- - Monday, May 6, 2013

Russian strategic bombers conducted flights near the U.S. defense zone close to northern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands last week, Moscow’s latest incident of nuclear saber-rattling against the United States, according to defense and military officials.

Two Bear H nuclear-capable bombers were detected flying into the military’s Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone near the Aleutians, where a strategic-missile-defense radar is located, and along Alaska’s North Slope by the Arctic and Chukchi seas on April 28 and 29, military officials told the Washington Free Beacon.

Lt. Cmdr. Bill Lewis, a spokesman with the U.S. Northern Command, confirmed a U.S. fighter intercept of the bombers but declined to provide details.

“Two U.S. F-22’s from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, were launched and visually identified Russian aircraft on the night of April 28, as the Russian air force flew standard out-of-area flights near Alaska,” Lt. Cmdr. Lewis said. The bombers did not enter U.S. airspace, he said.

However, the Alaska air-defense zone is a formal national security area used by the military to monitor both civilian and military aircraft. The dispatch of F-22s is an indication that the Russian bombers posed a potential threat to U.S. territory.

It was the fifth incident of Russian strategic bombers flying against the United States since June, when bombers were intercepted near Alaska during a large-scale strategic nuclear exercise that Russian military officials said involved practice strikes against U.S. missile defense sites in Alaska.

Less than a month later, on July 4, two more Bears flew the closest to the Northern California coast that Russian aircraft have flown since the days of the Cold War.

Then in February, two Bears circled Guam, a U.S. territory and key military hub in the Pacific. Additionally, Backfire strategic bombers flew simulated strikes against U.S. missile defenses and bases in Japan last month.

U.S. officials believe the stepped-up Russian bomber flights are part of Moscow’s attempt to influence U.S. missile-defense policies. Russia, along with China, for years opposed U.S. missile-defense programs through propaganda and influence operations. Both nations want the U.S. defenses curtailed to protect their strategic offensive missiles, which are being expanded.

The Pentagon in March announced it was adding 14 new long-range missile interceptors to the 30 ground-based interceptors based at Fort Greely in Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in announcing the added interceptors, also said the Pentagon is canceling an advanced Navy SM-3 interceptor that was to have been deployed in Europe and that would have been capable of shooting down long-range missiles from Iran.

The latest Russian bomber incident followed the April 14 visit to Moscow by National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon, who presented a letter from President Obama to the Russians on missile defenses. Details of the letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin remain secret, but Russian officials described it as containing a number of proposals “promoting dialogue and cooperation.”

Mr. Obama was overheard on an open microphone in March 2012 telling then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that after the presidential election he would have “more flexibility” in dealing with Russia on missile defenses, an indication he is preparing to make further concessions limiting U.S. missile defenses in future talks.

Administration officials have publicly said there are no plans to limit U.S. missile defenses in the talks.

Moscow is demanding legally binding guarantees that U.S. missile defenses in Europe will not be used to target Russian offensive ballistic missiles.

U.S. officials said Mr. Obama appears to be preparing to make concessions as a way to seek a new round of strategic arms cuts with Moscow. He is set to visit Russia in September when arms control is expected to be a major topic of discussion.

The U.S. Northern Command did not announce the April 28 bomber incident and declined to release details on the latest flight, as part of the Obama administration’s conciliatory policy of seeking to “reset” ties with Russia.

However, two days after the incident, the command issued a news release highlighting its cooperation with the Russian military, announcing plans for a joint U.S.-Russian flight exercise designed to counter hijacked aircraft.

The statement said Russian air force officials on April 27 completed talks with Northern Command officials at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado on the next exercise in August in Anchorage, Alaska, and at Anadyr, home of a strategic bomber base in the Russian Far East from which U.S. officials suspect the recent bomber flights took off.

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