Sat, Aug 11, 2007 - Page 7 News List

US rebuts Russian air force claims

NOT EVEN CLOSE US jets were scrambled to intercept Russian bombers trying to sneak a peek at US military exercises, harking back to the days of the Cold War

AP , PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII

The US Pacific Fleet commander said Russian bombers never got within 500km of Guam this week and did not fly over the US territory as a Russian air force general claimed.

Navy Admiral Robert Willard disputed that US fighters intercepted the bombers. The admiral said the Russian aircraft never got close enough to the Pacific island or the massive US military exercises being held nearby, to warrant such action.

"US planes went to an orbit point in preparation for an intercept that never occurred because the Bears didn't get close enough," Willard said in an interview on Thursday using a slang term for the Russian planes.

Earlier, a Russian air force general said a pair of Tu-95 bombers reached Guam as part of an exercise intended to demonstrate the Kremlin's resurgent military power.

The general said the bomber's crews smiled at the pilots of the US fighter jets scrambled to intercept them.

The US military is currently holding large-scale war games in waters and air space near Guam. The "Valiant Shield" drills are among the largest US military exercises held anywhere in the world, involving over 22,000 troops, more than 30 ships and some 275 planes.

Willard, a former Navy fighter pilot and aircraft carrier commander, said Russian air forces have not tried to push their way in to watch US carrier training much recently. But he said it was something that happened often in the days of the Soviet Union.

"We're very accustomed to this and it wasn't a particular surprise to us," Willard said. "It was standard operating procedure for those of us that have that experience."

In Soviet days, US fighter jets would fly out to "escort" the planes, he said. The US and Russia still have procedures they follow in such circumstances to ensure the safety of their forces, he said.

The Russian planes flew to the Pacific as part of its own exercise that saw strategic bombers flying 40 sorties and launching eight cruise missiles, said Major General Pavel Androsov, who commands Russia's long-range bomber force.

During the Cold War, Soviet bombers routinely flew far over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The maneuvers came to a halt after the post-Soviet economic meltdown, but booming oil prices have boosted Russia's military budget.

The Kremlin has also taken an increasingly assertive posture on the international stage amid increasingly chilly relations with the US and NATO.

Willard said the bombers did not affect the Valiant Shield exercises, aside from the brief diversion of the standby jets.

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