The North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs has been busy this month chasing Bears.
Not the kind of bears that have been spotted on the west side of Colorado Springs in recent days getting ready for winter hibernation. These Bears have four turboprop engines and come from Russia.
On Sept. 21, four naval variants of the Russian Bear bomber were spotted snooping off the coast of Alaska. It was the third Bear sighting this month, with the uptick in Russian activity likely tied to a major Arctic military exercise.
“At no time have the Russian aircraft entered U.S. or Canadian sovereign airspace,” said Canadian army Maj. Andrew Hennessy, a NORAD spokesman.
Chasing Bears was a primary mission for NORAD during the Cold War. The vintage bombers have an unrefueled range of more than 7,000 miles, and were frequently used for intelligence-gathering missions on top of their primary duty as Russian’s frontline nuclear bomber.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Bear activity dropped, and the new Russian government entered into a handshake agreement to tell NORAD if they planned to fly within the 200-mile bubble that is the air defense identification zone for America and Canada.
The most recent visitors didn’t call first, prompting an alert at NORAD. When uninvited guests show up, the command works to identify them and determine their intent, using satellites, ground-based radars and aerial assets including fighter jets.
The visitors last Sunday appeared to be benign. And while the U.S. has complained about its ships being buzzed by Russian planes in the Black Sea, the northern flights have been polite.
“The Russians acted in a professional manner,” Hennessy said.
The flights might seem friendly, but they can serve a serious military purpose.
The most recent flight included four TU-142 Bears, the latest version of the bomber, which is equipped with a belly-mounted radar and is known to carry electronic intelligence gear.
The flights can be used to measure NORAD response and to sniff out radio signals. They can also gain intelligence on NORAD radar systems and plot their locations.
Hennessy said the Russians had been fairly quiet this year until September, with a lone Bear flight in May as the sole incident that drew NORAD’s attention.
This month, though, the Russians have launched three flights off the Alaskan coast, with seven Bears roaming just outside American airspace.
“It has been busier,” Hennessy said.
This month, Russian has conducted a war game called “Vostock 18,” which the Russian defense ministry claimed was the biggest training exercise since the Cold War.
“It involves about 300,000 servicemen, over 1,000 aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, 80 ships, and 36,000 tanks and other vehicles,” the defense ministry said in a news release.
“The military contingent of the People’s Liberation Army of China up to 3,500 people strong will take part in the main episode, which will take place at the Tsugol training ground of the Eastern Military District.”
Tsugol, Russia’s low-rent version of the National Training Center in California, is in Siberia near the Russian border with Mongolia.
While the Bears are worth tracking, they aren’t much of a threat. First flown in 1952, the Bear is a scaled-version of the TU-4, a Russian copy of the American B-29 bomber, a few of which landed in Russia after World War II missions over Japan.
It is the last propeller-driven strategic bomber and has the radar cross-section of a cathedral and the speed to match — cruising about 400 mph.
Canada can respond to marauding Bears with the CF-18 Hornet — an 1,100 mph fighter that carries a mix of missiles and a 20 mm cannon.
Th U.S. has the F-22 Raptor on alert in Alaska. It’s a stealth fighter that carries radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles to accompany a 20 mm Gatling gun.
Hennessy said the planes are part of a wide array of tools NORAD has ready to deal with aviation threats. In addition to hunting Bears, the binational command has also monitored civilian traffic over the U.S. and Canada since the 9/11 attacks.
“We employ layered defense networks,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx