On December 10 Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons launched on an air defense QRA (quick reaction alert) scramble for the first time armed with the MBDA Meteor long-range air-to-air missile. The Typhoons were launched from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to intercept Russian aircraft approaching UK airspace, believed to be the pair of Tupolev Tu-160 "Blackjack" strategic bombers that were undertaking a high-profile deployment to Venezuela and that had earlier been intercepted and escorted by F-16s of the Royal Norwegian Air Force.
The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, commented, “RAF Quick Reaction Alert Typhoon fighters are now armed with the most advanced air-to-air missile in the world. [Meteor is] another huge leap forward in capability for the Typhoon Force, which is proud to continue defending the UK and our allies, 24/7.” He went on to note that Meteor will eventually operate from the F-35 Lightning. “Crucially, the Meteor and launch aircraft will be networked by a datalink.”
RAF Typhoon interceptors have seen increased Russian activity in recent times and have conducted numerous scrambles from UK bases. The RAF Typhoon force has also played its part in manning NATO’s Baltic Air Policing effort in Estonia. The RAF is due to undertake another rotation to Amari in 2019, as well as to deploy to Iceland for air defense patrols. In the meantime, another Typhoon detachment has been based in Romania to bolster NATO defenses in the Black Sea region.
Developed by a six-nation European consortium with MBDA as industrial lead, and with the UK Ministry of Defence as lead contracting agency, the Meteor program reaches back into the 1990s, with full-scale development beginning in 2002. In 2016 Sweden’s MS20-standard Saab JAS 39C Gripens became the first aircraft to declare operational capability with the missile, now joined by the Typhoon. The third type to get the Meteor—the Dassault Rafale—is expected to follow soon now that the latest F3R sub-variant has been approved for service.
The Russian Long-Range Aviation Tu-160s intercepted by the Typhoons were flying from Engels air base to Simón Bolívar International Airport at Caracas as part of a show of force operation, accompanied by an Antonov An-124 transport and Ilyushin Il-62 support aircraft. Similar deployments to Venezuela were undertaken in 2008 and 2013.
On arrival in Caracas after a flight of more than 10,000 km the Tu-160s—named Nikolai Kuznetsov and Vasiliy Reshetnikov—were greeted by Russian Embassy staff and Venezuelan military dignitaries, including defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez. Russia said that the Tu-160s had deployed to participate in “combined operational flights” with the Venezuelan air force, and that “we are getting prepared to defend Venezuela when it is needed.” The minister responded by stating that the defense of the nation would be conducted “with our friends who advocate respect-based relations between states.”