in times of war would most probably be for the aircraft either to loiter over own territory and conduct pinpoint strikes from there, or fly over the Arctic wastes and surrounding oceans to launch stand-off attacks on targets in Northern America and Western Europe with either conventional or nuclear-tipped weapons. As stated in my last post, I cannot foresee a role for it operating over the Baltic Sea.
“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.
Drar mig till minnes alla UND-genomgångar med “fast de opererar inte i Östersjön så dem kan vi bortse från”.#säkpol#föpol#lärom
“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.
NATO Baltic Air Policing QRA F-16 jets on 29 OCT scrambled to intercept RU Armed Forces 2x Su-24, 2x MiG-31,1x Su-27 over the Baltic Sea.
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:
Жаркая суббота."Сообразительный" в международных водах,полёт Ту-154 и Ил-76 ВВС до Калининграда и обратно + манёвры Ту-22, Ту-95 в тех краях
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.