Interesting close encounter on the Baltic for the Belgian F-16s supporting NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
On Sept. 17, two Belgian F-16s deployed to Siauliai Air Base, Lithuania, in support of NATO BAP mission, were scrambled to intercept two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and two Russian Su-27 Flankers above the Baltic Sea.
It was the first scramble for the Belgian Air Force since it took the lead of the 51st rotation of NATO BAP on Sept. 3. The Belgians have deployed four F-16AM Vipers (as the F-16s are dubbed in the fighter pilot community) to Lithuania where the Royal Danish Air Force F-16s operate too. The rotation is augmented by four Czech Grippen aircraft which operate out of Amari airbase in Estonia.
While Tu-160s have been intercepted by NATO jets in the Baltic region previously (for instance, in 2018, the Belgian Air Force released this interesting video of the intercept filmed through the F-16 pilot’s Helmed Mounted Cueing System), it’s at least worth of note that the last “close encounter” with the Blackjack strategic bomber dates back to 2 months ago: on Jul. 16, 2019, two Tu-160s flew in international airspace over the Baltic Sea prompting scrambles from Finland, Sweden and Denmark’s QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) cells.
Dubbed the “White Swan”, the Tu-160 holds a number of records for speed in its weight class. It remains the largest, fastest strategic bomber in operation, second only to the developmental U.S. built XB-70 Valkyrie in size, weight and performance. It is also the world’s largest variable-geometry swept wing aircraft, larger and heavier than the U.S. B-1B Lancer supersonic variable-swept wing bomber. Russia has begun a program of updating avionics, engines and weapons systems on the Tu-160 and starting production of the upgraded bombers again. The first of the “Tu-160M2” upgrades, essentially a new aircraft built on the old planform, flew last year with operational capability planned for 2023. The new Tu-160M2s will not be rebuilt, upgraded existing Tu-160s, but rather new production aircraft coming from the Tupolev plant. Russia says it will build “50” of the aircraft.
The Tu-160 has taken part in the Air War in the skies over Syria. At least one Tu-160 aircraft flew a strike mission on Nov. 17, 2015 that hit ISIL targets in Syria using Russian 3M-54 Kalibur cruise missiles launched at standoff range. The bomber has also undertaken three deployments to Venezuela: in 2003, 2008 and 2018.
During the last one, in December last year, the Tu-160s flying off Scotland triggered the scramble of two RAF Typhoon jets from RAF Lossiemouth. While the Typhoons did not intercept the Russian bombers, the Blackjacks were escorted by RNoAF F-16s for a small portion of their journey.