Let’s stipulate that it was dumb to ever contemplate holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi. What were we all thinking?
Now we’re stuck with the plan, however. What is there to do about the real and intransigent problem of Islamist terrorism in the Caucasus, which has reared its head with a vengeance in recent weeks, and now has several terrorists – and that’s just the known threat – converging on Sochi for the Games?
The U.S. Olympic team’s security has been coordinated with a private security company called Global Rescue, which has worked with elements of the delegation on preparations for evacuation as well as on-site security. (The CBS report suggests that Global Rescue has worked especially on arrangements for athletes who will compete outside of the Olympic village venues; e.g., downhill and cross-country skiers.) Spokesmen are coy about whether Global Rescue has been contracted to provide the support directly during the Games, but one of its representatives makes reference to a variety of aircraft that “it” – Global Rescue – would have available in case an evacuation became necessary.
Those preparations are for the athletes and staff. There will reportedly be about 15,000 Americans in Sochi for the Games, if spectators are included – a smaller total than in previous Olympics, but still a sizeable number for any rescue plan.
The main factor in all the security planning is that Russia is a sovereign nation and has her own program to ensure security. The United States can’t just dispatch agencies of our government to roam Sochi and “rescue” Americans. (Global Rescue, as a private company, is actually likely to have more latitude for action.)
These combined facts make the reported plan to put two U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea a bit, how shall I say it, silly. In the first place, Russia isn’t going to allow any sea-to-shore “communication”: e.g., the use of Navy helicopters over land, or bringing the ships pierside to load passengers, etc. If the U.S. wants to have a seaborne evacuation route for Americans, we could arrange for chartered ferries to be on-call. Only the ships Russia authorizes will be able to interact with people ashore; the Russians would be likely to permit a chartered ferry to pick up passengers, whereas they would take vociferous exception to the use of a U.S. warship, regardless of how bad the situation was ashore.
In any case, the ships available for this task aren’t up to anything approaching the requirements of such a massive evacuation. USS Stout (DDG-55), an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, is in the Mediterranean theater to provide ballistic missile defense (BMD) presence; other than Stout, there are two Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates, USS Simpson (FFG-56) and USS Taylor (FFG-50, which has probably just arrived after departing Mayport, Florida on 8 January). A third frigate, USS Elrod (FFG-55) left Norfolk on 14 January and should arrive in the Med this week. These are very fine warships, but they can’t recover the big helicopters that can move a lot of people, and simply aren’t the right platforms to deal with a large number of evacuees.
The Sixth Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), which is home-ported in Italy, could potentially deal with more evacuees, although airlifting them to the ship would still be a very cumbersome, small-funnel operation.* But again, the Russians aren’t going to approve such an operation. Nor is the need for one a real possibility. Chechen terrorists can kill a lot of people with bombs, but they can’t reduce Sochi to a state of lawlessness in which the Russians would be unable to provide sufficient order for civilian transportation modes.
Putting warships in the Black Sea, specifically for a Sochi response, doesn’t have a logical motive from a military planning perspective. In truth, this is the case for any potential use of the U.S. military, other than perhaps transport jets. We could speculate on things like the use of our air bases in Turkey or Germany as staging points, and on the rapid deployment of small contingents like the U.S. Marines in the Black Sea Rotational Force in Romania (who currently number about 350), for security at embarkation points for evacuees. But what matters is that no situation in which U.S. military forces would be the suitable response option is reasonably foreseeable.
Going ahead and foreseeing that situation anyway, as the Obama administration seems to be doing, carries heavy political freight with it. The Russians are likely to downplay reports of U.S. military preparations, but they can be pardoned for taking offense at them. The deployments come across as a gratuitous maneuver. Even from the most superficial perspective – comparative force numbers and capabilities – the Russians’ far outstrip ours in the Black Sea. (As they do in the Mediterranean, in fact.) Not only are the Russians not going to ask for that kind of help; they don’t need it.
Russia is nevertheless sensitive about the American military presence in the Black Sea, which in turn is understandable. That doesn’t mean we should refrain from ever putting our forces there. But it does mean that we should save such moves for when they are truly both necessary and appropriate.
It would be one thing if putting U.S. warships in the Black Sea had some relevance to the actual problem of potential terrorism at the Olympics. But it doesn’t. It appears to be a gesture intended to reassure Americans at home. Unfortunately, it could blow up in the Obama administration’s face, if something actually happens and the meaninglessness of the warship deployment becomes obvious.
* The high-speed, aluminum-hulled catamaran USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) will also be in the Med during the timeframe of the Olympics (7-23 Feb). Her capabilities are impressive and interesting, and could be suited to the requirements of an evacuation operation. There is no special reason to use Spearhead rather than a commercial ferry, however, while there are political reasons to do the opposite.