A pair of Russian bombers accompanied by two fighter jets were intercepted by U.S. military jets off Alaska's northwestern coast Wednesday evening, the fifth Russian military flight near the state in less than a month.
The flight of two Tu-95 propeller-driven bombers and two Su-35 fighters was met at about 5 p.m. by a pair of U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter jets that were already airborne, NORAD spokeswoman Lori O'Donley said.
Wednesday's flight marked the first Russian entry into Alaska's Air Defense Identification Zone, covering international airspace outside sovereign U.S. skies, since four consecutive nights in mid-April. O'Donley said none of the aircraft in the April flights — a total of six Tu-95s and one Il-38 maritime patrol plane — were escorted by Russian fighters, last seen during an Alaska ADIZ incursion in 2014.
"It's not too different than it was the last time about two weeks ago, with the exception of the Su-35s," O'Donley said. "They were intercepted and identified, and everything was safe and professional."
The first and last of the April flights, on April 17 and 20, were also intercepted by pairs of U.S. F-22s. The U.S. fighters were joined on April 20 by two Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet fighters, and together they intercepted a pair of Tu-95s that had entered Alaska's and Canada's identification zones.
Fox News reported Thursday morning that the Raptors had been on a patrol about 50 miles southwest of Chariot, on Alaska's Bering Sea coast between Point Hope and Kivalina. O'Donley couldn't confirm those details, however, citing security concerns.
Air Force Capt. Anastasia Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Alaskan Command, said the Raptors that intercepted Wednesday's Russian flight were not flying at the time as part of this month's Northern Edge military exercise. She declined to say why the Raptors were airborne.
In a statement on Wednesday's intercept, Gov. Bill Walker mentioned a fifth aircraft: an "airborne radar platform" that was monitored entering Alaska's ADIZ during the incident.
"This is deeply unsettling, and underscores the immediate need for a more robust military presence in Alaska," Walker said.
Schmidt said the fifth plane was a Russian A-50 airborne early warning aircraft, which fulfills a similar role to the Air Force's E-3 Sentry AWACS. The A-50 did enter the ADIZ on Wednesday, she said, but was not intercepted with the other four aircraft.
Asked if Wednesday's encounter indicated an increasing level of complexity in Russian air operations, Schmidt said similar flights have been seen near Alaska before.
"Keep in mind they were in international airspace the entire time," Schmidt said. "Even though we haven't seen some of these aircraft for a number of years, it's still not unprecedented."