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Russia vs. America: What Would a Naval Clash over Syria Look Like?

Third, geography matters. Franklin Roosevelt liked to instruct Americans to “look at your map,” and that’s wise counsel when contemplating diplomacy and strategy. Gazing at the map reveals that any fight between Russian and U.S. forces will take place in cramped quarters amid intricate offshore terrain. Neither navy has deployed large forces to Eastern Mediterranean waters as of yet; it’s doubtful they will mount deployments on the scale of the Middle Eastern crises of the early 1970s. After all, each navy is a fraction of its Cold War size. The Mediterranean Sea will host no international boat show this year.

And yet this comes as cold comfort. Any sea battle will take place within reach of land-based sea power—aircraft flying from airfields ashore, along with anti-ship cruise missiles—emanating from multiple axes. In 1973, notes Professor Baer, Soviet warbirds could “attack Sixth Fleet units with land-based air flying from four directions”—including, yes, from Syria. And that was before anti-ship missiles had achieved their current long range, precision, and lethality. Nor would Russian ships cruising within reach of NATO airfields be immune from shore-based sea power.

One sympathizes with naval commanders compelled to guard against attack from all points of the compass, not to mention above and below. It’s become an axiom of sea combat that the combatant that strikes effectively first is the probable victor. In tight confines, where flight times for incoming aircraft and missiles are short, the impulse to launch weapons first could grow intense. The relatively small, congested battleground combined with the hitting power of modern weaponry wielded by coastal states adds up to serious potential for escalation.

Which, four, brings us to the beginning of maritime strategy: what purposes would drive Russian and American forces in a Mediterranean imbroglio? Judging from the words issuing from Washington and Moscow, U.S. sea and air forces will pound sites related to the Syrian chemical arsenal, along with delivery systems used to carry out unconventional attacks. The U.S. Navy will go back to its post-Cold War playbook—using the sea as an offshore safe haven from which to carry out missile strikes. The Syrian Air Force is in peril.

For their part Russian forces will try to deny American forces the use of that nautical sanctuary while batting down such American missile and air attacks as do find their way into Syria. That is, the Russian Navy and affiliated shore-based forces will mount a “sea-denial” effort from sea and sky. Sea denial is a defensive strategy deployed by weaker powers. It’s meant to fend off stronger adversaries from important expanses without wresting away command of those expanses for the defender. It is effective but unambitious.

In short, the U.S. Navy and Russian Navy field imposing fleets backed by land-based implements of maritime might. Any naval engagement would take place in intensely demanding surroundings. And, to all appearances, neither Washington nor Moscow sees any compelling stake in such a fight. Sobriety may prevail once reality sets in among political and military leaders—in both capitals—as it did in 1973.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming this October). The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Wikimedia Commons