Tags: nato | russia | norway

Russian Bombers Fly in Europe's Far North

Tuesday, 02 Sep 2008 10:13 AM

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In scenes reminiscent of the Cold War, Russian bombers have returned to the skies in Europe's far north after years of absence, putting NATO's jet fighters on alert once again.

At the Bodoe airbase, above the Arctic circle, two F-16s are always on call, ready to take off in less than 15 minutes for stand-offs with surprise visitors from Norway's eastern neighbour.

"We have noticed a clear rise in Russian aerial activity over the past year," said base air commander general Per Egil Rygg.

"This has given us a lot more to do," he added.

In 2006, Norwegian F-16s carried out 13 emergency take-offs to "identify", as the military jargon goes, 14 Russian planes.

A year later, the number of emergency take-offs leapt to 47, with a whopping 88 Russian planes "identified".

The increase appears to be largely due to a decision by then-president Vladimir Putin to relaunch strategic bomber flights "on a permanent basis".

Despite Russian troops being tied up in the Georgian conflict, the Norwegian air force says there has been no slowdown in the number of Russian bombers spotted.

To keep up with the Russian planes, two fighter pilots and four mechanics remain on high alert at the Bodoe base 24 hours a day.

Stationed in a small building near two shelters each housing an F16, one pilot slumbers fully-dressed while the other stands guard, waiting for a bright-red telephone to ring.

As soon as NATO's Combined Air Operations Centre in Denmark gives the order, the pilot on guard sounds the alarm and the six men make a dash for the two jets on call, which make it into the air just minutes later.

Only after they are airborne do the pilots receive their mission orders.

While such manoeuvres and the frequent drone of the Russian bombers may provoke Cold War flashbacks in Bodoe, most airmen here say they are not too concerned.

"They (the Russian planes) remain in international air space at all times without violating Norway's sovereignty. They have every right to do this," Rygg pointed out.

"We make sure to mark our territory, but this doesn't really worry us," he added.

The government in Oslo is also rather laid-back. The reappearance of the Tu-95 "Bear" and Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers, it says, is primarily a sign that Moscow has gained more budgetary wiggle-room, enabling it to carry out more training missions.

While Norway plays down the notion that the Russian flights are a muscle-flexing demonstration, other countries have had a hard time seeing purely coincidence when Russian bombers last year for instance stroked the outer limits of Dutch airspace when the Netherlands was hosting an important NATO meeting.

Or when they, also in 2007, hovered near British airspace at the height of the tensions between London and Moscow.

Located just some 600 kilometres (373 miles) from the Russian border, Bodoe has always been a strategic geopolitical location for the United States and its allies, something the town's aviation museum is quick to point out.

The museum, located just a stone's throw from the airbase, is home to a rare specimen of the same American U2 spy plane as the one shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 during a secret mission that had been scheduled to end in the small Norwegian town.

The Cold War tensions of that era today appear to have dissipated at the airbase, where smiling guards laxly inspect visitors before letting them out to the concrete shelters camouflaged by thick grass that house close to 40 F-16s.

A good-natured 31-year-old captain, who asks to remain anonymous, explains that he is one of the fighter pilots who is regularly sent up to face-off with the Russians.

"We avoid any kind of provocation," he insists.

"We come from the back and we keep our distance all the time, no less than 500 feet (152 metres) from them. They proceed with their mission normally. They don't do anything special just because we're there," he adds.

Unlike in one of his favorite films, "Top Gun", which he has seen at least 50 times, there are no insulting gestures or provocative moves during the high-altitude encounters, the captain said.

"They take pictures and we take pictures. Sometimes we even wave at each other," he said.

Copyright AFP 2008

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