Within the last week Russian Tu-95 “Bear” long range strategic bombers have approached the Alaska coast before being escorted away by U.S. military aircraft. In the first incident on Monday, the U.S. Airforce sent F-22 stealth fighters to intercept the Russians; in the second incident on Tuesday they sent an E-3 AWACS, which is an early warning aircraft filled with electronic surveillance, counter-measures, and command systems.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union conducted strategic nuclear patrols using the Tu-95, among other aircraft, to demonstrate strength, be capable of responding to a potential U.S. nuclear “first strike,” and to enable the Soviets to initiate a “first strike” themselves. The U.S. conducted similar patrols for similar reasons. These patrols were one leg of the “nuclear triad:” long range strategic bombers, land based missiles, and submarine-launched missiles. Thus, each side was armed with nuclear weapons capable of being fired from the air, land, or sea; this ensured that neither side could be wiped out by the other in the case of a first strike by the opposing side, giving the attacked side a means of responding in-kind. This led to the doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” or MAD; i.e. neither side could win a nuclear war against the other, even if it launched its missiles first.
With the end of the Cold War, the long range strategic bomber patrols ended. For many years, Russia – the Soviet successor state (and the largest former Soviet republic) – encountered political, economic, and military turmoil. For these reasons, along with their cultural affinity for a “strong man,” looked for someone who would provide stability and increase the strength and international stature of the Russian state.
They have found this “strong man” in Vladimir Putin. Putin is a former Soviet KGB officer who was first elected to the Russian presidency in 2000, serving in that capacity until 2008. Then, he served as Prime Minister until 2012. He is again President, serving since 2012 and showing no intention of ever leaving that position.
Thus, in 2007 President Putin declared that Russian patrols using the Tu-95 would start again as a demonstration of the rise of Russia’s power. Since that time, Russia has been using the aircraft for patrols and military action, particularly to bomb targets in Syria. The aircraft features a range of 9,400 miles with the ability to be refueled in-air and an ordnance payload of 33,000 pounds with the capability of launching cruise missiles and carrying nuclear weapons.
Over the last few years, the Russians have been using their aircraft to reassert themselves on the international stage by violating NATO airspace, flying over U.S. warships, and approaching the Alaskan coast. This week’s incidents are the first in two years that they’ve approached Alaska. The incursions come, however, at a time of increased U.S.-Russian tension over Syria and North Korea. The Russians, therefore, are seeking to remind the U.S. and our partners that they’re still around and capable of projecting military force far from their homeland. It’s a bit of a tit-for-tat; i.e. as the U.S. and NATO deploy military assets close to Russia, Russia responds by sending patrols to the U.S. and its NATO allies.