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F-22s Intercept Russian Tu-95 Heavy Bombers Over Arctic; Raptors Armed and Ready to Protect U.S. Airspace

May 14th - 2018

While the armed forces of Russia and the Western Bloc are deployed facing one another in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, two major fronts of an ever escalating new Cold War, the narrow Bering Strait separating the U.S. state of Alaska and Russia’s Far East has drawn relatively little attention as a potential major front for a future conflict. At just 82km wide, well within artillery range, the strait has been heavily militarised since the Cold War begun - with the Russian coast becoming a closed military zone since 2012. Both Russia and the United States have carried out regular patrols across the strait, though there have been no major incidences between the two powers.

In mid May 2018 two Russian Tu-95 ‘Bear’ heavy strategic bombers, the Russian analogue to the American B-52, carried out a patrol over the Arctic Ocean and passed near the Bering Strait. While the flight was a routine exercise, and the bombers did not approach American airspace, the U.S. Air Force scrambled F-22 Raptors to escort the the Russian aircraft. The elite long range American fighters reportedly tailed the Russian bombers for 40 minutes, and did not approach them closer than 100m. According to U.S. reports, the Tu-95s were “intercepted and monitored by the F-22s until the bombers left the (American) air defence identification zone along the Aleutian Island chain heading west, and noted that American airspace had not been violated.”

The Tu-95 are capable of carrying a payload of approximately 90,000kg, and can deploy nuclear weapons. The bombers entered service in 1956, a year after the American B-52, as an invaluable means of delivering strategic nuclear weapons for the Soviet military. The Tu-95 have been extensively modernised since, and require relatively little maintenance compared to newer and more complex designs - an attribute shared by the American B-52. While interception of the Russian bombers by U.S. F-22 Raptors likely sent a strong signal to the Russian military that the the United States’ finest air superiority fighters were ready and alert to intercept potential threats, such interceptions cannot be carried out on a regular basis by the Raptors. The U.S. Air Force currently deploys F-22s to meet just 25% of its requirements, and only a small fraction of these are combat coded. While formidable in combat, the fighters’ complexity and delicacy means they require a great deal of maintenance, more than any other fighter currently in service, and Raptors would struggle to perform even one extended sortie per week as a result. Given then regularity of Russian patrols over the Arctic and the maintenance requirements of the Raptor, stretched thin in deployments across the world, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. Air Force will be able to use the F-22 to regularly intercept Russian bombers over the Bering Strait.

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