Alaska Watches As Russia Plans To Build Its Arctic Military Presence
By Hope Miller, Bonney Bowman Photojournalist: Rachel McPherron – 11:04 PM March 4, 2015
ANCHORAGE – During an Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the world is watching — allies and enemies — to see if our country continues to invest in its own defense, especially in the Arctic.
Some of the people responsible for that defense are in Alaska. At Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, dozens of plaques with red stars on them line a wall of an operations floor. They signify cases where Russian military aircraft were intercepted when they got a little too close to Alaska.
Lt. Gen. Russ Handy, with the Alaskan Command, calls it “an interesting time.”
“Back in the Cold War, this mission was very active,” said Handy, who also commands the Eleventh Air Force and is a Raptor pilot. “We had an awful lot of aircraft on alert, and we responded to Russian aircraft near our airspace on a fairly routine basis.”
Things quieted down when the Berlin Wall fell but have picked back up recently.
“Since 2007, we have seen a resurgence in Russian military aircraft, generally long-range bombers, flying near our airspace,” said Handy, emphasizing that the Russians have never violated a 12-mile territorial limit.
What the Russians do enter is the Air Defense Identification Zone — a ring around Alaska and Canada monitored by radar, Handy said. It’s not U.S. airspace, but the military does track aircraft there.
“And on a number of occasions they have entered it without filing flight plans and without squawking a code that lets us know who they are, which they have every right to do under international law,” he said. “That said, we have an interest in understanding who is close to our airspace.”
The U.S. military intercepts the Russian aircraft an average of 10 times a year. They usually encounter Tu-95 long-range bombers, nicknamed Bears, Handy said. Last month, Russian bombers neared the Irish coast, forcing commercial jets to be diverted. There are other documented cases around the globe.
“Our folks are ready to respond, they’re very well trained, they’re very proficient, they know how to get this mission done,” Handy said.
With the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) site in Alaska — which operates at all times — and multiple radar sites sprinkled around the state, it oftentimes isn’t necessary for JBER pilots to suit up and take their F-22 Raptors to the skies.
Russian activity in the Arctic is something U.S. military personnel and politicians alike are keeping an eye on. At Tuesday’s hearing, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan expressed his concerns over Russia’s plans to activate six new brigades, four of which would be stationed in the Arctic.
“It’s more than just brigade combat teams,” Handy said. “They have announced that they are going to build a number of new ports, new airfields. So, although that certainly gets our attention and we certainly keep our eye on that, they have every right to build military infrastructure and to put military forces on their sovereign territory.”
In light of Russia’s plans, Sullivan then underscored how he believes removing one or both of the brigade combat teams from JBER and Fort Wainwright is concerning.
“We have a 13-page paper,” said Sullivan, referencing an Arctic strategy report from the Department of Defense. ”The Russians are putting major, major troops and infrastructure in the Arctic.”
At the hearing, Sullivan asked Secretary Carter and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if that news concerned them.
“And should we be looking at removing brigade combat teams, our only airborne brigade in the Pacific?” Sullivan asked.
Carter agreed with Sullivan that the Arctic is a place of growing strategic importance — the kind of thing Handy wants to hear.
“Serving Alaska is a fantastic opportunity for me,” he said. “From a military-assignment perspective, we all just kind of want to stay here forever.”