Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, a Republican, who has pressed for years for a stronger U.S. presence in the Arctic and has warned about increasing Russian activity there, said the fishing boats should not have been forced to leave U.S. fishing territory. He said he was surprised by the scale of Russia’s recent aggressive actions in the Bering Sea, noting that during the same exercise in August, fighter planes from the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, scrambled to respond to three groups of Russian aircraft that approached Alaska.
“I think they were testing us — flexing their military muscle,” the senator said.
Coast Guard officials said Russia had notified the U.S. government that part of its exercise would include a portion of the fishing zone. But federal officials did not alert commercial fishing operators to the planned exercise.
Coast Guard officials said they have been working to make sure future notifications reached the right people. They have also said that U.S. fishing vessels were not required to follow any orders from a foreign entity to depart American fishing grounds. But in a memo last month to those involved in the North Pacific fishing industry that outlined what had transpired in the Bering Sea, the Coast Guard also cautioned that “safety of life at sea should always be paramount in managing the safe navigation of any vessel on the high seas, and is the responsibility of the mariner with firsthand situational awareness.”
As Russia has ramped up its presence in the region, U.S. officials have accelerated their own efforts. The Coast Guard has long complained that its lone pair of aging icebreakers are struggling to stay in service but may now have the opportunity to build six new ones. (Russia has dozens.) The United States is also discussing a northern deepwater port, perhaps around Nome. Currently, the nearest strategic port is 1,300 nautical miles away in Anchorage.
Alaska already draws a relatively large portion of U.S. military spending, with bases serving the Air Force and the Army in or around both Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Jets in Alaska scrambled repeatedly this year to intercept Russian aircraft moving toward U.S. airspace. But jets taking off from inland bases can take more than 90 minutes to reach the coast of Alaska, said Maj. Gen. Scott Clancy, a Canadian officer who is the director of operations at NORAD.
General Clancy said the encounters were professional. In the encounter last month, the four Russian aircraft loitered in the area for about 90 minutes and never crossed into U.S. airspace. But General Clancy said it was clear the Russians were both testing the capabilities of NORAD and demonstrating their own, increasing the frequency and also the complexity of their approaches.