Over a two-day period earlier this week, a pair of Russian Su-24s (code-named “Fencer” by NATO) made over 30 close passes over the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75). This isn’t the first time the Donald Cook has been buzzed. In 2014, the destroyer was patrolling in the Black Sea when Fencers made over a dozen low passes over the ship. Russia carried out a similar operation against USS Ross (DDG 71) last year, also in the Black Sea.
At first glance, it must be shocking to learn that this ship, one of the most powerful surface combatants in the world, got caught seemingly off guard. Such a reaction is very understandable. With the SPY-1D radar, Aegis combat system, and a variety of air-defense weapons, including the RIM-174 SM-6 missile, the RIM-66C SM-2, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, Mk 45 Mod 4 five-inch gun, and Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon Systems, the Donald Cook should be able to protect herself. So, why did two fighter-bombers manage to make multiple passes?
Let’s start by taking a look at the plane used for this maritime equivalent of a “brushback pitch.” The Su-24 is an all-weather attack plane roughly comparable to the American-designed F-111. It can either deliver a lot of “dumb bombs” (up to 18,000 pounds of ordnance) or up to four air-to-ground or anti-ship missiles like the Kh-23 (AS-7 Kerry), Kh-25 (AS-10 Kerry), or Kh-35 (AS-20 “Harpoonski”). Over 1,400 were built, with production ending in 1993.
First of all, the Donald Cook was operating relatively close to Russian territory, about 70 nautical miles (“knots”) off the coast of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave nestled between Poland and Lithuania. A combat aircraft operating at cruising speeds of close to 500 knots, the distance from the coast of Kaliningrad to the destroyer takes about eight and a half minutes to cover. When carrying out a “simulated attack profile,” the planes were probably going much faster, probably close to the plane’s top speed of 710 knots, which would mean covering the 70 miles from Kaliningrad to the destroyer’s position would take just under six minutes.
As a corollary, the Baltic Sea itself is a very constricted waterway. This bottleneck works both ways. During the Cold War, NATO could keep the Soviets penned in, taking advantage of the sea’s narrowness. Today, should NATO need to reinforce the defenses of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all three of whom joined in 2004, that same constricted space will make for a hard gauntlet to run convoys through.
Second, the Fencers came in at very low altitude. Photos and videos released by the United States Navy show the Fencers pulling up to clear the ship’s superstructure. This greatly reduced the range at which the SPY-1D radars on the Donald Cook could pick up the planes. So, it is safe to assume that the destroyer probably did not even have six minutes’ warning about the incoming planes.
Third, the Fencers probably did not use their on-board radars, which, when combined with the low-level tactics, reduced the warning that the American destroyer had. U.S. Navy ships are equipped with electronic support measures (ESM), which detect opposing radar emissions. Russia probably was tracking the Polish helicopter the Donald Cook was operating with, and ground controllers probably were able to give the Fencers a vector of where to look. The Fencers probably used their on-board ESM systems to get a vector towards the Donald Cook themselves.
Russia is sending a message that they intend to contest NATO’s presence in the Baltic. According to statements by the United States Navy, diplomatic protests have been filed over the incident, and the Navy also stated it was conducting an internal review as well.