YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Russian military planes and ships have been stepping up patrols in the Pacific in response to tensions in Ukraine, according to the commander of Pacific Air Forces.
“[There’s been] a significant… increase in the amount of activity from Russia in the Asia-Pacific,” PACAF commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle said Monday. “And we relate a lot of that to what’s going on in the Ukraine.”
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., Carlisle said Russia has been demonstrating its capabilities and gathering intelligence on U.S. military exercises in the Pacific.
The activity has included long-range air patrols near the coast of California and around the U.S. territory of Guam, he said.
“They’re doing this to demonstrate their capability to do it, and to gather intelligence in cases like Foal Eagle and other exercises,” Carlisle said.
A U.S. F-15 fighter jet recently intercepted a Russian strategic bomber near Guam, Russian air patrols have sharply increased around Japanese islands and Korea, and Russian ships also have been more active in the region, he said.
Reuters news agency reported last month that the number of Japan Air Self Defense Force scrambles against Russian planes rose to a record 45 percent to 359 during the year to March, up 45 percent from the previous year.
Japan also scrambled combat planes against Chinese aircraft 415 times during the same period, up 36 percent from a year earlier. It was the highest number since the ministry started disclosing country-specific figures in 2001. As a result, Japan’s total scrambles over 12 months came to 810 — a 24-year high.
Pacific Air Forces public affairs officer Master Sgt. Victoria Boncz said the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had intercepted in excess of 50 Russian long-range bomber aircraft during the past five years.
The upswing in Russian and Chinese military activity in the Pacific comes at a time when the U.S. defense budget is being slashed by billions of dollars.
“Today I believe that we have more mission than we have money, manpower or time,” Carlisle warned. “And it’s going to stay that way, as I see it, for the foreseeable future.”
Carlisle described Russia’s behavior in the Ukraine as very aggressive.
“For many nations that have territorial disputes or internal unrest — I mean PRC (the People’s Republic of China) being one — they have unrest challenges they face in [their provinces and] in Taiwan,” he said. “So in some ways that’s disconcerting to them because of internal unrest. And then in other ways, quote-un-quote, the ability to take what they believe is rightfully theirs in some method other than under international law, then that’s something that’s concerning on the other end of the spectrum.”
Despite the concerns, he said America’s military rebalance to the Pacific is alive and well.
“I know people talk about, is it actually happening during sequestration?” he said. “Did it happen yet? It happened… I think the amount of engagement we’re doing has gone up drastically… The rebalance is fully engaged.”