NATO Air Policing: what is airspace mission, UK involvement explained after Russian plane intercepted

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Reports also emerged of a Russian fighter jet colliding with a US drone over the Black Sea, although there is no evidence of a link between the two events.

A Russian aircraft has been intercepted by British RAF and German fighter jets after it was identified near NATO airspace.

Two Typhoon jets - one British and one German - reacted to the Russian Il-78 Midas refuelling plane after it failed to communicate with air traffic control in Estonia. It had been flying between St Petersburg and Kaliningrad, close to the NATO nation’s airspace.

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The Ministry of Defence (MOD) said it was a “routine” mission, but it is the first time that Britain and Germany have teamed up in a patrolling operation. Meanwhile, a Typhoon pilot from the RAF’s Bomber Squadron, who was not named by, commented: “As a fighter pilot this was a routine business, even though I was flying alongside a German colleague.”

He explained that the pair had identified and monitored the Russian jet as it transited close to airspace in Estonia - which is a member of NATO and shares a border with Russia. Given that it had not communicated with air traffic control, the pair intercepted it to ensure the plane knew “who they [were]” and to “maintain flight safety for all airspace users”.

The incident comes amid heightened tensions between NATO and Russia as the country’s invasion of Ukraine rages on. Reports also emerged on Tuesday (14 March) of a Russian fighter jet colliding with a US drone over the Black Sea, although there is no evidence of a link between the two events.

But why exactly did British and German forces intercept the plane near Estonia - and why do so in a joint mission? Here’s everything you need to now about NATO Air Policing - including how the UK is involved.

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RAF and German Typhoon jets intercepted a Russia aircraft. Credit: Getty RAF and German Typhoon jets intercepted a Russia aircraft. Credit: Getty
RAF and German Typhoon jets intercepted a Russia aircraft. Credit: Getty | Getty Images

What is NATO Air Policing?

According to NATO’s official website, NATO Air Policing is a “peacetime mission” that aims to preserve the safety and security of all airspaces owned by members of the alliance. It is a collective task and involves the continuous presence – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – of fighter aircraft and crews, which are ready to react quickly to possible airspace violations.

Why did British and German jets intercept a plane in Estonia?

All members of NATO, such as the UK and Germany, are involved in the mission. However, there are some member nations, such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, who do not have the necessary air capabilities to contribute fully to NATO Air Policing over their territories.

As a result, there is a long-established Baltic Air Policing mission, where Alliance members provide the necessary capabilities for these nations. This is what the British and German forces were doing on this occasion.

Why was there a joint mission?

The Baltic Air Policing mission has thus far been overseen by the German air force - but is soon set to be taken over by the RAF. While British forces are preparing to take the lead however, joint missions with Germany are set to continue.

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Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey said: “NATO continues to form the bedrock of our collective security. This joint UK and German deployment in the Baltics clearly demonstrates our collective resolve to challenge any potential threat to NATO’s borders, whilst also demonstrating our combined strength.”

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