Close Encounters: Russian Military Intrusions into UK Air- and Sea Space Since 2005

By Dr Andrew Foxall

The United Kingdom is ill-prepared to combat Russian aircraft and sea vessels encroaching into the UK’s area of interest; and twice in the last 12 months was caught off guard entirely. The findings, from the Russian Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society, come as Russia’s incursions into Turkish airspace, to strike within Syria, cause alarm, with the issue due to be discussed as NATO Defence Ministers meet in Brussels.

The new report, Close Encounters: Russian Military Incursions into UK Air and Sea Space Since 2005, highlights that there have been occasions when the UK has not had the capability to defend itself against a potential threat from Russia. Over the past decade, Russia has increased its presence in international airspace and waters which are of vital interest to the UK’s security. The report analyses 33 specific incidents, of which 23 were in the air and 10 out at sea.

Of these incidents:

  • More than half of the incidents took place over the North Sea (17 of 33), followed by the Atlantic Ocean (7) and the English Channel (5).
  • Most occurred in October and January (both 4 of 33), followed by February, April, May, July, September and December (all 3).
  • The majority of the airspace incidents involved Tupolev Tu-95 Bear bombers (16 of 23 incidents), which are long-range strategic bombers originally designed to carry nuclear bombs.
  • Almost half of the sea-space incidents involved the Admiral Kuznetsov (4 of 10), Russia’s largest warship.

Alarmingly, twice in the last 12 months the UK was unable to deal with the threat posed by Russian submarines positioned off the Scottish coast and had to seek assistance from France and the United States. In 2010, Britain scrapped the Nimrod maritime patrol – as part of the Security and Defence Spending Review — which had the capability to detect, track, and deter foreign submarines in and around UK waters.

Report author and Director of the Russian Studies Centre Dr Andrew Foxall said: “The incidents analysed in this report are very serious, not because they indicate a desire on the part of Russia to start a war but because they demonstrate that Russia’s military adventurism is becoming increasingly dangerous.

“Given the gravity of the security situation in Europe, it would be remiss of the UK Government not to undertake measures aimed at constraining President Putin’s follies.”

Britain will begin a Strategic Defence and Security Review in November, and the HJS is calling on the Government to engage with Russian counterparts in the area of military-to-military communication in order to safeguard civilian air passengers. In January 2015, two Russian bombers approached UK airspace, reportedly without their transponders turned on, and a number of civilian flights arriving in Britain had to be diverted. Should this happen again, there is no guarantee that there would be the same, non-fatal, outcome.

HJS is also calling on Britain to now begin to gather data of sea incursions, as official figures for incidents are not currently held by the MOD.

Dr Foxall said: “For years successive British governments tolerated Russia’s aggressive behaviour. This has now changed, and the UK has begun to show some diplomatic and political resolve. But more action is needed on the military side, not least to exhibit the UK’s effective defensive capabilities.

“Without this, we risk encouraging more Russian aggression in the future – both toward the UK and elsewhere.”

Read the full report: Close Encounters: Russian Military Intrusions into UK Air- and Sea Space Since 2005


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