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Russia resumes nuke bomber sorties

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  • Russian strategic bombers resume Cold War-style long-haul missions
  • Russian, U.S. crews "exchanged smiles" as bomber flew over U.S. Pacific base
  • Bombers enable Russia to launch nuke strike even if ground arsenals wiped out
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MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) -- Russia's strategic bombers have resumed the Soviet Union's Cold War practice of flying long-haul missions to areas patrolled by NATO and the United States, generals said on Thursday.

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A Russian Tu-95 Bear bomber, the type of plane used on long-range sorties into areas patrolled by NATO.

A Russian bomber flew over a U.S. military base on the Pacific island of Guam on Wednesday and "exchanged smiles" with U.S. pilots who had scrambled to track it, said Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov, head of long-range aviation in the Russian air force.

"It has always been the tradition of our long-range aviation to fly far into the ocean, to meet [U.S.] aircraft carriers and greet [U.S. pilots] visually," Androsov told a news conference.

"Yesterday we revived this tradition, and two of our young crews paid a visit to the area of the [U.S. Pacific Naval Activities] base of Guam," he said.

President Vladimir Putin has sought to make Russia more assertive in the world.

Putin has boosted defense spending and sought to raise morale in the armed forces, which were starved of funding in the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

Androsov said the sortie by the two turboprop Tu-95MS bombers, from a base near Blagoveshchensk in the Far East, had lasted for 13 hours. The Tu-95, codenamed "Bear" by NATO, is Russia's Cold War icon and may stay in service until 2040.

"I think the result was good. We met our colleagues -- fighter jet pilots from [U.S.] aircraft carriers. We exchanged smiles and returned home," Androsov said.

U.S. officials told CNN, however, that the two bombers came no closer than 100 miles to any U.S. aircraft and no closer than 300 miles to the Navy ships, and that there was no visual contact.

Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow office director of the Washington-based World Security Institute, said he saw nothing extraordinary in Moscow sending its bombers around the globe.

"This practice as such never stopped, it was only scaled down because there was less cash available for that," he said. "It doesn't cost much to flex your muscles ... You can burn fuel flying over your own land or you can do it flying somewhere like Guam, in which case political dividends will be higher."

The bombers give Russia the capability of launching a devastating nuclear strike even if the nuclear arsenals on its own territory are wiped out.

During the Cold War, they played elaborate airborne games of cat-and-mouse with Western air forces.

Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov, air force chief of staff, said the West would have to come to terms with Russia asserting its geopolitical presence around the globe.

"But I don't see anything unusual, this is business as usual ... like it is normal for the U.S. to fly from its continent to Guam or, say, the island of [Diego]Garcia," Khvorov said, referring to a remote Indian Ocean atoll used as a military base by the U.S.

On Wednesday,young pilots of strategic bombers passed a series of tests, including missile launches. "We fired eight cruise missiles, and all hit bull's eye," Khvorov said.

He said one crew had taken off from Engels in southwestern Russia, hit a target in the north and then flown thousands of kilometers before finally landing in the Far East.

Engels is home to Russia's supersonic Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers, in service since 1987 and codenamed "Blackjack" by NATO while called "White Swan" by Russian pilots.

The generals said under Putin long-range aviation was no longer hindered by a lack of fuel, the aircraft enjoyed better maintenance and the crews much higher wages -- not the least because the Kremlin leader once made a five-hour sortie as part of a "White Swan" crew.

"The president learned about the pilots' work the hard way," Khvorov said. "This one flight yielded an awful lot." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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