- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

The carrier USS Kitty Hawk took 40 minutes to launch its first plane after its commander ordered a response to approaching Russian warplanes that buzzed directly over the carrier's conning tower, Navy sources say.

Their account contradicts an official version of the Oct. 17 incident in the Sea of Japan and a subsequent Russian flyover while the Kitty Hawk's crew underwent training in international waters near Russia.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon on Nov. 30 quoted the Navy as telling him, "In both cases, the planes were acquired by the battle group's radar at a considerable distance, and in both cases, interceptors were put into the air and the planes maintained a suitable distance away from the Kitty Hawk."

But two Navy sources say that in the first incident, the Russian planes, an Su-27 Flanker and Su-24 Fencer, flew directly over the Kitty Hawk's tower. One source said they swooped to 200 feet; another Navy official said "several hundred feet."

From the moment the commander ordered planes launched, it took 40 minutes to scramble aircraft.

The first to launch was an EA-6B Prowler, an electronic warfare jet unsuitable for intercepting, one Navy source said. Later, F-18s went airborne to cut off the two Russian planes. A Navy official disputed this, saying he was told that F-18 Hornets were the first to launch.

A retired Navy captain, who flew jets over the Sea of Japan, said the launch or "alert" time should have been 15 minutes in a strategic area bordered by North Korea, Russia and Japan.

"They didn't have the right alert status for where they were," the retired officer said. "It should have been a lot shorter alert time."

Kitty Hawk commanders were so unnerved by the aerial penetration they rotated squadrons on 24-hour alert and had planes routinely meet or intercept various aircraft.

The Russians were so proud of the maneuver they e-mailed the Kitty Hawk pictures the planes captured while passing over the ship and its warplanes. A Navy official confirmed, "Yes, there were e-mails with pictures sent to the ship."

Mr. Bacon said Nov. 30 that, "I think in the first incident there may have been a slight delay in the dispatch of interceptors because the Kitty Hawk … was in the process of refueling and therefore was not going fast enough at the moment of refueling to launch planes."

"In neither case," he added, "did the Navy feel that its operations had been compromised in any way… . I think it's the type of event that allows the U.S. Navy to show how prepared it is to respond and how quick it is to respond."

The Navy was criticized by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee for releasing inaccurate information about events leading up to the Oct. 12 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole.

The Navy first said the destroyer was attacked by a boat whose occupants posed as harbor workers and helped the ship moor to an in-harbor refueling island.

After briefing that version on Capitol Hill, the Navy changed the chronology. It said that, in fact, the Cole was already tied up and was in the process of refueling when the terrorists approached.

The change is significant because the revised time line raises questions about what steps the Cole's commanding officer took to protect the ship while it was tied up and taking on fuel. Navy spokesmen said initial reports from the ship were inaccurate.

Capt. Kevin Wensing, a Pacific Fleet spokesman, said yesterday the Kitty Hawk battle group tracked the two planes by radar and "took appropriate action."

"In each case, the carrier and its escorts were aware of the Russian aircraft presence and tracked them throughout and appropriate actions were taken," Capt. Wensing said. "While these types of overflights were commonly conducted by Soviet aircraft from the 1960s to the 1980s, the frequency has diminished during the past 10 years as our relations and level of cooperation have improved.

"The Navy utilizes a wide array of information and intelligence sources to provide the necessary data to classify any potential threats and to take appropriate actions," he said.

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