It is really amazing how much tensions have increased among major powers over the last year, and this reality has manifested itself in newsmaking air-to-air intercepts now occurring regularly around the globe. Just last week, three major intercepts made national news, all of which were unique in their own right.
On Monday a quartet of Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers, all nuclear capable, made their way towards Alaskan airspace, at which time NORAD ordered the launch of a pair of 477th Fighter Group F-22A Raptors that sit alert out of Elmendorf AFB, located in Anchorage Alaska.
Here is a video depicting a similar past intercept:
The Raptors promptly intercepted the formation as they made their way east, down the Alaskan coastline, before a pair of them turned back towards Russia. The other pair continued in a more southern direction before popping up once again about fifty miles off the coast of Northern California. This time the lumbering turboprop powered bombers were intercepted by F-15Cs from the 144th FW, located at Fresno-Yosemite Airport. From here the jets were shadowed until they turned west and headed away from US airspace.
Although Russian heavy bombers are known to wander around the world from time to time on long-range training missions, which are also used as a show of force and as a reminder of Russia's capabilities, flights off coast of the Continental US are a bit more rare.
Russian long-range military aviation flights around NATO and other US allied nations territory have been fairly commonplace since Vladimir Putin resurrected such missions after being largely curtailed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Flights along Eastern Europe's ex-soviet states, Northern European countries, the UK, Guam, the Korean Peninsula and Japan have rapidly increased since the new year. This is most likely a product of Russia's chilling relations with the West as a result of Russia's involvement in the turmoil in Ukraine and their seizing of the Crimean Peninsula.
Although these flights don't pose any direct harm to anyone, intercepts are costly and tie up valuable resources, not to mention any air-to-air confrontation is fraught with some risk. Also, the truth is that a lumbering TU-95, although it may be based on a 60+ year old design, can still carry high-yield nuclear tipped cruise missiles, some of which have near hypersonic speed. This is why any Bear in your backyard must be closely watched, because if it were to suddenly turn violent, no matter how low the odds, you really do need to be ready to shoot-to-kill as you may not live through the alternative outcome.
On April 23rd, a US RC-135U "Combat Sent" electronic intelligence aircraft was intercepted by a pair of Russian Su-27 Flankers while flying about 60 miles off the coast of Russia, over the Sea of Okhotsk. The RC-135Us do their business in a passive manner, they are like a sponge that soaks up electromagnetic radiation in common bands used by radar systems.
The RC-135U probably saw them coming as they could detect the Flanker's powerful radar emissions, or at the very least could have intercepted their radio emissions with a Ground Control Intercept station, but what would happen next would be a little bit more "unconventional," even for Russian intercepts. One of the Flankers flew underneath the aircraft and then popped up forward of the RC-135's cockpit, where it rolled sharply to show its belly and wings bristling with air-to-air missiles. It then cut across the RC-135's nose at distance of about 100 feet.
A hundred feet might sound like a lot of space, but considering the Su-27 is 72 feet in length, a hundred feet is nearly just an aircraft's length away. Also, the SU-27 can really turn sharply even at higher speeds, and it burns energy rapidly doing so. The RC-135U's crew seeing a highly aggressive tight turn right in front of their path of travel would have been alarming to say the least. Abruptly maneuvering away from the Su-27s would have been a risky choice as visibility is limited out of a modified airliner and the Flankers are as maneuverable as about anything in the sky. Also, just because you can see one Flanker does not mean you can see the other, and there is a high risk of maneuvering into the other jet if it is not being tracked by the pilots visually.
There are Cold War stories from both sides about aggressive maneuvers being used during intercepts, including flying fighters in front of a a large aircraft at night and lighting afterburners to momentarily blind the pilots. Still, what went down during the interlude in question north of Japan seems to have really rattled the nerves of those on-board, and rightfully so as these crews are really sitting out there defenseless during such mission and the Hainan Island Incident is still fresh in their minds.
Apparently there is video of the incident that has not been, and probably never will be released, although I bet it is pretty wild to watch.
On June 11th, Japan claims that one of its turboprop powered YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft was flying in international airspace when it was buzzed by a pair of Chinese Su-27 Flanker derivatives. Around the same time a Japanese OP-3C Orion surveillance plane was also intercepted aggressively by Chinese Flankers.
In both cases the PLAAF fighters were said to come within about 100 feet of the Japanese jets and were said to have been maneuvering aggressively. Tokyo filed a formal complaint with the Chinese Embassy over the encounters.
Yesterday, China says one of their Tu-154 spy planes was intercepted by a pair of JASDF F-15J Eagles, which also are said to have come within 100 feet of the Chinese jet, which they claim greatly effected its safety. The Chinese Government released this video of the encounter, which Japan denies was the same intercept:
Of interesting note in this video is the loadout on the Japanese F-15Js. They are flying with just a pair of indigenously developed Mitsubishi AAM-5s, which are said to have similar performance in the short to intermediate range as the MBDA ASRAAM. This is quite different than the loadout of American F-15s that fulfill the QRA role, which usually have at least four AIM-120C AMRAAMs and a pair of AIM-9X sidewinders.
The back and forth intercepts between China and Japan are nothing new, as they all happen in and around the highly disputed Senkaku Islands, as both countries have put up overlapping air defense identification zones (ADIZ) ranging out to these uninhabited islands.
The use of fighter intercepts from both sides in this territorial dispute is becoming much more commonplace, with Japan noting that it had scrambled fighters over 400 times last year, with a much higher frequency seen in just the last few months. So far it seems both sides have taken extra precautions to not scramble fighters on opposing fighters, but if armed air patrols of a persistent nature are set up the chances for a deadly engagement will increase wildly.
Photos via USAF and JASDF, RC-135U via wikicommons/Chris Finney
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com