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Lance Cpl. Zachary Harris, left, and Marine Cpl. Tyler M. Bickel, low-altitude air defense gunners both with the 2nd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, Marine Air Control Group 28, fire a Stinger Trainer Launch Simulator during U.S. Northern Command exercise Arctic Edge 2020 in Fort Greely, Alaska, in March. AE20 is a homeland defense exercise designed to provide high quality and effective training in the extreme cold-weather conditions found in Arctic environments.

As stories swirl about coronavirus hitting America’s armed forces, the Russians flew by for a visit Wednesday, sending a pair of naval reconnaissance planes over the Bering Strait near Alaska.

And, as it has done since 1957, the North American Aerospace Defense Command was there to meet them, this time with F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft supported by KC-135 tankers and E-3 Sentry airborne radar planes.

“The Russian aircraft were intercepted in the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutian Islands, and did not enter United States or Canadian sovereign airspace,” NORAD, based at Peterson Air Force Base, said on Twitter.

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Coronavirus hit as NORAD, a joint effort between the U.S. and Canada, ramped up work to defend the continent’s northern reaches.

Soldiers, Marines and airmen joined Canadian troops in an exercise called Arctic Edge last month to demonstrate the command’s ability to defend the northern region as Russia accelerates its activities near the pole.

Russia last week kicked off military exercises in the Arctic to showcase its air and naval forces.

“During the exercise, the crews of fighter-interceptors will also work out joint actions with bomber aircraft to defeat the forces of a mock enemy at sea, on land and in the air,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said on its website.

The Russian exercise comes as the Navy struggles with its readiness in the Pacific. The carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was supposed to be on patrol but is moored in Guam with much of its contingent ashore after coronavirus spread among the crew.

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With more than 400 Roosevelt sailors sickened and the virus found aboard other Navy ships, it’s up to NORAD and the Air Force to keep watch on the continent’s coasts.

“COVID-19 or not, NORAD continues actively watching for threats and defending the homelands 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” NORAD boss Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy said on Twitter.

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O’Shaughnessy is busy these days. He’s in charge of providing military help to battle coronavirus, sending military medical teams around the country and establishing makeshift hospitals to assist civilian communities.

Russia, meanwhile, has repeatedly tested America’s ability to respond to threats. While the IL-38s flown near Alaska on Wednesday are 1960s-era antisubmarine planes, allowing them to snoop near the coast with no response would show weakness amid the crisis.

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“This is the latest of several occasions in the past month in which we have intercepted Russian aircraft operating near the approaches to our nations,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“We continue to execute our no-fail homeland defense missions with the same capability and capacity we always bring to the fight.”

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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