U.S. military aircraft were scrambled twice to intercept Russian TU-95 Bear bombers flying off the coast of Alaska in less than 24 hours this week. This was the first such incident since July 4th of 2015 when Russia flew two similar bombers off the coasts of Alaska and California. U.S. military officials characterized the flights as safe and professional, with no aggressive behavior demonstrated by the Russians as American aircraft escorted them.
The first interaction took place on Monday, when two Russian bombers were intercepted by American F-22 fighters after they entered the Alaskan air defense identification zone. They found the bombers approximately one hundred miles off the coast of Kodiak Island and flew alongside them for around twelve minutes without engaging in any cockpit to cockpit radio communication before the Russian bombers reversed course and headed home.
The second occurrence came only hours later, and it has not been confirmed whether or not the Russian TU-95 bear bomber spotted was one of the two intercepted earlier in the evening. This time, an American E-3 surveillance aircraft was scrambled to intercept the long-range bomber.
The bomber was found flying only about forty-one miles off the coast of Alaska; significantly closer to the United States border than the previous flight, but still within acceptable international parameters.
Although American military spokesman referred to the intercepted flights as “not dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the past with respect to Russian long-range aviation,” some American politicians have claimed that their repeated presence so close to the American border was intended as a warning.
Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger told CNN that the Russians were “trying to show their teeth” by deploying multiple bomber flights so close to the American border.
“This was a show of force by the Russians to show us that they are still here,” Kinzinger said. It was “an attempt to come up as close as they could to our international borders to see what our reaction would be.”
These two perspectives are not independently exclusive, as Russia has a long history of flying unannounced bombers, and even conducting mock bombing runs, over American forces abroad as well as over other nations. There have already been three high-profile incidents just this year.
In February, the UK’s Royal Air Force scrambled Typhoon fighter jets to intercept two Russian Blackjack Tupolev Tu-160 long-range bombers flying near UK airspace.
That same month, the USS Porter, an American Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, was approached by a bevy of Russian aircraft in the Black Sea, including a Il-38 sub-hunting twin-engine aircraft and two Su-24 fighter-bomber jets. The jets turned off their transponders and proceeded to conduct three mock bombing runs over the Porter, prompting the Pentagon to file a formal grievance with the Russian government.
In January, the Japanese Ministry of Defense launched fighters to intercept three TU-95 bombers that were approaching Japanese airspace.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have been their highest since the cold war in recent years, and the ongoing conflict in Syria has elevated the rhetoric between the two military powers. While a war between the United States and Russia is unlikely, in large part because of Russia’s struggling economy being unable to support such a long-term conflict, incidents such as these are often meant as a demonstration of the nation’s military capabilities, and perhaps, a willingness to use them.
Image courtesy of the Aviationist
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