Russia continues to flex its military muscles throughout Europe. Russian President Putin has sent tens of thousands of Russians troops and heavy equipment into Georgia and now eastern Ukraine, and has only received a light slap on the wrist for his illegal military aggression. Is it any wonder Russian military aircraft are now constantly buzzing European aircraft and encroaching on European airspace? Putin is doing what any bully will do when unchallenged…that is, continue to act belligerently.
Russian military aircraft “flying dark”
According to a report from BloombergBusiness, just three weeks ago, two Russian bombers flying with their transponders turned off came so close to the coast of Ireland that Dublin’s traffic control tower delayed the takeoff of a passenger aircraft and told another flight to change direction to avoid the bombers. The practice of flying with the transponders turned off to avoid detection is called “flying dark” and private and commercial aircraft are forbidden from doing so.
Moreover, late last year, a Russian intelligence-gathering aircraft almost collided with an SAS passenger airplane over southern Sweden, according to the Swedish air force. A few months before, a Russian plane flew within a few hundred yards of another SAS civilian plane just taking off from Copenhagen airport. The Russian government claims that its aircraft were not dangerously close to the passenger aircraft in either incident..
A Russian military jet also came within 10 meters of a Swedish surveillance plane flying in the area last summer. Around the same time, a U.S. surveillance plane conducting operations in international airspace near Kaliningrad was chased off into Swedish airspace by Russian fighters, according to the UK-based European Leadership Network.
According to NATO reports, Russian military aircraft have probed and sometimes violated the borders of European nations’ airspace more than 100 times in the last year. The Russian intruders turned off their transponders, electronic devices most aircraft are required to turn on to make it easy to track them, in nearly all of the cases.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in December that “flying dark” was inherently unsafe and poses a serious risk to civilian air traffic.
Not much can be done if Russia is intent on playing “chicken”
Unfortunately, aviation and military analysts note that there’s not much anybody can do to make the Russians turn their transponders on. Of note, the European Union’s air safety agency is due to present a report on how to handle the flying dark problem by the end of the month. Finland, whose airspace has been violated by Russian military aircraft numerous times, has put a request to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization to look into the situation.
There’s really not much to be done. The Convention on International Civil Aviation (the ground rules for global air travel) does not “cover the operation of equipment on military aircraft,” a spokesman for the Montreal-based ICAO informed Bloomberg. By the same token, the Russian military is obviously not bound to follow EU or other national regulations regarding the use of transponders.
Analysts highlight that the recent Russian aerial aggression is violating a decades old unwritten agreement that military planes will use transponders when flying close to civilian air corridors. Experts point out that even in international airspace, it’s “standard practice” for NATO and other Western air forces to keep their transponders on, except during combat or intelligence missions. They note not using your transponder and coming close to civilian aircraft is clear an act of provocation.
Keep in mind that even if they are not using their transponders, the Russian military aircraft can still be seen on radar. Radar, however, offers much less-detailed information than a transponder signal, making misidentification or other confusion much more likely. That said, military analysts note that that most Russian aircraft are relatively easy to identify on radar given general familiarity with the aircraft.
Japan in similar situation with China
Japan finds itself playing a similar game of “chicken” with Chinese military aircraft in the East China Sea. The Japanese F-15 fighter squadron based at Naha, the nearest Japanese base to the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea is scrambled more than once a day. In fact, there have been a record 400 airspace violations by Chinese aircraft in the 12 months preceding March 2014.