Palin right, AP wrong on Russian aggressiveness

Here’s an AP story about a supposed mistake by Sarah Palin:

Gov. Sarah Palin cites vigilance against Russian warplanes coming into U.S. airspace over Alaska as one of her foreign-policy credentials. But the U.S. military command in charge says that hasn’t happened in her 21 months in office. . .

The spokeswoman for the McCain-Palin campaign, Maria Comella, said in an e-mail trying to clarify Palin’s comments that when “Russian incursions near Alaskan airspace and inside the air-defense identification zone have occurred … U.S. Air Force fighters have been scrambled repeatedly.”

Now the story comes to the point:

The air-defense identification zone, almost completely over water, extends 12 miles past the perimeter of the United States. Most nations have similar areas.

However, no Russian military planes have been flying into that zone, said Maj. Allen Herritage, a spokesman for the Alaska region of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage.

“To be very clear, there has not been any incursion in U.S. airspace in recent years,” Herritage said.

Note that Major Herritage’s actual quote doesn’t support the indirect quote the story attributes to him. Herritage says that there’s been no incursion into US airspace, which does not mean that there’s been no incursion into the air-defense identification zone (ADIZ).  To the contrary, the ADIZ is where the Air Force turns back intruders before they get to US airspace.

So, have Russian planes been entering the ADIZ or not? Yes, they have, according to the very same Major Allen Herritage. The Air Force Times reports:

More and more American and Canadian fighter jets are scrambling and intercepting Russian bombers flying off the Alaskan coast, exacerbating tensions between the former Cold War foes.

There have been 16 such intercepts since July, Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Howie Chandler told the Anchorage Daily News on March 27. That compares with just one in 2005, and none in the previous 10 years, Chandler said. . .

None of the Russian bombers has entered American airspace, which extends 12 miles out from U.S. soil, said Maj. Allen Herritage, a spokesman for NORAD’s Alaska region. Rather, the bombers have been intercepted after entering the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone, a buffer that extends even further out.

So Palin was right, Russian bombers have been intruding into the Alaska ADIZ and have had to be turned back by American fighters.

ASIDE: One might claim that Palin erred by confusing US airspace with the US ADIZ. Since Palin was using figurative language (“when Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States”), it’s far from clear that she meant the term literally. But even if you assume she did, it’s meaningless hair-splitting, and it doesn’t at all damage her larger point.

But wait, there’s more. Returning to the AP story:

What Palin might have been referring to was a buffer zone of airspace that extends beyond the 12-mile strip. Although not recognized internationally as the United States’ to protect, the military watches it.

That zone is where there has been increased Russian bomber exercises, about 20 in the past two years. When Russian bombers enter that expanded area, sometimes called the outer air-defense identification zone by the military, U.S. or Canadian fighter jets are dispatched to check them, Herritage said.

The “outer air-defense identification zone”? What is that? I’d never heard of it so I looked it up. Wikipedia has an article on the ADIZ, and it doesn’t mention an “outer ADIZ.” Ah, but they have a second article. It turns out there are actually two zones with that name: one surrounds the United States and Canada, and the other, created after 9/11, surrounds Washington DC. The latter one turns out to have an outer area called the outer air-defense identification zone. In fact, if you google the term, you find three sorts of pages: (1) pages that don’t actually use the term, (2) pages referring to the zone around Washington DC, and (3) pages that refer to this very AP article.

So the outer ADIZ is around Washington, thousands of miles away from Alaska, and I feel very safe in assuming that Russia has not been conducting bomber exercises there!

To summarize, someone is confused, but it’s the AP, not Sarah Palin. Russian bombers are indeed intruding into the Alaska ADIZ, exactly as Palin says, despite the AP’s denial. On the other hand, the “outer ADIZ,” into which the AP says Russia is intruding, is thousands of miles away and has nothing at all to do with it.

POSTSCRIPT: Can you imagine the ridicule if Palin, rather than the AP, had inadvertently suggested that Russia was running bomber exercises around Washington DC?

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