Friday, August 30, 2013

Why is Russia sending a naval task force to the eastern Mediterranean?

Over the past few days the Internet has been buzzing with reports about the Russian Navy sending warships including possibly guided missile cruisers (the Kerch, the Varyag, the Moskva are often mentioned), while Russian sources mention the large anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev and various support vessels.  Russian officials have made contradictory statements about how many ships are being send and which ships exactly would join the Russian flotilla, but the bottom line is clear: this time Russia is sending big, very capable ships.  The obvious question is why?

First, I want to  get the hype out of this by immediately saying that these ships are not being sent to the Mediterranean to attack the US Navy or any NATO assets.  I will never cease to repeat this: a direct Russian military intervention is out of the question.  But then, what are they up to?

One very likely hypothesis is that some of these ships (like the Varyag or the Moskva) have extremely powerful radars onboad, including the naval version of the S-300 (called the S-300F or SA-N-6 in NATO classification) and the associated 3R41 Volna ("Top Dome") or  (newer) 36N85 ("Flap Lid") radars.  In other words, such a warship can cruise off the Syrian coast and fully monitor much of the Syrian airspace.  This type of ship is also capable of sharing this data via encrypted datalink.  In the event of a US/NATO strike the Russians could not only monitor it all live, but they could easily pass on their data to the Syrians who could  then continue to defend their airspace even if their own radars were to be destroyed or jammed.  And while it is likely that the US/NATO would be aware of that kind of activity, there is really not too much they could do about it - not only are these ships equipped with formidable weapon systems, but the US is also not going to be willing to risk a war with Russia.

The second purpose of sending these ships to the eastern Mediterranean is that they usually have a complement of Naval Infantry troops which could be used to protect or evacuate Russian nationals if needed.

Furthermore, the mere presence of such sophisticated warships in a possible warzone will be a major irritant for CENTCOM which will have to allocate resources to track and monitor them.  I am not sure if there are any US aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean (last time I heard they were in the Persian Gulf), but the main capability of these Russian guided missile cruisers is to be a "carrier killer" thanks to their specially designed and very powerful missiles.  The presence of such warships are just not something CENTCOM can ignore even if the Americans are certain that the Russians will not suddenly begin hostilities.

Finally, these ships have a top of the line anti-submarine warfare capability which they can use to monitor US subs near Syria, probably in conjunction with 1-2 Russian attack submarines also covertly deployed as part of this task force.

All in all, these warships, combined with Russian satellites, intelligence gathering aircraft in the skies and local intelligence assets on the ground in Syria probably give the Russians an excellent picture of what is going on, all of which they than can share with their Syrian colleagues.

The deployment of the naval task force is yet another proof that Russia is doing all it can to assist Syria and deter a US attack.

The Saker