Russian military flights around Alaska are taxing the US units that respond to them, but they are handling the strain well, according to the top US commander in Alaska.
Air Force Lt. Gen. David Krumm, commander of Alaskan Command, is the latest US military official to issue a warning about those flights, which have “increased significantly.”
“As a matter of fact, the highest activity we’ve had since the fall of the Soviet Union occurred last year,” Krumm said at an Air Force Association event. “So, we’ve intercepted more airplanes in and around the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone than in a really, really long time.”
“We intercepted over 60 aircraft last year in and around the Alaska ADIZ. We monitor more than that,” Krumm said Wednesday, adding that F-22 fighter jets, E-3 early warning and control aircraft, and KC-135 tankers are typically involved. “While there is a strain on our units, I will tell you that they’re managing it very, very effectively,” Krumm added. “The F-22 is the best air-dominance machine that we’ve got … and it is employed masterfully by our airmen.”
Conducting those intercepts has “some cost to readiness,” but units in Alaska have balanced it with other demands, Krumm said.
“Quite frankly, it’s a good exercise for us as well, to be able to go across vast distances, to be able to execute intercepts in a timely, professional manner, and they do it with style,” Krumm added.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of US Northern Command and NORAD, stated in March that NORAD intercepted more Russian military flights – including bombers, anti-submarine planes, and reconnaissance aircraft – around Alaska in 2020 than in any year since the Cold War’s end. “These efforts show both Russia’s military reach and how they rehearse potential strikes on our homeland,” VanHerck told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Those flights appear to be less frequent in 2021, but the increase reflects renewed “peer competition,” VanHerck said in late March at a Defense Writers Group event. “The difference between the past and now is the intercepts are more complex – multi-access, multi-platform, and oftentimes they’ll enter the [ADIZ] and stay for hours,” VanHerck added.
US officials have also expressed concern about Russia’s military activity in the Arctic, which includes the refurbishment of bases, the deployment of more units, and the expansion of exercises.
In April, VanHerck testified before the House Armed Services Committee that “a dozen or so” Russian Arctic military installations that “sat dormant” after the Cold War had been “revitalized,” and that Moscow was adding defense and offensive capabilities to the region.
Krumm stated on Wednesday that, in addition to testing air- and sea-launched missiles with greater range and accuracy in the Arctic, “around 50 Soviet-era installations are being revamped and utilized for Russian military forces.”
“They’re using air, sea, and land-based forces to secure their locations up in the Arctic,” Krumm added.
The US military is increasing its presence in the Arctic. US aircraft and warships are becoming more active in the European Arctic, frequently training alongside allies in areas close to sensitive Russian military sites.
The Air Force is deploying 54 F-35s in Alaska, making it the state with the highest concentration of “combat-coded, fifth-generation fighter aircraft” (aside from the F-22).
According to Joshua Tallis, a research scientist at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis group, the Army recently released its own Arctic strategy, which focused on Alaska, and the Navy is operating more in that area, but aerospace defense remains the emphasis in the region, reflected in part by plans to upgrade NORAD’s sensors.
“In the Pacific Arctic, the US has moved to address the aerospace threat by the large concentration of [F-35s] in Alaska and a commitment to reinvest in shared early-warning assets with Canada,” Tallis said earlier this month.