The U.S. Northern Command and joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command said two Russian bombers violated U.S. airspace near Alaska during recent arctic war games.
Disclosure by the command in charge of U.S. homeland defense followed a report in the Free Beacon quoting U.S. officials who said the Russian aircraft had threatened U.S. air space but did not cross into it and were met over the Pacific by U.S. F-15 interceptor jets.
"There was a single out-of-area patrol by two Russian long range bombers which entered the Alaska ADIZ that were visually identified by NORAD fighters," John Cornelio, chief spokesman for Northcom, said in an email response to questions about the recent war games.
ADIZ is the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone, a line of airspace surrounding Alaska used by the military to monitor aircraft threats.
On Capitol Hill, a senior House Republican expressed concern over the Russian war games.
"These latest reported actions show what the Russian Federation thinks of the ‘reset’ the Obama administration desperately continues to push," said Rep. Michael R. Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
"Incursions into our airspace, along with their threats to attack our missile defense systems, show President Putin’s aggression in the face of President Obama’s ‘flexibility,’" said Turner.
Turner was referring to open-microphone comments made by the president during a meeting in March with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Obama was overheard telling the Russian leader not to pressure him during the election and promising "more flexibility" in negotiations with Moscow on missile defenses after his presumed reelection.
Washington and Moscow remain at odds over U.S. and NATO plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe that Russia regards as a threat to its strategic forces and that the United States insists will be limited for use against Iranian missiles.
Cornelio, the Northcom spokesman, identified the Russian aircraft were Tu-95MS bombers that "are capable of carrying a variety of payloads, including nuclear weapons."
"NORAD continues to monitor and identify all flights approaching the Air Defense Identification Zone," he said, noting that Russian jets observed international flight rules and their activities "were conducted in a professional manner."
"As is their right, the Russian Air Force continues to fly in international airspace," Cornelio said.
Cornelio declined to answer further questions, including whether the Russians notified the United State in advance of the Alaska air intrusions and whether national command authorities were notified.
Cornelio sought to play down the Russian’s arctic war games, which a Russian military spokesman said simulated attacks on "enemy air defenses" and other strategic targets.
"Russia and NORAD routinely exercise their capability to operate in the North," Cornelio said. "These exercises are important to both NORAD and Russia and are not cause for alarm."
The spokesman said the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone is not a "defense line" but a zone of identification marking air space.
He said the majority of the Russian exercises were "conducted mostly within Russian airspace and over the central Arctic Ocean, far from the Alaskan and Canadian Air Defense Identification Zones."
Other defense officials said the exercises, which began June 18, coincided with the meeting in Mexico between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama. Both leaders appeared unfriendly toward each other in photos and videos of the summit encounter.
Officials said the administration made no protest of the incursions and kept details of the transit into U.S. airspace secret until the exercises appeared in the U.S. press.
Some 30 strategic nuclear bombers and support aircraft, including refueling tankers and airborne warning and control aircraft, took part in the maneuvers that ended Monday.
They included the Bear H and Tu-160 Blackjack nuclear-capable bombers.
The arctic exercises by the Russians are raising concerns among European and North American governments regarding efforts by Moscow to seek control over the resource-rich arctic territory, a strategic transit point for international bombers since the Cold War.
Defense officials believe the Russian war games simulated strikes using long-range cruise missiles against the U.S. missile defense interceptor base at Fort Greely, Alaska, as well as strikes on strategic radar systems based on the Aleutian island chain.
The maneuvers also likely practiced targeting the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
A Russian military spokesman, Air Force Lt. Col. Vladimir Deryabin, was quoted in Russian press reports as saying the purpose of strategic exercise involved "practice destruction of enemy air defenses and strategic facilities."