WASHINGTON, April 13, 2017 — While U.S. and Russian warships played “Cossack and Cowboy” off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, late last month, they also communicated with one another by radio.
“U.S. warship, U.S. warship … this is Russian warship Viktor Leonov on 1-6, over.” It was hailing the USS Farragut (DDG-99), a destroyer trailing about a mile behind the Russian vessel, a spy ship that has achieved some notice in recent years while traversing international waters off the U.S. East Coast.
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What the Russians wanted to talk about is anyone’s guess. U.S. Navy communications officers contacted for this story wouldn’t say. Nor would they or a Russian naval attaché in Washington identify the current location of the Viktor Leonov, which is certainly known by the U.S. Navy and more certainly known by the Russian Navy, both of which know that the other knows.
When Cessna 337 pilot Rocky Walker last photographed the Viktor Leonov and the USS Farragut on March 26, the ships were preceding north from the Jacksonville area and Naval Station Mayport, home port to the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet.
“I’m not going to provide any updates on the ship’s location,” Naval Lt. Loren Terry, a spokesman with the Navy’s Chief of Information office (CHINFO), told CDN by e-mail Friday.
The Viktor Leonov (CCB-175) is a class of vessel known as “Auxiliary, General, Intelligence” (AGI). Naval Historian David F. Winkler, program director for the Naval Historical Foundation, wrote, “During the 1960s, AGI’s became a common sight off American submarine bases, at shipping choke points, off Cape Canaveral, near test facilities … and among U.S. Navy Carrier task forces.”
He told CDN, “They were probably listening for submarines at Mayport.”
“The day after the shot of the two vessels headed north was taken, we crossed paths with an Ohio class subheaded east-southeast on the surface.”
According to Lt. Terry, “U.S. Navy ships routinely communicate with foreign warships in international waters in accordance with internationally recognized maritime laws, standards, and norms.”
(Live fire warning from the USS Farragut)
According to Winkler, early in the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet ships clashed many times, sometimes with significant damage or casualty as the Soviets rapidly expanded their fleet in the 1960s. Those clashes led to the two sides signing the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement, which is still in force and under which regular communication takes place.
Exchanges between ships in the two navies have ranged from “mooning contests” to a sea-drop exchange of Coca-Cola and vodka.
Winkler explained that the representatives of the U.S. and Russian navies meet annually and that similar meetings occur between the U.S. and Chinese navies. Chatter with Chinese ships is common in the South China Sea, he said, with the Chinese attempting to query U.S. ships about their destinations, a question that U.S. ships ignore during the exchanges.
The impetus to communicate at sea, even with potential adversaries, stems from “a common bond between sailors because we’re all dealing with a dangerous environment,” says Dr. Winkler.
While the United States and China promulgated a military maritime safety agreement in 1998, many reports chronicle China’s violation of it, with the primary problems stemming from China’s disputed territorial and commercial claims in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan.
One puzzle associated with the Viktor Leonov is the line visible on the right front side of the vessel. Analysts differ over its purpose.
One speculated that it was attached to a crab or lobster pot. Another, familiar with such pots emphatically denied that it could have been that. Dr. Winkler said that during his navy days, “We used to clean swabs by hanging them over the side and letting the salt water clean the grime…one time we pulled up a shark!”
All speculate that some type of sensor may have been attached to the end of the line.
In any case, the spy ship has not transgressed any law.
“We are aware of the ship’s presence, as we are aware of all vessels in the approaches to the United States and Canada,” Maj. Jamie Alan Davis, a public affairs spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense told CDN, adding that the Viktor Leonov had “not entered U.S. territorial waters.”
“We respect freedom of navigation exercised by all nations beyond the territorial sea of a coastal state consistent with international law.”
According to Lt. Terry, “NORAD [North American Air Defense Command] and USNORTHCOM [U.S. Northern Command] are responsible for identification and warning of maritime threats. They work closely with interagency partners to be aware of maritime contacts of interest as far from US shores as practical.”
USNORTHCOM, established in 2002, “provides command and control of Department of Defense … homeland defense efforts,” its Web site says.
Read more from David Alan Coia on CommDigiNews
—David Alan Coia is a freelance editor, educator, and writer based in Arlington, VA.
—Photo Credit and 2017 copyright: R.R. Walker