Although the U.S. Alaskan Command was very active in the past, the fall of the Berlin Wall quieted things down for a while. Now with a resurgence of Russian military aircraft skimming U.S. airspace, the Armed Services Committee is reevaluating military defense.
According to KTVA, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said during a hearing on Tuesday that the world is watching the U.S. to see if it continues to invest in its own defense. Of particular interest is the Arctic region.
“It’s an interesting time,” said Lt. Gen. Russ Handy, stationed at Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “Back in the Cold War, this mission (Alaskan Command) was very active. We had an awful lot of aircraft on alert, and we responded to Russian aircraft near our airspace on a fairly routine basis.”
Plaques with red stars can be seen lining a wall on an operations floor, reminding personnel of the Russian military aircraft that have been intercepted when too close to Alaska. An area called the Air Defense Identification Zone is tracked constantly by the military. The zone, a ring around Alaska and Canada, is not U.S. airspace, but is closely monitored.
“On a number of occasions they have entered it without filing flight plans and without squawking a code that lets us know who they are, which they have every right to do so under international law,” said Handy. However, he added that Russians have never violated the 12-mile territorial limit.
At Tuesday’s hearing, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan expressed concerns about Russian’s plans to activate four new brigades in the Arctic. Both U.S. politicians and military members are watching closely, monitoring Russia’s activities.
“We have a 13-page paper,” said Sullivan, referring to an Arctic strategy report from the DOD. “The Russians are putting major, major troops and infrastructure in the Arctic.”
“It’s more than just brigade combat teams,” said Handy. “They have announced that they are going to build a number of new ports, new airfields. So, although that certainly gets our attention and we certainly keep our eye on that, they have every right to build military infrastructure and to put military forces on their sovereign territory.”
KTVA reported that the U.S. military intercepts Russian aircraft an average of 10 times a year. They usually encounter “Bears,” referring to Russia’s long-range bombers. Only last month, these bombers came close to the Irish coast, forcing commercial jets to be rerouted. There are documented cases similar to this occurrence from all around the globe.
“Our folks are ready to respond, they’re very well trained, they’re very proficient, they know how to get this mission done,” Handy said.