Baltic buzzing of U.S. Navy warship a case lesson in how spheres of influence are enforced

April 19, 2016
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY 19 April 2016. We saw a few aggressive military moves last week by Russian aircraft flying closely -- some say dangerously -- to a U.S. military warship and military surveillance aircraft operating in the Eastern Baltic Sea near Poland and Lithuania.
THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY 19 April 2016. We saw a few aggressive military moves last week by Russian aircraft flying closely -- some say dangerously -- to a U.S. military warship and military surveillance aircraft operating in the Eastern Baltic Sea near Poland and Lithuania.

The first incident happened on 11 April when two Russian SU-24 Fencer swing-wing jet fighter bombers flew what some claim were high-speed simulated attack maneuvers against the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook steaming in the Eastern Baltic.

The next day, 12 April, a Russian KA-27 Helix helicopter conducted flew seven circles at low altitude around the Donald Cook. Less than an hour later two more Russian SU-24s jets made 11 close-range and low altitude passes over the U.S. destroyer -- some say as close as 30 feet from the ship.

The Cook's commanding officer said the low-altitude jet and helicopter passes were unsafe and unprofessional. The Cook had been working together with a Polish military helicopter, and the Russian flyovers compelled the ship's commander to cease flight operations.

Later that week, on 14 April, a Russian Su-27 jet fighter reportedly flew at high speed toward the side of a U.S. RC-135 four-engine reconnaissance aircraft flying over the Baltic. The RC-135 is a specially equipped electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft designed to eavesdrop on an adversary's communications, radar, networking.

Related: Mission To Keep the Secrets

The Russian jet fighter then reportedly closed ti within 50 feet of the RC-135's wingtip and conducted a barrel roll starting from the left side of the aircraft, going over the top of the aircraft, and ending up on the right of the aircraft.

Like the unarmed simulated attack runs on the destroyer Cook days before, the Su-27's behavior was called unsafe and unprofessional. The U.S. warship and reconnaissance aircraft were operating in international waters and international airspace when the incidents happened, U.S. military officials say.

So what do we make of all this?

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Without a doubt, all of these incidents were aggressive, and high-level U.S. government officials are taking them seriously. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, said the Cook's crew would have been justified in shooting down the Su-24 had the ship's commander chosen to do so.

There's also little doubt the incidents were deliberately provocative. You don't scream a military jet 30 feet off the deck of a ship if you're not trying to get someone's attention. Likewise performing a jet barrel roll over the top of a large aircraft isn't the least bit subtle.

Related: Russian Jet Threatened U.S. Recon Aircraft

Yes the incidents were aggressive. Yes they were deliberately provocative. They also were meant to send an unmistakable message, and U.S. government officials got that message loud and clear: the Eastern Baltic is well within Russia's international sphere of influence, and far away from that of the U.S.

To be clear, the incidents happened outside of any country's borders. By international rules of engagement the U.S. warship and military aircraft had every right to be operating in the Eastern Baltic, and every right to expect that these operations would receive no interference from other militaries in the region.

The Baltic Sea is a large inland waterway in Northern Europe. It borders Denmark, Germany, Poland, the Russian province of Kaliningrad, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, and Sweden. Russia has interests in the Baltic, but certainly it's not exclusively a Russian waterway.

Now let's take a closer look. Historically the Eastern Baltic essentially has been Russian waters. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were part of the old Soviet Union, although all those countries are NATO members today. The eastern-most part of the Baltic in the Gulf of Finland touches the historic Russian city of St. Petersburg.

Moreover, Kaliningrad is a part of a Russian military district, and is home to the Russian Baltic Fleet, as well as to numerous Russian ground and air forces. It's one of the most densely militarized areas in Europe, and all of those military forces belong to Russia. Kaliningrad is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic.

Related: US Navy Ship Encounters Aggressive Russian Aircraft in Baltic Sea

As such, the Russian military forces concentrated in the small province of Kaliningrad would be a primary target of the electronic eavesdropping gear aboard the U.S. KC-135, as well as for the missile-defense and other electronic gear aboard the destroyer Cook.

Would Russia be justified in taking exception to U.S. military forces operating so closely to many of its sensitive military installations? Could be. Should U.S. military forces be operating in the Eastern Baltic? Yes. That's what the military does.

Still, a matter of perspective might be in order. Think of it like this: what if a large Russian signals intelligence aircraft and a Russian Slava-class cruiser were operating in the Gulf of Mexico near Houston, New Orleans, or Tampa? Think U.S. military forces would go out and take a look? That's virtually certain.

Related: Russian Attack Jets Aggressively Fly Over U.S. Destroyer In The Baltic Sea

Would U.S. military jet pilots go out and buzz the ship or do barrel rolls over the Russian plane? Probably not -- not if the pilots wanted to avoid court martial -- but the point is that U.S. military forces wouldn't like the Russians operating in the Gulf of Mexico any more than the Russian military likes the U.S. operating in the Eastern Baltic, or any more than China likes the U.S. operating in the South China Sea.

Would the Russians be well within their international rights to operate in the Gulf of Mexico? Sure. Would the U.S. military tolerate it for long? Probably not.

So we can get ourselves bent out of shape over several "unsafe and unprofessional" Russian military incidents in the Baltic Sea. We also have to acknowledge that the world's powers have established spheres of influence, and when those spheres get violated, there's a price to be paid. That's just how it is.

We should think about that the next time Russian jets play chicken with U.S. forces in the Baltic. We also should think about that the next time Chinese military forces act aggressively toward U.S. military forces operating in the South China Sea. It will happen again; the question is how we deal with it.

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