The Russian Navy conducted its biggest war games since Soviet times off the coast of Alaska this week, with more than 50 warships and 40 aircraft taking part in the exercises in the Bering Sea.
Among the warships was the nuclear submarine Omsk, which surfaced Thursday, startling fishermen working in nearby waters.
Later that day, the U.S. Air Force sent F-22 fighter jets to intercept three groups of two Tu-142 Russian maritime patrol aircraft that came close to Alaska, The Associated Press reported.
The Russian aircraft remained in the area for about five hours and came within 50 nautical miles of Alaska. Officials said the Russian jets stayed in international air space, and did not enter US or Canadian air space.
“Our northern approaches have had an increase in foreign military activity as our competitors continue to expand their military presence and probe our defenses,” said NORAD commander Gen. Glen D. VanHerck. “This year, we’ve conducted more than a dozen intercepts, the most in recent years. The importance of our continued efforts to project air defense operations in and through the north has never been more apparent.”
VanHerck’s statement cited former Russian navy chief of staff, retired Adm. Viktor Kravchenko, as saying that by having the submarine surface in the area, Russia may have been sending a deliberate signal.
“It’s a signal that we aren’t asleep and we are wherever we want,” Kravchenko was quoted as saying, the Daily Mail reported.
The exercises were taking place in international waters.
Russia’s navy chief, Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov, confirmed the exercises involved multiple practice missile launches. “We are holding such massive drills there for the first time ever,” Yevmenov said in a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Yevmenov said the war games are part of Russia’s efforts to boost its presence in the Arctic region and protect its resources. “We are building up our forces to ensure the economic development of the region,” he said.
The Russian military has rebuilt and expanded multiple facilities across the polar region in recent years. The country is prioritizing its military presence in the region, which is believed to hold up to one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.