( Reuters ) - 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 navy exercise in the area since Soviet times.
British and Norwegian Tornado and F-16 jets were escorting the Russian 'Blackjack' bombers, Interfax reported, quoting the Russian Air Force.
However, the French Defence Ministry spokesman said his country had been informed about the Russian exercises.
Firing missiles off the coastline of two members of the NATO military alliance is the latest in a series of Kremlin moves flexing Moscow's military muscle on the world stage.
The Russian bombers joined aircraft carriers, battleships and submarine hunters from the Northern and Black Sea fleets for the Atlantic exercises, which come as the country enters an election campaign to choose a successor to President Vladimir Putin.
"The air force is taking a very active part in the exercises of the navy's strike force in the Atlantic," Russia's 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," it said.
Putin, widely popular as his second four-year term draws to a close, has sought to use such moves to revive domestic and international respect for Russia's armed forces which were shattered by the chaos of the 1990s.
A former KGB lieutenant-colonel, Putin has boosted military spending, renewed long-range bomber missions and approved a plan to upgrade Russia's nuclear attack forces, which he said was needed after NATO built up its forces close to Russia's borders.
But some analysts note that while the sabre rattling is popular at home, Russian 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.
Discipline is still a major problem for Russia's armed forces, which rely heavily on conscripts and outdated equipment.
Russia last month said it would begin major navy 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 where NATO aircraft were trying to keep a close eye on Russian movements, Russian media reported.
"This is the biggest exercise of its kind in the area since Soviet times," a spokesman for Russia's navy 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.
Russia's air force said turbo-prop Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers, codenamed "Bear" by NATO, would join the exercise on Wednesday.
"From January 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.