If there’s big news in the arcane world of naval operations, it might be that the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, has supposedly departed the Mediterranean to head for home.
Then again, it might not. The Aviationist reports that there are still Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) effective in the Western Med that indicate an area where Kuznetsov plans to conduct flight operations. The NOTAMs are in effect through 26 April – although Russian media reported on 18 April that Kuznetsov had completed her mission in the Med and was heading home. It’s not clear why the Russians would have reported the carrier’s movements deceptively. (NATO navies know where Kuznetsov has been throughout this period.) It could be that they just changed their minds.
There are several things to say about Kuznetsov’s presence, and you can decide for yourselves what the import of the move is. For one thing, Russia’s ability to keep the carrier deployed forward is bounded by the limitations of Russia’s basing and support arrangements in the Med. Kuznetsov has been deployed since December, and her deployments since she began going to the Med again, in 2008, have typically been of about the same duration. They are much shorter, in other words, than the deployments of U.S. aircraft carriers. (USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75), for example, was deployed from July 2013 until this past Friday, 18 April.) America has a far more extensive network of shore-based support capabilities than Russia has in the Med.
For another thing, however, the U.S. hasn’t been keeping a carrier in the Med. What the U.S. hasn’t been doing, in fact, is the main factor affecting the decisions of Russia and other countries in the “Great Crossroads” area, at the juncture of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
At the operational level, Kuznetsov’s combat power and utility are minimal for any true military purpose, in Russia’s major foreign-policy concerns in the region right now, Ukraine and Syria. (Kuznetsov could, in any case, be gotten into the Black Sea only by breaching the Montreux Convention – and Turkey wouldn’t sit still for that.) The carrier’s presence in the Eastern Med, where she was for nearly three months, is certainly not meaningless. But it’s politically demonstrative rather than militarily decisive. And if there’s no U.S. carrier prowling the Med, the need for demonstration can be accorded a lower priority.
At the geopolitical level, U.S. passivity is equally important, if not more. There are no new patterns developing in any of the hot spots around the Great Crossroads. There’s nothing new about the method by which Russia is engulfing eastern Ukraine; the Russian tactics there are just Bolshevism with cell phones. Bolshevism “works” not because it’s uniquely effective in terms of methods or tactics, but because it attacks where it’s most likely to go unopposed by a stronger power.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Ukraine. The decisive factor isn’t anything the Russians are doing. It’s the lack of opposition from the U.S. and NATO. Even the shaky interim government in Kiev could, and probably would, be doing more to defend its territory if it knew it had backing from NATO against the conventional power Russia can bring to bear. But it doesn’t.
The same dynamic is in play in Syria, and it’s in this overall context that all Russian moves have to be seen. If Russia is sending the carrier home now, it’s because it’s convenient – it keeps her navy and its budget on schedule – and nothing constrains her to do otherwise.
The Black Sea
USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), which had the encounter with the Russian Su-24 Fencer on 12 April, has just departed the Black Sea. Her departure is unrelated to the incident with the Su-24; the U.S. and France are rotating combatants through the Black Sea to maintain a demonstrative NATO naval presence there. The frigate USS Taylor (FFG-50), which had the unfortunate event with the propeller shaft grounding in the Black Sea in February, has just reentered the Black Sea, and the French frigate FS Dupleix (D641) is declared for an inbound transit of the Bosporus on 26-27 April. (The NATO navies will be restricting their ships’ visits to the Black Sea to 21 days or less, in compliance with the Montreux Convention.)
The NATO warships represent the highest level of excellence for their kind, of course. Nevertheless, claims that they signify a big military build-up by NATO are vastly overblown. There is virtually no maritime character to the Ukraine conflict, and the three ships are not militarily useful for projecting power ashore, in any way that would be meaningful. They are there to demonstrate NATO’s political interest, not to counter military moves by Russia (a purpose for which they are unsuitable).
Is it wise to signal political interest using military assets that have little to no military utility in the context they’ve been deployed in? We report, you decide.
Turkish Maritime Task Group
The ships of the Turkish Maritime Task Group continue their progress in circumnavigating Africa, something the Turkish navy hasn’t done since 1866, when it was the Ottoman navy. So far they have visited Tunisia, the Canary Islands, and Senegal (see here), Mauritania, The Gambia, Ghana, and Benin.
They’ve also visited Nigeria, and will pull into Namibia for a port visit at the beginning of May. During the Nigerian visit, the Turks reportedly “donated” a warship to the Nigerian navy. I can find no record of which warship (i.e., what type it was), but I assume it was a smaller patrol craft. Interestingly, in mid-March, unconfirmed reporting suggested that arms had been shipped to unknown recipients in Nigeria via Turkish Airlines, a claim vigorously rejected by the Erdogan government. An airline spokesman later said that the arms had been part of a legitimate shipment to the Nigerian navy. Which doesn’t fit with the protestations from the Turkish government, so you see the conundrum here.
In conjunction with the visit to Nigeria, the Turkish warships participated in a multinational naval exercise as well, Obangame Express 2014. This exercise series, sponsored by U.S. Africa Command and the host nation, focuses on joint maritime security and antipiracy training. The 2014 iteration saw the Turkish navy’s first at-sea participation with its own warships.
The Iranian enigma
Many readers are no doubt aware of the Iranian navy’s announcement last week that its previously proclaimed plans to send warships to the Atlantic were on hold. The “29th Fleet,” of which – depending on the report – the two formerly Atlantic-bound ships formed either all or part, would not be going to the Atlantic after all.
It remains the case that Iran is not being forthcoming about this, and that her ships have probably been somewhere other than where the Iranian navy has suggested they were. Once again, a few days ago, the Iranian navy announced that the two ships in question, the frigate Sabalan and the replenishment ship Kharg, were conducting a port visit in the region. This time, the port was supposedly Muscat, Oman. And once again, there has been no independent evidence that the ships were there.
Iran has intimated vaguely that the antipiracy mission ended up taking precedence for the 29th Fleet over the planned voyage to the Atlantic. But in three months of deployment, there has been not a single scrap of evidence that the Iranian warships were in the antipiracy patrol area in the Gulf of Aden or Red Sea. With ships and reconnaissance planes from multiple NATO countries, along with the forces of China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, plying the same waters, it is simply not credible to propose that the Iranian warships, which were supposed to be in the Atlantic, were in the Horn of Africa instead for three months, but went unnoticed and unreported.
The latest Iranian announcement is timed to account for an on-schedule return to the ships’ home port of Bandar Abbas. What have the ships been doing? There is little to go on. The ships have apparently been in an area or areas where they were very unlikely to be photographed or reported on. Highly trafficked and better-wired locations around the Indian Ocean are unlikely stowaway spots: Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, the Maldives, the Mozambique Channel (where South Africa and Mozambique run a joint antipiracy operation of their own, Operation Copper). Moving from one place to another, meanwhile, is more likely than remaining in a single place.
Presumably, the ships’ mission was related to Iran’s highest policy priorities. Among those, her nuclear program and her arms shipments to terrorists might obviously benefit from the transshipment services of naval vessels (which cannot be stopped on the high seas except as a belligerent act). As discussed here, Iran has been caught out, over the past decade, in increasingly elaborate transshipment schemes to get arms to Hamas and Hezbollah. Perhaps some shipments are worth exceptional furtiveness and misdirection. Securing uranium from African sources might also warrant such operations, or importing highly sensitive items from North Korea, via multiple interim stops.
We aren’t likely to know any time soon. But we do have the prospect of repeating this whole drama in the near future, with Iran’s promise that the 30th Fleet (see link above) really will go to the Atlantic.
Russian – and Japanese – ships do Pakistan
File this one with the growing pile of “firsts.” Ships of the Russian navy arrived in Karachi, Pakistan over the weekend for the first such port visit in modern history. It reportedly included an at-sea drill between the navies, along with the usual diplomatic events. The three-ship task group, which includes Udaloy-class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, a naval tanker, and a salvage tug, is from the Pacific Ocean Fleet and left Vladivostok in March.
On the way to Pakistan, the Russian group participated in Exercise Komodo 2014, hosted by Indonesia, along with ships from 15 other nations, including the U.S., China, India, and Japan.
The Japanese warships visiting at the same time were two destroyers, Samidare (DD-106) and Sazanami (DD-113). They’re on the way home from antipiracy ops off Somalia – and we are right to read something into the mutual comfort of the three nations with each other’s company.
Pakistan’s sudden wild popularity has a lot to do with Asian alarm about China – Pakistan’s longstanding patron – but is also connected with the long view of where Asian relations are going in a post-Pax Americana world. In less than a year, U.S. forces will be all but gone from Afghanistan, and the meaning of the American presence in the Persian Gulf, as well as U.S. relations with Pakistan, will inevitably change. By January 2017, we will not be living in the same world.
Russian tug saga off U.S. coast
Speaking of the Russian navy, remember the Nikolay Chiker? She’s the large-capacity, ocean-going Russian navy tug that was lurking off the Florida coast in March, before heading down to Curacao. She’s been lurking again. She was detected sitting off St. Eustatius in the Caribbean 5-6 April, and in port Havana 20-22 April. Between times, Nikolay Chiker meandered around off Canaveral. Her latest position on the 24th puts her south of western Cuba.
It bears repeating that the big tug is not outfitted for intelligence collection against rocket and space launches. There may have been interesting events in these categories while she was there, in either March or April, but there’s nothing Nikolay Chiker can do about them. If she has been fitted with equipment for special collection of some kind, it’s more likely to be underwater collection.
New agreement among Asian-Pacific nations on sea encounters
Members of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) came to a landmark agreement this week on a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), which – at a very basic level – will regularize the behavior expected on both sides in routine, unplanned maritime encounters between the member navies.
The U.S. and 20 other nations (including Russia and China) are members of WPNS, a non-treaty consultative body which held its first symposium in 1988. The CUES agreement is non-binding, and, again, is very basic. It is not an “incidents at sea” (INCSEA) type agreement, like the one signed by the U.S. and former USSR in 1972. An INCSEA agreement of some kind is what many observers have been advocating for relations in the South China Sea, especially in the flurry after the Chinese navy’s incident with the cruiser USS Cowpens (CG-63) in December 2013.
But it’s something. The final text of the CUES agreement has not been made public yet, but you can view some of its provisions as reported in Chinese (English-language) media here. (China hosted the symposium this past week.)
It remains to be seen how much of an achievement CUES is as a measure to promote stability, security, and peace. I have a strict policy of not sneezing at these earnest, hard-negotiated conventions. But they tend to proliferate when storm clouds are gathering, without damping down the underlying reasons for confrontation. Procedure isn’t a substitute for policy or will.