The US military wants to get ahead of 'more complex' Russian operations, top North American commander says

The US military wants to get ahead of 'more complex' Russian operations, top North American commander says
A US F-22 alongside a Russian Tu-95 bomber during an intercept in international airspace near Alaska, August 8, 2019.NORAD
  • Russian activity in the Arctic is increasingly complex, the head of US Northern Command said.
  • Gen. Glen VanHerck said his command is looking "to use strategic messaging to create a deterrence effect."

Russian military activity around Alaska is increasing and getting more complex, the top US commander in the region said Wednesday.

The Arctic, especially around Alaska, has become a venue for competition amid heightened tensions between the US and Russia. One of Moscow's most visible gestures has been military flights into the Alaskan air-defense identification zone, or ADIZ.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who leads US Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, told senators in March that that US and Canada responded to more of those flights in 2020 than in any year since the Cold War.

"We're back into peer competition. Clearly Russia is trying to reassert on a global stage their influence and their capabilities," VanHerck said of the flights at a Defense Writers Group event Wednesday.

"The difference between the past and now is the intercepts are more complex - multi-axis, multi-platform, and oftentimes they'll enter the ADIZ and stay for hours," VanHerck added. "That would be the significant difference, but ... it is playing out as the peer competition."


The US military wants to get ahead of 'more complex' Russian operations, top North American commander says
A US Air Force F-22 based in Alaska intercepts a Russian Tu-95 bomber, June 9, 2020.NORAD

In an April 2020 interview, an F-22 pilot tasked with responding to those Russian flights told Insider that they were "part of an ongoing probe" for "gauging our response and our ability to go out and meet them."

Those Russian flights have been less frequent than in early 2020, but they have continued. NORAD said on January 25 and again on March 29 that it had tracked Tu-142 patrol aircraft in the ADIZ. (The ADIZ extends well beyond territorial airspace, which none of those aircraft entered.)

On February 18, NORAD posted a tweet attributed to VanHerck saying it was "aware of Russian military aircraft forward deployments" and that it "stands ready, as always, to respond appropriately."

Russia has deployed aircraft and other military hardware to the region in recent months, as has the US, but NORAD's tweet didn't specify which aircraft or where.

VanHerck said Wednesday that the tweet reflected "how we're changing how we approach competition, candidly."


"When I talk about my strategy, it's getting further left in our messaging and creating deterrence options. It's about giving decision space to senior leaders," VanHerck said, using "left" as a military term for ahead of an adversary's action.

"The fact that you can tell a competitor that you're aware of their activities and potential intent gives us the opportunity to posture forces or use strategic messaging to create a deterrence effect," VanHerck added.

'Significant activity'

The US military wants to get ahead of 'more complex' Russian operations, top North American commander says
Three Russian submarines surfaced through ice in the Arctic near Alexandra Island, March 27, 2021.Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Climate change is making the Arctic more accessible to human activity, and military operations there are increasing.

US and NATO navies have been more active there in recent months - the British Navy completed its first Arctic exercise of 2021 in late March. The US Air Force has been flying more near Russian borders in the European Arctic, where Russia has sensitive military bases.

Russia, which has the world's longest Arctic coastline and hopes to benefit from more activity there, has for years been refurbishing and upgrading radars, airbases, and other facilities in the region, where aerial defense is a primary concern.


Russian Navy chief Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov said on March 26 that MiG-31 jets had for the first time flown over the North Pole and refueled in midair. Yevmenov also said three nuclear-powered submarines had surfaced through Arctic ice "in a limited space" for the first time the service's history.

Such submarine exercises, like a unique US submarine's appearance in Norway last year, are often meant as messages.

The US military wants to get ahead of 'more complex' Russian operations, top North American commander says
British Navy frigate HMS Lancaster in a fjord, seen from Norwegian Navy frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl in March 2021.British Royal Navy

"These combat training, research, and practical measures have demonstrated the Russian Navy's abilities and preparedness to operate in the harsh northern latitudes," Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month, adding that such work "must be continued."

Amid those Arctic drills, there was what NATO called "an unusual peak of flights" by Russian aircraft around Europe on March 29. Fighter jets from NATO militaries intercepted six groups of Russian planes in less than six hours.

"Within the last week or so, there's been significant activity in the Arctic" in the air, at sea, and undersea, VanHerk said Wednesday. "Again, I attribute that back to a competition ongoing."


That activity was outside of VanHerck's area of responsibility, but he said he was aware of it and emphasized his command's training and cooperation with NATO and US forces in Europe.

"We just recently recently completed our exercise Amalgam Dart. We have ICEX, another exercise, upcoming," VanHerck said, referring to a NORAD air-defense exercise and a Navy submarine exercise, both in the Arctic.

"We've closely partnered with NATO and [European Command] as far as ... conducting operations that show our capability," VanHerck added.