Elmendorf AFB, Alaska — On the outline map in the United States air defense center here, Siberia's Chukotskiy Peninsula leans over toward Alaska's west coast like the head of a curious bear.
Just to its north, an orange line on the tracking screen suddenly glows red. US Air Force specialists name it "Alpha 402" and identify the red line as the path of two flying objects.
Orders flashed from here and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., scramble two F-4E Phantom fighters from Galena Air Base in north-central Alaska.
"Alpha 402 intercepted at 30,000 feet," report the Phantom pilots, "and identified as two Badgers [Soviet Tupolev 16 bombers]. The Phantoms fly alongside the big Soviet planes, probably on a routine reconnaissance and ELINT (electronic-intelligence) mission, escorting them until they leave the early- warning zone off the Alaskan coast.
Such intercepts are "frequent," but have been less so since 1979, says Lt. Gen. Winfield W. Scott Jr., the senior US military officer in Alaska. General Scott wears two hats, as commander of the Alaskan Air Defense Command (ADCOM) and the Alaskan NORAD region.
From start to finish, intercepts of Soviet planes flying near the 12-mile limit extending from the Alaskan coast are tracked by 13 radar sites in Alaska's vast territory. Missile and space tracking sites, like those at Clear in central Alaska and Shemya Island in the Aleutians chain, would have been keeping a simultaneous 24-hour watch for Soviet missiles, whether fired in anger or only in tests.
Alaska's crucial oil fields and its still largely untapped natural gas and mineral reserves, together with its 33,000-mile coastline and immense size (556, 000 square miles, twice that of Texas), make defending it against attack a formidable problem.
Astride the polar and great-circle routes, and a major refueling point for US-Japan, Japan-US, and US-Europe airline flights, Alaska affords a key location to respond to crises in both Korea and the NATO countries.
Seoul, Korea, is almost 2,300 miles closer to Elmendorf than to Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. Eielson AFB, near Fairbanks (north of here), is more than 800 miles nearer to Oslo, Norway, than is Tinker AFB. (It is even closer than that to Norway's strategic North Cape and Svalbard Island areas, over which there are Norwegian-Soviet disputes.)
Quick reinforcement of the US forces in Korea also requires fewer sorties by tanker planes based here and at Pacific points like Honolulu and Guam, and at lower cost. Dollars spent in Alaska do not drain US payments balances or involve losses through international currency fluctuations.
With the Soviet and US land masses only 44 nautical miles apart at the Bering Strait (the USSR's Big Diomede Island, and the US island of Little Diomede are separated by only two miles), Soviet bomber routes into North America cross Alaska's northern borders and southern islands. This gives Alaska's early warning capability extra importance. There is a formal buffer zone near the Soviet frontiers, where Elmendorf strictly controls US military flights to prevent them straying into Soviet airspace.
Soviet aircraft, equipped to reconnoiter ice conditions and collect electronic intelligence in the Bering Strait and Beaufort Sea, often stray in or near Alaskan airspace. In 1974 a Soviet aircraft ran out of fuel and landed on St. Lawrence Island, near the 1867 boundary formed when Russia sold Alaska to the US.
"We gave him fuel and sent him safely on his way," recalls General Scott.
Since 1977, the US Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard in Alaska have had the additional job of helping to enforce the restrictions against foreign fishermen -- mainly Japanese and Soviets in these waters -- operating within the 200-mile zone.
To upgrade Alaska's air defenses, improve morale, and cut costs, the Air Force has set about reducing the number of men who have to serve at remote Alaskan radar sites. Some on mountaintops and others on the coast are supplied only once a year by barges, sometimes accompanied by icebreakers, in "operation cool barge."
Support functions at the sites now are handled by civilians under contract. This has cut hardship military tours by about 1,000. Some mountaintop radar antennas will be unattended most of the year.
"It's tough serving here," says Lt. Col. Floyd McKay, base public affairs officer. "Our cost-of-living allowance in Alaska was cut by 20 percent a few months ago, just when it needed to be raised for inflation. Many lower-grade enlisted men can't make it without food stamps." (Alaskan prices are estimated to average 25 percent higher than those in the "lower 48" states.)
Despite the hardships, "the rate of attrition among the fighter personnel is much lower than anywhere else," says Colonel McKay. "Up here, a pilot feels the excitement and importance of what he's doing -- and he tends to forget the money on the bottom line."