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Uptick in Russian Aircraft Flying Near Alaska Shows ‘Probing’ for Weakness, Sullivan Says


U.S. jet fighters have scrambled at least a dozen times so far this year to intercept Russian military aircraft that fly into airspace off Alaska’s coasts. The North American Aerospace Defense Command says that’s the highest number of intercepts that NORAD has responded to in recent years. And Sen. Dan Sullivan says it’s part of Russia’s policy of expanding its influence and military presence in the Arctic.

The U.S. Air Force has for decades played an aerial game of cat-and-mouse with Russian pilots who fly military aircraft near Alaska’s coasts. But NORAD Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck says the increased number of Russian aircraft interceptions this year following years of military buildup on their side of the Bering Sea suggests they’re trying to probe for weakness in U.S. defenses.

Sen. Dan Sullivan says last month’s interception of three aircraft formations all approaching Alaska from three directions at once proves the general’s point.

“I think it’s a ratcheting-up that we might see more regularly,” he said, “and we need to be able to confront it, and protect our interests here.”

Sullivan says a large Russian naval exercise that was going on in the western Bering Sea at the same time of the triple aircraft intercept demonstrates that the Arctic has become a flashpoint where two major military powers bump up against each other.

“The Russians are very open and transparent about what they see as this sphere of influence for them, how they see it (as) critical not only to their national security but also their economic security,” he said Monday in an online forum sponsored by The Wilson Center’s Polar Institute.

The senator said the Pentagon’s most recent National Defense Strategy (pdf), issued in 2018, foresaw the rivalry in the Arctic as part of what it called the rise of so-called “great power competition” between the United States and its so-called “near-peer rivals.” Namely, Russia but also China, which calls itself a “near-Arctic state” because it wants access to the region’s natural resources and its trans-polar shipping routes that have become increasingly free of sea ice, due to the warming climate.     

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the great-power competition that is predicted has arrived in the Arctic,” Sullivan said.

He says the U.S. military is beefing-up its presence in Alaska in response to the Russian buildup with among other things two new squadrons of advanced F-35 stealth fighters at Eielson Air Force Base. He says the F-35s along with other so-called “fifth-generation” F-22 fighters at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson will enable the U.S. to project power far beyond the Arctic.

“With the F-35s coming to Eielson and the F-22s at J-BER … we’ll have over a hundred fifth-generation fighters located in Alaska,” he said.

Sullivan says the buildup in Alaska’s defenses also includes more Coast Guard personnel and equipment, including construction of the service’s first heavy icebreaker in more than 40 years. He says he hopes that icebreaker or one of the five others that have been proposed will be based out of an Alaska port – perhaps the new deep-water port that’s been proposed for the Bering Sea.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.