On Tuesday, a pair of Tu-142 Bears made their way toward the USS Ronald Reagan while the carrier was undertaking drills with South Korean forces, and a quartet of Hornets launched to intercept. Multiple communication attempts went unanswered and the Bears ended up roaring over the USS Ronald Reagan at 500 feet with the Hornets in tow.
Navy officials characterized the interactions as safe.
The aircraft involved were the maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare variants of the venerable Tu-95 Bear bomber. These aircraft remain very real threats to American carrier strike groups during a time of hostilities. They are downright intimidating when a pair of them come sweeping over the deck at 500 feet.
Meanwhile, hundreds of feet below the sea’s surface, Russian subs are reported to be lurking around major undersea communications cables at an alarming frequency. This has folks at the Pentagon worried that the Russians could cut the cables, or manipulate the information flow in such a way that it could sever civilian, and to some degree, military data transmissions This would in effect blind America from the world’s maelstrom of communication and data flow.
Last month the new Russian spy vessel Yantar, which has known deep-sea submersible capabilities, sailed down the U.S. eastern seaboard and towards Cuba on a route with multiple critical communications cables, the final one running near U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay.
All this sounds very sinister. What if Russia were to tap our communications, or even worse, cut them off totally in a spot so deep it would be challenging to repair? What if they have placed devices to do so that could be triggered at any time? What if those Tu-142 Bears were armed and we let them just carpet bomb our aircraft carrier? The list of worries goes on and on.
The truth is that the U.S. is guilty of these same actions and many more. We have been tapping undersea communications system for decades. We even have a full-on highly modified Seawolf Class submarine that is built to accomplish those exact operations, but without anyone ever being able to detect them.
We also fly by foreign vessels to see what they are up to, exercising our freedom of navigation, although maybe not in such a dramatic manner as the Russians. Then again, they don’t have super carriers like we do. Speaking of freedom of navigation, we just sailed a destroyer right through China’s claimed territorial waters against their will.
There can be little doubt that Russia is trying to demonstrate that it is powerful once again around the globe. Sure, their actions may seem reckless or even childish, and politically they may be useless or even damning, but militarily they are trying to look tough in the face of the world’s only super power.
Overtly demonstrating that they have the ability to damage the communications networks we so depend on, or show that even a mighty U.S. super carrier is still vulnerable to a pair of geriatric maritime patrol aircraft is just Putin using what he has available to look powerful on the world stage and domestically.
Militarily speaking, all this is meaningless foreplay until a cable actually gets severed or a Tu-142 drops a depth charge or anti-ship cruise missile. These actions do make the world a more volatile place, and it complicates the geopolitical sphere greatly. As for a new Cold War, well it sure does feel chilly doesn’t it?
These complications do invite risk, but it is not like Russia is doing anything we haven’t done on a basic military level. As such, maybe it is not the so much the gun, but whose finger is on the trigger that worries us so much.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com
Photos via U.S. Navy/wikicommons