Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Russian Ships Track US Navy Movements

In response to the chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21, 2013, the US Navy repositioneda total of five Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean.  These ships, carrying the long range Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM), were located so they would be in position to launch TLAM missiles against Syria, if the order to do so was issued.  The movement to firing position did not take long - two days after the chemical weapon attack, four destroyers were already in place, ready to attack. The US Navy was ready, no more than 48 hours after the attack, to respond with long range, precision fires in support of US strategic interests.


In response to the US Navy movements to conduct a Tomahawk Land Attack (TLAM) cruise missile strike against Assad regime targets in Syria, the Russian Navy deployedseveral ships from its Black Sea Fleet Headquarters of Sevastopol to the Mediterranean.  On September 1, the Russian Navy reconnaissance vessel SSV-201 Priazovye departed Sevastopol for the Mediterranean. This picture of the Priazovye shows that it carries a number of active and passive electrical components that can be used to gather intelligence on US Navy ships operating in the area.

© Ilhan Kermen

Although Russian Navy ships in the Mediterranean have limited ability to interfere with US Navy operations, and don’t appear intent on doing so, they do have the ability - especially with the addition of SSV-201 Priazovye - to track US Navy movements, communications, and activities.  Russian tracking of US Navy ships in the Mediterranean can be accomplished with both active means, including radar, as well as passive means, primarily signals intelligence. 


Even without the presence of Russian Navy ships, US Navy operations are vulnerable to detection.  The SPY-1D radar used onboard the US Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers operating in the Mediterranean has a peak power output of at least 4 Megawatts. Any ship operating a radar system with a peak power output of 4,000,000 watts is going to be visible to the most rudimentary radar receiver, let alone a dedicated, technically capable reconnaissance ship like Priazovye. 

Although the US Navy can and does use the tactical procedure of Emissions Control (EMCON) to restrict radar and communications energy output as a means of limiting external situation awareness of US Navy ship movements, in a relatively small waterspace like the Mediterranean it is going to be difficult for the US Navy to conceal ship locations, movements, and activities.  This is especially true given that the maximum range of TLAM averages about 1,000 nautical miles, depending on the exact TLAM variant used. In practical terms, this means US Navy ships must be within 1,000 nautical miles of their target when launching TLAM.  This means that Russian ships attempting to surveil US Navy ships can limit their search activities to a Weapons Engagement Zone (WEZ) that corresponds to potential TLAM launch points that are within 1000 nautical miles of potential targets in Syria, roughly the eastern third of the Mediterranean. 


Even if the US Navy is very aggressive about limiting radar and communications emissions, and is successful in concealing the location of the five Arleigh Burke Class destroyers currently positioned in the Mediterranean prior to launching TLAM, once those cruise missiles leave the Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells, a solid rocket motor booster elevatesthe TLAM to at least several hundred feet in altitude.

This launch and boost phase is observable in two ways.  First, the solid rocket motor puts out a significant amount of thermal energy during the launch and boost phase.  This thermal energy bloom is easily observable from both terrestrial and space based platforms - especially if the sensors have been “cued” where to look for the launch. Second, although the TLAM does have a reduced radar cross section, making it very difficult to see while in flight at low altitude overland, during the boost phase the solid rocket motor booster is still joined to the TLAM missile itself.  The elements joined together are easily observable on radar.


Regardless of how proficient the US Navy is at concealing current locations of ships, the Russian Navy will almost certainly detect the launch of TLAM.  Assuming that no launch will occur until after the US Congress reconvenes in session on September 9, the Russian Navy will have had almost three weeks, perhaps more, to move ships into position to locate and track US Navy ships prior to launching TLAM.   


The Prussian military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that

“Surprise…. is to be regarded as a substantive principle in itself, on account of its moral effect. When it is successful in a high degree, confusion and broken courage in the enemy's ranks are the consequences; and of the degree to which these multiply a success, there are examples enough, great and small.”

In modern terms, US Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, counsels commanders to seize the initiativein order to

“Shock, demoralize, and disrupt the enemy immediately.... to seize and maintain the initiative, deny the enemy the opportunity to achieve its objectives, and generate in the enemy a sense of inevitable failure and defeat.”

The US has waited so long to respond to the chemical weapons attacks that it has effectively ceded any advantages of surprise and initiative to the Assad regime. The Assad regime knows an attack is coming or is likely to come in the near future.  In addition to the overall forewarning of attack, the Assad regime is likely to get detailed updates from the Russian Navy as soon as the US Navy launches a TLAM attack. 


By significantly delaying the potential strike against the Assad regime, not only has the US given Assad considerable time to prepare for the attack in Syria, it has given Russia time to position intelligence assets that can immediately alert the Assad regime of exactly when the TLAM missiles are launched.  Fixed site targets, such as runways or heavy radars, are going to be vulnerable to TLAM strikes regardless of advanced warning.  Mobile targets - such as military and political leadership targets - are going to be far less vulnerable to a cruise missile strike if they have detailed warning of exactly when TLAM launches occur.  A strike against the Assad regime can still serve US strategic interests.   By ceding the elements of surprise and initiative, the US has made the strike much less likely to cause consequential damage to the Assad regime.