25 December 2014

Baltic States and Scandinavian Countries Begin Sharing Radar Tracking Data on Russian Military Flight Activity Over Baltic Sea

Gareth Jennings
December 23, 2014

Radar data on Russian aircraft being shared to mitigate collision risks

Russian Air Force fighters and bombers are intercepted during the Baltic Policing Mission in mid-2013. An increase in the number of Russian flights in 2014 has greatly raised the risks to commercial air traffic. Photo: French MoD

The militaries of at least two Baltic and Scandinavian countries have begun sharing primary radar information with civilian air traffic control (ATC) authorities over concerns of Russian aircraft operating in the region without transponders,IHS Jane’s was told on 17 December.

Speaking during a media tour of Amari Airbase near the northern coast of Estonia, the chief of the country’s air force, Colonel Jaak Tarien, said his country and Finland have begun this sharing of information to try and mitigate the risks these Russian aircraft pose to commercial air traffic.

"It has been a concern for commercial air traffic for a while now that Russian aircraft are flying with no transponders, no flight plans, and without voice contact with ATC. In Estonia we now share our primary radar information with civil ATC. I believe that Finland does this also, but all the nations [in the Baltic region] need to do this now," said Col Tarien.

For some months, NATO and Western officials have been warning of the dangers to commercial air traffic from these undeclared Russian flights. At the beginning of November, NATO released a statement on the increased number of Russian military flights in the region that said, “The bomber and tanker aircraft from Russia did not file flight plans or maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic control authorities and they were not using on-board transponders. This poses a potential risk to civil aviation as civilian air traffic control cannot detect these aircraft or ensure there is no interference with civilian air traffic.”

This warning was followed in mid-December by reports of near-collisions between airliners and Russian military aircraft on at least two occasions. In the first, which took place earlier in the year, a flight operated by Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) came within 100 m of a Russian military aircraft, while in the second, in December, another SAS airliner came close to hitting a Russian aircraft over Sweden. According to Swedish authorities, on each occasion the Russian aircraft was either not fitted with a transponder or had turned it off.

A transponder is a radio receiver that enables a civilian ATC operator to acquire, identify, and track an aircraft on secondary radar. Russian military aircraft transiting the Baltic region (usually from the St Petersburg area down to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and vice versa) without transponders are effectively invisible to civilian ATC, which uses this secondary radar.

While the military’s primary radar can detect and track an aircraft, it cannot identify it and its coverage is more limited than secondary radar. Even so, in receiving the military’s primary radar information, the civilian ATC authorities at least have an idea that there are aircraft in the vicinity and can clear commercial air traffic around it.

Not all Russian military aircraft are equipped with transponders, so ‘invisible’ flights such as those now being reported have been happening for many years now. What makes these latest incidents so concerning is the number of Russian aircraft now flying in the Baltic region.

Since the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West over the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has used his air force as a political tool to show his resolve to the world. Flights by fighters, strike aircraft, transports, aerial refuellers, surveillance aircraft, and strategic bombers have therefore been massively increased, raising the risks to commercial airliners operating in the same airspace.

The apparently accidental shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July showed in its starkest terms what can happen when commercial air traffic and power-politicking mix.

With no end to the stand-off with Putin in sight, Western authorities and agencies have been looking at ways of mitigating the risk to commercial air traffic. The news that the military is now sharing radar information with civilian ATC authorities comes at the same time that aviation insiders have stressed the need for intelligence sharing between governments and airline operators to prevent occurrences such as the loss of MH17 from happening again.

Speaking at the Transport Security Expo in London on 2 December, Nico Voorbach, president of the European Cockpit Association, said, “We should never forget what happened to MH17. We have to learn from it, and make sure it never happens again.”

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