by LeDahu for The Saker Blog
The last couple weeks in the Eastern Mediterranean could remind a casual observer of some sort of a military parade, with members of the US-led coalition bringing an ever increasing number of military assets to the region.
The number of warships flying various flags being dispatched as a show of force to the Eastern Mediterranean has been increasing on a daily basis. The warships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, including HNLMS De Ruyter of the Royal Netherlands Navy, Greece’s Elli,HMCS Ville de Québec of the Royal Canadian Navy, and four American Tomahawk-wielding destroyers – USS Carney, USS Ross, USS Winston S. Churchill and USS Bulkeley. Even the flagship of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet USS Mount Whitney made an appearance in the region together with at least three of the multi-purpose Los Angeles class nuclear submarines, one of which was the USS Newport News, which was previously stationed in Gibraltar.
Further still, this massive force was then joined by an American carrier strike group, led by the USS Harry S. Truman, bringing along the missile cruiser USS Normandy together with a number of destroyers.
France has also been keeping its FREMM class frigate Auvergne stationed in the area. Further still, Germany’s FGS Augsburg passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea on September 21.
A sense of deja-vu. Two recent articles (one here) write about the naval deployments in the Mediterranean, especially in the Eastern part. Both mention the increase in numbers as a show of show. ‘Unprecedented number of military ships’, ‘build-up’ ‘sudden’, ‘massive force’ are used as descriptors. It seems to me that emotions take priority over facts these days, so I would to take stock of what is recent ‘news’ and compare to other naval events that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean.
To quote one article, ‘a casual observer of some sort’ might easily jump to such conclusions.
What both articles failed to recognise that the current state of events is neither ‘massive’ or ‘unprecedented’. Firstly, let’s turn back to March – April 2018, to see a very similar situation, (see image 1), with increased geopolitical tensions, the arrival and then the departure of an US carrier group, (USS Theodore Roosevelt, CVN-71), well before the subsequent missile strikes against Syria. I will provide an outline of the other ‘massive’ event that took place in 2013 in part 2.
The continuous presence of NATO warships, all undertaking maritime situational awareness operations, (watching the Russian Navy ships off Syria). I seem to recall one Danish navy ship ‘Absalon’ getting singled by a Russian reporter as being the obligatory NATO watcher, when the ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ was deployed to the eastern Mediterranean in November 2016. The fact that the current role is assigned to a group of warships, who take turns to provide NATO’s maritime situational awareness’, is not unprecedented but routine, probably tediously so.
I could say, the exact same template is being repeated this turn round, except for the presence of a US carrier group, the ‘USS H Truman’, (CVN 75) group is somewhat in the North Atlantic, between Halifax and Iceland. They are indeed in the 6th Fleet area of operations but wisely avoiding being in the middle of an imminent ‘medicane’, by a few thousand nautical miles (sarc off). A couple of US destroyers nominally attached to this group did make recent port calls into Rota, which triggered the attention of ship OSINT spotters. The ‘USS Normandy; ‘USS Forrest Sherman’, ‘USS Arleigh Burke’ and ‘USS Hue City’ are all with the carrier. This is a similar pattern to what happened back in March and early April, as it is known that some destroyers operate separately to the main carrier escort group. More on the US Navy later on.
It is therefore not an ‘unprecedented event’, but the latest iteration of a combination of US, NATO, French and Russian naval deployments, (an ebb and flow of arriving ships and departing ships). Take for instance the French Navy’s FREMM frigate currently in the eastern Mediterranean, it is ostensibly part of ‘Operation Chammal’, ongoing for the last 4 years. One or two French naval ships are permanently deployed in the region, autonomously to NATO’s ships. So, no major changes here.
Similarly, the German Navy routinely sends out a ship for the Lebanese-based UNIFIL operations. This time it is the FGS ‘Oldenburg’ that has recently transited the Mediterranean. The FGS ‘Ausburg’ (213) was recently reported to have entered the Mediterranean. Meaning that it is more than likely to replace the ‘FGS Braunschweig’ which is part of another SNMG2 group providing missions in support of ‘Op Sea Guardian’ in the Aegean Sea. The German Navy has provided a ship to this operation since Spring 2016.
Image 2 – Source Russian Ministry of Defence Briefing, March 2018.
This situation update provided by the Russian MoD back in March 2018, outlines the constituent parts of NATO (Operation Sophia with EU in box 1, Operation Sea Guardian in box 2, current location of SNMG2 in box 3) and the UNIFIL naval operations (box 4). The only difference between April and now is the location of the most of the SNMG2 ships, who are understandably now monitoring the increased Russian Navy group. (3 were marked as being in Koper in the above map). Now there are 4, including the ‘HNLMS De Ruyter’ (Netherlands, last in Cyprus), ‘HS ‘Elli’ (Greece), ‘HMCS Ville de Québec’ (Canada) and ‘ESPS Cristobal Colon’ (Spain).
Did you notice those catch-all operations, which apparently have the potential to shape shift, deviate from the original public fronted missions’ statements, according to the political necessities (Chammal, Sea Guardian)? These are the latest evolution of multinational naval forces, operating for well over a decade now. It is just that the security challenges keep evolving too, (mostly self-inflicted too – i.e. Libya), thereby keeping NATO ‘flexible and versatile’. The fact that the Russian Navy has become more permanent and more visible has added another grain into the NATO’s cogs. (More on that in Part 2).
US Navy presence in Mediterranean
From the April’s image, the ‘USS New York’ (central yellow box) left, with only the ‘USS Mount Whitney’, the 6th Fleet flagship, apparently in the Mediterranean, (shown on original image going through the Straits of Gibraltar). To note that ‘USS Mount Whitney’ has been ‘making an appearance’ permanently in the Mediterranean since 2011, contrary to recent comments. The last port call was Thessaloniki, Greece, as part of the Thessaloniki International Fair. The forward-deployed Rota-based destroyers, (DESRON 60), are still there, again no change in numbers or posture. The ‘USS Carney’ was with the French ship ‘Chevalier Paul’, but has since gone westward back towards Spain for a joint exercise: ‘SMARTEX181’. It is more than likely that the ‘USS Porter’, ‘USS Donald Cook’ have called in into a Crete, Cypriot or Turkish port in recent times, like earlier in 2018, like in 2017. The ‘USS Winston Churchill’ is also in the Mediterranean, recently with the ‘USS Carney’.
In a nutshell, there is no ‘doubling-down’ or ‘escalating tensions’, if we are to compare the situation with the end of March and at the beginning of April 18. The real tensions with diplomatic daggers drawn are in the halls and corridors of power.
The Russian Navy
To cap it all, the ‘unprecedented event’ was in fact the build-up of Russian naval forces, from four different regions.
The Russian Navy presence off Syria has recently reduced, with the departure of the ‘Severomorsk’ last week through the Suez Canal, with the oiler ‘Dubna’, to deploy first to the Gulf of Aden and then into the Indian Ocean.
The ‘Admiral Essen’ first visited Poros in Greece last week, followed by a visit to Messina, Italy. The latter was part of the 110th commemoration of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the city in 1908, and in which the Russian Navy were on hand to help. What is interesting to note, both are NATO countries – escalating tensions? Certainly not at ceremonial, diplomatic or national level. Back in May, it was the turn of the oceanographic ship ‘Admiral Vladimirskiy’ to go sightseeing in Messina.
What does this all suggest? That the recent hint of naval posturing and showmanship has largely given way to routine deployments and exercises. The hint of an exception is the standoff with Israel.
Normal military air and sea services resume, judging by the lack of red zones in the NOTAMs since the 27th September.
Next Part 2 – Taking stock: 2013 and 2014 disposal operation of Syrian chemical arms.
PS – contrary to the lurid tale of HMS Talent lurking off Syria, on the 28th September, the Trafalgar-class nuclear submarine was once more off Gibraltar. HMS Dragon was off Gibraltar on the 20th September on route to the Gulf.