A groundbreaking training exercise ended late Tuesday after US and Russian fighter jets crisscrossed the Pacific in pursuit of a chartered plane playing the role of a hijacked airliner.
The "hijacked" plane, actually a chartered executive-style Gulfstream, landed in Anchorage after flying across the Pacific and back, monitored all the way by fighters and aerial command posts from both sides.
On board were officers from Russia and from the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a US-Canadian force that patrols the skies over North America.
The exercise was designed to test how well Russia and NORAD could coordinate their efforts in the event of a hijacking, especially during the critical handoff stage when the commandeered plane moves from one side's airspace to the other.
The drill will make it harder for terrorists to pull off a hijacking against the US, Canada or Russia by building up the air travel system's defenses, said Canadian Forces Col. Todd Balfe, the deputy commander of NORAD's Alaska region and the senior NORAD observer aboard the Gulfstream.
"I think any time that we increase our cooperation and our coordination, we harden ourselves against further events," Balfe said.
"If, for example, we make it harder for terrorists to do us harm, they'll choose either not to do us harm or will look for other, more difficult manners or other ways of approaching us," Balfe said.
If terrorists do succeed in hijacking a plane, the exercise will help NORAD and the Russians be prepared to respond. Military commanders and civilian analysts say the threat of terrorism is serious for the US and Russia. On July 29, a man seized a plane with 105 passengers and crew at a Moscow airport. On Christmas Day, a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a jetliner over Detroit.
The joint exercise, called Vigilant Eagle, started Sunday when the Gulfstream, code-named Fencing 1220, left Anchorage and headed west. Along with Balfe, Russian Air Force Col. Alexander Vasiliev, US Army Maj. Michael Humphrey and a US translator were on board. The Associated Press had exclusive access to the Gulfstream on both the westbound and eastbound flights.
Shortly after takeoff, the Gulfstream's civilian pilots sent a digital distress code to civilian air traffic controllers in Alaska signaling it had been "hijacked."
Civilian controllers notified NORAD, which dispatched two F-22 Raptor fighter jets to shadow Fencing 1220 and an E-3 Sentry airborne surveillance and control plane to track it. When the Gulfstream entered Russian airspace over the Pacific, commanders in the E-3 handed over responsibility for the plane to their Russian counterparts on an A-50 Mainstay surveillance and control plane. Four Russian Su-27 fighters and one MiG-31 then took turns shadowing the Gulfstream.
On the return trip, the process was reversed, with Russian fighters and surveillance planes shadowing Fencing 1220 for the first portion before handing off responsibility to NORAD. A detailed evaluation of the exercise is planned in September. Balfe said the exercise has already succeeded on one of its goals, a smooth handoff from NORAD to the Russians. "We've already done that," he said.
All three observers aboard Fencing 2012 - Russian, American and Canadian - marveled at the historic nature of the exercise, which demanded a level of cooperation that was unthinkable during the Cold War standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor.
Vasiliev said he always thought the time would come when the two former enemies would work together, but he said he never expected to be Russia's representative. Humphreys said the Russian fighters cruising alongside Fencing 1220 was an incredible sight. Balfe called the exercise "a watershed moment."
"If I'd been told 20, 25 years ago I'd be sitting on a U.S.-registered airplane with a Russian colonel as my counterpart, going through Russian airspace on this exercise, I'd have thought you were crazy."