Russians Target Ballistic Missile Defence Ship Again

For the second time in two years Russian strike jets have buzzed the US Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook, except in the latest episode not in the Black Sea but in the Baltic.

What makes the Arleigh Burke Class warship so interesting to the Russians – and therefore, Moscow feels, worthy of some close attention – is her status as a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) vessel.

Russian jets buzz USS Donald CookA Russian Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft makes a very low
altitude pass past the USS Donald Cook on April 12. Image: US Navy.

The Donald Cook is one of four forward-based US Navy destroyers (operating from Rota in Spain) that are BMD-capable. They sail European waters to provide NATO nations 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 by the 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. The Kremlin views them as a very provocative presence, hence the Donald Cook’s encounters with low-flying strike jets.

Referred to by the US Navy as ‘several close interactions’, the latest incidents also involved a Helix helicopter adopting the Cold War tactic (used by both sides back then) of photographing a NATO vessel up close.

Helix helicopter

The KA-27 Helix flies close to the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic. Image: US Navy.

‘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.

RUSSIAN-BUZZ-PAST

Two Su-24 Fencers pass very close to the USS Donald Cook on April 12, 2016. Image: US Navy.

The following day the SU-24s were back, but this time just after the 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.

WIFRBuzzReport2014

The news report on USS Donald Cook’s previous encounter with low flying Russian strike jets, as published in the June 2014 edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine.

The USS Donald Cook was last subjected to the same kind of jet buzz treatment while on patrol in the Black Sea at the height of Russia’s intervention in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The destroyer was sailing through 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 minute 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.”

Episodes of Cold War close calls at sea between NATO and Russian submarines are detailed in Iain Ballantyne’s ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books). More information here.
Visit the Orion Publishing Group web site for more on ‘Hunter Killers’
Iain is also Editor of the global naval news WARSHIPS IFR magazine, which will be providing further analysis in a forthcoming edition. For more naval news information and details on the magazine visit www.warshipsifr.com

The Soviet Spy Who Built British Warships

The Soviet Union’s top spy in America during the 1950s used the cover name Rudolf Abel but was in truth William August Fisher. Born on Tyneside, in the north east of England, in 1903, Fisher worked at Swan Hunter as a teenage apprentice draughtsman when the shipyard was constructing both warships and merchant vessels.

In 1957 the FBI apprehend Fisher in a New York hotel after busting into his room, bringing to an end his bid to set up a spying network seeking out intelligence on American nuclear weapons, including the Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The parents of ‘Colonel Abel’, as he was known in the USA during his trial, were anti-Tsarist political activists who returned to Russia in 1921 after the communists seized power. Fisher worked in signals intelligence for the Soviets during WW2 before utilising his British upbringing to successfully insert himself undercover in the USA in the late 1940s.

At one stage he worked alongside Konon Molody, who, as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’ in the early 1960s would run the notorious Portland Spy Ring in the UK, stealing secrets of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ begins by masterfully plunging us into ‘Abel’s’ humdrum life in late 1950s USA as he tries to go about his espionage as unobtrusively as possible. The spy, a talented artist, takes an easel and paints with him for some landscape work to cover a visit to a dead letter drop.

Berlin-wall
An East German policeman stands guard over a worker constructing the Berlin Wall, to ensure he does not try to escape to the West. Former US Navy officer turned lawyer James Donovan had to cross from West to East Berlin to negotiate for the spy swap on the so-called ‘Bridge of Spies’, as featured in the Steven Spielberg movie. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

‘Abel’ (Mark Rylance) is later arrested in his underpants back at the hotel and put on trial (fully clothed). He is defended by insurance lawyer, and former US Navy officer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had also been an advocate at the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials. Despite public outrage Donovan manages to get Abel sentenced to prison rather than receive the death penalty.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

Fast forward to early 1962, and Donovan plays a pivotal role in springing shot-down U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in exchange for ‘Abel’. The swap takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, which spans a stretch of cold water lying between West and East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie – one of the controlled gateways through the newly constructed Berlin Wall – another release takes place simultaneously, of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) earlier arrested by the East Germans for being a spy.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

That, in essence, is the core story of ‘Bridge of Spies’. It does play fast and loose with some of the facts but succeeds in powerfully and movingly conveying the big moral issues of the time as well as plunging us convincingly into the places where it all happened.Despite its simplistic boiling down of a complex story it still presents a multi-layered yarn, never resorting to histrionics or pompous moralising. It never gives in to the temptation of having Hanks’ character indulge in ludicrous action man antics or gunplay.

Mark Rylance’s subtle performance preserves the enigma of ‘Abel’ (who during his trial did not reveal his real British identity) while still conveying the inner paradoxes of a cultured man working for a brutal totalitarian state.

‘Bridge of Spies’ (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) will be released on DVD and Blu Ray formats this spring.

This is a version of a review to be published in the forthcoming March 2016 edition of WARSHIP IFR magazine (due out on February 19). www.warshipsifr.com

Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) which tells the story of the Royal Navy’s submariners and submarines during the Cold War.

Among other things, ‘Hunter Killers’ looks at the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and certain aspects of Soviet espionage in the UK that sought to snatch Royal Navy submarine secrets. Iain is currently writing ‘The Deadly Trade’, a history of submarine warfare from Ancient times to today, for the same publisher.

A cult techno-thriller

The Polish edition of ‘Hunter Killers’ has been published by Rebis. It has garnered attention across a range of blogs and on various web sites, not least an article in the Polish edition of ‘Newsweek’.

Polish Newsweek

Reporter Mariusz Nowik suggested that had ‘Podwodni Myśliwi’ (or ‘Underwater Hunters’, as the Polish edition has been re-christened) been published decades earlier, ‘it would have ended up creating an international scandal.’

According to his ‘Newsweek’ piece ‘Underwater Hunters’ manages to ‘reveal scenes of Cold War operations mainly in the Atlantic and the Barents Sea, which until recently were known mainly [only by] retired officers of the Royal Navy and the Soviet submarine forces.’

PolishMag1However, the star turn for raising awareness of ‘Underwater Hunters’ has to be Piotr Wloczyk who interviewed me for an expansive Q&A interview on topics related to the Cold War under the sea. This was published in ‘Historia do Rzeczy’ – a serious major military history magazine, of 100 pages, aimed at the national market – whose production values are exceedingly high.

In his blog, posted at the end of July, Tomasz Borówka asked if ‘Underwater Hunters’ was the ‘historic book for the summer?’ His answer was: ‘With the greatest pleasure!’ Observing that it is ‘a fascinating story about British submarines during the Cold War’ Mr Borówka also related: ‘When I spotted this book on the shelf in the supermarket and recognized the author’s name on the cover, I made the decision to purchase in a split second. Iain Ballantyne is a writer few people in Poland have heard of (as far as I know “Underwater Hunters” is his first book translated into Polish). This author is, though, widely known elsewhere, and for dealing with the history of the Royal Navy at war.’

Mr Borówka mentions one of my other books (‘Warspite’), which he has read and also recommends to anyone with an interest in such things. This leads him on to mention that the ‘modern submarine’ successor of the WW1 and WW2 battleship Warspite (main player in the above book) is featured in ‘Underwater Hunters’.

After observing that Cold War era British submariners ‘often rubbed shoulders with death’ Mr Borówka suggests ‘Underwater Hunters’ reads like ‘a cult techno-thriller.’

It is though, he remarks, ‘one hundred percent based on facts, established through relationships of people who over the years risked their lives in hostile depths of the ocean.’

Magazine spread

According to the ‘HISTORIAXXWIEKU’ blogUnderwater Hunters’ is a book that ‘deserves the attention of all those who are interested in such Cold War, and the history of naval warfare.’

Meanwhile my friend, and fellow UK-based author, Richard Hargreaves – while on a recent research trip for his next book in Poland – found not only copies of his latest book but also ‘Underwater Hunters’ (in a shopping mall bookshop in Lublin, in the south-east of Poland).  Richard’s excellent, visceral epic of the final days of the Third Reich is in the UK called ‘Hitler’s Final Fortress – Breslau 1945’. In Poland it’s ‘Ostatnia Twierdza Hitlera. Breslau 1945’

HK in Lublin‘Underwater Hunters’ on sale in Lublin

The fact that some of the Polish reviews and articles have referenced ‘Killing the Bismarck’ is appropriate. The German battleship set out on her ill-fated maiden voyage from Gotenhafen (the Polish port of Gdynia, captured and renamed by the Nazis in 1939 only assuming its previous name again at the end of WW2). I visited Gdynia in 1999, to report on a NATO exercise, staying aboard the US Navy cruiser USS Hue City.

‘Killing the Bismarck’ tells the epic story of the Kriegsmarine flagship’s breakout into the Atlantic, the destruction of HMS Hood and her subsequent destruction at the hands of a Royal Navy battle group.

Bearing in mind the hunger in Poland for military and naval history, I have often thought that  ‘Killing the Bismarck’ deserves a Polish edition, too. Should ‘Underwater Hunters’ prove a success maybe someone will come knocking to put a Polish edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ on the market, too?

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