Two Russian naval strike jets made danger-close passes of an American guided-missile destroyer in the Baltic. Referred to by the US Navy as ‘several close interactions’, the incidents also involved a Helix helicopter adopting the Cold War tactic (used by both sides back then) of photographing a NATO vessel up close.
‘USS Donald Cook encountered multiple, aggressive flight maneuvers by Russian aircraft that were performed within close proximity of the ship,’ explained a US Navy statement on the episodes, which occurred as the destroyer sailed within international waters.
The Arleigh Burke Class destroyer was ‘conducting deck landing drills with an allied military helicopter’ according to the USN, when at 3.00pm European time on April 11, a pair of SU-24 jets ‘made numerous close-range and low altitude passes’.
The decision was swiftly taken to temporarily halt the deck landings (by a Polish naval helicopter). According to the US Navy the situation swiftly became unsafe, especially with one SU-24 Fencer jet passing around 30ft above the Donald Cook. This happened as a helicopter was being refueled on the destroyer’s flight-deck.
The following day the SU-24s were back, but this time just after a KA-27 Helix had circled the Donald Cook at low altitude, it is believed to enable a photographer to take shots of the warship’s radars and other systems.
‘About 40 minutes after the interaction with the Russian helicopter, two Russian SU-24 jets made numerous close-range and low altitude passes, 11 in total,’ the USN statement revealed. ‘The Russian aircraft flew in a simulated attack profile and failed to respond to repeated safety advisories in both English and Russian.’
The boss of American naval forces in Europe, Admiral Mark Ferguson slammed the Russian actions as “unprofessional and unsafe.”
The episode has generated headlines around the world while diplomatic back channels have been buzzing; with the USA seeking to make sure Russia knows how dangerous such manoeuvres are.
“We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight maneuvers,” said a USN source. “These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries and could result in a miscalculation or accident that could cause serious injury or death.”
During the Cold War such incidents were common, with both sides going as close as they dared to test the reactions of the other side’s warships. Photography of exposed systems, in order to try and gain an insight into the opposition’s warfare potential, was a key objective of helicopter flights. Jet passes were also designed to test the reactions of the target vessel’s crew and pick up intelligence on tactics and sensor capabilities. The same dangerous game of using your own surface vessels and submarines to come as close as possible to the other’s side’s equivalent units was conducted for identical reasons.
This month’s episode is only the latest in recent times. It is actually the second major one involving the USS Donald Cook. Almost exactly two years ago the destroyer was subjected to similar treatment while on patrol in the Black Sea at the height of Russia’s intervention in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
USS Donald Cook was patrolling international waters when a SU-24, possibly from a Russian naval aviation squadron based in the Crimea, came a little too close. The SU-24 made a total of 12 passes, going from near sea level to around 2,000ft – but never flying directly over the warship. A second SU-24 was present but remained at high altitude throughout the provocative 90 minutes display.
The aircraft was not visibly armed and did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from the Donald Cook. The episode ended without further incident. The SU-24 had, at its closest, approached to within around 1,000 yards. At the time Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren observed: “The USS Donald Cook was never in danger.” He added: “The Donald Cook is more than capable of defending itself against two Su-24s.” Warren said he did not think it was a case of a young pilot ‘joyriding’ and suggested: “I would have difficulty believing that two Russian pilots, on their own, would chose to take such an action.”
The same could possibly be the case today, especially as the Donald Cook is one of four forward-based US Navy destroyers (operating from a base at Rota in Spain) that is Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capable.
This is in order to provide Europe with a protective umbrella against potential missile attack but Russia deeply resents the deployment of such warships close to its borders. The Pentagon claims the patrols of the four BMD-capable Arleighs are more about protecting allies and US interests, and forward-based forces overseas, from attack by rogue states than seeing off a Russian threat.
A video of the flypast can be viewed by clicking HERE (opens in a new window)