The U.S. Navy reported that on 7 June, a Russian warship caused a near collision with USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), an Aegis, Ticonderoga-class cruiser, in the Philippine Sea. The Russian Udaloy I DDG, a guided-missile destroyer, maneuvered within 100 feet of the Chancellorsville, causing the cruiser to have to execute a non-routine, propulsion-stressing backing move to avoid colliding with the destroyer.
The information about the event indicates that the Russian ship directly violated the terms of the 1972 Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) agreement between Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the U.S. The INCSEA agreement was intended to prevent exactly this kind of extremely dangerous and unprofessional encounter on the high seas.
The text of the INCSEA agreement can be viewed here. Both parties continued to honor the agreement after the breakup of the former Soviet Union. There is an annual conference between the U.S. and Russia on the status of INCSEA; the last one was held in July 2018 in Moscow.
Video of the encounter recorded on the Chancellorsville shows the near approach of the Russian Udaloy I, with a separation estimated at 60-70 feet based on what is visible in the video. According to CNN, “opposing” reports from the two navies indicate the “warships came somewhere between 50 feet and 165 feet of each other.” The Chancellorsville video makes it abundantly clear even to the amateur that 165 feet is not the distance at which the two ships made CPA (closest point of approach). Fifty feet is much closer to reality.
BREAKING: #USNavy has released video of #USSChancellorsville being forced to maneuver to avoid collision, after #Russian destroyer Udaloy I made an unsafe and unprofessional approach in the Phillippine Sea, June 7th. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/HpmAMtYraS
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) June 7, 2019
BREAKING: #USNavy has released video of #USSChancellorsville being forced to maneuver to avoid collision, after #Russian destroyer Udaloy I made an unsafe and unprofessional approach in the Phillippine Sea, June 7th. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/bM9ZHuYSUM
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) June 7, 2019
Fifty feet is far too close, for full-size warships operating outside of the very narrow confines of a benign-weather harbor. Even in highly-controlled maneuvers such as alongside replenishment at sea, modern warships, which are big hunks of metal, don’t engage at such a close range.
CNN quotes a Navy spokesman:
“A Russian destroyer …. made an unsafe maneuver against USS Chancellorsville, closing to 50-100 feet, putting the safety of her crew and ship at risk,” US Navy spokesman Cmdr. Clayton Doss told CNN in a statement.
“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said.
An emergency “all back full” is an engine order there’s really no polite colloquial expression for. Think of a string of expletives and you’ll have the feel of the moment.
We haven’t been told at this point what communications there were as the Udaloy closed on the U.S. cruiser, but we can assume the Chancellorsville was on bridge-to-bridge issuing a continuous stream of warnings. I haven’t seen a video with an audio track, but we can also assume the horn was blaring like crazy.
What CNN tells us only later in the story is that Chancellorsville was in the process of recovering a helicopter on her flight deck at the time. That’s a maneuvering-constrained situation in which it’s doubly important to not interfere with the safe operation of the recovery ship.
The US guided-missile cruiser was traveling in a straight line and trying to recover its helicopter when the incident occurred, he said.
The INCSEA agreement addresses both the too-close approach and the “interfering with aircraft recovery” aspects of this situation.
Article III contains the general paragraph on maintaining a safe distance, which is referred to as “remaining well clear to avoid the risk of collision.”
1. In all cases ships operating in proximity to each other, except when required to maintain course and speed under the Rules of the Road, shall remain well clear to avoid risk of collision.
Neither the U.S. Navy nor the Russian Navy specifies a distance for this, nor has either of us ever done so. Both sides correctly see that as an ill-advised constraint, given that different situations (e.g., sea state, visibility, local traffic) will dictate different distances. (Stating a distance also invites a cheap form of brinkmanship unnecessarily.)
Judgment and seamanship factor in, but it’s obvious even to the layman in this situation that the ships are too close for safety.
Note that the video indicates there was plenty of maneuvering room around the two ships, and the Russian destroyer had no need to come so close in order to “maintain course and speed under the Rules of the Road.”
Regardless, the Chancellorsville was trying to recover an aircraft. Article III paragraph 8 lays out the INCSEA requirement on that:
8. Ships of one Party when approaching ships of the other Party conducting operations as set forth in Rule 4 (c) of the Rules of the Road, and particularly ships engaged in launching or landing aircraft as well as ships engaged in replenishment underway, shall take appropriate measures not to hinder maneuvers of such ships and shall remain well clear.
The Udaloy’s unsafe approach hindered Chancellorsville’s recovery operation, as well as violating the stricture to “remain well clear.” The U.S. cruiser couldn’t continue with a safe recovery while having to execute the emergency backing maneuver.
Russian aircraft and warships have been violating INCSEA for several years now, but virtually all the interactions have been in waters Russia deems sensitive because of their location close to Russia. The most frequent examples are in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea.
However, the very unsafe CPA on 7 June occurred a long way from home, in the Philippine Sea, where Russia can have no claim to special security sensitivity (even if that were a meaningful factor for such an egregious breach of sound seamanship).
The incident on Friday followed an air encounter in the Mediterranean – presumably off Syria – in which a Russian Su-35 fighter made an unsafe intercept of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane, a P-8 Poseidon. Although the Navy didn’t specify where the incident occurred, Russia has Su-35s deployed to Syria, and there was a P-8 conducting a mission in international air space off Syria on the date of the encounter (4 June).
I am not surprised . pic.twitter.com/fBWbCDzwDD
— Kevin Sky?️???? ????? (@EmirLouise) June 5, 2019
Russian aircraft have done this on several occasions in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea, but such intercepts in the Mediterranean indicate a move further afield.
That said, Russia has a big military presence in Syria and a lot invested there. Some level of reaction might become more common in the air space and waters off Syria. The unsafe maneuver in the Philippine Sea comes without such a pretext.
When Russia does this, it amounts to basically behaving like North Korea. We have miles to go before we sleep.