‘Zombie’ Attack! How Russian Fighters Were Intercepted By British Jets Nearly 50 Times In 120 Days

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) Lossiemouth pilots have had a busy time at work over the Baltic as they scrambled to intercept Russian fighter jets some 50 times during a four-month deployment in the region.

The crew was among members of the 140 Expeditionary Air Wing (140 EAW) sent to Estonia to assist with NATO airspace patrol missions. The pilots undertook typical Quick Reaction Alerts (QRAs) on their RAF Typhoon jets that were armed during these missions.

“Members of 140 Expeditionary Air Wing (140 EAW) have been deployed to Ämari Air Base since the start of March, along with a squadron of RAF Typhoon fighter jets, to conduct Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) intercepts of Russian aircraft transiting close to NATO airspace,” the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) said in a statement.

As a typical Standard Operating Procedure, when a NATO country’s airspace or an area of interest is violated, a fighter is dispatched to undertake the QRA response. This entails coordination between the RAF’s pilots and the reporting and operations centers.

Since the Ukraine war began, several such violations have been noted, sometimes leading to non-threatening interceptions and sometimes leading to unwarranted engagements.

The UK MoD statement noted that the RAF personnel used the codename “Zombie” for a Russian aircraft acting suspiciously. This means the RAF personnel had to contend with at least 50 “zombies” during their four-month deployment or just 120 days of patrolling over the Baltic.

The UK pilots successfully intercepted 21 aircraft throughout a 21-day period, including long-range bombers and aircraft used for intelligence gathering. “Royal Air Force personnel have returned to the UK after leading NATO’s Baltic air policing mission in Estonia for four months, during which pilots intercepted 50 Russian aircraft and flew for a combined total of more than 500 hours,” said the MoD.

The RAF mission, codenamed Operation Azotize, took place when tensions between NATO members and Russia over the conflict in Ukraine were at an all-time high. As Russian military planes passed through international airspace, Typhoon pilots from squadrons IX (Bomber) and 1 (Fighter) shadowed them.

According to the UK MoD, the Portuguese and Romanian Air Forces, who together were in command of the NATO air policing mission in Lithuania, kept up the operation coordination with the RAF troops. On their part, the NATO forces have intensified patrolling the region and conducted several military drills since the war broke out in Ukraine.

As the mission came to an end with RAF personnel returning home, British Defense Secretary said, “The UK’s successful leadership of NATO’s air policing mission in Estonia, resulting in the interception of dozens of Russian aircraft by the RAF, sends a strong message to Putin that we stand united with our allies against any threat to our borders.”

This becomes significant given the confrontations between Russian fighter jets and NATO surveillance aircraft, spiraling out of control in some instances and leading to very close shaves in others.

Russia-NATO Tensions In The Sky Almost Spilled Out Of Control

Although Russian fighter jets hovering near NATO airspace and coming in direct contact with NATO aircraft may not necessarily be a rare event, it has become increasingly commonplace since the Ukraine war broke out in February 2022. This has been evident in the few instances of confrontation between aircraft.

In late September last year, off the coast of Crimea over the Black Sea, an RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft engaged with Russian Su-27 Flankers of the Russian Aerospace Force in an incident that almost led to an escalation between the two sides.

At the time, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced that a Russian fighter jet “released a missile” near a British aircraft in international airspace over the Black Sea owing to a technical malfunction. “We are incredibly lucky that the episode did not become worse,” said Wallace.

File:RC-135W Rivet Joint MOD 45159809.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint- Wikimedia Commons

In the same announcement, Wallace accused Russian fighter jets of acting recklessly by flying as close as 15 feet or about 4.6 meters to a NATO aircraft.

Although the incident was forgotten in a few months with the war catching pace, a trove of leaked Pentagon files that went by the reference “near-shoot down of UK RJ” revealed that a Russian Su-27 fighter jet nearly shot down the British spy aircraft.

The documents revealed that the Russian fighter jet pilot locked on to the British aircraft, misheard the radar operator on the ground as giving the go-ahead to fire, and only failed because the missile didn’t launch properly.

The leaked Pentagon document also described a host of other Russian responses to surveillance flights by American, British, and French aircraft between October and the end of February, including one on December 30 in which a second British Rivet Joint, this time accompanied with two British Typhoon fighter jets, was intercepted by Russian jets that came within 100 feet of the British aircraft.

Sukhoi Su-27 – Wikipedia

Not just that, in what could have led to an unprecedented escalation between the two sides, the Russian Su-27 Flankers shot down an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea in March 2023. Shortly after this, the Russian fighters also targeted a Bayraktar TB2 drone belonging to the Ukrainian Air Force.

Although located away from the theater of war, the airspace over the Baltic Sea has seen its share of Russian warplane intrusions. It has swiftly become a region of Russia-NATO rivalry. Both NATO forces and the Russian Air Force have accused each of violating their respective airspaces, especially in April and May.

In addition to intercepting 50 Russian aircraft over the Baltic in four months, the RAF Typhoons also participated in several military drills, with the latest being Exercise Joutsen Strike for which the aircraft was recently relocated to a forward air base in Finland.