«It is reckless. It is provocative. It is dangerous», said US State Secretary John Kerry describing the incident when the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) was buzzed by a pair of Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer fighters in the Baltic Sea on April 11, 2016.
On April 14, Russian Defense Ministry said that the jets were on a training mission in the area and operated «in strict compliance with international laws».
According to the Ministry, there was nothing extraordinary or unexpected. The pilot observed all the prescribed security measures flying over the ship at the distance of 37.8 nautical miles (70 km) from the Russian naval base. A similar incident occurred two years ago. On April 12, 2014 USS Donald Cook was buzzed by a Su-24 in international waters in the Black Sea. Back then, the US strongly reacted accusing Russia of international law violation.
The incident has given rise to ballyhoo, but nobody asks what the Donald Cook was doing in the Baltic Sea.
According to the US European Command (EUCOM), the warship was conducting exercises with NATO allies.
One may guess that the real mission was something the US command prefers not to talk about. The ship has become a frequent visitor near Russia’s territorial waters.
The Donald Cook is a 4th generation guided missile destroyer. It has the following specifications: displacement: approx. 8,300 tons full load deadweight, length: 505 feet (154 meters), beam: 67 feet (20.4 meters), draft: 30.5 feet (9.3 meters), speed: 32 knots, complement: 337. The surface combatant is capable of conducting anti-air warfare (AAW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and anti-surface warfare (ASUW). The destroyer's armament has greatly expanded the role of the ship in strike warfare utilizing the 96 cell MK-41 Vertical Launch System (VLS). It can launch nuclear capable Tomahawk cruise missiles; some versions have a range of up to 1,550 miles (2500 km).
«The question is, what was the objective of [the destroyer] Donald Cook, which was right next to Kaliningrad? Can you imagine a destroyer equipped with cruise missiles with a flight range of 2500 km, which can carry a nuclear warhead somewhere in New York or the Gulf of Mexico? This does not apply to military activities, is an attempt to exert military pressure on Russia», said Alexander Grushko, the Russian ambassador to NATO.
It’s not about the cruise missiles only. USS Donald Cook is an Aegis-equipped ship. The Aegis Combat System is a sophisticated collection of phased-array radars, fire control directors, computers and missiles. In comprises an advanced command and control and weapon control system (WCS) that uses powerful computers and radars to track and guide weapons to destroy enemy targets. The system is controlled by an advanced, automatic detect-and-track, multi-function three-dimensional passive electronically scanned array radar, the AN/SPY-1, able to perform search, tracking, and missile guidance functions simultaneously with a track capacity of well over 100 targets at more than 100 nautical miles (190 km). The US command does not make a secret of the fact that the sea-based Aegis is a component of European ballistic missile defense (BMD).
Aegis Ashore is used for test purposes in Hawaii. It was deployed in Romania as part of the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) Phase II in 2015. According to the plans, in 2018 Aegis Ashore will be installed in Poland (Redzikowo, 200 km from the Kaliningrad region), as part of the PAA Phase III. The Sea-based and land-based Mk-41 VLS (vertical launching system) can be used to launch ballistic missile interceptors as well as long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Last December, the US accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia’s Foreign Ministry statement told Americans to look at themselves. «A point at issue is the Mark 41 vertical launch system for Aegis Ashore, the land-based component of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) System, which the US is deploying in Romania and plans to deploy in Poland. The MK-41 VLS is installed on surface ships for launching Standard-3 interceptors and Tomahawk intermediate-range cruise missiles. A Pentagon representative said at the hearings that the land-based MK-41 is not suited or designed to launch cruise missiles. We don’t consider this question to be settled, because only military and technical experts can determine if the above statement is true, while our American partners refuse to hold a practical discussion on this. Therefore, we consider it reasonable to view the ground-based MK-41 VLS as a cruise missile launcher, and its deployment on dry land as a direct violation of the INF Treaty», said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
In February, US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security State Rose Gottemoeller gave an interview to Interfax in which she noted that the US is not planning to return to implementing the fourth phase of the European missile defense shield that involves deployment of interceptor missiles in Poland.
She absolutely ruled this out when asked if the US could revisit this idea, given the tensions in its relations with Russia. The US made a firm decision over the European phased adaptive approach, she said. Back in 2013 the US decided there was no need for phase four and cancelled it, she recalled. Russia refused to take these words at their face value.
Last December, Brian McKeon, the US Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, put it more plainly. He told members of a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee that Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which prohibits land-based intermediate-range missiles. According to the US, Moscow violated the accord by developing and testing a banned ground-launched cruise missile. Russia has denied the accusation. McKeon emphasized that the US was boosting its air defense systems in retaliation for Russia’s violations.
«We are investing in the technologies that are most relevant to Russia's provocations, developing new unmanned systems, a new long-range bomber, a new long-range stand-off cruise missile and a number of innovative technologies», McKeon said, according to the AP.
US military leaders call Russia the greatest threat to national security.
President Obama recently unveiled $600 billion defense budget includes $3 billion to boost the US military presence in Eastern Europe.
Washington seems to forget that according to the explanations it offered a couple of years ago, US ballistic missile defense systems were designed to counter the threats coming from Iran and North Korea. Now Americans have become more open. They say NATO expands and builds up new infrastructure in the proximity of Russian territory because Russia gets near to the Alliance’s borders. They deploy BMD in Europe to counter Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. When Moscow speaks out against the plans, it is accused of «aggressive behavior». In a nutshell, if Russia wants good relations with the US, it should not stand in the way of Washington’s policy aimed at achieving unilateral advantages.
Perhaps, Rose Gottemoeller meant than the phase IV was suspended for Aegis Ashore. Her words had no relation to sea-based BMD capability.
May be that’s why the Donald Cook and other US ships come close to Russia’s shores in the Baltic and Black seas. Then they should not be surprised when overflown by Russian bombers.