Russian fighter jets buzzed a U.S. aircraft carrier three times in recent weeks then rubbed it in by sending close-up photographs directly to the ship by e-mail, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
But the Navy insisted that three incidents on Oct. 12 and 17 and again Nov. 9, in which Su-22 and Su-27 jets flew near the Kitty Hawk in the South China Sea, never presented any surprise or danger to the ship.
"We don't think there is much reason to suspect that the Russian government has any hostile intent towards U.S. Navy ships operating in international waters. Therefore we don't intend to react as if we did," said Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli, the Navy's top spokesman.
But Pietropaoli and Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon revealed that, after the Oct. 18 incident in which two jets roared unescorted several hundred feet (metres) over the ship, the Kitty Hawk received several e-mailed black and white photographs from the Russian base or squadron.
"They showed the deck of the ship while it was refueling," Pietropaoli told reporters in response to questions. He declined to make the photos available.
But the admiral and Bacon stressed that Navy radar tracked the fighters from their bases for half an hour or more as they approached the ship on training flights and knew that they were coming in all three incidents.
Such incidents are rare these days, but occurred hundreds of times during the Cold War as U.S. and Soviet forces tested each other.
The Russian military bragged to news media in Moscow last month that they had startled the Kitty Hawk by breaking through the ship's defenses, but Bacon said shortly afterwards the planes never came close.
On Thursday, he corrected his earlier statements,"On Oct. 17, they were actually quite close, and I have to admit that I misspoke about this last time based on misinformation," Bacon said. "They did fly very close to the carrier - within several hundred feet."
In that incident, the carrier was moving slowly during refueling at sea and did not scramble fighters to intercept the approaching jets, which flew unescorted over the ship.
Bacon said on Thursday that no one had been punished in connection with the incident, but that the Kitty Hawk had made some changes in its defensive posture as a result.
The Pentagon and the Russian military both announced last week that the Russians had recently deployed several long-range "Bear" bombers at bases on the eastern tip of Russia for training exercises.
Bacon told reporters the Pentagon suspected the bombers would soon fly routine training missions over the Barents Sea toward Alaska to test the alert level of U.S. air defenses as they did dozens of times during the Cold War.
On Thursday, he said no such moves had been made yet.