Russian military aircraft have approached the coast of Alaska four days in a row this week, with the latest encounter Thursday night when two long-range Russian bombers flew near the state's northern coast, according to U.S. military officials.
Two Alaskan-based F-22 raptors and two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet fighters intercepted the two Russian TU-95 turboprop bombers about 7 p.m. Thursday, according to a statement from MaryAnna Clemons, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a U.S.-Canada organization.
The Russian aircraft flew in international airspace Thursday north of Utqiagvik, the northernmost Alaska community formerly known as Barrow, said Col. Harlie Bodine, the 611th Air Operations Center commander at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
Bodine said Russian aircraft flew in international airspace in all four instances this week. He said military officials "have seen no indication of these aircraft being armed." Bodine declined to comment on whether the U.S. planes were armed when they intercepted the Russian aircraft.
"The operations have been extremely professional on both sides and they've been safe," he said.
Russia last sent bombers to the coast near Alaska in 2015.
Bodine said Alaska military officials were unaware of the reasoning behind Russia's four consecutive flights near the state's coast this week.
"We are as interested as you are, but unfortunately you have to ask the Russians that question and if you find out, we'd love to know the answer as well," he said. "We don't know why they have chosen to execute the operations they have over this week."
Militaries sometimes test the defenses of an opposing country by acting aggressively but avoiding a confrontation. In doing so, the aggressor can see how long it takes a defender to react, what kind of defensive command and control operations can be observed, and what kind of obvious weapons the defender employs.
The Russian Ministry of Defense told state-funded Russian news outlet Sputnik Thursday that the bombers in Monday's flight were on a patrol mission in international airspace. They flew more than 3,000 miles before returning to a base in the Amur region of the Russian Far East.
Flying into the air defense identification zone
While this week's incidents occurred in international airspace, Bodine said, the Russian aircraft entered the air defense identification zone around Alaska, which extends about 230 miles off the coast.
U.S. sovereign airspace extends about 14 miles off the coastline — 12 nautical miles, he said. Unless it's a pre-coordinated flight, Alaskan Command spokeswoman Capt. Anastasia Schmidt said Russian bombers do not fly into the U.S. sovereign airspace. "That doesn't happen," she said.
When unidentified aircraft enters the larger air defense identification zone, Bodine said military officials will identify the planes. They can do this in several ways, he said, including visually.
The F-22s that visually identified the Russian aircraft Thursday were launched from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Schmidt said.
A pair of JBER-based F-22s, supported by an E-3 Sentry AWACS radar plane and a KC-135 tanker aircraft, scrambled Monday to intercept the Russian bombers, but only a single aircraft, an E-3, was launched to track Tuesday's Russia flight.
On Wednesday night, Clemons said, a Russian Il-38 maritime patrol aircraft also entered the Alaska air defense identification zone. Military officials declined to provide further details on that flight, including the U.S. response to it, citing a need to protect operational security.
"We responded as appropriately but due to the operational sensitivity I'm not able to get into the specifics of how we did that," Bodine said.
‘Only thing that happened was a wave’
Bodine said there had been no voice communication between the Russian and American pilots this week.
"Only thing that happened was a wave," he said of the Monday and Thursday intercepts, declining to speak specifically to the other two mid-week flights.
"As long as they're operating in international airspace and following international laws, we are not going to interfere with their operations because obviously the United States flies airplanes around other countries and we don't want other countries interfering with our operations as long as we're adhering to international laws within international airspace," Bodine said.
"They have a flight plan, a route that they are going to fly and so we don't want to alter them," he said.
Bodine declined to comment on whether the U.S. was currently conducting similar flights near Russia.
Tensions have increased between the United States and Russia since President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria earlier this month in response to the Syrian government's chemical weapons attack on its civilians. Russia, which is backing the Syrian government, said the government wasn't responsible for the attack.
Bodine said this week's Russian flights near Alaska's coast "weren't necessarily unusual." Since the Cold War ended, similar incidents involving Russian aircraft reached peak levels in 2014 with 15, Schmidt said. Before Monday, the last incident was on July 4, 2015.
Bodine said Friday that his message to the public about this week's Russian bombers was, "Don't be concerned."
"We are not concerned," he said. "What you are seeing is your military ready to do our job and to defend our nation. We train for these opportunities. We have the most professional men and women that are executing these missions and they are ready to do it 24/7, 365. So don't be concerned. We're ready for this."