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U.S., Russia plan more anti-hijacking exercises

- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DENVER (AP) — A first-of-its-kind hijacking exercise involving the U.S., Canadian and Russian militaries went so well that a similar drill is planned for 2011, an American officer said.

Jet fighters from Russia and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) pursued a small passenger jet playing the role of a hijacked jetliner across the Pacific and back during the August exercise. The aim: to practice handing off responsibility for a hijacked jet between Russia and NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canadian command that for decades devoted its efforts to tracking Soviet forces.

Officers reviewed the exercise in November at NORAD headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. The verdict: It "was pretty much carried on flawlessly," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lee Haefner, who was the lead planner.

NORAD and Russian officers will meet in Russia in February to begin planning a second exercise, Col. Haefner said.

Whether that comes off depends on what happens in U.S.-Russian relations and internal Russian politics, said Alexander Golts, a prominent military analyst in Moscow. The first hijacking exercise initially was planned for 2008 but was postponed when U.S.-Russian relations soured in the wake of Russia's war with Georgia.

Russia could scuttle another exercise if its leaders are unhappy for any reason with Western nations, Mr. Golts told the Associated Press in Moscow. Cooperation could also falter if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev decide to take anti-Western positions during the 2011 election campaign.

"There's no doubt that this exercise can be the victim of anti-Western moods," Mr. Golts said.

The fact that the first exercise happened at all is a sign that U.S.-Russian relations are slowly improving, said Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who is research director for the Belfer Center at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"If things continue to improve, (future exercises) can actually by themselves begin to produce more trust and confidence between the militaries and afterward between the political leaders," Mr. Ryan said.

Andrew Kuchins, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the August exercise wasn't a "game-changer" but was important if Russia and the West want a working security agreement to combat hijackings or other acts of terrorism.

"You have to actively do things concretely together and not have just a rhetorical security partnership," Mr. Kuchins said.

Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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