Although U.S. officials are describing the activities of Russian strategic bombers and other long-range aircraft this week as routine, it’s not actually routine to see them this often.
The “routineness” lies more in the fact that the Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers aren’t making sudden moves or doing anything alarming during each individual flight.
The IL-38 “May” aircraft, meanwhile, are maritime patrol planes, dedicated to ocean surveillance and antisubmarine warfare. They can be armed with antiship and antisubmarine weapons, but they work for the theater fleet commander (the Russian Pacific Fleet, in this case) and are not part of the strategic nuclear force.
So IL-38s operating near Alaska don’t send a “strategic” signal in the nuclear-forces sense, as the forward operation of Tu-95 Bears does.
The best assessment of what Russia is doing is based on a combination of factors. One is the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and the response of the Pacific military powers to it. Japan has been on heightened alert for some days now. China has deployed additional troops to the border with North Korea, and has put bomber aircraft on alert.
The U.S. has completed a major, recurring exercise with South Korea in the last month, has stood up the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense/Area Denial (THAAD) system in South Korea, and sent our vice president to roam South Korea inspecting military preparations and issuing political assurances. For whatever reason(s), the Trump administration has also allowed rumors to flourish about our intentions for carrier strike groups, including USS Carl Vinson’s, which was thought to be heading directly for Korea from the South China Sea (but isn’t – yet), and the strike groups of USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz.
Interestingly, the Russian flights off the U.S. West coast kicked in the day the anonymously-sourced report came out that Reagan and Nimitz would be heading for the Far East, supposedly to join the Carl Vinson there. In a time of heightened tensions, a show of force and intention, by visibly monitoring the progress of a strike group coming from the U.S. West coast (i.e., Nimitz’s), would be quite in character for Russian forces.
But this week’s flights near Alaska were preceded last week by a 24-hour period of heavy Russian air activity around Japan. On 12 April, according to the Daily Mail, Russia sent two IL-38s, two Tu-95 Bears, and two Tu-142 Bear “Fs” (“Bear Foxtrots”) – maritime warfare aircraft like the IL-38s – to operate over the waters around northern Japan, causing the Japanese to scramble fighters for numerous intercepts. (Note: another source has one of the maritime aircraft sorties as an IL-20 “Coot,” an older reconnaissance aircraft that is not equipped for antisubmarine warfare. Daily Mail erroneously describes the IL-38s in some places as “fighters,” so it’s possible there is some garbling in the communication here. That there were Tu-142 Bear Fs operating during the 12 April surge seems to have been affirmed by later reporting; see one of the Russian exercise summaries below.)
All of this activity is also strongly reminiscent, however, of “SPRINGEX” – spring exercise – drills conducted by Russian military forces at this time of year in the Soviet era. A resumption of visible SPRINGEXes is one of the things we should expect from a Russian military seeking to reestablish itself as a global force.
Russia’s Eastern military assets are still much diminished from what they were 30 years ago – and the Pacific theater was always secondary for Russian planners. The forces of the Far East have been, comparatively, orphans surviving on scraps for decades. So there’s a limit to the level of flash and dash they can put on. How far forward their SPRINGEXes roam is likely to depend on what else is going on; i.e., whether they just need to practice their own skills, or whether there is a real-world crisis for which Moscow needs a display of force.
This was the basis on which Russian forces operated in the Soviet era for a good quarter century, from the mid-1960s to 1990. Basically, it looks like it’s coming back again. Vladimir Putin has been talking about bringing it back for ten years, and has been building toward it throughout that time. Now it’s here.
Establishing that new basis for the Russian posture is still a work in progress. We’ll have to see some iterations, from out here in the public square, to have more certainty about the patterns. Right now, for example, we’re seeing reporting that Russia has deployed additional forces to the border with North Korea. But Russia is claiming that the movement of forces is related to a military exercise – and that may actually be true. (A sampling of exercises in recent weeks in the Eastern Military District: here, here, here, here.)
Russia moves forces for real-world operations under cover of “military exercises”; but Russia also just runs exercises. In a pattern of frequent exercises, the excuse of an “exercise” may be a reliable one. And Russian exercises have been gaining in frequency over the last five or six years. It’s possible Russia has decided to go ahead with a previously scheduled exercise, rather than cancel it.
The good news is that the U.S. military should have pretty good insight into that, from clues that the public will never see. My prediction is that we will keep seeing more Russian military activity overall.
We’re not going back to the Cold War, however. We’re going forward, in a world in which American power already is no longer a single dominant factor. In that world, Russia will use force to send signals in a lot of directions. And that will mean moving it around more, where everyone can see it.