The USS George Bush has been operating in the Mediterranean as of recently, and was reported parked off the Syrian Coastline just days ago. The American armada showed up close to Syrian waters as the State Department gave all Americans left in Syria the order to evacuate while public transportation is still available. Is this a surefire sign of a looming intervention over the troubled country? No, but it does play as a serious warning to the Assad Regime to see that all American citizens be allowed to leave Syria as requested unmolested. It also puts pressure on the Syrian Government in a major way. Remember, Libya did not even get a Carrier Strike Force during our intervention there, so this posturing by the US certainly signifies an escalation in tensions.
The twist in this story has come in the form of intervention against intervention by the Russian Navy. Russia and the US have very different views regarding the handling of the current unrest in Syria and throughout the greater Middle East in general. Syria has been a long time trading partner and friend of the Russians. So with this in mind, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, will set sail right into the area where the US Carrier Strike Group has been. Russia’s goal here is not to put pressure on the internationally despised Assad regime, quite the opposite, its to take pressure off. Russia knows that NATO or any other western coalition would have a very hard time setting up an air campaign over Syria if the complexity of the situation were drastically increased by the presence of a Russian aircraft carrier sitting off the Syrian coast, or even worse, docked in port at Tartus (more on Tartus later).
All this is pretty understandable, and fortified by the current saber rattling between the US and Russia over a myriad of issues, but is there a bigger picture developing here? I think so. Russia has recently turned up the volume on their plans to acquire a modern aircraft carrier fleet within the next decade. It has been stated by the Russian military brass and political leadership that this expensive capability will be essential for the country to project power around the globe in the future. Carriers are a great foreign policy tool to have in your arsenal, but large flotillas require a lot of logistics. During the Cold War the Russians had a logistics port in Tartus, Syria which is still active today, although to a much lesser degree compared to the waning days of the Cold War. Part of the Russia’s forthcoming foray into this heated area of operations will be the use of it’s logistics port in Tartus to supply the Kuznetsov and her flotilla. With this mind it can be considered a fact that Russia has serious strategic interest in Syria well beyond trade and the superficial backing of a longtime “friend” of Russia’s. It would seem that by Russia sailing its only carrier far from its Severomorsk home, into one of the most geopolitically hot operating areas in the world, to utilize a Cold War era strategic port located in a country whose brutal ruling regime has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the western world, is a provocative and strategically motivated line drawn in the sand. Russia does NOT want to lose it’s invaluable naval base in Tartus that will be absolutely key for future deployments made by its future carrier forces. If the Assad regime falls, so will Russia’s access to this key logistics base on the Mediterranean.
While the Admiral Kuznetsov parks in Syrian waters, America’s USS George HW Bush Strike Group will be nearby projecting the exact opposite message to the increasingly isolated Assad regime. In many ways this game of power projection and gunboat diplomacy may be a preview of things to come as Russia further develops it’s naval aviation capabilities. Oddly enough, as part of the Kuznetsov’s aircraft inventory will be a handful of MiG-29Ks. These aircraft are being built for India and will be undergoing an operational test and evaluation period during the cruise. The MiG-29K is state of the art as far as operational Russian gear goes, and will be the backbone of the Russian Navy’s future aircraft carrier fleet. So in many ways this is a test run to not only work out the kinks in India’s new fighter, but to validate and assess the future capabilities of Russia’s soon to be revamped naval air wing.
In many ways, opposing naval capitol ship flotillas are like jousting knights. Much of their presence and related activities are for fanfare, intimidation and to test one another’s readiness and capabilities at a distance. But there should be no mistake, at a moments notice these knights can throw their long lances aside and pull out their battle swords and go about doing what they do best: Dispensing destruction onto their enemies on a massive scale. So when two of these knights prance around on a big field in front of big crowd they may bring the tension but after the show they go about on their individual ways unscathed. You just DO NOT want to get them in a small room together, that’s where things can go very badly very quick. Having the Kuznetsov act as a shield against even the perceived possibility of US or NATO intervention in Syria may just give Assad the breathing room he needs to execute his next moves in an attempt to hold onto power, or it can trigger an international incident. Whatever it will do or won’t do its a strong stance against western interests in the region.
The Admiral Kuznetsov’s cruise will be an interesting thing to watch. Lets just hope for all involved that it and the USS George Bush prowling the same area of responsibility stay a good healthy distance apart and do not find themselves on opposites sides of a crisis in the region.