The big chess game in the sky

This morning we consider the novel possibility that Peter MacKay is not making his job up as he goes along, or at least that he, and Canada, are not alone in their reaction to Russian bombers flying just outside Canadian airspace.

A few minutes’ research shows that incidents remarkably similar to January’s — what? Confrontation? Escort? Trumped-up drama? Battle of nerves? — between Russian bombers and Canadian jet fighters just outside Canadian airspace have been happening a lot, and in a lot of different places. A small, non-exhaustive sample from the literature:

• Sept. 7, 2007: Eight Russian bombers are stopped outside UK airspace by four British RAF fighters, accompanied by an AWACS plane and a tanker. Earlier in the Russian planes’ flight path, Norway also scrambled fighters. This story features an element that is common in such tales: confusion about what happened, aided by a certain eagerness on the part of national defence authorities and newspaper copy desks to goose the news for an extra dose of drama. The article says the Russians “did not enter British airspace;” the photo caption purports to show the hardy RAF escorting the Russians “from British Airspace.”

• Sept. 20, 2007: Two Russian bombers fly for thousands of kilometres “along the coast of” (i.e. not in) Alaska and Canada, taking on unusually large fuel loads in a mid-air refuelling.

• Oct. 25, 2007: Norway says two Russian bombers turned around after coming within 160 km of the Netherlands. This one features another favourite theme in the literature: the Vaguely Ominous Strategic Threat that Would Have Been Rejected by the Writers of 24 as Too Unrealistic, in this case the mention that the Russian, um, fly-near happened “during a summit of NATO defence ministers.” What, the Russkis were going to bomb a NATO ministerial with Tupolevs? Thank God saner heads prevailed before the Bear reached its precious target.

• Feb. 8, 2008: A very different level of threat. Japan scrambles two dozen aircraft after Russian bombers actually, in Japan’s version, do enter the country’s airspace.

• March 5, 2008: NORAD is concerned because Russian bombers are all over the place.

• May 5, 2008: An “exchange of pleasantries” as Canadian CF-18s escort Russian Bears into Canadian airspace and back out.

• Aug. 19, 2008: Condoleezza Rice is increasingly unhappy with the Russians’ “dangerous game.”

• Jan. 9, 2009: Norway does the math: in 2007 and 2008, it scrambled fighters 79 times to intercept Russian bombers, always flying just outside Norway’s airspace.

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