More and more, U.S. pilots in Alaska are being awoken in the frigid early morning for what used to be a Cold War mission: scrambling stealth F-22 fighter jets from their base in Anchorage to confront 1950s-era Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers barreling toward U.S. shores.
Last week alone, the Russians twice conducted air sorties. In each case, the American F-22s rushed to take off to keep the Russian planes out of U.S. airspace. In such missions, the F-22s and Bear bombers eye one another warily for several minutes — or hours — from the sky, with the U.S. pilots inspecting the bombers and shadowing them as necessary, before the planes go their separate ways. Each side uses the encounters to collect intelligence, test capabilities and analyze response times for future potential conflicts.
Russia restarted these air patrols all across the globe in 2007 to practice strategic bombing missions of U.S. territory and ensure Russian flight crews were better prepared to both deter and attack the U.S. if necessary. Though there are only six to seven such missions on average per year — down from the thousands that were conducted throughout the Cold War — they are increasing, particularly in the Arctic.
Indeed, both the U.S. and Europe face growing competition with Russia in the Arctic. The bomber patrols are part of Moscow’s efforts to showcase that it has both the operational abilities and strategic intent to compete in the Arctic, which it sees as an area of core national interest given its resources and sea lanes. Russia has recently established or upgraded seven military bases in the region, outfitted with ports, airfields, tankers and icebreakers, indicating it is willing to assert itself and possibly attempt to limit the freedom of navigation of commercial and military vessels.
These “show of force” missions also have a broader and, in the Russian mindset, more important goal, which is to signal that Russia remains a strategic competitor of the United States and has the ability to both attack the U.S. mainland and undermine U.S. interests. They come at a point of increasing tension between the United States and Russia, with both countries concerned about each other’s activities in Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela, as well as the Arctic.
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