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The Russian navy has arrived ... sort of

By Dale R. Herspring

I will leave to others the discussion of who, including the Russians, managed to push the recent presidential election in one direction or another by their hacking of the other side’s communications apparatus. I say this for a couple of reasons.
First, the news on this topic changes almost hourly. As I write this article, President Obama is giving his version of the hacking episode which will be followed by one by President-elect Trump. I also learned that President Vladimir Putin will give a press conference denying any Russian involvement.

Then there are the U.S. intelligence agencies, and they appear to agree that the Russians tried to hack us in an effort to influence the election. Will that evaluation be the same after the Republicans take office? We will see. Having worked with our intelligence agencies for years and looking at what they have said thus far, my suspicion is that they will never claim they know for certain. Most citizens don’t know how the intelligence process works. I don’t think I have ever seen one or another intelligence organization make an estimate anywhere near 100% certainty except in a very unusual case.

Intelligence agencies issue estimates. Sometimes, they are based on an intercept, radar, sonar, an underground explosion, a conversation, or even a rumor. The only thing of which I am certain, having dealt with the Russians for well over 50 years, is that we use our intelligence assets to learn what they are doing, and if possible, to influence their actions.

They do the same to us. I don’t understand the big surprise about suspecting that Putin may have favored one candidate over the other. I may be naive, but I doubt that even he could have shifted the American election from one direction to another.

Instead, I want to talk about Moscow’s continuing problems with modern technology. I am not suggesting that the U.S. should not be mindful of the danger presented by Russian technical prowess. I am suggesting that it behooves us not to think they are 10 feet tall. They have problems, serious problems when compared to the U.S. technologically. As a means of comparison, I want to use one aspect of the Russian navy.

As readers who follow the Russian military are no doubt aware, for many years, the primary Russian naval threat has come from submarines. They are potent, and a major threat to us.

A tremendous amount of time and money has been — and is continuing to be — sunk into our ability to find and destroy them. Even if they are not always as good as our “boomers” — nuclear subs that launch Sea Launch Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) — it is wise to keep in mind “that one nuclear weapon can ruin your whole day.” However, the purpose of a navy is not only to launch SLBMs. Another equally important task is to project power.

The Navy is the only one of our services that can project power in a sustained, high power fashion. Unless we have air fields near the target, or Army bases in the area, it may only be by sending a carrier task force to the region that we can directly influence events. The amount of destructive power of a modern aircraft carrier battle group – i.e. with its accompanying ships (generally including a sizeable number of Marines), can be awesome.

With the latter aspect of sea power in mind, several years ago, the Russians set about to build several aircraft carriers. One was sold to the Indians, another joined the fleet in 1991. They planned to use the latter for force projection.

Recently, they got serious and put one of the carriers into action. Named the Kuznetsov, for the legendary Russian admiral, the carrier is full sized, at 55,000 tons. It has been sent to the Mediterranean several times.

Wanting to develop this arm of its navy further, Putin increased its operational tempo, did some minor modernization and decided to again send it to the Med, on this occasion to assist Russian troops in Syria. This was to be the Kuznetsov’s trial under fire.

Putin knew the Americans would be closely watching, and he was right. The U.S. Navy provided close coverage from the North Sea through the English Channel, along French and Spanish coasts and into the Med, where the Sixth Fleet took over.

Unfortunately, the Kuznetsov has had a rocky past. To quote one writer, “A seaman died when the carrier caught fire during a 2009 deployment to the Med, while later in that cruise, the flattop spilled hundreds of tons of fuel oil into the sea, while refueling.

“Her steam turbines are so bad the ship has to be escorted by two tugs in case she breaks down.”

She is also hardly capable of launching aircraft. Unlike U.S. carriers she does not use steam catapults, but a big bow ramp instead. That cuts back in takeoff weight and patrol time. The Kuznetsov is supposed to form the basis of a new Russian fleet in the Med.

Things did not go well for the Russian carrier. During the course of its time in the Med, it lost two of its four MiG29KUBR aircraft.

According to a Russian naval expert, the key problem now for the navy is “a lack of trained pilots for this type of aircraft and not any technical problems.”

Then a third` aircraft, a Sukhoi Su-33 “Flanker,” crashed into the Med when one of the ship’s arresting cables broke.

There is no doubt that the deployment of the Kuznetsov was a good learning experience. However, it is clear that both technically and from the standpoint of seamanship, the Russians have a long way to go before they will be in the same league as the Americans.

They are not the technological giants some on the left and right make them out to be.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.









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