U.S. to pointlessly put warships off Sochi?

Politics versus security.

Let’s stipulate that it was dumb to ever contemplate holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi.  What were we all thinking?

Now we’re stuck with the plan, however.  What to do about the real and intransigent problem of Islamist terrorism in the Caucasus, which has reared its head with a vengeance in recent weeks, and now has several terrorists – and that’s just the known threat – converging on Sochi for the Games?

The U.S. Olympic team’s security has been coordinated with a private security company called Global Rescue, which has worked with elements of the delegation on preparations for evacuation as well as on-site security.  (The CBS report suggests that Global Rescue has worked especially on arrangements for athletes who will compete outside of the Olympic village venues; e.g., downhill and cross-country skiers.)  Spokesmen are coy about whether Global Rescue has been contracted to provide the support directly during the Games, but one of its representatives makes reference to a variety of aircraft that “it” – Global Rescue – would have available in case an evacuation became necessary.

Those preparations are for the athletes and staff.  There will reportedly be about 15,000 Americans in Sochi for the Games, if spectators are included – a smaller total than in previous Olympics, but still a sizeable number for any rescue plan.


The Tor M-1 air defense system arrayed in Sochi. (Image posted at http://miragec14.blogspot.com/2014/01/sochis-anti-aircraft-missile-defense.html)
The Tor M-1 air defense system arrayed in Sochi. (Image posted at http://miragec14.blogspot.com/2014/01/sochis-anti-aircraft-missile-defense.html)

The main factor in all the security planning is that Russia is a sovereign nation and has her own program to ensure security.  The United States can’t just dispatch agencies of our government to roam Sochi and “rescue” Americans.  (Global Rescue, as a private company, is actually likely to have more latitude for action.)

These combined facts make the reported plan to put two U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea a bit, how shall I say it, silly.  In the first place, Russia isn’t going to allow any sea-to-shore “communication”:  e.g., the use of Navy helicopters over land, or bringing the ships pierside to load passengers, etc.  If the U.S. wants to have a seaborne evacuation route for Americans, we could arrange for chartered ferries to be on-call.  Only the ships Russia authorizes will be able to interact with people ashore; the Russians would be likely to permit a chartered ferry to pick up passengers, whereas they would take vociferous exception to the use of a U.S. warship, regardless of how bad the situation was ashore.

In any case, the ships available for this task aren’t up to anything approaching the requirements of such a massive evacuation.  USS Stout (DDG-55), an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, is in the Mediterranean theater to provide ballistic missile defense (BMD) presence; other than Stout, there are two Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates, USS Simpson (FFG-56) and USS Taylor (FFG-50, which has probably just arrived after departing Mayport, Florida on 8 January).  A third frigate, USS Elrod (FFG-55) left Norfolk on 14 January and should arrive in the Med this week.  These are very fine warships, but they can’t recover the big helicopters that can move a lot of people, and simply aren’t the right platforms to deal with a large number of evacuees.

The Sixth Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20), which is home-ported in Italy, could potentially deal with more evacuees, although airlifting them to the ship would still be a very cumbersome, small-funnel operation.*  But again, the Russians aren’t going to approve such an operation.  Nor is the need for one a real possibility.  Chechen terrorists can kill a lot of people with bombs, but they can’t reduce Sochi to a state of lawlessness in which the Russians would be unable to provide sufficient order for civilian transportation modes.

Putting warships in the Black Sea, specifically for a Sochi response, doesn’t have a logical motive from a military planning perspective.  In truth, this is the case for any potential use of the U.S. military, other than perhaps transport jets.  We could speculate on things like the use of our air bases in Turkey or Germany as staging points, and on the rapid deployment of small contingents like the U.S. Marines in the Black Sea Rotational Force in Romania (who currently number about 350), for security at embarkation points for evacuees.  But what matters is that no situation in which U.S. military forces would be the suitable response option is reasonably foreseeable.

The Olympic village in Sochi.
The Olympic village in Sochi.


Going ahead and foreseeing that situation anyway, as the Obama administration seems to be doing, carries heavy political freight with it.  The Russians are likely to downplay reports of U.S. military preparations, but they can be pardoned for taking offense at them.  The deployments come across as a gratuitous maneuver.  Even from the most superficial perspective – comparative force numbers and capabilities – the Russians’ far outstrip ours in the Black Sea.  (As they do in the Mediterranean, in fact.)  Not only are the Russians not going to ask for that kind of help; they don’t need it.

Russia is nevertheless sensitive about the American military presence in the Black Sea, which in turn is understandable.  That doesn’t mean we should refrain from ever putting our forces there.  But it does mean that we should save such moves for when they are truly both necessary and appropriate.

It would be one thing if putting U.S. warships in the Black Sea had some relevance to the actual problem of potential terrorism at the Olympics.  But it doesn’t.  It appears to be a gesture intended to reassure Americans at home.  Unfortunately, it could blow up in the Obama administration’s face, if something actually happens and the meaninglessness of the warship deployment becomes obvious.

* The high-speed, aluminum-hulled catamaran USNS Spearhead (JHSV-1) will also be in the Med during the timeframe of the Olympics (7-23 Feb).  Her capabilities are impressive and interesting, and could be suited to the requirements of an evacuation operation.  There is no special reason to use Spearhead rather than a commercial ferry, however, while there are political reasons to do the opposite.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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7 thoughts on “U.S. to pointlessly put warships off Sochi?”

  1. Maybe Obama is poking his finger in the eye of Putin given how Putin has (predictably) treated Obama with contempt thus far. More likely though it’s vacuous window shopping by Obama.

    God forbid there’s a terrorist attack at the Olympics. But such a thing would, at the very least, deeply embarrass Putin. A silver lining within a dreadful event.

  2. I’m hoping Russia stops any terrorist attempt; preferably by targeted profiling, and not strip-searching the Irish Catholic grandmothers who attend the event.

  3. In a slightly more serious vein than the post at LU.

    If you were a mastermind Sunni and/or Chechen Jihadist, would you really want to bomb the Olympics with the intent of killing non-Russians?

    I don’t think so. The only thing you would accomplish is reinforcing and increasing the cooperation between, Russia and the West in annihilating you. It would play right into Vladimir’s hands.

    It would probably also untie Russia’s hands to go directly after your benefactors abroad. The old men in the Gulf probably realize that. It would also make it difficult for the US to object to a Russian retaliatory strike at, let’s say, some Sheikh financier in Saudi Arabia, for example.

    So, I believe these terrorists threats are intended more to sabotage the image and economic success of the games, rather to inflict a strike.

    Good move here

  4. My ignorance of Naval matters is breathtaking, but it seems I often read about thin skinned “new breed” of Navy vessels. Warships and other wise.
    How are they going to hold up when the shooting starts?

  5. Goodness, jgets, of course the Chechens would be fine with killing non-Russians in order to sow chaos and discord for Russia. The Chechens who blow things up are jihadists. They never, under any circumstances, care whom they kill. They’re not trying to impress anyone else with the justice of their cause. They’re just trying to undermine Russia.

    All the purported “coordination” on fighting terror in Sochi is window dressing for the Obama administration. Russia has consistently resisted coordination with the US for fighting terror in Russia’s back yard, including Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Russian Federation’s CSTO are Moscow’s vehicles for coordinating anti-terror operations regionally.

    I hold no brief for the Putin regime, but I don’t blame Russia for this at all, in principle. Putin isn’t going to suddenly start actually coordinating anti-terror operations with Obama for the Olympics. But neither is it in his interest to publicly repudiate the line the Obama administration is selling about “coordination.” Best to leave that whole media theme alone for now.

    If we get through the Games without anyone being killed — and I pray we do — Putin will find a way to make the unequivocal point that he got the job done without Obama’s help. Bank on it.

  6. WR — yes, the aluminum hull factor for the USNS Spearhead does present a survivability issue. The thinking right now is that Spearhead would not go into combat zones where the bad guys might have weapons that could punch holes in her.

    The potential for using her in antipiracy ops — e.g,, in a role of hosting a command element or delivering Special Forces — is sold on the basis of her ability to outrun any pirate vessel. If she couldn’t outrun the pirates, they could put a hurt on her day with small arms.

    Of course, if pirates get shoulder-fired missiles, that’s another story. Spearhead can’t outrun those.

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