Russian and US Warships Are Headed for the Black Sea
Russians from the Caspian, Americans from the Med
The Russian Navy is sending 10 vessels, a mixture of landing craft and small gunboats, from its Caspian Sea Flotilla to the Black Sea. The deployment is ostensibly part of a larger series of readiness drills, but comes amid a continuing and worrisome Russian military buildup near the country’s borders with Ukraine. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, has also said there has been a spike in GPS jamming in the region, which has impacted its ability to monitor the situation as part of an existing agreement between Russia and Ukraine. All of this only further fuels concerns that a significant escalation in the conflict between these two countries may be imminent.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the planned movement of the boats from the Caspian on Apr. 8, 2021. The press release said that the Caspian Flotilla vessels would join their Russian Navy counterparts in the Black Sea for exercises focused on testing their “readiness to repel sea and airborne assault forces.” Russia’s Southern Military District, which includes the Black Sea Fleet, as well as the Caspian Flotilla, had announced on Apr. 2 that there would be major upcoming readiness drills involving approximately 15,000 personnel. On Apr. 6, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there would be other such exercises, which the Russians refer to as “control checks,” coming across the country, too.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not specifically identify what vessels are now set to head to the Black Sea, but its press release did include a picture of three Project 11770, or Serna class, landing craft. The release also used the phrase “artillery boats,” a term Russia applies to its Project 1204, or Shmel class, gunboats. The Caspian Flotilla has around six Serna class landing craft and four Shmel class gunboats, which would align perfectly with the statement that 10 vessels, in total, would take part in the forthcoming exercises.
The 84-foot-long Sernas displace around 100 tons with a full combat load and are designed to carry a single T-72/T-90-series or T-80-series main battle tank, two BTR-80-series wheeled armored vehicles, or up to 92 troops or 50 tons of other cargo. They have a range of approximately 600 nautical miles when traveling at a cruising speed of 12 knots, or around 100 nautical miles at their top speed of 30 knots. The Black Sea is only around 700 miles across, east to west, at its longest. The distance between Russia and Ukraine across the Sea of Azov, just to the north of the Black Sea and the site of a major skirmish between Ukrainian and Russian forces in 2018, is under 200 miles.
The approximately 71-ton displacement Shmels have a primary armament consisting of a 76mm D-56TS gun in a bow turret derived from the one on the PT-76 light tank. They also have two 25mm cannons in a turret at the stern, as well as provisions for various machine guns and automatic grenade launchers. They can also have a single 17-tube 140mm BM-14-17 rocket launcher, capable of bombarding targets close to shore, and can carry naval mines, as well.
Though Russian officials have said that this deployment, which is a complex undertaking that will have to involve moving the boats overland [through a system of river-connecting channels], is part of the recently announced “control checks,” it’s hard not to see it as part of a broader signal the Kremlin is sending to its counterparts in Kyiv. These 10 vessels are just part of a massive stream of military assets, including huge trainloads of tanks, other armored vehicles, artillery, air defense assets, and other military equipment, that have been flowing into southwestern Russia [purposely in broad daylight] for nearly two weeks now, as you can read more about here.
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 6, 2021
This is notable. These are 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm heavy mortars, which usually come with 2S7 Pion/Malka heavy artillery. The 291st Artillery Brigade in Ingushetia is the only Southern Mil District unit with them and it appears they're moving towards the border.https://t.co/JzToIETLvN pic.twitter.com/adjlKMNXqO
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 6, 2021
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 5, 2021
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 6, 2021
Voronezh. Buk 9A317 TELAR, MT-LB s and R-419-MP radio-relay station.
— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) April 7, 2021
Krasnodar Krai. Pantsir systems on the move.
— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) April 8, 2021
Week 2: #Russia Military Build Up going full force toward Ukraine border and into/from Belarus.
US says it has asked Russia to “explain provocations” as tensions escalate. Video of Russian railway transporting mil vehicles taken on Monday: pic.twitter.com/GZoT69BWV3
— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) April 6, 2021
A new Russian military outpost with dozens of tanks and other vehicles has also now appeared in the country’s Voronezh Oblast. Transport-erector-launchers associated with the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile and the Iskander-K ground-launched cruise missile have been spotted in Voronezh, as well. This region sits right on the border with Ukraine.
It looks like we have a tank battalion and a tank company, a 2S3 Akatsiya battalion, 2 Msta-S battalions (possibly one Bn (-)), a Msta-B battery, a BM-27 Uragan MLRS battery, a TOS-1A MLRS battery (-), 1-2 motorized rifle companies with BMPs, tank transporters, etc. https://t.co/CA1ZpGzSul pic.twitter.com/6x4RBp2RJG
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) April 8, 2021
The first spot of the Iskander column comes from unsurprisingly from Tiktok on 25 MAR 2021 on the highway between Ekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. Note the white camo and the number 121 on the first green transloader. pic.twitter.com/1o2A72ECEB
— tom (@tom_bullock_) April 8, 2021
— tom (@tom_bullock_) April 8, 2021
The statement about the deployment of the Caspian Flotilla vessels coincided with Ukraine announcing its own snap naval drills in the Black Sea. CNN has now reported that the U.S. Navy may be looking to deploy its own warships into that body of water in a show of force, as well.
Yesterday, the U.S. Air Force also sent two B-1B bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on a long-range, round-trip mission to the Aegean Sea, just south of the waterway leading into the Black Sea. The ostensible reason for these sorties was to “showcase the U.S. commitment to European security,” which would seem to be related, at least in part, to the situation developing along the Russia-Ukraine border. It’s also worth noting that the Air Force previously disclosed that a mission that B-1Bs conducted in the Black Sea region last year effectively saw those aircraft train to decapitate Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Today, two USAF B-1Bs HORN11 & 12 completed a round trip Bomber Task Force mission from Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota to the Aegean Sea in order to “showcase the US commitment to European security”. pic.twitter.com/nA15khQdXF
— Aircraft Spots (@AircraftSpots) April 8, 2021
With regards to the newly announced deployment of additional naval assets, the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet does already have more robust amphibious warfare and other light boat capabilities, as well as larger warships and submarines. However, the 10 Caspian Flotilla vessels would still provide useful additional amphibious landing and inshore fire support capacity during any actual combat operations.
It’s also worth noting that Russia has conducted exercises in the region, including in and around the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, in the past, which did not presage new rounds of major fighting. This has included dramatic amphibious landing drills, among other things. Since 2014, the government in Kyiv has been fighting separatists in eastern parts of the country known collectively as the Donbass. Though ostensibly local, these groups have significant ties to Russian intelligence agencies and are actively supported by actual Russian military units.
At the same time, there is a growing consensus, among foreign governments, as well as experts and observers, that aspects of this particular situation do more strongly point to an impending crisis of some kind. In a press conference on Apr. 7, top Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby specifically said that the U.S. government had a “concern” about what he described as “the deteriorating security situation resulting from increased Russian Federation activity along the Ukrainian border.”
“The rapid and building presence of Russian forces along that border and in Crimea certainly are not conducive to creating an air of stability, you know – you know, in – in Ukraine,” he continued. “As I said yesterday, it’s not completely clear what the Russians are doing there, we’d like to understand that more, and that uncertainty is obviously not contributing to a more stable, more secure situation.”
Online flight tracking software has shown a flurry of aerial intelligence-gathering activity on the part of the U.S. military, as well as the United Kingdom, in the region in recent weeks, but it’s unclear what they may have been able to glean about the troop buildup. U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, as well as RC-135V/W Rivet Joint spy planes, have been observed flying in the region. U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes and U.K. Royal Air Force Rivet Joints, have been spotted, as well.
“I’m not going to get into intelligence assessments here from the podium,” Kirby told reporters yesterday.
The United States have had a USAF RQ-4 surveillance UAV skirt Crimea before flying up over occupied Eastern Ukraine.
As well as a USN P-8 Poseidon Anti Submarine aircraft patroling the Black Sea off Crimea. pic.twitter.com/3i3bE8N4Db
— Alex Tiffin – FND, BPD (@RespectIsVital) April 2, 2021
The US might actually have two surveillance platforms airborne near Crimea. FORTE10 and 'No Callsign'. pic.twitter.com/rqhdFUGFtE
— The Intel Crab (@IntelCrab) April 2, 2021
RC-135 Rivet Joint
Now conducting ISR mission over the Black Sea, off Crimea at 11:00z pic.twitter.com/CTZy5rdS3Z
— BlueSky (@AirSpecInt) April 6, 2021
As already noted, however, OSCE has also reported increased GPS jamming in the region, something that has been a factor, on various levels, for years now and is almost universally linked to Russian forces. This has had a major impact on its ability to monitor developments along the de facto boundary, or “line of contact,” between separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and the rest of the country. This international organization has a formal mandate to conduct surveillance of military activities in this region under the Minsk Protocol, as well as the subsequent Minsk II deal, which Russia and Ukraine first agreed to in 2014 and that is aimed at ultimately resolving the ongoing conflict diplomatically.
“On the evening of 6 April, an SMM [Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine] long-range unmanned aerial vehicle(UAV) was unable to take off from its base … to conduct regular monitoring of areas on both sides of the contact line, due to dual GPS signal interference assessed as caused by jamming,” according to an OSCE release on Apr. 7. “This is the first time such interference has prevented a take-off since the Mission launched long-range UAV operations in October 2014.”
“Since 21 March 2021, the SMM’s long-range UAVs have been experiencing increased levels of GPS signal interference on take-off and landing, affecting both of their GPS receivers,” the statement continued. “Over the last two months, 62.5 percent [sic] of SMM long-range UAV flights encountered GPS signal interference, and on 75 percent [sic] of the affected flights, it occurred more than once.”
Source: The Drive
Turkish authorities have confirmed that two U.S. Navy warships are set to head into the Black Sea soon. There is no official word yet on which vessels will heading into that body of water, but there are reports that the Arleigh Burke class destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt are the ships in question. All of this comes as the Russian military continues to pour forces, including additional naval assets, into the southwestern portion of the country along the border with Ukraine, fueling fears that a new crisis between Moscow and Kyiv, or worse, might be about to erupt.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry disclosed today that it had received a formal notice about the impending transit of the two warships from the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea via the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, both of which are Turkish territorial waters. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, countries that do not have a Black Sea coastline must give advance notice about the deployment of naval vessels in and out of that body of water.
That agreement also places restrictions on how many warships countries outside of the region can have there at once, via limits on the total displaced tonnage of the vessels, and how long these deployments can last.
“A notice was sent to us 15 days ago via diplomatic channels that two U.S. warships would pass to the Black Sea in line with the Montreux Convention,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Apr. 9, 2021, according to Reuters. “The ships will remain in the Black Sea until May 4.”
CNN had reported on Apr. 8 that the Navy was considering sending warships into the Black Sea sometime in the coming weeks.
The U.S. Navy has declined to confirm what warships are now headed into the Black Sea or what they will do once they arrive there. “U.S. Navy ships maintain a regular presence in the Black Sea and abide by the Montreux Convention. As a matter of policy, we do not discuss future operations or ship schedules,” Navy Lieutenant Commander Matthew Comer, a spokesperson for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVFOREUR-AF) and U.S. 6th Fleet, told The War Zone.
Turkish television channel NTV did report, citing sources within the country’s Foreign Ministry, that the USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt were the ships now bound for the Black Sea. These two destroyers are both forward-deployed in Europe, operating from Naval Station Rota in Spain. They have each deployed to the Black Sea on multiple occasions in the past, with the Donald Cook having been in that body of water as recently as February.
If it is true that these are the ships the U.S. Navy is sending, it’s hard not to see their return in the current context as, at least in part, a signal aimed at Russia. Having a pair of Burkes in the Black Sea would offer additional assets to help monitor Russian activity and be in a position to better respond to various contingencies if they were to suddenly emerge.
At the same time, it’s worth pointing that any major conflict involving both Russia and the United States in this region would turn the Black Sea into an anti-ship missile shooting gallery, where Russian forces would have a major advantage, at least initially. Russia’s anti-ship, as well as other anti-access and aerial denial capabilities, in the region have grown since it seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin has since deployed significant numbers of additional combat aircraft, as well as surface-to-air and ground-based anti-ship missile units to bases there. This is in addition to the modernized Black Sea Fleet that largely calls Crimea home. These vessels are packed with a wide array of anti-ship missiles, too. Its Kilo class diesel-electric submarines are also a major threat to American warships in the enclosed body of water.
When Donald Cook, together with the USS Porter, another Arleigh Burke class destroyer forward-deployed in Spain, arrived in the Black Sea earlier this year, they were greeted by an aggressive Russian response. This included being buzzed by an Su-24 Fencer combat jet and nearby drills involving Su-30SM Flankers armed with anti-ship missiles and coastal defense missile batteries in Crimea.
This reality is almost certainly one of the reasons why Navy destroyers based in Spain have been equipped with specialized electronic warfare systems that are, at least in part, designed to defend against anti-ship missiles. You can read more about the AN/SLQ-62 Transportable Electronic Warfare Module-Speed To Fleet (TEWM-STF) system here. These ships have other special modifications, as well, including the SeaRAM point defense systems.
It’s also interesting to note that 15 days ago, when Turkey said the U.S. government formally notified it of its latest plans to send warships into the Black Sea, would be March 25, two days after the conclusion of a major Russian military exercise in the southwestern portion of the country. Significant numbers of troops that had taken part in those drills then stayed in the area afterward, reportedly drawing the attention and concern of U.S. officials.
In addition, On March 26, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a recent spike in fighting between that country’s military and separatists who occupy areas in the eastern portion of the country that is known collectively as the Donbass. Those groups, who have been fighting the government in Kyiv since 2014, have significant ties to Russian intelligence agencies and receive direct support from actual elements of the Russian military.
By March 27, there were clear indications that Russia was conducting a major military buildup along its borders with Ukraine. Russian authorities have since confirmed these deployments, which are still ongoing, though they claim they are part of series of readiness drills across the country.
On March 30, The New York Times reported that U.S. European Command (EUCOM) had raised an internal alert level regarding the security situation in Ukraine from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis.” The latter level was reported to be the most serious on the watch list’s scale.
“The fact that they [the Russians] haven’t been transparent is only causing more instability, more insecurity” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said today. “We’re watching this very very carefully.”
“It is a big build-up… the biggest one that we’ve seen since 2014,” he continued. “We don’t think that the Russian have been totally transparent about what they’re doing.”
"The fact that they haven't been transparent is only causing more instability, more insecurity" he says "We're watching this very very carefully"
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) April 9, 2021
"It is a big build-up…the biggest one that we've seen since 2014" per @PentagonPresSec
— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) April 9, 2021
Source: The Drive