Russian nuclear-capable bombers conducted a third day of military runs along Europe’s coasts on Friday as part of heightened strategic activities by Moscow, the NATO alliance said.
"On Friday, Russian planes carried out more flights over Europe," said NATO spokesman Maj. Rob Phillips. "NATO tracked these flights over the Baltics, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean."
Defense officials, meanwhile, said several Russian Il-76 refueling tankers were seen at Cairo International Airport this week, fueling concerns that the large-scale bomber and fighter operations by the Russians will be extended to the Mediterranean and Egypt.
Egypt, a close U.S. ally in the Middle East, in recent months has shifted toward Moscow in the face of opposition from the Obama administration to continued cooperation with the new military-oriented government in Cairo.
The Russian aircraft that conducted Friday’s sorties included Tu-95 Bear bombers, Il-78 aerial refueling tankers and several types of fighter jets, Phillips said in a statement, adding that similar flights took place Thursday and Wednesday.
The multiple sets of aircraft were picked up by NATO air defense radar in areas close to NATO airspace but did not violate territorial airspace of the countries bordering the seas.
"In response, NATO jets from the Baltic Air policing mission, as well as aircraft from Allied nations were scrambled to intercept them," Phillips said, without providing specifics on the type of aircraft.
The interceptors included Norwegian F-16s, British Typhoons and Portuguese F-16s.
Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby said the intense Russian aircraft activity is a concern.
"We certainly don’t see these increased flights and activity as helpful to the security situation in Europe," Kirby told reporters. "Clearly they pose a potential risk of escalation."
The flights also could pose a risk to civil aviation "based on the sheer number of and size of and scope of these flights," he said.
Kirby also criticized Russia’s continued interference in Ukraine and said "we’re watching these flights very, very closely… and again, what we’d ask authorities in Russia to do is to take steps – concrete, tangible steps to reduce tension, not increase it."
The latest Russian warplanes flights prompted a senior defense official to described Moscow’s military activities as "relentless."
The centerpiece of the Russian aerial maneuvers involved two Bear bombers that flew around the west coast of Britain as far south as Portugal before turning back and flying to a Russian air base.
Phillips said the aircraft did not file flight plans or engage in radio or other contact with civilian air controls and turned off on-board transponders, a measure he said "poses a danger to civilian air traffic."
The Friday flights follow similar flights by 19 Russian aircraft Wednesday and Thursday near Europe that included Tu-95s along with flights of Su-35 fighter bombers.
Further east, four Russian aircraft, including two Bears and two Su-27s were intercepted over the Black Sea on Wednesday by Turkish fighters.
The latest Russian flights followed numerous strategic bomber incursions in recent months of air defense zones near Alaska and California, as well as along Canada’s eastern coast.
Phillips said NATO has conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft this year, about three times the number of intercepts carried out last year.
Defense analysts say the bomber flights are part of a pattern of increased Russian nuclear saber-rattling against the United States and NATO adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy of seeking Moscow’s return to Soviet-era power and status.
Militarily, the flights represent practice runs for future Russian strategic and conventional military operations designed to test western air defenses.
Similar flights were common during the Cold War but were all but eliminated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin has taken a harder line against the West since the mid-2000s as part of a policy of seeking to regain control over what Moscow calls the "near-abroad" including Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.
Regarding the Russian refueling tankers in Egypt, a U.S. official said the deployment is being viewed by intelligence analysts as a sign that Egypt is moving closer to Russia in its military relations.
Following U.S. criticism of the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, Egypt’s government began tilting toward Moscow.
Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah al Sisi visited Russia in the wake of the suspension of U.S. arms shipments to Egypt.
Cairo is reportedly arranging a $2 billion arms deal with the Russians, said to include attack helicopters. Egypt is seeking Russian fighter jets and Tor anti-aircraft missiles, along with upgrades of its Soviet-era tanks, weapons systems that were blocked from export by the United States after the coup.
The United States since 1979 has supplied Egypt with $70 billion in aid, half of which was used to purchase U.S.-made military equipment.
The Obama administration for months held up delivery of Apache attack helicopters that the Egyptians paid for and urgently requested for use against al Qaeda-linked terrorists that are increasing attacks in the Sinai desert.
"Despite reassurances from Egyptian officials, the Russian weapons deal — if concluded — portends a gradual reduction in Washington's ability to control the quality and quantity of weapons that Cairo receives, and to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge in the region," David Schenker and Eric Trager of The Washington Institute stated in a recent report.
"If Egypt does in fact intend to procure game-changing systems such as the S-300 and the Kornet, Washington should warn Cairo of the risks such an acquisition would pose to U.S. security assistance and the broader bilateral relationship."