A pair of Norwegian F-16s intercepted a Russian flight of mighty Su-34 'Fullback' fighter bombers off the coast of Finnmark this week. It is said that this was the first time that Norway, which shares a border with Russia and is active in surveying their military drills, has intercepted the greatly enhanced deep strike optimized variant of the Su-27 Flanker.
Roughly analogous to something between an F-111 and an F-15E Strike Eagle, the Su-34 Fullback is widely regarded as the most advanced tactical jet is Russia's growing arsenal. It pairs the maneuverability and long-range of the Su-27 with a side-by-side enlarged cockpit and the most advanced operational avionics and sensor suite in the Russian Air Force's inventory. From hauling massive supersonic anti-radiation missiles, to escorting itself at low-level deep into enemy territory to strike targets with its on-board laser designator, the Su-34 is a feared asset indeed.
It is not clear exactly how many Su-34s were tracked during the Norwegian intercept, but pictures show a single example flying alongside an armed Norwegian Viper. The big charcoal gray Russian attack fighter is seen carrying just a pair of R-73 air-to-air missiles and a huge ventral drop tank.
This intercept comes as the European Leadership Network, a European policy and strategy think tank, came out with a startling report regarding Russia's seemingly relentless flights around, and sometimes in, European sovereign airspace. The report states that three recent incidents in particular could have easily escalated into an actual conflict. Additionally its stated that Russia's procedure of flying military flights without turning on its aircraft's transponders or talking to air traffic control could end up in "catastrophe."
The Atlanticcouncil.org story on the study states:
In March, an SAS civilian airliner taking off from Copenhagen narrowly avoided collision with a Russian spy plane 50km south of the Swedish city of Malmo. The Russian aircraft had turned off its transponders, making it hard for civilian air traffic controllers to track. The airliner, which was carrying 132 passengers, avoided the military jet only because its pilots spotted it in time through the window.
The European Leadership Network's study resulted in three recommendations:
1. The Russian leadership should urgently re-evaluate the costs and risks of continuing its more assertive military posture, and Western diplomacy should be aimed at persuading Russia to move in this direction.
2. All sides should exercise military and political restraint.
3. All sides must improve military-to-military communication and transparency.
The idea that Russia is taking these large of risks, in some ways seemingly inviting an international incident in which innocent lives could be lost without shots ever being fired, is very unsettling if not downright puzzling.
Meanwhile, the western world has been slow to awaken to the fact that their Cold War past may have returned to haunt them, as every unidentified Russian flight is not without great potential risk. In the end, there is only so many 'bold moves' Putin can make before the world has to come to the table and ask some very hard questions, regardless of how horrific the answers may be.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com