When Russian Bombers Probed, U.S. Air Defenses Took No Chances
NORAD sortied stealth fighters and a radar plane
For two days in a row starting on April 17, 2017, Russian air force Tu-95 Bear bombers flew near Alaska’s air space.
On April 17, the U.S. Air Force scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth jets, one E-3 Sentry Airborne Early Warning aircraft and a KC-135 tanker to intercept two nuclear-capable Bears flying roughly 100 miles southwest of Kodiak.
The stealth jets took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and intercepted the Russian aircraft inside the local Air Defense Identification Zone.
ADIZs may extend beyond a country’s territory to give the country more time to respond to possible hostile aircraft. In fact, any aircraft flying inside these zones without authorization may be identified as a threat and treated as an enemy aircraft, leading to an interception and visual identification by fighter aircraft.
The F-22 escorted the Tu-95s for at least 12 minutes before the Russian bombers headed back.
On the following night — that is to say few hours after the first “visit” — the Bears flew again inside the ADIZ. But this time, the Air Force opted not to scramble fighter jets, and instead sent an E-3.
North America ADIZs
It’s worth of note that along with the 5th-generation interceptors, North American Aerospace Defense Command called for an alert take-off by an E-3.
Most of the time, Quick Reaction Alert take-offs by armed interceptors are supported by tanker aircraft, not by AEW assets. The fighters are guided to the unknown aircraft by ground air defense radars. That’s why I want to draw your attention on this “combined scramble.”
Launching the AEW along with the fighters allows the air-defenders to extend their radar coverage and to better investigate the eventual presence of additional bombers or escorting fighters flying “embedded” with the “zombies,” as the unknown aircraft are usually dubbed in QRA jargon.
At the same time, the presence of an E-3 allows the Raptors to improve their situational awareness while reducing the radar-usage and maximizing as much as possible their stealth capability. Even though it must be remembered that F-22s in QRA usually carry fuel tanks that make them less “invisible” to radars.
A combined AEW/F-22 scramble provides a more effective way to counter a possible strike package.
Alaska ADIZ detail
A long-range sortie is not easy to plan. Even more so a strike sortie. The bombers are not only required to fly inbound the target and reach a convenient position to simulate the attack and weapons delivery, they also need to take in consideration many other factors.
First of all, what is your goal? Do you want to train for a realistic strike? Or do you want to “spy” or show your presence or posture?
Other factors are distance from your own country, your opponent’s defense capability, minimum-risk routing according to the threats and the presence of defensive counter-air and supporting assets, etc.
Usually during a strike sortie, bombers are considered the high-value assets, the ones that must be protected. For this reason during the planning phase they are always escorted by fighter and protected from ground-to-air threats by means of Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses, electronic warfare and anything else necessary to help them hit their targets.
However, escorting a strategic bomber is not always possible or convenient. Considering their limited range, the presence of the fighters would heavily affect the long-range planning, requiring support from multiple tankers along the route.
E-3. U.S. Air Force photo
For this reason, although the Russians visit the U.S. West Coast quite often, they usually are not escorted by any fighter jet — as happens, for instance, in the Baltic region, where Tu-22s are often accompanied by Su-27 Flankers.
However, it’s better to be prepared and trained for the worst-case scenario and this is probably the reason why NORAD included an E-3 in the QRA team — to have a look at the Tu-95s and make sure there were no fighters.
Based on my experience, the Russian missions last week were just simulated strike sorties with the singular aim of testing U.S. tactics and reaction times. It’s also possible the Bears were sent there while another Russian spy plane was in the vicinity, in order to “sniff” the Raptors’ electromagnetic emissions.
However, there were no reports of Il-20 electronic-intelligence aircraft in the area.