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4 US Navy destroyers respond to Russian and Chinese ships near Alaska

China and Russia are revisiting a Cold War maritime strategy.
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USS John S. McCain
Sailors aboard the destroyer USS John S. McCain prepare to participate in a Fleet Synthetic Training - Joint (FST-J) exercise. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joshua Hammond/U.S. Navy)

Four U.S. Navy destroyers monitored a total of 11 Chinese and Russian ships, which recently conducted a patrol near Alaska, a defense official said.

The USS John S. McCain, USS Benfold, USS John Finn, and USS Chung-Hoon kept tabs on the combined Chinese and Russian patrol, as is customary during some military exercises, the official said.

Both U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command kept a close eye on the Chinese and Russian ships last week, said Air Force Master Sgt. Benjamin Wiseman, a spokesman for both commands.

“Air and maritime assets under our commands conducted operations to assure the defense of the United States and Canada,” Wiseman said in a statement to Task & Purpose. “The patrol remained in international waters and was not considered a threat.”

China has the largest navy in the world with roughly 340 ships and submarines, compared to the U.S. Navy’s 294 vessels. Moreover, while the size of the U.S. Navy is expected to shrink to 291 vessels by fiscal 2028, China’s navy is expected to grow to 440 ships by 2030, according to the Defense Department’s latest report on Chinese military power.

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Russia’s Pacific Fleet is much smaller than the Chinese navy, but it has more advanced submarines that are quieter than China’s boats.

Chinese and Russian navies
Chinese and Russian flag is seen on board of China’s missile destroyer Hefei arrives at St Petersburg to take part in a ship parade marking Russian Navy Day in St. Petersburg, Russia, 27 July 2017. (Sergey Mihailicenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The recent patrol was the largest combined Russian and Chinese naval group to operate together near Alaska, said retired Navy Capt. Brent Sadler, the senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.

“It is provocative because of the geopolitical context this is occurring – Chinese naval assets are harassing Philippine forces in the South China Sea and is continuing a monthslong pressure campaign on Taiwan with high levels of air and naval vessels,” Sadler told Task & Purpose. “Russia, of course, is waging a violent war of aggression in Ukraine and unleashing its mercenaries across Africa.”

While last week’s patrol may have included more Chinese and Russian ships than past combined formations that have sailed off Alaska, it is still unclear whether the two navies can digitally integrate the computers and other machines on each other’s ships to work together at the speed necessary for modern missile-based warfare, said retired Navy Capt. Thomas Shugart, a military innovation expert with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.

Shugart also noted that it appears the U.S. military did nothing to hinder last week’s Chinese and Russian patrol, and that stands in stark contrast to the aggressive and unsafe ways that China has responded to some U.S. Navy operations in international waters, Shugart said.

In July a Chinese warship came close to running into the Chung-Hoon in the Taiwan Strait. The Navy’s 7th Fleet also denied a Chinese military claim in 2021 that it had forced the Benfold to leave waters off the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

“We’re continuing to act like the grownups in the room, and I think it’s a good thing,” Shugart told Task & Purpose.

The USS Chung-Hoon in the Pacific Ocean in 2020. (Petty Officer 1st Class Devin Langer/U.S. Navy)

The most recent patrol comes after the United States Coast Guard Cutter Kimball tracked a formation of seven Russian and Chinese ships near the Aleutian Islands last year.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) issued an Aug. 5 statement praising the military for its “robust response” to last week’s patrol of Russian and Chinese ships near his state.

“I was heartened to see that this latest incursion was met with four U.S. Navy destroyers, which sends a strong message to Xi Jinping and Putin that the United States will not hesitate to protect and defend our vital national interests in Alaska,” Sullivan said.

The Chinese and Russians have increased joint training, joint exercises, and other combined events in the Pacific region, Navy Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said during last month’s Aspen Security Forum. 

“Just a month ago, bombers from both Russia and China, Russian bombers landed in China, and then they flew a joint mission into the Philippine Sea towards Guam,” Aquilino said.  “Today, a Russian and Chinese maritime Task Force is doing a combined patrol. We’ll see where that ends up, whether it’s off the Aleutian Islands, whether it’s in the Philippine Sea, whether it goes to Guam, whether it goes to Hawaii or whether it goes off the west coast of the United States. So, their exercises have increased, their operations have increased. I only see the cooperation getting stronger, and boy that’s concerning. That’s a dangerous world.”

The combined Russian and Chinese patrols show that both countries are revisiting a maritime strategy from the Cold War, said James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

The U.S. Navy and its allied partners conducted patrols off the coast of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, and Soviet trawlers equipped with electronic surveillance equipment would lurk off U.S. shores, Holmes told Task & Purpose. Soviet trawlers would often wait near Pearl Harbor for U.S. Navy task forces to go to sea.  

“So, our Chinese and Russian friends are borrowing a play from our playbook, and from the old Soviet playbook,” Holmes said. “The signaling part is twofold: They’re announcing to us that they can operate in our backyard, and thus are demonstrating capability. And they’re announcing that they are serious allies with a compelling common purpose, namely to outcompete us.” 

By operating so close to the United States and Canada – both NATO members – the Russians and Chinese could force the U.S. Navy and other partners to divert forces from the Arctic region and elsewhere, Holmes said.

“The more Russia’s and China’s navies operate there, the more assets we have to send to monitor them — and the fewer assets we have to commit to the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Baltic, or the Western Pacific and China seas,” Holmes said.  “So, by making a demonstration near Alaska or wherever, they can hope to ease the naval and military pressure in places they care about most. That improves their chances of success against Ukraine, Taiwan, or whoever.

UPDATE: 08/07/2023; this story was updated with comments from Navy Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

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