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.
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.
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.
The timing of last week’s Russian air incursions, the fourth and fifth this year, is hardly coincidental. They took place at the same time as Ukraine’s presidential inauguration, in which Russia views the United States as meddling to undermine Russian interests, and a week after a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which the two sides repeatedly disagreed over a range of issues, particularly U.S. efforts to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power.
Most significant, they come several weeks before a major U.S.-led naval exercise, “Baltic Operations,” kicks off in the North Atlantic in mid-June. The exercise, which entails air, sea and ground assets from 18 nations operating near Russia’s western border, irritates Putin as it highlights NATO unity and exposes Moscow’s isolation. The maritime-focused exercise, which is the largest of its kind in Central Europe, will be led for the first time by the Navy’s newly re-established 2nd Fleet, which was created after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to showcase a renewed U.S. focus on North Atlantic security.
Amid such unfavorable international optics, Russia’s air incursions also have a domestic component: The sight of Russian bombers being intercepted by U.S. fighter jets close to American shores reinforces the image of a strong Russia and a peer competitor to the U.S. That picture curries Putin political favor at home as he faces questions about Russia’s economic stagnation and inability to break free of Western isolation and sanctions.
Given Russia’s many motivations, it is important to understand that these missions will continue -- and that the U.S. should not overexaggerate the threat they pose when they do. The U.S. and Russia routinely fly near each other’s territory to collect electronic intelligence, understand command and control procedures and preparations, and test operational concepts.
Russia’s air incursions also have a domestic component: The sight of Russian bombers being intercepted by U.S. fighter jets close to American shores reinforces the image of a strong Russia.
Still, such missions do increase the risk of miscalculation or accidents, such as a downed aircraft. To reduce this danger, Russia, the United States and Canada must maintain open lines of communication even as tensions persist.
What is more, this Russian activity accelerates the need for the United States and other Arctic nations to communicate to Russia the boundaries of acceptable behavior and demonstrate their collective intent to ensure that cooperation, and not competition, remains the norm in the region. Like-minded Arctic nations must increase their ability to defend themselves against Russia by continuing joint training and exercises, bolstering capabilities and increasing cooperation in areas such as air and maritime surveillance, and conducting prudent contingency planning. They should also be prepared to conduct international freedom of navigation exercises if needed.
Absent such early and demonstrative collective action, Russia is likely to continue to push the limits of international norms in the Arctic to change the balance of power in the region in its favor. If the window to ensure the protection of international norms closes, the United States and its allies may find themselves in an Arctic where Russia sets the rules.