- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

U.S. military officials are assessing whether Moscow is returning to its Cold War tactics when it flexed its muscle this weekend by sending Russian bombers to fly at low altitudes over U.S. ships.

Gen. James Cartwright, who testified before the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, said the U.S. military is trying to gauge how it will respond to the incident and what the Russians intended to accomplish.

“Now what we’re concerned about is, what are the indications of this return to a Cold War mind-set,” Gen. Cartwright said. “What are the implications of that activity, and how do we best address that? It is free and international airspace, and we’re just trying to now go back and look what message was intended by this overflight.”

U.S. forces detected two Russian Tu-95 Bear aircraft on Saturday morning, flying south of Japan in the vicinity of and over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which was on a scheduled deployment to fill in for the USS Kitty Hawk as it undergoes routine maintenance in Yokosuka, Japan. American fighter jets were scrambled to intercept and escort away the Russian bombers.

It is standard operating procedure for U.S. planes to escort aircraft flying in the vicinity of Navy ships, one Pentagon official said.

The last time a Russian bomber flew over a U.S. aircraft carrier was in July 2004, when a bomber flew over the Kitty Hawk in the East Sea/Sea of Japan, a Pentagon official said.

Since July, however, there have been at least eight instances where Russian aircraft have been intercepted near U.S. airspace. U.S. aircraft deployed from Elmendorf Air Force Base off the coast of Alaska handled the eight documented interceptions, according to a U.S. official familiar with the situation.

The latest incident was on Sept. 5, when six U.S. F-15 fighters from the base intercepted six Russian bombers on the northwest coast of Alaska.

“I believe they are testing U.S. strategic response as they have done in the past,” the source said.

Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, played down the incident, telling reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that he “did not consider it to be provocative.”

“So I think what we are seeing is a Russian military or Russian navy that is emerging, particularly in the case of the navy desiring to emerge as a global navy,” the admiral said.

Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the “Navy responded appropriately by scrambling fighters to intercept the aircraft and escort them away from the carrier.”

Mr. Hunter added that “the Russian flyovers represent a pushback from the Russians to U.S. missile-defense cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic.”

U.S. proposals to retain missile-defense systems in the former Soviet bloc have raised tensions between the two superpowers. Russia has also been vocal in expressing disappointment that its former allies are showing growing support for a stronger NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that Moscow could target its nuclear missiles on Ukraine if the former Soviet republic joins NATO.

Last August, Mr. Putin told reporters that Moscow was resuming its Soviet-era practice of sending its bomber aircraft on long-range flights, noting that Russia had, in 1992, unilaterally stopped flights by strategic aircraft to “distant military-patrol areas.”

“Unfortunately, our example was not followed by everyone,” Mr. Putin said, referring to the U.S.

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