NATO says it scrambled its air forces across Europe more than 400 times this year to intercept unknown aircraft -- mainly from Russia -- approaching the alliance's airspace.
The Western security alliance said in a statement on December 28 that almost 90 percent of the missions were in response to flights by Russian military aircraft. The overall total is a slight increase from the previous year.
“In recent years, we have seen an increased level of Russian military air activity close to the alliance’s borders,” said NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu.
“We are always vigilant. NATO fighter jets are on duty around the clock, ready to scramble in case of suspicious or unannounced flights near the airspace of our allies. Air policing is an important way in which NATO provides security for our members,” she added.
NATO said that Russian military aircraft often do not transmit a transponder code indicating their position and altitude, do not file a flight plan, or do not communicate with air-traffic controllers, posing a potential risk to civilian airliners.
The alliance has about 40 air-surveillance radars and reporting hubs across Europe, and about 60 NATO jets that are on duty around the clock to serve as a quick-response force for aircraft which fall into distress or defy international flying rules near NATO airspace.
Since 2004, NATO also has operated a Baltic air-policing mission for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as air-policing coverage for allies in the Western Balkans who do not have fighter jets of their own.