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Bears on the Prowl (Again)

Dec 2, 2017
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An RAF Typhoon shadows a Russian Bear H bomber, during an intercept flown last month (U.K. MoD via AFP)

For the third time in less than a month, Norwegian and British fighters have been scrambled to intercept Russian bombers over the North Atlantic.

According to AFP, a pair of TU-160 Blackjack bombers were intercepted by Norwegian F-16s and British fighters today, as they flew near NATO airspace. The encounter came barely a week after eight TU-95 Bear bombers flew a similar profile, prompting another scramble by Norwegian and British jets.

A spokesman for the Norwegian MoD said the F-16s launched from Bodo AB, which is (typically) tasked for the intercept mission. The British fighters launched from RAF bases in northern Scotland, although the type of aircraft wasn’t specified. Eurofighter Typhoons (pictured above) are replacing the older F3 Tornados in the air defense role. Last week’s intercept was carried out by Tornados, while the new Typhoon handled a similar mission in August.

Today’s bomber mission came as no surprise, given the recent increase in training activity by Russian strategic aviation–and Vladimir Putin’s public pledge to resume such flights. So far this year, Russian bombers have flown multiple missions near Norway and Britain, with additional flights over the Arctic Ocean, and against U.S. defenses in Alaska and Guam.

While the TU-160 (Russia’s equivalent of the B-1) is a much more advanced aircraft than the venerable “Bear,” it has been seen less frequently on missions flown toward U.S. or European airspace. The Blackjack is less reliable than the TU-95 and more expensive to operate. However, with the recent spike in oil revenues, Moscow has been able to revive the TU-160 program, significantly increasing the number of flights by Blackjack crews.

We still believe that Russia is setting the stage for a bomber flight against the U.S. east coast, perhaps in a matter of weeks. The TU-95 is the odds-on favorite for that mission; with a maximum range of over 7,000 miles, the Bear is more than capable of shadowing the eastern seaboard before landing in Cuba, or (potentially Venezuela). A Blackjack flying the same profile would require extensive in-flight refueling from IL-78 Midas tankers–something that has never been observed on Russian bomber missions over the North Atlantic.

At last report, the Blackjacks were heading for home, so (apparently) the Russians won’t try to take advantage of today’s Air Force “safety day” to probe our air defenses. The service’s Air Combat Command (ACC)–which “owns” CONUS-based air defense fighters–is using the day to review safety procedures, in wake of the recent accidental “transfer” of nuclear tipped cruise missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana.

But the Russians also understand that our air defense mission continues around-the-clock, 365 days a year. Flying an east coast mission during our safety standdown, a Russian Bear would get the same reception as any other day–an escort of F-15s and F-16s, with an AWACS and tankers providing support.
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