January 6, 2015

Clocking military air miles — annoyance, threat or danger?

Reuters/Scanpix
An undated handout photo provided by the Norwegian Army shows a Norwegian F-16 jet fighter (L) flying next to a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber over an unknown location during a military exercise.
An undated handout photo provided by the Norwegian Army shows a Norwegian F-16 jet fighter (L) flying next to a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber over an unknown location during a military exercise.

The year 2014 saw a tripling of air incidents involving Russian military aircraft, over a half of those—about 40 encounters—taking place above the Baltic Sea.

The year 2014 saw a tripling of air incidents involving Russian military aircraft, over a half of those—about 40 encounters—taking place above the Baltic Sea.

The episodes ranged from incursions into Estonian air space lasting less-than-a-minute, to near-collisions with commercial airliners in heavy-traffic areas in the vicinity of major airports, and simulated attack runs on sovereign countries. All that against the backdrop of Russian long-range air patrols resumed a few years ago. What should we make of this? Are these events a mere annoyance to be shrugged off? Is this a threat made against the small countries in the region? (Compelling them to do…um, what exactly?) Or is it a dangerous practice that requires an immediate response by the European community?
It appears we are looking at three types of cases here. The first involves routine cargo flights between the Kaliningrad enclave and mainland Russia. In many cases the transport aircraft has its transponders working and a flight plan duly filed. Most of these incursions take place at Vaindloo Island in the Gulf of Finland. In the words of a spokesman for the Estonian Air Force, “Vaindloo Island protrudes slightly from the rest of Estonia’s territorial airspace. When it comes to air traffic control, the Vaindloo Island area is not governed by Tallinn, as the rest of the Estonian territory is, but by St Petersburg controllers. When they come from Kaliningrad on their way to St Petersburg, or the other way round, [the pilots] may be tempted to cut the corner.” So it looks more like human laziness (with a degree of “because I can do it” attitude) than some evil design. Let’s call this type of case an “Annoyance”. Should we take notice of it? – Sure. Should we make strong formal response? – Probably not. Radar and occasional direct air intercepts, followed by sending a diplomatic message indicating the occurrence seem so far to be adequate.
The second type of case is a simulated air attack. And let’s be clear: this summer’s drill on Bornholm, Denmark was not the first of its kind. There was a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw, Poland in 2009, and a massive simulated air attack on Sweden in 2013, to name just a few. The message seems to be along the lines of “You better behave, or else…” Well, nobody doubted the capability of Russia to wipe out Warsaw or Stockholm if they really wanted to. The question is rather: what behaviour is Russia expecting to see in return? To bully Sweden—to date a non-aligned country—out of…what? The only measurable result so far has been convincing the Swedes that joining NATO may be a better idea than staying out of it. Likewise, neither Denmark nor Poland—both NATO nations—has signalled any change in their policies. Quite the contrary, Russia’s actions—major field exercises Zapad 2009 and 2013 among others—have reinforced Poland’s willingness to acquire a missile defence system. This case deserves the label “Threat”. Of two response strategies available to a small state facing pressure from an overwhelmingly stronger opponent—balancing and bandwagoning, the countries concerned appear to have opted for balancing. (From a strictly foreign policy viewpoint it is hardly the result desired by Russia. For internal consumption, of course, this bolsters the image of Russia as a “fortress under siege” and strengthens the power of the ex-KGB band of brothers.) So, what should we do about this? Keep Article V in mind and spend at least 2% of GDP on defence.
The third type of case—military air activity with potential for collisions with a commercial airliner—should be considered in the wider context of attempts to (re)establish Russia’s global military presence, the key building block of which is long-range air patrolling. In the Baltic Sea region, besides a more politically oriented “show of presence”, these flights also serve an operational purpose: to check the physical capabilities of air defence systems in the countries concerned as well as their determination to respond. In strict military terms, the whole issue is “still more bark than bite”; in the broader context, however, Russia’s neglect of civilian lives put in danger calls for action. Hence, the third type of case is clearly a “Danger”. Plausible options in response appear to be along the lines of enhancing the primary radar coverage at all altitudes, and improving the interoperability between military and civilian air traffic controllers for all countries concerned. Whether initiatives to strengthen the legal framework governing peacetime military air traffic get political traction, remains to be seen. Hopefully, some measures can be forged before a collision between military and commercial aircraft, causing the loss of hundreds of lives, takes place.
To sum up, then: Annoyance, Threat or Danger? All three. What should we do about them? Ensure proper funding for day-to-day operations, as well as due enhancement of air surveillance systems; improve interoperability between air traffic controllers; and deploy appropriate military and diplomatic means to document each and every incident. Other then that—keep calm and carry on: clocking military air miles is not about reaching the platinum level of some fancy loyalty programme.

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