Home » Aviation » Opinion: Connecting the Dots on Recent Incidents with Iranian and Russian Forces

Opinion: Connecting the Dots on Recent Incidents with Iranian and Russian Forces

An undated picture of a Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol craft.

An undated picture of a Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol craft.

Some critics attribute the increased number of aggressive air-to-air intercepts and incidents at sea to what they argue is the current administration’s weak foreign policy. That claim raises some interesting points when analyzed. There is a strong counter-argument to such claims.

When coupled with intelligence that Russians are responsible for hacking U.S. political party databases, the spate of recent incidents in the Black Sea and the Strait of Hormuz suggests that America’s enemies are in fact taking direct actions to influence the November elections. This analysis will show that these actions against America’s forward-deployed aircraft and ships are not occurring because America is weak, but rather, it is because America’s enemies are attempting to set the conditions to weaken America post-November elections.

As a point of fact, intercepts near Russian territory should be expected when U.S. reconnaissance aircraft are operating near Russian airspace. They are in a word—commonplace. The U.S. Air Force is sure to return the favor when Soviet reconnaissance planes occasionally fly tracks near Alaska, or the Gulf Coast. Likewise, aggressive behavior by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy in the Strait of Hormuz is nothing new. However, those events have suddenly become more newsworthy because of the unprofessional conduct of the Russian pilots, and the aggressiveness of the IRGCN small boat captains. While the single dangerous intercept of the P-8 Poseidon in the Black Sea may be chalked up to poor airmanship, the multiple incidents by the IRGCN were clearly meant to be a form of strategic communications. What was the message it was were sending?

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016. US Navy Photo

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) April 12, 2016. US Navy Photo

First to the Russian Black Sea intercept. The intercept itself was not unexpected, or as noted, unprecedented. What was alarming about it was the unprofessional manner in which it was conducted. It reasons that this was either a case of poor airmanship, or a deliberate display of aggression or perhaps both. Lending evidence to the possibility of poor airmanship, Norman Friedman wrote in the September issue of Proceedings that following a recent purge of officers for resisting more provocative tactics, “Russian officers are probably uncomfortably aware of how dangerous that is—to their own aircraft. It is particularly dangerous given the age of many of the aircraft and, almost certainly, their limited state of repair. It is one thing to display dramatic photographs of an Sukhoi Su-24 buzzing a U.S. ship, but quite another explaining the loss of such an airplane as it plunges into the sea”

On the other side of this coin is the possibility that the 10-foot closing distance on the P-8A Poseidon operating in the Black Sea was an intentional act of aggression. Turning again to the pages of Proceedings, there Capt. Thomas Fedyszyn in May 2016 wrote an important article titled “Putin’s Potemkin-Plus Navy.” Fedyszyn makes a convincing argument that Putin is in fact using the Russian navy to showcase Russian might around the world. Thus, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker pilot who risked a mid-air collision over the Black Sea onsept. 7 may very well have been another example of what Fedyszyn calls the “Potemkin-plus” factor.

Russian Su-27 Flanker

Russian Su-27 Flanker

Whether it was poor airmanship or intentional aggression, the conclusion by critics in the United States that the intercept only happened because “America is weak” overlooks the obvious fact that the P-8A Poseidon was operating in the Black Sea. That small sea in Russia’s back yard is an area that was for many years considered so sensitive, or dangerous to U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that it was completely avoided by U.S. ships and aircraft. It was only Russia’s aggressive actions in this region that spurned a return of American warships and aircraft. Thus, rather than backing away as tensions in this region have mounted over Russian actions in the Ukraine and the Crimea, the United States has actually stepped up its presence in this region. Likewise, the Persian Gulf incidents between the U.S. Navy and the IRGCN are occurring in the sensitive waters of the Strait of Hormuz where the U.S. Navy will continue to exercise the right of innocent passage.

While there is room to criticize U.S. foreign policy, it is simply not true that U.S. military presence around the world is weak. America would not be showing the flag and operating in sensitive areas like the Black Sea, and the Strait of Hormuz if it was in fact relinquishing air and sea space to its enemies. It is a point of fact that U.S. aircrews and sailors have been conducting military operations in the skies and at sea in international air/sea space in vicinity of Russia and Iran precisely because of the tensions between the United States and those nations.

Over the span of the past 50 years, thousands of aircraft intercepts occurred between U.S. and Soviet aircraft during the Cold War, and they still routinely occur in airspace near China. One overlooked lesson that can be drawn from observing the recent spate of incidents is that the U.S. airmen and sailors operated professionally and legally, even when provoked. The contrast between the conduct of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircrew and U.S. sailors compared with that of the Russian pilot and the crews of the IRGCN small boats should be noted with pride, not criticized as too passive of a response. As the old saying states, “Discretion is better part of valor.”

Forward-deployed U.S. forces are frequently confronting challenging, and often dangerous situations in sensitive areas around the globe. American airmen and sailors deserve more credit for their professionalism and tactical acumen while operating on the tip of the spear. Their demonstrated competence, and discipline in dealing with these dangerous incidents are a clear indication of American strength.

Now to the question of why are these incidents occurring? The response of Russia and Iran may in fact be intended to influence U.S. politics. As noted by a number analysts, the one thing that IRGC and Vladimir Putin have in common is that they want Donald Trump to win the presidential election. Russia clearly sees an opportunity to have a U.S. president who will help them fulfill their decades-old objective of weakening, or destroying the NATO alliance; and the militarists in Iran have stated that they would welcome the demise of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal).

As an instrument of the far right in Iran, the IRGC believes that a President Trump would be far more likely to derail the nuclear deal, which they view compliance with as a humiliation for Iran. Hossein Shariatmadari, a leading voice among Iran’s hard-right militarists was quoted as saying, “The wisest plan of crazy [Donald] Trump is tearing up the nuclear deal.” Shariatmadari deemed the nuclear deal a “golden document” for the Obama administration and one that has caused nothing but “damages, humiliation and deception.” One must also speculate that Iran’s staunchest militants would like to resume the halted enrichment activities and move beyond being a nuclear threshold state to full membership in the nuclear club.

An undated photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin Russian Presidential Press and Information Office Photo

An undated photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin Russian Presidential Press and Information Office Photo

When carefully considered, a better conclusion to be drawn from the recent spate of incidents in the Black Sea and Strait of Hormuz is that they are not occurring because the U.S. is weak; rather, it is more likely that they are an effort by enemies of the U.S. to try to create the conditions that they believe will make America weak. After all, there are unprecedented indications of foreign meddling in this election; it would be foolish to brush these indications off as irrelevant. It is possible that these incidents are another attempt by the same foreign governments to steer the U.S. election in a desired direction. The key questions for the critically minded observer is what direction are America’s enemies attempting to tilt the election, and why are they attempting to tilt it in that direction?

Those in the United States who have forgotten that in the not-so-distant past, matters of national security stopped at the water’s edge, should think carefully about who is benefitting from the noise before joining the chorus that opines “America is weak.” The probability that foreign powers are attempting to exploit the divisive American political landscape this autumn is a matter that needs to be seriously considered by those concerned about our national security.

  • Gen. Buck Turgidson

    Maybe surrendering two armed boats ,,making statements against the ucmj,,no real explanations etc might embolden enemies

  • Banderas

    I surprisingly agree with every point of this opinion.

  • Ed L

    The article makes a lot of sense

  • Jeremy H.

    You encourage what you allow!

    • The phrase is usually ‘What you tolerate, you validate.’, but yes, that’s true. The problem is, as it was in the Cold War, both sides have the capability to wipe out the other side with well-placed nuclear and atomic bombs. How do you use force to deter such behavior without causing increased aggression, which could result in the end of both our countries? That’s what was meant by ‘mutually assured destruction’.

  • tpicciuti

    Thanks, as a frequent reader of USNI you can believe US forces are professional, well equipped and innovative. It’s tough being the good guy all the time.

  • Marauder 2048

    The author is an inveterate and reflexible defender of this inept administration. I’m guessing he’s posturing for a position on Hillary’s transition team.

    • On Dre

      Ad Hominum then baseless speculation.
      Please do not operate any firearms if you have these paranoid disorder attacks.

      • Marauder 2048

        Obviously, you haven’t read his previous installments. This installment might as well have had a “Paid For By Hillary For America” image attached to it. It’s completey devoid of any quantitative analysis of military strength which should be a massive red flag to any serious student of these matters.

        • FourWarVet

          I think you are deflecting here 2048. How is citing published sources and reaching conclusions, albeit speculative in some instances but based on facts somehow pro-Hillary? What is your counter argument to his claims? And where are your quoted sources and analysis? That would really help to quantify your case that Dolan’s conclusions are biased.

  • The Plague

    Here is the Navy again, sucking up to the Democrat Party. Does anybody know the historical roots of that cozy relationship?

    • On Dre

      Your imagination.

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    “Paid for by Hillary4America”

    • John Locke


      • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

        The content.

  • RobM1981

    The Admiral is correct. I believe that our forces in the Persian Gulf should all be provided with white flags and more cameras to capture their surrender to Iran’s powerful navy of pontoon boats and canoes. We definitely need to bow to the might of their small arms and RPG’s. All we have are CVN’s and DDG’s.

    Discretion is required here. Let’s surrender our weapons and give them to Iran.

    If only Hillary were president, this kind of forward thinking will indeed happen.

    She certainly won’t ask NATO to pay for its own defense – how wise of her, wouldn’t you say? It’s important that the United States fund NATO’s defense, even if we are beggaring our own children. That’s called “Progress.”

    Well played, Admiral. Let me know how Operation Discretion plays out.

    By the way, Admiral, did you notice that pile of cash that we handed the Iranians? That wasn’t ransom, oh no… that was “payment as part of the nuclear deal.” What, again, is Iran doing with that money? Building new hospitals or schools? Or arming themselves to the teeth?

    Yeah, that was a great deal, Admiral. Brilliant.

    One more thing, Admiral. The proper grammar would be, “They are, in a word, commonplace.”

    You need to hit the books, Sir. In a lot of ways.

  • Joe A.

    The author’s analysis that Russia and Iran are acting more agressively in an attempt to influence our election may be correct, but he is missing one fundamental point: Neither state would dare to be so provocative if they felt our current administration would order more aggressive responses from our Navy. They know our president will do anything to avoid a conflict, so they push the envelope. Our short history is replete with examples of exaggerated foreign agressions when a known pacifist is sitting in the presidential seat.

    • John Locke

      “Our short history is replete with examples of exaggerated foreign agressions when a known pacifist is sitting in the presidential seat.”

      Well your history teacher needs to be fired cause when Reagan was President Soviet ships would trade paint with our ships and their bombers buzz our carriers, frequently.

    • Tim Dolan

      I find it hard to consider someone a pacifist when they are willing to send in support for a Libya conflict to oust a dictator, send SpecOps folks into a sovereign country to take out an enemy of ours without telling that country in advance, Conduct airstrikes and some SpecOps forces in support of defeating ISIS in multiple countries some of which don’t want us there (Syria), and continue running our ships in areas that a wrong step could lead to conflict. Those are not the actions of a “pacifist”.

      As I would say they appear to be someone who is of Athena and is not of Aries. Aries likes war for wars sake, while Athena is the wise warrior only fighting when necessary and doing it as wisely as possible. Bush and Cheney were of Aries (well Cheney was anyway), Obama and Reagan were both of Athena. Bill Clinton on the other hand is more of dionysus or zeus. Hillary seems to be of the Athena variety, Trump is of Loki (and yes that is a different patheon altogether).

      • On Dre

        Because we have these thousands of year old lesson from our past we can be assured that we are not the first to have these choices. However, the more lessons we ignore from history will only ensure that history will not judge us kindly.
        And Trump is a lying psychopath!

        • keylover

          Funny thing the only liar is Hillary and her lies have been brought out so your ill informed to say the least

  • Western

    Bull. Trump has repeatedly called for a stronger, larger military, and a more modernized NATO agreement where the countries we have supported for the last 60 years start paying a little more for that protection. Hillary left troops in the field to die without support, funded our enemies to make nuclear weapons, and pushed social agendas on our military that have been significant distractions to the mission of keeping America safe.
    The professor would have all naval commanders issue kneepads and burqas for the next Iranian seizure.

  • Robert Rubel

    Dan’s point about the presence of our ships and aircraft being forward in the littorals of Eurasia reflecting strength, not weakness is correct. As far as why dangerous/harassing encounters occur, the reasons are less clear. In the Cold War US carrier planes did their share of overly close intercepts prior to UNCLOS. I saw some personally. There could be unit-level social reasons for the actions of the Russians. We can expect IRGCN harassment regardless of who is running for president. The basic fact is that the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans see our presence up against their territorial air and water spaces as violations of their security zones, and a provocation. Individual aircrews and boat crews could feel they are simply being patriotic in making dangerous approaches. Any speculation as to exactly why these incidents occur is simply that – speculation.

  • Stuart Horton

    Whenever I see the term unprofessional used to excuse purposeful acts of agresssion, I know that the Hillary talking points are soon to follow. Calling Trump crazy is unprofessional. Making a case that the Obama /Kerry illegal Iran agreement is somehow preventing Iran from doing whatever it wants is either naive thinking or cravenly biased reporting.

  • Jim Valle

    For nearly eight years President Obama and is secretaries of state have been subjected to the most unrestrained disrespectful vitriol imaginable. Did the “patriots” who originated this crass hatred imagine that the rest of the World was not aware of it. Were they not cognizant that they were weakening the hand of their commander-in-chief in his dealing with multiple threats and crises to the detriment of America’s interests. If they can spout these lies and distortions, why can’t China’s leader refuse Air Force One a proper ground arrangement and the nut case who runs the Philipines call Obama a filthy name? I heartily agree with the commentator who said that it’s time to go back to the waters edge philosophy. It’s time we presented a united front once more and then perhaqps some of these “incidents” would stop.

  • Jay

    Outstanding article, much thanks to the author for such a wise, nuanced and refreshing perspective — quite different than the usual screaming simplifications from the right wing Obama haters.

  • Jay

    So, Russia and Iran hardeners want to Make America Great Again with Cinnamon Hitler in the White House? How can Republicans and Chump supporters spin that? HAHAHAHA!!

  • John B. Morgen

    A good article. We should return the favor by, [“do what the Romans do.”]

  • Bo Cat

    Really an over the top fluff piece for Obama’s Iran nuke deal. Obama had a chance to support the freedom movement in Iran, Silence. Obama called Russia a regional power when they took back Crimea. Crimea was their main naval base, everyone getting in a piss war over them taking it back was a failure to understand their history. What did the UK get out of the Crimea War?

    You have a SJW in Obama calling Putin and Russia regional power, what do you think you’ve going to get? They’re not going to take that crap from that empty suit. Second, everyone has a problem with the Russians messing with the election. What about the stuff Soros and the DNC have been up to corrupting the voter rolls for years. The Clinton foundation and it’s allies are all about washing foreign money to pervert our election process working with Soros.

    The best way to really piss Russia off and kill OPEC, build a natural gas pipe line from North America to the UK, frack them all. Maintain our domestic production of oil above 10 million barrels per day. Put a surcharge on oil outside the US-Mexico-Canada production block.

    Can’t wait till the LAWS are active, then someone is going to get a sun burn in those speed boats.