This is extraordinarily disturbing. There is no possible justification for it. Emphasis added:
Two Russian nuclear-capable bombers intruded into the U.S. air defense [identification] zone [ADIZ]* near Alaska last week in the latest saber rattling by Moscow, defense officials said.
The Tu-95 Bear H bombers flew into the Alaska zone on April 22. But unlike most earlier incursions, no U.S. interceptor jets were dispatched to shadow them, said defense officials familiar with the latest U.S.-Russian aerial encounter.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), declined to confirm the incursion. But he said no jets were dispatched last week to intercept intruding aircraft.
The incident was the first Russian bomber incursion of a U.S. or Canadian air defense zone this year. Officials said it likely signals the start of Russia’s long-range aviation spring training cycle. Further aerial incursions are expected.
It’s not the first time we have failed to intercept Russian bombers flying near U.S. territorial air space, but it’s the first time we’ve failed to intercept Russian bombers flying near the continental United States, close enough to hit targets in Alaska with the AS-15 “Kent” long-range cruise missile.
Here’s what you need to know about how disturbing this is. First, the only way to confirm what weapons the Russian bombers are carrying is to intercept them with fighters. Modern technology offers no way to dispense with this step. The bombers have to be intercepted to establish what their load-out is.
Second, if the bombers should have cruise missiles loaded, the only way to prevent those missiles from reaching targets in the U.S. is to shoot the bombers down before they launch. We do not have a constantly-ready defensive missile force (e.g., Patriot batteries or Navy Aegis ships) guarding our skies. Such a defense network, if we had it deployed, could shoot the missile down. But we don’t have it deployed, nor can we afford it today. The Patriot and Aegis assets are already overcommitted to other tasks. Our ballistic missile interceptors in Alaska and California can’t shoot down cruise missiles either.
Our first, last, and only line of defense against long-range cruise missiles launched from bombers is the fighter squadrons NORAD can order to intercept the approaching aircraft.
It is inexcusable to let Russian bombers enter the Alaska ADIZ without being intercepted. I note that the first incident near Guam (link above) — the first one the public was made aware of; but it does appear to be the first one — occurred in December 2014, just a few months ago. This seems to be a new pattern.
It’s one to which the UK has contributed at least one weird, ambiguous incident, also in the last few months. In February, Bear H bombers were intercepted by RAF Typhoons near the southwest coast of the UK. But an eyewitness reported seeing a bomber operating over land (Cornwall) during the period of the flight. That’s unheard-of and should never happen. The entire event was strange, and there are good reasons not to dismiss the eyewitness report out of hand.
As I wrote earlier, the standard throughout the bomber-standoff years of the Cold War was 100% intercept of former-Soviet bombers, and a fighter pair accompanying them at all times while they were in missile range of NATO territory, to ensure they could be shot down if necessary. In 2015, we should take the Russian bomber force at least seriously enough — at a time when Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine and withdrawn from the core defense-consultation body with the NATO nations, while incessantly rattling the saber in Northern and Eastern Europe — to get visual IDs and verify weapons loads.
Such a policy is the way to prevent escalation. The danger of presenting ourselves in an undefended, unalerted posture cannot be overstated.
* The ADIZ extends beyond U.S. territorial air space. Territorial air space reaches to 12 nautical miles from U.S. territory. Other nations maintain ADIZes as well; they don’t conflict with air navigation rights as understood in international conventions.