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Russian Bombers Penetrate N. American Buffer Zone, Intercepted By NORAD

Mos News | September 30 2006

A new U.S. push for greater Russian military openness collided with Cold War habits last week as Russian long-range bombers flew within 15 miles of U.S. airspace off Alaska, Denver Post website reported.

Fully-armed U.S. fighter jets responded, intercepting the two bombers.

The Russian Tu-95 bombers on a training exercise Thursday penetrated a North American buffer zone, said a statement Friday from Maj. Gen. Brett Cairns, operations chief for Colorado Springs-based North American Aerospace Defense Command.

But the bombers stayed within international airspace.

The U.S. response “was appropriate,” said Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command.

“We have a near-sacred responsibility to protect and defend the United States and Canada against any and all threats. We will not waver in this responsibility,” Keating said.

Four U.S. F-15 fighters, supported by two Canadian CF-18 fighters, found and intercepted the bombers. A U.S. pilot snapped a photo of the silvery Russian craft with a red star on its tail.

U.S forces, too, have been conducting training exercises over Alaska and Canada.

Russian authorities confirm that pilots of the bombers made visual contact with the U.S. pilots during recent test flights, but they claim there were also regions where the bombers flew unnoticed.

“During the flights, part of a test of long-range aircraft, the bombers’ crews saw NATO fighters, which were flying parallel to them in their airspace,” Russian Air Force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky told Interfax news agency.

“But there were also segments of flights, including close to Alaska, where our planes were flying unaccompanied,” he added.

The encounter happened despite a new initiative led by Keating to get Russian commanders to notify U.S. officials more fully about training missions.

Better communications are necessary “to develop better ways to understand each other’s concerns and common issues and to ensure safety of flight for aviators from both countries,” Keating said.

He hosted Russian Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov, commander of Russia’s long-range bombers, in Colorado in December. Keating planned to visit Russia this fall to pursue this initiative, but that trip was postponed, NORAD spokesman Mike Kucharek said.

It was unclear whether Russian military officials notified U.S. officials directly of Thursday’s bomber flights. But U.S. officials knew about Russia’s training exercises from scanning media reports from Russia, Kucharek said.

Russian commanders had announced an exercise in Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic regions Sept. 26-30 involving 70 bombers and the test-firing of 18 cruise missiles.

NORAD forces charged with deterring, preventing and defeating threats to North America planned to practice maneuvers at the same time. Since Sept. 11, 2001, all NORAD patrols have been conducted using fully armed fighters.

During the Cold War, U.S.- Soviet confrontation led to close encounters of this sort, with fighters scrambled to intercept and eye opposing forces. But that’s been uncommon in recent years.

“They were flying a route. Obviously we were monitoring those flight routes,” Kucharek said. “We had to watch to see what they were doing.”

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