A history of NORAD’s Russian aircraft intercepts
DR. BRIAN D. LASLIE
U.S. and Canadian fighter aircraft intercepting Soviet — and later Russian — bombers has long been a mainstay of the defense of North America. The cat-and-mouse game between the air forces of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the combined air forces of Canada and the United States began before the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) officially started operations in May 1958. Soviet aircraft presented a threat to North America that needed to be countered.
The earliest visual contact with Soviet aircraft was recorded August 1, 1950. Two F-82 Twin Mustangs from the U.S. Air Force (USAF) 449th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were on a reconnaissance mission to photograph airfields in the Anadyr Gulf area of the Bering Sea. During this routine mission, the aircrews sighted four radial engine fighters in trail over an airfield. These were believed to be Soviet Lavochkin La-5, La-9 or La-11 aircraft, but no markings or insignia were observed. It was an inauspicious start to one of the Cold War’s defining features.
The first U.S. encounter with Soviet MiG-15 jet aircraft took place March 15, 1953. While on a routine weather reconnaissance flight near the Kamchatka Peninsula, the crew of a WB-50 was fired upon by a pair of MiG-15s and returned fire. The encounter was about 100 miles east and slightly north of the Russian military base at Petropavlovsk. More important, the exchange was 25 miles out to sea over international waters. The Cold War was in danger of turning hot.
It was not until June 22, 1955, that interactions between East and West turned violent. At 11:09 a.m. local time, two Soviet jets fired on a U.S. Navy P2V over international waters in the Bering Strait. Only one U.S. crew member made a visual observation. As he watched the Soviet interceptors, one opened fire. The first burst set the port engine and fuel supply ablaze. A second severed the right wingtip of the U.S. aircraft. The pilot made a diving turn into a cloud bank 3,300 feet below and had no further contact with the lingering Soviet fighters. All 11 U.S. crew members survived, but several suffered burns from the attack and from a rough landing that caused a gas tank to burst. For the United States and Canada, the airspace between them and Russia was becoming a pivotal arena that required greater investment in defensive measures. These early tussles proved to be a driving factor in NORAD’s creation.
The U.S. and Canada needed a mechanism to detect incoming Soviet aircraft. Defense agreements between the countries in the early 1950s centered on building radar networks across Canada — the Mid-Canada Line (also known as the McGill Fence), the Pinetree Line and the famous Distant Early Warning Line. This cooperation led to an extension of talks regarding the possible integration and execution of air defense plans. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and USAF exchanged liaison officers and met at key conferences to discuss the potential of a shared air defense organization. By 1957, the details had been worked out, and each nation’s top defense officials approved the formation of NORAD, which was stood up September 12, 1957, at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado. USAF Gen. Earle Partridge became NORAD commander and RCAF Air Marshal Roy Slemon, who was the key Canadian delegate in most of the cooperation talks, became deputy commander.
The nations announced eight months later on May 12, 1958, that they had formalized the cooperative air defense arrangements as a bilateral defense pact that became known as the NORAD Agreement. One of the key defensive mechanisms was the ability to intercept incoming Soviet bombers off the western coasts of Canada and the U.S.
On March 5, 1958, radar tracked the first known Soviet long-range bombers flying a reconnaissance mission against U.S. forces in the Alaskan theater. Sixteen other such missions would take place through December 1961. The first recorded intercept of Soviet aircraft took place December 5, 1961. A pair of Tu-16 Badgers were intercepted off Alaska’s northwest coast in the Bering Sea by two F-102s of the 3l7th Fighter Interceptor Squadron on alert at Galena airfield in Alaska. From that day to the end of the Cold War in 1991, more than 300 successful intercept missions were flown against Soviet aircraft. In all, 473 Soviet aircraft were intercepted by aircrews from Alaskan Air Command and the 11th Air Force, as well as temporary duty aircrews from other commands and the RCAF. Not all intercepts were outside U.S. airspace. The U.S. Department of Defense first verified a Soviet flight over U.S. airspace on March 14, 1963, when two Soviet aircraft penetrated 30 miles into U.S. airspace over the southwestern corner of Alaska.
The Hunters and the Hunted
In the opening years of this Cold War confrontation, three types of Soviet bombers were intercepted near Alaska and the Aleutian Islands: Tu-16 Badgers, M-4 Bison and the infamous Tu-95 Bear. As technology progressed and the chilled conflict continued, other Soviet bombers joined the fold, including the Tu-22 Backfire and, toward the end of the Cold War, the Tu-160 Blackjack. These were matched by additions to the RCAF and USAF. The “hunters” included everything from F-47 Thunderbolts to century-series aircraft such as the CF-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger, F-106 Delta Darts and F-4C Phantom II. New interceptors arrived in the 1970s and 1980s, including the F-15 Eagle. Today, NORAD uses the F-22 Raptor and the CF-18 Hornet.
Tu-16 Badgers were the only bombers intercepted between 1961 and 1968. The medium-range bomber could deliver nuclear or conventional free-fall bombs. That changed February 27, 1968, when two F-102s flying out of Eielson Air Force Base at Fairbanks, Alaska, intercepted three M-4 Bison strategic bombers over the Chukchi Sea. Developed in 1949 under the orders of Joseph Stalin, the Bison was the first Soviet bomber capable of reaching the U.S. The Bison entered service in 1955 and served as a bomber until the mid-1970s. The aircraft also was modified for inflight refueling and use as an aerial tanker. On April 10, 1983, F-15s intercepted two Bison over the North Pacific near the western Aleutians. Over 28 years, 111 Badgers in several variants were identified by U.S. pilots. The last Badger intercept occurred October 1, 1989, when two F-15s intercepted two Badgers in the North Pacific.
Badger and Bison intercepts were numerous, but by far the most regular appearance by Soviet bombers came in the form of the Tupolev Tu-95 Bear, which was intercepted 216 times by Alaska-based fighter aircraft. Since its introduction in 1954, virtually all variants of the Bear family of aircraft have been intercepted near Alaska. The first occurred February 16, 1968, when two F-106s on alert at King Salmon Air Force Station intercepted four Bears southeast of the Aleutians. The Bear H was the most hunted and prized Soviet aircraft for North American pilots. This included not only the USAF and RCAF, but also the U.S. Navy. In 1987, two F-15s from King Salmon and two F-14s from Adak Naval Air Station conducted the first interservice intercept of two Bear Hs. However, by the late 1980s, Soviet long-range flights had dropped off precipitously and ended almost entirely with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Russian Long-Range Aviation
With hindsight, it becomes clear that the Soviet Union’s collapse offered only a brief respite in intercepts. In 1992, NORAD completed a strategy review, which documented the wide-ranging changes in the security environment since the close of the Cold War. The report noted the need for air sovereignty, warning and assessment, as well as the potential need to better integrate a ballistic missile defense mission. In short, the report provided a baseline for the command’s continued existence. Although the Soviet Union no longer posed a threat, its successor states still had air- and submarine-launched cruise missiles. Russian aviation was down but not out.
By 2014, Russian long-range aviation and maritime activity reached levels not seen since the Cold War. Russia was conducting more sorties, supported by more tankers, and establishing more sophisticated linkages between air and maritime intelligence collection than ever before. This activity underscored an aggressive Russian military enjoying new prosperity, proficiency and ever-improving capabilities that had NORAD focused on the Russian Bear once more. NORAD’s three operational regions in Alaska, Canada and the continental U.S. routinely responded to Russian long-range aircraft entering the North American Air Defense Identification Zone. For example, on July 4, 2015, NORAD fighters intercepted two Bear bombers west of Alaska’s coast and off the coast of central California.
Intercepting Russian long-range aircraft continued through 2020. Much like the pilots of the early Cold War, U.S. and Canadian Airmen remain ready to play the dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a new generation of adversaries.