JBER, Eielson personnel intercept Russian bombers

A 90th Fighter Squadron F-22A Raptor escorts a Russian TU-95 Bear flying near the Alaskan...
A 90th Fighter Squadron F-22A Raptor escorts a Russian TU-95 Bear flying near the Alaskan NORAD Region airspace on Nov. 22, 2007. This marked the first time a Raptor was called upon to support the ANR mission. (U.S. Air Force photo) (KTUU)
Published: Apr. 18, 2017 at 11:46 AM AKDT
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U.S. military personnel based at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base intercepted two Russian nuclear-capable bombers in international airspace Monday evening.

According Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Alaskan NORAD Region Commander, aircraft were detected flying unannounced shortly before 6 p.m. Monday night.

"They were not on a flight plan," he said, "so we had to investigate that. We basically have a line drawn, about 200 miles outside of our land mass.

"We use that just so that when aircraft cross that line, if we don't already have an identification through a flight plan, then we will launch aircraft to determine what that aircraft is and who it is," he said.

The Russian aircraft were inside that line.

Thus, an alert force from JBER consisting of a single E-3 AWACS aircraft, an airborne command and control platform which includes an on-board radar system, was launched in response.

Two F-22s were launched following that in order to visually identify the Russian aircraft. At the same time, a KC-135 tanker aircraft left the Eielson Air Force Base.

They joined what ended up being two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers, which were cruising along the coast of the Aleutians, paralleling the islands all the way until they were about 100 miles south-southwest of Kodiak, Lt. Gen. Wilsbach said.

"(In the air) it was smooth," he said, "very professional. Because they are state-owned aircraft, Russian-owned, they are not required to file a flight plan. We can do the same thing.

"But if they cross into our

," he said, "then by procedure, we would want to identify them."

United States airspace in the Alaska region includes all of the Last Frontier, plus at least twelve miles or more out from the coastline around the edge of state land borders. Then there's the ADIZ, which stretches across a large portion of shared air space over water, including over a large Exclusive Economic Zone area in which the U.S. has jurisdiction over natural resources.

The Russian aircraft were flying in international airspace, in accordance with international laws and rules, but because of entering the ADIZ space that's closely monitored by NORAD personnel and others, American units escorted them for about 12 minutes until they left the area.

"Once they got to that farthest eastern point, they turned around and headed back," Lt. Gen. Wilsbach said. "Presumably, they landed back in Russia."

Lt. Gen. Wilsbach said he didn't know exactly why the aircraft were flying so close to Alaskan coastline. The same thing, he said, has happened in past decades, but not too recently: The last time in Alaska was almost two years ago.

"This is the first time since July 4 of 2015, where we had Bears inside the ADIZ, especially as far east as being just off the coast of Kodiak Island," he said. "It was unusual from the standpoint of the recency of the occurrence."

The two Russian aircraft detected are strategic bombers, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons. They can be refueled in the air, and thus they have extremely long range.

Lt. Gen. Wilsbach said crews didn't detect any refueling and it was likely the Russian pilots flew an eight- to ten-hour mission.

He also said training exercises, such as the upcoming Northern Edge, are imperative in times like this and show the importance of being able to practice.

"What we executed yesterday is not an easy thing - to have all that occur simultaneously, with little to no notice," he said. "The way we make that look easy is through practice. We're very thankful that the forces here in Alaska, that we have an opportunity to train."

Navy Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, also called the intercept "safe and professional."