—John A. Tirpak
Most of the flights comprise 1960s-vintage Russian Tu-95 Bears, but some have been flown by relatively younger Tu-22M Backfire and Tu-160 Blackjacks, the latter of which resembles the US Air Force B-1B.
Pentagon officials find the development disconcerting. While the White House and State Department have been presenting a ho-hum response to the flights, shrugging off the strategic missions as within Russia’s “sovereign rights,” the Air Force is not happy about the prospect of possibly having to increase the tempo of Operation Noble Eagle air sovereignty missions. As of last year, ONE flights are funded out of basic Air Force budget, not from war supplementals.
“This is a hole in the head we didn’t need right now,” said one senior Air Force official, who added that flying hours for combat aircraft were targeted for a 13 percent reduction in the Fiscal 2009 budget. Now, however, “We may have to adjust things somewhat.”He added that it’s too soon to tell if Russian strategic aviation will keep up the pace—there are only about 70 bombers in the Russian air force—but the feeling at the top levels of USAF is that it will.
Russia’s air force underwent a drastic reduction in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Inventories of aircraft were slashed, and pilots could sometimes only count on getting about 10 hours of flying time per year.
That’s all changed, though, now that oil and gas revenues are fattening Russian coffers and allowing more to be spent on the military. In announcing the resumption of strategic flights, Putin said that his pilots were very happy to be so active.
The Pentagon spokeswoman said the Russians have not been provocative in their flights; there have been no unannounced mad dashes toward the US, only to veer away at the last minute. Rather, the Russians have been “completely transparent” in the activity, issuing flight plans and notices to airmen about where they’re going and when.
“There have been no incursions” into US-controlled airspace, the spokeswoman said.US Northern Command runs Noble Eagle missions, but has deferred all comment on the uptick in Russian bomber activity to the Pentagon. That’s a change, as NORTHCOM previously has rolled out deluxe press releases and photographs when intercepts of Russian aircraft were rare.
Pentagon officials acknowledged that USAF aircraft have intercepted and escorted Russian aircraft in recent weeks, but have not put released any photos. However, Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Paul Hester has specifically discounted claims by senior Russian military leaders that Russian bombers had “exchanged smiles” with American interceptors near Kadena AB, Japan, on the island of Okinawa. The closest that the Russian aircraft came was about 300 miles, and the US didn’t launch any intercepts, a USAF official reported.
When the Russian bombers are close to US-controlled airspace, the US response has ranged from simply monitoring them by radar to actual intercepts, Pentagon officials said. British Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters, which recently went operational, intercepted and escorted Tu-95s over the North Sea in the last two weeks. And, Norwegian air force pilots have photographed Russian A-50 Mainstay AWACS and MiG-31 fighters refueling from an IL-76 Midas tanker outside their normal operating areas.
Still, the Pentagon spokeswoman maintained, “We have a good working relationship with the Russian military.” She added, “These developments are not surprising at all.”
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