Even as Russia is bogged down with its attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin has continued to conduct what it calls “routine patrol flights” far from its borders. These have included sorties over the Baltic and Bering Seas, while Russian aircraft on two separate occasions just this week entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the self-declared buffer that is outside of United States airspace.
Though foreign aircraft are “legally free” to fly within another nation’s ADIZ, doing so is often considered an act of aggression. In fact, Moscow has been increasingly aggressive in its flights in the regions since 2014 with such flights over the neutral waters of the Barents Strait multiple times a year.
If anything, the Kremlin has been quiet in 2022, likely due to its focus on its “special military operation” in Ukraine – the unprovoked and unwarranted invasion that it launched in late February. By contrast, last year, Russian aircraft conducted maritime patrols in January, March, and October. Each time, the aircraft were carefully tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
“We remain ready to employ a number of response options in defense of North America and Arctic sovereignty,” the Alaskan NORAD Region said in a statement on social media. “The Russian aircraft did not enter American or Canadian sovereign airspace.”
To keep track of such incidents, the command stated that it employs a layered defense network of satellites, ground-based radars, airborne radars, and fighter aircraft to track and identify aircraft and determine the appropriate response.
Watching the Bear
Among the Russian aircraft to take part in these patrol flights near Alaska, which had occurred at times with disturbing regularity, was the Tupolev Tu-95 (NATO reporting name “Bear”), a large Cold War-era strategic bomber that first entered service in 1952. It is now among the oldest aircraft designs still in service with the Russian military, while it is also the only propeller-powered bomber in operation in the world today.
Despite the age of the platform, the Tu-95 is still a highly-capable bomber – and much like the United States Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress, it has been steadily upgraded and will likely remain in service well into the 2040s or later. It is among the only Soviet-era bomber that could fly a distance 5,000 miles and strike targets within the United States from territory within the former communist nation. The bomber had a reported range that is greater than 9,300 miles (15,000 km).
The choice of propeller-driven engines was actually made due to the fact that jet engines at the time simply burned through fuel far too quickly, and the Soviet Air Force lacked the capability to refuel its bombers in flight. Instead, it can fly slow and steady to get the job done.
The “Bear” was a symbol of pride for the Soviet Union, and often was demonstrated at European Air Shows. Yet, despite the fact that it first entered service 70 years ago, it wasn’t actually deployed in combat until 2015 – when a pair of Tu-95s were used in a series of long-range airstrikes as part of the Russian military intervention in Syria.
Another notable point to make about the Tu-95 is that most of the aircraft in service today don’t actually date back to the 1950s. Rather, when it came time to “modernize” the aircraft in the 1980s, it was found that the aging airframes weren’t well-suited for the task. Instead, a new “batch” of aircraft – based on the original Tu-95 – was produced as the Tu-95MS. Those bombers now remain a key element of the air component of Russia’s nuclear triad, while also serving in a maritime reconnaissance role.
A Dangerous Game of Chicken
The United States military is often very quick to report any incursions near the Alaskan ADIZ, while NATO members also monitor for the presence of Russian aircraft over the aforementioned Baltic and Bering Seas. However, the U.S. and NATO also operate over those neutral waters – much to Moscow’s disdain.
The Kremlin regularly deploys fighter/interceptors to monitor and track the movements of such aircraft near its borders, and this had been occurring also with worrisome reliability. It would only take a small incident to escalate into a larger conflict, especially given NATO’s support of Ukraine this year.
It was just last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that approved an updated Russian maritime doctrine that outlines the nation’s coastal borders and listed NATO and the United States as its main threats. The doctrine identified the Arctic, Black, Okhotsk, and Bering seas, as well as the Baltic and Kuril straits, as areas of national interest, while Putin vowed to protect those areas by all means.
Russia has steadily increased its presence in the mineral-rich Arctic region, and that has included an expansion to its Nagurskoye airbase, which is located on the Franz Josef Land archipelago about 600 miles south of the geographic North Pole.