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BOY ON BURNING DECK – WHAT THE USS DONALD COOK AND THE POLISH NAVY WERE DOING OFF KALININGRAD WHEN THEY WERE BUZZED BY THE RUSSIAN AIRFORCE

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By John Helmer, Moscow

The confrontation last week between Russian aircraft and a US-Polish naval operation in the Baltic Sea, within shooting distance of Kaliningrad, was a long anticipated and professionally executed exercise by the military commanders of all three countries. “Unprofessional”, as Admiral Mark Ferguson commanding US Naval Forces in Europe called it, was the very least thing it was. But who provoked, who feinted, who attacked first, and who defended are questions the publicity that has followed is meant to obscure.

One outcome that was not anticipated by either the attackers or defenders has begun to materialize in Warsaw. There, the rhetoric of military buildup along Poland’s eastern frontier has run into the cold calculation that Poland’s survival chances aren’t likely to be much better than those of the USS Donald Cook, if there had been a real firefight, Turkish style.

The US destroyer Donald Cook is armed with the Aegis combat system, a combination of missiles intended to attack Russian nuclear, as well as non-nuclear missile batteries on land, sea, and in the air. The ship is normally docked at the NATO base at Rota, Spain. Between April 8 and 11, it was at the Polish port of Gdynia [1]. The US Navy press reported [2] the port call as part of the vessel’s “fourth forward-deployed patrol in support of ballistic missile defense of Europe…Such port visits serve to enhance U.S.-Polish relations as the two nations work together for a stable, secure and prosperous region.”

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The Donald Cook departed from Gdynia on April 11 and sailed northeast to Klaipeda, Lithuania, where it made port on the morning of April 14 [3]. There isn’t a ferry between the two ports. Driving on land the long way around the Russian territory of Kaliningrad takes 8 hours. If there were a direct ferry, it would take no more than 6 hours. The US Navy destroyer took more than three days.

In the interval, steaming very slowly, the Donald Cook conducted exercises with SH-2G Super Seasprite helicopter units of the Polish Navy. At a distance of about 70 kilometres offshore from Kaliningrad and the Russian missile, naval and air base complex around Baltysk, the US-Polish operations were shadowed by units of the Russian Navy and Air Force. According to the US Navy version [4], in the mid-afternoon of April 11 the “Donald Cook was conducting deck landing drills with an Allied military helicopter when two Russian SU-24 jets made numerous, close-range and low altitude passes”.

After suspending the Polish helicopter landings for a time, the operation reportedly resumed. The next day, April 12, the US Navy says “a Russian KA-27 Helix helicopter conducted circles at low altitude around the ship, seven in total, at approximately 5 p.m. local. The helicopter passes were also deemed unsafe and unprofessional by the ship’s commanding officer. About 40 minutes following the interaction with the Russian helicopter, two Russian SU-24 jets made numerous close-range and low altitude passes, 11 in total. The Russian aircraft flew in a simulated attack profile and failed to respond to repeated safety advisories in both English and Russian.”

The last pass was videotaped on board, and the images published to the world by the Pentagon (lead image). By ignoring two days of more than 20 Russian aircraft sorties around the Donald Cook, it has been made to appear the two Su-24s were simulating a strafing attack. Subsequently, Secretary of State John Kerry announced [5]: “It’s unprofessional and under the rules of engagement that could have been a shot down, so people need to understand that this is serious business and the United States is not going to be intimidated in high seas. We respect our freedom of navigation … and we are communicating to the Russians how dangerous this is.”

What actually had happened has been more precisely reported in the Polish press. There it has been revealed that the Russian aircraft were not armed with ordnance, but with electronic countermeasures pods designed for jamming hostile gunnery and missile targeting systems. If the commanders and their signals staff on board the Donald Cook were not themselves confused or jammed, they knew that the final two passes, after the nine earlier ones that afternoon, was anything but an attack simulation.

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Source: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36050689 [6]

The Polish state radio also reported the Ministry of Defence in Warsaw as claiming the joint US-Polish operation “will be practising take-offs and landings from the deck of the ship.” This, Polish defence reports say, was false. According to the Polish sources, the 20-year old helicopters have performed several thousand landings and takeoffs on Polish vessels at sea. The Polish state media have also reported that after the suspension of the April 11 operation, the buzzing the next day put a stop to the operation altogether. If true, the Su-24 “attack” achieved its purpose.

But what was the US and Polish purpose, and why were so many warnings issued by the Russian side, and ignored by the US and Polish commanders?

It was almost exactly two years ago that the USS Donald Cook was buzzed by a pair of Su-24s in the Black Sea. On that occasion [7] the Russian aircraft made their passes at a slightly higher altitude. They too were equipped with electronic signal jammers. The operations were reported by the Russian side at the time as defensive of shore installations on Crimea and the mainland. In the Russian interpretation, each of the Donald Cook’s “forward deployed patrols” is an operation aimed at Russian naval and shore defences, and at Russia’s long-range nuclear missile deployments which are targeted at western Europe and the US. These include the mobile S-400s, nuclear armed, which have been reported to be moving in and out of Kaliningrad. As analysed here [7], “nothing an Aegis-armed missile battery does within range of Russia can be routine at any time.”

As a forward deployment of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system, the Donald Cook’s port-call in Poland, and its subsequent cruise across the Baltic to Lithuania, make, for the Russian side, a US violation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2010, amounting to an “extraordinary event” and cause for Russia’s withdrawal from the pact, according to Article XIV. For the treaty wording, click to open [8]. For an early assessment by the US Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of how the two sides regard the US Navy’s Aegis deployments in the Black and Baltic Seas, read this [9]. For a summary of Russian military interpretations of the Aegis deployments, before the start of the US campaigns on the Ukraine and Syrian fronts, read this [10].

The first three of the Donald Cook’s “patrols” were in the Black Sea. Last week, the Donald Cook was making its first foray against Russian targets under the Baltic Sea and onshore.

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CLICK TO ENLARGE [11]

Source: http://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/prace_41_en_0.pdf [12]

By the time the Donald Cook docked at Klaipeda, its captain, Commander Charles Hampton, had cleared with the Pentagon this statement [13]: “The objection of the United States is not about fear but about safe and professional behaviour between international militaries in international airspace and international waters. The US Navy will continue to operate forward with allies and in doing so we will not cede space. As you have seen in the media, the flybys were very low, very fast – and were inconsistent with the normal operations of international militaries in international waters and in international airspace.”

The press did not ask Hampton to clarify what his vessel and the Polish units had been doing “operating forward”, and how their operation was “consistent with the normal operations of international militaries.”

The Polish state media and Polish political and military sources have answered some of these questions. In this report [14] Polish Radio counted the number of Russian sorties flown over the Cook on April 11-12. The radio also reported that “because of the actions of the Russians” the Polish helicopter operation had been “cancelled”. In other Polish media, the Defence Ministry cover story for the operation was exposed. The four Polish Navy helicopters [15] have so far practised a total of 3,600 landings and takeoffs on and from Polish Navy craft over the past decade.

Onboard US Navy photographs of the Polish Seasprite reveals it was operating a special piece of equipment. As the photographs below indicate, this is a device which can be dropped by the helicopter into the water and towed.

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Seasprite helicopter of Polish Navy lands on deck of USS Cook on April 11; right, close-up of anti-submarine detection
device

Its technical name is a towed magnetic anomaly detector. Combined with onboard radars, sea buoys and other devices, this equipment is designed for tracking and attacking submarines. For more on the operations plans of the Polish aircraft, read this [16].

What this suggests is that the Polish operation was aimed at Russian submarines below the Baltic surface, while the Donald Cook was testing operations against the Russian shore systems which defend against the US Aegis missiles.

A bulletin [17] from the British think-tank Chatham House in London confirms that the US-Polish operation appeared to the Russian side as an attack simulation against Kaliningrad — and for that reason triggered the Russian response. “The videos and statements released by the US Navy give only a partial picture. The close fly-bys seen on video do not seem consistent with the ‘simulated attack profile’ which the US described the Russian aircraft as flying – but it has to be remembered that much of the Russian bombers’ activities would have been observed while the Donald Cook was tracking them long before they came into visual range. Other crucial aspects of the incident which remain undisclosed include what was happening in the electronic environment; what indication the Russian aircraft’s emissions, or lack of them, may have given of their actual intent. In particular, a lack of information on what other activities were taking place in the area at the time makes it hard to judge the picture as seen from Moscow – whether some kind of US or NATO activity there, either on or below the surface of the Baltic, was seen as a particular challenge by Russia which required a strong warning signal to be sent. Some Russian statements have tied this act of dangerous non-verbal communication to the fact that the Donald Cook was conducting training with a Polish aircraft within reach of Russia’s Kaliningrad Region.”

unnamedPolish analysts have gone further, pointing out that if the joint drill was part of a plan of attack against Russian targets, then Poland itself, like Ukraine, has become a “front-line state”. Polish political analyst Stanislas Balcerac (right) has commented skeptically: “Let’s see how much these are worth in practice, our alliances [with the US and with Germany]. And let’s not be afraid to take care of our rights and for adequate compensation [18]. The Polish Navy is practising for a US attack on Kaliningrad by guarding the destroyers like the Donald Cook from Russian submarine interception, so “we have been caught provoking the Russians right at our very border. And since we have officially taken part in the surprise NATO military manoeuvre at armed-to-the-teeth Kaliningrad, and that has visibly upset the Russians, we should demand from our American allies compensation for the status of a front-line state, just like Egypt and Israel, which collect $ 3 billion in aid every year.”

According to Balcerac, the April 11-12 events surrounding the Donald Cook at sea last week have sharpened the policy conflicts between factions in the Polish government, presidency and General Staff. Some favour more reticence with Moscow, less reliance on security promises from the US and NATO. Others favour more confrontation with the Russians in order to attract greater US and NATO funding for the Polish budget.

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Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski (above), one of the Polish confrontationists, claimed [19] the deployment of NATO forces in the region should not be considered as a provocation against Moscow, but rather “a decisive military measure aimed at deterring potential aggressors. Showing weakness is often seen as an incentive for aggression.”

At the time of the incidents at sea, the Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz (below, left) was at NATO headquarters in Brussels meeting with the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg (right), and US General Philip Breedlove, commander of NATO forces in Europe.

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According to the Warsaw communique [20], Macierewicz “thanked General Breedlove during talks for taking the Polish point of view into account when planning the deployment of armed forces on the eastern flank, indicating at the same time, that without the presence of international NATO troops, defense would not be effective. General Breedlove expressed his appreciation for Poland’s involvement in work on the development of a plan to strengthen the eastern flank.”

The minister and the ministry have remained silent on the Donald Cook operation. So the ministry spokesman in Warsaw was asked three questions:

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There has been no reply from Warsaw.