Friday, March 14, 2014

In the Navy: A former Naval officer weighs in on the Black Sea Fleet

In response to a recent post on Jalopnik's Foxtrot Alpha blog, I asked a friend who had served in the Navy for over a decade to weigh in on the conflict. He'd spent significant amounts of time in Georgia and in the Crimea on joint exercises, so I felt that he'd give a perspective missing from the news. Here are his responses, edited by me.

I spent a good deal of time in the Crimea - including a port visit at the base in Sevastopol described in the article. I was there in 2010 when things were a bit different, but the difficulties of the completely enclosed Black Sea and mass of anti-surface missiles that could be brought to bear are accurately described. I do think the article downplays the fact that if there was a shooting war between us and Russia, the tactical difficulties of the Black Sea would be the least of our problems. The issue here is that those difficulties do create a credible threat of access denial and aversion to warfare and further involvement in the region.

When I was there, our concern was not so much Russia as an energy but rather tackling narcotics trafficking that provided most of the Taliban's revenue. Our mission focused on cooperative training to bolster the ability of Black Sea states to combat said trafficking. That said, if Russia also has concerns about revenue/capabilities of Central Asian terrorist elements, a strong Russian Black Sea fleet might actually help in that respect.

While the news is focusing on naval competition between the US and Russia, we also have some recent examples of cooperation, notably between US/Russian naval units conducting anti-piracy in East Africa. While Putin has the capability to shut down the Black Sea, and as alluded, we have the capacity for preemptive strike by air assets against an aging fleet. Neither side could do those things without starting a war that in all likelihood would escalate very quickly and very badly. Additionally, anti-surface cruise missiles, especially in restricted and heavily trafficked areas, have a tendency to track on background shipping (as seen in Lebanon 2006). In the strategic seaway of the Bosporus and Black Sea in general, based purely on numbers/flags/locations of merchant vessels these days, that means a strong probability that any massive missile attack in the Black Sea would sink Chinese or Indian merchant vessels - putting Russia in a very awkward position.

Long and convoluted response, but it's a complicated issue - the main point being Russia has the advantage of a strong position but the disadvantage of being unable to use it without large scale warfare or economic ruin.

Lastly, going back to why I was there, I realize it's not politically feasible now, but given that our interests in the region (maritime security, counter narcotics/human trafficking) may actually align with Russia's own, the way ahead would be sending out feelers about Black Sea security exercises and training with all Black Sea naval powers INCLUDING Russia, stressing that our recent collaboration (Somali Pirate Ops) makes us both logical exercise planners - sounds bizarre, but there's actually more Naval Diplomacy between us and Russia than it might seem.

I do believe firmly though that all the talk of issues on US/Russian naval balance ignore that open warfare between the US and Russia anywhere would be unwinnable by either side (but both would lose big).

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