I guess what I find interesting here is not so much the activity itself, but the dearth of reporting on it in the US mainstream media.
I bet you didn’t know that the day Moscow announced the breakthrough in negotiations on the New START treaty – 24 March – Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers buzzed Alaska. The US Air Force scrambled fighter jets to intercept and escort them.
The Russians have been diligent (if selectively so) about reporting their bomber fleet’s activities in the Pacific, but they’re getting no love from the US MSM. Bear bombers conducted a Pacific flight back in January during which, the Russian media announced, the aircraft “successfully completed patrol tasks over the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean.” UPI ultimately picked the story up, giving it 108 words plucked from the RIA Novosti original. Silence reigned in the flagship media outlets of the US.
Silence from European media hasn’t been quite so deafening, but reporting on the parallel bomber patrols being conducted by Russia’s air force in the North Atlantic was generally desultory, until a UK Defence announcement last week (on 25 March). The Brits disclosed that during a 10 March patrol by Russian Tu-160 Blackjack bombers, RAF Tornado fighters were scrambled to intercept them as the bombers reportedly took four hours (note: that’s unusual) to approach and depart the airspace of Scotland.
RIA Novosti’s man in the Russian Defense Ministry, Lt. Col. Vladimir Drik, had given them the early scoop on that flight, and Turkey’s press picked it up too. But although the British media have been more Johnny-on-the-spot than ours in their coverage of the increasing bomber flights, the UK Defence chiefs’ announcement on 25 March seems to have been a wake-up call for them.
The US media were all over this Russian bomber story in Bush’s last year in office. Russian bomber flights and US/NATO intercepts made the hot-list at all the major news outlets in late 2007, when Putin announced the resumption of such flights, and in 2008. Readers will, of course, remember the overflight of USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in the Western Pacific in February 2008. And who could forget the role of Russian bombers in the media vetting of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin?
But the bomber flights aren’t making the MSM-reporting grade in the Age of Obama. A few US outlets did pick up the Russian bomber pair that buzzed Canada over the Arctic the day before Obama’s first visit there in February 2009. But none picked up on the buzzing of Alaska by three Bear bomber flights during Obama’s visit to Moscow in July 2009. The remarkable aspect of that development was its break with the longstanding tradition in which Russia and the US tacitly agreed to suspend such flight profiles during summit meetings. One such close approach to Alaskan airspace during a summit would have been decidedly odd. Three of the same kind of incident had to send an unmistakable message.
There had been 13 bomber flights off Alaska in 2009 when the Air Force general spoke in July; there were more by the end of the year, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. The British Defence sources cited by UK media last week gave a total of 20 such flights in the Atlantic from January 2009 to March 2010. A sampling of (non-US) media reporting can be found here, here, here, and here. (Yes, Pravda seems to be Russian for “National Enquirer” these days.)
We can say a few things about this. One, the Russians really, really want us to know about it. Lt. Col Drik shows up like the cuckoo in a Swiss clock to report the latest flight to RIA Novosti. It must be a little frustrating that word isn’t getting out more effectively in the US MSM.
This in turn is an indication that the Russians aren’t worried about being seen as confrontational. Besides the flurry of flights during the Obama-Medvedev summit, there were at least half a dozen during the Russians’ series of major military exercises, conducted in Eastern Europe, the Arctic, and the Far East, in August and September. Last fall’s exercises were the largest conducted by Russia since her Soviet days, involving tens of thousands of troops in Belarus and Russia’s northwestern province – and a particularly fraternal conclusion to the exercise scenario with a Strategic Rocket Forces attack on Poland and Lithuania. Russian and US analysts have traditionally seen these things the same way: if the Russians emphasize global-airpower bomber flights during a major theater exercise, such flights can at any time carry an import beyond the “training” or “housekeeping” explanations with which they are often dismissed.
Obama, of course, as readers will remember, wandered into this month-plus of pointed Russian saber-rattling with his 17 September announcement that the US would abandon previous missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. His remarkably ill-timed statement reminds one of nothing so much as the stock character in farce: the doofus who meanders, blissfully unaware, through a scene of mayhem, adding to it with no idea what he’s doing. The Russians have to be wondering if anything gets through to this guy.
A notable aspect of the 10 March bomber flight near the British Isles is the four hours the NATO fighters had the Blackjacks under escort (Norwegian fighters were involved as well). The Russian bombers – Blackjacks are jets capable of supersonic flight, not turbo-prop bombers like the Tu-95 Bears – spent substantial time in a relatively small area, one they could have been in and out of much faster. The Ministry of Defence may indeed have announced this flight to the public on the 25th in part because it was clearly not just a navigational tag-and-go.
Photos obtained by the Tornado pilots show a Blackjack with wings “clean” – no air-to-ground missiles mounted – which is how the Russians have performed these flights since their resumption in 2007. But the Blackjack was designed to carry the long-range air-to-ground cruise missile known by the NATO designation AS-15 KENT, which, with a range of about 1800 statute miles (3000km), can reach all of Europe from a launch point north of Scotland. The Tu-95M Bear is capable of carrying the AS-15 as well. The two types form the Russians’ strategic bomber force – the delivery platforms that are limited under the START series – like the B-2 bomber and the B-52 in the US inventory. Given the hundreds of other square miles where Russian bomber pilots might go to practice their skills, flying their force’s premier airframe into the area north of Scotland could, quite obviously, only be considered politically meaningless by the disingenuous or foolish.
Russian bombers do get bombing (if not missile-launching) practice in a less freighted environment, as this item picked up by StrategyPage indicates. Bombing ice dams actually sounds like fun; certainly something you hope they’re getting video of. Meanwhile, we can be thankful for independent media, which get us the information the MSM doesn’t, and put the Obama administration’s progress with that “Reset” button in perspective.