THIS striking picture shows the RAF intercepting two long-range Russian "Blackjack" bombers after they breached UK airspace off the Scottish coast.
• An RAF Tornado fighter closes in on one of the two Russian 'Blackjack' bombers that were intercepted in UK airspace. Picture: Ministry of Defence/Complimentary
The Russian planes, the world's biggest combat aircraft that are capable of carrying nuclear or conventional weapons, were intercepted by two Tornados near Stornoway in the Western Isles.
RAF crews have now been scrambled 20 times in the past year to intercept Russian aircraft over British airspace, the Ministry of Defence revealed last night.
MoD insiders claim the Russian operation may have been aimed at watching preparations for a major military exercise to take place off the Scottish coast next month.
The two Tornado F3 fighters from 111 Squadron were scrambled from RAF Leuchars in Fife in the early hours of 10 March.
After intercepting the Russian bombers, the Tornados shadowed the Tupolev TU-160 aircraft as they flew south before turning north, just short of the Northern Ireland coast.
Eventually the Russians left UK airspace and, after four hours, the Tornado crews stood down and returned to Leuchars.
Wing Commander Mark Gorringe, who is the commander of 111 Squadron, said: "This is not an unusual incident and people may be surprised to know that our crews have successfully scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft on more than 20 occasions since the start of 2009.
"Our pilots, navigators and, indeed, all the support personnel at RAF Leuchars work very hard to deliver the UK Quick Reaction Alert Force 24 hours a day, which can be scrambled in minutes, to defend the UK from unidentified aircraft entering our airspace, or aircraft in distress.
"It's a very important job, defending the UK and helping to keep UK citizens safe. It is also important for the safety of civilian aircraft that we intercept all aircraft that do not make contact with British air traffic control."
New RAF Typhoon fighter jets are scheduled to replace the Tornados the in the Quick Reaction Alert role next year.
The latest incident followed the resumption in 2007 of long-range bomber patrols by the Russians, which has resulted in RAF fighters being scrambled on a number of occasions.
The bomber flights have been seen as an indication of the current tensions between Russia and the West, particularly Britain.
MoD sources said the latest episode may have been linked to the Joint Warrior military exercise to be staged off the Scottish coast from 12 April. As part of the exercise, navy, RAF and army squadrons will be engaged in mock engagements across the north and west coasts of Scotland. It will involve forces from other Nato countries.
The source said: "It is possible that the Russians were having a nosey around the north of Scotland to keep an eye on preparations for this major exercise.
"The Ark Royal was also on operation in this area in recent weeks, which may have attracted attention from the Russian military.
"These events have become fairly common in recent years and are really just about the Russians trying to make their presence felt."
In 2007, a nuclear-armed Blackjack bomber staged a mock attack on the east coast of England and got within 90 seconds of Hull without being intercepted. Creeping in low over the North Sea, it changed course only 20 miles from UK territorial airspace.
'White Swan' harks back to days of Soviet Union
THE Tupolev Tu-160 is a supersonic heavy bomber which began to be deployed in the last years of the Soviet Union.
Known as the "White Swan" by its crews, it is the largest jet-powered combat aircraft ever built.
Although several civil and military transport aircraft are bigger, the Tu-160 has the heaviest take-off weight and the highest top speed of any combat aircraft, as well as one of the largest payloads of any current heavy bomber.
The aircraft remains in production, with at least 16 currently in service with the Russian air force.
It has the following specifications:
Normal Combat Load Weight: 9,000kg
Maximum Combat Load Weight: 40,000kg
Fuel Weight: 148,000kg
Maximum Flight Speed: 2,000km/h