Operation: Northern Eagle
Joint Exercise with the Russian Federation Navy
In August 2006, USS NITZE was tasked with a once in a lifetime opportunity – a joint exercise with the Soviet Navy. Our mission with the Soviet Navy was a joint exercise to share methods for Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO), Search and Rescue (SAR), Visit, Board, Search & Seizure (VBSS), and Flight Ops with the Soviet Helo.
At first glance the Admiral Chabenenko is an impressive sight to see, her hull is painted an ominous shade of black, the forecastle is home to eight huge missile tubes as well as a twin barreled 130 mm cannon, every inch of the superstructure is home to either communications equipment, rockets, or guns. However, when she is pulling to Trondheim with us, and she starts all main engines, white smoke envelopes the superstructure. The mains are running so rich, it looks as if the ship is on fire. When the Soviet officers visited our ship underway we asked about the smoke, apparently the engines are not a matched set and each requires a different blend of fuel and a different fuel to air ratio. A requirement that cannot be met with their onboard control systems.
We sent members from our Wardroom over daily in a personnel exchange to share how each side operates at sea. From what I gathered from conversations after their visits, they all seemed to agree that the Soviet ship had a unique bouquet of diesel fuel and feet. This was confirmed during the next port visit when I had the opportunity to tour the ship. While in Trondheim, NITZE was berthed as close to ‘downtown’ as practical given the location of the piers. We were highly visible from all vantage points. The Soviets were berthed at an industrial pier far across the bay and could only be accessed after driving through a maze of dirt roads and obstacles. However, if you were to step back and look from above, NITZE and the ADM Chabenenko were berthed bow to bow, gun to gun across the bay as if in a stand-off. From a distance, the Admiral Chabenenko looks impressive, that much is easy to see. However, up close and personal you have to ask – is this the same Navy we feared a mere ten years ago? The tour of the ship began on the quarterdeck as one would expect. Their quarterdeck was far less formal and more confused than ours onboard NITZE. They did not seem prepared to accept visitors, even though the tours were planned in advance. While waiting on their tour guide, the first impression of the ship was formed. She reminded me of a long dead warship that had been converted into a museum. The tour started on their flight deck with the standard tour route mumbo-jumbo – two helicopters in the hangar (which remained closed) and the flight control systems. In stark contrast to our own flight deck, the Soviets do not use anything remotely resembling non-skid. Their flight deck is slick with the normal flight line markings but in place of a non-skid surface, they have a large net on deck for traction. Their flight deck is also significantly shorter in overall length in comparison to ours. Our next stop was the forecastle, where the main missile tubes and gun are prominently displayed. The missile tubes are impressive, they appear large enough to house a couple of Volkswagen Beetles. I’d hate be on the receiving end of one of those monsters. However, after a closer examination of the tubes, one has to wonder if they would even open to allow the missile to launch. There appeared to be about twenty layers of paint over every square inch, including the hinges for the tubes. The gun-mount was equally impressive with its twin-barrels gleaming in the sun. While walking around the forecastle, you notice the other guns and missiles that are disguised or flush mounted to the decks. It seems that every spare inch was filled with some sort of weapon. But as with the missile tubes, their state of maintenance was less than impressive. We next visited the bridge. For a ship this size, one would expect a fairly large bridge with the latest of gadgets and widgets. What we found was a tiny, cramped space with an old-fashioned engine order telegraph and helm. Behind the helm was what appeared to be their communication and navigation suite, again the equipment seemed to be state of the art in the 70’s. Not what one would have expected from the newest destroyer in the Soviet Fleet. By the way, the bridge did, as previously mentioned, have the unique feet and diesel odor (not a good mixture in case you were wondering). By comparison, the bridge on NITZE is spacious and filled with 21st Century technology including a digital helm that can control the gas turbine engines directly. Next we visited one of their berthing compartments. The rack arrangement is similar to ours in that they are berthed in three high bunk beds. However, where our sailors have ample storage for personal effects, the Soviet sailors have one small, unsecured (locks are not allowed) locker with barely enough room for the essential toiletries. The racks themselves are not much more than a thin mattress resting on a piece of plywood. Their television looks to be a reject from the 50’s, other than that there was little provision for entertainment. The final stop on the tour was their Engineering Control Station. As an Engineer, this was what I wanted to see. Once again, the space was cramped and obsolete. The engine controls were primitive with a rheostat used to control engine speeds and analog gages. Unfortunately they would not let us actually enter the space to take a better look, nor could we see the generator control consoles. Again, by comparison, NITZE’s Central Control Station is spacious with modern technology. The other disappointment was the fact that we were not allowed to visit their engine rooms. From the descriptions of the engine room that I received from my MPA, they are cramped, hot and smelly, and the engines are not housed in acoustic modules. That was pretty much the extent of the tour. One final note, during the entire tour, no crew members (outside of the officers in their Engineering Control Station) were visible and with few exceptions photographs were not permitted. The overall impression was that the ship was a relic, again similar to one of our warships that had been converted into a museum. The overall appearance of the ship was clean, neat and tidy – just vacant of human life. After seeing this, you have to wonder what was going through their minds when they toured NITZE. During all tours, NITZE was bristling with life, crew members in all passageways greeting our new friends, each and every controlling station was open for tours and with the possible exception of Combat, photographs were allowed and our junior personnel were most often the tour guides in their respective area of expertise.
One final note on our cultural exchange with the Soviets, after the respective wardrooms hosted a dinner party on each ship, NITZE invited ADM Chabeneko for ‘Beer on the Pier’ – an informal barbeque for the crew members. Here is where one noticed the most that not much has really changed in the Soviet Union. Their Captain at first would not let his crew members attend and only eventually relented after gaining permission from ‘Mother Russia’. Additionally, after conversation with some of the Soviet officers, it appears that there is still a major problem for their Navy in acquiring needed equipment and parts. We were casually discussing that in the event of an engine failure it would take less than 5 days to remove, replace, and test a new engine – and it could be done a most any pier worldwide. On the other hand, they would need at least a month if not longer to locate a new engine and the replacement would require several weeks at a shipyard or Naval Facility. Finally as one walks around NITZE, each workspace has a shipboard computer, dvd player, television and most every crew member owns a laptop. However, during the entire tour of the ADM Chabenenko, not a single computer, dvd player or personal item was seen.