The Pentagon suspects the recent intercepts of Russian aircraft near Alaska are related to new testing on long-grounded Soviet bombers.
“This was the first time in about two and a half years we have seen Russia conduct long-range bomber missions like this in and around Alaska,” Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.
“I can’t divine their intent; it’s certainly well known that they had some maintenance problems with this particular type of bomber and grounded them for some period of time," he added. "That may explain the hiatus in them doing it.”
Russia flew TU-95 “Bear” long-range bomber aircraft in international airspace near Alaska within the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) three times in four days, most recently on Friday.
On April 17, a pair of TU-95s flew near Alaska, and two additional Russian bombers approached Alaska the next day.
All flights were intercepted by U.S. jets and escorted out of the ADIZ. The flights mark the first time since 2015 that Russian planes have approached the U.S. mainland.
Davis said the flights “were all conducted safely, professionally and with respect for U.S. territorial airspace.”
“They stayed outside of our territorial airspace, and from that standpoint when we intercepted them it was actually fine and a model for how these type of operations should take place,” Davis said.
The Russian flights come amid escalating tension between Russia and the U.S., particularly over Syria’s ongoing civil war.
TU-95s are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, but the planes involved did not appear armed.