“We operate in close proximity to the Russian forces out here, and you can do that, you can operate close to each other if you’re a professional force, a professional military,” Whitesell, the Carrier Strike Group Two commander, said. “And it’s been safe and professional up until now with these guys. And I don’t think it’s going to change at all.”
“There’s always the standard thing of poking a bear that doesn’t need to be poked, right?” Rogers, the F/A-18 pilot, said. “So, in that respect, we’ll fly nice and professional profiles. And they as well, fly safe and professional profiles. So, as a pilot that’s my primary deconfliction means, and anything else I kind of leave over to people with more rank on their shoulders than me. The best I can do is be safe and professional in my operating environment. And as long as they do the same, then we’re deconflicted.”
U.S. military personnel look at these encounters as a valuable chance to get real-world experience interacting with Russian forces, which U.S. forces usually have to simulate in training.
“It’s like going to school,” McCall said. “We can do a lot of training at home, a lot of that is academic, but getting the opportunity to go out and interact with essentially a near peer I think is something that is beneficial to our aircrews. I think it’s something that will stick with them for a long time. But again, because those interactions have been what I would deem professional, I don’t think any of our aircrew are overanxious about them or [it’s] something that really gets the blood pumping too much.”
Personnel aboard the George H.W. Bush said the Russians have not hindered or interfered with U.S. combat operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on their current deployment. But the Americans clearly don’t want to give the Russians any advantages. The two sides tolerate each other, but also watch each other closely.
“We’ve had a number of different Russian ships that transit through the area, but notably, we’ve had a couple of their top-line frigates that have been with us consistently for a period of time,” Nicholson told The Daily Signal.
“In addition to those frigates, they’ve had one of their top-line diesel submarines that’s been operating in the area,” Nicholson said. “And then they have had a couple of, at various times, some of their intelligence collection ships in the area as well, too. Sometimes, these ships just transit through. Sometimes, we find that those ships will gravitate toward where the carrier strike group is and stay with us over time.”
It is, in many ways, a return to a Cold War back and forth between U.S. and Russian forces, in which both sides know the limits of what their counterparts will tolerate. A shared understanding that with military forces operating in such close vicinity to each other, interactions are unavoidable—as is the temptation to snoop on how the other side does business.
“We’re not at hostilities with the Russians right now, so it is open free water,” Nicholson said. “I think that any time ships are out amongst each other you obviously do observations of the ones you wanna do some sort of collection on, whether it’s visual, electronic, or what not. We maneuver, they maneuver. We try to stay out of each other’s way as best we can.”
Line in the Sand
On June 18, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 that was attacking Syrian Democratic Forces troops, a U.S. partner force on the ground. It was the first U.S. military air-to-air kill in 18 years.
“There’s a heightened sense of awareness now,” Bacon said, referring to how the shootdown affected U.S. Navy combat operations over Syria. “We re-evaluated our tactics and how we are operating. We’ve got our line in the sand, and we stick to it.”
On April 6, the U.S. military launched a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. The facility, jointly used by Russian forces, was the launch point for a chemical weapons attack on April 4 that killed about 80 people, including children, U.S. officials said. The U.S. has since vowed to strike the Syrian regime if it uses chemical weapons again.
Navy commanders aboard the USS George H.W. Bush are confident the carrier strike group could rebuff any retaliatory strike by the Syrian regime. Syria has coastal defense missiles, but they can be avoided by staying outside their range, or with countermeasures, the commanders said.
“If we’re inside of a particular weapon’s range, we have to be on a little bit more of an alert. But we’re prepared for all of those threats,” Nicholson, the Destroyer Squadron 22 commodore, said. “We’ll operate where we need to operate. It doesn’t matter if there’s a particular threat or not. We can handle those threats.”
This first appeared in The Daily Signal here.
Image Credit: Reuters.