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Russian planes spied on US attack submarine drills before being intercepted

The crew of the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine, USS Connecticut (SSN 22), enjoys ice liberty after surfacing in the Arctic Circle during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2020. ICEX 2020 is a biennial submarine exercise which promotes interoperability between allies and partners to maintain operational readiness and regional stability, while improving capabilities to operate in the Arctic environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro/Released)
March 11, 2020

Two Russian Tu-142 reconnaissance planes were intercepted and turned back near the Alaskan coastline on Monday. Now U.S. military officials are saying the planes were watching U.S. submarines conducting arctic maneuvers in the Arctic Ocean.

In a Wednesday hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy told lawmakers the Russian planes were loitering in the area to catch sight of U.S. submarines breaching through the ice in an exercise known as ICEX.

“We saw just yesterday, you may have seen in the news, we had a Russian bomber 60 miles off the coast of Alaska, operating in one of our ICEX exercises we had where submarines actually pop up out of the ice,” O’Shaughnessy said.

He said, the Russian aircraft loitered around 2,500 feet above the submarine practice site even as U.S. and Canadian fighter jets followed closely on their wings.

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O’Shaughnessy noted the recent intercept demonstrated NORAD’s need to “react appropriately” and have a “persistent defense.”

He delivered his assessment of the recent incident as he called for updated technology to coordinate air, sea and cyber defense measures to provide warnings of potential intrusions into U.S. airspace. He said the arctic conditions can hinder the ability to communicate effectively, though there are U.S. commercial technologies that can help improve U.S. defense communications.

“The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall and the oceans are no longer protective moats,” O’Shaughnessy said earlier in the hearing. “They are avenues of approach to the homeland.”

“NORAD continues to operate in the Arctic across multiple domains,” O’Shaughnessy said in NORAD’s initial statement following the Russian spy plane incident. “As we continue to conduct exercises and operations in the north, we are driven by a single unyielding priority: defending the homelands.”

The ICEX training is a three week, biennial training exercise in which U.S. submarines and other regional allies train for how to work in the arctic conditions, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a recent press release.

“The Arctic is a potential strategic corridor – between Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the U.S. homeland – for expanded competition,” Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle, the Commander of U.S. Submarine Forces said in the Navy Press Statement. “The Submarine Force must maintain readiness by exercising in Arctic conditions to ensure they can protect national security interests and maintain favorable balances of power in the Indo-Pacific and Europe if called upon,”

Caudle continued, “ICEX 2020 provides the opportunity for the Submarine Force to demonstrate combat and tactical readiness for sustained Arctic operations in the unique and challenging Arctic environment.”