Waltzing with the Russian Bear

By Vice Admiral Donald L. Pilling and Captain Doug Connell, U.S. Navy

With a significant allied air and maritime force in the Adriatic supporting NATO's Implementation Force, interest in a potential Russian presence was high—and viewed with some concern. No Russian battle group had cruised the Mediterranean since 1991. Russian conventional carrier air operations had never been observed: even the roles of the escort ships and the composition of the group's command element were conjectural. Could U.S. and Russian maritime forces cooperate fully in waters that previously had been so hotly contested?

Despite the uncertainties, new opportunities clearly were present. In consultation with Admiral Leighton Smith, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, three goals were set for the deployment:

  • Build confidence that the United States is a suitable partner for naval cooperation.
  • Ascertain the purpose of the present and possible subsequent deployments.
  • Evaluate the military capabilities of the new Russian Federation Navy.

Establishing Contact

Ascertaining the Russian goals for the deployment proved to be a particular challenge. The Russians declined an early invitation to confer and cooperate, citing uncertainties within the Ministry of Defense and an expected exclusive focus on carrier qualifications. After considering some more sophisticated alternatives, we decided just to invite ourselves for a visit, present some obvious incentives for cooperation, offer a return visit to the U.S. carrier, and ask the Russian commanders face to face what they had in mind.

On 3 January, the Kuznetsov , and her Sovremennyy -class escort Besstrashnyy sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. The next day, a U.S. P-3C crew flew to the vicinity of the Russian carrier and read an invitation from Sixth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Donald Pilling to the Russian commander over standard bridgeto-bridge radio circuits. After a brief delay, they were informed that Admiral Igor Kasatonov, First Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy and the embarked commander, would welcome a meeting.

The frigate Pylkiy and oiler Olekhma joined the Kuznetsov north of Tunisia on 5 January. On the morning of the seventh, Vice Admiral Pilling and six staff officers flew to the Hammamet anchorage. Waiting on the flight deck of the Russian ship for our arrival was a band and honor guard of Naval Infantry, Old Glory at the prep on the signal halyard, a long reception line of Russian officers, including more than a dozen flag and general officers, and a deck spot of combat-loaded Flanker, Frogfoot, and Helix aircraft.

This initial visit was electric. With both sides acutely aware of the historic aspects of the event, Commander, Sixth Fleet, and the Russian flag officer stood side by side rendering honors, as two national ensigns flew from the Kuznetsov 's halyards and the national anthems of each nation rang across the flight deck.

Twelve other Russian flag officers were embarked with Admiral Kasatonov, including commanders of test and evaluation units, Naval Aviation Regiment and Brigade commanders, logistics elements, the embarked wing, and battle group and battle force commanders. Standing alongside the Russian air wing commander, wearing a blue flight suit with English language patches and name tag, was Sukhoi Chief Test Pilot Victor Pugachev, inventor of the famous Cobra maneuver.

After brief tours of the flight deck and presentations on each of the three types of aircraft on deck, the Americans were treated to cockpit familiarization sittings in the Su-27K Flanker, with English-speaking Russian aviators perched on the boarding ladders. Although identified by the Russians as a heavy aircraft carrying cruiser, the Kuznetsov has a more powerful and capable air wing complement than that embarked in all but U.S. and French carriers.

The day continued with a joint media conference and a tour of the wardroom and navigational bridge. Formal meetings followed in Admiral Kasatonov's cabin. We had made contact.

The Dance Begins

To evaluate Russian naval capabilities, we proposed joint exercises across a fairly wide range of operations and linked a series of staff discussions and planning sessions to training events at sea. Much of our focus was on the emerging Russian carrier aviation capability and integrated battle group operations. We offered full disclosure and demonstration as an inducement for a response in kind.

Admiral Kasatonov and his staff were invited to more substantive discussions and operational demonstrations on board the carrier America (CV-66), an offer he quickly accepted. Our discussions were frank, friendly, and practical. The Sixth Fleet staff provided divert field information and procedural guides for airspace reservation and deconfliction, as well as a schedule of U.S. and allied training events for potential Russian observation or participation. The Russians showed us charts of planned operating areas and tentative port visit schedules, and expressed interest in procedures for obtaining port services along the battle group's planned track to Syria. In particular, Admiral Kasatonov expressed interest in watering his ships, explaining that evaporator performance on his flagship had been disappointing.

A tentative schedule for underway replenishment (unrep), with fresh water available for transfer if desired, was set up for the following week. Although a successful passing and unrep station steaming exercise was completed between the Besstrasshnyy and the Leroy Grumman (T-AO-195), and couplings to link Russian and U.S. Navy hose rigs were manufactured on board the U.S. oiler, transfer of fuel and water at sea was never accomplished.

Russian expectations were both fairly conservative and constantly evolving. Training for the Kuznetsov battle group appeared to be constrained by limited resources and maintenance factors, and by centralized command and control from Fleet Headquarters. Their operations and port visit schedules were ever changing, probably reflecting requirements for repairs, preventive maintenance, and consultation with higher headquarters.

The Red Ensign Flies in the America

A great deal of preparation went into the return visit by the Russians on 17 January. Vice Admiral Pilling shifted his flag to the America early that morning, bringing the same staff delegation that met the Russians in Hammamet anchorage. Commander, Carrier Group Six, and key staff and air wing officers were invited to join the discussions.

Admiral Kasatonov, accompanied by four Russian Navy and Air Force flag officers, two translators, his son (a Russian Navy midshipman), three members of the Russian press pool, and Chief Test Pilot Pugachev, was received with honors, after which the official party split for tours of the carrier and a flight demonstration. The Russian officers were invited to examine the cockpits of all the air wing aircraft, inspect the catapult and arresting gear, tour the hangar bay, flight deck control, and PriFly, and then meet with America 's commanding officer for a tour of the bridge.

Carrier Air Wing One demonstrated U.S. naval aviation capability with a 45aircraft launch, fly-by demonstrations of each aircraft type, and a case I recovery. Victor Pugachev and Major General Timur Apakidze, Commander of the Russian Naval Aviation Directorate, flew with the air wing during the demo event, while the Besstrashny took an observation station close aboard the port quarter of the America .

Serious staff discussions convened in the flag cabin at the conclusion of the demonstration. The Russian focus on carrier qualifications continued to dominate our operational discussions, but we were able to elicit a menu for future exercises and evaluation. Areas of interest to the Russians included passing exercises with exchange of damage control and medical personnel, underway replenishment, development of a shared surface picture using helicopters, and towing and assistance demonstrations.

Admiral Kasatonov caught us off guard with the suggestion of joint antisubmarine warfare exercises, with U.S. SSNs as the targets. Other suggestions were for joint gunnery exercises and an aggressive joint air defense exercise. The Admiral envisioned a coordinated series where the two navies might work together for area air defense, including cross-deck operations of Russian and U.S. aircraft.

The idea of Flankers operating from U.S. carriers came up frequently, and the Russians took great pleasure in executing spectacular high-speed, low-altitude fly-bys and acrobatic demonstrations almost every time our ships were close to their air operations. We were never certain whether their interest in cross decking was primarily technical or commercial. We did invite the Russians to submit the necessary technical data on their aircraft for evaluation by the Naval Air Systems Command so that an informed deci.sion could be made regarding safe operations on a U.S. deck, but no data were forthcoming.

The late January passing exercise between the Kuznetsov and the cruiser Monterey (CG-61) was one of the most productive. The series began with carefully scripted division tactics (DivTacs) involving the Monterey , the Besstrashnyy , and the Kuznetsov . Personnel exchanges followed between the two large ships, then a second round of DivTacs, including shifting the guide and officer conducting exercise (OCE) duties, and a high-speed pass in review by the Pylkiy . The Russian air wing conducted Flanker demonstrations while Russian air control officers controlled their fighters from consoles in the Monterey .

Following a port visit in early February, Admiral Kasatonov returned to Navy Headquarters, with Admiral Selivanov relieving him at sea as the Kuznetsov sailed toward Malta. The Russians had been optimistic about expanding our early interactions into more complex operations, but the shift in leadership did little to accelerate the schedule. They did meet the commitments to passing exercises made before the change of commanders.

We had hoped to establish the same level of personal interaction with Admiral Selivanov as with his predecessor, both to learn more about the senior Russian Navy leadership and to continue operational engagements. The number of interactions did increase, and many of the goals set by Vice Admiral Pilling and Admiral Kasatonov were achieved during the outbound portion of the Kuznetsov's cruise. Some of our engagement goals, however, proved elusive.

In conjunction with the Big Horn (T-AO-198) and Kuznetsov , the Aegis cruiser San Jacinto (CG-56) conducted one of the more interesting events of the outbound transit. On 24 February, 13 Americans moved to the Russian carrier and 25 Russians to the U.S. ships. The Russians observed main propulsion drills, including a fast light-off demonstration. Arrangements were finalized for a dry unrep between the Pylkiy and the Big Horn the next day.

The 25th saw helicopter cross-decking and flight demonstrations, with two U.S. Navy pilots at the Helix controls and two Russians in the left seats of SH-60s. A joint search-and-rescue exercise followed; helicopters from all ships conducted recovery of Oscar and the ships alternated as OCE. The San Jacinto demonstrated unrep approaches with Russian officers on board as observers. The Pylkiy followed with an approach from waiting station to an unrep position alongside, but she declined to hook up with the U.S. oiler. The Russians demonstrated impressive familiarity with incidents at sea and dangerous military activities procedures. We provided copies of standard procedures for coordinating exercises at sea, something not available within their chain of command.

Impressions of a Former Adversary

The old Soviet preoccupation with security, although relaxed from that of the 1980s, was still in evidence. Despite agreement in principle to explore many operational issues together, the Russians were reluctant partners where disclosure of their material condition or tactical capability was concerned. The Russians protected the Kuznetsov 's hangar bay and aircraft maintenance shops, combat information suite, and engineering spaces from American eyes. Crew's berthing spaces also were not offered for tour. Russian officers were astounded at the degree of disclosure offered during their visit to the America.

Senior Russian officers were interested in the level of education, training, and responsibility of the career force operating our ships and aircraft. They seemed fascinated by the openness with which we conducted our meetings and tours, and by the latitude given U.S. commanders in tailoring training, port visits, and maintenance to suit events at sea.

Each passing exercise was preceded by face-to-face coordination meetings. The Russian officers and seamen were increasingly warm and receptive with each event, and obviously proud to display sharp airmanship and seamanship. Although repeatedly queried by us concerning desires for exercise or staff interaction with other NATO navies, the Russians were adamant that the Kuznetsov cruise was to train the embarked wing and that bilateral relationships initially could be established only with the U.S. Navy. Admiral Kasatonov did host discussions with former Soviet military clients, however, and Admiral Selivanov received a senior French delegation during the outbound leg.

The Russians often were at anchorage, and operated in concentrated periods in between. Flight operations were of short duration, with only a brief pattern of four to six aircraft launch and recovery operations evident. Carrier qualification and air intercept control seemed to be the major areas of operational focus. Despite extensive discussions and known Russian expertise in this area, reliable highfrequency communications were never established. Communications of opportunity via regular fleet P-3 operational sorties were the bread and butter of our connectivity, with P-3 air crews finding innovative ways each week to act as passing exercise and crossdeck coordinators.

Although it was never directly communicated by the Russians, the strategic objective for the Kuznetsov deployment seemed to be public relations.

The Russians had elected to deploy a new class of combatant with a known serious engineering deficiency around North Cape and into the Mediterranean during the season of worst operating weather for both areas. They did so at a time when NATO's deployment of forces to Bosnia was drawing much of the world' s attention, when most of the headlines concerning Russian military matters were unfavorable, and when wrangling within the Russian Ministry of Defense over force structure, roles and missions, and budgets was at its most intense.

Perhaps fearing that support for the venture could not be sustained over the long term within Naval Headquarters and the Ministry of Defense, and sensing a receding opportunity, the Russian Navy pushed out from the Kola to seize the day. It appeared to us that the Kuznetsov battle group was aiming to show NATO, the emerging democratic nations in Europe, and the Navy's critics at home a clear demonstration of military power that only a superpower could mount, with all the advantages such status confers to the government possessing it. For us, the signs pointed to a campaign waged on the stage of world opinion but for the hearts and minds of decision makers in the government at home.

Indeed, in a 15 May 1996 article in Rossiyskiye Vesti , entitled "300 Years in the Russian Fleet: Our Aircraft Carrier in the Mediterranean," Captain Second Rank Vladimir Maryukha attacks critics of the Navy "not only for poor knowledge but also for the lack of a clear idea in Russian society of the Navy's role in tackling the tasks that face the country." The voyage of the carrier battle group, he notes, "announced the Russian ships' return to an area of their influence." The article clearly states that it is the carrier that conveys an equal partnership with other forces operating in the Mediterranean. What Americans and others saw in the Kuznetsov , he writers, "were not Russian sailors bowed by poverty, but sailors who are not only as good as, but sometimes better than those from Rich America."

Vice Admiral Pilling is Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources, Warfare Requirements, and Assessments (N8). Captain Connell is his Executive Assistant. They were Commander, Sixth Fleet, and Chief of Staff, Sixth Fleet, respectively, during the historic Mediterranean meetings between the U.S. and Russian Navies in early 1996.


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