Wednesday, January 23, 2008

RAF scrambles fighters as russians replay cold war

RAF alert as Russia stages huge naval exercise in Bay of Biscay Tony Halpin in Moscow RAF fighters scrambled to track Russian long-range bombers joining a naval task force yesterday as Moscow practised strike tactics off the coast of France and Spain and test-launched nuclear-capable missiles. The fleet of Russian warships, supported by fighter jets and the bombers, engaged in Russia’s biggest naval exercises since the end of the Cold War. The war games close to two Nato member states were the most forceful reminder to date of President Putin’s determination to flex Russia’s military muscles as relations with the West have deteriorated. The navy boasted that they were Russia’s largest Atlantic exercises since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nato F16 and Tornado jets tracked two strategic “Blackjack” bombers as they approached the Bay of Biscay to test-fire missiles. A Russian navy spokesman said that SU33 fighters would make training runs alongside them from the flagship Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. The Admiral Kuznetsov is leading a carrier strike group of 11 vessels backed by 47 aircraft that began exercises in the Mediterranean before moving to the Atlantic. A naval spokesman said: “This is the biggest exercise of its kind in the area since Soviet times.” All the warships and aircraft, which are drawn from Russia’s Northern and Black Sea fleets, were carrying full combat ammunition loads. Long-range “Bear” bombers, ordered by Mr Putin to resume round-the-clock missions in August for the first time in 15 years, will join the exercises today alongside Tu22M3 Backfire strategic bombers and airborne early warning aircraft. Colonel Aleksandr Drobyshevsky, an aide to the commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, said: “The air force is taking a very active part in the exercises.” Captain Igor Dygalo, assistant to the navy commander-in-chief, said: “The Russia Navy’s carrier strike group has arrived to the assigned region in the Atlantic and aircraft based on the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier will soon take off for their training mission.” Captain Dygalo reported that the Moskva battleship had successfully hit a target with a Bazalt supersonic cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead over a range of 350 miles. He said: “The missile system used for launches has no match in performance terms.” Vice-Admiral Nikolai Maksimov, who is heading the task force, has said that its tour of duty is aimed at restoring Russia’s naval presence “in key operational areas of the world’s oceans”. The Ministry of Defence and its counterparts in Europe were informed about the exercises a month ago. Pavel Felgengauer, one of Russia’s leading defence analysts, told The Times that the display of power was much less impressive than it appeared. Russia’s navy was so depleted that perhaps only 30 out of 300 vessels could go to sea at any time. “They have put them all together and sent them to the Atlantic. This is just an attempt to show the flag before the presidential elections and to tell people at home that Putin’s eight years have restored Russia’s imperial greatness,” he said. “The Admiral Kuznetsov is due to go in for repairs when it returns home. There are two tugs with it now because everybody understands that it could go bust at any moment.” The exercises are taking place in an atmosphere of growing friction between Russia and the West, however, as Mr Putin adopts an increasingly belligerent stance in disputes over independence for Kosovo, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and American plans for a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe. In a further sign of assertiveness, last week the Kremlin ordered the revival of Soviet-era military parades in Red Square. The latest Topol-M nuclear missiles will join a tank parade on May 9, marking victory over Nazi Germany, for the first time since 1990. Flush with money from oil and gas sales, Russia has embarked on a rearmament programme and will spend $189 billion (£96.3 billion) to upgrade half of the army and navy’s equipment by 2015. Defence spending has quadrupled since Mr Putin came to power in 2000. It will rise by 16.3 per cent this year to $36.8 billion (£18.8 billion) and to $45.5 billion (£23.2 billion) by 2010. Some analysts say that Mr Putin’s sabre-rattling is part of domestic politics to project an image of strength for voters and bolster support for his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, in the presidential election on March 2.

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