- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.
At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.
Over the past several years, Moscow has played a high-speed game of cat-and-mouse with U.S. and NATO aircraft and naval vessels in the Baltic and Black Seas regions, but this level of activity hasn’t been seen near Alaska since 2014, one defense official told FP.
It’s unclear what the overall objective of the Russian passes are, but they’re in keeping with tactics Russian pilots have employed in recent years in the Baltic and Black sea regions, where NATO pilots regularly intercept aircraft sent by the Kremlin to skirt the airspace of NATO countries.
Over the Baltic, just off the coastlines of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Russian military aircraft were intercepted 110 times by allied planes in 2016. That was a decrease from the 160 recorded intercepts in 2015, but it has been enough to keep both sides well-versed in the protocols of flying in close proximity.
In February, several Russian aircraft buzzed the USS Porter in the Black Sea in an incident the skipper of the American guided missile destroyer called “unsafe.” That included passes by an Il-38 sub-hunting plane, followed by two Su-24 fighter-bombers and a Su-24.
The latest round of flights began Monday night, when two Bear bombers were tracked near Alaska, prompting the scramble of two U.S. F-22s to intercept them. Two more Bears showed up on Tuesday night, during which U.S. officials say an AWACS E-3 surveillance plane was sent to track them. On Wednesday, a Russian IL-38 maritime patrol and anti-submarine plane was spotted in the same area, and was followed by American planes.
A spokesperson for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) told FP that on Thursday evening, the American F-22s and Canadian CS-18 Hornets didn’t attempt to make radio contact with the Russian bombers, and the Russians never attempted to communicate with U.S. or Canadian military installations on the ground. But “at no time did the Russian bombers enter sovereign North American airspace,” on any of the four nights, the spokesperson said.
According to information provided by NORAD, U.S. aircraft have intercepted Russian planes about 60 times since 2007.
Earlier this month, Japan scrambled 14 fighter jets to intercept the Bear bombers and an IL-20 surveillance plane that had crossed to within 40 miles of the Japanese coast, and in late January, a pair of Russian bombers circumnavigated Japan for the first time in a year.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy