Russian air intercepts, are we back in the 1970s?

Another day, another interception of Russian aircraft. Two aircraft to be precise, an Ilyushin Il-20M ‘Coot’ surveillance aircraft and an An-26 ‘Curl’ transport aircraft, both intercepted by RAF Typhoon aircraft over the Baltic Sea this week. The UK MoD’s PR machine went into overdrive, it posted a press release (with comment from the Secretary of State for Defence, no less) and also a picture of the offending Coot with a Typhoon at its side.

Harrier Coot intercept

A Cold War photograph, likely from the 70s or early 80s, shows a RAF Harrier intercepting a ‘Coot’ spy plane

Intrigued, I decided to flick through one of the many antique reference books we have here in the office to found out more about the Coot and Curl (which, incidentally, sounds like a great name for a pub). It was in this book that I found a grainy, black and white photograph of the Coot, a spy plane based on the 1950s-era Il-18 turboprop airliner. In its military guise, the fuselage is bulging with different sensors for ELINT, COMINT and radar-based intelligence.

Like most things Soviet; it’s big, ugly and really looks like it shouldn’t be up in the air.

What’s more interesting, the old photograph appears to be an identical copy of the photo released by the MoD this week (see below), but instead of the 21st century Typhoon there is a vintage Hawker Siddeley Harrier sitting off the port side. The photo likely dates back to the 70s, or even early 80s, when the first generation of VTOL-capable Harriers were stationed in West Germany and operated out of makeshift bases, rather than normal airstrips.

During the same period the Coot aircraft were based on the periphery of the Soviet Union, picking up as much intelligence on NATO assets as possible.

Tyhpoon Coot intercept

A RAF Typhoon flying close to a Russian Il-20M ‘Coot’ surveillance aircraft in June 2015

For me, comparing the two photographs (which could be 30 to 40 years apart) reveals a lot about today’s geopolitics. We’ve clearly sunk back into the Cold War mindset where every Russian aircraft or vessel is treated as suspicious and should be intercepted without hesitation. The Russians, who may be even more paranoid about our intentions, are shadowing Western assets as well. Naval vessels from Russia sailed close to NATO ships during this week’s BALTOPS exercise and a Su-24 Fencer buzzed a US Navy ship several times in the Black Sea last week.

Where can this lead? No one really knows. Fast-jet intercepts are likely to continue for the foreseeable future and Russian aircraft will try to push their luck close to NATO airspace. But there is the concern that as intercepts increase, so to do the chances that one side will accidentally release a missile or, bad airmanship will cause a fatal mid-air collision. That could have global ramifications.

The two photographs also beg the question, how the hell do the Russians manage to keep their ancient reconnaissance aircraft flying?! But that’s for another blog.

UPDATE: Some of our sharp-eyed Quill readers have helpfully pointed out that the Harrier pictured is in fact a Royal Navy FRS.1, not a Harrier from the Royal Air Force.

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