The USS Donald Cook, a Navy Arleigh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, was repeatedly buzzed by Russian aircraft in recent days while operating in the Baltic Sea. Strangely enough, the aggressive fly-bys happened almost two years to the day since the last time the Russians decided to reenact “Top Gun” on the high seas with the Cook.
On April 10, 2014, the Cook entered the Black Sea to conduct “routine patrolling” of international waters. The Cook’s arrival in the region followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea just a month prior and was an attempt to reassure U.S. allies in the region at a time when Russia was also continuing to build up its forces on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Two days later, on April 12, 2014, a Russian Su-24 conducted “close-range, low-altitude” passes for 90 minutes near the destroyer, according to Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman at the time. The Su-24, a swing-wing multi-role fighter that closely resembles the United States’ now-retired F-111 Aardvark, did not overfly the ship, according to Warren.
Almost exactly two years later, at least two Su-24s would return to say hello to the Cook, this time flying so close to the rear of the ship that the crew could probably determine what spots the pilots missed shaving that morning. Accompanying the jets on the low passes, which occurred Monday and Tuesday, was a Russian helicopter that flew astern of the Cook, apparently taking pictures of the destroyer. “We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight maneuvers,” European Command said of the low passes.
The 2014 incident prompted a similar rebuke from the Pentagon and was written off as having “ended without incident,” according to Warren. Russian news reports, however, went a step further, saying that the Su-24, when flying near the Cook, managed to jam its advanced Aegis system, a computer and radar suite that controls many of the ship’s defensive countermeasures. Sputnik, a Russian state-run media site, cited “media reports” that said the incident demoralized the Cook’s crew and that the ship was left “literally deaf and blind in the water.” This claim was never verified.
In May 2015, Russian Su-24s repeated similar maneuvers over the USS Ross, another destroyer sailing in the Black Sea. Headlines at the time, namely from Russian outlets, said the jets managed to scare the destroyer away after it left port in Romania, which U.S. naval vessels have been visiting for years.
“At no time did Ross act aggressively nor did she deviate from her planned operations,” the Navy said in a statement following the incident.
In all three incidents, the Su-24s buzzed the Navy ships unarmed.
Following this week’s fly-bys, U.S. officials claimed that the Russian jets were flying “simulated attack profiles” and were conducting mock strafing runs. While the Su-24 is armed with 23mm cannons, it can also carry anti-ship missiles that could be launched from almost 60 miles away.
Arleigh Burke destroyers are armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, anti-submarine systems, 127mm and 25mm cannons and torpedoes. For close-in air defense, of the kind needed to engage low-flying Russian jets, the destroyers are equipped with the CIWS system, a radar-guided 20mm cannon designed to track and engage both aircraft and anti-ship missiles.