What were the Russian Bear Bombers in Scottish airspace today?

What are the Russian Tu-142 Bear-F and Tu-142 Bear-J bombers and why were they in Scottish airspace?

  • The RAF intercepted two Russian planes used for recon and maritime attacks 

British fighter jets today intercepted two Russian bombers in Scottish airspace and within NATO’s northern air policing area.

The ‘Bear Bombers’, packed with communications and reconnaissance equipment, were seen flying north of the Shetland Isles, prompting RAF Typhoons to scramble from RAF Lossiemouth.

The Air Force made a ‘successful intercept’, monitoring the flight path of the Russian Tu-142 Bear-F and Tu-142 Bear-J aircraft as they passed overhead ‘to counter any potential threat to UK territory’.

But what are the Russian bombers, and what were they doing in Scottish airspace?

Here is everything you need to know about the Russian ‘Bear Bombers’.

British fighter jets today intercepted two Russian bombers north of Scotland and within NATO ‘s northern air policing area. Pictured: An RAF Typhoon (left) is seen tracking a Russian Tupolev Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft this morning

Image issued today by the Ministry of Defence shows a Russian Tu-142. Royal Air Force pilots from RAF Lossiemouth launched Typhoon fighters to intercept two Russian bombers today

What are the Russian Tu-142 bombers?

The Russian Tu-142 bombers are Soviet-era reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) planes in military use since 1972 and still used by the Russian Navy today.

Filled with communication and reconnaissance equipment, they are adept at picking out submarines and then picking them off with bombs and cannons.

READ MORE: RAF Typhoons intercept two Russian ‘Bear’ bombers equipped with submarine trackers north of Scotland in latest aerial stand-off 

Over the years, operators have developed a number of variants including the Bear-F and the Bear-J seen flying north of Shetland today.

The variants measure around 174ft 2in (53.08m) long with a wingspan of 164ft 1in (50m) and can fly at up to 575mph (925kmh). 

The Tu-142 Bear-F is a dedicated anti-submarine aircraft, developed in the early 1970s around the recon and target-destination aircraft, the Tu-95RC.

The plane’s tail turret features a pair of AM-23 cannons – guns about an inch wide.

The Bear-F also carries anti-submarine torpedoes, anti-ship torpedoes, depth bombs and up to eight anti-ship missiles.

This makes it a versatile maritime strategic bomber capable of inflicting damage on a range of possible targets.

The Tu-142 Bear-J is the western reporting name for the Tu-142MR Orel – the Eagle.

It is based on the Bear F airframe but has unique systems, with changes to its ventral fairing, nose radome and tail antenna. 

This variant serves as a command post and communications platform for talking to submarines under the water.

It was also designed specifically as a doomsday plane, made to relay between naval headquarters and a fleet of ballistic submarines in the event of a nuclear war.

The Bear-J was originally ordered in response to the US Navy’s own Cold War-era bid to produce a plane that could reliably communicate back and forth in case of Armageddon.

The R that distinguishes it is short for retranslyater – meaning ‘communications relay aircraft’.

But on top of relaying information, the plane comes equipped with two Gryazev/ Shipunov GSh-23 twin-barrel cannons mounted on its tail – a 23mm gun able to fire at some 3,000-3,400 rpm.

It also holds jammers and flares for disrupting the enemy. 

The first two aircraft were tested in 1986 and remain in use by Russian forces. 

An RAF Typhoon, left, monitors a Russian Tupolev Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft

Handout photo issued by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of an RAF Typhoon monitoring a Russian Tupolev Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft

Why were they in Scottish airspace?

Over the years, similar incidents have taken place in British and Norwegian airspace, which may give a clue as to what the planes were doing.

In March 2020, two Tu-142s were spotted approaching UK airspace, again prompting a response from RAF Lossiemouth to scramble Typhoons.

The bombers were heading towards the north-west coast of Scotland, but this time avoided entering into UK airspace, the RAF said. 

They described it as a ‘routine response’ – one of more than 135 incidents of the RAF scrambling jets to intercept Russian aircraft near the UK between 2005 and 2020.

Early warning and threatcasting group T-Intelligence explained at the time the GIUK gap – the space between Greenland, Iceland and the UK – has strategic importance for Russia as a route into the North Atlantic Ocean.

A comment at the time read: ‘The GIUK gap is very important for Russia to move its nuclear-capable submarines and ASW aircraft in and out of the North Atlantic in case of war. 

‘To better understand the enemy order of battle and tactics in the region, the Russian[s] are deliberately testing the RAF and NATO’s overall QRA reaction (time and tactics) while also monitoring maritime movements.’

In others cases, Tu-142s have been involved in joint training exercises with Britain.

On 2 February 2022, only 22 days before the start of the war in Ukraine, British and Norwegian fighters shadowed a Tu-142 as it searched for a submarine in the Northeast Atlantic.

The aim was to search and track vessels far under the water, TASS reported.

The UK government has not hinted at why the planes were seen in Scottish airspace earlier today.

They did note that: ‘Russian military aircraft entering the UK Flight Information Region, the UK’s controlled zone of international airspace, can pose a hazard to other aircraft. 

‘These Russian aircraft often do not talk to air traffic control or ‘squawk’, broadcasting a code ensuring they are visible to other air users and air traffic controllers on the ground.’

Speaking to UK Defence Journal, Andy Netherwood explained: ‘Russian long range aviation often transits the London and Scottish FIRs without filing a flight plan, talking to ATC or ‘squawking’ (operating their transponders). 

‘This makes them effectively invisible to civilian ATC and is very dangerous as airliners are also flying through this airspace.’

For this reason, RAF jets were scrambled to monitor the planes as they passed through the zone, feeding valuable information back to Air Traffic Control. 

In this March 2020 handout image a Norwegian F-35 fighter jet (top) intercepts a Russian Tupolev TU-142 (Bear-J) near Norwegian air space along the Norwegian / Russian border

Picture shows the moment RAF Typhoon jets intercepted a Russian Tu-142 operating near UK airspace on 30 April 2023

The lead RAF Typhoon pilot said after the encounter: ‘It’s really satisfying to know we’ve been able to make a successful intercept, maintaining the integrity of UK and NATO airspace.

‘When the alarm for a scramble happened in the early hours of the morning, the adrenaline kicked in. 

‘Working in tandem with ground control operators, and with air-to-air refuelling from an RAF Voyager, we were able to stay on task until the mission was complete, and the target aircraft departed the UK’s area of interest.’

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