The Commonwealth's little square of the strategic chessboard has received a lot of paint and polish lately. Amidst the glitter and glare it's a good time to remind ourselves about a nearby player that we don't talk about very often. This player is the world's largest nation, the world's most prolific oil producer, and it has the world's largest stash of nuclear warheads.
OK, you've guessed it by now: Russia. It spans nine time zones, ranging from Alaska's doorstep to Europe's environs. China has more people, and the U.S. has more money, but Russia is not out of the game
I know that emotions run hot on Saipan, so I'll gently remind folks that I'm not on the emoting express. I'm not trying to stir the pot, I'm not trying to add to your list of daily worries, and I'm not labeling anybody a friend or foe. I'm just taking a glance at a major, if somewhat dormant, player in the Big Game out here. So there's no grand theory to sell, just a few observations to keep us “in the loop” on this stuff.
Having been a U.S. naval officer during a slice of the Cold War, I've got a cadre of pals who are always willing to share their judgments with me, and, by extension, with you. I serve this like bad laws and cheap sausage: minced, processed, aggregated, and always with a dash of spice.
Russia is not a new kid on the naval block. Its warships have been fighting since before the U.S. was even the U.S. In fact, the father of the U.S. Navy, John Paul Jones, couldn't advance in the very navy he birthed, owing to political factors in Congress, so he eventually bailed to imperial Russia where he served as an admiral. Jones, a native of Scotland, later died in less than lavish circumstances in Paris.
Moving from then to now, you may have noticed that the Russian fleet has been in the news lately as various intrigues have swirled around Middle East affairs. Russia has a port in Syria so they have a military interest in the place. It's Russia's foothold in the Mediterranean. Everybody with a finger in that regional pie is talking smack, so it's hard to tell what is bluster and what isn't.
Still, if things in that region get more contentious, it will be interesting to see how Russia employs its fleet. Will it get its back up, or will it back down? A lot of pros are wondering if there is an invisible line in the sand on that gig, and, if so, where it's drawn. Hey, if nothing else, it's a good topic for a bar bet.
Statistics on Russia's fleet are a bit dicey for a lot of reasons, including judgments on what actually constitutes a serviceable vessel, and the fact that data is often dated. Russia's fleet is merely a shadow of its former (Soviet) self, but it still has at least a dozen ballistic missile subs (“boomers”), with more in development, plus roughly 75 other combatants such as other types of submarines, and cruisers, frigates, and destroyers. Additionally they have some smaller stuff and various support and amphibious assault ships as well. I'd like to refine and improve these figures, so maybe I'll get around to that someday.
Anyway, Russia's cash-strapped fleet is not as formidable as the U.S fleet, but it's still a real, fighting navy with a real, fighting tradition.
As for the tradition, or at least the doctrine from Soviet days, then as now, they yielded the aircraft carrier dominance to the U.S., and instead concentrated on submarines and on cruise missiles. I remember that those guys had missile launchers bolted to anything that could fight, float, or flounder.
Fortunately we didn't put the competing doctrines to the test back then. There would have been no winners; a victor, maybe, but no winner.
But the test hasn't been canceled. It's merely been postponed, as the development and proliferation of potent anti-ship missiles has advanced over the years. And that's due to many players, some large, some small. But, staying with the theme here, Russia's expertise is, among other ways, being employed via missile development and production in India and Vietnam.
If there are any substantial fisticuffs in the Pacific's future, anti-ship missiles might not only define a skirmish, but, depending on the results, might define the entire tone of the broader action. Russia might not be involved in such events at all, but much of the technology and thinking is due to their ideas for countering a carrier-based fleet.
That's not the last word on the topic, or the first, of course, but is rather an interim update just so we don't forget the bigger picture. A lot of military members read this column, so if you've got any insights then please sound off via my email. This is one old theme that is overdue for some new attention.
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.