Civilian planes flying over British airspace are at risk from Russian jets playing a highly dangerous “game of chicken” in the skies, a former head of the armed forces has warned.

Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup, a former chief of the defence staff, said recent flights by Russian long-range Bear bombers off Bournemouth and the Cornish coast were part of a strategy to probe UK defences.

And he warned that the new levels of activity posed a risk not just to the RAF planes sent to intercept them, but also to civilian air traffic. “They are becoming more aggressive,” he told Sky News. “These aircraft are not on these flights simply as joy rides. They are mission rehearsals.

“Just as they used to do in the Cold War, they are practising those profiles. They are testing us, they are testing our defences, they are testing our reactions and they are engaging to a degree in a game of chicken – and that’s very dangerous.

“We are seeing the possibility of mid-air collision, not between RAF and Russia aircraft, but between Russian aircraft and civilian aircraft increasing.

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