Bay of Biscay Site for Latest Missile Exercise

Russia on Tuesday sent two long-range bombers to the Bay of Biscay, off the French and Spanish Atlantic coasts, to test-fire missiles in what it billed as its biggest naval exercise in the area since Soviet times.

British and Norwegian jets were escorting the Russian bombers, Interfax cited the Air Force as saying.

A French Defense Ministry spokesman said his country had been informed about the exercises.

Firing missiles off the coastline of two NATO members is the latest in a series of Kremlin moves flexing Moscow's military muscle on the world stage.

Russian bombers joined aircraft carriers, battleships and submarine hunters from the Northern and Black Sea fleets for the Atlantic exercises.

"The Air Force is taking a very active part in the exercises of the Navy's strike force in the Atlantic," the Air Force said in a statement.

"Today, two strategic Tu-160 bombers departed for exercises in the Bay of Biscay, which … will carry out a number of missions and will conduct tactical missile launches," the statement said.

Colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky, an aide to the Air Force commander-in-chief, told Interfax that the bombers, codenamed "Blackjack" by NATO, were being escorted by British and Norwegian Tornado and F-16 jets.

There was no immediate comment from NATO.

President Vladimir Putin has boosted military spending, renewed long-range bomber missions and approved a plan to upgrade the country's nuclear attack forces, which, he says, are needed to counter NATO encroachment on Russia's borders.

But some analysts note that while the saber-rattling is popular at home, military spending in absolute terms is substantially lower than that of China, Britain or France, and less than a tenth of that of the United States.

Russia last month said it would begin major naval sorties into the Mediterranean, with 11 ships backed up by 47 aircraft that would then travel to the Atlantic for exercises.

The Navy's flagship aircraft carrier, the Soviet-made Admiral Kuznetsov, was leading the fleet in the Atlantic Ocean, where NATO aircraft were trying to keep a close eye on Russian movements, national media reported.

"This is the biggest exercise of its kind in the area since Soviet times," a Navy spokesman said, adding that more details would be released later.

There was no further information about where in the Bay of Biscay, which lies off the west coast of France and the northern coast of Spain, the missile tests were due to take place.

The Air Force said turbo-prop Tu-95 strategic bombers, codenamed "Bear" by NATO, would join the exercise Wednesday.

"From Jan. 23, the aviation component in the zone where the exercises are going on will be widened, and the following planes will take part: Tu-160, Tu-95, Tu-22 M3, Il-78, A-50," the Air Force said.