Flying at 10,300m over the Bering Strait, the Russian pilots had a singular focus: Making sure they smoothly received the hand-off of a “hijacked” jetliner from their US-Canadian counterparts.
Up here, there were no thoughts about strained Russia-US relations over US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, whom Russia granted asylum, or US President Barack Obama’s recent canceling of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The training exercise was to make sure the forces could find, track and escort a hijacked aircraft over international borders.
NORAD is a binational command of Canada and the US. Its director of operations, Canadian Major General Andre Vien, on Thursday said there were never any discussions about canceling the exercise, known as “Vigilant Eagle.”
It has been held five times since 2003. However, the exercises on Tuesday and Wednesday were the first since US-Russian relations became strained because of Snowden, Syria, human rights and other issues.
“I see no problems,” said Vien’s counterpart, General Major Dmitry Gomenkov, commander of the Aerospace Defense Brigade for eastern Russia.
Colonel Patrick Carpentier, the deputy commander of NORAD’s Alaska Region, was an observer on the “hijacked plane” and said the exercise is about cooperation.
“All these other factors really don’t play in this,” said Carpentier, a member of the Canadian Air Force. “This is a mission that we have to accomplish, so it really is beyond those types of frictions. We cooperate because we have to.”
Russian observers were at NORAD facilities in both Alaska and Colorado, while NORAD personnel were sent to Khabarovsk, Russia, to observe the exercise.
The drama played out twice this week over Alaska and eastern Russia, involving the Russian Federation Air Force and, for the first time, Canadian Air Force planes representing NORAD.
It involved a small plane, representative of a 757 passenger jet, being hijacked shortly after taking off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
Two Canadian CF-18 Hornets intercepted the hijacked plane and escorted it over Alaska’s western coast, where it was handed off to three Russian Sukhoi (Su-27) fighter jets at the border.
From the handoff over the Bering Strait, which separates Russia from Alaska, the hijacked plane was taken to a Russian Air Force base in Anadyr, Russia.
The exercise was repeated the following day, but with the passenger jet taking off from Russia.
This was the first time the actual hand-off of the hijacked plane occurred. Previous exercises had the NORAD or Russian fighters breaking off at a certain point and the other jets picking up the target later.
Both Vien and Gomenkov deemed the exercise a success.