Thursday, April 26, 2018

What Prevented WWIII? It Just Might Be the INCSEA

At the end of our last post we mentioned the fifth American warship to carry the name Yorktown, the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser Yorktown (CG 48). Her two-decade career, the majority of which was spent based at Naval Station Norfolk, was spent conducting routine deployments and exercises, yet she was involved in one of the most visually dramatic high seas confrontations of the Cold War. 

Despite the ascension of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the more open policies he put forward to the West three decades ago, intelligence collection and Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations conducted by the U.S. Navy still drew the ire of the Soviet navy, particularly around the Crimean Peninsula. In March 1986 and again in February 1988, Yorktown and the destroyer Caron (DD 970) entered Soviet territorial waters to demonstrate the right of innocent passage. While Soviet warships warned the Americans as they approached Sevastopol and the Soviet ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged a diplomatic protest after the first incident, both ships were intercepted and rammed by Soviet warships two years later.

The Soviet frigate Bezzaventnyy runs along the port side of the guided missile cruiser Yorktown (CG 48) on February 12, 1988, in an attempt to force the American ship away from Soviet territorial waters. (Official U.S. Navy photograph via NavSource Online)

This was actually one of the less harrowing incidents discussed in detail within a recent book called Incidents at Sea:American Confrontation with Russia and China, 1945-2016 (Naval Institute Press, December 2017) by historian David Winkler of the Naval Historical Foundation, who was inspired by his experiences as a naval officer observing interactions between American and Soviet ships in the Sea of Japan in 1984 to write a “directed research project” as a graduate student that later became his doctoral dissertation. That dissertation became the core of his first book, Cold War at Sea: High-Seas Confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union (2000). The latest iteration of the book brings readers from the dawn of the Cold War to the geopolitical environment we find ourselves in today.

Some national security heavyweights have only recently come to the realization that the Cold War didn't end as much as it went into remission. The Russian bear was not beaten; it only hibernated for awhile.  Now the Russians are literally back with a vengeance and have become such a threat that the Navy is resurrecting
the 2nd Fleet to deal with them; more than enough reason to revamp and reissue this book that details the long history of blue water brinksmanship with them.

Despite its title, the purpose of Incidents at Sea is not to simply provide a chronology of such incidents and their repercussions, although the book is replete with such details. The book is actually about the international agreement that facilitated a sea change (no pun intended) in the way the American and Soviet fleets interacted. 

About 80 miles off the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea, a Russian SU-24 Fencer performs an exceptionally low pass over the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Donald Cook (DDG 75) on April 12, 2016. Two fencers as well as a KA-27 helicopter buzzed the destroyer in international waters that day.  In April 2014, the Russians took similar actions against Donald Cook in the Black Sea. (
Incidents between Soviet and American aircraft can be dated back to October 1945, taking on more of an added urgency after the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb in August 1949. The American Special Electronic Airborne Search Projects program that spawned the dangerous “ferret’ missions came about because of an urgent need to determine Soviet military developments, but at a cost.

“From 1945 through 1960,” writes Winkler, “a series of mostly one-sided air duels took place that cost more than one hundred American and Soviet aviators their lives. These duels, and the two respective governments’ reactions to them, provide the contextual background for a much more complex Cold War at sea.” 

While the number of aerial incidents with the Soviets plummeted after American reconnaissance satellites became operational, the emergence of the Soviet Auxiliary, General, Intelligence (AGI) vessels during the mid-1950s created many more opportunities for confrontations in international waters. Although the most nail-biting confrontations involving Soviet merchant vessels during the 1960s took place in the Caribbean during the Cuban Missile Crisis, plenty of potentially catastrophic situations developed throughout the decade in the Gulf of Tonkin and Haiphong Harbor during the war in Vietnam.  

Pugnacious and girded in a patina of rust, the Soviet Auxiliary, General, Intelligence (AGI) Gidrofon keeps up with the American aircraft carrier Coral Sea (CVA-43) in the Gulf on Tonkin on October 28, 1969.  The collision between the American fleet tug Abnaki (ATF 96) and the diminutive spy trawler in the area almost two years before was cited within a memorandum from Navy Secretary Paul Ignatius to Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Nitze on the urgent need to develop "parameters for surveillance procedures in order to avoid unnecessary and undesirable encounters between U.S. and Soviet ships, which could be extremely serious." (Naval History and Heritage Command image 
Numerous minor collisions and near-misses on the seas and in the skies occurred throughout the decade, but there were no bilateral means to work out disputes and settle grievances. After the more serious incidents involving the Soviets, grievances were taken to the United Nations (UN) as well as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), yet incidents continued unabated. “Critics of international law regimes could argue that their efforts were for naught, given the Soviet Union’s refusal to be held accountable before the ICJ and its ability to veto censure at the UN Security Council," writes Winkler.  "Such critics could argue that the outcomes of air-to-air cases illustrate the ineffectiveness of an international system lacking a powerful legislative body, a third-party dispute-settlement mechanism, and a mechanism to effect sanctions on lawbreakers.”

After a Soviet destroyer lost a game of chicken with the British carrier Ark Royal in 1970, the Soviets finally responded to diplomatic entreaties from the Americans. This marked the emergence of the most prominent character in the book, as well as one of the most consequential figures in naval affairs over the last four decades, John Warner. As an under secretary of the Navy, he was chosen as lead U.S. negotiator and head of the American delegation that resulted in his signing of the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) on May 25, 1972 (after he became secretary of the Navy) during the Moscow Summit between President Richard Nixon and Premier Leonid Brezhnev.

Warner, who subsequently served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his five terms in the Senate representing Virginia, writes in the forward of the book, “The accord has stood the test of time, greatly lessening the number of ‘incidents,’ and has served as a model for similar confidence-building agreements between other nations around the globe.”  One secret of INCSEA's success was that it was not just another agreement managed by career diplomats. This agreement would be managed by naval officers on both sides; some of the same men who were or might be tasked with enforcing the agreement at sea.

The Sovremenyy-class destroyer Otlichny, which was then based in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula, passes Old Point Comfort on its way to Naval Station Norfolk on July 21, 1989.  Otlichny, the Slava-class cruiser Marshal Ustinov, and the replenishment oiler Genrikh Gasanov made the historic port visit to Norfolk amid easing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)  
Visitors to the three Soviet Northern Fleet ships that made a port call at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia in 1989 received an information pamphlet bearing this cover. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file
It is clear that incidents plummeted during the 1970s as a direct result of the agreement, and it provided for open lines of communication between the navies despite a resurgence of incidents during the 1980s, most notably after the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner in 1983.  It can also be argued that the lessening of tensions under INCSEA ultimately resulted in an historic port visit made to Norfolk by a Soviet flotilla in 1989.  But did the agreement prevent World War III?  Dr. Winkler makes no such claim, but it is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that many of the confrontations covered in this book (particularly those that took place before INCSEA) could have spiraled out of control into a larger confrontation. The regular meetings and other protocols put into practice by the agreement definitely changed the behavior of the Soviet and American navies, but the world's oceans have become much more complicated, and crowded, since then.

Territorial waters, internationally recognized as having a 12-mile limit, have traditionally been guarded by force of arms, but there are also exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which have vastly expanded because of changes made to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) over the last quarter-century. Winkler reveals that the changes to UNCLOS were not prompted by the Cold War at sea, but by the "Cod War at sea" between political allies (and economic adversaries) Iceland and Great Britain during the 1970s. Although it might sound humorous, World War III just might break out over such a dispute.  The Argentine coast guard sank a Chinese fishing vessel for poaching in its EEZ in 2016, but the rapacious fleet just keeps coming.

Most globes and maps of the world are careful to delineate political boundaries between nations, oftentimes rendering countries in different colors. The oceans, however, from the shoreline of one nation to another thousands of miles away, are generally a solid blue the world over. If maps were to faithfully represent the territorial waters claimed by various countries, plus their EEZs, then these maps and globes would confuse even veteran mariners. That is partly because sea boundaries differ from nation to nation, as some claims are internationally recognized, while others aren't. While many modern maps note disputed land areas such as Western Sahara and Kashmir, The Peoples Republic of China's (PRC's) self-declared territory in the South China Sea, secured by a system of artificial garrison islands, doesn't generally show up, unless you count those made by the Chinese themselves, citing age-old charts giving them the rights to those waters. Other nearby countries have their own maps to refute those claims, and the disputation will go tortuously onward until someone inevitably gets hurt.

While the history of wrangling between the Soviet and American diplomats before and after INCSEA are well-covered, coverage of incidents between the Americans and the People's Republic are notably lacking. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not make an appearance until the final chapter, specifically, page 202 of Winkler's 213-page book, as though maritime confrontation with that nation only became an issue after the Tienanmen Square democracy protests were crushed in 1989. Although updated to include the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement reached with China in 1998, itself a version of INCSEA, coverage of the long and sporadically violent road leading to that agreement is fragmentary.

Aerial incidents with the PRC go back nearly as far as those with the USSR. A Navy P2V was shot down over the South China Sea by Chinese antiaircraft fire on January 18, 1953, at the same time 768,000 American and other United Nations troops were fighting over one million PLA "volunteers" in North Korea. The longest-held American prisoner of the Cold War, John T. Downey, was shot down the year before, along with fellow intelligence officer Richard Fecteau, and imprisoned for over two decades by the Chinese communists.  The two were held in the same prison with Navy Lieutenant Robert J. Flynn, who was shot down over Southern China in 1967, and Air Force Major Philip E. Smith, who was shot down near Hainan Island in 1965. 

In April 2001 the Chinese even got their hands on a Navy EP-3E electronic surveillance aircraft after one of their J-8 fighters collided with it and the American pilot landed on Hainan Island. Norman Friedman observed in the May 2001 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings that "a cold war with the Chinese is developing, and the EP-3E incident will be seen, in five or ten years, as an important early indication of just where the situation was going."

The 9/11 attacks that occurred just over five months later and the ongoing wars which followed have preoccupied the Defense Department ever since. The monstrous financial costs of those wars have undoubtedly diverted crucial investment away from the U.S. Navy, which has struggled to support the “Pacific Pivot” attempted by the Obama Administration. Today the Hainan Incident has been all but forgotten, except by those who understand just how damaging it was.

Although that incident does receive coverage in Incidents at Sea, there is a pressing need for a more comprehensive history of run-ins with the PLAN and their proxies.  The resurgent Russian navy is potentially no less lethal than the PLAN, yet in terms of a real possibility of a massive war at sea, China is a much more likely candidate. The PRC's communist party has withstood every challenge it has encountered since 1949, ascending to the top of the communist world even as it faced down and destroyed its greatest domestic challengers forty years later, yet it has yet to unify the whole nation under their red banner.

For 69 years, the United States Navy and those of its allies have been the only thing standing in the way of a non-consensual national reunification. While recent Russian fleet activities, particularly those involving its sole remaining aircraft carrier, have been the subject of derision or even scorn, PLAN activities have been nothing to make light of, with formations made up of modern vessels surrounding its first aircraft carrier that can be seen from orbit A second carrier is undergoing sea trials, and undoubtedly more are on the way.   

Despite the lighter treatment of the PLAN compared to the Soviet and Russian navies, suffice to say that Incidents at Sea is rooted in decades of painstaking research and extensive interviews with key players in the history of naval diplomacy between United States and the Soviet empire, followed by the Russian Federation.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum's library contains many books on weapons and warfighting, but not enough on diplomatic mechanisms and peacemaking, which makes Incidents at Sea a most welcome addition. Dr. Winkler has refined a book explaining how World War III has been avoided on the high seas (so far) with the Russians, but perhaps a second volume along these lines, one dealing more fully with the Chinese, is now in order.

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