U.S. and Russian Media Depict Starkly Different Narratives of Russian Navy Il-38N Intercept By Alaskan F-22s.

Two F-22s in formation over Alaska (Image: USAF) In the box: A Russian Navy Il-38N intercepted by the Japan Air Self Defense Force on Apr. 8, 2020. The aircraft is probably the same that was intercepted by the USAF F-22s over Bering earlier on the same day. (Image credit: JASDF)

Intercept Likely Related to Planned Russian Exercise in Primorye/Kamchatka Areas.

As reported in international media, U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors supported by KC-135 Stratotankers and E-3 AWACS aircraft responded to a pair of Russian military Ilyushin Il-38N ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) and Maritime Patrol Aircraft off the Alaskan coast in international airspace on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. But the differences in how the story is being reported around the world is an interesting study in how journalism may influence our interpretation of events depending on where we live.

The Russian Navy Il-38N “Dolphins” (NATO reporting name “May”) were escorted and monitored on Wednesday during routine North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) surveillance of the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone and were met by the USAF F-22s over the Bering Sea north of Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands. As usual, the Russian Il-38s never entered U.S. or Canadian airspace and were flying within international regulations for planned military training activities.

To the credit of NORAD and their public affairs team, who spoke to The Aviationist on Friday, the official USAF/NORAD account of the story is journalistically balanced. Unfortunately, U.S. military sources could not provide photos from the flight of the F-22s with the Russian Il-38s because of a “time of day issue” according to official sources to TheAviationist.com.

Japanese Air Self Defense Forces provide one photo of one of the Russian Il-38s since the sun had come up by the time the aircraft were near Japan.

The Russians issued a statement saying the Il-38 aircraft activity was part of a planned training exercise by Russian forces that began in the region on March 30. Russia’s state-sponsored TASS news outlet reported that, “Tu-142 and Il-38 anti-submarine warfare aircraft are operating from the aerodromes in the Primorye Region and Kamchatka.” The report went on to say that, “Russia’s Pacific Fleet kicked off a series of tactical drills in the distant maritime zone in the Far East involving over 20 naval aviation aircraft and helicopters.” The reports about the exercise were from official Russian fleet media releases.

At some points the Kamchatka region of Russia lies approximately 1,000 miles from Alaska’s Aleutian island arc in the northern Pacific. The neutral Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone mostly extends 200 miles off the U.S./Alaskan coast. Aircraft from any country entering this international identification zone are required to radio their planned destination and course to air traffic control authorities in that region. Aircraft are also required to use a radar transponder in the AADIZ that constantly transmits their identification, speed, course and altitude to air traffic controllers both civil and military.

Our own David Cenciotti, in an article about the Korean ADIZ explained something is worth keeping in mind:

Pay attention: there’s a significant difference between territorial sky and ADIZ.

The ADIZ is an airspace surrounding a nation or part of it where identification, location, and control of aircraft over land or water is required in the interest of national security. This means that any aircraft flying in these airspaces without authorization may require identification through interception by fighter aircraft in QRA (Quick Reaction Alert). ADIZ around the world extend well beyond the boundaries of the national airspace above territorial waters (in fact, they are not defined in any international law), but any (civil) aircraft that enters such closely monitored airspace is tracked and requested to provide its planned course, destination and any additional details that may help its identification. Military aircraft that do not intend to enter the national airspace are not required to identify themselves or otherwise comply with ADIZ procedures but it is a common practice that any foreign military aircraft flying within the ADIZ, is intercepted, identified and escorted.

On the other side, territorial sky is the nation’s sovereign airspace over territorial land and waters (that extend to 12NM from the coast).

The U.S. responded quickly to the Russian Il-38 flight of two aircraft. USAF Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Commander, U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, said on Twitter, “We’re ready 24/7, 365 even during the COVID crisis. Gen O’Shaughnessy went on to say that USAF F-22s, “escorted them in, they ended up about 50-60 miles off of ADAC [Arctic Domain Awareness Center]”. The General concluded by telling reporters, “We don’t have any vulnerabilities, we’re prepared”

That is when the different perspectives in reporting the incident in mainstream commercial media began.

One U.S. news correspondent, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox News Channel’s FOX & Friends, sensationalized the flight by characterizing it as an “interception” that was “breeching our air space”. Kilmeade opened an interview with Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy by saying that, “The Defense Department is working hard to keep our nation safe from adversaries.” Kilmeade’s use of key words such as “intercept”, “breech” and “airspace” suggest an adversarial setting. And while any time two aircraft meet in flight it is technically referred to as an “interception”, the context of using terms like “adversaries” suggests a different narrative to the event and is reminiscent of Cold War era incidents that are now a part of history.

An interesting image of an Il-38N. (Image credit: Dmitry Pichugin/Airforce.ru)

Officially, Russia does not have an adversarial relationship with the U.S. and is characterized by the U.S. State Department as having a “bilateral relationship that maintains diplomatic and trade relations”. As stated on the U.S. State Department website, “On December 25, 1991, the United States recognized the Russian Federation as the successor to the Soviet Union and established diplomatic relations on December 31, 1991.” Since 1991 Russian/U.S. relations have been strained by incidents, some significant, but have remained greatly improved over the Cold War period from 1947-1991 prior to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union into what is now the Russian Federation and largest member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, in common U.S. culture, many Americans still view Russia as a conspicuous military adversary.

By contrast, Russian media also depicted a sensational narrative of the F-22/Il-38 escort flight. An April 9, 2020 story published on Russia’s state-sponsored RT.com read, “US boasts intercepting two Russian military planes on routine training flight far off Alaska.” The story went on to say, “Moscow says it was a training flight and the planes came nowhere near US airspace.”

The Russian media offered at least some more detail into the claimed reason for the Il-38 mission near Alaska. RT.com quoted “the Russian military” as issuing a statement that read, “Such a formidable force was dispatched to track a couple of Russia’s Il-38 maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft, flying over international waters. These Soviet-era planes can also be used for maritime search-and-rescue missions. This time, however, they were on a long-distance relocation training flight that involved a simulated maritime reconnaissance and submarine hunt”.

The Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) were also involved in monitoring two Russian Il-38N aircraft (as already explained, almost certainly, the same ones). An official statement issued by Japan and translated automatically read somewhat benignly, “Russian aircraft flying in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk”.

About Tom Demerly
Tom Demerly is a feature writer, journalist, photographer and editorialist who has written articles that are published around the world on TheAviationist.com, TACAIRNET.com, Outside magazine, Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, The Dearborn Press & Guide, National Interest, Russia’s government media outlet Sputnik, and many other publications. Demerly studied journalism at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. Tom Demerly served in an intelligence gathering unit as a member of the U.S. Army and Michigan National Guard. His military experience includes being Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia (Cycle C-6-1) and as a Scout Observer in a reconnaissance unit, Company “F”, 425th INF (RANGER/AIRBORNE), Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU). Demerly is an experienced parachutist, holds advanced SCUBA certifications, has climbed the highest mountains on three continents and visited all seven continents and has flown several types of light aircraft.
About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.