On Monday evening, a pair of F-35 fighter jets stationed in the northern region of Europe were deployed to intercept the three Russian jets, which inlcuded two jet fighters, after they were discovered flying into NATO territory with their transponders turned off.
The three Russian aircraft were stopped near the Russian-Polish border: an Il-20M intelligence-gathering (‘spy’) jet and two SU-27 Flankers, Russia’s equivalent of the F-15 Eagle. While they didn’t fly into NATO territory, they were alleged to have approached Poland from the Kaliningrad Oblast, a tiny Russian exclave on the Baltic wedged between Poland and Lithuania, with their transponders switched off, and to have also flown in neutral airspace over the Baltic, according to Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza.
The NATO planes that stopped the duo were Dutch F-35s from the NATO Baltic Air Policing operation headquartered at Malbork airport. “Two Dutch F-35s carried out the first interception from Poland,” the Dutch Ministry of Defense confirmed on Monday evening.
Germany took over the intercept from the Dutch first-responder F-35s and shared photographs of the Russian aircraft taken by their pilots.
According to the Dutch daily De Telegraaf, the Russian plane was flying “on the border” when it was intercepted. The Netherlands has eight planes stationed in Poland as part of a NATO task force, as part of a revolving deployment in which different member countries take turns policing the skies for months at a time. According to De Telegraaf, this is the first interception made by Dutch jets during their two-month mission.
While Russian aircraft activity on the outskirts of NATO territory is not uncommon — the UK’s Royal Air Force often tracks Russian bombers in the North Sea in what are widely understood to be tests of NATO’s capacity to react promptly to the arrival of Russian jets — the interception of an escorted intel asset over Europe comes after weeks of anxiety about Chinese aerial surveillance and the Ukraine crisis.
In recent days, the US has shot down many ‘UFOs’ above North America that have been identified as solar-powered Chinese surveillance balloons, actions that the Chinese have condemned and mocked. The interest in hostile monitoring of Western nations has expanded to the UK, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying that the Royal Air Force was ready to protect the country’s airspace if required.
Meanwhile, the UK Defense Ministry said it will assess whether the nation is doing enough to safeguard its skies against high-altitude infiltration.