by Stephen Bryen*
Pairs of Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers buzzed the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, about 70 km (43.5 miles) from Russia’s naval base at Kaliningrad, the home of the Russian Baltic fleet. The Donald Cook had departed the Polish port of Gdynia around 3PM on Monday the 11th of April intending to carry out exercises with Polish naval helicopters. A few hours later the first SU-24’s buzzed the Donald Cook, close enough to the water to create a wake and endangering the ship and the crew.
(above) USS Donald Cook and SU-24
From the US angle, the Russians were simulating an attack on the Donald Cook with 20 close flybys, some of them only a few feet above sea level (“on the deck”) -a well known tactic to make it hard for radar to lock onto the attacking planes and to reduce response time. The SU-24’s were unarmed, as was a KA-27 helicopter that also made seven passes around the Cook. The US immediately complained that the simulated attacks were unprofessional and dangerous. For their part, the Russians rejected the US complaint. Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told the Russian Tass newspaper that the Russians acted within international rules.
This is not the first time that the USS Donald Cook has been involved in incidents with the Russians. The Donald Cook entered the Black Sea on 9 April, 2014 just around the time the Russians had annexed the Crimea, and was carrying out exercises with the Ukrainian navy. On the 12th of April Russia SU-24’s buzzed the Donald Cook in a manner like the simulated attacks on the 11th and 12th of April.
Stories have circulated (but have never been confirmed) that the SU-24’s that operated against the Cook in 2014 carried a special radar jamming system which, according to the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, contained a Russian electronic warfare device called Khibiny. The word Khibiny is Russian for “electronic countermeasure system” produced by the Kaluga Research Institute of Radio Engineering. The system has been recently tried out in Syria mounted on the wingtips of a SU-34. According to the manufacturer, it has never been mounted on the SU-24, and there is nothing in the photos made by the US Navy of these incidents that show the Khibiny on board.
(above ) Su-34 with ECM modules “Khibiny” on the wing tips
Another incident in May 2015 Russian Su-24s repeated similar maneuvers over the USS Ross, another destroyer sailing in the Black Sea. The Ross had just left port in Romania.
The Ross and the Donald Cook are powerful ships equipped with cruise missiles and the SM-3 anti-ballistic missile system as well as Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Clearly the US has been using these ships to project power in eastern Europe, in part to compensate for an Obama administration decision to abandon placing US ballistic missiles in Poland and the ABM radar for the system in the Czech Republic, ostensibly to defend against “Iranian” missiles. From Russia’s point of view, placing missile defenses in eastern Europe facing Russia was provocative.
(above) SHIP-BORNE BALLISTIC MISSILE DEFENSE TEST-FIRING ABOARD THE USS HOPPER (DDG 70) NEAR HAWAII. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
The original idea for putting US missile defenses in eastern Europe came from President Bush in 2001 before the 9/11 attacks and before Iran’s missile and nuclear program were understood. The subsequent outcry from the Russians gained momentum over the ensuing years as development of the system continued. But after 13 failed tests, Obama abandoned the program but replaced it with an AEGIS-based missile defense system on seaborne platforms. The USS Donald Cook is an Arleigh Burke guided missile cruiser which is equipped with an ABM radar system and the latest SM-3 missile interceptors. In a similar fashion the USS Ross, also an Arleigh Burke guided missile cruiser, was updated with the same ABM system.
Based on the weapons on board these platforms, and their presence near critical Russian ports that include Kaliningrad, the headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet, and Crimea’s Sevastopol port, the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, it is clear that the Russians are trying to make clear their extreme displeasure over the US fleet presence so close to such sensitive Russian facilities.
It is clear that had Obama stuck with the original Bush idea of land based ballistic missile defense in Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere inside NATO, the Russians would have been checkmated because they could not overfly national territory. Big mistake. Nor could they claim the systems were too close to any Russian base.
Even so, the US can have in place sea borne ballistic missile defenses to protect NATO in the Baltic area without being adjacent to sensitive Russian ports and defense installations. One wonders if the Russians have, at least for now, checkmated the US for going too far, unnecessarily so. It would make sense both both sides to reduce their profiles before things get out of hand.
*Dr. Stephen Bryen is the author of Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers).