Two Russian strategic nuclear bombers entered the U.S. air defense zone near the Pacific coast on Wednesday and were met by U.S. interceptor jets, defense officials told the Free Beacon.
It was the second time Moscow dispatched nuclear-capable bombers into the 200-mile zone surrounding U.S. territory in the past two weeks.
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An earlier intrusion by two Tu-95 Bear H bombers took place near Alaska as part of arctic war games that a Russian military spokesman said included simulated attacks on "enemy" air defenses and strategic facilities.
A defense official said the Pacific coast intrusion came close to the U.S. coast but did not enter the 12-mile area that the U.S. military considers sovereign airspace.
The bomber flights near the Pacific and earlier flights near Alaska appear to be signs Moscow is practicing the targeting of its long-range air-launched cruise missiles on two strategic missile defense sites, one at Fort Greely, Alaska and a second site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
In May, Russian Gen. Nikolai Makarov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, said during a Moscow conference that because missile defense systems are destabilizing, "A decision on pre-emptive use of the attack weapons available will be made when the situation worsens." The comments highlighted Russian opposition to planned deployments of U.S. missile defense interceptors and sensors in Europe.
The U.S. defense official called the latest Bear H incident near the U.S. West Coast "Putin’s Fourth of July Bear greeting to Obama."
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a former Alaska commander for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the latest Bear H intrusion appears to be Russian military testing.
"It's becoming very obvious that Putin is testing Obama and his national security team," McInerney told the Free Beacon. "These long-range aviation excursions are duplicating exercises I experienced during the height of the Cold War when I commanded the Alaska NORAD region.
McInerney said the Bear H flights are an effort by the Russians to challenge U.S. resolve, something he noted is "somewhat surprising as Obama is about to make a unilateral reduction of our nuclear forces as well as major reductions in our air defense forces."
"Actions by Russia in Syria and Iran demonstrate that Cold War strategy may be resurrected," he said.
"These are not good indications of future U.S. Russian relations."
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said the incident occurred July 4. He said the "out-of-area patrol by two Russian long range bombers … entered the outer [Air Defense Identification Zone]" and the bombers "were visually identified by NORAD fighters."
Kirby said the bombers did not enter "sovereign airspace." He declined to identify the specific distance the aircraft flew from the United States due to operational security concerns. He also declined to identify the types of aircraft used to intercept the bombers.
In last month’s intercept of two Russian Tu-95 bombers, U.S. F-15s and Canadian CF-18s were used. The most likely aircraft used in Wednesday’s intercept were U.S. F-15 jets based at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.
Kirby and U.S. Northern Command spokesmen, apparently in line with the Obama administration’s conciliatory reset policy toward Russia, sought to play down both bomber intrusions.
The Pentagon spokesman said the latest Pacific intrusion was "assessed as another training activity."
Rather than using traditional military terminology common during the Cold War to describe the meeting of the violating bombers as an "intercept," Kirby said that the bombers were "visually identified" by jets described only as joint U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) jets.
"NORAD is postured to ensure air warning and control for the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska," Kirby said. "NORAD maintains an extensive radar system around North America and has aircraft located throughout the United States and Canada that can respond quickly to any unidentified flights approaching the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)."
Kirby said the ADIZ extends about 200 miles from the coast and is "mainly within international airspace."
"The outer limits of the ADIZ goes well beyond U.S. sovereign air space which only extends 12 nautical miles from land," he said. "As part of its mission, NORAD tracks and identifies all aircraft flying in the ADIZ in advance of any aircraft entering sovereign airspace."
The Free Beacon reported June 28 that two Bear H’s intruded into the Alaska ADIZ during war games that ended June 27.
A Northern Command spokesman later disputed the Free Beacon’s assertion that the bombers violated U.S. airspace and said the air defense zone is not the same as sovereign airspace since it includes international airspace.
However, the ADIZ is defined by the military as a nation’s declared area within which "the ready identification, the location, and the control of aircraft are required in the interest of national security."
Canadian Navy Lt. Al Blondin also said in an email that the Russian bombers during the air defense intrusion last month did not violate U.S. airspace.
"NORAD will track and identify all aircraft flying in the ADIZ prior to those aircraft entering sovereign airspace," Blondin said.
"It is important to note the Russian flights followed international flight rules and conducted their flight in a professional manner," Blondin said. "As is their right, the Russian Air Force continues to fly in international airspace."
Earlier, in response to questions about the Alaska Bear H intrusion, Marine Corps Col. Frank H. Simonds, Jr., deputy chief of staff for NORAD-U.S. Northcom, also defended the Russian bomber intrusion as nonthreatening.
"NORAD does not consider these flights a threat," Simonds said, noting "Russia and NORAD routinely exercise their capability to operate in the North."
Simonds identified the Alaska defense zone intruders as Tu-95MS bombers that were met by U.S. F-15s and Canadian CF-18s.
"Interaction between NORAD fighters with these types of aircraft are carried out routinely," Simonds said. "As part of its responsibilities to identify all aircraft in its area of operation, which includes the ADIZ, NORAD has visually identified more than 50 Russian long range bomber aircraft over the last 5 years and NORAD fighters have been interacting with Russian aviation for over 50 years."
Simonds said NORAD and Russian aircraft since 2010 take part in an exercise called Vigilant Eagle aimed at building cooperation on identifying and intercepting hijacked aircraft that cross international boundaries.
Last week, Rep. Michael R. Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said the Bear H intrusions near Alaska showed Russia’s response to the administration’s reset policy. He said air incursions, along with threats to attack U.S. missile defense sites preemptively, were signs of Putin’s aggression in the face of President Obama’s promised flexibility in talks with Moscow.
The Alaska bomber flights coincided with a summit between Obama and Putin in Mexico June 18.
According to U.S. officials, some 30 bombers and support aircraft took part in the war games, including the Bear Hs and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.
Russian Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Vladimir Deryabin, told reporters in Moscow last month that the arctic strategic war games "practice destruction of enemy air defenses and strategic facilities."