Most Russian Plane Intercepts over Baltics Due to Error: NATO General

FILE -- An F-15C Eagle from the 493rd Fighter Squadron takes off from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, March 6, 2014. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Emerson Nunez/Released)
FILE -- An F-15C Eagle from the 493rd Fighter Squadron takes off from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, March 6, 2014. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Emerson Nunez/Released)

Nearly all Russian-NATO aircraft intercepts over or near the Baltic nations remain non-hostile, and most can be attributed to human error, a top NATO general said Wednesday.

Gen. Petr Pavel, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, told reporters he and his NATO counterparts have not seen obvious offensive acts from Russian aircraft or troops.

He even cautioned against using the term "Russian aggression" in reference to the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia because leaders have not seen open hostilities against forces there.

While there is increased political tension, "There [has been] no violation of Baltic countries' territory -- not even the airspace," Pavel said during a briefing in Washington, D.C.

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"All we have [seen] in the region is increased military presence, more exercises, more flights of long-range aviation, more use of intelligence. But I wouldn't call it 'aggression,' " he said.

"Sometimes, we don't distinguish between airspace violation or a need to call what is known as 'alpha scramble,' " Pavel said, referring to times when pilots sit alert, ready to jump into fighters and escort unidentified or bellicose jets out of sovereign airspace.

He continued, "Most of these so-called violations are because of a loss of communication or human or technical mistake ... I would say 90 percent of these so-called violations are technical mistake[s]," such as omitting transponder signals, flight plans or properly communicating with air traffic control.

"Very few are deliberate or provocative," Pavel said. "Up until now, we don't see any real signs of aggressive behavior against the Baltic countries or within the Black Sea region."

His comments come just months after the U.S. finished its F-15C Eagle rotation to protect Baltic airspace.

The F-15s, from the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, acted as a quick reactionary force to surveil the airspace until the mission concluded in January, reporting at least 30 intercepts of Russian aircraft, according to U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa officials.

USAFE in January published videos showing two specific intercepts of Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea, one on Nov. 23 and the other Dec. 13. In each case, neither of the Russian Su-30 Flanker jets broadcast flight codes required by air traffic control, nor did they file a flight plan.

USAFE classified the scrambles as routine.

Before the arrival of the F-15s last year, the U.S. last took part in the Baltic Air Policing mission in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea. The NATO policing mission has since been taken over by Italy and Denmark.

In 2016, then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said the German air force, honing the BAP mission at the time, also counted roughly 30 scrambles. James said those incidents should act as reminders for NATO countries, especially the "newer partners," to continue joint training.

There have also been multiple passes from Russian jets over U.S. surveillance planes on the Black Sea. In January, a Russian Su-27 intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries -- crossing within 5 feet of the Navy aircraft.

However, Pavel did not say the Russian military's buildup and modernization effort aren't cause for concern. He said that effort is the reason why, as a result of the 2016 Warsaw summit, NATO created the Enhanced Forward Presence force to act as a deterrent in the East.

"We're doing our best to keep the level of this military presence below being a threatening [force] to Russia," he said. "We didn't want to create any competition [that] will bring more forces to the region."

Nevertheless, Pavel said, NATO allies will uphold their commitment to Article 5 of the treaty, which aims to discourage any adversarial attack on member states. But, he noted, Russia has acted mostly within the parameters of policy.

"It fair to say mostly Russia has [acted] within the agreed parameters. From time to time, we can see some measures as provocative, especially in the areas that we exercise ... both to the ships and in the air. But it's up to the captain [or pilot] to judge if it's dangerous or not. So we should avoid these with responsible behavior," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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