There’s good news and bad news about the latest incursion of Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers into European air space.
The good news is that the Bears were intercepted and escorted by RAF Typhoons.
The bad news is, basically, everything else.
The Bears were reported by a civilian witness to have operated over Cornwall, on the southwest coast of the UK. The eyewitness who saw one of the Bears says it actually flew over land in Cornwall.
And while the British government says the Bears didn’t fly over land, David Cameron’s public statement about the event is surpassingly weird. More on that shortly.
First, the latest Bear incursion is the second in close proximity to the UK – and in an unusual and sensitive area – in less than three weeks. The previous incident occurred over the English Channel on 28 January, and reportedly caused British air controllers to have to reroute civil aircraft. Although no specifics on the Russian Bears’ flight path in that incident have been made public, the need to divert civil aircraft suggests the Bears did more than merely skirt the northern edge of the Channel. They apparently spent enough time in it to create a significant aviation hazard; they probably got close to Dover, and possibly further south.
As the Wall Street Journal report points out, Russian aircraft were intercepted more than 100 times in proximity to Europe in 2014, a significant increase over 2013.
In the latest incident, on Wednesday, 18 February, the official report is that Typhoons out of the RAF base at Coningsby, in Lincolnshire, made the intercept. This doesn’t mean much about where the Bears were intercepted, other than suggesting that they were intercepted south of the northernmost areas of the UK air perimeter. The RAF has Typhoons at two bases, Coningsby and Lossiemouth, the latter of which is in Scotland, on Moray Firth.
No description of the Bears’ flight path this week has been provided. But the Guardian has a summary of a remarkable report by a British woman who was out for a driving lesson in Cornwall, and who described seeing an aircraft that sounds very much like a Tu-95 Bear, flying over land.
Sue Bamford, from Bodmin, said she witnessed at least one of the bombers flying inland, over Cornwall, while she was having a driving lesson on Wednesday afternoon.
“We were in St Eval when we saw a big black plane that looked like a tank. We thought: where’s that going? It was going along [the route of] the A30,” she said. “As we drove on the big black plane came back again. As Claire [Bamford’s driving instructor] took over to drive back we saw a silver plane, which was the Bear bomber. It’s travelling at the bottom of the St Mawgan valley so we can see it’s not out to sea, it’s in the valley. It’s long and thin, it’s got swept-back wings.”
Bamford said that living between RNAS Culdrose and Newquay Cornwall airport, which used to be RAF St Mawgan, she was used to seeing and hearing different types of aircraft, so she was struck by the sight of two unusual planes on the same day.
Describing the silver plane, she said: “It’s just an odd, odd plane, there’s no other jets in the sky, there’s none of the Typhoons, it’s pootling around and we saw it a couple of times.”
Ms. Bamford says she didn’t give more thought to it, until she began seeing reports about the intercept of the Bear bombers.
My partner says there’s some Russian bomber off the coast of Cornwall. It’s then that I go online and say that’s the plane I saw, holy crap. It wasn’t out to sea, it’s on St Eval where all the radio masts are, I saw that thing over British land.
Her driving instructor confirms that the planes they saw were flying over land.
Presumably, there is no possibility that a Bear was over British territory anywhere further inland. We don’t know enough about the event to be sure where the Bears were intercepted. But the wording of the news reporting that triggered Bamford’s recollection indicates that, independent of her report, there was other reporting that the Bears were operating near Cornwall.
Assuming they were, the most likely scenario is that they flew down west of Ireland and made their closest point of approach (CPA) to the UK at Cornwall, where they were intercepted by the Typhoons from Coningsby.
That’s unusual, and provocative. As to whether they flew over land, I would normally incline to be dismissive about a civilian report. However, the pattern of two very provocative flight profiles in a row, combined with the specific verbiage in Bamford’s summary, gives me pause. Her description of the aircraft is a description of a Tupolev Bear-series aircraft. There isn’t another aircraft that looks similar enough to elicit that same description from her. Besides the long, slim fuselage and long, “swept back” wings, the Russian Bears’ characteristic silver paint scheme is quite distinctive.
(What was the other, “black” plane, the one that “looked like a tank”? That description could fit a Tu-22M Backfire, which has a fat, ungainly fuselage that might well be considered to “look like a tank.” The Backfires are painted out in different schemes depending on which military district they are based in, rather than having the strategic air force paint scheme. Any scenario that united a Bear and a Backfire over Cornwall would have several moving parts, and would appear unlikely, all things being equal. But it’s worth noting that it’s not impossible, by any means.)
It’s theoretically conceivable that the Bear Bamford saw was not a bomber but a Tu-95 Bear D, which is a long-range reconnaissance version of the Tu-95. It might even have been a Tu-142 Bear F, which looks very similar, and performs airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Either of those airframes could be painted out in the distinctive silver scheme.
But it would bizarre in the extreme if the British government copped to intercepting Tu-95 Bear bombers off Cornwall, at the same time there was at least one reconnaissance or ASW aircraft in the same area, and that aircraft went entirely unmentioned.
All that said, Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments about the incident were, in fact, most peculiar. Between the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, his reaction can be reconstructed as follows:
Guardian: During an event at Felixstowe, Suffolk, Cameron said: “I think what this episode demonstrates is that we do have the fast jets, the pilots, the systems in place to protect the United Kingdom. I suspect what’s happening here is that the Russians are trying to make some sort of a point and I don’t think we should dignify it with too much of a response.”
WSJ: “At no time did the Russian military aircraft cross into U.K. sovereign airspace,” Prime Minister David Cameron said. “I suspect what’s happening here is the Russians are trying to make some sort of a point, and I don’t think we should dignify it with too much of a response.”
This is possibly the strangest public statement ever made by a head of government about intercepting someone else’s strategic bombers. For one thing, it’s mealy-mouthed and defensive. “I think this episode demonstrates we have the fast jets, etc., to protect the United Kingdom”??
Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher, but as little as two years ago, I would have confidently expected him to say something much more normal, terse, and assertive, like, “The United Kingdom will at all times ensure the full protection of its air space.”
If he was speaking from a posture of confidence, moreover, I would expect him to simply ignore, in his comments to the public, the potential motivation of the Russians for their flight, and emphasize UK policy for national security instead. The defensiveness of his tone in the comments he did make comes off as a “tell.” He doesn’t speak from a posture of confidence. Not in this instance.
His phrase about not “dignifying” the Russian bomber incursion with “too much of a response” is frankly idiotic. There is no such thing as not dignifying a provocation made with a strategic weapon system by a nuclear-armed nation. Such a provocation doesn’t need “dignifying.” It needs a swift response with the display of an iron fist.
But Cameron didn’t seem to have the confidence to make the uncompromising representations called for in such a case. He came off like a guy who just didn’t want to keep talking about it, almost as if something embarrassing might come out if he did. The Russians, after all, do know exactly what did happen.
I read Cameron’s strange statement to mean that there was something “off” about the incident this week. Occam’s Razor would suggest that it was the obvious thing: one or more of the Russian aircraft, whatever their variant, in fact got over land during their flight, presumably before being intercepted by the Typhoons.
That would be very bad news indeed.