U.S. military officials said a pair of American fighter jets intercepted and escorted two Russian bombers away from Alaska’s coastline during a high-stakes encounter in international airspace Monday.
While the incident coincides recently increased political tension between Washington and Moscow, U.S. Navy Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that the “intercept was safe and professional.”
News reports cited other U.S. officials as saying the two Russian TU-95 Bear bombers — capable of carrying nuclear weapons but apparently unarmed — veered within 100 miles of Alaska’s Kodiak Island Monday night before a pair of U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft intervened.
In a responsive maneuver, the F-22s then flew beside the TU-95s for roughly 12 minutes before the Russian bombers turned back toward eastern Russia, the officials said.
The Pentagon also scrambled an E-3 airborne early warning plane as part of the interception, according to Fox News, which first reported the incident and claimed the Russian bombers had flew roughly 280 miles southwest of the Elmendorf U.S. Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska.
There was no radio contact between the Air Force pilots and the aircrews aboard the Bear bombers, since the American fighters were deployed only to get visual confirmation of the Russian warplanes, North American Aerospace Defense Command spokeswoman Capt. Ashleigh Peck said.
At no time did the Russian aircraft penetrate the 200-nautical mile air defense zone separating American and international airspace, Capt. Peck told the Washington Times Tuesday.
She could not comment on whether the bombers intentionally attempted to enter U.S. airspace or if they simply drifted off course. However, it is far from the first time Russian aircraft have entered the U.S. air defense zone near Alaska.
Russian planes have entered into the defense zone 60 times since 2007, with the last incident taking place in 2015, Capt. Peck said.
“Not that it happens every day, but it is not uncommon,” she added.
Cmdr. Ross said in a statement that North American Aerospace Defense Command monitors the area with assets “ready to ensure air sovereignty and defend the airspace.”
Russian bombers have flown provocatively near the U.S. coastline on various occasions during recent years — most recently appearing off Alaska and California in July 2015.
In February of this year, meanwhile, a Russian spy ship briefly appeared in international waters about 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut.
But Monday’s incident marked the closest incursion toward U.S. airspace by Russian bombers since President Trump took office. It also came just weeks after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described U.S.-Russian relations as at a “low point.”
Mr. Tillerson more recently made a diplomatic visit to Moscow amid an escalation in U.S.-Russian tensions over the civil war raging in Syria.
The secretary of state and other Trump administration officials have said Russian forces were complicit in a chemical weapons attack that Washington says was carried out in early-April by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who’s backed by Moscow.
President Trump responded to the attack by authorizing a round of punitive missile strikes against a Syrian military airstrip on April 4.
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