For a generation of Westerners, the first words of Russian we learned were Mikhail Gorbachev’s offers of glasnost (гла́сность – openness) and perestroika ((перестро́йка – listening) which culminated in the end of the Berlin Wall, the USSR and, theoretically at least, the Cold War.
So you may be surprised to learn that as you read this, two pairs of RAF fighter pilots are sitting, ‘suited and booted’ in their crew rooms; with armed fighter jets, ground crews and radar controllers all standing by for the first sign of incoming aircraft.
As you may remember from this Lightning article, QRA – or Quick Reaction Alert – involves having two aircraft ready to launch at just two minutes’ notice. Pilots generally serve one or two QRA shifts per month, each a straight 24-hour watch.
The Royal Air Force continues to maintain this vigil over Europe’s (i.e. NATO’s) northern skies, giving particular attention to Russian aircraft entering Baltic airspace. A second watch guards the Atlantic and southern approaches to UK airspace. (The QRA squadrons were also tasked with protecting the London Olympics from aerial threats in 2012.)
The air forces of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania also maintain QRA squadrons as part of their NATO commitment.
Watching the sky
These days the RAF’s QRA North force is baed at RAF Lossiemouth, east of Aberdeen in Scotland (having relocated from RAF Leuchars, Fife, on September 1st, 2014). QRA South operates from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. A supporting RAF Voyager tanker (Airbus A330 MRTT) is also kept on stand-by at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
The sharp end of the force is its Eurofighter Typhoons armed with four ASRAAM (AIM-132s in the US) and four AIM-20 AMRAAM missiles, plus a pair of 2,000 litre drop tanks.
Despite the slow thaw in East-West relations since QRA was first established with Lightnings, phollowed by Phantoms, the watch is still active, still very busy – and still a good excuse to share some photos of current Russian aircraft…
In July 2008, QRA South Typhoons of No.XI Squadron at RAF Coningsby were scrambled to intercept a Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Туполев’ (or ‘Bear’ to NATO) over the North Atlantic Ocean. These long-range reconnaissance aircraft often conduct long circuits from their bases in Russia, around the coast of Finland and Norway before heading home across the Baltic, a route that takes them close to the northern edges of Britain’s air defence zone and through NATO airspace. (MoD | Crown Copyright 2008)
2014 was an especially busy year for QRA pilots, as Russian flights occurred with unprecedented frequency. On April 23rd, QRA South Typhoons intercepted another Bear patrol and escorted it as it transited North Atlantic airspace. The Bears’ long patrols cover thousands of miles and often last for 12 to 16 hours each. Their inevitably tired crews and unwavering flightpaths have earned them the nickname ‘Zombies’.
Three weeks later, Baltic Radar was alarmed by four separate groups of Russian aircraft entering the coverage zone simultaneously. QRA Typhoons were scrambled to intercept and monitor the force, which turned out to include a variety of Russian types on routine training exercises in international airspace. Along with a Tupolev Tu-22 ‘Backfire’ bomber and Beriev A50 ‘Mainstay’ early warning aircraft, the exercise included this Antonov An-26 ‘Curl’ tactical transport. Antonov built around 1100 of this twin turboprop transport between 1966 and 1986 with export sales to Vietnam and Pakistan. The design was also copied by China (with a rear cargo ramp) as the Xi’an Y-14 or Y-7H.
Accompanying the June 17th, 2014 exercise were four Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Sofiyka’ or ‘Flanker’ multi-role fighters. The RAF pilots took the opportunity to photograph the potent Russian type, which was originally designed in response to the F-15 Eagle’s development and finally entered service in 1985 after a troubled eight-year flight test program. Over 800 were built in a dizzying range of improvements, developments and derivations – including side-by-side two seat versions and canard-equipped naval options. They serve with numerous countries – including the USAF as exercise aggressors.
On September 16th, 2014, the barely-settled No. 6 Squadron launched their first QRA response after moving into RAF Lossiemouth from RAF Leuchars. The Typhoons found a pair of Tu-95 Bears operating in international airspace and monitored the aircraft while taking the obligatory ‘gee-whizz’ air-to-air shots. No doubt the Russian crews were doing the same.
Known by NATO as ‘Foxhound’, this flight of Mikoyan Mig-31s was part of a 10-aircraft force intercepted by QRA Typhoons in Baltic airspace on July 24th, 2015. The Foxhound was designed as dedicated interceptor to replace the Mig-25 ‘Foxbat’. Foxhound production ended in 1994 after a run of 519 airframes, but the aircraft is expected to remain in Russian service until the 2030s. The type is well known for being one of the world’s fastest military aircraft, limited to Mach 2.83 but theoretically capable of Mach 3.2 or higher while steadily tearing its engines apart.
This Sukhoi Su-34 Сухой or ‘Fullback’ was also part of the force photographed over the Baltic on July 24th, 2015. The twin-engined, twin-seat Fullback was designed as an all-weather strike fighter from the Su-27 – one of many aircraft with its origins in the ‘Flanker’. Originally flown in 1990, post-Soviet political (and budgetary) turmoil dogged the Fullback’s development, leading to modernisation programs that began even before first deliveries of the new type in 2007. As a result, the Fullback didn’t really enter service until mid-2014 and would have still been a novel QRA intercept the following year.
And so the Russian Air Force continues to exercise its right to operate in international airspace over the Baltic and Atlantic. And NATO personnel continue to watch, wait, wait, wait, wait – then spring into action.
It’s worth remembering that Russia’s flights up to NATO’s boundary are also deeply political manoeuvres – more political than military a lot of the time – and it would only be inflammatory to make too much of them.
After all, the two air forces are only doing what air forces have always done, and what cavalry did before that: Going out to see where your neighbours are at; and, conversely, letting the neighbour’s know when they’ve found you.
Besides, Russia and Britain have lived with the same frosty détente since at least the 1820s, so this aerial eyeballing is nothing new.
The most recent Cold War may be over, but everyone still needs to keep their cool.