An F-15 escorts a Russian TU-95 Bear H bomber, during an intercept off the Alaskan coast in September 2006 (USAF photo via Air Force Times)
Over the past two years, we've noted the dramatic jump in Russian bomber flights near U.S. and NATO airspace. Recently, the commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) quantified the threat, reporting there have been 16 flights against Alaska alone since July of last year.
General Howie Chandler provided the statistics during an Anchorage press conference. He noted the number of TU-95 Bear missions against Alaska have increased geometrically over the past three years. As the Anchorage Daily News reports.
"We had one intercept of Russian bombers in my last year here," said, who ran the military's Alaskan command from 2003-2005. "That was the first intercept that had occurred in over 10 years at that point."
The most recent incident occurred on March 25th, when two F-15 fighters from Elmendorf AFB scrambled to intercept a pair of Bear bombers as they neared U.S. territory. Russian aircraft have never penetrated American airspace, which extends 12 miles from the coastline. However, they did enter the Air Defense Intercept Zone (ADIZ), which extends well beyond the territorial limit.
While no one believes the surge in bomber flights represents a return to the Cold War, they do reflect a resurgent Russian military under outgoing President Vladimir Putin. General Chandler said the Bear missions also reflect Moscow's ambitions in the Arctic region.
"It's about presence in the Arctic," he said. "It does become a presence issue when you open the Northwest Passage with the ability to transit on the surface. People are going to want to know who's transiting."
[Chandler said] the warming of the Arctic, with the likelihood of an eventual year-round open sea lane, has the northern nations scrambling to increase their presence in the high latitudes.
The growing number of Bear flights against Alaska also raises another question, which we've posed before. When will Russia again stage the most provocative of its bomber missions, a long-range sortie against the U.S. eastern seaboard. The last flight of that type occurred more than a decade ago, but the increase in bomber activity, coupled with chillier relations between Washington and Moscow, make the an east coast Bear flight more likely.
Additionally, conclusion of the last summit meeting between Putin and President Bush may also raise the prospects for such a mission. With the leaders' final meeting out of the way, Russian military officials may decide that there would be less diplomatic risk from sending TU-95s along the eastern seaboard. The mission would also allow Moscow to show support for its key allies in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba and Venezuela.
During the Cold War, Bears bombers on an east coast run typically landed in Cuba, then returned to Russia, along the same route, a few days later. With in-flight refueling (or staging from northern bases), TU-95s are capable of a longer flight to Venezuela, which has become an important customer for Russian military hardware, including advanced Flanker fighters.