Two Soviet warships deliberately bumped two U.S. Navy ships Friday in Soviet-claimed waters in the Black Sea, Pentagon officials said.
A Defense Department official said the U.S. government views the incident with “considerable concern,” and the State Department filed an official protest with the Soviet Union over the incident.
The American warships, a destroyer and a cruiser loaded with advanced electronic-warfare gear, were traveling less than 10 miles off the Crimean coast to gather intelligence and to challenge the Soviet claim of a 12-mile territorial water limit, U.S. officials said. The United States recognizes only a 3-mile international limit on territorial waters and airspace.
As the U.S. ships entered the waters in question, a Soviet naval captain warned them that they were violating Soviet territory and that he was authorized to “strike” them, Navy Capt. Jerry Flynn told reporters Friday at a briefing in Washington. The U.S. ships did not respond and continued on their course, he said.
A few minutes later, as the American warships were 7 and 9 miles from the Soviet shoreline, two Soviet ships “shouldered” them aside, he said. The U.S. ships--both considerably larger than the Soviet vessels--sustained minimal damage, Flynn said, and no U.S. sailors were injured. The American warships spent less than two hours in Soviet-claimed waters.
In Moscow, the Soviet Defense Ministry issued a 9-line statement on the incident, accusing the U.S. vessels of penetrating up to 7 kilometers (about 4.3 miles) inside Soviet waters and maneuvering dangerously for more than two hours.
“The U.S. ships did not react to warning signals of Soviet border guard ships and dangerously maneuvered in Soviet territorial waters,” the statement said.
The Defense Ministry made no mention of any collision or bumping between Soviet and American vessels.
The same two ships--the destroyer Caron and the guided-missile cruiser Yorktown--carried out a similar intelligence mission off the Crimean coast two years ago, drawing a stiff Soviet protest that warned of “serious consequences” should the violation of Soviet territory be repeated. No physical interference with the U.S. ships was reported at that time.
Cmdr. Richard Schiff, a Navy lawyer, said Friday that the ships were in the Black Sea to “assert the right of innocent passage” through waters claimed by the Soviets. The United States maintains a worldwide “assertion of rights” program under which nations that claim a broader limit can be challenged, he said.
Schiff said the U.S. warships had “engaged in no activity prejudicial to Soviet security” and had done “nothing provocative at all.”
Near Major Naval Base
However, the incident occurred near the major Soviet naval base at Sevastopol in an area that U.S. officials know is considered sensitive by the Soviets. The carefully planned American operation was reviewed and approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government, including the National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. surface ships, submarines and aircraft routinely operate close to Soviet military installations to see what types of defensive activities they trigger. The Soviets do the same along U.S. borders and near American military bases abroad. Soviet spy ships frequently sail within 5 miles of U.S. shores, Pentagon officials said.
Yuri V. Dubinin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, was called to the State Department on Friday morning and given “a very brisk protest” by Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost.
“There is, in the United States government’s view, no justification for the Soviet action, which endangered lives and ships, and we therefore have protested the Soviet action in the strongest terms,” a State Department spokesman said.
When asked whether the Soviets had lodged their own protest about the location of the U.S. ships, a State Department official replied: “We are the offended party. . . . Ours are the ships that have the dents in them.”
The 9,600-ton Yorktown is one of America’s most advanced warships, equipped with the Aegis electronic warfare and surveillance system capable of identifying many targets and automatically selecting and firing weapons to neutralize them. The 566-foot-long ship also carries the nation’s most advanced radio and radar-jamming equipment.
The 7,800-ton Caron is a Spruance-class destroyer outfitted with special sensors and listening devices. The Caron, 563 feet long, has been used off the coasts of Nicaragua and El Salvador to eavesdrop on Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and the Salvadoran rebels.
Both ships are based in Norfolk, Va.
The Yorktown and the Caron entered the Black Sea through the the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits on Feb. 10 to conduct “routine operations” in international waters, the Pentagon said. U.S. warships visit the Black Sea two or three times a year, officials said.
Shortly before 11 a.m. local time, the two U.S. ships entered Soviet-claimed waters off the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula, heading east.
‘Authorized to Strike’
According to U.S. officials, a Soviet border-guard ship captain hailed them on an internationally recognized radio frequency and said: “Soviet ships have orders to prevent violation of territorial waters. I am authorized to strike your ship with one of ours.”
Flynn said the U.S. commanders did not reply. “Our response was to continue on course and speed, which is what any prudent mariner would do,” he said.
The Soviet ships, a 3,900-ton Krivak-class frigate and a 1,150-ton Mirka-class anti-submarine frigate, maneuvered between the American ships and the Soviet coast, and the U.S. vessels were, “as we would say in the Navy, shouldered out of the way,” Flynn said.
The Caron was hit first, then the Yorktown. “Both ships encountered very, very slight damage,” Flynn said. “Essentially, they were just grazed on the side. There were no personnel casualties reported, and the ships continued on their way to the east.”
During the operation, a Soviet Badger electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft was flying above the ships, Pentagon officials said. No U.S. aircraft were in the area, they said.
The bumping incident took place a day after the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov will meet March 16-17 in Bern, Switzerland, to discuss a range of military issues, including avoiding “dangerous military incidents.” The Black Sea incident is certain to come up in the talks, an official said.
Times staff writers Jim Mann in Washington and William J. Eaton in Moscow contributed to this story.