Russian Flotilla Off Florida Coast Sparks Deployment of US Navy Destroyers, Planes

Russian Navy Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrives at the port of Havana
People watch the Russian Navy Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrive at the port of Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. A fleet of Russian warships reached Cuban waters on Wednesday ahead of planned military exercises in the Caribbean. (AP Photo/Ariel Ley)

The Pentagon deployed three Navy destroyers and maritime patrol aircraft this week to keep tabs on a group of Russian ships that conducted missile exercises and reportedly got within 30 miles of the Florida coast.

"In accordance with standard procedure, we've been actively monitoring the Russian ships as they transit the Atlantic Ocean within international waters," a defense official, who spoke on the condition his name not be used, told in an emailed statement Wednesday.

The official added that "air and maritime assets under U.S. Northern Command have conducted operations to ensure the defense of the United States and Canada," but wouldn't elaborate on what those assets were. Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh also wasn't able to offer specifics at a briefing to reporters Wednesday.

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In contrast, Russia has been very clear about what ships were deployed and what they were up to.

Russian state-run media announced last week that a group of four ships, including a frigate and a nuclear-powered submarine, would be making a port call in Havana between June 12 and June 17.

    On Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense said in an online post that the ships conducted exercises in the use of "high-precision missile weapons in the Atlantic Ocean" and included video shot aboard the vessels.

    "As part of the exercise, the crews of a frigate and a nuclear-powered submarine practiced the use of high-precision missile weapons using computer-simulated naval targets that represent naval groups of a mock enemy and are located at a distance of over 600 kilometers," the statement said, while noting no missiles were launched.

    The Pentagon would not say what U.S. assets were deployed in response to the Russian presence, but online amateur analysts used public flight and ship-tracking data to identify the three destroyers as the USS Truxtun, USS Donald Cook and USS Delbert D. Black on Tuesday.

    They also identified U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft as part of the response.

    The defense official who spoke with on Wednesday would go only so far as to say that the Navy's U.S. 2nd Fleet, U.S. 4th Fleet, U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area and Canadian Joint Task Force Atlantic were all "conducting routine operations throughout the Atlantic, and we will continue to operate and engage from a position of strength."

    A Defense Department photo of the Truxtun taken last week noted that the destroyer was sailing with the Canadian frigate HMCS Ville de Québec and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stone -- two ships that online analysts also suspected to be responding to the Russians.

    Online analysts also estimated that the Russian flotilla got within 25 miles of shore. The Miami Herald, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the ships sailed "less than 30 miles off South Florida's coast" on Tuesday.

    According to images uploaded to sites such as Telegram by Russian state-run outlets, the Russian ships, including the frigate and the submarine, pulled into Havana on Wednesday.

    Singh, the Pentagon spokeswoman, downplayed the presence of the flotilla by telling reporters that "we've seen them do this -- these type of port calls before -- and these are routine naval visits that we've seen under different administrations."

    "We're always constantly going to monitor any foreign vessels operating near U.S. territorial waters ... but these exercises don't pose a threat to the United States," she added.

    However, unlike prior port visits that involved less-advanced Russian vessels, the submarine and the frigate are some of the newest and most advanced Russian warships currently in that country's arsenal.

    The frigate, the "Admiral Gorshkov," was commissioned in 2018.

    Meanwhile, the submarine, the "Kazan," was commissioned in 2021 and is similar to U.S. guided-missile nuclear submarines, capable of carrying a range of anti-ship and land attack missiles, including the hypersonic "Zircon" anti-ship missile, according to an analysis by the U.K.-based think tank Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI.

    RUSI's report noted that the Kazan has "a reported level of quietness comparable to the very best Western [nuclear submarines] and a long-range strike capability which exceeds that seen on most Western assets."

    USNI News reported in 2014 that a U.S. Navy official in charge of its submarine program was so impressed with that class of Russian submarine that he had a model of the lead boat -- the Severodvinsk -- placed outside his office so that he could look at it daily.

    The defense official who spoke with said that, while Russian naval visits to Cuba are routine, they have "ratcheted up because of U.S. support to Ukraine and exercise activity in support of our NATO allies."

    "We should expect more of this activity going forward," the official added.

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