British Destroyer Versus the Russian Navy
HMS ‘Dragon’ intercepts Moscow’s warships leaving the Med
The Royal Navy’s high-tech warship HMS Dragon has sortied twice in recent weeks to find and escort eight Russian naval vessels steaming through British waters.
The Kremlin’s naval groups lately have grown overall larger and seemingly more powerful. Events have reinforced the impression of renewed strength. Moscow forcefully annexed Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula in March—and subsequently threatened to invade eastern Ukraine.
But the Russian naval moves are actually part of an apparent overall reduction in Moscow’s deployed forces.
Dragon departed Portsmouth in southern England and, on May 8, located the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and her six accompanying ships. The 500-foot-long Daring-class destroyer, which entered service in 2012, sailed alongside the Russian warships as they transited the English Channel.
“A Russian task group of this size has not passed by our shores in some time,” Dragon’s new captain Rex Cox commented after he and his roughly 200 sailors kept tabs on the seven-ship Russian force.
In fact, the Russian visit to the English Channel signals a possible reduction in regional tension. Kuznetsov and her six escorts were headed east through the Channel toward the flattop’s home port of Severomorsk in Russia’s north.
Russia’s sole flattop, Kuznetsov sails with a small air wing of a dozen or more Su-33 fighters plus helicopters. Her accompanying ships currently include the nuclear-powered battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy—at 827 feet, the largest surface combatant in the world—plus the tankers Segey Osipov, Kama and Dubna, the amphibious ship Minsk and the ocean-going tugboat Altay.
Kuznetsov was in the Mediterranean throughout April in order to add weight to Russian forces deployed around Ukraine … and to balance the presence of an American aircraft carrier in the same waters. That the Russian flattop is returning home could indicate the Kremlin is backing down somewhat from its threat to further invade Ukraine.
On April 24, Dragon had intercepted the Russian destroyer Kulakov, traveling through U.K. waters north of Scotland. Kulakov was headed south in order to temporarily join Russia’s small permanent flotilla in the Mediterranean.
In a sense, the Kremlin has replaced a seven-ship carrier group near Ukraine with just one destroyer.
Former Dragon skipper Iain Lower called the Russian navy “a very capable force,” but in fact just one of the seven ships in Kuznetsov’s group—Pyotr Velikiy—is capable of meaningful offensive operations. The flattop’s Su-33s are limited in range and payload owing to the carrier’s lack of a catapult and would be most useful in a defensive role.
Tugboat Altay’s presence is a reminder that Kuznetsov herself is mechanically unreliable and prone to breakdowns and other accidents at sea.
Dragon, by contrast, is among the world’s newest and most sophisticated warships—albeit fairly weakly armed. With her Sampson radar and 48 Sea Viper missiles, she can find, track and destroy aircraft at long range. However, just four of the six Darings are getting Harpoon anti-ship missiles—and it’s not clear if Dragon is one of the four.