U.S., UK warships send quiet signal deploying to Barents Sea for first time since 1980s

U.S., UK warships send quiet signal deploying to Barents Sea for first time since 1980s
USNS Supply (T-AOE-6) and HMS Kent (F78) conduct an underway replenishment in the Arctic in May 2020. U.S. Navy

There’s an interesting continuation of pattern here, which we’ll set the stage for by outlining the current deployment.

It involves a task force composed of USS Porter (DDG-78), USS Donald Cook (DDG-75), USS Roosevelt (the Arleigh Burke destroyer, DDG-80, not the aircraft carrier, which is named specifically for Theodore Roosevelt), the Royal Navy’s frigate HMS Kent (F78), and the replenishment ship USNS Supply (T-AOE-6).  They entered the Barents Sea early this week.

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The U.S. notified Russia of our intention to deploy the ships to the Barents just beforehand, according to reports.  That isn’t required under any law or convention; the Barents Sea, except for Russia’s territorial waters extending 12 nautical miles offshore, is international waters.  So it appears to have been a courtesy bestowed as a unilateral gesture.  Considering how long it’s been since the last time we did this (more than 30 years), it’s a courtesy that makes sense.

CNN quoted a Navy source: “The US Navy said it had notified Moscow of the upcoming operation on Friday ‘to avoid misperceptions, reduce risk, and prevent inadvertent escalation.’”

The Navy’s rationale for the operation has been expressed in generic terms.  The Commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, said, “In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater, while taking prudent measures to protect the health of our force.  We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness.”

The ships’ key operations are taking place north of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees North latitude).  The first event was an antisubmarine warfare exercise in the northern Norwegian Sea, off the northern coast of Norway.  (This means, if it isn’t clear, that a friendly submarine was also present for that event, acting as the target.  According to the reports it was a U.S. submarine.)

All maps: click to enlarge for legibility. Google map; author annotation

Shortly thereafter, the task force headed into the Barents.  Russia announced at that point that the ships were being closely monitored.  Cold War-level monitoring would entail at least a destroyer remaining within visual range of the U.S. and UK ships, and visits multiple times per day from Russian reconnaissance aircraft.  The further the NATO warships go into the Barents, the more likely the Russian Northern Fleet will bring out additional surface assets.

The Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) agreement between the U.S. and Russia (first inked with the former Soviet Union in the 1970s) would be adhered to by both sides.

It’s partly the Arctic

The keyword in Admiral Franchetti’s statement is “Arctic.”  Russian military activity in the Arctic has gone off the charts in the last decade; without lengthening this article, I’ll include a link outlining the intensive militarization already underway back in 2015 (apologies that the maps have been deleted since, and are now unrecoverable).  It has only gotten more intensive since – to the point of putting modern Kalibr long-range cruise missiles on the Russian icebreaker Ivan Papanin.

The Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Admiral James Foggo, has an opinion about that.

“Who puts missiles on icebreakers?” Foggo asked, according to Stars and Stripes.  Fleshing out the maritime operational context, he added, “We are seeing Russian navy surface ships and new hybrid Kilo-class submarines operating more often and more widely, particularly in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean.”

The increased activity the admiral refers to also included a Russian live-fire closure area declared in April 2019, in a highly unusual location off the Norwegian coast, and well into the Norwegian Sea.  Such Russian exercises areas rarely entailed live fire during the Cold War, and have typically been closer to home in the Barents Sea in recent decades, even if they are also close to Norwegian territory.

The unusual Russian live-fire area in the Norwegian Sea in April 2019. Map credit: Barents Observer; link in text

But it’s partly not

But the Arctic competition context is only part of the picture.  The other key dimension echoes a pattern from the Cold War, but in a new, post-Reagan-era way.  The extreme competition for the Arctic as a theater of operations is a newer development.  The Cold War pattern harks back to missile competition and missile defense, and it takes the fruits of Reagan’s missile defense initiative – “Star Wars” – and drives them right into the Barents 30-odd years later.

A number of observers have quietly picked up on this.  The U.S. Navy is talking about the Arctic this month.  But the Norwegians, NATO allies and always the front line of Arctic defense for the alliance, are talking about missile defense.

Specifically, they’re talking about Norway’s decision in 2019 to not join the NATO missile defense plan, developing through the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), as a participant.  Among the participants are the U.S., UK, Poland, and Romania, which all field or host weapon systems that contribute to the NATO missile defense capability.

And among them is the premier system: the U.S. Navy’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) program deployed on several dozen Aegis cruisers and destroyers.  All three of the destroyers in the task force deployed to the Barents are front-line Aegis BMD ships, homeported in Rota, Spain.

USS Donald Cook and USS Porter were in the first rotation of these forward-stationed ships (of which there are four at the moment, with a plan of increasing their number to six).  They were stationed in Rota starting in 2014.

USS Roosevelt, however, just deployed to Europe from the U.S. East coast in March 2020, and represents the first ship in the second rotation.  Roosevelt has a newer capability than the other ships.  She is the first Aegis BMD ship (anywhere) forward-stationed with the BMD version 5.1 system suite, an upgrade that enables ICBM intercept and missile engagement on remote tracking, as well as seamless engagement of both ballistic missile and fixed-wing targets, including cruise missiles.  (The Porter and Donald Cook enjoy the latter capability, with their BMD 5.0 suites.  Cruise missiles are engaged with the SM-2 and SM-6 interceptors, depending on type.  See here for shipborne interceptor tutorial.)

USS Roosevelt (DDG-80) launches an SM-3 IB interceptor during an exercise in May 2019. U.S. Navy video, PO1 Susan Damman

And when the missile is fielded in the fleet, Roosevelt will be able to use the SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptor, which has the distinction of being the first shipborne BMD interceptor to be tested for certification as an ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missile – interceptor.

An ICBM intercept capability would also apply to long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), like the ones Russia can launch from bastions such as the Barents, Arctic, White Sea, and Sea of Okhostsk (in the Far East), and China can launch from the Western Pacific.

Google map; author annotation

The Block IIA interceptor was designed for short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile intercept.  But it is capable of exo-atmospheric performance, and in December 2017, Congress added the mandate to test it against ICBM targets as a supplement to the ground-based National Missile Defense (NMD) system.  The capability is projected to be limited, due to intercept altitude constraints, but significant.

The SM-3 IIA’s size, range, speed and sensor technology, the thinking suggests, will enable it to collide with and destroy enemy ICBMs toward the beginning or end of their flight through space, where they are closer to the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. “The SM-3 IIA would not be able to hit an ICBM at a high altitude, but it can go outside the earth’s atmosphere,” the Pentagon official said. “You want to hit it as far away as possible because a nuke could go off.”

Donald Cook and Porter (as well as Roosevelt) currently carry the SM-3 Block IB interceptor, a formidable asset but not capable of the exo-atmospheric intercept necessary to take out ICBMs in outer space, in the ascent or descent phase (i.e., not mid-course, at the apogee of the threat missile’s trajectory).  Donald Cook and Porter lack the BMD 5.1 upgrade as well.

But Roosevelt has what she needs to make full use of the emerging capability, other than the Block IIA missile itself, which is reported to be scheduled for deployment in the fleet in 2020.

No exact deployment date has been given in public reporting, although we can expect to be made aware of it shortly after it happens.

The new capability, heading for the other side of Asia as well

Meanwhile, the SM-3 Block IIA was scheduled for a test against an ICBM-type target in May 2020 off Hawaii.  That test has been delayed, reportedly because of coronavirus limitations.  The test platform was expected to be USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), the testbed for multiple SM-3 events in recent years.

The SM-3 Block IIA also performed successfully in an exo-atmospheric intercept in 2017, and a full-engagement test against an intermediate-range ballistic missile target in 2018.

USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53) launches an SM-3 Block IIA interceptor in Feb 2017. U.S. Missile Defense Agency

It is of interest, although we may not draw specific conclusions from it, that John Paul Jones has recently been assigned to the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) strike group, which is to deploy to the Western Pacific later this year.  Nimitz, homeported in Kitsap, Washington, is reportedly underway in the Eastern Pacific for a pre-deployment strike group exercise called COMPTUEX.  Launching COMPTUEX means the deployment date is in the near future.

John Paul Jones should thus be participating in COMPTUEX this month with the rest of the Nimitz strike group.  John Paul Jones (or JPJ, as she’s known in the fleet) has another distinction, as the testbed for the most advanced operational BMD interceptors: she has the BMD 5.1 suite with which the USS Roosevelt is also equipped.

So when JPJ heads to WESTPAC with the Nimitz, she’ll be taking everything she needs for potential ICBM intercept, except – presumably – a full load-out of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptors.  No ship is fully loaded with them yet, as far as the public knows.  As the testbed, JPJ has received enough rounds at a time to perform tests with.

Google map; author annotation

It’s conceivable, though not announced or guaranteed, that sometime later in 2020, there will be a BMD destroyer in both theaters – Europe and the Far East (and potentially the Middle East, depending on where JPJ goes) – with an ICBM intercept capability.

Note, moreover, that the Block IIA is a joint development project with the Japanese, and there is already a procurement agreement for 73 Block IIA interceptors for deployment in Japan.  Final clearance by Congress and weapons delivery are still ahead; the timing suggests fielding by 2022, although that isn’t stated.  In the Pacific, however, in the near future, the most advanced missile defense capability will be present even if upgraded U.S. assets are not deployed to WESTPAC at a given time.

This news affects North Korea, China, and (someday soon) Iran, to be sure.  It also affects Russia.  Russia is the nation the U.S. has had strategic arms limitation treaties with.  The most recent treaty, New START, which President Trump has correctly called a poor deal from the U.S. standpoint, will sunset in February 2021 (ten years from its entry into effect in February 2011).

Arms and the talks

Negotiating a better deal will best be done from a posture of increased pressure on Russia.  It’s correct to say that the potential capability in Roosevelt and John Paul Jones is an issue only for Russia’s older ICBM and SLBM systems, at least from the standpoint of comprehensive intercept options.  But even that, if fielded in a sufficient number of ships, would compromise Russia’s overall nuclear posture.

It’s meant to.  That was always the point of the Strategic Defense Initiative: to make the calculation of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) obsolete, and force both parties to recognize that, and concentrate on missile defense rather than ever more lethal missiles.  A core tenet of SDI was that the U.S. would share missile defense technology – with Russia as well as other nations – and get the world working on full elimination of the missile-extortion dynamic.

Reagan and Gorbachev at signing ceremony for the INF Treaty, 8 Dec 1987. YouTube, Reagan Library/Pres archive video

The U.S. has had a program for sharing BMD technology and development with Russia for years now, but Moscow has persistently rejected the SDI premise, preferring to stick with MAD.  When Reagan adopted the SDI and used it as leverage in arms negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, he was able to get the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement of 1987, which eliminated the shorter-range class of nuclear weapons that threatened Europe (and potentially, at the time, Japan and South Korea).  But the global-strategic class of weapons – ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear weapons launched from long-range bombers – was a different story.  New arms limitation treaties have been inked in the SDI era, including New START as the most recent, but Russia continues to resist the idea of leveraging missile defense to migrate toward elimination.

Russia has also been violating the INF Treaty since the Obama administration, and is violating the terms of New START as well.  Verification methods and transparency were weakened with New START, meaning the U.S is less able to hold Russia to the treaty’s terms.

That’s why the Trump administration has been quietly resetting the board for arms negotiation (which, one way or another, will be in play as the February 2021 date looms).*  Trump’s previous comments about deploying ground-launched cruise missiles to Europe again, as in the 1980s, have been a slightly better-known aspect of that effort (see here and here).

And just as Reagan was able to get a remarkably good deal on the INF Treaty by leveraging SDI, so it appears Trump is moving to improve our bargaining position on a New START follow-on (and perhaps a new “INF” treaty) by deploying Aegis ships capable, or soon to be capable, of ICBM intercept to the perimeter of Russia.

The same capability is relevant to missiles launched by China, North Korea, or Iran.  Two destroyers are by no means enough to make a comprehensive (or a decisive) difference to the nuclear powers of Asia.  But there can be more within months, assuming the SM-3 Block IIA deployment occurs this year.  (There are currently seven Arleigh Burke destroyers in the fleet with the BMD 5.1 upgrade: four in the Atlantic/Mediterranean, including Roosevelt, and three in the Indo-Pacific theater, including JPJ.  None in the Pacific are stationed forward; i.e., west of Hawaii.)

We can assume with some confidence that the Trump administration doesn’t mean to rest on past laurels.  We will be modernizing and expanding our emerging capabilities as fast as ingenuity and procurement can make it happen.

In the meantime, the Roosevelt’s deployment to the Barents has this key aspect to it.  It represents the first deployment to the Arctic of a BMD asset programmed to be capable of ICBM or SLBM intercept – and just across the path a Russian strategic missile emerging from Central or Western Russia, including Russian waters, would follow over the Arctic to North America.**  There is an altitude limitation on this capability, but in the Barents, or the northern Norwegian Sea, USS Roosevelt would be in position to intercept at least some Russian strategic missiles on their likely vector toward North American targets.  (It’s less likely for Russian missiles to cross Central Europe from the Russian interior, partly because it’s a longer flight that way.)

Russian missiles launched from submarines in the Barents or the White Sea (or even the Kara Sea, further East) would be especially good targets for a mobile BMD intercept platform in this Arctic area.

It’s also worth remembering that the BMD destroyers, using their SM-2 and SM-6 missiles, can intercept the cruise missiles with which Russia has been festooning the coastlines of the Arctic.

The signal

One destroyer, of course, would have some difficulty surviving exploits along these lines, within mere miles of Russia’s premier Northern Fleet.  But the Barents deployment isn’t about showing that we can do it, or practicing exactly how we would package it as a reusable capability.  The Russians can figure all that out on paper.

It’s about showing that we will do it: we will do what it takes to intercept Russian strategic missiles aimed not just from the Arctic, but at North America.  We won’t settle for a reversion to the MAD madness of the 1960s and 1970s, or for intermediate-range missiles lopsidedly infesting Europe again, or for any bad deals that leave the U.S. unable to verify Russian compliance.

Moreover, there’s no time like the present to let the other nuking-up nations of the Eastern hemisphere know they won’t get a free ride either.

Trump doesn’t speak in the diplo-messaging terms we’ve been accustomed to over the last half-century of strategic arms talks.  He’s not going to make like a Nixon or a George H.W. Bush, rattling off deterrence principles and warhead numbers and technical details as the way of demonstrating he’s on top of this.

Trump loves everyone he’s negotiating with, as if they’re all construction firms, labor unions, or capital investors.  Negotiating is about win-win; if you didn’t want win-win, you’d be doing something else.  That’s why you send positive signals about both your negotiations and your negotiating partners.

ABC News video

For Trump, the stately, well-ordered public reproofs and posture statements of the presidents from 1945 to 2009 are ill-suited to effective negotiation, sending signals that are too relentlessly discouraging, and that end up only putting him in a box.

This makes national security watchers uneasy (understandably, to an extent).  But Trump is also happy for the negotiating partners to, shall we say, understand what the incentives are.  He wants them to be clear, in very broad terms, on what’s going to happen, and what isn’t.  He tends to send some of the most important signals non-verbally, as with Iran and China.

There’s a reason the “missile defense” theme has kept coming up in discussion of the U.S.-UK task force deployment to the Barents.  The U.S. media are ill-equipped to really understand it at the moment.  They’re off chasing down box scores from Donald Trump’s school days, so they can prove he stank as a baseball player when he was 15.  But we can bet the Russians, and the Chinese, see the signal, and understand.

 

*  It’s likely that there will be no way of meeting the current sunset deadline of New START in negotiating the follow-on.  The Russians are pretty much guaranteed to wait for the outcome of the U.S. 2020 election before committing.  Bombast from the Senate or the media on this would be unhelpful, except in the sense that Republican senators could make a positive contribution by supporting something like a 12-month extension of New START to keep the instrument in force.  Releasing Russia from all restraints is not a good idea, but no new deal should be made merely to meet the February 2021 deadline.  Extending New START would serve both parties.

**  This “geography” point is an important one.  There is a land-based SM-3 Block IIA nearing operational fielding too, with plans to deploy it in Romania and Poland.  But those sites, while they affect potential launches from Iran, and Russian missile calculations vis-à-vis Europe, aren’t geographically relevant to most Russian launches against North America.  The ability to intercept an intercontinental range missile from a position in Arctic waters is relevant to that problem.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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