A pair of Russian TU-95 Bear bombers, accompanied by two SU-35 fighter jet escorts, entered Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone on Wednesday night; marking the fifth time in less than a month that Russia has conducted such provocative air maneuvers.
The Russian formation of four military aircraft were quickly intercepted by two American F-22 Raptors that were already airborne conducting routine patrols approximately fifty miles southwest of Chariot, Alaska. According to a NORAD spokesman, the intercept took place at approximately 9:00PM Pacific time on Wednesday.
According to Defense officials, the Russian aircraft remained in international air space, but came within 50 miles of Point Hope, Alaska. This incident marks the very first time Russian bombers near Alaska have been escorted by Russia’s most advanced air-superiority fighter. The SU-35 Flanker-E is the pride of the Russian Air Force and is considered a fourth-generation fighter by the international community; making it easily a match for American F-15 and F-16 fighter platforms. Of course, it wasn’t either of those jets that intercepted them however, it was the more advanced American F-22 Raptors instead. According to reports, the SU-35 fighters were unarmed during the flight.
Later in the evening, another Russian aircraft, an A-50 Mainstay Surveillance plane, also entered the area, though it remained in international air space and was not intercepted by American jets.
Russian military aircraft entered Alaska’s Air Defense Identification Zone four times in four days last month, with bombers and surveillance craft coming to within thirty or so miles of American shores repeatedly between April 17th and 20th. These are the first such provocative flights since July of 2015, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Putin is planning any kind of Russian incursion.
These flights, though fairly rare in the last two years, are considered mostly routine and not out of the ordinary by American defense officials. Russia has a long-standing tradition of flying its long-range, nuclear capable bombers near foreign airspace. These flights can certainly be viewed as an indicator that Russia wants the world to know it’s air-based arsenal is in good working order, but likely isn’t indicative of provocations that could lead to war. In fact, American fighters have been intercepting the exact same bomber aircraft seen near Alaska on Wednesday for decades.
“We haven’t seen this sort of level of activity for a couple of years,” NORAD spokesperson John Cornelio said last month, but he also emphasized that the flights were not “unprecedented” or “unusual.”
The increased prevalence of Russian aircraft flying near American borders in Alaska is likely indicative of an increased training rotation, which would be in keeping with Russian military posturing worldwide and a concerted effort to modernize their capabilities. Russia has been investing in its military infrastructure, which would inevitably lead to a need for more training and seat time for its pilots. It is entirely likely that the flights we’ve witnessed in recent weeks are merely a part of training revolutions intended to ensure Russia’s pilots are appropriately seasoned to match the investment into their equipment.
What can be inferred by yet another Russian bomber flight near American airspace, however, is that tensions between Russia and the United States are once again headed for cold war levels, where the two nations avoid direct military conflict if possible but maintain a perpetually ready posture in the face of one another’s geo-political maneuvers.
The message this most recent flight sends may indeed be “business as usual,” but that business has never been good.
Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin