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Bunboat Diplomacy

Excerpt from Document (National Archives Scan)

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D.

In past weeks there have been several reports of close interactions between Russia, the United States, and NATO armed forces, mostly close approaches with American fighters escorting Russian aircraft in the vicinity of Alaska, or Russian fighters maneuvering around NATO/American aircraft in the Baltic – Black Sea regions.

Media discussions about a new “Cold War” it should be considered in the context of history. On March 8, 1983, President Reagan first described the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” as US – USSR relations had continued to decline following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. During that period, as with much of the Cold War, American and Russian aircraft would meet up and fly in close proximity. Often the pilots exchanged a hand-wave, other times a more vulgar gesture. In addition, when American and Russian warships met at sea sometimes waves were exchanged, but on other occasions, more revealing gestures were exchanged as detailed in this memorandum which discussed the USS Vancouver (LPD 2) an amphibious warfare ship that had a large contingent of Marines embarked. The ship was deployed in the Western Pacific in the wake of Reagan’s speech and crewmembers apparently shared the Commander-in-Chiefs disdain for their Soviet rival. The memorandum was prepared in advance of the forthcoming annual Incident at Sea (INCSEA) talks that were to be held in Washington in May of that year. Whether or not “Moonings” were discussed at the talks is unknown. The line that caught my eye was “Routine display of six.” One difference between the 1980s and today is that the U.S. Navy now operates with crews of both genders. Consequently, the Russian advantage in “throw-weight” as detailed in the memo, has been somewhat mitigated. Another difference from the 1980s is social media. Should we fully return to the types of encounters detailed in the below, how long would it take for such imagery to go viral?

Dr. Winkler’s book Incidents at Sea, Confrontation, Cooperation between the United States, Russia and China, 1946-2016 is due out this Fall from the Naval Institute Press.

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