WASHINGTON — Six days after Russian special operators and paratroopers conducted an unprecedented high-altitude airborne training exercise in the Arctic, the U.S. Navy sent four ships off Russia’s Arctic coast to make a counter-statement.
The freedom of navigation sailing into Barents Sea was the first such showing of the flag in that region since the Cold War, Navy officials said Monday. It comes in the wake of a steady increase in Russian aircraft zooming toward Alaska, as well as forthright expansion into and onto Arctic lands and seas.
The sailing was conducted by three U.S. destroyers — the USS Donald Cook, USS Porter and USS Roosevelt — and one U.S. support ship, the USNS Supply, joined by a British Royal Navy frigate, the HMS Kent. The Donald Cook had been buzzed by Russian aircraft in the past while on duty in the Black Sea.
The Barents Sea is between Norway and Russia above the Arctic Circle. The sailing followed an anti-submarine exercise in international waters by the ships as part of a NATO operation.
“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater, while taking prudent measures to protect the health of our force,” Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, said in a statement. “We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness.”
The Navy notified the Russian Defense Ministry about the planned operation Friday in an effort to “avoid misperceptions, reduce risk and prevent inadvertent escalation,” the statement said.
The sailing was near where two Russian missile ships held drills with artillery firings at coastal combat training ranges in the Barents Sea in mid-April.
Independent analysis of military maneuvering in the Arctic has placed Russia far ahead of the U.S. and other nations in establishing controls and parameters in the mineral-rich region. The Arctic has become more easily accessible as ice has melted because of global warming.
Last week, the Russian military announced that its northernmost base, located at 80 degrees North in the northern part of the Barents Sea, not far from Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, now has an airfield that is operational year-round.
Since 2014, Russian military forces have conducted a number of high-profile airborne exercises in the general vicinity of the North Pole. Moscow has launched various programs to expand bases and other military infrastructure in the Arctic and acquire specialized weapon systems and other equipment to buttress its grip on the region.
The recent Russian military exercise was on Alexandra Land, , home to the Arctkicheski Trilistnik, or the Arctic Trefoil, a large and self-sufficient new base Russia opened in 2017.
Last week, the Russian military also conducted its latest military drills against hypothetical enemy attacks when the Russian Baltic Fleet “repelled” against an enemy airstrike in the Gulf of Finland.
In mid-April, the Russian navy received a new vessel for secret underwater operations in the Arctic.