I love the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Its poignancy is evident all across the globe today. The Palestinians and Israelis continue their death dance at the nexus of Middle East unrest, China irritates and bullies its neighbors as it has on and off for 5,000 years. And in Russia, a megalomaniac dictator enhances his stranglehold on domestic politics by shaking his saber at the west.
In the last few months, Putin has dialed the hot tub time machine back to the best hits of the Cold War. Stoking nationalistic fervor within his borders, he’s teed up his military to reprise the highlights of 1956 and/or 1968, take your pick.
Now irritated with the U.S. for sticking our nose where he doesn’t think it belongs, namely revealing to the world the evidence that his incompetent Russian troops shot down Malaysia Air MH17 then scooted back over the Russian-Ukraine border under cover of night, Putin has ordered a resumption of a Cold War favorite.
In the past few days there has been a marked increase of Russian bombers sniffing around the edges of U.S. airspace. It might be a little scary if they were flying something a tad fiercer than the Tu-95 Bear, which first entered service in 1956. Sure, the B-52 entered service the year before that, but at least it’s a jet and can make scary noises. The Russians also operate the B-1ski, the Tu-160, but it’s not much more frightening, just a little faster. A total of 35 of the non-stealth 160s were built, but it’s estimated that only 11 are in service with the Russian Air Force.
We here in the U.S. tend to react lackadaisically to these Russian probes since the great melt after the Cold War. As mentioned, they’re not stealth so we can spot them on radar almost from the minute they lift off. We’ve got a robust radar network covering the Aleutians and Hawaiian islands so surprise isn’t the issue. For the most, part the F-22s and F-15s intercept and escort the Russian planes during their tour of the Pacific, but since 1991 there’s been little sense of urgency.
A great and hilarious example of that is a story from 2000, on the USS Kitty Hawk as she steamed in the Sea of Japan. The story was relayed to me by buddies on board, barely able to contain the tears of laughter.
The Kitty Hawk was in the middle of an underway replenishment when one of the guided-missile destroyers in the Strike Group reported Russian fighters inbound. The Aegis radar on the cruisers can track a seagull at 500NM, and their SM-3 surface-to-air missiles are as deadly as they get, so the carrier and the strike group were never in any serious danger. But it’s good form to launch fighters to escort military planes from foreign countries as they close to and fly over our carriers. The unwritten rule is to always have a U.S. fighter plane between the Russian/Chinese plane and the carrier so that any recce photos will have a Hornet smack in the frame.
But on this day, the Kitty Hawk didn’t care enough to do an emergency breakaway from the refueling tanker. And by the time the Russian fighters swept overhead, the captain was desperately trying to launch a fighter to escort the Russians. An Su-24 and an Su-27 flashed overhead, buzzing the deck for a first pass before Kitty Hawk managed to launch the first plane.
Unfortunately, by the time the EA-6B got a couple miles, the Flanker had come back around and decided he wanted to dance a little. The action took place just off the bow as the aviators and crew members of Kitty Hawk watched. My buddies say they will never forget, at least not without another convulsion of laughter, the voice of the terrified Prowler pilot screaming over the radio as the Flanker saddled in behind. By the time they managed to launch a Hornet, the Flanker was long gone and the Prowler crew needed a change of drawers.
I would imagine that if Putin ratchets up his game and actually repatriates Ukraine, we won’t be taking the Bear and Flanker flybys so lightly. With any luck, however, the rhyme will enter the second stanza and we can go back to making light of the Bears, Ukraine and the Russian Air Force. The stain of MH17, however, will stay with Putin forever.
(Featured Image Courtesy: USAF)