Pentagon Admits Russian Flyby

ByABC News

Dec. 7, 2000 -- At least two Russian fighter jets buzzed a U.S. aircraft carrier three times in recent weeks then rubbed it in by sending close-up photographs directly to the ship via e-mail, the Pentagon said today.

But the Navy insisted that in all three incidents on Oct. 12 and 17 and again Nov. 9, in which Su-24 and Su-27 jets flew near the USS Kitty Hawk in the Sea of Japan, they had the fighters on radar from the moment they launched and the jets never presented any surprise or threat.

“We don’t think there is much reason to suspect that the Russian government has any hostile intent toward U.S. Navy ships operating in international waters. Therefore we don’t intend to react as if we did,” said Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli, the Navy’s top spokesman.

No Pictures Even

The Clinton administration did not lodge an official complaint with Moscow.

But Pietropaoli and Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon revealed that about two weeks after the Oct. 17 incident in which two jets roared unescorted less than 1,000 feet over the ship, the Russian air force squadron e-mailed three black and white photos to the ship with a brief written message in Russian.

Pietropaoli balked at revealing what it said. He also declined to make the photos available, only telling reporters that “they showed the deck of the ship while it was refueling.”

But ABCNEWS has learned the pictures show in sequence the Russians getting closer and closer to the point of the last picture where there are a number of U.S. personnel on deck, looking up and an F/A-18 ready to launch.

An EA-6B had already launched to escort the Russians away.

Shrugging it Off

Both Bacon and Pietropaoli took pains to insist the incident had no military importance.

“It’s a curiosity more than anything,” Pietropaoli said. “We didn’t regard it as any big deal.”

Such incidents are rare these days, but occurred hundreds of times during the Cold War as U.S. and Soviet forces tested each other.

“This is very similar to events that happened routinely during the Cold War, but have not happened very often, if at all, since,” Bacon said, adding that U.S. planes generally do not buzz Russian ships.

Acknowledging Russian Bragging

The Russian military bragged to news media in Moscow last month that they had startled the Kitty Hawk by breaking through the ship’s defenses, but a week ago, Bacon told reporters the Russian planes stayed a “suitable distance away” from the Kitty Hawk.

Today, he changed his earlier statements,

“On Oct. 17, they were actually quite close, and I have to admit that I misspoke about this last time based on misinformation,” Bacon said. “They did fly very close to thecarrier — within several hundred feet.”

In that incident, the carrier was moving slowly during refueling at sea and did not scramble fighters to intercept the approaching jets, which flew unescorted over the ship.

Bacon said no one had been punished in connection with the incident, but that the Kitty Hawk’s captain afterward took steps to increase the ship’s “alert posture.”

“They have changed their procedures to deal with flyovers like this,” Bacon said. “I can’t get into details of how they’ve changed them.” He said the Kitty Hawk would be able to respond more quickly now.

Reassuring Statements

Pietropaoli said the Navy did not regard the incident as serious because there is no reason to think Russia would attack and because ships in the Kitty Hawk battle group have means of protection other than interceptor aircraft.

He was not more specific, but he appeared to refer to radar and anti-aircraft weapons.

Bacon said the subject was not raised when Defense Secretary William Cohen met his Russian counterpart, Igor Sergeyev, in Brussels, Belgium, earlier this week.

They did, however, discuss the Kursk submarine disaster, and Bacon said Cohen repeated that there was no American submarine near the Kursk when it exploded under the Barents Sea on Aug. 12, killing all 118 crewmen aboard.

The Russians have voiced suspicion that the explosion was caused by a collision with a foreign submarine.

The Kitty Hawk is based at Yokosuka, Japan.

ABCNEWS’s Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events