UK and US navies head to Barents Sea to “assert freedom of navigation”

HMS Kent. Credit: JONES, CECIL A

One UK Royal Navy (RN) and three US Navy (USN) warships from the Sixth Fleet are staging operations in the Barents Sea, in a move unprecedented since the Cold War.

Arleigh Burke-class destroyers USS Donald Cook, USS Porter, and USS Roosevelt, as well as USNS Supply headed to the Barents to conduct unspecified “maritime security operations”, according to a USN statement published on 4 May 2020. The four vessels were joined by an RN Duke-class frigate, HMS Kent.

It is the first time that US surface ships have operated in this region since the mid-1980s, the USN statement specified, for the purpose of “assert[ing] freedom of navigation”. The RN’s contribution, the USN noted, “demonstrate[s] seamless integration among allies”.

“Allied and partner navies must remain proficient in all operating environments to ensure the continued security and access to the seas,” the USN statement continued. “This is especially critical in the Arctic, where the austere weather environment demands constant vigilance and practice.”

This operation will bring the four ships in range of Russia’s K-300P Bastion-P coastal defence missile systems.

The Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) was notified of the joint manoeuvres on 1 May 2020. On 4 May, Russian MoD announced that its Northern Fleet force have begun monitoring the actions of Porter, Donald Cook, Roosevelt, and Kent, stating that the US-UK contingent arrived at the Barents Sea approximately 7 am Moscow time.

It is a sensitive time for US-Russia relations. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a bilateral nuclear arms control treaty between countries, is set to expire in February 2021; however, no decision yet made on how to replace it. Of note, Russian news agency TASS reported in December 2019 that Russia test-fired its Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (‘Dagger’), a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) system, around the Russian Arctic region. The test firing occurred in mid-November.

“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theatre, while taking prudent measures to protect the health of our force,” said USN Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti, commander of the Sixth Fleet. “We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness.”

Despite the ships’ close proximity to Norway, the Scandinavian country have not deployed its naval assets to join this exercise. The Norwegian government opted out of joining the US- and NATO-backed missile defence programme in October 2019.

Meanwhile, US naval vessels in the Gulf have received unilateral dispensation to fire on Iranian gunboats, according to a tweet by US President Donald Trump.