The U.S.-Canadian air defense command is downplaying two recent Russian military encounters near Alaska as nonthreatening — despite one intrusion that included nuclear-capable bombers.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command delayed releasing details on the two separate incidents for two days, even though multiple U.S. fighter jets and support aircraft were used to intercept and escort the Tu-95 bombers and Su-35 jets off the Alaskan coast on May 11.
A second Russian military flight took place on Monday, the command said in a statement, without identifying the aircraft or saying whether additional jets were sent to shadow the flights.
“This Russian activity in the North American [air defense identification zone] occurs regularly and is not seen as a threat,” the command said in statements Wednesday and Saturday. The Russian military flights appeared timed to several large-scale military exercises in Alaska, the statement said.
A NORAD spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on why the command appears to be playing down the potential threats posed by Russian military aircraft, or why details of the activity were not released sooner.
Propeller-powered Russian Tu-95 bombers can be armed with Kh-20 nuclear missiles, Kh-22 anti-ship missiles and Kh-101/102 cruise missiles carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads.
NORAD works closely with the Pentagon’s Northern Command which normally provides the interceptor aircraft used in monitoring the Russian flights. Canadian jets in the past have been involved.
Both military commands came under fire earlier this year from critics who said the military failed to take timely action against a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that floated over sensitive U.S. military sites across the continental U.S. before being shot down over the Atlantic Ocean Feb. 4.
During the May 11 encounters with the Russian aircraft, NORAD dispatched U.S. F-16 and F-22 fighters, KC-135 refueling tankers and E-3 airborne warning and control aircraft for the intercepts. The Russian aircraft were identified as TU-95 bombers, IL-78 tankers and SU-35 fighter aircraft. No numbers were provided for either the Russian or U.S. aircraft.
NORAD said Russia resumed out-of-area long-range aviation flights in 2007, and the flights have triggered about six to seven aerial intercepts a year.
Russian air defense zone intrusions vary from none in a given year to as many as 15 flights.
The NORAD statement Monday said that a single Russian aircraft, not further identified, flew into the Alaska defense zone on May 15 but remained in international airspace.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at email@example.com.
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