US jets intercept pair of Russian bombers off Alaskan coast

An F18 Hornet fighter jet pilot waits to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
An F18 Hornet fighter jet pilot waits to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – Two Russian long-range bombers were intercepted off the coast of Alaska by a pair of F-22 Raptor fighter jets on Friday (May 11), the military said.

The Tu-95 bombers were flying in the Air Defence Identification Zone in the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian Islands, where they were visually identified and shadowed by the US jets at 10am, said Navy Captain Scott Miller, a North American Aerospace Defence Command spokesman.

The bombers did not enter North American sovereign airspace, he said in a statement. Miller declined to say how close the bombers came to US land. Fox News reported they flew as close as 88km off Alaska’s west coast.

Friday’s encounter was the first of its kind in just more than a year, Miller said. A similar incident occurred off Alaskan waters in April 2017 in what US officials have described as routine if not tense encounters between adversarial aircraft where territorial lines meet.

The identification zone extends about 300km off the Alaskan coast and is mostly international airspace, Miller said, though Russian military activity will often prompt an in-kind response for US warplanes. Intercepts in the zone occurred about 60 times from 2007 to 2017, The New York Times reported last year.

Miller said the Russian bombers, decades-old aircraft classified by Nato as the “Bear,” were flying in accordance with international norms. The aircraft are capable of carrying nuclear bombs, but it unclear what weapons they had on board, if any.

A Russian Defence Ministry statement released Friday diverged from the US military account. They said the bombers were escorted by fighter jets and a reconnaissance jet that also acts as an anti-submarine platform.

Miller said that was not true.

“This was a safe intercept, which did not include a Russian recon plane, and no Russian fighters were present,” he told The Washington Post on Saturday.

It was not clear if the Russian air operation was an opportunity for real-world training or if it was in response to US and Nato military operations elsewhere. Last week, Russia scrambled jets four times in response to foreign reconnaissance flights near its border, the Russian news service Interfax reported.

Aircraft intercepts, flybys and shadowings have escalated in recent years after Russian military activity and occupation in Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014.

Earlier this month, a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet flew within 6m of a US P-8 surveillance aircraft over the Baltic Sea – a minuscule distance considering the aircraft move at hundreds of miles an hour – in an incident the US military called safe but unprofessional.

Friday’s incident was relatively routine, but more aggressive manoeuvres have worried defence officials and diplomats who said the encounters may eventually cause collisions or miscalculations that lead to a shoot-down.

A report issued in 2014 by the European Leadership Network, a London-based think-tank, documented almost 40 incidents that together “add up to a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided midair collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs, and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area,” according to the report.

The report was only compiled for 2014 and not for the subsequent years.