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April 15, 2014

What The Captain Of The USS Donald Cook Faced This Weekend In The Black Sea

Fire Controlman 1st Class Elizabeth Sharpe monitors a console in the combat information center aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Guttierrez III/RELEASED)

This past weekend things got interesting in the Black Sea as two Russian fighter/bombers gave the USS Donald Cook an up close and personal airshow.

While these sorts of confrontations may have been somewhat common during the Cold War, 12 flybys standout these days. This is especially true when we're talking about a ship operating in the area of Russian military aggression against Ukraine.

Given that one misjudgment by either side could have far reaching consequences, it's fair to presume that the Russians had the full attention of the Donald Cook's crew.

To get an idea of what it's like to be in that situation I asked Commander Bryan McGrath (USN, Ret) to provide a guest post on how the Navy trains captains for situations like this. During his 20 plus year career Bryan served as the commanding officer of USS BULKELEY (DDG 84), a sister ship to the Cook.

Press reports indicate that on Saturday, a Russian SU-24 FENCER made “…multiple, close-range passes near an American warship in the Black Sea for more than 90 minutes…” flying within 1000 yards of the USS DONALD COOK (DDG 75) at an altitude of approximately 500 feet. DONALD COOK is an ARLEIGH BURKE Class guided missile destroyer equipped with the Aegis Combat System, the SPY-1D phased-array radar and dozens of surface to air missiles, and the SU-24 is a Soviet-era all-weather attack jet still in service with the Russian Air Force. The incident was no doubt tense, but a few thoughts from someone who has dealt with a few close aboard passes may provide some context.

1. While this type of thing is not “common”, it is meticulously trained for. US ships are equipped with sophisticated embedded training devices that allow for very realistic training. The crew of the DONALD COOK has likely gone through scores if not hundreds of scenarios in which conditions very much like what were seen on Saturday are imposed upon the crew and the crew must then react. Although the exact wording and the rules of engagement that govern their use are classified, press reports indicate that the COOK made numerous attempts to contact the Russian aircraft, but were not answered. Those “queries” would have been practiced throughout the training cycle and even from watch to watch while on deployment. The queries would have been made over at least two different frequencies, commonly known as the “military air distress” frequency and the “international air distress” frequency. It is likely that the pilot of the FENCER heard them, but was pre-briefed not to answer.

2. The Captain of the Destroyer had a lot of guidance. Prior to the DONALD COOK’s transit into the Black Sea, it is likely that the Commanding Officer (CO) had in depth discussions of “what if’s” with both his immediate superior (the Battle Group Commander) and the Sixth Fleet Commander. They would have discussed a range of scenarios and the actions considered appropriate. They would have discussed concepts such as “hostile acts” and “hostile intent” in detail. Additionally, it is likely that while this incident was ongoing, the CO was in constant communication with his superiors, passing them pertinent information and characterizing the situation. The CO of a U.S. ship does not have a “right” to self-defense. He has an obligation to exercise it. That obligation would have been near to his mind, and he would have had a clear understanding of just what constituted a self-defense engagement.

3. The CO was where he needed to be. The Aegis cruisers that joined the fleet in the 1980’s were the first U.S. warships designed for the Captain to be somewhere other than the bridge during combat operations (as opposed to what we’re used to seeing in WWII movies). The DONALD COOK is no different. It is very likely that the CO was in the “Combat Information Center (CIC)”, which is where his team of operators are located who employ the sensors, weapons, and command and control links that make the ship so powerful. Though the situation was likely very tense (at least initially), the space would have been eerily quiet, as most communication occurs over headsets and microphones, with perhaps a random radio frequency brought up in a speaker for emphasis. There are few things more impressive than a modern destroyer at the top of its game doing its job well. There is no wasted motion. All communication is brief. There is far more silence than there is chatter.

4. It is possible DONALD COOK knew the FENCER was inbound before it obtained radar contact. The United States continues to maintain an impressive array of “national assets” that enable it to sustain surveillance on areas of high interest, which this part of the world assuredly is—at least now; DONALD COOK could have received reports that the Russian aircraft had taken off. Although the Black Sea is confined waterspace, it is also 700 miles across at its widest point, so it is likely that a plane taking off from Russia would have had several hundred miles to fly in order to intercept the ship. This of course, depends on where it launched from. DONALD COOK also could have been alerted by electronic emissions from the FENCER’s onboard systems, which often are detected before radar contact is gained. It would be surprising indeed if DONALD COOK did not have “heads up” on the FENCER before it (the FENCER) was in position to do anything mischievous. That said, until someone put a pair of human eyes on the FENCER, that it was “unarmed” (as is reported) could not have been known. The FENCER would have been assumed to be armed. Often this visual confirmation is performed by a carrier based fighter jet (or in this geography, a land based jet), but there are no reports of there having been any U.S. jets involved in this scenario. Therefore, the “unarmed call” would have been made by a trained observer topside on the destroyer only when the FENCER had come within visual range—which is well inside its weapons release range. This certainly would have added to the tension, but once the “wings clean” report was received from the observer, tensions would have declined.

5. An attack on the DONALD COOK by the FENCER would have been illogical. It is logical that the Russians do not want war with us any more than we want war with them. The Russian pilot—unless he or she decided to act independently and crash the plane into the ship—was almost certainly under strict orders to avoid overtly provocative acts. For instance, we have reports that the FENCER passed at an altitude of 500 feet; if it got to 500 feet from a steep dive, this would be overtly provocative. More likely, the FENCER declined in altitude slowly, over time, in order NOT to be provocative. And while 1000 yards may seem close when one considers a jet moving at several hundred knots, it is still six ship lengths away from the DONALD COOK (or put another way, 45 DONALD COOKS in width). The closest point of approach to the ship was likely also something the pilot was ordered to observe. Given the illogic of an attack but the very clear logic of messaging and surveillance, the crew of DONALD COOK likely entered this situation with a bias toward it NOT being an attack. This should not be confused with it being “unready”. Quite the opposite. But it would have been looking for deviations from the expected such as deep dive angle, erratic maneuvering, and high rates of speed, to overturn the initial (correct) bias.

6. The SPY Radar adds interesting wrinkles. Some are familiar with the concept of “search” and “track” radars, in that search radars generally are lower frequency with greater range (and poorer accuracy); while track radars are higher frequency and are more accurate. In days past, a ship searched a given volume of airspace with one radar and then relied on the tracking radar to provide “fire control quality” data to the weapon system. The act of obtaining that data—illuminating the target with fire control radar—could under certain circumstances—be viewed by a fighter/attack jet as a hostile act to which it would then be obligated to respond. This is not the case with the SPY radar. If the SPY radar holds the track, then the track can be engaged—no additional tracking radar is required in order to fire the missile (although a high frequency “director” is used to illuminate the target during the final few seconds of missile flight). This is important because the FENCER pilot would have known the moment his onboard electronic sensors picked up the SPY radar transmission, that he or she was being tracked with sufficient accuracy to be shot down. This knowledge cannot be have made their flight terribly comfortable.

This sort of thing is likely to continue, and some behind the scenes discussions and coordination between the U.S. and Russia would be worthwhile. For the moment, my sense is that both sides realize what is at stake and are ensuring their tactical units are well-advised. So while it would be improper to overhype this incident, it would be just as improper not to view it with concern.

Bryan McGrath commanded the destroyer USS BULKELEY (DDG 84) from 2004-2006. He is currently the Managing Director of the FerryBridge Group and is the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

Follow Bryan on Twitter

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posted by DrewM. at 10:20 AM

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