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NATO jets scrambled to intercept 350 Russian aircraft in 2020

The missions represent a continuing uptick in Russian flights near the NATO perimeter.

Updated: December 29, 2020 - 12:31pm

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The NATO alliance scrambled its fighter jets more than 400 times to intercept approaching aircraft in 2020, mostly in response to Russian military planes, the defense organization said Monday.

The missions represent a continuing uptick in Russian flights near the NATO perimeter.

"In recent years, we have seen an increased level of Russian military air activity close to the alliance's borders," NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in a statement.

In 2020, NATO air forces in Europe responded to 350 flights from Russian military planes — a "moderate" increase from 300 such intercepts in 2019, the organization said.

Russian military aircraft are a challenge to Western defenses for a number of reasons.

"Russian military aircraft often do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, do not file a flight plan, or do not communicate with air traffic controllers, posing a potential risk to civilian airliners," the group wrote in a statement.

Norway reported earlier this year that its own NATO contingent launched 41 intercepts as of mid-September. Pilots there have identified foreign aircraft including Russian Tu-160 Blackjack long-range bombers, Tu-142 anti-submarine aircraft from the Northern Fleet, and other warplanes. 

Throughout  Europe, NATO maintains about 40 air surveillance radars and reporting hubs. Some 60 jets are on duty at all times to respond to imperiled aircraft or to potential airborne intruders. 

"We are always vigilant," Lungescu said. "NATO fighter jets are on duty around the clock, ready to scramble in case of suspicious or unannounced flights near the airspace of our allies. Air policing is an important way in which NATO provides security for our members."

Formed in the aftermath of World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance consists of 30 independent member countries taking part in an overarching mutual defense pact.