Russia has provided more details about its recent sea and air drills conducted in the central Pacific, which included mock attacks on a simulated aircraft carrier strike group. Although we don’t know exactly when this exercise happened, its announcement comes just days after reports that U.S. Air Force F-22A Raptor stealth fighters were scrambled from Hawaii in response to Russian activities in the region, the second such reported alert mission in as many weeks. The robust Russian presence has seemingly alarmed the U.S. government to a significant degree, even prompting it to move a carrier group into the region in response, but details about exactly what’s been going on and why it’s so worrisome remain murky.
The Russian Ministry of Defense today published an account about the Pacific Fleet maneuvers, which are described as having practiced “the tasks of destroying an aircraft carrier strike group of a mock enemy.” A simulated cruise missile strike was carried out by the Pacific Fleet flagship, the Slava class cruiser
Varyag (pictured at the top of this story), as well as the Udaloy class destroyer
Marshal Shaposhnikov, and the Steregushchiy class corvettes Hero of the Russian Federation
Aldar Tsydenzhapov, Gromky, and Sovershenniy.
The two detachments of ships were reportedly operating at a distance of about 300 miles from each other, one playing the role of the enemy. Also involved in the maneuvers was an unnamed Russian Navy submarine and a pair of Tu-142MZ Bear-F Mod. 4 long-range anti-submarine aircraft from the Pacific Fleet’s naval aviation branch, operating from Yelizovo Air Base on the Kamchatka peninsula, which were escorted by MiG-31BM Foxhound interceptors.
The two detachments “worked out the tasks of detecting, countering and delivering missile strikes against an aircraft carrier strike group of a mock enemy,” the Russian Ministry of Defense announced. As well as anti-shipping strikes, the task force also tested their readiness for anti-aircraft and anti-submarine missions, the Russian Ministry of Defense added.
Official Russian Ministry of Defense video showing the recent maneuvers in the central Pacific, which included a mock attack on a simulated enemy carrier strike group:
The Russian Ministry of Defense says all of this was happening at a distance of about 2,500 miles southeast of the Kuril Islands. The location would correspond broadly with reports from U.S. media channels that Russian warships were conducting their maneuvers between 300 and 500 miles west of the main Hawaiian islands.
The Honolulu Star Advertiser
quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that the Russian naval exercise was taking place “several hundred miles west of the Aloha State.”
Unconfirmed satellite images purport to show some of the Russian Navy surface combatants just 35 nautical miles south of Honolulu, Hawaii, on June 19, when they were said to be being escorted by three U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers and a U.S. Coast Guard Sentinel class cutter, although the available imagery seems inconclusive. Regardless, this distance, if true, would put them far closer to Hawaii than any of the other sources currently indicate and it would seem highly unusual that there are no corresponding eyewitness reports from locals in the vicinity.
For their part, the Russian Navy Tu-142 aircraft are said to have spent more than 14 hours in the air, covering around 6,200 miles in the process. They were topped up over the Pacific by a Russian Aerospace Forces Il-78 Midas aerial refueling aircraft.
The statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense also claims that the mock missile attack was carried out both from surface warships and from the air, although it is unclear which aircraft were involved in this part of the drills. As well as the Tu-142MZ and MiG-31BM, the ministry also mentions Il-38 May anti-submarine aircraft and ship-based Ka-27 Helix anti-submarine and search-and-rescue helicopters. None of these aircraft is able to launch anti-ship cruise missiles, although the MiG-31BM is being upgraded to carry the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic strike missile, which has, in the past, been described as a “carrier-killer” weapon. However, while there are reports that the Northern Fleet is soon to receive the Kinzhal, the Pacific Fleet is not known to have received any examples of the weapon yet.
As for the six Il-38s — which comprised both the original Il-38 and the upgraded Il-38N — their job was to search for and track submarines from the ‘enemy’ group. Flying in pairs, the aircraft conducted their maneuvers over the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific, each flying for around eight hours and dropping sonobuoys.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the current series of maneuvers in the central Pacific are the first of their type to be conducted by the Pacific Fleet in recent years and, altogether, involve as many as 20 surface warships, submarines, and support vessels, plus a similar number of aircraft. Last week, Russian state news agency TASS reported that a Pacific Fleet flotilla of the same size had been recently “practicing command and control of a combined arms task force in operations at considerable distances.” The cruise missile scenario described today could also have happened during a previous phase of the drills.
The Honolulu Star Advertiser
reported that on June 18 a pair of F-22s was launched to investigate “Russian Bear bombers headed … toward Hawaii.” In this instance, “bombers” is likely a description of Russian Navy Tu-142 aircraft. News outlets often describe the Tu-142 as a bomber, since it shares much commonality with the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Tu-95MS Bear-H strategic missile-carrier.
Last week, The War Zone reported that three U.S. Air Force F-22s scrambled from their base at of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on June 14. CBS News subsequently reported that, according to unnamed U.S. defense officials, the F-22s were responding to aircraft associated with the Russian naval exercise. Again, CBS reported at the time that the Russian aircraft were “bombers,” although likely candidates are three Tu-142MZ aircraft that were taking part in Pacific Fleet maneuvers at the time, video of which was released by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Regardless, on both occasions, the Russian aircraft in question never entered the Hawaiian air defense identification zone (ADIZ), nor were they ever actually intercepted.
Questions still remain about the first incident in particular, with still no official on-the-record confirmation of what the F-22s were scrambled to intercept and why it was not actually intercepted. Then there is the movement of a U.S. Navy carrier strike group — based around the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) — closer to Hawaii, apparently in response to the Russian movements. At first, this movement was not officially confirmed, but on June 17 the Navy quietly admitted that the Carl Vinson and her strike group were operating near Hawaii, without revealing when they had arrived, or why.
All of this activity comes ahead of a potential missile defense test, for which a navigational warning was issued on June 16. This appeared to indicate a planned missile defense-related launch from Kodiak, Alaska, today, June 21. Kodiak is home to the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, a facility regularly used in testing by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and its partners. Those warnings also indicated a potential impact or impacts of some kind at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, another facility routinely used in U.S. military missile and missile defense tests.
In addition, as of yesterday, a chain of MDA-linked radar tracking ships was also apparently on station in the central Pacific. They were arrayed along the exact same route as the one outlined in the navigation warnings, all but confirming they were preparing to monitor the test. The War Zone has reached out to the MDA for further information and the agency has forwarded our queries to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
It is likely that the U.S. military, in general, is paying particular attention to the Russian naval movements in what seems to be the run-up to a missile test. It’s worth noting that among the Russian ships that has been active in waters around Hawaii in recent weeks is an apparent intelligence-gathering vessel, which reportedly appeared north of Oahu. According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, this is the Kareliya, the presence of which disrupted a ship-launched SM-6 missile test in May, leading to it being rescheduled.
The uptick in Russian naval activity around Hawaii comes amid the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin that took place in Switzerland last week. That summit came after after a diplomatic spat between Washington and Moscow, earlier this year, which saw the countries withdraw their respective ambassadors from each other’s capitals. The meeting between presidents saw a solution on that front, suggesting a degree of rapprocehment, but there is still plenty of disagreement between the two powers.
More generally, however, the Russian Navy’s increasing willingness to conduct long-range maneuvers closer to U.S. waters now seems to have added Hawaii and the central Pacific to its interests. In the past, for example, Russian naval activity close to the Continental United States saw the high-profile surfacing of the guided-missile submarine Omsk in the Bering Sea off Alaska, last year. The Omsk surfacing was linked to drills that were also described as some of the largest by the Russian Navy in the Pacific since the end of the Cold War, which parallels descriptions of the latest maneuvers, closer to Hawaii. A significant difference, however, is that the Omsk and the associated drills prompted proactive statements from the U.S. military and were confirmed by locals who witnessed the activity. Neither of this has really happened in this latest instance.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. Navy officer warned last year that his service no longer considers the East Coast of the United States as an “uncontested” area or an automatic “safe haven” for its ships and submarines as a result of increased Russian Navy underwater activity in that area. It was only a matter of time until a similar reality came into play in the central Pacific.
As the Russian Navy increasingly ventures further afield with long-range exercises of this kind, it could be that the service’s warships, submarines, and aircraft become a more common sight close to Hawaii’s shores, too. Still, clear communications, or a total lack thereof, by the Pentagon in relation to this ongoing situation in the Pacific is what is most puzzling. It is possible that the Navy did whatever it could to make it a non-issue prior to the meeting between Biden and Putin, but now, after that meeting has occurred, the service’s lack of candor regarding what is a fairly unprecedented threat, at least in recent years, near Hawaii is baffling.
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