In the chilled skies of the Northern Hemisphere, above and over the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, west and north of Alaska, and over the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, great power competition comes to life. A modern version of the aerial chess match that for decades pitted U.S. Air Force fighters and bombers against those of the Soviet Union.
This is not unexpected as we have this increased competition in the Arctic. … It’s part of what we do.—Maj. Gen. David Meyer, deputy director of NORAD operations
The U.S.S.R. is no more, but Russia remains, and its fighters, bombers, and maritime surveillance aircraft are engaging U.S. forces on the edges of the Arctic region more frequently now than at any point in recent memory. In the first nine months of 2020, there have been more than a dozen intercepts in the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) alone, with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) scrambling F-22 fighters, KC-135 tankers, E-3 AWACS, and Canadian CF-18 fighters in response. Meanwhile, high-profile intercepts over Eastern Europe—including one recent incident with Russian fighters harassing a B-52 bomber on patrol— demonstrate the increasingly tense nature of great power competition.
“There is an increase in interest in the Arctic, and therefore there is an increase in activity, both on our side and theirs … resulting in this interaction between our militaries,” said Maj. Gen. David J. Meyer, deputy director of operations with NORAD. And we “do have an increase in intercepts that occur as they come around and show their presence in the Arctic. … This is not unexpected, as we have this increased competition in the Arctic. It’s just part of what we do.”
Every day, the Combat Alert Cell at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, fills with crews, who chat lazily, watch TV, read—anything to hold off the monotony while they wait for the klaxon to ring and shake everything loose. “It’s hours and days of boredom, followed by a few seconds of terror,” said Col. John Krellner, F-22 pilot and commander of the 3rd Operations Group. “It gets exciting pretty quick.”
NORAD’s long-distance radars and sensors monitor for inbound threats and unusual activity. When it’s detected, the alarm sounds, the operations group is notified, and pilots race to their jets. “It’s an immediate ‘get to the aircraft, get started, and get airborne,’” Krellner said. Pilots are briefed by intelligence officers while en route to let them know what to expect. The Federal Aviation Administration is notified to clear nearby airspace.
NORAD shares the operating picture with U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Meyer said. “Depending on what is being detected and where…there is a whole process” for escalating to “the highest level” whether action needs to be taken.
About a dozen disparate systems track incoming threats and the ongoing response for NORAD, and staff assembles that with space-based surveillance, weather, intelligence, and other feeds to provide a clear operating picture. “Then they feed that information up to the decision-makers with all the available information, and it’s not perfect information,” Meyer stated. “So, we have to rely on our 30-plus years of experience going: ‘OK, do I think … are we really being attacked? Or is this something else?’”
Krellner, the F-22 pilot, said that as the Raptors “get to the merge” with their Russian rivals, pilots’ minds race. They must consider their commander’s guidance and ongoing command and control communications, while adhering to air- traffic clearances. They also must watch their fuel, closure speed and angle, and remain professional.
“I’ll be honest, my mind is pretty full when I’m operating an intercept,” he said. “It’s really focused on juggling all of those tasks, … flying the airplane, including getting to that position when I’m on the wing of the Russian long-range aviation, and then have the potential to take a photo of that aircraft and report what I’m seeing back through command and control channels.”
Training makes it routine, he said. “But, at the same time, I would say we make the complex look easy.”
Recent intercepts have been professional, with no direct communication between the Russian and U.S. side. The Raptor pilots may take “de-escalating measures” if something unprofessional occurs, but that hasn’t happened, Krellner said.
“They definitely know we’re there,” he said. “They can see us. We’re on their wing. But other than maybe just seeing a face acknowledging us through the window, there’s no other communication.”
Unsafe in Europe
On the other side of the globe, things took on a different complexion on Aug. 28, 2020. A B-52 deployed to Europe flying a long mission through Eastern Europe as part of “Allied Sky,” in which six bombers and aircraft from several allied nations showed support for NATO, was overtaken by two Russian Su-27 Flankers over international waters in the Black Sea. Video of the incident showed the Flankers come up alongside the bomber, and then turning sharply and crossing just above and in front of the U.S. bomber. With their afterburners lit, they generated strong turbulence. U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) said the jets flew within 100 feet of the B-52, the turbulence caused the bomber to shudder, and a photographer in the aircraft’s jump seat reflexively ducked down.
USAFE said the incident risked a collision and was inconsistent with good airmanship.
USAFE boss Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian said the B-52 crew handled the incident “masterfully,” keeping their aircraft safe and remaining professional. “What they did to ensure there was no escalation was exactly what I would expect of them, and it truly demonstrated the professionalism of our force,” he said.
Operating from Royal Air Force Fairford, U.K., the B-52 task force flew several long-range flights to Eastern Europe and interacted with Russian aircraft several times throughout the summer and fall, Harrigian said, so crews are prepared for Russian fighters scrambling and for potential interaction.
“The Russians, frankly, are scrambling fighters quite often in our area of responsibility,” he said. “My expectation is they are watching and monitoring those locations that we’re operating in and when their criteria is met, they’re going to launch their fighters to come up there and demonstrate that they’re in the international waters that we often operate in. … This is all about competition and demonstrating that we’re going to be here, particularly in international waters.”
In early September, a B-1B bomber task force from the 345th Bomb Squadron at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, flew direct from Texas to the East Siberian Sea in a 14-hour, 4,300 nautical mile mission to the far eastern section of the U.S. European Command area of operations. The task force then continued on to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. This mission—to the Arctic north of Eastern Russia—demonstrated an ability to operate in the Arctic part of the world just as anywhere else in the world, Harrigian said.
“You’ve noticed we’ve gone to the far east, we’ve been in the high north, we’ve been down in the Black Sea, then, of course, in the [Mediterranean Sea] and even down in Africa,” Harrigian said. “And this has afforded us the opportunity to work through not only the operational-level [tactics, techniques, and procedures] that we would execute in these environments, but also to demonstrate that we’ve got range and we have the ability to hold any target at risk. And I think these are important concepts that we cannot forget.”
The Future of the Mission
In Alaska, the increased rate of intercepts is setting records. In June, the 3rd Wing at JBER flew 810 sorties—the most since F-22s first began alert missions there in 2007. The wing normally averages 523 sorties per month.
Krellner said Raptors are perfectly suited for these missions because of their speed and advanced avionics, which provide “really good situational awareness.”
High demand has added some stress to the F-22 force, which has struggled with maintaining mission capable rates. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office, in a 2018 report, urged the Air Force to rethink alert taskings for the F-22s because intercepting slow-flying, aging Russian aircraft, does not require the advanced capabilities of the F-22. But, while F-22s were the only operational fighters in both Alaska and Hawaii, that is no longer the case. This past spring, Eielson Air Force Base began to bring on Pacific Air Force’s first operational squadron of F-35As. Those jets are not now conducting homeland defense missions, but they may in the future.
“We have a requirement to have a particular capability resident to where we want to protect,” Meyer said. “We, NORAD are indifferent as to what platform supplies that capability.”
The Air Force is also looking at possible ways to modernize its command and control for this mission. NORTHCOM’s homeland defense role is central to the service’s developing “Internet of Military Things” concept, better known as the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS).
Originally envisioned as a replacement for the E-8 Joint STARS, ABMS has morphed into an information technology effort intended to link sensors and shooters and provide a single combined operating picture to accelerate decision-making across a battlespace. NORTHCOM led the second “on-ramp” exercise for ABMS in early September, with dozens of sensors and aircraft, both legacy and modern, in a mission scenario based on a threat to the homeland.
NORTHCOM and NORAD boss Gen. Glen D. VanHerck sees value in trying to quickly bring on new capabilities to streamline NORTHCOM’s information feeds and to replace phone calls and PowerPoint slides with a continuously updated operating picture.
In the shorter term, NORAD officials say each sortie they fly needs to translate to lessons learned: “Thou shalt learn from your mission,” said Canadian Air Force Brig. Gen. Francis W. Radiff, the deputy commander of the Alaskan NORAD Region.
NORAD is watching as Russia increasingly moves north with their long-range flights.
“This is all about an increase in interest in the Arctic,” Meyer said. “It’s obviously becoming a greater and greater interest, and therefore the majority of the activity we encounter at NORAD and NORTHCOM is up in the Arctic region. … It’s been years since anything has come to our coast, at least in the air domain. … It’s all about the increased interest in the Arctic. We’re interested in it, they’re interested in it, the Chinese are interested in it, all of the Arctic nations are interested in it.”
Russia has also been sending different types of aircraft to the region at different times, such as Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft in pairs to overfly the Aleutian Islands in June or loitering for hours within the Alaska ADIZ and coming within 50 miles of Alaskan shores on Aug. 27. Days before the Aleutian Island intercept, two IL-38 maritime patrol and anti-submarine planes flew within 50 miles of Unimak Island, one of the Aleutians, on June 24. Russia has also repeatedly sent Tu-95 Bear bombers, along with Su-35 fighters and A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft toward Alaska. On one June 16 flight, two formations came within 32 miles of Alaskan shores.
In turn, NORAD is honing their responses and tactics to more quickly and effectively respond. “Every time we do something, we learn to improve the system because the homeland defense of North America is the No. 1 mission,” Radiff said. “We want to ensure we are the best at it that we possibly can.”