by LeDahu for the Saker blog

The US and Russia are now closer to a direct collision between their military forces than at any time since the Cold War. The world anxiously waits to see what the US has on the table, in the way of military options.

A quick tour of the situation as it stands, using OSINT sources, of what has happened over the last couple of days. Given the huge amount of interest & speculation going round social media recently, here are some brief comments and I will try to keep this sitrep, brief and to the point.

First some suggested scenarios – (back of an envelope scribble style)

  1. (Short duration of hours or days)
  2. Limited strike, volleys of cruise missiles on a number of military installations & bases, (from surface ships & submarines).
  3. Cruise missile strikes following by airstrikes using various aircraft (from A-10, F-15, F-18, B-52 to B-2).
  4. (Longer duration –days & weeks) Sustained airstrikes along with limited ground invasion component, probably with heavy armour, from Al-Tanf area.

Scenario 1 is basically a re-run of what happened last year in April, following the Khan Shaykhun alleged chemical attack. Some 72 hours after the initial stirrings in Washington, the element of surprise has gone by now. But it may be still be an option on the table for US, UK & French military planners.

Given the stark warnings issued from the Russian MOD, that retaliatory air strikes by the US in Syria could risk triggering a military confrontation, the worst-case scenario would be if there’s a prolonged massive military action from the US side with Russian casualties.

Navy

  1. Surface ships known to be in the area around Cyprus:

USS Donald Cook (DDG 75), (port call in Cyprus 7 -9 April)

https://twitter.com/USNavyEurope/status/983332710990086144

‘Aquitaine’, French Navy FREMM multipurpose frigate on Op Chammal

The US Navy denied blogger & media reports of the USS Donald Cook getting harassed by Russian jets off Syria, by calling it “completely bogus.”

https://www.navytimes.com/flashpoints/2018/04/10/reports-of-us-destroyer-being-harassed-by-russian-jets-in-syrian-waters-are-false-us-navy-says/#.Ws3K560kFro.twitter

Was that wishful thinking on part of some people, another re-run of the Black Sea encounter with ECM pod carrying SU-24s?

While the opposite happened to the French frigate. The ‘Aquitaine’ (D650)

(https://www.defense.gouv.fr/marine/equipements/batiments-de-combat/fregates/fremm/aquitaine-d-650) was reported in French media to have been aggressively buzzed the weekend of 6/7 April, by armed Russian aircraft – (Su-24M attack planes and Su-30MS fighters) – on CAP mission in the eastern Mediterranean.

(In French https://t.co/9d95gmo0tB )

Maybe the moral of the story is not to go too near to Russian bases, while being also near to the USS Donald Cook.

  1. Other ships of interest in the Med

SNMG 2 group with HMS Duncan as flagship, (accompanied by 1 Spanish & 1 Turkey warships) were in Split, Croatia & left on 9 April.

Recently, the USS J Warner, (SSN-785) a Virginia-class submarine, called into Gibraltar, so it could be in the Med. Likewise, the USS Georgia, Ohio-class (SSGN 729), made a hasty SAR detour off the Spanish coast, to medevac an injured crewman at the end of March. Its subsequent whereabouts was unknown, although today AIS shows it today as being back in Florida. https://twitter.com/salvamentogob/status/978992198715764741

The USS Mount Witney was last in Haifa and the USS New York doing its round near to Sicily, Italy. So no significant changes there this week.

  1. US ships elsewhere in Europe

Most focus is on the group of US destroyers that are forward deployed from Rota, Spain. Besides the USS Donald Cook, the USS Carney (DDG 64), is still in port in Rota, the USS Ross is in Plymouth, UK and the USS Porter, having just called into Cherbourg, last seen in the Channel, heading eastwards. There isn’t much hurry to sail either down to the Med or the USS Carney eastwards either at the moment.

The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) set sail yesterday, a routine regular deployment that has been planned months ago. It will certainly head for the Med, then later go to the Gulf, probably at the beginning of May.

https://twitter.com/USNavy/status/984192120608129024

USS Normandy (CG 60);

and DESRON 28 group of guided-missile destroyers USS Farragut (DDG 99), USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98), USS Bulkeley (DDG 84), USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51),

Two other late participants: USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109), and USS The Sullivans (DGG 68).

A German Navy is also part of the group for the first part: the Sachsen-class German frigate FGS Hessen (F 221). It is not known at this stage if Germany will respond similarly to the US.

https://twitter.com/XHNews/status/984395909298622465

Further afield (Red Sea and Gulf of Aden)

Most of the US Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), with the USS Iwo Jima (LHD7) with USMC Harriers onboard, left the Med to go down to Djibouti part of Exercise Alligator Dagger, (which had to be stopped due to several aircraft crashes by 3 April).

The US Navy operates in this region, as part of Task Force 53,

Among this group appears to be the USS Laboon, DDG. It is not known whether they have stayed in the area or sailed back up the Red Sea. There is a good chance that the USS Laboon has, probably along with another French FREMM frigate.

UK –Royal Navy

Other than HMS Duncan, the only other significant news is the possible deployment to eastern Med of an Astute-class nuclear submarine, as initially reported by the Daily Telegraph.

HMS Albion, which had been in the Med, was redeployed with orders to go to the South China Sea, Korea regions, to supplement two other RN warships already there.

https://t.co/0fFRjwADqW

Russian Navy

Of the 15 ships currently forward deployed to Tartus, only 2 surface ships are noteworthy, the ‘Admiral Grigorovich’ and the ‘Admiral Essen’. There are probably at least 2 Kilo improved submarines, (not if not more 5 according to rumour control).

This above tweet contains 2 photos, one which is conveniently dated 11 April and the other undated. The tweet states that the Russian Navy contingent in Tartus simply left, due to imminent threat of missile strikes. However, there is one tiny snag to this narrative, the fact that there is a Kilo-class, Project 636.3″Varshavyanka” submarine. So, are we presuming that the Russian high command is ok with leaving behind a new submarine as a potential target, while the Soviet era cargo ships disappear off into the sunset?

The reality is more mundane, most of the ships labelled on the right-hand photo are in fact part of what is known as the “Syrian Express”, shuttling to and fro Tartus – Black Sea ports, so they routinely disappear & reappear. As confirmed by tweet from a Turkish ship spotter & photographer, one of the cargo ships was indeed stuck in the heavy fog, along with 100s of other ships, waiting to transit the Bosphorus. The ‘Ropucha’ class of ships, (‘Tsezar Kunikov’), forms the backbone of the Russian Navy’s part in the ‘Syrian Express’.

The other partial explanation is the fact the Russian Navy had announced a series of exercises, starting on the 11 April, so both the frigates and submarines would have gone to sea anyhow.

Re NOTAM, the Russian Navy regularly issues these for several years, even if they don’t seem to carry out exercises. Sometimes, it can be seen as being a warning of imminent Kalibr missiles launches. The timing of this latest NOTAM does raise suspicions given timing with airline warnings.

The US Navy P-8 aircraft out of Sigonella, Scilly, have been carrying practically non-stop missions for several days, near to the Syrian coast & near to the Russian Navy exercise zone. This is a good indicator that the Russian Navy is at sea and the US Navy is keeping a close watch, especially the two Kilo-class submarines.

Other navies

  1. China

Interestingly the news that the Chinese Navy, PLA(N) might get sent to Syria if the Russian Navy gets attacks, is doing the rounds of the internet like a wildfire. None of it is actually based on verifiable sources, just hearsay. Except, there is no PLA(N) currently in the Med, nor have any joint exercises been scheduled with the Russian Navy in the Med. The Chinese did, however carry out joint exercises last summer, which was well-known well in advance.

https://t.co/f71OHbUBAg

There is a long-standing Chinese Task Group anti-piracy mission, which each group of 3 ships, that operates in the Gulf of Aden or in waters near to Somalia. The 27th and 28th Escort Forces changed over back in December 2017, in the Gulf of Aden. The 28th group is currently there, with the 29th group on its way to take over the duties. The 29th group left China on 5 April.

https://t.co/rxJCi8pJL2

http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2018-04/05/content_7995164.htm

The previous group, the 27th group, were in the Med, much earlier in the year, with port calls to Algiers and Tunisia in January. https://www.msn.com/en-ae/news/other/27th-chinese-naval-escort-taskforce-on-courtesy-call-at-port-of-la-goulette/ar-AAuYBax

However, by the end of February, the group visited Cape Town and now have returned to China.

  1. NATO warships

There is an on-going NATO operation in the Mediterranean, called OP Sea Guardian. Another OP that is in the central part of the Med, but with EU elements as well is OP ‘Sophia’. The status of the participating ships is unknown and for the time being, not considered as probable participants in a Syrian campaign.

In the air

Recently, in addition to the US Navy p-8, NATO E3 Sentry AWACS had been doing racetracks in southern Turkey, on the border with Syria.

https://twitter.com/ItaMilRadar/status/984018977734234112

A flurry of USAF activity was noted yesterday, where several KC-135Rs flew down from the UK Mildenhall base, another from Spain. It was reported that: six A-10Cs, twelve F-16Cs from USAF airbases in Italy, went to Incrilik, Turkey, to take part in OP Inherent Resolve. Note the deployment of the A-10S, these are close ground support aircraft.

While, Russia recently deployed it’s advanced anti-submarine aircraft the IL-38N in Syria.

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