Jet interceptions: why are airspace violations on the rise?

Military jets are increasingly being called to 'maintain airspace integrity' resulting in tense mid-air interactions

Two RAF Typhoon fighter jets in action
(Image credit: ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)

Global leaders are reporting a surge in airspace violations and scrambling of military aircraft to intercept foreign jets.

As geopolitical tensions rise in Europe and Asia, Nato member aircraft undertook more than 500 scrambles over Europe last year – a fourfold increase on the previous year. A clear majority – nearly 85 per cent – of these were to intercept Russian aircraft.

Why are jets sent out, what happens when they approach the offending planes, and does it ever lead to dogfights?

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Why are the jets sent out?

Interceptions tend to occur when foreign aircraft stray into – or very close to – a nation's airspace. The UK's Foreign Office says the interceptions are undertaken to avoid "disruption to civil aviation", while the RAF explains they are done to "maintain the integrity of our airspace".

However, given that the intercepted aircraft rarely intrude on British airspace for longer than a second or two, if at all, there is clearly a degree of showmanship at work on both sides.

What happens?

As the interceptor pilots approach, both they and the control tower continue to attempt to make radio contact with aircraft.

If needed, they will 'buzz' the offending plane. This means flying very close to it, sometimes within a few yards. They will identify the serial and tail number and report the details to ground control.

Buzzing is an aggressive tactic, but normally both jets back away from any serious confrontation. RAF Wing Commander Stu Smiley told the Daily Mail: "There may be some waving between cockpits just to show a friendly atmosphere."

Does the confrontation ever escalate?

In April 2001, a Chinese fighter jet made two close passes to a US intelligence plane but collided with it on the third pass. The Chinese aircraft broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea, killing the pilot. The US jet made an unauthorised landing in China, where its crew was detained for ten days.

In April 2014, a US RC-135U spyplane and Russian Su-27 were involved in what The Aviationist described as "one of the most dangerous aerial encounters since the Cold War", in the skies north of Japan. After the Russian jet made its identification, instead of breaking away it crossed the US plane's line of flight, putting itself within 100ft of its path. This dangerous manoeuvre was condemned as breaking international standards.

What's in it for the 'aggressors'?

Experts say that the increase in interceptions is largely a tit-for-tat that comes in response to escalating geopolitical tensions. Some suggest that the aggressors are, in part, testing the military response times of their opponents, but a Nato official told The Guardian that it was difficult to understand the reasoning behind Russia's increased number of flights. A Russian government spokesman said recently that the increase should be seen within the context of "a drastic increase in the activity of foreign reconnaissance and combat planes near Russian borders", suggesting that the flights are as much about retaliation as posturing.

Is there any danger for civilians?

Despite the alarmist headlines, civilians are very rarely in any danger. Interceptions generally take place far away from inhabited areas and use military planes that inform air-traffic control and civil aircraft of their position at all times. The interceptions have also informed the UK's decision to increase defence spending in a number of countries, with the UK most recently committing to spending 2 per cent of its GDP, meeting the benchmark set by Nato. However, critics have argued that increased spending endangers civilians, citing the dramatic rise in Chinese military incidents following the 800bn yuan (£80bn) military spending increase over the past 25 years.

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