They were not the first Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Fencer aircraft that sailors aboard the destroyer Donald Cook had ever seen -- but they were certainly the closest.
“Oh my God!” one Cook sailor was heard exclaiming in a way that sounded like an open question of whether something might be going catastrophically wrong – a game of chicken where no one blinks and sailors die.
“Clear the bridge wing!” another voice can be heard shouting.
A second, maybe two, before what might have been a collision, the Russian jets pulled up, screaming over the Donald Cook’s superstructure and fantail just 75 feet overhead. The dramatic moments were captured as part of the extended videos of the events released by the Navy.
The April 2016 incident that occurred in the Baltic Sea near the shore of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad drew condemnation from the U.S. Navy and the Pentagon, which called Russia’s actions “unsafe and unprofessional.” These kinds of actions, Navy officials said, could lead to a miscalculation and accidents.
It was one of numerous recent encounters with the Russians and other adversaries that underscore a new reality for the Navy and the sailors it deploys: This is not the peacetime Navy anymore. The rise is new dangers around the globe mean sailors are now operating under almost constant threat of attack.
It's a big change for the Navy, where generations of sailors have enlisted, served 20 years and retired without ever experiencing the kinds of every day dangers sailors face now every time they cast off all lines and head to sea.
It's a position familiar to Marines and soldiers who have been patrolling in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 16 years. Yet it's a situation that has senior Navy leaders concerned and telling their sailors that its time to get tough.
Russian subs are regularly known to lurk beneath the waves on the East Coast of the United States and regularly in the Mediterranean again, according to multiple sources who spoke to Navy Times on background. Sailors are regularly squaring off with Russian jets when they operate on Putin’s doorstep in the Baltic and Black Sea.
In the Red Sea, the Navy faced its first-ever hostile surface-to-surface missile attack in October from Iranian-sponsored rebels in Yemen. The flashpoint there is the Bab-el-Mandeb, a thirty-mile-wide choke point between Yemen and Djibouti through which billions of dollars of trade and warships pass regularly.
In the Persian Gulf, sailors face an increasingly confrontational Iran along with the risk of cheap but catastrophic mines. Off the coast of North Korea, the Navy ships are constantly bracing for a nuclear missile attack. In the South China Sea, it’s easy to see how a split-second mistake could lead to a full-scale naval war.
“Over the last 10 years, we are seeing a rise in distributed danger,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former military head of NATO, now head of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“Ships are more likely to find themselves in confrontational situations globally and that’s due to a rise in great power politics with China and Russia as well as a growing propensity for terror organizations to think about the Maritime Domain as a zone of attack," Stavridis said.
The Navy’s top officer has been talking a lot about toughness in recent days. Getting sailors prepared to fight a no-BS maritime battle has been a core focus of Adm. John Richardson's tenure as the chief of naval operation.
The focus on toughness comes one year after a stunning series of mistakes led to 10 sailors and two patrol boats drifting into Iran's territorial waters and being captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces. Many senior Navy leaders questioned whether the lack of professionalism those sailors displayed was a more systemic issue in a Navy that has not seen large-scale maritime combat since World War II.
On the other hand, Navy leaders heralded the October confrontation between the destroyer Mason and Yemeni rebels as an example of sailors getting it right and being prepared to fight at a moment’s notice. When the Mason came under missile attack it had 15 seconds to fight back and the crew and it's missile-defense systems successfully engaged an incoming C-802s fired from Yemen.
"They were ready and responded just as we would hope to a cruise missile attack off the coast of Yemen," Richardson said recently.
Richardson has been emphasizing training and readiness as the key to getting tough in a world of threats, something Stavridis agreed with.
“All of our predeployment training needs to continue to emphasize the very real possibility that our ships will encounter a hostile action,” Stavridis said. “There needs to be an even higher level of focus on damage control and boosting our defensive capabilities, as well as the need to be ready to conduct offensive operations when called upon at lighting speed.”
With the threats multiplying around the globe, Navy Times consulted with the experts and put together a list of the top five most dangerous places sailors are operating in today. The places are ranked based on real-time threats faced by sailors deployed there as well as those with the potential to spur a global conflict.
5. The South China Sea
The U.S. Navy has been operating in the South China Sea continually since the end of World War II, but in recent years China has grown increasingly agitated by U.S. presence there. U.S. ships operating there are shadowed regularly by Chinese Navy vessels and have been harassed by Chinese paramilitary maritime forces.
Since 2014 China has upped the ante there by pushing construction of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, features China claims as its own but which clashes with competing claims by China’s neighbors in the region.
China has taken reefs, atolls and other features with no legal rights under international law and built up fake islands on top of them, seeking to claim maritime rights to the resources in the region. The U.S. has denounced the tactic and has accused the Chinese of militarizing the South China Sea.
The U.S. fears that China will use the islands to gain a choke hold on the area and limit the movement of aircraft and ships through the sea. That puts the U.S., which sees itself as the guarantor of freedom of the seas in the region, on a collision course with Chinese policy, which China has indicated they are willing to go to war over.
More broadly, China is investing in increasingly long-range missiles that could put U.S. aircraft carriers and ships at risk in those waters.
Now the Navy is planning to ramp up the provocative "freedom of navigation" operations, known as FONOPS, that send warships into the disputed areas in an effort to undermine China's legally dubious maritime claims. That move needs White House approval, however.
“The threat you really face there is an incident triggering a confrontation,” said Dan Goure, a former George W. Bush-administration official and analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank.
“They are arming those islands, putting surface-to-air missiles on those islands. The U.S. and China will be bumping shoulders as China tries to assert control and we try to assert historic rights," he said.
“This kind of military-to-military gray zone, eyeball-to-eyeball stuff can always go wrong.”
In the event of a larger conflict, the U.S. could expect to see a very aggressive and destructive opening salvo from China, seeking to assert control of the region and incapacitate U.S. and allied forces there, which would make it difficult for follow-on forces to fight its way back in.
“What you’d see is a really intense onslaught from Chinese missiles, Chinese ships, and Chinese aircraft from land,” Goure said, adding that the U.S. has the wherewithal to survive such an attack if its forces are on guard.
“If we’re ready, we can clean their clocks.”
4. Putin’s doorstep (The Baltic and Black seas)
Close encounters with the Russians has become the new normal for U.S. and NATO forces since President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The Soviet-style land grab, along with Russia’s fomenting civil war with Eastern Ukraine has plummeted U.S.-Russian relations to Cold War levels.
President Trump has been vocal about wanting to improve relations with Russia to cooperate in fighting the Islamic State group and Islamic extremism generally. However, virtually every other member of his National Security team has expressed deep cynicism and suspicion about Russia, making the future of U.S. and Russian relations uncertain.
Since Trump was elected, Russia has shown no signs of backing away from its aggressive military activities. Russia has put a spy ship near U.S. East Coast Navy bases. It relaunched deadly attacks in Eastern Ukraine and again buzzed a U.S. warship in the Black Sea with fighter aircraft. The Russian threat hasn’t gone away and it’s those close encounters between U.S. and Russian military forces that have analysts most worried.
“It’s a dangerous situation and sooner or later somebody is going to get killed,” said Luke Coffey, a national security expert at the influential Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C.
Like China, Russia has invested heavily in weapons that can keep the U.S. Navy away at its flanks – the Baltic in the North and Black Sea in the South. What’s more troubling to top military leaders is the kinds of operations Russia is undertaking, which have given the most senior officers in the military flashbacks to when they were junior officers during the Cold War in the 1980s.
“We see operational patterns that really we haven't seen since I was Captain on board amphibious ships in the 1980s in terms of where Russia is deploying to and the nature of their deployments,” said Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a recent talk at the Brookings Institution.
“When you look at many of the capability developments, the implications of those developments is it would limit our ability to move to Europe and then operate within Europe in the context of a NATO response.”
To Stavridis, the threat from Russian forces comes from the danger of a screw-up at close range with the U.S. Navy.
“The principle threat is one of accidental escalation as a result of aircraft buzzing our ships or Russian surface ships acting unprofessionally,” he said.
3. The Persian Gulf:
The Gulf has been the most dangerous place for sailors deploying since the 1980s. Operations there have cost the lives of dozens of sailors and injured dozens more. An attack on the frigate Stark by an Iraqi fighter in 1987 -- allegedly an accident -- claimed the lives of 37 sailors. The next year an Iranian mine crippled the frigate Samuel B. Roberts, injuring dozens of the crew, 10 badly.
Three years later the amphibious helicopter carrier Tripoli and the cruiser Princeton were both struck by Iraqi mines.
Now the rise of Iran as a regional power has upped the threat to sailors even further. Iran routinely threatens to shut down the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. says that would be intolerable and vowed to fight if Iran tries. The STROH, as the Navy calls it, accommodates about 20 percent of the world’s oil trade.
Back in 2012, after Iranian commanders publicly threatened to sink U.S. ships in the STROH, then-Gen. Jim Mattis, who headed U.S. Forces in the Middle East, ordered two carrier strike groups to the Gulf and wanted a third as a way of intimidating the Iranians – a decision that has put enormous strain on the U.S. Navy’s deployment cycle ever since.
Now, with Mattis as Trump's newly appointed secretary of defense, the tensions may increase.
Like Russia and China, Iran has invested in missile technology as a hedge against its arch enemy, the U.S. Navy.
The danger posed from Iran comes from both their missiles and its small submarine fleet. Iran has three Russian Kilo-class diesel subs and about a dozen minisubs, all of which can be very difficult to find in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf.
What folks who have never deployed to the Persian Gulf may not understand is that it’s a very small body of water, less than one tenth the size of the South China Sea. If a helicopter takes off from the back of a destroyer in the Gulf, its crew can, in places, see the shore on either side of their fuselage.
That cramped environment makes for a fast and deadly fight that could consume the entire region within minutes of conflict breaking out. Iran knows it couldn’t win a protracted conventional fight with the U.S. and its Gulf allies, all of whom are wary of Iran. So a fight with Iran would mean a go-for-broke offensive to cripple the U.S. fleet and all the bases in the region, including the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said Goure, the analyst from the Lexington Institute.
“This is going to almost instantly flash into thousands of missiles and aircraft flying within minutes or hours,” Goure said. “If the U.S. Navy is going to clear the Straits of Hormuz, it is going to have to neutralize the Iranian Navy, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian Air Force and all its bases. For its part, Iran is going to try and wipe out the Navy and everything on the west side of the Gulf.”
The good news for the U.S. Navy and its joint partners and allies in the region is that this is a scenario it trains for regularly, and you can bet there isn’t a cruiser or destroyer that enters the Gulf without the coordinates of Iranian military infrastructure and air defenses dialed into its strike missile consoles just in case.
2. North Korea
The rogue North Korean regime is plowing ahead with its missile technology and already may be able to target U.S. forces and their Japanese allies in the Japanese mainland. Even more frightening, the government of Kim Jong Un is closer than it has ever been to developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the homeland. All this is on top of a 1.2 million-man standing military.
North Korea has long been more bark than bite when it comes to declarations of impending military conflict, but its developing capabilities have commanders more worried than ever about the threat North Korea poses.
When asked about what threat gives him the most concern, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris invariably says North Korea. Harris often describes the threat from China as more of a long-term challenge. In October, Harris told his forces in the region that they needed to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice and called on the U.S. to continue to strengthen and rely on its partnership with Japan and South Korea to head off the North Korean threat.
Kim Jong Un doesn’t have much of a Navy compared to the rest of its forces, but the sailors will be at the front lines of protecting Japan and the U.S. homeland if North Korea fires its missiles. Armed with high-tech ballistic missile defense capabilities, as well as advanced Standard Missiles capable of intercepting the missiles, U.S. cruisers and destroyers deployed to the region will play a pivotal role in any conflict with North Korea.
On Feb. 3, for example, a joint test of the SM-3 Block IIA missile by the U.S. and Japan successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile over the Pacific. The missile was fired from a Navy test range in Hawaii and was detected and shot down by the destroyer John Paul Jones, which is based in Pearl Harbor. These tests often serve dual functions: dialing in U.S. BMD technology and warning North Korea against a launch.
But operating in and around South Korea could be a problem, particularly for U.S. supply ships which will need to go in and out of port such as Busan, said Goure. North Korean minisubs patrolling the area nearer land could be a deadly problem for the U.S. supply chain. In 2010, the lethality of the North Korean minisub threat became clear when it sank the South Korea corvette Cheonan during the annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise Foal Eagle.
1. The Bab-el-Mandeb
The fact that sailors have already had full-on missile battles with Yemeni rebels near this global choke-point makes the Bab-el-Mandeb, or the BAM, an obvious pick for the most dangerous place in the world where sailors are deploying.
The Gate of Tears is the maritime equivalent of the Wild West. Yemen is a failed state in the grip of a bloody civil war that has roped in both Saudi Arabia and to a lesser degree, the United States. But spillover from the conflict, as well as meddling from Iran, has made the waters around Yemen extremely dangerous.
Those waterways are vital and serve as the primary route for ships moving from the East Coast of the U.S. and Europe into the Middle East and Pacific region. Any disruption of trade moving through the Bab-el-Mandeb would roil global markets and threaten the U.S. and European economies, which is something the U.S. Navy can’t tolerate.
In February the Navy’s top officer in the Middle East told Navy Times sister publication Defense News that Navy intelligence suggests the deadly attack on a Saudi Frigate near the Bab-el-Mandeb in January was carried out by a drone. The news that the Yemeni rebels had their hands on drone boats and C-802 missiles such as the one used on the Mason means the danger in the region to shipping is reaching crisis levels.
And that means it’s again up to the U.S. Navy to stand up to Iranian-sponsored threats to freedom of navigation.
In early February the destroyer Cole began patrolling the area and Defense News reported Feb. 11 that the Navy was sending another two destroyers to the area. Part of the mission is to try and draw out the threat and see what else the rebels might have, officials tell Navy Times, which means sailors are deliberately staring down the barrel and practically daring the rebels to strike.
“Knowing how important the Bab-el-Mandeb is, it is insane that terrorist organizations could have their hand on the throat of global trade,” said Goure.
Goure said the mission in the BAM has all the markings of a mission that could hang on for a long time, especially since a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen seems increasingly remote.
“We are going to be doing this because we are the only ones who can,” Goure said. “We could be patrolling there for decades. This could be a standing joint task force for decades."