Here’s Why The U.S. Air Force Scrambled An E-3 Sentry Alongside Two F-22s To Intercept The Russian Bombers Off Alaska

Apr 21 2017 - 17 Comments
By Alessandro "Gonzo" Olivares

For two days in a row, Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bombers flew near Alaska’s airspace.

On Apr. 17 the U.S. Air Force scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth jets, one E-3 Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft and a KC-135 tanker (according to some reports, others don’t mention the Stratotanker’s presence) to intercept two nuclear-capable Bears flying roughly 100 nm southwest of Kodiak.

The stealth jets took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and intercepted the Russian aircraft inside the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), “the airspace over land or water in which the identification, location and control of civilian aircraft is performed in the interest of national security.”

ADIZs may extend beyond a country’s territory to give the country more time to respond to possible hostile aircraft: in fact any aircraft flying inside these zones without authorization may be identified as a threat and treated as an enemy aircraft, leading to an interception and VID (Visual Identification) by fighter aircraft.

North America ADIZs

The F-22 escorted the Tu-95s for 12 minutes (27 for some sources) before the Russian bombers headed back.

On the following night, that is to say few hours after the first “visit”, the Bear flew again inside the ADIZ but this time, the US Air Force opted to not scramble fighter jets but only the E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System). It’s not the first time the Russian Bears fly in the ADIZ, not even the first time that no fighter jet is scrambled to meet them.

Alaska ADIZ detail

“Combined scramble”

Let’s have a look at the first episode. It’s worth of note that along with the 5th generation interceptors, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) called for an alert take off by an E-3 Sentry. Most of times, QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) take offs by armed interceptors are supported by tanker aircraft, not by AEW assets: the fighters are guided to the unknown aircraft by ground air defense radars. That’s why I want to draw your attention on this “combined scramble.”

Launching the AEW along with the fighters is a “tactics” that allows the Air Defense to extend the radar coverage and to better investigate the eventual presence of additional bombers or escorting fighters flying “embedded” with the “zombies” (as the unknown aircraft are usually dubbed in the QRA jargon). At the same time, the presence of an E-3 allows the Raptors to improve their situational awareness while reducing the radar usage and maximizing as much as possible their stealth capability (even though it must be remembered that F-22s in QRA usually carry fuel tanks that make them less “invisible” to radars).

A combined AEW/F-22 scramble provides a more effective way to counter a possible “strike package”.

A long range sortie is not easy to plan. Even more so a strike sortie: the bomber are not only required to fly inbound the target (TGT) and reach a convient position to simulate the attack and weapons delivery, they also need to take in consideration many other factors. First of all “what is your goal?” Do you want to train for a realistic strike? Or do you want to “spy” or show your presence or posture?

Other factors are distance from own country, opponent’s defense capability, minimum risk routing according to the threats, presence of DCA (Defensive Counter Air), supporting assets, etc.

Usually, during a strike sortie, bombers are considered the HVA (High Value Asset), the one that must be protected. For this reason during the planning phase they are always escorted by fighter and protected by the Ground to Air threats by means of SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses), EW (Electronic Warfare) and everything is needed to let them able to hit their targeted.

However, escorting a strategic bomber is not always possible (nor convenient): considered their limited range, the presence of the fighters would heavily affect the long range planning, requiring support from multiple tankers along the route.

For this reason, although the Russians visit the West Coast quite often, they usually are not escorted by any fighter jet (as happens, for instance, in the Baltic region, where Tu-22s are often accompanied by Su-27 Flankers).

However, it’s better to be prepared and trained for the worst case scenario and this is probably the reason why NORAD included an E-3 AEW in the QRA team: to have a look at the Tu-95s and make sure there was no “sweep” fighters or subsequent “package”.

Based on my experience, the ones of last week were just simulated strike sorties with the only aim to test the U.S. tactics and reaction times. Something that happens quite frequently. There is also the chance the Bears were sent there while another Russian spyplane was in the vicinity to “sniff” the Raptors electromagnetic emissions. However, there are no reports of Il-20 ELINT aircraft in the area.

A U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) lands at U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay. AWACS provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of U.S. and NATO air defense forces and is considered to be the premier air battle command and control aircraft in the world today. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Farley. (RELEASED)

Top image: file photo of a Raptor taking off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.




  • Anon2012_2014

    Routine peace time training exercise — good for both sides.



    • FelixA9

      The Russians would have a tough time getting here even if we did nothing.

  • Dean

    If you do not scramble the jets to intercept, the Russians will learn a pattern and can devise a plan. We should be always consistent and vigilant it’s not because they are just flying by. They are the adversaries. We should test their resolve and not them testing us.

  • Jim N Kim London

    2nd time in 24 hours was to recheck their internal radars. First time we appeared in the F22s we were at their windows on either side of their aircraft without any pre warning on the soviet radars. They had to come back to make sure their systems were in fact working. When we sent up other than the Raptors their systems showed to be working. Those pesky F22s have them double checking it all as they are not visible to the big prop driven bombers until our pilots are waving at them from port side of their bears.
    If we could get a comment from a Raptor pilot I bet it would be the exact same thing. The soviet pilots and crews were flat amazed our boys were there and the expressions on the faces showed it in the polaroid’s our guys took. Which, are now hanging on the wall boards in the ready room at Elmendorf and hanging in S3 .LOL

  • Pedro Gomez

    Why does Russian pilots fly too close to the targets? Because they can :))))
    They have fun looking how NATO’s pilots shitting bricks

    • leroy

      Yeah – it takes a real tough fighter pilot to intercept and fly too close to, do cartwheels over, a P-8A, or an EP-3. Would they ever dare do that to an F/A-18, Typhoon or F-22? F-15/16? They wouldn’t dare! They know what the superior American or NATO fighter could do to them. : )

  • oxi

    ADIZ does not exist because the U.S. does not respect sovereignty around the globe with its military, so why should anyone respect our claims?

    Two way street, not a one way street folks!

  • oxi

    F-22’s did not intercept them the second time because they were down for maint. already!

  • oxi

    If the U.S. would respect national sovereignty and borders around the world, I would listen to your post, but why bother?

  • Владолф Путлер

    Actually with these encounters off of west coast of Alaska there are reports that all parties are professional unlike in Baltic and Black Sea. Of course Russians are farther away from own bases in Russian Far East and no others of the aircraft nearby so have to behave.

  • Pedro Gomez

    Routine peace time training exercise — good for both sides.

  • SS SS

    I think it may be time for the US Air Force to start up the old Fail Safe bomber runs twards Russia. Let’s probe their air defenses near Alaska.A couple of B 52s with an E 3 and some F22s flying CAP ! If the Russians get frisky in International air space then have the F 22s light them up. They will run back to the bases with their tails between their legs !
    Peace through Stength !

    • veej7485

      …why would they run, they are in international air space, we wont shoot.

  • leroy

    Try bringing yourself up-to-date. It’s 2017, not 1945!

  • FelixA9

    Dream on.

  • Chugs 1984

    The Wehrmacht collapsed because the allies discovered, via Ultra decrypts, that they were addicted to Methamphetamine under the name Pervitin.

    Meth allowed the Wehrmacht to march for five days straight and encircle the British Expeditionary Force. And it was the same Meth that caused the soldiers and panzer divisions to collapse and sleep for 24 hours plus thus giving the BEF enough time to evacuate off the beaches of Dunkirk.

    Meth was the same drug that enabled the Luftwaffe to almost destroy the RAF. Bombing them around the clock.

    That said when the allies discovered that Hitler, Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were all addicted to Meth it was a simply process to bomb the factories.

    Hitler in the bunker, and a large part of the Wehrmacht that were encircled by the Soviets were basically going through withdrawal which explains why the German collapse was so complete and fast.

    All courtesy of Ultra which the allies spent years downplaying because it spoke volumes of their ability to break foreign actors codes.