Russian military flights outside Russian airspace have reached levels not seen since the Cold War, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
Most concerning to NORAD officials is not the number of flights into U.S. and allies' Air Defense Identification Zones but the increasing capabilities of the Russian aircraft and pilots, Adm. William Gortney said.
Alaska's NORAD headquarters covers the entire Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone -- an area extending 200 miles beyond the state's sovereign airspace into international airspace and waters. Alaska's ADIZ averages about 10 incursions by Russian aircraft a year. The number is "growing slightly," according to Alaska NORAD officials, who characterized the Russian flights as non-provocative training missions.
But NORAD says the recent Russian buildup in its Arctic areas, combined with growing Russian military capabilities in the region, is concerning.
"We are seeing more complexity in flight activity," said Col. Patrick Carpentier, deputy commander of the Alaska NORAD region. "The Russians have made no secret they are ... making a lot of headway in modernizing their weapons."
Upgrades include command and control systems that can now allow Russian planes, ships and submarines to coordinate information gathering or attack plans.
"The majority of the flights are long-range missions, so the aircraft we will see are (Tu-95) Bear bomber aircraft and different types of long-range reconnaissance aircraft," Carpentier said.
In September 2014, a squadron of six Russian bomber, fighter, air-refueling and reconnaissance aircraft was intercepted as it approached Alaska airspace. Similar incidents have grown in frequency across Northern Europe since the start of Russian intervention in Crimea and Ukraine. Russian training flights have even forced some commercial air carriers to change planes' courses to avoid the Russian planes.
Gortney said Russia is working on long-range cruise missiles capable of being launched from ships, aircraft and submarines and which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads.
"They can reach critical infrastructure in Alaska and Canada that we rely on for a homeland defense mission," Gortney said in written comments to the Senate committee.
NORAD has about 100 full-time airmen (both U.S. and Canadian troops) stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. A sophisticated radar net surrounding the Arctic alerts NORAD when unidentified aircraft enter an ADIZ. Then, F-22 Raptor fighters scramble from JBER to electronically or visually identify the planes.
Carpentier stressed that, to his knowledge, the Russians have never breached Alaska's sovereign airspace.