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Russian bombers ‘buzz’ US aircraft carrier

This weekend Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers violated Japanese airspace and then, in their most audacious flight for a fair few years, went on to ‘buzz’ the US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz. Not just once – twice.

The Russian Air Force is very keen to tell the world it’s back. This weekend alone, Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers first violated Japanese airspace and then, in their most audacious flight for a fair few years, went on to ‘buzz’ the US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz.

Violation of Japanese Airspace
On Saturday, a Russian Tu-95 bomber overflew the Pacific island of Sofugan, 650km (400 miles) south of Tokyo for three minutes. The Japanese air force took the incursion so seriously that they scrambled 22 fighter jets to escort the Russian bomber out of Japanese airspace.

Tu95 Bear

The furious Japanese government have demanded an explanation from Moscow, but a Russian Air Force spokesman was adamant that they have done nothing wrong:

All flights of the Russian Air Force were carried out in accordance with international air space regulations without breaching the other states’ borders.

Many in Japan are suspicious that the overflight was linked to an annual rally to demand the return of the Kurile Islands to Japan – they were seized by Soviet troops at the end of the Second World War and never returned. Despite recent concilliatory moves, both Japan and Russia still dispute the status of the islands, and have as a result, never signed a formal treaty ending their Second World War conflict.

Buzzing the USS Nimitz Aircraft Carrier

USS NimitzThe story which has really hit the headlines, though, was the Tu-95 that buzzed the USS Nimitz – flying directly over the nuclear powered aircraft carrier at a height of just 600 metres not just once, but twice.

Four US F/A 18 fighter jets were scrambled and escorted the Russian Bear until it was comfortably out of range, but US officials are playing down the incident.

Naval Admiral Gary Roughead told reporters:

“It was a very benign flight that came through, and we just latched on to them and followed them in. I know I’m not playing this up very much, but that’s the way I see it. They came out to look. We joined up (and) flew with them until they went home.”

The Russian bomber was one of a squadron of four that approached the US carrier, but the only one to actually fly directly overhead. Because it was in international waters, though, the US could not legally prevent the Russian plane from flying overhead.

A new, more assertive Russia?

Reports of provocative Russian military activity are becoming increasingly frequent, right across the globe. Russia’s military is better funded than it has been for more than a decade, and the Kremlin feels that it is time to demonstrate that Russia is not quite the military basket case it once was.

But, all the same, there isn’t much to worry about here. Flights like these make good copy for the papers, but otherwise they don’t really surprise anyone in the world’s militaries.

The last Russian overflight of a US carrier was only four years ago, and the last Russian incursion into Japanese airspace was just two years ago. Incidents like these really are relatively common.

And I’m certain that, if the Russian’s sole remaining aircraft carrier ventured out of port more often, US planes would make their own overflights from time to time…

I think Russian paper Kommersant have probably got it about right when they point out that the Japanese and American militaries should actually be thanking the Russians:

A total of 22 fighters of various type, two early-warning planes and E-3A guidance AWACS were involved, so the Japanese could thank their Russian colleagues for the drill.

They should also be thanking the Russians for giving them yet another up close view of the Russian bomber’s flight capabilities – I’m sure both the Japanese and Americans will have collected bucketloads of valuable data, which someone, somewhere will be merrily analysing.


  • “I’m sure both the Japanese and Americans will have collected bucketloads of valuable data, which someone, somewhere will be merrily analysing.”

    Eh, more like the other way around. There is nothing new about the Bear as an aircraft, though they might have been recently upgraded with more sensitive and accurate signals intelligence equipment. They almost certainly would have been recording radar frequencies and all the other electro-magnetic emissions from the Japanese aircraft and the US battle group which will be taken home and analyzed for vulnerabilities that could be exploited if a situation gets ‘hot’. Still, neither the Japanese nor Americans would have activated special ‘war’ modes on their systems, so how much information of real value gleaned by the bear(s) is questionable.

    It’s also not as if NATO and allies don’t do the same things either and on an larger scale, i.e. the recent ‘shadowing’ of a Russian battle group that headed out in to the Med, flying their spy planes along Russia’s borders and sending submarines into the Kola Peninsula (amongst others), tapping fiber-optic cables etc. etc. ‘course, most of this is underwater so you don’t see it….

    It’s great for photos though!

  • True. In an actual conflict there is simply no way a Tu-95 could get near a US carrier group, let alone fly right over it’s heart. This ‘mission’ was almost certainly about gathering as much information as possible for Russian analysts, too.

    I was going to mention something about cameras poking out of the bear’s bottom, but rejected it as too crude…

  • The Japanese should have shot down one of the bombers and banned visas for 6 months. That’d soften the Russians’ cough)

  • Maybe not so unlikely considering the changing posture of Japan’s forces from defensive to offensive:
    (a good and interesting website, but with a decidedly Indian bent.)

    I would have been much more impressed if a Russian submarine had penetrated the battle group undetected and surfaced in the middle, the Chinese managed to get with firing range:

  • Ayers, Goltz & Lipman do make some good points. Lipman’s comment in particular made me think of parallels between Russia and China when it comes to a priority of keeping the peace to ensure the best conditions for economic development.

    I was amused by this comment by a former Air Force chief though:

    “An aircraft carrier is harder to find in the open ocean than a needle in the haystack. The crews had to go directly to their target, in this case the Nimitz, to photograph it,” he crowed, Interfax reported.

    I would be extremely surprised if the Russian air force didn’t know exactly where all the United States’ aircraft carrier groups were at any given time.

  • Several factors are at play.

    Sensationalism in the form of trying to make the subject more interesting for others to follow.

    Those subscribing to the view that Russia isn’t relatively strong right now, but on the verge of enhancing itself in a way that might eventually prove detrimental to Western interests.

    Many a military mind become uncomfortable when another power starts showing signs of enhancement. This despite the greater power maintaining a vastly existing superiority.

    To answer the mentioned points:

    The coverage can be made more interesting without misleading sensationalism.

    A weak Russia isn’t in the West’s best interests. A point echoed by some rather mainstream Western pundits.

    Russia hasn’t been such an inherent adversary of the West, with the latter often being at odds with itself.

    Post-Soviet Russia hasn’t attacked any country and has diplomatically acted in a civil manner on a number of topics including the disputed former Communist bloc territories.

    As Mark MacKinnon put it, it’s not always Russia’s fault. It can be added that more attention can be given to other fault lines.

  • Russia certainly isn’t strong in conventional warfare. On the nuke side, they have far, far more tactical nukes.

    Critically, they should have full global GLONASS (GPS) capability very soon (if not already), considering how many they are throwing up into the heavens:

    Some KOSMOS-OKO early warning sats:
    Only a couple in the last two years – though I have no idea if there are still holes in Russia’s ability to detect missile launches.

    With regards to detecting carrier groups:

    & Tselina-2:

    If the carrier group was detected when it was transmitting close to no electro-magnetic signals save essential weak, short range ones, then it tells us that the Russian satellites work. If the group was bleeping all over the place, then your grandmother and her dog would know.

    This neatly dove-tails into the current story of ‘secret US spy sat to fall to earth’, or to be shot down. Some people think it carries and advanced weather penetrating radar, jolly useful for finding things (also under umbrellas):

    My guess is it is either or a radar that could track ships and subs (even underwater) by their wakes or the very new ones that can penetrate tree foiliage… Weather penetrating radars are a bit old hat.

    Can anyone say ‘can of worms’? 🙂

    There used to be a great computer strategy game called Harpoon ( where you could control NATO or Warsaw Pact naval and aviation assets. It was fun sending in waves of Backfires to take out NATO carrier groups in the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. Very tricky though….

    Final thoughts: I guess that as Russia didn’t complain seriously enough about promised non NATO expansion into former SU territories pre-Putin, ergo they’ve forfeited the right. It could be argued that continued NATO expansion has forced Putin to throw his weight around (cunning judo related pun there) with missile ‘defense’ and all the shenanigans in Georgia and the Ukraine these last few years.

    Russia’s strategic red line has already been pushed too far for its’ liking, so the ‘rot’ has to stop somewhere. Putin is trying to make the line elastic in only one direction – getting the US out of the ‘stans. Uzebekistan has dumped the US, which is a major logistical and operation pain for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Russia even appears to have reneiged(sp?) on a deal with India to share an airbase in Tadjikistan:

    Sure, there’s a lot of show involved, but I guess that Putin cares even less how the western media paint him, after all, his job is to protect the country, please his citizens and his homies. He’s certainly come on leaps and bounds since the Kursk disaster. He also knows the only thing ‘the West’ really respects are ‘balls of steel'(TM), something his predecessor had trouble finding most of the time.

  • Okay, all of these comments are confusing me… (I’m 12) The only thing I know is that my brother is one of the people who found the plane… (He’s the person who reads the radars.)

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