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By John Helmer, Moscow

The latest but one in the US Navy deployments to the Black Sea ended on Monday when the frigate, USS Taylor, sailed south through the Bosphorus Straits. Three days before on May 9 the cruiser, USS Vella Gulf, had been reported as due to steam north through the straits and into the Black Sea. According to the US Navy spokesman in Washington on May 13, it is now under way in the eastern Mediterranean, destination undisclosed.

For its return voyage to the Mediterranean the Taylor had stopped at the Georgian port of Batumi, and was refuelled there. According to the bunker supplier, Marine Supply & Service, “generally, physical bunker supply by tankers is not available in Georgian ports since beginning of 2013. Vessels arriving to Georgian ports are supplied with MGO (Marine Gasoil) by tank trucks, while IFO (Fuel oil) delivery still does not exist.”

Since February of this year, the US Navy has been regularly deploying one or two warships in the Black Sea as a show of force in the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. For the Navy deployments to date, read this. The US vessels lack fuel for more than six days at sea, and the US Navy has not despatched fleet oilers to refuel them while under way.

Port calls are required for replenishing the US vessels; the Black Sea options include Turkish, Bulgarian and Romanian ports. In the current circumstances, Russian, Crimean and Ukrainian ports are not available. In February, while escorting the USS Mount Whitney, an intelligence gathering vessel, in the Black Sea, the Taylor had run aground while making a fuel stop at Samsun port, in Turkey.

Subsequently, the Mount Whitney s position 160 nautical miles off the Russian coast was reported by this US source:

Source: http://theaviationist.com/

The Taylor went to Crete for repairs, and returned to the Black Sea on April 22. According to the Montreux Convention, its stay in the Black Sea was limited to 21 days. For refueling the Taylor stopped at Constanta, Romania, between April 30 and May 2, according to the US Navy in Washington. For that story.

On May 8 the Taylor berthed at Batumi. A US Embassy statement issued in Tbilisi said its “presence in Georgia reaffirms the United States’ commitment to strengthening ties with NATO allies and partners like Georgia, while working toward mutual goals of promoting peace and stability in the region. While in Georgia, Taylor will host ship tours and a reception for local officials. The crew will also conduct training with the Georgia Coast Guard in visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS), maritime medical care, career development systems and leadership ethics.”

Source: https://www.flickr.com/

Sources in the bunker industry suggest the fuel taken on by the Taylor at Batumi may have been Russian because Georgia lacks the capacity to produce it. According to Wissol Bunkering, a Georgian company, it “ offers high quality MGO [marine gasoil] and low and high sulphur Fuel Oil at very competitive rates. The company is sourcing MGO from the refineries in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. We provide simple promise: To deliver quality fuels on time and in full – every time.”

In Novorossiysk a spokesman for Marine Supply & Service said it does not deliver bunker fuel to Batumi. At Wissol’s head office in Georgia, noone answers the telephone or responds to email. Alexei Bezbrodov, a leading maritime industry analyst in Moscow and editor-in-chief of Infranews.ru, said most bunker fuel in Batumi comes from Azerbaijan, shipped there by rail. However, he said it is possible that tankers deliver petroleum products to Batumi from Novorossiysk by sea. “We can’t be sure. The oil product steamer leaves [Novorossiysk] and we do not know where it goes. We can trace the vessel by ship checker. But then you need to watch every steamer. And it is not clear for what purpose it might enter a [Georgian] port. Maybe it went in to get water or something else.”

A London bunker expert, who asked not to be quoted by name, says there are security and cost problems for a US Navy vessel to refuel from trucks or rail tankers. “They would have to take fuel samples for each tanker that arrived (a nuisance). Also, road tankers can introduce unwanted contaminants that may or may not be benign (fines in the fuel, or mixes with other fuels carried previously). The third reason, I suspect for going to a supplier in Novorossiysk, would be that the quantity needed for the vessel could be accommodated on one vessel and thus better control over quality (and price). Fourth, the time required for refuelling would be reduced using a single tanker from Novorossiysk because the pumping rate (through larger hoses) would be much greater than road tankers.”

He added: “any position that puts the vessel alongside for a protracted period of time would be considered a risk, particularly if undertaking an operation with a fire hazard and the inability to disengage from it in the event of a threat. Rail cars don’t come equipped with pumps, so this would be a jury-rigged operation conducted at the quay, which would not be the way the US Navy wants to do things.”

A US Navy report on Monday morning said the Taylor “participated in three bilateral underway engagements. The first involved the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) and various Romanian navy ships, where Romanian sailors conducted visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) evolutions. During the second engagement, Taylor and the Romanian navy conducted a live-fire exercise and an anti-submarine warfare scenario. The third consisted of tactical maneuvering exercises and detect to engage (DTE) scenario with a Turkish Navy ship. Taylor also conducted training in several mission areas while in port with the Georgia Coast Guard. ‘The unique experience of training with foreign navies in the Black Sea has allowed us the opportunity to better work together in furthering our proficiency in several mission areas,’ said Ensign Joanna Dunn, communications officer onboard.”

The USS Vella Gulf is a newer and more heavily armed warship than the Taylor. With Tomahawk cruise missiles it has the capability to attack sea and land targets at ranges of about 1,000 kilometres. If, as Russian sources have been reporting, it enters the Black Sea shortly, it will be the second US Navy vessel to be deployed in the Black Sea armed with the Aegis system of missiles: they are designed to attack Russian ballistic nuclear missiles after launch, as well as Russian military satellites. For the first Aegis deployment in the Black Sea in mid-April on board the USS Donald Cook, click.

If the Vella Gulf steams into the eastern half of the Black Sea, roughly where the Mount Whitney was positioned in February, the Aegis missiles on board the Vella Gulf will be within interception range of almost two-thirds of Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile launch-pads in western Russia:

Source: http://www.fas.org/

A report by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in September 2011 concluded that the Aegis missile system represents a grave threat to Russian nuclear strategy. “The focus,” wrote Yousaf Butt and Theodore Postol, “is on what would be the main concern of cautious Russian military planners —the capability of the missile defense interceptors to simply reach, or “engage,” Russian strategic warheads—rather than whether any particular engagement results in an actual interception, or “kill.” Interceptors with a kinematic capability to reach Russian ICBM warheads would be sufficient to raise concerns in Russian national security circles – regardless of the possibility that Russian decoys and other countermeasures might defeat the system in actual engagements. In short, even a missile defense system that could be rendered ineffective could still elicit serious concern from cautious Russian planners.”

“Such large numbers of interceptors, which might in reality have little capability in combat, could be expected to create fears among Russian political and military leaders that the PAA [Phased Adaptive Approach] could cause some attrition of Russian warheads. As the preamble to New START explicitly recognizes the interplay between strategic offense and defense, the potential of a substantially expanded U.S. continental ballistic missile defense system could be considered an infringement on the numerical parity that forms the basis of New START, and a threat to Russia’s strategic deterrence forces.”

According to the FAS report, shore-based radar units to support Aegis missile targeting by US warships are in planning, or are already installed around the Black Sea shore in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia.

The FAS scientists recommended that Aegis-armed cruisers should not be deployed in positions where they would be in range to threaten attacks on initial or late flight phases of nuclear attack missiles from Russia. The report did not contemplate the possibility the US Navy would move the Aegis into the eastern Black Sea. The report acknowledged that “rapid breakout capability” of this sort would not be an acceptable risk to the Russian military.

On its way to its Black Sea operation, the Vella Gulf stopped at the port of Limassol in Cyprus, where the commander arranged a press opportunity distributing free cooked food to the locals.

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