Two days ago, eleven Russian and Chinese warships came together off the coast of Alaska in the largest gathering of its kind yet seen. The US Navy sent four destroyers in their direction as a response. All these ships have now dispersed, seemingly with no up-close interaction. There have been similar occurrences previously.
Not too long ago I commanded the Royal Navy’s standby warship tasked with responding to events such as this if they happened in UK waters (they did) and so I have been involved in similar occurrences.
Basically there are two reasons why navies gather and operate together like this, both simple – to influence (task one) and to prepare to fight (task two).
Task one, Naval Influence, covers a vast range of activities that take place around the clock around the world and often unseen. Activities range from patrol vessels visiting ports in the Indo-Pacific, to frigates escorting Russian warships as they transit the Channel, to signalling the Argentinians that a nuclear-powered attack submarine is on its way, to sitting an aircraft carrier off someone’s coast. There are many others but ‘we have this and we’re not afraid to use it’ is the gist of it, a messaging activity that navies spend a lot of their time on.
In this recent instance, the Chinese and Russian message to friend and foe alike was, ‘we can operate together, far from home and with impunity’.
Is that provocative in itself? Not really, and besides, it’s the same message the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group gave during its 2021 deployment to the Indo-Pacific, and the same message US warships send all the time.
Task two is more interesting – preparing for what happens when task one fails. Operating warships together is much harder than Hollywood would have you believe and needs constant practice. Gathering in one place in formation for a photo is one thing: learning how to fight together is something else entirely.
The network required to make ships capable of fighting together extends well beyond the platforms themselves. Intelligence systems, logistics, communications, orders, rules of engagement, all require a high degree of commonality and understanding to work. Nato ships have an advantage here as by and large they all operate using the same rule books but even then it can take days to get everyone on the same communications circuits and operating from the same picture. The first week of the multinational maritime exercise held off Scotland twice a year is called the Integration Phase for a reason – and these are countries that operate warships together all the time.
If you do work with someone where these things don’t mesh as easily, things get complicated quickly. In 2007, HMS Ark Royal sailed from Portsmouth in company with two Chinese naval vessels; the guided missile destroyer Guangzhou and the supply ship Weishanhu. The aim was to conduct a search and rescue exercise. In the end, a formation photo is just about all we could manage. Totally different languages, doctrines and communications systems.
This latest meeting of the Chinese and Russian navies delivered both tasks. My assessment is 80/20 in favour of Influence – here we are talking about it, we have been influenced by the deployment. It will take a lot more practice for China and Russia to be able to fight together, but it’s a start.
The other thing this deployment has done is highlight the strategic importance of Alaska, this vast state purchased by the US from the Russians in 1898 for 7.2 million dollars and only 50 miles from Russian territory even today.
Alaska gives the US its foothold in the High North, a part of the world where conflict at some point feels inevitable despite Nato’s increasing strength there: every Arctic nation except Russia will soon be in Nato. It’s rich in oil and gas and 29 per cent of Alaska is covered by glaciers. The Aleutian Islands, stretching some 1200 miles out to the west, are home to the Cobra Dane radar station, the US’s first line of defence against ballistic missile attack. Though Alaska’s population density is such that if it was Manhattan there would be just 16 people there, it is nonetheless one of the most populated places in the High North. Alaska matters.
The Aleutian islands are relevant here as the Chinese-Russian gathering took place near them rather than mainland Alaska. Legally, the implications are the same: as a practical matter they are not. If the Isles of Scilly stretched halfway across the Atlantic, our response to Russian warships operating there would be different to them anchoring in the Moray Firth.
But what is the right response? The US Navy sent four destroyers this time – which has been met with general approval. The decision to send a single coastguard cutter last September to intercept seven Russian and Chinese warships was not. The appropriate level of response is a hard one as it entirely depends on your philosophical stance. In 2016, conversations in the British Ministry of Defence around the Russian carrier Kuznetsov heading home through the Channel ranged from ‘let it go – don’t stoke their propaganda machine’ to ‘let’s get everything out of the door and give them a show of strength’.
Where you personally sit on this continuum will determine what you think is the right response. Often these philosophical debates resolve themselves when they meet the cold reality of available resources. In this case, the US Navy having four destroyers available for short notice retasking is impressive. Also, it’s not all about navy vs navy – having the intelligence, surveillance apparatus and aircraft in place to detect and track ships and then message to say you are doing both, is just as important.
That the Russians and Chinese are increasing the regularity of these meet-ups is of note when one considers their strategic relationship more generally. Eyes are inevitably drawn to Taiwan when talk of conflict with China comes up but what does any of this mean in the High North or the Middle East, which offers scope for some disagreement between the two in recent months? Will this cooperation alter their discussions about Ukraine? As ever with joint exercises, conversations reach much deeper than just the ships.
And when these questions are answered, will the US military change its posture in Alaska? There are nine US bases there but none belong to the Navy or Marines. The USN has two icebreakers, Russia has fifty-four. Should USN surface combatants operate there more often? Any such move will mean resources inevitably have to be taken from elsewhere, but to me this sort of practical discussion is more interesting than breathless talk of incursions and invasions.
Surface warships meeting and operating with allies is as old as navies, as is exercising one’s legal right to operate on the High Seas. Such deployments influence friends and deter adversaries, and then affords precious opportunities to learn how to fight together if that fails.
My assessment is that Russia and China still have a way to go in this regard. More interesting will be to track what this means to their political relationship and what it means to US operating posture in that part of the world.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer. He commanded an anti-submarine frigate on operations in the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap, involving live contact with Russian ships and submarines