Air exercise canceled

OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN – A pair of SU-27 fighters escorts a simulated hijacked airliner during the second day of flying for Exercise Vigilant Eagle Aug. 9, 2011. The Russian fighters followed and monitored the aircraft while it was in Russian airspace, handing it over to U.S. F-15 fighters from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, when it entered U.S. airspace. 

ANCHORAGE — An Air Force exercise usually conducted in the fall near Alaska as a cooperative effort between the United States, Canada and Russia is not taking place this year because of tension related to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

That’s according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, comprised of U.S. and Canadian forces and tasked with detecting and responding to airborne threats to both countries.

Since 2007, NORAD and the Russian Federation Air Force had cooperated on the Vigilant Eagle exercise, which, in recent versions, saw fighter jets intercept a mock hijacked passenger airliner passing from Russia’s airspace to Alaska’s, or vice versa.

The exercise took place in August or September and sometimes coincided with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It “provided an opportunity for NORAD and Russia to cooperate and coordinate on the response to a mutually acknowledged hijacking threat,” NORAD spokesman Sgt. Charles Marsh wrote in an email. “For example, in 2013, the Vigilant Eagle scenario involved a foreign flagged commercial air carrier on an international flight that was seized by terrorists and did not respond to communications.”

Fighter jets that took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson met in midair with Russian fighters, Marsh said. As the airliner passed from one country’s airspace to the other, the pilots practiced a visual “hand-off” while flying in the same airspace so the appropriate country’s fighters could continue following it, he said.

The Vigilant Eagle exercise was suspended, at least for 2014, by U.S. Department of Defense officials and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper “due to the situation in Ukraine,” Marsh said. NORAD was already in the early planning stages earlier this year when the cancellation was announced. The exercise would have included, for the first time, the Japan Self Defense Force, he said.

In 2013, U.S. defense officials touted the exercise as a steppingstone toward closer military relations and a cooperative effort that transcended political tensions.

Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter. Contact him at 907-770-0722 or follow on Twitter: @kcgrove.