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Russian planes are testing US defenses for weaknesses, US general warns

NORAD F-22s, CF-18s, supported by KC-135 Stratotanker and E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft, intercepted two Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone on Monday, March 9th. (NORAD photo/Released)
April 22, 2020

General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the U.S. Air Force general in charge of both U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), warned that Russia is looking for signs of weakness in U.S. air defenses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

O’Shaughnessy shared his warnings during a Pentagon press briefing on Tuesday, and pointed to several recent incidents between U.S. and Russian aircraft as examples of the kind of Russian behavior NORAD is monitoring and working to counteract.

One April 8 incident saw NORAD dispatch F-22 fighters to intercept a pair of Russian Ilyushin IL-38 reconnaissance planes after they were observed flying over the Bering Sea and entered into the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone.

“We wanted to make it very clear – which we did by the way we intercepted them – that there are no vulnerabilities as a result of COVID-19,” O’Shaughnessy said of the incident. “We are postured and maintain the ability to respond at a moment’s notice.”

O’Shaughnessy noted Russian probing attempts are not a new concern but one that has seen a spike in public concern due to a high number of high profile encounters in recent weeks. He said there hasn’t necessarily been a spike in Russian probing attempts simply due to U.S. military concerns shifting towards dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we do see is, I think, a continuous effort for them,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It’s a continued effort on multiple fronts to potentially test for any vulnerabilities.

U.S. NORAD F-22s and Canadian Air Force F-18 fighter jets also intercepted a pair of Russian reconnaissance planes in a March incident. O’Shaughnessy later assessed the Russian aircraft were attempting to spy on U.S. submarine ice breaching drills in the arctic.

Russian planes have also harassed U.S. Navy aircraft and warships in a string of incidents over the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea in the last week.

In two different incidents across a span of four days, Russian SU-35 fighter jets passed dangerously close to U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon reconnaissance and patrol aircraft flying over international waters in the Mediterranean.

Another recent incident saw a Belgian Air Force F-16 chase off a group of Russian fighter jets circling over a U.S. warship in the Baltic Sea.

The official NORAD Twitter account noted O’Shaughnessy briefed U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein regarding homeland defense concerns during the coronavirus outbreak.