Two Anchorage-based fighter jets intercepted a pair of Russian bombers Monday night off Kodiak Island in what an Air Force commander called the first such flight seen near Alaska in nearly two years.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of both the Alaskan Command and the Alaska NORAD Region, said Tuesday that the detection and intercept of the Tu-95 Bear bombers took place over the course of about two hours from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday.
"I can't go into all of the details on how we detected them, but we did detect them," Wilsbach said. "We were tracking them basically paralleling the Aleutian Islands roughly 100 miles to the south."
In response, two F-22 Raptor jets on standby were launched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, along with an E-3 Sentry AWACS radar plane. Wilsbach said they were supported by an Alaska Air National Guard KC-135 tanker aircraft launched from Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.
The F-22s intercepted the Bears about 100 miles southwest of Kodiak, Wilsbach said. The propeller-driven bombers didn't have any external signs of weaponry, and the pilots had no verbal contact.
"There is a procedure where we can talk to them, but generally we don't unless it's some sort of dangerous situation," Wilsbach said. "They waved at one another, but other than that there was no communication."
Both the American and Russian aircraft were flying "in accordance with international airspace and international law," Wilsbach said. The F-22s stayed with the Bears as they turned southwest back toward Russia, and the bombers were tracked on radar until they left U.S.-monitored airspace.
Monday's incident, Wilsbach said, was an indicator of the value of the controversial Northern Edge military exercise set for this summer in the Gulf of Alaska, because it includes simulated intercepts similar to the one involving the Bears.
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"The response that our crews executed last night was extremely proficient," Wilsbach said. "It's not an easy thing to do: to detect an incursion and launch a response, and get all the pieces in the right places and get your aircraft back safely."
Russia has periodically sent bombers toward Alaska for years despite the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, routinely prompting intercepts by JBER-based Air Force jets. In recent years those flights had been on an uptick, leading NORAD's commander to tell senators in 2015 that they had reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War.
Earlier this month, Russia, an ally of Syria, condemned President Donald Trump's cruise-missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for numerous civilian deaths in a Syrian chemical-weapons attack.
Wilsbach said Alaska hasn't seen any similar Russian flights since July 4, 2015, when Bear bombers were intercepted after approaching Alaska and California. The Alaskan Command hadn't seen any reports of Monday's flight in Russian media or any indication of the reason the bombers were sent.
"I have the same question you do as to the why part," Wilsbach said. "I can't answer that — only the Russians can answer that."