Navy Ships Transit Through Barents Sea Near Russia for 1st Time Since Cold War

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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook approaches alongside the USNS SUPPLY and USS Porter for a connected replenishment
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook approaches alongside the USNS Supply and USS Porter for a connected replenishment (CONREP) to receive fuel and stores on April 28, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Yeoman 3rd Class Anthony Nichols)

Days after a top U.S. general said Russia is testing the American military during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Navy sent four ships into the Barents Sea for the first time in decades.

Three Navy destroyers and a fast combat support ship, as well as a frigate from Britain's Royal Navy, entered the Barents Sea above the Arctic Circle on Monday "to assert freedom of navigation," according to a service news release. It marked the first time Navy ships have operated there, off Russia's northern coast, since the Cold War.

The vessels involved include the Navy's destroyers Donald Cook, Porter and Roosevelt, along with the fast combat support ship Supply. The Royal Navy's frigate Kent also participated.

The operation was announced weeks after Russian aircraft were spotted flying near Alaska. Another buzzed a Navy reconnaissance plane last month above the Mediterranean Sea.

Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, commander of 6th Fleet, said in a statement, "In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater.

Related: Russia Is Testing US Military for Weaknesses Amid Pandemic, General Says

"We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness," she added.

The Russian Ministry of Defense was notified Friday that the Navy would have ships in the Barents Sea. The notification was made to "avoid misperceptions, reduce risk and prevent inadvertent escalation," according to the Navy.

Days before heading into the Barents Sea, several of the same ships -- along with a Navy submarine and P-8A Poseidon -- were in the Norwegian Sea for an anti-submarine warfare exercise. About 1,200 sailors from the U.S. and Royal Navies participated in that exercise.

Navy leaders in Europe have warned that a surge in Russian submarine activity is posing new challenges for NATO allies. The Russian subs are deploying with more lethal weapons systems and staying out for longer periods, Vice Adm. Andrew "Woody" Lewis, commander of 2nd Fleet, said earlier this year.

The Navy has been sending more vessels above the Arctic Circle in recent years. Franchetti called the environment "unforgiving."

"Our ships must be prepared to operate across all mission sets," she said. "... This is especially critical in the Arctic, where the austere weather environment demands constant vigilance and practice."

The Navy in 2018 sent elements of the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group and Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group above the Arctic Circle during exercise Trident Juncture. Last year, destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser also operated in the region.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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