Five Fleets: Around the World with the Nimitz

By Lieutenant Commander William R. Bray, USN

—Herman Melville

Rear Admiral John Nathman, Commander Carrier Group Seven, and his staff embarked in the Nimitz in San Diego on the morning of 5 September 1997. The sun had broken through early for Southern California, and it was hot, as it had been all week. The Naval Academy football team was in town to play San Diego State in the season opener that afternoon. My children, who never wake when I leave early for work, had risen before 0600 and stood on the sidewalk, barefoot in their pajamas as I waved my goodbye from the backseat of my ride. The farewells are always the hardest, especially for the young children, who watch their fathers and mothers vanish for a span of time they can barely comprehend. For the first few days at sea, the mood was somber. But gradually we became organized and settled into our routines. Fortunately, we had a problem on our hands.

Russia was on our minds. Domestically, Russia is a mess. Skyrocketing crime rates, economic stagnation, a serious health crisis (by some estimates, the average lifespan of a Russian male has fallen below 60 years), a staggering national debt, and an inept and corrupt government make Russia—in many ways—nothing more than a vast lesser-developed nation.

And Russia's military fares no better. Salaries rarely are paid, morale is at rock bottom, most units are poorly outfitted with aging, dilapidated equipment, and the senior officer corps is rife with corruption. Recently, former Russian Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Khmelnov was handed a four-year suspended sentence for abuse of office during his 1994-96 tenure. Other indictments followed, most notably that of Rear Admiral Nikolai Germanov, former Commander of the Maritime Krai (Vladivostok) Submarine Force, for organizing a scheme whereby fuel, lubricants, and mechanical parts were stolen from his own command and sold on the black market. The proceeds supported the relatively comfortable lifestyles of Germanov and his cronies, while the average Russian sailor was working two or three jobs outside of his naval duties, just to pay rent on a one-room apartment. All this occurred while Germanov was telling Moscow that he didn't have enough fuel to participate in naval exercises. The Russians do have their problems.

But they also have their pride. In the Soviet era, a common proverb among the disaffected masses was S'volkami git, polvochiy vit —"If you live with wolves, you will howl like a wolf." Freedom has its appeal, but I wonder how many in Russia today would trade their current state of affairs for a pack of wolves.

Oscar on the Prowl

For the Russian Navy, the Oscar II cruise missile submarine (SSGN) is one of the few remaining objects of pride. Designed in the 1970s to counter the U.S. aircraft carrier, Russia began launching this class in the early 1980s. The Oscar II is a monster of a submarine. At just more than 154 meters in length, she boasts an enormous beam at 18 meters, and when submerged displaces more than 17,000 tons of water. In the Russian inventory, only the Typhoon ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is larger. By comparison, the U.S. Ohio -class SSBN displaces just more than 18,000 tons with a beam just under 13 meters. What is most impressive is that the Oscar was built to chase aircraft carriers at speeds up to 30 knots, while the SSBN's deterrence mission requires it to remain slow, quiet, and hidden. The later hulls—those launched after about 1990—have incorporated elements of Russian fourth-generation acoustic quieting technology, making these boats among the quietest submarines in the world. Finally, the Oscar carries as its primary armament a 300-nautical mile, supersonic antiship missile designed to destroy the aircraft carrier before the submarine gets sucked into the battle group's antisubmarine warfare defensive perimeter. When it comes to submarine warfare, the Russians are not neophytes, and the Oscar is a formidable threat by any standard.

Beginning in 1994, the Russian Pacific Fleet has sent one Oscar into the western or central Pacific each year. All but one of these deployments have coincided with a Pacific Ocean transit of a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group. Based on this precedent, and following months of careful monitoring and analysis, by mid-August the U.S. intelligence community predicted that the USS Nimitz Battle Group transit would draw a reaction from a Russian Pacific Fleet Oscar. As the Nimitz conducted carrier qualifications off the Southern California coast on 5 and 6 September, an Oscar was already at sea, having slipped out of the Siberian port of Tarya Bay, near Petropavlovsk, a few days earlier.

Most analysts seemed certain that the Oscar would interact with the Nimitz Battle Group somewhere near Shatskiy Rise, in the well-traveled great-circle route approximately 1,000 nautical miles east of Tokyo. Carrier Group Seven's challenge was to minimize the Oscar's ability to target the Nimitz without adjusting the battle group's 21 September arrival date in Yokosuka, Japan. Ideally, Oscars hope to acquire a targeting solution on an aircraft carrier at a minimum of 100 to 200 miles, limiting the chances of counterdetection while remaining well within the operational employment range of the antiship missile. This requires some sort of over-the-horizon targeting data, which usually is acquired from Russian electronic-sensing satellites and relayed to the submarine. By minimizing electronic emissions and effecting surreptitious course changes, the Nimitz Battle Group would be able to complicate this process.

Depending upon the environmental conditions, acoustic detection of the carrier also was possible. Transiting just north of Hawaii, the Nimitz Battle Group participated in an antisubmarine warfare exercise where a U.S. submarine simulated a Russian Oscar. During the exercise, the Nimitz routinely was detected at 50 to 100 nautical miles. It is unlikely that an Oscar would want to venture this close to its target. Nor would it likely acquire targeting data from an acoustic detection that was refined enough to employ the missile with any degree of confidence.

By 13 September, the battle group was west of Hawaii and only days away from a potential interaction with the Russian submarine. The battle group commander, in calling for an evasion plan, stressed the need to estimate where the Oscar would be from 18 to 20 September—the most likely interaction dates based on a simple time-distance calculation and recent precedent. He wanted to ensure that the revised track took the battle group south of the maximum range of the Oscar's missiles. Avoiding rough weather and arriving in Yokosuka by the morning of 21 September also were primary considerations. The Russian submarine had not been located through 14 September, so on the night of 16 September it was decided to turn south, remaining below the 300 nautical-mile arc of the Oscar's projected position. The other ships of the battle group were to screen the Nimitz , and two U.S. submarines were positioned to the north and east of the group, hoping for a stroke of luck in gaining an open-ocean detection of an Oscar.

Just when the plan was firmly in place, the picture got muddy on 15 September. New information suggested the Oscar was nowhere near where it was thought to be. The intelligence community was divided. Historical precedent and some circumstantial evidence still pointed to an interaction near Shatskiy Rise, but less-ambiguous evidence indicated that the Oscar was in the Northeastern Pacific and not a threat to the Nimitz . An Oscar had never patrolled in the Northeastern Pacific, and such a scenario was a tough pill to swallow for several sharp submarine analysts. They had spent too much time crafting an analytically sound prediction, so most analysts were not ready to throw in the towel on the original theory.

For the next few days, a debate raged in Hawaii and Washington over the Oscar's true location. Several shaky acoustic contacts along the Nimitz 's track never panned out, and by 19 September the Nimitz Battle Group was west of 150° East and was focused on arriving in Yokosuka on time while avoiding Typhoon David, which was tracking north along the east coast of Japan.

By November, other evidence became available and the intelligence community finally agreed that the Oscar did indeed patrol in the Northeastern Pacific—at least initially—and probably interacted with the USS Constellation (CV-64) Battle Group as it transited the Northern Pacific shipping lanes en route to Seattle from Japan.

With the submarine problem resolved, the Nimitz still faced the small possibility of an air reaction from the Russian Pacific Ocean Fleet Air Force. For years, battle groups transiting the Pacific were intercepted by pairs of Tu-95/Bear Gs in what became referred to as the "Bear Box," an area centered approximately 1,000 nautical miles east of Japan. The Bear G was the long-range maritime strike variant of the Tu-95, and carried the AS-4/Kitchen, a missile with a 2,000-pound warhead and a range of more than 200 nautical miles. The tactical challenge was to detect, identify, and intercept the Bears with carrier-based fighters before the Russian strikers closed within weapons-release range. The last time Bear Gs—or any Russian aircraft—flew a simulated strike mission in the Pacific against a transiting U.S. battle group was in June 1993 against the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), and the Bear Gs since have been taken out of service with no replacement.

The Tu-142/Bear F was designed for antisubmarine warfare and maritime surveillance, carries only torpedoes, and is not a serious threat as a maritime strike aircraft. But, in September 1996, two Bear Fs flew a navigation training route east of Japan, and intelligence analysts in Hawaii estimated this was probably a familiarization flight for the Bear Fs to assume a long-range surveillance mission.

On the morning of 19 September 1997—a year to the day after the Bear F familiarization flight—the Russian Pacific Ocean Fleet Air Force executed an evolution not seen in several years. Two Bear F maritime patrol aircraft took off at first light from Alekseyevka Airfield in Siberia, located on the western coast of the Tatar Strait across from Sakhalin Island, and flew a 1,300-nautical mile intercept of the battle group approximately 500 nautical miles east of Japan.

By 0700, the pair of Bears had ventured east of the Kuril Islands—a rare occurrence—and it became clear that the Russians were flying a surveillance mission against the Nimitz Battle Group. The Bears turned south, and the Nimitz made preparations to set flight quarters several hours ahead of schedule. The battle group commander ordered the Bears intercepted at no less than 100 nautical miles. To meet this challenge, the Nimitz 's command-and-control aircraft (E-2C), electronic surveillance aircraft (ES-3), and several fighters (F-14s and F/A-18s) needed to launch and get into position quickly to effect a successful intercept. As the Bears closed from the north, they curiously changed course to the west and eventually were intercepted just more than 100 nautical miles to the northwest of the Nimitz . Following the intercept, the Nimitz 's fighters escorted the Bears as they first circled and then made several passes over the battle group before making the long journey back to Alekseyevka.

Considering the current state of affairs in the Russian Far Eastern Military District, one wonders what it must have been like as the Russian crews briefed and manned their aircraft in the chilly predawn hours in eastern Siberia. Four years had passed since the Russians had flown such a mission, and the Bear F pilots were averaging less than 20 hours of flight time a year. The pilots that flew this mission undoubtedly were the best in the regiment, and they had to have been pained acutely by the demise of their beloved Air Force. Yet for them, this mission represented not a return to glory, but rather a sort of twisted apotheosis of despair—the ruined merchant in rags desperately proclaiming his relevance on the street of sorrows.

Nonetheless, the evolution provided valuable training for the Nimitz and her embarked air wing, as they worked through the same processes that would be executed if an Iranian fighter flew toward the battle group in the Arabian Gulf. Battle groups rarely get the opportunity to execute a live open-ocean intercept and, considering there was no compelling reason to expect an air reaction from the Russians, the Nimitz Battle Group reacted well.

In deference to submariners and submarine hunters, the Oscar evolution was somewhere between curiosity and nuisance. Although far from cozy, our relations with the post-Soviet Russians are not confrontational. The submarine cat-and-mouse games will continue for the foreseeable future, as they serve the source of national pride and the validation of engineering designs with significant price tags. And they also provide good experience for U.S. acoustic experts with very perishable skills. Yet as we entered Yokosuka, I couldn't help but feel that the world had passed on to other concerns, and that only our two navies cared about such things. In some ways, the captain of the Nimitz has more in common with the captain of an Oscar than with half the people in Manhattan. The world indeed has changed, and one hopes the sun has set forever on the Soviet threat.

Two days in Yokosuka provided a welcome breather. Official calls were paid on the Seventh Fleet staff, and sailors visited the exchange, used the many services offered at overseas U.S. Navy bases, and relaxed at the clubs on and off base. Also, more than 25,000 Japanese civilians visited the Nimitz , thrilled with the rare opportunity to visit a nuclear-powered carrier. U.S. carriers stationed in Yokosuka always have been conventionally powered, and the main purpose for the Nimitz 's two-day visit was to familiarize the Japanese with the prospect of a nuclear-powered carrier one day being homeported in Yokosuka.

On 23 September, we were at sea again, scheduled for a short exercise near Okinawa and then straight to Hong Kong for a four-day port visit. Hong Kong is now again part of China—a China reemerging as the great power it hasn't been for more than 300 years.

Hong Kong

Perhaps no country has changed more in the 20th century than China. In 1984, China and Britain signed an agreement to "return" Hong Kong to China in 1997. The ensuing 13 years were marked by huge—yet uneven—economic growth and some dramatic political events, including the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 and the heightened tension between China and Taiwan in February and March 1996 (a crisis that had brought the Nimitz Battle Group back to the Pacific from the Arabian Gulf during her 1996 deployment).

Britain's last appointed Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten, ensured that several democratic reforms were instituted in Hong Kong during the early and mid-1990s, much to the irritation of Beijing. Indeed, Beijing refused to recognize the democratically elected legislature in Hong Kong, and instead installed its own "elected" legislature upon reversion. The reversion proceeded relatively smoothly, and on 1 July 1997, after 150 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong was once again part of China.

The Nimitz Battle Group pulled into Hong Kong on 28 September, the second aircraft carrier to enter post-reversion Hong Kong (the Constellation had visited Hong Kong in early September on her way home from an Arabian Gulf deployment). The crowds, the expensive beer, the bargains of Stanley Market, the splendor of Victoria Peak, the charm of the Star Ferry, the shopping frenzy of Kowloon with its seemingly endless jewelry and electronics stores—all are still there. And Beijing would have no good reason to tamper with such things. Most of the significant changes dealt with things unseen to the foreign tourist, such as the legislative structure and laws governing the right of assembly and protest. The People's Liberation Navy (PLAN) had a small presence, consisting of several frigates and smaller craft, including auxiliaries and tenders, and was more visible than the People's Liberation Army. When leaving Hong Kong in early September, the Constellation was trailed by a PLAN Jianghu I frigate while the aircraft carrier made a northbound transit of the Taiwan Strait. A few days later, the USS Chosin (CG-65) was harassed by a hydrographic research ship and a submarine tender as the U.S. cruiser entered Hong Kong harbor for a port visit. On two occasions, the captain of the Chosin had to stop the ship to avoid colliding with the tender.

Following the Chosin incident, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, in Hong Kong on an official visit, paid a call on the Hong Kong Garrison Commander, Major General Liu Zhen-Wu. Admiral Clemins asked informally about the recent harassment of U.S. ships entering port for visits. The general responded that he had no authority over PLAN ships in Hong Kong and could not answer the question, although he would relay the concern to the appropriate commander. The Nimitz 's entrance into Hong Kong 28 September was less eventful than the Chosin 's—although upon departure on 2 October, the Nimitz was trailed for several hours by another Jianghu frigate. In addition, a PLAN flotilla had just enjoyed a historic Eastern Pacific voyage that included successful stops at Honolulu and San Diego. So why the harassment?

The answer undoubtedly is rooted in a feeling of reconstituted national dignity. Once the greatest culture in Asia, China views its long period of colonization, occupation, and internal turmoil as an anomaly in its 5,000-year history. Aside from the definite financial and pragmatic benefits, the Hong Kong turnover has its greatest value in its symbol—China is returning to where it belongs, a place of respect and honor. The harassment of U.S. ships entering Hong Kong serves no useful intelligence purpose, for the Chinese can collect all they want while the U.S. ships are anchored inside the harbor. They simply wanted us to know that we were no longer entering Hong Kong—we were entering China.

Lieutenant Commander Bray served on the Nimitz during her around-the-world deployment.

Next Month: Across the Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Hormuz, and into the Gulf.



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