The Washington Free Beacon reports that the Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bomber aircraft operated near Guam on 12 February, a few hours before President Obama’s SOTU address.
A few things about this.
1. It’s not the first time the Russians have timed bomber flights to coincide with Obama events. As early as February 2009, Russian bombers buzzed Canada hours before Obama’s first visit there to confer with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Later that year, in July, Russia conducted three close approaches to Alaska with Tu-95 Bear bombers during Obama’s state visit to Moscow. Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins had this to say at the time:
In the past, it would be ‘politically embarrassing’ for the Russians to conduct such flights while a U.S. leader is visiting the Russian president, but the general said the Russians conducted three such flights during President Obama’s recent visit to Moscow.
Alert readers will remember Russian bomber excursions from last summer as well, including a penetration of the U.S. Air Defense Information Zone off Alaska on 4 July. (Note: this was erroneously reported by some bloggers at the time as a violation of U.S. air space. It wasn’t. It was a close approach to our air space, in an area where we identify and require communication from all aircraft operating there – as do other nations in their ADIZes.)
2. The bomber passes against North America in the summers of 2009 and 2012 were culminating events in major Russian military exercises. That does not appear to be the case with the bomber flight on 12 February. Although Russia launched a very large naval exercise in late January, which included a high level of activity in the Mediterranean, off Syria, that exercise concluded on 31 January, and did not appear to have notable participation by strategic forces.
The Russian bombers did fly on the 12th, however, during China’s first big naval exercise of 2013. Such Chinese exercises were rare – an annual event, at most – only three years ago, but their frequency has increased. Russia’s signal with the bomber flight was intended as much for Chinese consumption as for American.
3. It was also intended for Japan’s consumption. On 7 February, Russian Su-27 “Flanker” fighters intruded briefly into Japanese air space around Rishiri Island on the west side of Hokkaido. Japan lodged a protest, of course, and Russia is denying the incursion. (The map shows Rishiri’s location and the Russian Far Eastern bases from which Su-27s may fly.)
Rishiri is not one of the disputed Kuril Islands, which lie to the east on Hokkaido’s other flank. But the resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute is a key national-power issue for both Moscow and Tokyo, and Russia has been busy intimidating Japan on this matter for some time.
Egregious intrusions on Japanese sovereignty elsewhere have been rare. But provocative shows of force near Japanese territory – by both Russia and China – have been ramping up in the last year. The July 2012 Russian exercise that produced the bomber flight in the Alaskan ADIZ on 4 July included a big amphibious assault element in the waters just off Hokkaido, on Russia’s Sakhalin Island. The same exercise saw extensive use of Bear bombers around Japan.
China, meanwhile, has been maneuvering her navy provocatively for the past few months around the disputed Senkaku Islands. On 30 January, a Chinese warship illuminated a Japanese destroyer with a fire-control radar in an area where the two ships were operating, reportedly 60-95 miles (100-150km) north of the Senkaku Islands chain. Such an action can be taken as highly provocative in any circumstances; in company with other threatening moves, it could prompt a legitimate self-defense action by a Japanese warship.
Activity in the air is of even greater concern. Japan’s Air Self Defense Force has scrambled fighters 160 times since October 2012 in response to close approaches by Chinese military aircraft. This is a dramatically heightened and very destabilizing pattern. A Chinese patrol aircraft actually penetrated Japan’s claimed air space in the Senkakus on 13 December 2012 – and, according to Japanese media, the U.S. began deploying AWACS airborne warning and control aircraft to the area on 10 January in response to this incursion.
On 19 January 2013, according to military sources speaking to Asahi Shimbun’s Beijing correspondent, China scrambled fighters to intercept a U.S. AWACS aircraft operating at the “Japan-China median line” north of the Senkakus. Japan responded by scrambling her own fighters from Naha, in Okinawa. Both sides scrambled multiple sorties on the 19th. During the incident, a Chinese frigate reportedly illuminated a Japanese military helicopter in the area with a fire-control radar – eleven days before the warship-to-warship incident on the 30th.
Regarding the operation of U.S. aircraft in the Senkaku area: I have seen no announcement of it by U.S. authorities, and can’t verify it independently. E-3A Sentry AWACS are stationed at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, and could certainly fly the missions from there. The point of using an AWACS is not clear; it seems to imply an interest the U.S. doesn’t actually have in exercising authority or control over the air space boundary between Japan and China. AWACS are not equipped to be intelligence/reconnaissance aircraft, so deploying them for that purpose has no utility. The AWACS’ core mission is combat direction.
Also currently stationed at Kadena are F-22 Raptor strike-fighters and F-15 Eagle strike-fighters (F-22s have rotated through Kadena since 2009). These fighters would presumably be the first responders for any incident involving a U.S. AWACs and Chinese fighters – although the Japanese report indicates that Japanese fighters scrambled in response to the 19 January intercept by the Chinese fighters.
4. The magnitude of the regional stakes actually amplifies the significance of chain-pulling between nuclear-armed nations, assuming that’s what Russia was doing with a tactically pointless bomber excursion to Guam. The Tu-95 Bear H can launch missiles at Guam from 1,800 miles (1,620 nautical miles) away. It doesn’t need to circle Guam close aboard to get its job done. The bomber pair’s highly unusual flight path was intended to have a political effect.
5. It is worth noting the loss of knowledge and precision on the part of the media since the end of the Cold War. At least one aspect of the 12 February incident highlights this trend: the casual reference in the Free Beacon report to the Bear bombers “likely” carrying nuclear weapons during the flight. There appears to be no evidence of this, and it is more likely that the Russian bombers were not carrying nuclear weapons, which would be provocative in the extreme (and would violate New START, if done without notifying the U.S. This is a provision Russia buys nothing by violating; it’s better to observe the treaty and expect the U.S. to do the same).
But in any case, the intercepting F-15 aircrew could not be certain, on 12 February, that any nuclear-capable weapon systems carried by the Bear bombers actually had nuclear warheads. They’d be able to tell by looking whether AS-15 Kent (Kh-55) missile bodies were mounted on the hardstands on the wings. But they wouldn’t be able to state with certainty what kind of warhead was present.
6. Another aspect of the incident that highlights our shift away from Cold War sensitivities is the sketchy level of detail on the flight and intercept of the Bear bombers. There are two main ways for Russian bombers to get to Guam. Both matter to the local nations’ sense of security – and the implications of one of them amount to a major strategic vulnerability for the U.S.
U.S. intelligence was undoubtedly tracking the bombers’ flight from the moment they launched from their originating airfield (which could have been their main base in southern Russia, but was probably a base in the Far East, where the strategic bombers often stage to operate over the Arctic and Pacific). The bombers might have gone through the Sea of Japan and one of the Japanese straits to get to the open-ocean leg of their journey, in which case they would have been intercepted and escorted by the Japanese on the way south.
But a more likely approach path is from further east, possibly through the Sea of Okhotsk and south from the Kuril Island chain. (See map.) On this route, Russian bombers would encounter only their own and international air space, all the way to the Marianas Islands. Alternatively, launching from the Petropavlovsk Yelizovo airfield on the Kamchatka Peninsula would produce an even more fuel- and combat-advantaged flight path. The path to Guam from Russia’s remotest Far East, and south across the Western Pacific, is wide open – unobstructed, unfortified – and it appears that Russia has just taken a step to make that clear.
Key point here: a sense of geography and politics would inform Cold War reporters that there was more to the story than the reported intercept off Guam. A nervous Cold War public knew enough, in turn, to want reassurance that foreign bombers were being escorted (that is, held at risk) whenever they were out posing a threat. But Russia’s Far Eastern frontier is one of the few places on earth where the U.S. doesn’t have the means to do that.
We are centering the build-up for our “pivot toward Asia” on Guam – and Russia can get bombers into position off Guam by flying into missile range while remaining outside the normal operating range of our land-based fighters.
Making up that shortfall in Guam’s defenses would not be simple. Constant readiness to react to the Bear H threat would occupy more than simply a pair of alert Air Force fighters in Japan. The U.S. Navy, for its part, doesn’t have the assets to keep a carrier air wing or an Aegis warship, with its powerful anti-air capabilities, constantly in position to respond to a Bear H threat from the Okhotsk/Kamchatka side of the Russian Far East. (In the short run, the Band-aid “fix” would presumably be to put a Patriot battery in Guam, on alert to shoot down the approaching missile.)
The Cold War ended before the U.S. really had to face this particular problem of stand-off attack capability in foreign hands. The Kh-55 series of cruise missiles was nascent technology for the Soviet forces of the 1980s, and the global political situation changed profoundly before it became a significant factor in regional military planning.
But the political situation is changing again: profoundly, and for the worse. In the Far East, as elsewhere, the day when American regional “intervention” represented an unchallengeable limiting factor for everyone else is behind us. It was never likely to last long, and it hasn’t. We are already in a position in which we are vulnerable if we don’t scramble to keep up with the threat. For those who have eyes to see, Russia has just made that plain – and it’s only one of the threats now mounting in the Far East.