Nuclear-Capable Russian Bombers Orbit Japan, Prompting U.S. and Japanese Response

VORONEZH, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 20: Tupolev Tu-95 Bear, a large, four-engine turboprop-powered strategic bomber 'Voronezh' in Voronezh region, Russia on September 20, 2014. (Photo by Oleg Kharseev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images). Sourced from Kommersant archive.
Oleg Kharseev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images

On Tuesday, two nuclear-capable Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers flew around Japan. Although they stayed in international airspace, their presence was alarming enough for Japan to scramble fighters, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to raise its threat posture.

Fox News notes there was actually a third Russian bomber involved, launched from the same base in the Russian coastal city of Anadyr to provide communications relay services for the two primary aircraft. The bombers had to cover about 1,000 miles to reach Japan.

Three IL-78 refueling tankers and two Beriev A-50 radar planes were also involved in the operation, Russia’s first attempt to circumnavigate Japan in a year.

NORAD’s response effectively meant American refueling planes would be more readily available for Japan’s fighters if necessary. Voice of America News writes that the Pentagon said changes in NORAD’s threat posture were not unusual for “exercises or real world events” and would not confirm or deny if any recent posture changes were due to “operational security concerns.”

Fox News suggests this “latest Russian provocation” might have been in response to new Defense Secretary James Mattis’s announcement of plans to visit Japan and South Korea next month.

Japanese pilots have been getting plenty of exercise for intercept missions lately, but it is usually Chinese bombers drawing their attention. A flight of six Chinese bombers, plus intelligence-gathering and radar aircraft, crossed over the Sea of Japan from the East China Sea on January 9th, for example.

Russia’s TASS news service, after rather dryly reporting Tuesday’s Russian provocation without comment from Russian officials, notes that Japan dispatched fighters over 500 times between April and September 2016 to intercept foreign military aircraft, the vast majority of them Chinese.