Armed F-22 Raptor fighters scrambled again Friday as Russian “Bear ” bombers headed for the second time toward Hawaii as part of an ongoing Russian naval and air exercise several hundred miles west of the Aloha State, a U.S. official said.
Two of the Hawaii Air National Guard stealth fighters took off from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and did not intercept the Russian turboprops, which likely, as before, did not continue on a path toward Hawaii, according to an account of the launch.
“Pacific Air Forces regularly perform air operations in airspace surrounding Hawaii. As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss tactics, techniques or procedures used by U.S. Air Force aircraft due to operational security requirements, ” the Oahu-based command said Friday evening in an email.
Three F-22s and a KC-135 were launched last Sunday when Russian Bear bombers were first spotted taking a similar directional approach to Hawaii.
In the earlier event, the Russian planes, which also can have an anti-submarine warfare role, never came close to Hawaii’s Air Defense Identification Zone. The Russian aircraft are “at least going out far enough (from an airbase ) that it required the F-22s to be scrambled, ” according to an official.
A Russian spy ship, meanwhile, is stationed north of Oahu in international waters while some number of other Russian warships conducting the exercise are still more than 300 miles west of the main Hawaiian Islands in a rare show of naval capability by Moscow relatively close to the Aloha State.
On Sunday three missile-armed F-22 fighters and a KC-135 refueling tanker were launched from Hickam when Tu-95 or Tu-142 Bear bombers or anti-submarine warfare turboprops that were part of the exercise were detected vectoring toward Hawaii but still a very long distance off.
There were no intercepts of the propeller-powered aircraft in either case. Pacific Air Forces said Monday that the F-22 Raptors in the first launch conducted “an irregular air patrol and the situation resolved, prompting the fighters and a KC-135 Stratotanker to return to base.”
Russian officials said the exercise off Hawaii is its largest drills in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War and involves surface ships, anti-submarine aircraft and long-range bombers, CBS News reported Tuesday. At one point the flotilla was off Midway Atoll. A U.S. official confirmed it is the largest such Russian exercise to be held this close to Hawaii in a long time.
“At the same time, officials said a U.S. carrier strike group headed by the USS (Carl ) Vinson is operating about 200 miles east of Hawaii, conducting a strike group certification exercise, ” CBS reported. “The exercise had been planned but was moved closer to Hawaii in response to the Russian exercise.”
The Russian naval and air drills—which coincided with Wednesday’s summit in Geneva between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin—are seen as a demonstration by Moscow of its ability to carry out exercises relatively close to Hawaii as Putin continues to seek greater prominence on the world stage.
A Russian auxiliary general intelligence ship, or AGI, operating in international waters north of Oahu is likely the same one that appeared off Hawaii in May and briefly delayed a missile defense test late that month as it loitered off Kauai, an official said.
“Here’s the thing about the Russian Pacific Fleet : They don’t have a lot of platforms that can go to sea or fly, ” said retired Navy Capt. Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center and an adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University.
Russia’s Pacific Fleet “has a very low priority compared to (its ) western fleets ” in terms of operating budget, spare parts and readiness, Schuster said.
Russian news agency TASS reported that the Russian Pacific fleet’s Primorye flotilla “started accomplishing tasks (Sunday ) under the scenario of tactical maneuvers as part of Pacific Fleet’s distant maritime zone taskforce ” after the vessels sailed about 2, 500 miles from their naval bases and “combat watch areas.”
“The drills involve up to 20 surface combatants, submarines and support vessels, ” the report said.
“Politically, ” the exercise west of Hawaii “is a big deal, but operationally, it’s more like a little deal, ” Schuster said. “The fact that they can get 20 of their ships underway at all is semi-significant.”
The political purpose is “simply to create the impression that they could reach out and touch us, ” Schuster said. Russia “wants to go to sea, but defense of the homeland is their primary mission now, and so those long-range ships’ job is to find and take out any long-range threats to the homeland.”
With cruise missiles capable of flying very long distances, “reaching out to touch simply means getting a platform within 1, 000 nautical miles of you, ” he said.
The Russian surveillance ship, meanwhile, has been moving about the islands since May. Schuster said Russia might only have two operational AGIs in the Pacific fleet.
They could be north of Oahu monitoring the Carl Vinson carrier strike group, Schuster said, adding, “They don’t have to get close ” to do that.
“They have a deep and abiding and ongoing interest in whatever we’re doing with our carriers, ” he said. There’s been “a lot of discussion about what the Navy is going to do in future wars—how do we fight, ” and talking about innovative tactics. “I’ll bet money that AGI is monitoring the Vinson.”
A U.S. missile defense test was briefly delayed off Kauai late last month due to the presence of a Russian surveillance ship, an official previously said. The test eventually was carried out with a salvo of two SM-6 ship-fired missiles failing to intercept a medium-range ballistic missile target.
That failure may have been due to testing against simulated Russian hypersonic weapons that are much harder to hit, a missile defense expert said.
The Missile Defense Agency, in cooperation with the Navy, conducted May 29 what it called Flight Test Aegis Weapon System 31.
“The objective of the test was to demonstrate the capability of ballistic missile defense (BMD )-configured Aegis ship to detect, track, engage and intercept a medium-range ballistic missile target with a salvo of two Standard Missile-6 Dual II (BMD-initialized ) missiles. However, an intercept was not achieved, ” the agency said in a news release.
U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith on Oahu previously put out separate statements saying they were well aware of the Russian surveillance ship “operating in international waters in the vicinity of Hawaii, ” and of the Russian navy exercise hundreds of miles west of the Islands.
U.S. officials initially would not disclose why the three armed Hawaii Air National Guard F-22 fighters were scrambled Sunday. The Federal Aviation Administration, initially described as having a role in the fighter launch, was actually not involved in the deployment, an official said.
The Hawaii Air Guard has F-22s, pilots, maintainers and weapons crews on call 24 hours a day at Hickam to respond to air threats to the Hawaiian Islands as part of an air defense alert mission.