F-22s intercept Russian bombers outside Alaska for first time since 2015

F-22 fighter jets taking off from JBER in June of 2015 morning as part of the Northern Edge exercise. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Military officials say they launched fighter jets on Monday afternoon to intercept two Russian long-range bombers flying toward Alaska.

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“What happened is exactly what’s supposed to happen,” Lieutenant General Ken Wilsbach said. He’s the state’s ranking officer overseeing all the military forces inside Alaska, including the F-22s that were sent toward the Russian planes.

Lieutenant General Kenneth Wilsbach prepares to depart in an F-22 for a training mission in November 2016. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

“We had forces on alert, we detected something that we didn’t know what it was, we launched, and if they had ill intent we were in a position to where we could defend,” Wilsbach explained by phone midday Tuesday.

The planes made contact about a hundred miles southwest of Kodiak Island.

Russian military planes routinely fly in international air space off the U.S coastal borders, as well as other countries’ boundaries, according to Wilsbach. In fact, at the Regional Air Operations Command center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson where unidentified craft are monitored, dozens of red stars line the walls for each mission intercepting the foreign bombers.

Wilsbach is an F-22 pilot and had just returned from flying a training mission Monday afternoon when the jets were scrambled. He said it was not the kind of situation that prompts alarm.

“What makes this somewhat unique is the fact that they haven’t been in Alaskan airspace in about two years,” Wilsbach said. “The last time it was July 4th of 2015.”

The these types of missions routinely happen on U.S. national holidays, according to the Air Force, though Wilsbach did not know why Monday afternoon might have been significant. He added that when the American and Russian aircraft made contact, it was a courteous, professional exchange. Pilots even waved.

“I’m not sure it’s so provocative,” Wilsbach said. “They were exercising freedom of navigation. We do similar types of missions all over the world as well in international air space.”

It’s the first time American jets have intercepted Russian aircraft during the Trump Administration, and comes just a week after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described relations with the country as being at a low point during a visit to Moscow.