Bears in the air: Why Russian bombers rattled some serious saber

Bears in the air: Why Russian bombers rattled some serious saber

Just so you know: 16 incursions by Russian bombers into a U.S. air defense identification zone (ADIZ), in a period of 10 days, was not, in fact, normal, even during the Cold War.

That number of incursions is what is technically referred to as a buttload of incursions over a short period of time.

To be clear, the Russian bombers did not violate U.S. territorial air space.  You’ll see some blogs and even MSM news organizations reporting it that way, but that’s not an accurate rendering.  The Russian bombers entered a U.S. ADIZ, meaning they flew into a zone that extends beyond U.S. territorial air space, where our air controllers require all aircraft to identify themselves, and where we may respond with Air Force or Air National Guard fighter interceptors (e.g., F-22, F-16, or F-15).  A number of nations have declared ADIZes, which are a common national defense measure.

The Russian aircraft involved were reportedly Tu-95 Bear H’s – strategic bombers – along with Tu-142 Bear Fs (a somewhat similar airframe but with a different set of missions, including maritime reconnaissance and intelligence collection), and an IL-20 Coot, which reportedly is one of the IL-20s that conduct intelligence collection.

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Eastern Europe

Now for the context.  The news media are understandably boresighted on Ukraine.  Certainly, a meaningful narrative can be established about what’s going on there and in the rest of Eastern Europe.  Shortly before the Russian bombers began zooming the U.S. ADIZ, a U.S. RC-135 “Rivet Joint” intelligence collection aircraft had its unfortunate incident with Russian reaction forces in the Baltic, on 18 July.

In June, Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters deployed in the Baltic as NATO assets reacted to waves of Russian Tu-22M Backfire bombers, apparently executing a training mission against the Baltic Republics (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia).  That event had Cold War stamped all over it, involving the Backfire bombers, an Su-27 Flanker fighter escort, and an A-50 Mainstay (AWACS-type) airborne battle controller.  (Cue up the Old Cold Warriors chanting “Northwestern TVD!”)

The fight for eastern Ukraine is heating up, meanwhile, with the Ukrainian national government forces executing – this week – a big push to recover Donetsk, and 20,000 Russian troops massed on the border (up from 12,000 in mid-July).

Upping the ante, Russia is pushing a media theme that Kiev has used SS-21 (“Scarab”) ballistic missiles, as well as battlefield rockets, against the Russian-proxy separatists in eastern Ukraine – and that these weapons are causing “disproportionate” damage to civilians.  A NATO source seemed to confirm Kiev’s use of ballistic missiles to CNN last week, but according to Deutsche Welle, NATO has since denied that report categorically, and the national government in Kiev insists it possesses no ballistic missiles.

Russia seems on the face of it to be preparing the information battle space for an invasion to “intervene” and “rescue” civilians.

As NATO spins up for a defense summit in Wales in September, the Defence Committee of the British Parliament warns that the alliance is ill-prepared to deal with a Russian incursion into Eastern Europe, whether in Ukraine or the Baltic Republics.  This will come as a big “du-uh” to veteran defense-watchers, who have decried NATO’s declining defense investments for the last decade and more.  But the emergence of this political theme is emblematic of the seriousness with which at least some Europeans are now taking the potential threat from Russia.

So the situation in this area – the European interface of Russia and NATO – is as dire as we have seen it in decades.  But it’s not the only region where Russia has initiatives or concerns.

Southern Asia

From a zoomed-out view, the geographic focus of Russia’s military exercise posture this summer looks at least as much “southern” as “western.”  Zooming out in time as well, we see that Russia has emphasized strengthening her military posture on her southern flank since at least 2012 – and the reasons for that have only become more urgent in the intervening months.  What was a burgeoning Syria-Chechen nexus prompted by the Arab Spring has become a Ukraine-Syria-Iraq-Afghanistan problem, with the emergence of ISIS and the now-definite plan of the United States to draw down to effectively zero in Afghanistan.

The belt of instability in Southern Asia doesn’t look like a distant, theoretical problem from Moscow.  It looks the way a similar level of instability and bloodshed would look from Washington, D.C. if it were happening in Mexico – except that Russia’s sense of having the overwhelming superiority to deal with it, if it gets too bad, is far less than America’s (and therefore, in 2014, frankly more realistic).

The Russian posture is not like ours from the post-1945 era.  Russia is preparing for very limited direct support to regional partners and/or proxies, and for defense of her perimeter.

2014: What instability looks like. (Google map; author annotation)
2014: What instability looks like. (Google map; author annotation)

Moving east from Ukraine, Moscow continues to prop up Assad in Syria, and to worry over a fresh outbreak of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan – an interestingly timed development, and one that may have been related, like the ISIS push in northern Iraq, to the end of Ramadan (as well as to the opportunity created by Russia’s absorption in the Ukraine problem).

In Iraq, ISIS is on the move, and the virtually structureless anti-ISIS coalition has excellent reason to worry.  Analyses in the West this week are tying ISIS’s timing to the end of Ramadan (28 July), because ISIS itself promised that things would heat up on that schedule.  But ISIS may also be laboring to beat Russian-supplied armaments – and perhaps some Russian advisors or operators – into the field.  Moscow began delivering a fresh influx of modern weapon systems to the Iraqi national army in late July.

And even ISIS might be concerned about the reported delivery to Iraq of the notorious TOS-1A multiple launcher rocket system and fuel air explosive warheads, which were used against Afghan resistance forces during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.  (The local civilians should perhaps be even more concerned.)

For national self-defense, Russia has held a series of exercises this summer with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Moscow’s post-Soviet answer to NATO.  The big military exercise currently underway in southern Russia, in the area between Ukraine and Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, is undoubtedly related to Ukraine – but it’s not related only to Ukraine.   The air-to-ground strike training will range across the area, and the whole exercise is occurring as a follow-on to CSTO exercises Rubezh-2014 (“Frontier”), 15-18 July in Chelyabinsk (see here as well), and Enduring Brotherhood 2014, 29 July-1 August in Kyrgyzstan.

CSTO exercise Enduring Brotherhood 2014 in Chelyabinsk, southern Russia, July 2014. (Image: RIA Novosti)
CSTO exercise Enduring Brotherhood 2014 in Chelyabinsk, southern Russia, July 2014. (Image: RIA Novosti)

Russia wants to establish a visible profile in the region, as a warning to actors like state- and non-state-jihadists, but she also just wants to exercise with her allies and be ready for events she does not expect to fully anticipate or have control over.  That sense of urgency lies behind the recent warning to Russian forces issued by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu:

Peacekeeping units should be in a state of constant battle readiness.

The world has changed, and has changed dramatically. As you know from previous examples, including in the brigade, peacekeeping units can be activated without warning.

And it applies as much to South Asia as to Southeastern Europe, the Middle East – and the Far East.

A dramatically changed world

This perception of a much changed world underlies a little noticed but tectonic diplomatic gambit proferred at a conference in April 2014, sponsored by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Asian consortium which since 1996 has approximated, for the continental Asian nations, some of the functions of the OSCE in Europe.  The Tajik representative to the conference suggested merging the CSTO and the SCO.

Such a suggestion would not have been made without Russia’s prompting and authorization.  We can assume the initiative is Moscow’s.  Analyses at the time centered on Russia’s growing rift with the West over Ukraine, and the common concerns of continental Asians about the security problem of a post-American Afghanistan.

But Russia is looking east as much as west and south in floating this balloon.  Americans may sense a distinct deepening of latent hostilities between the U.S. and China, but Russia’s view is somewhat different.  Whether the hostilities exist or not, the facts on the ground seem to show China getting away with a lot: enjoying American favor, and perhaps duping the United States.

The beauty of merging the CSTO and SCO, from Russia’s perspective, is that this move would bring China – a founding member of the SCO – into a seamless, unified version of Russia’s major collective defense cooperatives.  The ultimate idea is to coopt China as much as possible (which Beijing, of course, is well aware of).  Admittedly, Russia would lose a forum (the CSTO) in which she has freedom of action because China’s not part of it.  But establishing the implied principle of a single Asian security perspective would be worth paying that price.

It’s against that background from the spring of 2014 that we should view the developments of the last few weeks, which have culminated in the “Bear Theater” ADIZ incursions.  The year 2014 features the biennial “Rim of the Pacific” or RIMPAC Exercise, which is hosted by the United States Pacific Fleet and takes place in the summer off Hawaii.  It is by far the biggest naval exercise held in any venue, with many of the Pacific Rim navies and several of the European and other Asian navies that have interests in the Far East participating.  In 2012, Russia participated for the very first time.

Obligatory: 42-warship glamour shot from RIMPAC-2014.  That's USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in the foreground.  (Image via USN)
Obligatory: 42-warship glamour shot from RIMPAC-2014. That’s USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) in the foreground. (Image via USN)

For obvious reasons, in 2014, Russia was essentially disinvited.  But China did participate – for the first time.  RIMPAC-2014, running from 26 June to 1 August, was a large and robust iteration of the exercise, incorporating not only the routine participation of U.S. Air Force B-52s, which retain a maritime and sea-land combat role, but the first participation ever by USAF F-15s (the 391st Fighter Squadron, which deployed to Hawaii from Mountain Home AFB in Idaho for the exercise).

In late July, a few days before the end of RIMPAC, China issued a surprise announcement of exercise-related closure areas for Chinese national maneuvers in the East China Sea.  Chinese forces were already scheduled for an expected exercise in the South China Sea; the addition of a huge exercise area in the East China Sea, where China and Japan have been at loggerheads, sent out ripples that were not only military and diplomatic but commercial.  China’s military activities reportedly preempted a number of airline flights last week, causing a major commotion across Southeast Asia.

At Zero Hedge (link above), Tyler Durden calls it “ironic” that China announced the exercise expansion in the middle of RIMPAC.  But, of course, it wasn’t ironic at all – and Russia, at least, along presumably with Japan, sees it in a very different light.  China felt empowered by the favored status of RIMPAC participation – along with other recent signs of amity with the United States – to spring the surprise on her neighbors in the Far East.

ADM Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, gets chummy with ADM Wu Shengli, Commander in Chief of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy, during a July 2014 visit to China. (Image: Reuters)
ADM Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, gets chummy with ADM Wu Shengli, Commander in Chief of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, during a July 2014 visit to China. (Image: Reuters)

To summarize, then, these were the things happening as Russia launched the 10 days of Bear incursions on U.S. air defense zones: Russian forces were building up on the border with Ukraine; Ramadan was ending, and ISIS and Islamists in the Caucasus were ramping up attack activities in Russia’s near abroad; Russia herself was transitioning from a CSTO exercise on her southern flank into a broader, joint-forces exercise across southern military districts; the RIMPAC exercise from which Russia had been disinvited was reaching its climax; and China was taking advantage of RIMPAC to dramatically expand a major maritime exercise, in a way that poked the whole region in the eye.

Why put the pressure on the United States?  Because, from Russia’s perspective, we look today like the world’s biggest nuclear-armed patsy.  Intimidating and taking slaps at us looks like a path of less resistance than trying that with China.

Why put so much pressure in the space of 10 days?  Because of the urgency of everything else that’s going on.

We live in interesting times.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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