NATO announced this week that, of some 370 total missions flown by its combat aircraft in 2021, 290 involved “response to the activities of Russian aircraft.” Most of those were warplanes operating in northwest Europe that “were flying too close to the airspace of member countries.”
Most of the intercepts played out in the Baltic region near Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In a statement, NATO reported, “Generally, intercepts occurred without incident as NATO planes take off to identify the approaching aircraft and escort it out of the area. Very few intercepted flights entered allied airspace.”
Still, despite growing tensions surrounding Russia’s military buildup along the border with Ukraine, NATO reports the number of Russia-linked intercepts actually decreased this year. In 2020, NATO scrambled alert aircraft some 350 times in response to Russian planes.
The international peacekeeping group reports that more than 60 NATO jets are on 24/7/365 standby status throughout Europe, available at a moment’s notice to respond to events such as “unannounced military flights or civilian planes losing communication with air-traffic controllers for any reason, which could range from technical problems to hijacking,” NATO said.
Most of the incidents over the past year involved identifying and diverting Russian aircraft, which is an aerial cat-and-mouse game that both sides have come to see as almost routine. According to NATO, all this year’s interactions played out “without incident … very few of the intercepted aircraft entered the airspace of the Allies.”