By Kristina Wong - 08/07/14 01:41 PM EDT
Russian strategic nuclear bombers entered U.S. airspace at least 16 times during the past 10 days, marking an unusually sharp increase of aerial incursions, The Washington Free Beacon reported.
“Over the past week, NORAD has visually identified Russian aircraft operating in and around the U.S. air defense identification zones,” said Maj. Beth Smith, spokeswoman for U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command told the Beacon.
The encounters come during a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its continuing military assistance to pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine.
The flights took place mostly along the Alaskan air defense identification zone — an area where foreign militaries must announce flights before entering. The zone covers the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.
The flights were a mix of the heavy bombers, Tu-142 Bear F maritime reconnaissance aircraft and one IL-20 intelligence collection aircraft.
News of the flights comes weeks after an incident during which a Russian aircraft encountered a U.S. spy plane in international airspace near Ukraine.
The Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint flew into Swedish airspace to avoid being tracked. The Russians sent at least one fighter jet to intercept the aircraft, according to CNN.
On April 23, a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet came within 100 feet of the nose of a U.S. Air Force RC-135U reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Okhotsk between Russia and Japan, a Defense Department official said.
In addition, two Bear bombers flew within 50 miles of the California coast on June 9, the closest the Russians have flown their nuclear-capable bombers since the days of the Cold War. A U.S. F-15 intercepted the bombers, the Beacon first reported.
A defense official said Russian strategic nuclear forces appear to be “trying to test our air defense reactions, or our command and control systems."
“These are not just training missions,” the official told the Beacon.