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Russian spy aircraft are flying over Britain – and the MoD's cool with it

So cool we're even hosting them at RAF Brize Norton

By Gareth Corfield, 28 Jul 2016

Vladimir Putin's air force is flying strategic reconnaissance missions over the UK. Not only is the Ministry of Defence relaxed about it, they're even hosting the Russians in Oxfordshire. What's this all about?

The UK and Russia, along with 32 other countries, are signatories of the Open Skies treaty.

This was originally conceived during the Cold War as a means for the Soviet Union and the US to observe each other's lack of preparations for nuclear war, de-escalating the threat of global annihilation.

Although the hyper-paranoid Soviets dismissed the original idea, it persisted – and in 2002 was eventually signed by a host of nations including the UK, the US, Russia, most of the former Eastern Bloc and a large number of NATO nations – including Turkey.

Any signatory country can request images from the latest overflight of any other country, making the Open Skies project, on paper at least, a strong deterrent to member nations thinking of setting up new ballistic missile or nuclear enrichment facilities.

According to the US government, Open Skies “establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The Treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about areas of concern to them.”

The MoD said, in a statement about the Russian flights: “The routes are first pre-approved by the MoD and RAF and then flown as per the flight plan. Such sorties are commonplace, reciprocal and have been going on for many years, the UK recently conducted our own flights over Russia. When Open Skies flights occur over the UK, we always have RAF representatives onboard – and the UK always gets to see all the photos which were taken on the flight.”

“So why do we do it?” continued the uncharacteristically chatty statement. “The opportunity to observe each other’s territories is invaluable for transparency and the development of international trust between nations. In addition, aside from observing their work in the sky, we also get to interact professionally and to learn more about the culture of the nation in question; in this instance interacting with our Russian counterparts.”

Russia uses unarmed 1970s-vintage Antonov An-30B twin turboprop aircraft for the reconnaissance flights, along with Tupolev Tu-154 airliners, which date back to the 1960s. Russian websites say these two aircraft types are due for replacement with the relatively modern Tupolev Tu-214ON, a lightly modified airliner fitted with a variety of panoramic, topographic and thermographic cameras. Below is a Russian propaganda video about the Tu-214ON, complete with interior shots that wouldn't look out of place in a 1980s James Bond film.

Tu-214ON Open Skies reconnaissance aircraft

The West tends to use Boeing OC-135Bs – a militarised derivation of a 1950s jet prototype which immediately preceded the famous Boeing 707 airliner – on Open Skies taskings, though as recently as 2008 the RAF was still flying an elderly Hawker-Siddeley Andover transport aircraft in the role. Since then the Air Force has resorted to borrowing An-30s from the Eastern Bloc and OC-135s from the US.

All 34 nations must agree on the equipment fitted to each other's Open Skies aircraft, meaning the majority still use antiquated film cameras instead of the latest digital image processing equipment. Russia's state propaganda agencies have made a recent song and dance about fitting digital cameras to their elderly Antonovs, ready for the UK flights.

Doubtless planespotters will be clustered around the approaches to RAF Brize Norton, where the Russians are flying from over the next few days, while locals will certainly be abandoning their back garden sunbathing in case Sergei catches a glimpse. ®

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