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Earlier this month, a Russian Su-27 Flanker came dangerously close – within 10 feet – of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon operating within international airspace over the Black Sea. This latest incident adds to an alarming pattern of aggressive interactions by Russian forces with NATO naval and air assets. Such interactions are reminiscent of Cold War behavior and the dangerous incidents between U.S. and Soviet naval forces. This parallel allows us to examine the past to gain insights in dealing with these incidents on and above the sea, though we must not lose sight of the vastly different world we now operate in.

Russian Frigate Yaroslav Mudry (FF-777) before the ship’s hull number was changed. RIA Novosti Photo

Russian Frigate Yaroslav Mudry (FF-777) before the ship’s hull number was changed. RIA Novosti Photo

At a time when Russian military activity is unquestionably higher than any point since the end of the Cold War, these actions, labeled by the Pentagon in its September 7th press release as “clearly unprofessional,” are symptomatic of a Russia desperate to reestablish itself as a major power. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has made clear his intent to restore Russia to its previous great power status – or at least to reclaim its historical sphere of influence in the ‘near abroad’ as a regional hegemon. This has translated to rising military spending, improved research and development, snap exercises and drills, airstrikes in Syria, and the operational use of innovative hybrid warfare. Russia’s navy is engaged in exercises from the South China Sea to the Baltic Sea. The Russian military is rebuilding, dusting off the rust, and flexing its newfound muscle to achieve the domestic and foreign policy goals of the State.

While carefully avoiding a direct confrontation with NATO – even Putin must realize the foolishness of a direct conflict given his military’s current state –the Russians are continuing to test allied forces. Russian fighter aircraft have harassed U.S. navy ships, including the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) incident in the Baltic Sea this spring. The Russian frigate Yaroslav Mudry aggressively approached the USS San Jacinto (CG-56) while it was operating with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Strike Group in late June. Only a few weeks earlier, the same frigate had maneuvered unsafely around the Harry S Truman strike group and faced off with the guided missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107).

Though all of these incidents ended relatively peacefully, the alarming frequency combined with provocative profiles indicate a potential time bomb. The commanding officers of those ships – designed to handily eliminate such air threats – demonstrated restraint and calm judgment in not taking defensive action. Future Russian pilots and ships who create a dangerous situation may not encounter the same response. Continued testing of the established norms and boundaries while operating at heightened tensions may invariably lead to mistakes or perhaps an unintended escalation.

An F-14 Tomcat from fighter squadron 102 (VF-102) escorts a Soviet TU-95 "Bear D" surveillance aircraft in 1985. USNI Archives

F-14A Tomcat from fighter squadron 102 (VF-102) off USS America (CV-66) escorts a Soviet Tu-95 “Bear D” surveillance aircraft in 1985. U.S. Naval Institute photo

It was exactly this type of concern over mistakes and faulty judgment calls that prompted American and Soviet leaders during the Cold War to enter discussions intended to prevent an inadvertent entry into World War III. While it is true that our geopolitical world today is barely recognizable from the bi-polar era of the Cold War, we would be well served to use a particularly successful tool from the Cold War playbook. In March 1968, following a succession of incidents between U.S. and Soviet naval forces – including threatening profiles, flying in close proximity, and ships aggressively shouldering each other – the U.S. proposed talks focused on preventing such escalatory incidents at sea. The Soviet Union accepted the invitation and negotiations were conducted in October 1971 and May 1972. The final “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas,” more commonly known as INCSEA, was signed in Moscow in 1972 by then Secretary of the Navy John Warner and Soviet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov.

INCSEA sought to reduce the risk of misunderstandings by providing measures to help avoid collisions, protocols for maintaining safe distances from surveillance ships, prohibiting interference in formations or simulating attacks on the other party’s ships or aircraft. It further mandated the use of international signals when ships maneuvered in the vicinity of each other to increase communication and reduce surprises. In addition, the agreement provided for advance notice of three to five days for any projected actions which could ‘represent a danger to navigation or to aircraft in flight.’ The initial effectiveness led both sides to agree to a protocol the following year, building on the premise of INCSEA by pledging not to make simulated attacks against nonmilitary ships of the other state.


By the early 1980s, INCSEA had proven to be an effective tool to enhance mutual understanding and reduce the potential for conflict fueled by misunderstanding. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman credited INCSEA for improving Soviet –U.S. relations at sea, observing that the number of incidents had declined dramatically. The INCSEA agreement had established clear guidance for interactions at sea which both sides largely adhered to. This framework thus served to improve safety at sea and helped prevent inadvertent misunderstandings.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the agreement was assumed by the Russian Federation and still ostensibly remains in effect today. In fact, delegations from both the U.S. and Russia hold annual Prevention of Incidents On or Over the High Seas (INCSEA) discussions. The most recent was held in Moscow on 8 June of this year. While this forum offers an opportunity to address our contemporary issues – and indeed, the delegations did discuss recent Russian air and surface ship interactions with U.S. naval forces – it is clearly inadequate. One only has to look at the dates of the HST CSG and IKE CSG incidents to realize the lack of influence the chosen delegations have on Russian military actions. Delegates clearly have little power to influence military policy and are merely fulfilling the requirements of a long-standing agreement rather than working towards the intended purpose of the forum as a mechanism to reduce tensions.

U.S. and Russian Navy delegations during concluding ceremonies of the 40th Annual Incidents at Sea Agreement Review in 2012. U.S. Navy Photo.

U.S. and Russian Navy delegations during concluding ceremonies of the 40th Annual Incidents at Sea Agreement Review in 2012. U.S. Navy Photo

It is time that we take the principles and ideals behind the original INCSEA agreement and start anew. The naval forces of the Cold War were different than the modern fleets patrolling the high seas today. While it is clear that the world has evolved significantly from the bi-polar era of the Cold War, so too have the military forces of both the U.S. and Russia. Tactics, training, and strategies have changed to accommodate the modern global challenges. Even communication methods, sensor systems, and weapons capabilities are vastly different than those in the Cold War and must be accounted for in an updated agreement. It is further necessary to draft an agreement that Russia’s current leadership embraces as mutually beneficial, instead of relying on a Cold War relic agreed upon by their Soviet Union predecessors. The basic premise of INCSEA is solid, but lessons can also be garnered from the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium, where the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) was agreed to by member states. The new protocol should extend beyond just the U.S. and Russia, to include other states in the region in a manner more akin to CUES than INCSEA.

Given the tensions in today’s world – with a resurgent Russia desperate to prove its military prowess and reclaim its spot at the great power table – there must be a serious effort to address incidents at sea before an unexpected escalation occurs. Reducing misperceptions and the chance for inadvertent conflict is a small, but crucial, element of our broader strategy. It is time to reconvene talks aimed at the development of a modern INCSEA protocol. Initial talks should occur directly between U.S. and Russian Federation delegates. Subsequent talks should include NATO, and EU representatives, as well as interested regional states. An agreement will not be reached overnight – indeed, the INCSEA process was lengthy. But we must start now in order to provide a better framework to guide potentially dangerous interactions.

The USS Ingraham (FFG-61) just completed her final successful sea and anchor detail as she transited in from the Pacific Ocean, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, returning to her homeport in Everett, Washington. After being greeted with homecoming fanfare, she will prepare for a much less exciting event, her decommissioning ceremony. On November 12th, the flag will be lowered for the last time and in January she will be struck from the battleforce inventory.

The Ingraham is one of the very last Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates remaining in the fleet. These ships were known for their steadfast performance, executing critical missions around the globe. Much like Ingraham’s last deployment to the waters of Central America, these ships have been stalwarts in the U.S. anti-drug efforts. Many are now lamenting the loss of this versatile class of ship, declaring that missions will go unfulfilled once the class has completely decommissioned next year. Demands are growing louder for a ‘next generation surface combatant’ to replace the frigates, bringing more firepower, survivability and offensive capability than the current littoral combat ships have to offer.

Yet we must be careful not to be too nostalgic when reviewing the capabilities of the frigates and demanding a better armed new surface combatant to fill their void. Certainly, the Navy needs a next generation surface combatant to fill the gaps that the workhorse guided missile destroyers cannot cover alone – there is simply no debating that our destroyer fleet is over-stretched. But, when it comes to covering the missions being carried out by frigates, we have ships that can perform at the same or higher levels – we just need to work on incorporating them.

Though it’s been a while, I distinctly recall hours spent memorizing ‘Ships and Aircraft’ as part of the standard Naval Academy plebe professional knowledge requirements. Frigates were easy…there wasn’t a lot to memorize in terms of armament. Especially since the removal of the Mk13 ‘one-armed bandit’ missile launcher. The nickname we learned was ‘missile sponge,’ due to the lack of significant offensive and defensive weaponry. Even the Mk75 Oto Melara gun onboard could only be fired when the ship presented a stern aspect to the target due to firing cut-outs. The CRU/DES advocates would joke that frigates could only fire the sole remaining offensive weapon, a mere 3-inch gun, while running away. Aviators quipped that the only real weapon onboard was the embarked LAMPS helicopter.

But it didn’t matter. Though I opted for the CRU/DES world, plenty of classmates went to frigates, where they became exceptional ship-handlers and learned how to conduct critical maritime security missions by thwarting drug-runners off our coasts and in the waters to the south, learning from the Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs) that often embarked. They pulled into ports around the globe with shallow draft requirements, to the envy of those of us on cruisers at the time. They operated with the nascent coastal navies of partners around the world and didn’t tower over their counter-parts in terms of size or weaponry, making for more successful engagements.

These roles can all be filled exceptionally well by our newest generation of ships – the littoral combat ships, and even innovative platforms like Austal’s Joint High Speed Vessel. While the LCS is not a perfect ship – far from it, but that’s been covered rather extensively in the press – it can easily fill the niche role recently occupied by frigates. The speed, versatility and shallow draft of LCS make it well suited to coastal patrol missions and working with partnership navies. The Joint High Speed Vessel is an even more innovative platform, and the USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) has demonstrated its worth on its maiden deployment this year. The MSC-run ship has operated in three different Fleet AORs, conducting missions with numerous partner nations and US Navy assets, proving its exceptional capabilities.

Maritime security missions will continue to be a critical aspect of the Navy’s mission – just as they have for the past 239 years. Worth noting, however, is that most maritime security missions do not require high-end Aegis ships like the destroyers commonly filling the tasks today. It may be reassuring to have destroyers tasked to anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa (or, in the case of the Maersk Alabama incident, an entire Amphibious Readiness Group), but it isn’t necessary. Instead, platforms like the LCS and JHSV are well-suited to conduct low end missions like countering piracy, illicit trafficking and weapons proliferation and can do so at a much lower cost than sending a Strike Group or a couple of destroyers. The security situation we will face demands a robust, well-trained maritime security force. Our CRU/DES platforms should be reserved for missions requiring their exceptional weapons and radar systems. With the projected build of thirty-two LCS and ten JHSV, these ships are well-poised to perform vital maritime security roles that the frigates will no longer be around to fulfill. There is no dispute that maritime security is – and will continue to be – a core mission, but we already have the right ships to ensure success while being cost-efficient.

We must be careful not to embellish the past and demand that the frigates’ replacements have significant offensive and defensive capabilities. We need to be realistic when examining the missions needing to be fulfilled and let the void left by the frigates be filled by the newer, more innovative ships that are well-suited to the missions. The next generation surface combatant can be better utilized elsewhere.

“Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”
– Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister

While the details of the budget cuts are still being debated, one thing is clear: the Department of Defense will face significant fiscal austerity. Accordingly, the Navy will face drastic cuts that mandate a reexamination of the way we do business.

Viewed another way, however, we are being presented with the opportunity to rethink the standard business rules governing the way we train, fight and prepare for future challenges – we should examine the best, most innovative ways to accomplish our strategic objectives. Given the tough budget and strategic challenges we are facing, “business as usual” just won’t work any more.

The surface fleet will be particularly hard hit. Surface ships will almost certainly see underway time for training and readiness cut. Deployments to engage in regions such as Central and South America are being curtailed. These decisions risk sending the message to our allies that we are no longer forward and present in the Central and South American region where we have provided a maritime presence for well over a century.

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“…We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”

Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense

The strategic guidance for the Department of Defense released in January 2012 clearly emphasizes pivoting to focus on the Asia-Pacific realm. While it notes that the Middle East is still an area of concern, the guidance largely adheres to the Obama administration efforts to shift diplomatic, economic and military strategic focus to the Far East, ending a decade of predominant focus on the Middle East.

But can the United States truly afford to refocus to the Asia-Pacific realm amidst the chaos of the Middle East? Recent events highlight a deeply unsettling trend. Iran is adamant that it will pursue nuclear technology; Israel is just as adamant that it will not permit this to happen. Gulf States are warily following the Iranian progress and ramping up their own weapons acquisitions in the event that Iran acquires nuclear weapons technology.

The United States is leading a coalition of more than thirty nations in an International Mine Countermeasures exercise in the Persian Gulf right now, seeking to sharpen skills as fears of Iranian attempts to mine the Strait of Hormuz reach new highs. Two carriers have been sent to the region to provide “95,000 tons of diplomacy” and act as a reminder of the potent strike potential the US can bring to bear.

Following the riots that led to the recent death of the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the Commander in Chief sent Marine anti-terrorist units and two Arleigh Burke class destroyers to patrol off the coast of Libya. Rioting spread like wildfire throughout North Africa and the Middle East- stretching to countries as widespread as Tunisia, Sudan and even staunch ally Saudi Arabia. Intense diplomatic and military efforts took place to quell violence and halt further action against America.

Ironically, the most violent riots were in countries that received the strongest US support during the last year’s Arab Spring revolts. Countries that were lifted from the yoke of dictatorship- under brutal regimes such as that of Muammar Qaddafi- and given billions of dollars in economic, military and diplomatic assistance have now violently turned on the US. Far from the peaceful, democratic nations we had hoped would emerge, the region is at the brink of turmoil and chaos. US interests may be in a worse state now than under the authoritarian regimes we helped to overthrow.

Even Afghanistan is posing serious challenges just as the ISAF prepares to draw down forces. Taliban focus on disrupting the handover process has been all too successful, generating mistrust as infiltrated Afghan national forces are accused of killing dozens of their international trainers. It remains questionable whether or not the Afghans will be able to emerge with a stable government or slip into chaos following America’s withdrawal.

Regardless of how one views democracy building, we must accept the governments that have formed in the region. We must further understand what this means for US interests aboard- and how it changes our strategic outlook. One of the most basic questions to ask when determining a national security strategy is whether or not the resources exist- or will exist- to enact such a plan. This poses a challenge to a military facing an era of fiscal austerity, stretched by multiple demands on limited resources.

While the Obama administration announced that US strategy would entail a rebalance to Asia, the reality is far more complicated. Though the Asia pivot has garnered immense attention, it is not an entirely new strategy. America never left Asia. Yet it serves to realign focus and resources towards the region on a broad front- economically, diplomatically and militarily. Antiquated focus on the Middle East- including unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be shifted to a more modern outlook.

This pivot reflects the belief that Asia is the future- and rightly so. Asia is home to five of our treaty allies and six of the ten most powerful economies in the world. As globalization dominates international trends, our economic success is tied inexorably to that of our Asian trading partners. Asia has emerged as the top economic region in the world, with increasing trade and global impact. The future is in Asia and our national strategy must reflect that.

Yet we may not be able to rebalance just yet. While Asia is clearly the region of the future, recent events have demonstrated that the US cannot leave the Middle East in its current state of turmoil without serious implications for national security. America is quietly amassing naval forces in the 5th Fleet Area of Responsibility (AOR). The Pentagon announced the rapid redeployment this fall of the John C. Stennis Strike Group after it returned in March from a Middle East deployment. Instead of the planned Western Pacific deployment, the ship will proceed four months early to Central Command.

Despite strategic focus on Asia, the Middle East is simply too tumultuous to leave. With our current fiscal constraints and limited resources, this means that forces heading to Asia will potentially keep on transiting west to arrive on station in the Middle East.

Despite our best efforts to aid democratic movements and stabilize the region, the Middle East is rapidly approaching a crisis point. With the Department of Defense facing tremendous budget cuts, the amount of resources available are limited. American forces simply are not resourced to handle multiple significant crises simultaneously. Assets from Asia must be pulled to help stabilize the Middle East in the short term. This should serve as a poignant reminder that even though the Asia pivot is clearly in our best long term interest, ultimately fiscal limitations and rising regional tensions may prevent truly rebalancing until the Middle East has stabilized.

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