British and NATO forces are making plans to escort a Russian carrier battle group as it sails from its base at Severomorsk to the Mediterranean. The Russian force headed by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier includes the powerful Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) which the Russian Navy have put back in to operation this year after a two year absence. The force left its base at 1200hrs GMT and is expected to near UK waters by the end of next week.
A source said to be close to NATO told the British newspaper The Telegraph;
It’s not catching us by surprise, we are working up what to do and we are all over it. The most likely thing is that they will go through the North Sea, down the Dover Strait and through the Channel…They might even stop off the North East coast to fly for a bit.
Launched in 1981 and displacing nearly 60,000tons, the Admiral Kuznetsov has an air wing comprising of Kamov helicopters and perhaps most importantly a number of Sukhoi Su-33 multi-role combat aircraft. The Royal Air Force’s Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) force comprising of Typhoon FGR.4 fighters based at RAF Lossiemouth are therefore preparing to see a spike in the number of launches during the period that the carrier is in the vicinity of the UK. The QRA pilots in the UK are used to intercepting Russian bombers having already carried out a live interception of two Tu-160 “Blackjacks” earlier this month but it is exceptionally rare for them to intercept Russian fast jets from home soil. British Typhoons have however intercepted a number of Russian fast jets over the past few years whilst operating as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission.
At least two Royal Navy warships have been earmarked to escort the Russian carrier group around British waters. They will be supported by RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft that as will as help track the fleet will also analyse electronic emissions made by the Russian radar and communication systems to assess their capabilities.
There has been much speculation that the Russian force is sailing to the Mediterranean in order to participate in Russia’s ongoing military campaign in Syria. This has not been entirely denied by Russian media nor has it been confirmed. The Russian state-run RT news service which broadcasts in predominantly western countries published the following statement from the Russian Navy;
Particular attention will be paid to ensuring the safety of maritime navigation and other maritime economic activities of the Russian Federation, as well as respond to new types of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism.
This is not the first time the Kuznetsov and its escorts have cruised around the British Isles. In 2011, the Type 42 destroyer HMS York shadowed the carrier for a week which due to severe weather took shelter in international waters in the Moray Firth, 30 miles from the UK coast while the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon escorted the carrier in 2014. In the previous encounters the Russians have adhered to international laws and not violated UK waters or airspace.
The Russian’s careful use of wording regarding the deployment is interesting given that US and Russian envoys are meeting in Switzerland this weekend in an effort to reach some kind of agreement over the situation in Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as well as delegates from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Qatar in Lausanne to discuss ways to create a new and more permanent ceasefire in the ravaged country.
Even though the Russians aren’t confirming that the carrier will join in military operations there the fact it is sailing to the Mediterranean means it’s very presence could have an influence on the negotiations.