Russian military aircraft over Europe are increasingly flying without their transponders turned on, Bloomberg reports.
Transponders are devices that allow for aircraft to communicate their position to both ground control and other aicraft. By having its planes “flying dark” near EU airspace, Russia is creating a heightened chance of a catastrophic aviation disaster somewhere over the continent.
In December, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that these Russian incursions could pose a serious threat to passenger aircraft across the continent.
“It is not only a question of increased … flights but it’s the way they’re conducting the flights. They are not filing their flight plans and they are not communicating with civilian air traffic control and they are not turning on their transponders,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
Stoltenberg’s warnings were apt, and it’s only by luck that there hasn’t been an incident already.
On March 3, 2014 a Russian surveillance plane that was flying dark nearly collided with a passenger jet over Denmark. A potentially catastrophic collision was only avoided due to relatively clear weather that allowed the passenger pilot to spot the Russian plane by sight.
On March 4, 2015, a similar incident occurred when two Russian bombers flew within 25 miles of the Irish coast with their transponders turned off. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Russian planes were invisible to air traffic control and were only spotted by military radar. Their flight by Ireland necessitated that one passenger plane change its course while a second one had to delay takeoff.
Although these gestures by the Russian military are more about projecting strength than wielding an actual military threat, there is still the risk that the flights may inadvertently lead to conflict.
Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and a senior associate at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, told Business Insider via email that he could foresee two scenarios in which these stunts could cause an escalation.
“First, an accident resulting from Russian recklessness. Second, that Putin misjudges NATO and engages in a provocation so extreme that the West is forced to react,” Nichols said.
If a Russian plane collided with an EU passenger jet, the organisation and its member states may have little choice but to escalate their stance towards Moscow. But such an incident may be unlikley in most parts of the continent: Bloomberg notes that Russian aircraft are distinctive on radar and passenger planes can be rerouted to avoid the military aircraft even if they have their transponders off over the majority of Europe.
But the situation is more precarious over the Baltic sea as military aircraft departing from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad can reach Swedish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, or Finnish airspace in minutes.
Tom Nichols’ comments reflect his views only and do not represent the US Government.
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