The U.S. and Russia traded aerial intercepts this week, adding to a year of airborne confrontations.
U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, accompanied by KC-135 Stratotankers and an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, intercepted two Russian Tu-95 bombers escorted by a pair of Su-35 fighter aircraft off Alaska late Monday, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which oversees North American operations.
In a series of tweets posted Tuesday, NORAD said it also identified a Russian A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft supporting the intercepted aircraft, which entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone. The ADIZ stretches roughly 200 miles off Alaska's coast.
The A-50 "loitered within the ADIZ for approximately 1.5 [hours] and came within 30 nautical miles of Alaskan shores," NORAD said on Twitter. "All Russian aircraft remained in [international] airspace and at no time entered sovereign airspace."
Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of NORAD, said, "The agility and readiness of our personnel ensures we are successful in addressing potential aerospace threats with the appropriate response at the right time."
On Wednesday, Russia's Ministry of Defense reported that a MiG-31 and Su-35 scrambled to escort a B-1B Lancer bomber over the Bering Sea. Russia claimed it intercepted two bombers, but video footage posted by the ministry showed a KC-135 refueling plane transiting the region with the B-1.
NORAD has seen more than a dozen intercepts near the U.S. in 2020 -- the most in recent years, according to Van Herck.
Experts have argued that, while the intercepts expose a pattern of behavior by the Russian military, they also show that it is willing to capitalize on the publicity the aerial maneuvers bring -- even during a global pandemic.
The U.S. has also conducted multiple show-of-force flights across Europe and the Pacific in recent months, particularly with its bomber fleets.
In early September, two B-52 Stratofortress bombers headed southeast toward Crimea -- which was annexed by Russia in 2014 -- and trained alongside Ukrainian jets. That was one week after a B-52 formation, dubbed "Allied Sky," flew across all 30 NATO countries in a one-day mission meant to showcase solidarity with partners in the region.
Called Bomber Task Force, or BTF, missions, shorter flights -- using two to four bombers -- have been a regular occurrence since the spring as part of the Defense Department's larger "dynamic force employment" strategy for military units to test how nimbly they can move from place to place.
In May, two B-1B Lancers from the 28th Bomb Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, marked their first-ever flight with Ukrainian Su-27 Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums over the Black Sea. The supersonic bombers also trained in launching the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, signaling a dramatic shift following years of flying close-air support missions in the Middle East to stand-off precision strike exercises.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.