Last week, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) intercepted two Russian reconnaissance aircraft near the Alaskan coast. Russian Tu-142 aircraft entered the Alaskan Air Defense Identification zone and remained in the area for roughly four hours. NORAD sent Canadian CF-18 fighter jets and U.S. F-22 stealth jets to intercept the Russian aircraft, which were closely monitored and escorted. Despite coming within 50 nautical miles, the Russian aircraft did not enter U.S. or Canadian sovereign air space. The encounter occurred amidst US training and testing exercises known as ICEX, where the U.S. conducts tactical submarine drills demonstrating Arctic tactics and capabilities. The Russian aircraft flew near the exercises leading many to believe they were attempting to gain intelligence on US Arctic capabilities.
NORAD is a bi-national organization between Canada and the United States tasked with aerospace control for North America. A joint Canadian-US military group developed NORAD in 1956 in response to growing threats from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. With more frequent incidents occurring between Russian, U.S., and Canadian forces, the importance of NORAD is critical to protecting Canadian and American Arctic sovereignty. Similarly, other Arctic or near Arctic countries like the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden have experienced encounters with Russian ships and aircraft requiring the mobilization of jets or warships to monitor Russia’s movements. Earlier this month, both the Norwegian Air Force and British Royal Air Force intercepted Russian patrols when they neared their sovereign airspace. The increased presence of Russia in the Arctic has led to a call for a greater response by NATO members and other Arctic countries.
The U.S., Canada, and other Arctic countries are realizing the importance of matching Russia’s Arctic capabilities. The sudden surge in activity in the Arctic has resulted from greater sea-lane accessibility resulting from climate change melting Arctic ice caps. The melting ice has provided access to abundant natural resources, like oil, and economic advantages including trade and tourism. Russia arguably dominates in terms of Arctic capabilities with the most icebreakers, communications infrastructure, and strategic ports. Senior U.S. officials have addressed this by calling for greater commitment from other Arctic countries. U.S. Air Force General and Commander of the North Command Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, warned “The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall, and our oceans are no longer protective moats; they are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them.” The military and economic spending of Arctic countries is likely to increase in response to Russia.
Despite frequent close calls between Russian reconnaissance aircraft and NATO forces, experts believe that Russia is likely to be conducting intelligence gathering missions and training exercises rather than intentional provocation. Russia is seeking insight into Canadian and U.S. Arctic capability; the interaction last week saw NORAD’s tactical response to the Russian presence as well as observation of U.S. training exercises. Although currently peaceful, what happens should a Russian aircraft accidentally enter U.S. airspace or a U.S. jet acts overly aggressive? An incident between Russia and another Arctic or near Arctic country could lead to a significant confrontation between the world’s leading military powers.