PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. —The U.S. and Russia, which have more bluster than cooperation in their history, will have their jet fighters take turns pursuing a civilian plane across the Pacific next week in a first-of-its-kind exercise to test their response to a potential international hijacking.
Aircraft and officers from Russia and the North American Aerospace Defense Command will track the civilian plane, an executive-style jet that will play the role of a hijacked civilian airliner.
The goal is to test how well the two forces can hand off responsibility for the "hijacked" plane. The three-day exercise is scheduled to start Sunday in Alaska.
Also participating in operation Vigilant Eagle are both countries' civil air traffic control agencies.
Officials on both sides of the trust-building military exercise chose a mutual, modern-day interest — the fight against terrorism — to create an incident that could entangle the two countries.
"We try to anticipate any potential areas in which it might be necessary for us to launch fighter jets," said Maj. Michael Humphreys, a NORAD spokesman. A terrorist hijacking, he said, "is every bit as probable as any other" scenario.
It's unlikely that Vigilant Eagle was devised to deal with a specific threat, said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, which tracks military and homeland security news.
The purpose is more likely a combination of confidence-building and rooting out any communication and jurisdictional problems before they crop up in a real emergency, he said.
This is the first U.S.-Russia exercise involving NORAD, a U.S.-Canadian command that patrols the skies over North America, Humphreys said. NORAD's headquarters are at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado.
Vigilant Eagle calls for NORAD F-22s flown by U.S. pilots to follow the "hijacked" plane west across the Pacific until it gets closer to Russian airspace, where Russian MiG-31s take over. On the return trip east, the process will be reversed.
Airborne warning and surveillance aircraft from each country will also take part.