- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, awash in petrodollars, has found a new assertiveness that is reflected in some recent reckless statements and actions.

For example, two weeks ago, we saw a long-range Russian TU-95 strategic bomber target and, although escorted by our fighter aircraft, overfly the USS Nimitz operating in international waters in the Western Pacific Ocean.

A second Russian bomber orbited about 50 nautical miles away probably monitoring the carrier battle group’s (CVBG) reaction. This includes collecting the electronic signatures from the various sensors in the battle group as well as at what point the CVBG reacted to the bomber presence. Was it when the bomber was within air-to-surface missile range? At what point was the ready CAP aircraft from the Nimitz launched? What was the time to intercept? Was the intercepting aircraft armed? Were there other weapons’ systems in the battle groups activated, e.g., Aegis surface-to-air missile systems?

The chief of naval operations said he did not consider it a provocative act. Make no mistake: This was not just a happenstance. This was a planned operation with specific objectives. During the Cold War, these types of flights, combined with aggressive actions by Soviet naval surface combatants, eventually led to the development of the “Incidents at Sea Treaty.”

During the Cold War, when I had command of the U.S. 2nd Fleet and the NATO Striking Fleet, we would intercept Soviet strategic bombers at ranges up to 1,000 nautical miles away from the CVBG, long before it could ever reach its weapon launch position. This was done deliberately to raise the level of deterrence by demonstrating to that Soviet bomber crew they would never reach their objectives, and they knew it.

The strategic situation has shifted dramatically from Cold War days. The immediate focus is on the evolving dynamics of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region in particular, where Russia’s relationship with Iran continues to expand.

Aside from their intentions to complete construction of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr and their unhelpful attitude in the United Nations Security Council on preventing imposition of stiffer sanctions against Iran to stop their uranium enrichment program, Russia and China are very actively selling military equipment to Iran. This should be of concern.

This sales program includes advanced surface-to-air missile systems as well as the Russian supersonic SS-N-22 Moskit/Sunburn anti-ship missile specifically design to strike ships with the Aegis command and control missile system. Therefore, we must assume whatever new intelligence Russian aircraft and surface ships collect against our carrier battle group will be passed to Iran.

So, the recent surveillance and targeting of the Nimitz battle group should not be viewed in isolation. The collective aggressiveness displayed by Mr. Putin includes threatening Ukraine if it joins the NATO alliance by suggesting Russian’s nuclear weapons could be targeted on Ukraine if it hosts elements of an ABM missile defense system proposed by the U.S. to intercept an Iranian nuclear ballistic missile. Mr. Putin has made similar declarations against Poland and the Czech Republic.

Mr. Putin can’t have it both ways. For the U.S. Navy’s part, the Russian naval attache in Washington should be called in by the deputy chief of naval operations for information, plans and strategy. The attache should be put on notice, as we did when the Chinese submarine surfaced near the USS Kitty Hawk Battle group last year.

We also need to raise the level of the deterrence with Iran. Tehran needs to understand it will be subject to every weapon system we have if it miscalculates our level of tolerance.

James A. Lyons Jr., a U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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