Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
A pair of Russian warplanes that made at least three high-speed
passes over a U.S. aircraft carrier stationed in the Sea of Japan in
October constituted a much more serious threat than the Pentagon has
admitted and were easily in a position to destroy the ship if the planes
had had hostile intentions, say Navy personnel.
According to reports, a Russian air force Su-24 “Fencer” accompanied
by an Su-27 “Flanker” made unopposed passes over the
USS Kitty Hawk
(CV-63) on Oct. 9, as the carrier was being refueled.
Russian fighters and reconnaissance planes made a second attempt to get close to the carrier on Nov. 9 — a repeat performance for which the Pentagon, as well as eyewitnesses aboard ship, said the carrier was prepared. But it was the first incident in October that caused alarm.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said during a regularly scheduled press briefing Nov. 30 that the Russian fighters were detected on radar well in advance of their high-speed passes. Naval officers aboard ship who spoke of the incident on the condition of anonymity agreed.
However, at the time the carrier’s combat information center alerted the ship’s commander, Capt. Allen G. Myers, that the Russian fighters were inbound, none of the carrier’s fighters were airborne. The ship carries 85 aircraft, according to Navy figures, and has a crew of over 5,500.
Witnesses said Myers immediately ordered the launch of alert fighters, but the ship’s scheduled fighter squadron was on “Alert-30″ status — a minimum launch time of 30 minutes where pilots are “in the ready room” but are not sitting in cockpits waiting to be launched.
Bacon told reporters only that there “may have been a slight delay” in getting the interceptors in the air, explaining that because the Kitty Hawk was taking on fuel, it was not sailing fast enough to launch its aircraft.
One naval officer onboard the ship said, “40 minutes after the CO [commanding officer] called away the alerts,” the Russian planes “made a 500-knot, 200-foot pass directly over the tower” of the carrier.
EA-6B Prowler lands on the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk.
Before the Kitty Hawk could get a single plane airborne, the Russian fighters made two more passes. Worse, witnesses said, the first plane off the deck was an EA-6B Prowler — a plane used primarily for electronic jamming of an enemy’s radar and air defenses, not a fighter capable of intercepting another warplane.
The EA-6B “ended up in a one-versus-one with a Flanker just in front of the ship,” one witness said. “The Flanker was all over his a–. He was screaming for help when finally a [F/A-18] Hornet from our sister squadron got off the deck and made the intercept. It was too late.”
Naval personnel noted that “the entire crew watched overhead as the Russians made a mockery of our feeble attempt of intercepting them.”
The Clinton administration downplayed the incident.
“In neither case did the [Navy] feel that any protest was warranted, and, therefore, no protest was made to the Russians,” Bacon said last month.
Moscow, however, considers the incident much more serious, if not a “victory” of sorts, considering Russian aircrews have not overflown a U.S. carrier in three decades.
The mission, which according to Russian military officials who spoke with the BBC was billed as a “top-secret intelligence operation,” was specifically designed to test U.S. carrier group defenses.
“To determine [the Kitty Hawk battle group's] complement, their order of forming up, their strength and type of weapons, including the aircraft onboard a carrier, the actions of the duty personnel, any temporary features,” were all elements Russian military planners were attempting to gauge, according to Yuriy Ulanov, Russian chief of intelligence for the Far East air force and air defense group, who spoke to the British news agency.
“We went down as low as possible and from the direction of the Japanese coast — without crossing the Japanese border, of course,” said Aleksandr Renev, the reconnaissance mission’s squadron commander. “We went over the aircraft carrier. It looked as if they were not expecting us.”
Indeed, according to one witness aboard the Kitty Hawk, U.S. personnel on deck likely were surprised.
“Four days [after the flyovers], the Russian intelligence agency e-mailed the CO of the Kitty Hawk and enclosed pictures they had taken of dudes scrambling around the flight deck, trying to get airborne,” the witness explained.
Yesterday, Jon Yoshishige, media director for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, downplayed the incident, telling WorldNetDaily it was likely the Russian press was “exaggerating” it for public-relations purposes.
“Reports by some Russian media misrepresent and exaggerate a meeting when several Russian aircraft flew out to collect reconnaissance photographs of USS Kitty Hawk several weeks ago,” Yoshishige said in response to an e-mail inquiry about the incident.
“The reports imply that USS Kitty Hawk was unaware or unprepared when in fact the approaching aircraft had been detected, tracked and identified for an extended period of time and then escorted by U.S. aircraft,” he said. “It is not uncommon for aircraft from other nations to occasionally approach our ships at sea to conduct routine surveillance. In each of these cases, the aircraft were detected, identified, tracked and escorted if appropriate.
“Our aircraft carriers and ships maintain a high situational awareness of the threats in the air, on and under the sea,” Yoshishige said.
His assessment was echoed by Myers when the carrier returned to his home port in Yokosuka, Japan, Nov. 20, after 55 days at sea.
“We had a superb deployment,” Myers was quoted as saying by the ship’s public affairs department. “We’ve worked very hard at perfecting our core competency — conducting carrier operations at sea — and made great strides in the effort to preserve Hawk for years to come. We are, and will remain, ready for any mission we may be called on to execute.”
The BBC, however, said that it was evident by the photographs taken by the Russian jets that there was “panic aboard” when the planes made their over-flights.
“The Kitty Hawk was caught unawares while taking on fuel from a tanker, and the pilots saw the aircraft carrier start to jettison the fuel line to speed up the ship,” most likely to launch its interceptor aircraft.
The BBC report also substantiates what witnesses aboard the carrier said regarding the amount of time it took to finally launch the first aircraft.
“It took the Americans some five minutes” after the first flyover “to scramble fighter-interceptors,” the BBC said. “The Russian intelligence officers managed to make two passes over the deck of the aircraft carrier and to photograph the Kitty Hawk.”
Said Yoshishige, “The Navy uses a wide array of information/intelligence sources to provide the necessary data to determine intentions and classify any potential threats and takes the appropriate actions to address them.”
“We regard the Cold War as being over,” Bacon said in November. “And although we clearly monitor [Russian] ships and airplanes … we keep an eye on what the Russians are up to.
“But we are well-trained, and we’re ready to deal with these episodes,” Bacon added.
Another recent incident suggests that while the Cold War may not be officially “on” again, clearly Moscow is taking a more aggressive stance against the U.S.
In late November, Russia dispatched five strategic bombers to bases in the Far East — opposite Alaska and near Japan — “in apparent preparation for training runs to probe U.S. air defenses around Alaska,” Agence France-Presse reported Nov. 30.
Pentagon officials may have disclosed the Russian air force movements to let Moscow know the U.S. was still capable of monitoring Russian military activity and was actively doing so.
In response to the deployment of the bombers — propeller-driven Tu-95 “Bear” aircraft capable of delivering standard bomb loads or conventional and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles — the Pentagon and Canadian defense ministry officials dispatched F-15 and CF-18 fighters to forward bases in Alaska.
The Pentagon said a pair of Tu-95′s was sent to a base at Anadyr on the Bering Sea, while three others were dispatched to a base at Tiksi, on the Laptev Sea in eastern Siberia.
Officials said bombers from those bases flew missions to test U.S. air defenses in March and in September 1999 as well.