POLITICS

NATO jets intercept Russian fighters twice in 2 days over Baltic Sea

10/21/2014 03:10 EDT | Updated 12/21/2014 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - A senior National Defence official says the Harper government has been given a series of options to maintain Canada's support for jittery allies in eastern Europe, but the contribution to NATO's air policing mission over the Balitic will come to an end by the new year as scheduled.

Maj.-Gen. Michael Hood testified before a House of Commons committee on Tuesday just as reports emerged that the Northatlantic alliance scrambled fighter jets — including two Canadian F-18s — twice in two days to intercept Russian military aircraft in the vicinity.

Many east European nations say Russian military activity in the region is increasing, but Hood characterized the majority of fighter interceptions as routine events involving cargo planes in an area where national boundaries are complicated and don't run in straight lines.

He said he wasn't tracking the specific incident revealed by NATO on Tuesday, but overall the missions have been non-threatening.

"The routine interception of Russian aircraft takes place very regularly," Hood said.

He told the all-party committee that while the CF-18 deployment may be coming to an end, National Defence has developed suggestions for the Harper government for further participation in NATO's ongoing mission to reassure jittery allies who border Russia.

"Our contribution to Baltic air policing will finish at the end of this block and the mission itself will continue with other NATO countries as far as options for continued presence in all three services, that is being looked at right now," said Hood, who is the director of the strategic joint staff, the nerve centre of National Defence.

He didn't say what the options might involve, but it is known that Canada intends to participate in a massive multinational exercise next year that is intended to test NATO's rapid reaction force.

At the NATO Summit in Wales last month, the Harper government shied away from an opportunity to join either the alliance's rapid reaction force, which is meant to deploy in a crisis — or a separate British expeditionary force that is being assembled.

The incidents over the Baltic countries this week shine a light back on the crisis in eastern Europe which began with Russia's annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine.

Lt.-Col. Robert Gericke said the Russian aircraft were flying in international airspace and had not violated the territory of alliance members.

Two Canadian F-18 Hornet jets were scrambled from the Siauliai Air Base in Lithuania on Monday to intercept a Russian Ilyushin-20 surveillance aircraft, which they shadowed for some 15 minutes, NATO said.

"Once identification was successful, the intercept mission was completed and the two Hornets returned to their base," a NATO statement said.

Earlier, the Latvian military tweeted that NATO F-16 jets were dispatched on Tuesday to intercept a Russian Ilyushin-20 surveillance aircraft over the Baltic Sea. Gericke confirmed that NATO jets had also intercepted a Russian aircraft that day, but could not immediately provide more details.

NATO, which has 16 fighter jets in the region monitoring Baltic airspace, said it regularly launches jets to identify "unknown or potentially hostile aircraft" in the proximity of national airspace.

There were two similar incidents in the region on Oct. 7 and Sept. 11, but on neither occasion did the Russian aircraft constitute a threat to NATO forces, the alliance said.

In the past five days, the Swedish Navy has been combing the Stockholm archipelago for signs of a foreign submarine that officials suspect entered its territorial waters illegally. It hasn't officially linked Russia to the suspected intrusion.

The Finnish military says that Russian military aircraft have violated the small Nordic country's airspace five times this year, and the Environment Institute said Russian military ships had twice intercepted one of its research vessels in international waters.

On Sept. 5 an Estonian security service officer was detained on the Russian border — Estonia and Russia disagree on which side of it — and is still in custody in Moscow.

— With files from The Associated Press