Russia Buzzes, Again, U.S. Navy Missile Destroyer*

By Dr. Stephen Bryen
Thursday, April 14th, 2016 @ 4:12PM

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Left: A Sukhoi Su-24fighter jet buzzed the USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), April 12, 2016. © US Navy/Reuters.

The Russians have done it again. Two years after first buzzing the U.S. destroyer USS Donald Cook, in the Black Sea, 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 Russians came as close as 30 feet (10 meters) from the ship on Monday and Tuesday. The Donald Cook had departed the Polish port of Gdynia around 3 PM 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.

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 10 April 2014 just around the time the Russians had annexed the Crimea, carrying out exercises with the Ukrainian navy. On the 12th of April Russia, SU-24’s buzzed the Donald Cook 12 times a manner of 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 an 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.

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, Czechia ( previously known as the Czech Republic) and elsewhere inside NATO; the Russians would have been checkmated because they could not overfly national territory.  Big mistake.

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 sides to reduce their profiles before things get out of hand.

* This commentary has been posted on National Security and Technology.

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