Throughout much of the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently sent its bombers winging toward Alaska, occasionally crossing into Alaska airspace.
Each time, American fighter pilots roared into the sky, faced off against the Russian aircraft and escorted them back to their own airspace. The purpose of the Soviet incursions was to monitor our response, determine where the fighters were coming from and observe their tactics.
Toward the end of the Cold War, the high-altitude encounters became more collegial, often occurring in daylight hours. American fighter pilots reported that when they pulled up to the Soviet bombers' wingtips, the Russian pilots would wave their Pepsi cans. The distinctive pop cans could easily be seen at a distance.
The Pentagon recently reported that the Russian air force has moved several Tu-95 Bear bombers to air bases in northern Siberia.
The Pentagon said the Russians may be planning to fly them close to U.S. airspace off Alaska, presumably to bolster the public image of their declining military. The Bears are propeller-driven, long-range aircraft capable of launching nuclear weapons.
The U.S. Department of Defense sees no threat in the Russian moves, though it does suggest that the Russian military is still trapped in ''Cold War thinking.''
Let's hope the encounters, if any occur, are more like those toward the end of the Cold War than the tense face-offs of earlier times.
The most recent Russian move prompted the North American Aerospace Command to launch Operation Northern Denial on Dec. 1, sending U.S. and Canadian forces into forward operating locations.
Though the bases involved were not reported, U.S. aircraft and personnel based in Alaska almost certainly participated.
NORAD said the operation was launched to safeguard North American air sovereignty and as a joint training exercise for the U.S. and Canadian forces.
Deployed were U.S. F-15s, Canadian CF-18 fighters and support personnel. NORAD redeployed the forces back to their home bases on Dec. 14, though the Russians indicate they plan to continue northern flight training into the new year.
Gen. Ed Eberhart, NORAD commander in chief based in Colorado, said the Russian bomber flights appear to be in Russian airspace but NORAD remains prepared to respond if the Bears stray this way.
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