WASHINGTON — Russian bombers flew close to Alaska and California this week, prompting the U.S. Air Force to scramble fighter aircraft, according to North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The first encounter occurred at about 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time on Monday, when four Russian Tu-95 Bear-H long-range bombers and a Il-76 refueling tanker entered the outer portion of the North American air defense identification zone near Alaska.
In response, two American F-22 fighter jets based in Alaska were scrambled. The U.S. aircraft visually identified the Russian aircraft and shadowed them until they left the ADIZ, said Canadian Army Capt. Jennifer Stadnyk, a NORAD spokeswoman. NORAD, based in Colorado, is a joint military command staffed by U.S. and Canadian personnel. NORAD is charged with defending North American airspace.
After the F-22s began shadowing the bombers, two of the Tu-95s headed west and left the ADIZ. The other two left the zone heading south, but later re-entered the ADIZ near northern California around 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time. At one point, the Russian bombers were only 50 miles off the California coast, according to Stadnyk. Two F-15s based in Oregon were launched, and the jets followed the bombers until they left the ADIZ, Stadnyk said.
“The [Russian] aircraft remained in international airspace at all times, behaved professionally, and undertook no dangerous military activities,” according to Stadnyk. “At no time did any of the bombers ever enter sovereign [U.S.] airspace.”
An ADIZ is a zone where foreign aircraft are required to identify themselves to the nation whose airspace they are approaching. The North American ADIZ extends 200 miles off the region’s coastline. Sovereign airspace only extends 12 miles beyond the coast. Under international law, foreign military aircraft are not allowed to enter another nation’s sovereign airspace without permission, but they are allowed to transit an ADIZ.
“There’s no [legal] reason why they couldn’t be there. But … when they enter our ADIZ, that’s our air defense identification zone, so we go up and check out to see what they’re doing and who they are and what their intent is,” Stadnyk explained.
The Russian bombers deployed from the country’s Far East region.
“We believe that it was a training exercise,” Stadnyk said. “It’s not unusual for them to be more active at this time of the year as part of their training cycle. But … often [when] they do their training, they might not get that close.”
The last time Russian aircraft flew that close to California’s coast was July 2012, according to Stadnyk.
The Tu-95s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Stadnyk did not known if the Russian bombers were armed. She said for this type of aircraft, the ordnance on it wouldn’t necessarily be clearly visible.
She said there was “standard communications” between the Russian and American pilots during the encounters, but would not provide additional details.
A few weeks ago, a U.S. electronic reconnaissance plane was intercepted by a Russian fighter, prompting complaints to Russian officials from top U.S. military officials.
On April 23, a U.S. Air Force RC-135U was flying in international airspace on a “routine mission” over the sea of Okhotsk when it was intercepted by a single Russian Su-27 Flanker, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters.
“The Su-27 approached the RC-135 across the nose of the U.S. aircraft within approximately 100 feet,” Warren said.
There was no radio communication between the two aircraft, but the Russian jet rolled to expose its armaments to the crew of the U.S. jet, according to Warren. The RC-135U’s pilots did not need to engage in evasive maneuvers, Warren said.
These recent aerial encounters came in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and large military buildup near Ukraine’s borders, which raised tensions between the former Cold War rivals.