Russia's resurgent military is again making sporadic, unannounced bomber runs toward Alaska's airspace, leading the Air Force to scramble jets to intercept and identify them, according to the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Howie Chandler.
The most recent incident, involving two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers, occurred Tuesday, Chandler said during a meeting with reporters at Elmendorf Air Force Base on Thursday. Since July, there have been 16 such incidents, according to the Air Force.
"That's an interesting thing that we're watching happening," said Chandler, who experienced the tail end of Russia's post-Soviet decline when he headed the Alaska Command from 2003 to 2005.
"We had one intercept of Russian bombers in my last year here," Chandler said. "That was the first intercept that had occurred in over 10 years at that point."
Since November, Chandler has been based in Hawaii, where he oversees military units from Alaska to Korea and into the South Pacific.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been rebuilding his country's military and its national pride, both of which fell into decrepitude during the years of Boris Yeltsin. Additionally, 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 Tuesday intercept occurred outside U.S. airspace but within the air-control territory known as the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone. The Russian planes stayed within international airspace until they returned to base, the Air Force said.
"The issue involved today is not a Cold War issue," Chandler said. "But in this day and time, you simply can't allow unidentified aircraft to run around in your airspace. So when the Russians do fly where they fly in the Arctic, without filing flight plans and without prior notice, then we have to go see what those aircraft are."
When U.S. Air Force planes fly near Russia, he asserted, it's always on a flight plan filed with Russian controllers.
Russia is sending "mixed signals," he said, challenging the United States at times, cooperating in joint exercises at others. Ironically, Russian and U.S. forces worked together recently on a scenario involving an unidentified aircraft approaching the United States from Russian airspace, Chandler said.
While the Soviet-era Cold War was behind the Russian bomber penetrations through the early 1990s, climate change may be the impetus now, Chandler said.
"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."
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER