During the Cold War, the Arctic airspace between Siberia and North America was the transit zone over which both ICBM’s and strategic bombers would have flown to reach targets in either the Soviet Union or the United States & Canada.
Each side knew and understood the other planned to do so and though arms treaties and the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) generally nullified implementation of strategic missile defense by either side in the Cold War, no such limitations were placed on traditional strategic air defense.
The U.S. and Canada maintained such defense with both a chain of radar stations and AWACS planes, coordinating squadrons of fighter jets in a defensive role. U.S. Air Force strategic B-52 & B-1 nuclear bombers were of course the offensive element.
The Soviet Union employed precisely the same strategy for both defense and offense in strategic air warfare. With the primary difference being that Soviet strategic air defense squadrons comprised a separate military air service; as opposed to a subordinate North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) within the U.S. Air Force structure.
This separate Soviet air force was known as ‘PVO Strany‘, a Soviet acronym for what in English would literally be ‘national air defense’. PVO Strany was not a budgetary sub-service of the Soviet Air Force; but, a separate military branch. It’s one and only mission was to maintain Soviet air superiority, of Soviet airspace.
All other military air operations were handled by the Soviet Air Force, with the exceptions of Soviet Naval Aviation and Strategic Rocket Forces, that latter of which was also its own military branch and remains so today.
However, a major operations doctrine shift took place in 1998 when PVO Strany was fully incorporated into the Russian Air Force. Not just an administrative or budgetary change, but a total alteration in the concept of operations.
Strategic air defense is still a Russian priority and it must always be due Russia’s leviathan size airspace. But, Russian air defense doctrine has now taken a step into an offensive role for Russian high-speed/high altitude fighter-interceptors.
PVO Strany’s Mig-31 Foxhound during the Cold War did not have inflight refueling capability, since their role was strictly defense of Soviet airspace. In recent years however, these aircraft have been upgraded with inflight refueling capability, tripling their range from 1,000 miles to over 3,000 miles. Mig-31 pilots are now trained in the full spectrum of both offensive and defensive air superiority warfare.
Numerous stories have appeared since 2006 in both defense publications and commercial news media documenting Russian militarization of the Arctic regions of Siberia and offshore Arctic islands. This militarization is across the board of air, land & sea warfare doctrines. It includes the reopening & expansion of abandoned Soviet air bases on offshore Siberian and Arctic islands.
Mig-31 Foxhound’s now conduct flights well beyond Russian airspace in groups of 4 to 6 aircraft along with Russian Il-78 Midas tanker aircraft and the Beriev A-50 Mainstay AWACS, which also have been fitted for inflight refueling.
Other technical changes to the Mig-31 signify that it has been re-purposed for an offensive role; upgraded long-range air-to-air radar and fitting out with AA-9 Amos long-range air-to-air missiles.
The AA-9, comparable to America’s AIM-54 Phoenix (now retired along with the F-14 Tomcat) was originally designed to take out enemy airborne battle management assets such as the U.S. E-3 Sentry AWACS, or enemy long-range bombers. The latest upgrades to the AA-9 now enable it to be used against smaller aircraft more accurately, such as other fighters and cruise missiles at long-range.
With now over 50 incidents of Russian bombers flying close enough to U.S. & Canadian Arctic and NATO airspace to warrant a fighter intercept, some of the intercepts have been met not just by a Russian bomber, but with an escort of one or more Mig-31 fighters. Such intercepts have also occurred off the Pacific coastal regions of Alaska and Canada, and have included a fighter escort.
These new developments may seem on the surface a curious waste of time, effort and money by the Kremlin if one merely looks at it through the prism of Cold War strategic thinking where nuclear ICBM’s were king.
However, this is not the Cold War. Any war initiated by the Kremlin of present day Russia would seek conquest, hegemony and geopolitical/economic power and influence. Adventurism and territorial expansionism have no rewards if only a nuclear wasteland is the war prize.
These Russian Air Force endeavors are geared toward gaining and retaining strategic air superiority over the Arctic, and North America. That objective is only achieved through the engagement and destruction of enemy aircraft and sweeping their presence from the skies sought to be controlled.
Russian bombers would initially be used to draw out NORAD fighters for battle, so that they can be engaged and shot down by the Mig-31; thinning out U.S. and Canadian home air defense.
This strategy was used successfully against the German Luftwaffe in the Second World War with large strategic bomber raids drawing aircraft, pilots and even ground forces to man anti-aircraft guns, away from the landward battle front.
This is precisely the same objective which would be sought by the Russian Air Force in an Arctic/Northern Hemisphere air campaign. Added operations out of future air bases in Cuba and Venezuela must also be anticipated as well.
However, in 21st Century air warfare with far fewer numbers of aircraft involved, the tactics would more closely resemble those implemented by U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington during Second World War South Pacific Campaigns.
Maj. Boyington would use flights of bombers, or sometimes have his squadron mimic bomber flight formations and transmit radio traffic common to bomber formations as ‘bait’ to lure Japanese fighters planes into the air to engage and destroy them. This tactic became known as ‘the fighter sweep’ and something very similar would likely be employed by the Russians over the Arctic, North America, and Europe.
Such mimicking can be accomplished today with flight profiles, deceptive electronic warfare, ‘Boyington style’ fake radio traffic, or simply using a real Russian bomber flight as the bait. Recent flights of Russian bombers toward U.S., European and Canadian airspace are designed to feel out detection-to-intercept times. The same methods are being employed by the Russians against Japanese, South Korean and incidentally, Chinese air defense commands.
The one weakness the Russians do have, is the Mig-31 itself. It is a good, fast, high altitude air warfare platform. However, it is getting on in age and would likely be out performed if engaged in an aerial dogfight with the new F-22 Raptor.
However, if recent revelations of newer and upgraded weaponry & equipment among Russia’s ‘little green men’ in Crimea and Ukraine are any indication, Russian industry may yet have more surprises in store.
With or without a new fighter to replace the Mig-31, the change from a strictly defensive to an offensive seek and destroy operational doctrine upsets every Cold War strategic aerial combat concept NORAD & NATO may have been dusting off.