No, Russian Bombers Did Not Enter U.S. Airspace

Actually, the flight was pretty routine.

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Two Russian military planes on a training flight near the U.S. caused a scare over the weekend, when when at least one news outlet claimed the nuclear-capable bombers “entered American airspace.” U.S. and Canadian forces took the unusual step of clarifying the situation on social media, assuring the public that no, in fact, the bombers did not leave international airspace.

The two (NATO codename: Blackjack) were on a and flew into Canada’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) somewhere over the Arctic. There they were intercepted by Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets, which then passed them on to a pair of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor fighters operating out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

Air Defense Identification Zones are blocks of international airspace countries use to help defend their own territorial airspace. First established by the United States during the Cold War, ADIZs allow countries to screen aircraft entering national airspace ahead of time. ADIZs are usually about two hundred miles wide.

The U.S. maintains ADIZs on the western and eastern coasts, as well as along the Gulf of Mexico. Canada maintains two. The country's Arctic ADIZ that the Russian jets entered was to include formerly excluded Arctic territory. The FAA says that all aircraft entering the American ADIZs, both domestic and foreign, “must file, activate, and close a flight plan with the appropriate aeronautical facility. In addition to normal ADIZ position reports, and any other reports Air Traffic Control may require, a foreign civil aircraft must give a position report at least one hour before ADIZ penetration, if it is not more than two hours average cruising speed from the U.S.”

There are no internationally recognized rules on ADIZs, and each country enforces them differently. No country considers them part of their own airspace, and if a foreign military aircraft enters the ADIZ, it is generally intercepted and followed by local fighters—but left alone.

Russian Bombers In US Airspace

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Nevertheless at least one major American news outlet reported that the bombers “.” If true, this would have meant the Russian bombers had encroached to within 12 nautical miles of the United States—or if the term “American” is used more broadly, within 12 nautical miles of Canada. In reality, the bombers were probably a hundred miles or more from most of Canada.

The Tu-160 Bomber is a long-range heavy strategic bomber built by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and still flown by Russia’s Air Force. The bomber, which resembles the American B-1 Lancer, has flown air strikes against opponents of the regime in Syria (which is a Russian ally). In the event of a nuclear war, the plane would carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The Tu-160 has a very long range, allowing it to fly long-haul flights along U.S-Canadian territory on a routine basis. Blackjack bombers flying within 12 nautical miles of North America would be an extremely serious provocation.

The North American Air Defense Command, the joint U.S.-Canadian military command tasked to protect the airspace of both countries, issued a clarification on Twitter:

An E-3 AWACS, 2x F-22, 2x CF-18 fighter jets from NORAD positively identified 2x Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers entering the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone on January 26, 2019. Bombers remained in international airspace and did not enter sovereign territory

— U.S. Northern Command (@USNorthernCmd)

Not only were the Russian bombers flying in international airspace, their flight was fairly typical. Russian bomber flights routinely fly near U.S. or Canadian airspace. The problem for Russia is that the planet Earth is a sphere, and the sheer size of both North American countries and their proximity to Russia means that, flying away from Russia to the north or east, aircraft like the Tu-160 are implicitly flying towards North America.

While Russian military flights are occasionally conducted as shows of force, coinciding with tensions between Washington and Moscow, it’s actually better to treat them all as routine and unworthy of more than a typical response. To do so is to rob them of their ability to intimidate and project an image of Russia as a stronger military power than it really is. If the flight was meant to convey anything, it was meant to convey that, despite recently , the Russian Aerospace Force is still open for business.

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