Russia Watched as American Bombers Showed Off Over the Arctic
Polar Growl is the latest in a long line of posturing between Moscow and Washington
The United States and Russia are currently engaged in a prolonged battle of military theatrics. Both countries are spending time and money to train with their allies and show off fancy equipment … and they’re making damn sure each other can see it.
On April 1, American B-52 bombers trained with allies over the Arctic and the North Sea. Officially, the flights are just a training mission. Unofficially, they’re meant to show Moscow that Washington won’t back down from a fight.
The U.S. Air Force planned the training missions — nicknamed Polar Growl — for months, yet launched its planes shortly after the Kremlin wrapped up a massive war game in Russia’s frigid northern regions.
During the exercise, U.S. Air Force units at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota each sent two of the lumbering eight-engined bombers to the Arctic region and the North Sea, respectively.
“The U.S. regularly conducts combined training and theater security cooperation engagements with Allies and partners,” U.S. Strategic Command public affairs officials wrote in a press release.
“Polar Growl was specifically designed to demonstrate U.S. commitment to Allies and enhancement of regional security, and [is] not directed at any country.”
But most of America’s allies in the region are members of NATO, a treaty organization founded — in part — to thwart Russian ambitions.
STRATCOM—which oversees America’s nuclear arsenal, including the flying branch’s heavy bombers—organized the practice sessions.
“These flights [demonstrate] the credible and flexible ability of our strategic bomber force … are the culmination of months of planning and coordination,” STRATCOM chief U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney said.
But Russian officials no doubt see the flights as a response to their recent impressive Arctic maneuvers. For five days in March, tens of thousands of Russian troops, hundreds of warplanes and helicopters and dozens of ships and submarines gathered for the surprise drills.
“New military challenges and threats demand [a] further boost of the military capabilities of armed forces and special attention is being paid to the condition of the newly-set-up strategic command in the north,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said as the mock battle got under way.
Shoigu was referring to the Arctic headquarters Moscow set up in December 2014. Eight months earlier, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin announced a massive expansion of military facilities in the country’s sparely populated northern areas.
“We need to strengthen our military infrastructure,” Putin said during a meeting of the country’s Security Council. “In particular, to create — in our part of the Arctic — a unified network of naval facilities for new-generation ships and submarines.”
The Kremlin followed up those plans with a revised, over-arching military doctrine at the end of 2014. The new policy described a world where Washington and its NATO allies were dangerous threats bent on encroaching on Russia’s borders.
The Western military alliance had already stepped up its own war games, and these latest B-52 training sorties can’t help but fit Moscow’s narrative of Western aggression. Washington and its European allies have dramatically increased military activities since Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimea region in February 2014.
“A year ago this month, only a few hundred miles from NATO’s eastern frontier, Russia began its illegal occupation of Crimea and ongoing military aggression in Ukraine,” former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told journalists at NATO’s headquarters in Belgium on Feb. 5.
“The alliance and its members conducted 200 European exercises last year and agreed to establish new headquarters in the east.”
Bombers have been a key part of the Pentagon’s so-called “reassurance missions” to help calm other friendly nations.
Two months after Moscow’s westward intervention against Kiev, three of the nuclear-capable bombers landed in the United Kingdom for a “long-planned” deployment. Four months after that, B-52s returned to Europe again to take part in another major NATO training event.
The Polar Growl flights in the North Sea focused in part on training to intercept large warplanes. Moscow regularly sends out its own bombers and spy planes in what has effectively become a near constant succession of tit-for-tat military maneuvers.
It’s all a grand show where two massive militaries walk right up to a border and dance for each other. But the weapons are real — and the exercises can be risky.
For instance, a pair of Russian Tu-95MS Bear bombers skirted the British Isles in February. On March 24, two Tu-22M Backfires flew at supersonic speeds through the Baltic Sea with an escort of Su-27 Flanker fighter jets.
In both cases, NATO scrambled jets to monitor their movements.
The alliance’s members in the Baltic region and Scandinavia, as well as non-member countries such as Sweden and Finland, have all reported an uptick in Russian aerial patrols. In some cases, Moscow’s warplanes have come dangerously close to their borders or even violated foreign airspace.
So when British, Canadian and Dutch jets pulled up alongside the American bombers, the pilots probably had Russian interlopers in the back of their minds. “Training like this ensures we are ready to respond to any and all mission directives across the globe,” Maj. Nathan Barnhart, a member of Barksdale’s 343rd Bomb Squadron, explained to military reporters.
He’s not wrong. Air Force B-52s, along with B-1 and B-2 bombers, have flown dozens of other long-range training missions in the Pacific region since 2007.
But right now, the Pentagon and NATO are especially concerned with the alliance’s eastern border.