What Two Russian Jets Can Teach Us about the South China Sea

Blog | April 15, 2016

The 'buzzing' of a U.S. warship in the Baltic shows why we shouldn't exaggerate risk of conflict, writes maritime security analyst Steven Stashwick.

On Wednesday, the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) revealed the destroyer USS Donald Cook was buzzed repeatedly by Russian Su-24 fighter jets while sailing in the Baltic Sea on April 11th and 12th, coming as close as thirty feet to the warship.

We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight maneuvers. These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries, and could result in a miscalculation or accident that could cause serious injury or death, the EUCOM statement read. The Washington Post pointed out that Russian harassment of U.S. vessels is not unprecedented in recent years; the Donald Cook received similar treatment in 2014, as did the USS Ross while patrolling the Black Sea in 2015. The independent Navy Times added context from a retired Navy cruiser captain; Captain Rick Hoffman said the Russian behavior was provocative but not threatening, and that you don't get to kill people just because they're being annoying.

Unfortunately, this restrained perspective and attention to context is notably lacking in media discourse about the U.S. and China in the South China Sea. The New York Times' recent account of an encounter between the USS Chancellorsville and a Chinese frigate near the Spratly Islands describes nothing as dramatic or dangerous as the Russian jets that buzzed the Donald Cook.

Yet the language used to describe the events suggests a delicate situation that threatened to break out into a clash at any moment. A threat warning sounded over the ship's intercom, the Chinese ship and helicopter's failure to immediately respond to radio calls was ominous, and the two naval forces [China and the U.S.] are on almost continuous state of alert. The New York Times' Editorial Board concluded that confrontation seems increasingly likely that same week.

Some might argue the different treatment is because the strategic situation in the South China Sea is more tense than the Baltic. But in the past eight years Russia has intervened militarily in three sovereign countries: Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. By contrast, China has occupied and built up several uninhabited atolls and harassed a lot of fishermen.

This is not to minimize the seriousness of China's extensive activity in the South China Sea and the major implications it has for other countries in the region. But it's difficult to make the case that China's behavior is more worrisome or escalatory than Russia's, a country General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called alarming and the greatest military threat the U.S. could face. And while the Russian jets are being treated almost as a curiosity in the U.S. press, the U.S. and China jockey for dominance and are headed for a dangerous showdown.

I've written before about the exaggerated myth that such interactions between ships or aircraft can lead to a miscalculation that escalates into a clash; history simply does not bear out the claim. What the Cold War taught, and these latest incidents between the U.S. and Russia demonstrate, is that when competing navies engage in aggressive posturing and harassment they do not threaten an undesired escalation or the wider relationship; they are merely a reflection of that relationship. What is significant about hundreds of serious incidents that occurred between the U.S. and Soviet navies during the Cold War, to include harassment, buzzing, games of -8chicken', and even intentional collisions, is not that they happened, but that they never resulted in fire being exchanged or plunged us into nuclear apocalypse.

Concerns about aggressive harassment or acrobatics causing an accident leading to injury or death is certainly legitimate, as the tragic 2001 collision between a U.S. EP-3 and Chinese fighter over the South China Sea showed. But the Donald Cook did not take any overt defensive measures during this recent event, and the dramatic video of the incident shows that the crew was vigilant, but more out of concern for safety than alarm at possibly being attacked.

EUCOM's release said the incident was being addressed with Russia through Navy channels. The principal mechanism for this is the Cold War-era Agreement Between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. on the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEA) that created rules of behavior and a forum to address incidents like jets buzzing a warship. But such agreements didn't actually reduce dangerous behavior, just perhaps the tension surrounding it.

Data from the Cold War indicates that there were about as many serious incidents between the U.S. and Soviet navies in the twenty years after the 1972 INCSEA agreement was signed as in the twenty years before it. What the agreements really signaled was that both countries would likely continue to engage in dangerous behavior when there were political points to be scored, but each with the confidence that the other was not trying to start a war in the process.

Article IV of INCSEA, which remains in force with the Russian Federation today, requires that Commanders of aircraft... shall use the greatest caution and prudence in approaching aircraft and ships of the other...in particular, ships engaged in launching or landing aircraft, and in the interest of mutual safety shall not permit: simulated attacks...against aircraft and ships, or performance of various aerobatics over ships... The Russian pilots over the Donald Cook violated every one of these clauses, but like generations of pilots before them, lacked hostile intent, something reciprocally understood by the Donald Cook.

For nearly seventy years now, the U.S. and Russian navies have operated around one another, sometimes irresponsibly and dangerously (occasionally with tragic results), but never with the intent for anyone to get hurt or of starting a conflict by accident or miscalculation. The U.S. and China now have a similar memorandum of understanding to govern interactions between their ships and aircraft. We should remember our Cold War history and not exaggerate the risks of confrontation when assessing even potentially serious interactions between the U.S. and Chinese navies in the years to come.

Steven Stashwick is a writer and analyst based in New York City. He spent ten years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer with multiple deployments to the Western Pacific. He writes about maritime and security affairs in East Asia and serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter.