British and German fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft Tuesday flying close to Estonia airspace. File Photo by Toms Kalnins/EPA-EFE
March 15 (UPI) -- British and German fighter jets were scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft flying close to Estonia airspace, officials said Wednesday as concerns mount that the Ukrainian war could expand to the skies after Russia downed a U.S. drone earlier this week.
The Royal and German air forces were conducting planned joint NATO Air Policing near Estonia, when they each launched a Typhoon jet from Amari Air Base on Tuesday to intercept a Russian air-to-air refuelling aircraft that was flying between St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, the British Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The IL78 Midas had failed to communicate with Estonia air traffic control, forcing the ally jets to be scrambled, it said.
"We identified and monitored it as it transited close to NATO airspace," said an unnamed fighter pilot from IX (Bomber) Squadron, operating as part of 140 Expeditionary Air Wing, who was on Quick Reaction Alert duty when the scramble was called.
"Any aircraft that are not communicating with Air Traffic Control or on a recognized flight plan will be intercepted by us to ensure we know who they are and maintain flight safety for all airspace users."
After the "successful" visual identification and escort, the fighter jets were directed to intercept a Russian AN148 airliner, which was also passing near Estonian airspace, the ministry said.
Though interceptions are routine for NATO missions, this marked the first joint NATO Air policing interception involving a German Air Force Typhoon, officials said.
"It was great to see the U.K. and German elements operate as one team," Wing Commander Scott Maccoll, commander of the Royal Air Force's 140 Expeditionary Air Wing, said in a statement. "As NATO continually adapts its structures and workforce, today shows us the next evolution."
NATO fighter jets are scrambled hundreds of times a year to intercept. In 2021, jets were scrambled 370 times across Europe, with 290 of those missions being in response to Russian aircraft, according to NATO data.
However, the most recent mission occurred on the same day Russian fighter jets collided with a U.S. military drone over international airspace, causing the aerial to be crashed into the Black Sea after it became unflyable.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Wednesday described the collision as a "hazardous episode" that is "a part of a pattern of aggressive and risky and unsafe actions by Russian pilots in international airspace."