Russian bombers have stepped up provocative flight exercises off the Alaskan coast, reminiscent of Cold War incursions designed to rattle U.S. air defenses.
U.S. Northern Command, which protects North American airspace, told The Washington Times that TU-95 Bear bombers on 18 occasions the past year have skirted a 12-mile air defense identification zone that protects Alaska. The incursions prompted F-15s and F-22 Raptor fighters to scramble from Elmendorf Air Force Base and intercept the warplanes. The last incident happened in May.
The venerable propeller-driven TU-95 came to symbolize the Cold War, as did its counterpart, the U.S. B-52 Stratofortress.
"They have flown close enough to deem it necessary to ID and monitor them," said Maj. Allen Herritage, a base spokesman. "They come. We ID. We go back to our base. They go back to their base." Elmendorf is headquarters for the Alaskan region of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Air defense identification zones are military boundaries designed to guard the U.S. and Canada against attack. To enter the zones legally, pilots must file flight plans with air controllers. Russian bombers do not file flight plans, so U.S. and Canadian jets are required to scramble to identify the planes and warn them away from the area.
"They have not been filing a flight plan and that is the problem," Maj. Herritage said.
Moscow's sophisticated show of force has some in the Pentagon paying more attention to the long-term goals of a Russian military, which is being rebuilt with proceeds from the country's huge oil and gas revenues. NORAD is more sensitive than ever to wayward aircraft, given the Sept. 11 attacks by hijackers and the lack of military coordination at the time to track, and perhaps destroy, the planes.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, talked on Monday of "the challenges we have with a resurgent Russia" while addressing Pentagon workers at a town-hall-style meeting.
Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., chief of NorthCom, said earlier this month that "I think the Russians are not a near-term military threat," while noting they had "renewed" military flights over the polar region. This is the route U.S. or Russian bombers would travel to bomb the other's country.
"I think we do have to make sure, you know, post-9/11 world, that we never let an unidentified aircraft come into our airspace, and that we determine who they are and what they're doing, and if it is a Russian aircraft on a training mission, we allow them to continue to do their job," Gen. Renuart said on WUSA-TV's "This Week in Defense News."
Although Gen. Renuart downplayed the incursions, other air-power authorities said Vladimir Putin, as Russian president, began flexing his military's muscle last year as a message to Washington.
"Putin is trying to get the military rejuvenated and trying to show they are a military power," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, who commanded NORAD's Alaska region. "He's doing it for a whole host of things. It's really muscle-flexing."
When told that 18 Russian incursions had been reported in 12 months, Mr. McInerney said, "That's a lot."
Mr. Putin, who relinquished the presidency in May and is now prime minister, has been at odds with President Bush over NATO expansion and the invasion of Iraq. At times, he has made strong anti-U.S. statements that stirred Cold War memories.
A NorthCom statement to The Times said, "Russia has indicated in open press reporting its intention to proceed with navigation and operational training."
Mr. McInerney said the incursions are the most sophisticated since the Cold War. He made the assessment based on an Air Force briefing he received last fall at Elmendorf.
The retired general called the exercises "coordinated attacks coming into our air defense identification zone. They are very sophisticated attack training maneuvers. These incursions are far more sophisticated than anything we had seen before."
He said the Russian army air force is launching Bear bombers from Tiksi on the Arctic Ocean and Anadyr in Siberia. They are flying against the air defense identification zone from both the polar caps and from the south. The Air Force statement said it has "monitored Russian aircraft taking off from a variety of air bases across their country."