Russia’s Tu-95 Bear long range bombers are not an entirely uncommon presence near American or allied airspace. These long range, heavy payload bombers are often flown within other country’s Air Defense Identification Zones, prompting a response from domestic intercept fighters tasked with identifying and escorting the Russian aircraft away from their sovereign airspace.
While not incredibly common, these intercepts occur with such regularity that stories about them are often met with comments like, “what else is new?” or “this happens all the time!” and to be fair, there’s a sort of legitimacy in this mindset. Russian bombers have long prodded at American air defenses, and American fighters have long been dispatched to intercept them… but this dismissive mindset belies what may be the actual intent of these somewhat frequent encounters: to encourage just that sort of complacency.
On Friday, the U.S. Northern Command and U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command issued a joint statement regarding just such an intercept over the Bering Sea near the Alaskan Coast. Two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers penetrated America’s 200-mile Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) near Alaska, prompting NORAD to scramble two fifth generation F-22 Raptors to intercept.
Navy Capt. Scott Miller, chief spokesman for NORAD, said,
At approximately 10 a.m. Eastern time, two Alaskan-based NORAD F-22 fighters intercepted and visually identified two Russian TU-95 ‘Bear’ long-range bomber aircraft flying in the Air Defense Identification Zone off the western coast of Alaska, north of the Aleutian Islands.”
He characterized the behavior of the bombers as flying within “international norms” before concluding that “NORAD continues to monitor all air activity emanating from within and outside North American airspace.”
Miller, of course, is right. Russia’s long range bombers violated no international rules or even violated what is deemed professional courtesy between military aviators in their flights. America’s F-22s simply intercepted and escorted the bombers until they once again left America’s identification zone, and just like that, yet another U.S./Russia bomber intercept is in the books. What’s the big deal?
The big deal, of course, is that Russia’s Tu-95 Bear bombers are their equivalent to America’s long-serving B-52 Stratofortress. The B-52 was first introduced in 1955, whereas the Tu-95 first took to the skies in 1956. Since then, both have seen repeated refits and upgrades, and most importantly, both serve as an integral component to their respective nation’s nuclear triads.
America’s B-52 remains one of the nation’s most relied upon nuclear delivery methods. Since the B-1B Lancer had its nuclear capabilities neutered by the U.S./Russian START treaty, the B-52 and B-2 spirit remain the only nuclear capable bombers in the U.S. inventory. While both of these aircraft are certainly capable of supporting conventional ordnance, the fact that they can deliver nukes makes them a different sort of weapons platform to contend with, both kinetically and diplomatically. When America deploys nuclear capable bombers in a foreign country’s airspace, armed with nukes or not, it sends a message about potential capabilities.
And Russia’s Tu-95 Bear bomber is no different. Its frequent presence near American and allied airspace can’t be seen as a reason to disregard Russia’s frequent flights — if anything, it should be cause for heightened awareness. If a grizzly bear kept wandering into your backyard, you may eventually grow a bit complacent about the threat it posed to you and your family, but the threat remains nonetheless.
Now imagine if grizzlies occasionally kept thermonuclear weapons in their belly. You might be more inclined to take note of their presence, even if it happens fairly regularly.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic weapons expert, said,
Putin’s Russia is in the nuclear intimidation business and is willing to burn [a] lot [of] unnecessary bomber fuel, not to mention the cost of refueling and additional maintenance hours resulting from the long flights just to make that point. Threatening people with nuclear weapons is Russia’s national sport.”
Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force