Russian Jet Fighters Give NATO Intelligence Bonanza As They Buzz NATO Nations In Record Numbers

Jonathan Vankin

Russian jet fighters, Russian spy planes, Russian military transport aircraft -- all of these aircraft have sent NATO defenses into a frenzy this year, forcing jets to scramble about 400 times already in 2014, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an address to a multi-national troop force in Estonia on Thursday.

That's an average of more than one NATO scramble every day so far this year. The latest confrontation between a Russian plane and NATO happened Thursday. A Russian spy plane was spotted flying near the border of Latvia, a former Soviet republic and Warsaw Pact nation that is now a western ally, joining NATO in 2004.

Two Canadian CF-18 Hornet jet fighters took to the skies to chase away the Russian surveillance aircraft in what was the third showdown in the skies over the Baltic between NATO and the Russians in the past three days.

Stoltenberg called the Russian jet forays into and near NATO air space "dangerous" not simply because the encounters risk escalating into military confrontations, but because the Russian planes usually refuse to communicate or even turn on their transponders.

The Russian radio silence poses a significant threat of mid-air collisions with commercial airliners, the NATO chief said.

In fact, in March, a Russian spy plane with its transponder silenced nearly rammed into an SAS passenger jet with 136 on board as the airliner took off from a Danish airport.

While the jump in Russian aerial brinksmanship has been frightening to the public and kept NATO busy, the situation is not all bad for the alliance of Western nations. Officials say that every time Russian fighter jets come close to NATO aircraft -- presumably to test NATO air defenses -- they are giving away as much vital secret information as they are gaining.

"Clearly, every time we come into contact with Russian forces and every time we see their tactics and how they deploy, we do learn about them," said top NATO military commander Philip Breedlove, a U.S. Air Force General. "They are just happening more often and occasionally, the size of the activities is larger."

According to Lukasz Kulsea, research director of the London-based European Leadership Network think tank, the otherwise unsettling rise in Russian military activity both in the air and on sea and land has been an intelligence-gathering bonanza for NATO.

"A Russian mission that sent planes on the same day to the Baltic, the North Sea and the Black Sea tells us what Russian capabilities have become," Kulesa told Businessweek Magazine. "It gives us a much better understanding of Russian readiness and their ability to perform more complex deployments."

Nonetheless, Stoltenberg called the increased number of Russian jet fighters and other planes buzzing NATO countries "risky and unjustified," saying that "it is a pattern that reminds us of the way they conducted these kind of military air activities back in the time of the Cold War."