WASHINGTON — A Russian bomber made a low-altitude pass over a U.S. carrier battle group that was conducting exercises in international waters near Japan last weekend, an incident reminiscent of the Cold War, U.S. military officials said Tuesday.
Pentagon officials said that the Tupolev 95 bomber — the world's only propeller-driven strategic bomber — flew within 2,000 feet of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. The Navy scrambled four F-18 fighters to escort the Russian aircraft away.
Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of Naval Operations, said he didn't consider the incident "provocative," noting that the bomber made no effort to vary its path as it approached the carrier.
But he acknowledged that even during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union regularly attempted to rattle each other with such passes, Russian aircraft rarely flew so close to American warships.
Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Pentagon was weighing "the implications of this return to a Cold War mind-set."
Roughead said the Russians were signaling that their once-inert military "is emerging" as a global force.
Over the weekend, Japan also scrambled fighter jets and accused Russia of violating its airspace around the Izu island chain, several hundred miles south of Tokyo.
There have been numerous incidents of Russian planes testing Japanese air defenses, but Russia's willingness to disrupt a U.S. training exercise was surprising, officials said.
Bush administration and Russian officials have been at odds over a number of issues in recent months, including Russia's sales of nuclear technology to Iran and U.S. plans to deploy a missile shield in Eastern Europe. Angered by the missile-shield plans, Russia announced last year that it would pull out of a treaty that long has governed the size and deployment of conventional forces in Europe.
Russia has been gradually rebuilding its military posture under President Vladimir Putin, who's expected to serve as prime minister when his handpicked successor takes office next month. With global oil and natural-gas prices at or near all-time highs, the Russian government has huge budget surpluses to spend on new military technology.
After a trip to Russia last fall, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he'd interpreted Putin's message to the United States as: "We are back."
"I think President Putin is coming back and saying, 'You know you have to take us into account on all these things.' In essence: 'We are back. We've got a lot of money. And we are a key player,' " Gates said then.
The Pentagon's first confirmation of the incident came at the end of a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday on Pentagon funding requests. As the committee prepared to adjourn, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked whether news reports that a Russian bomber had buzzed the Nimitz on Saturday were true.
Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that they were.
"It's rather incredible what's happening," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who urged his colleagues to read recent classified CIA reports that document the changes in a nation that was the main rival of U.S. economic and foreign policy interests for much of the last century.
"They are particularly modern in what they are building," he said of Russia's military-spending and building spree.