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Monday, April 18, 2016

Putin’s Playgrounds

Russia’s military has been much more aggressive and even reckless over the past few weeks, stunting over and around U.S. forces. Those stunts happened, almost simultaneously, with more dangerous Russian moves in supplying Iranian and Hezbollah terrorist forces with enormously capable anti-air and anti-missile systems.

Last Monday and Tuesday, two Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers made mock attacks against the USS Donald Cook, a destroyer in international waters in the Baltic Sea. On neither occasion were the aircraft visibly armed, nor did they answer radio calls from the ship. During the Tuesday incident, one made a pass that took it to within about fifty feet above the ship.

On Thursday, a Russian Su-27 fighter did a barrel roll around an Air Force RC-135 over the Baltic Sea, coming within fifty feet of the aircraft’s wingtip. (To perform a barrel roll the aircraft banks around a single turn of a spiral while rolling once around its longitudinal axis. It takes only a couple of seconds to do, and is a lot of fun if you’re the roller, not the rollee.)

An RC-135 is, to put it bluntly, a spy aircraft that is connected directly into the gizmocracies of the CIA and NSA. It flies seeking to gather whatever intelligence its antennae can scoop up. Flying over the Baltic is a natural place to snoop given the close proximity of both Russia and Kaliningrad which, though not connected by land, is nevertheless part of Russia.

If this were our Air Force or Navy fliers, the fighter jocks would be scolded and probably grounded for a while to sort out what really happened. The Russians are different. As we used to say in the Cold War days, a Russian won’t defecate without orders. In this case, the pilots were clearly acting on the orders of a senior military person and the fact that the incidents were carried out over several days indicates that Russian President Vladimir Putin either ordered the incidents or was at least told of the plans and approved them.

The only reaction to the USS Cookincidents came from Secretary of State John Kerry. On Thursday, Kerry said, “We condemn this kind of behavior. It is reckless. It is provocative. It is dangerous. And under the rules of engagement that could have been a shoot-down.” As we’ve come to expect from Kerry, the harrumphery of condemnation was matched by a comprehensively ignorant statement about the rules of engagement.

Because the aircraft were not visibly armed, their pilots’ conduct, though improper, wouldn’t have justified shooting them down. Even painting them with targeting radar would have been too aggressive a response.

Since 1972, we have had a treaty — first with the Soviet Union and now with the Russian government — covering the conduct of naval forces encountering each other. It’s the Prevention of Incidents at Sea (“INCSEA”) Agreement which governs things such as preventing armed mock attacks by aircraft and keeping ships separated from each other to prevent such incidents from escalating into a war. (The last bilateral meeting on INCSEA was held in St. Petersburg in 2013.)

It’s clearly too much to expect our most senior diplomat, Vichy John, to know about such things. The procedure, Mr. Kerry, is for you to forward a diplomatic demarche to Moscow and demand a meeting on the incidents. Please ask your staff. They can look up the INCSEA agreement for you and read you the relevant parts.

Kerry should leave the INCSEA matters to the Navy and whatever State Department minions may be required. He, Defense Secretary Carter, and the president should be paying attention to other Russian actions that are vastly more dangerous.

According to several reports, the Russians have armed the Lebanon-based Shiite terrorist network Hezbollah (literally, “the Party of God”) with an unknown number of SA-17 anti-aircraft batteries. Also known as the “Buk” system, it is best remembered for shooting down Malaysian Air Flight 17 over Ukraine in October 2015. Russian forces may have operated the Buk missiles in that incident, which Russia predictably denies.

The Buk system gives the Hezbollah terrorists a far greater capability against Israeli aircraft. It is susceptible to jamming, which the Israelis do quite well. But it’s not as effective and deadly as the S-300 antiaircraft and antimissile batteries that Russia has begun delivering to Iran.

The Iranians staged a military parade on Sunday in which they displayed at least one of the S-300s. The S-300 is one of the most advanced systems of its kind, comparable to our Patriot missile systems. It comprises four highly mobile vehicles which mount long-range radars, engagement radars, a command center, and the missile battery itself. The S-300 missiles have a range of about ninety miles and can engage targets at up to about twenty miles in altitude. It reportedly can fire its missiles in just five minutes after the vehicles come to a stop.

Experts have told me that without stealth aircraft, the Israelis cannot penetrate the S-300’s defenses. And, of course, the Israelis don’t have stealth aircraft or missiles. Which means that Iran now has the ability to defend its principal nuclear weapons development facilities from Israeli attack.

The Obama administration has stated its opposition to the S-300 sale, which has had — again, predictably — no effect whatever. It is also opposed to Russia selling Iran Su-30SM fighters, which are as good as anything the Israelis have and can only be fought and defeated by our F-22s. That opposition will have the same effect as its opposition to the S-300 sale.

Presumably, Team Obama is also opposed to the latest Russian action in Ukraine.

Russia has reportedly been jamming Ukrainian communications using a SA-330ZH “Zhytel” jamming unit located in Makiivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. The Zhytel is used to jam cell phones, satellite phones, and GPS satellite location systems and is effective within 20-30 kilometers (about 12-18 miles.) That will effectively prevent Ukrainian forces from communicating in the Donetsk Oblast.

In Iran, Syria, and Ukraine, the Putin government has been filling the vacuum left by American power in those regions. The Obama administration, having left that vacuum purposely, has taken no action to counter what the Russians are doing.

Instead of leaving those theaters of conflict to Russia, we should be arming Ukrainian forces with the weapons they’ve begged for, such as antitank weapons. We should be maneuvering U.S. forces in and out of the region in far greater numbers than has been done in recent years in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. All, as NATO members, should be receiving temporary visits by division-sized forces.

The Israelis deserve no less help, but in a very different form. Israel plans to purchase stealthy F-35 fighters, but their price will prohibit purchasing many of them. And, as I’ve often written, the F-35 has many problems — especially its highly questionable ability to fight and in its bizarrely-complex software that can prevent it from leaving the ground. It’s a bad investment. There may be other stealthy weapons in our arsenal, and Israel should be able to purchase them all.

None of these things will happen while Obama is in office, or if Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump succeeds him.

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