NATO’s naval power offers much potential to deter and – if necessary – help combat Russia.
This article was submitted by Dr Rowan Allport, a Senior Fellow and the Security and Defense team lead at the Human Security Centre. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan’s primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC’s The Two Per Cent Solution: an Alternative Strategic Defence and Security Review report.
NATO has historically recognised the value of proactively utilising sea power against the more land-orientated Moscow – particularly in northern waters. Notably, during the 1980s, a central theme of both NATO’s Concept of Maritime Operations and the overlapping US Maritime Strategy was the forward use of naval forces in and around the Norwegian Sea. This was designed to help maintain the Alliance’s Atlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC) by preventing the breakout of Soviet forces into the Atlantic through the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap, secure NATO’s northern Norwegian flank, force a diversion of Moscow’s forces away from the Central European front and – in the case of the US model – allow for the targeting of the USSR’s strategic assets, including ballistic missile submarines and bases on the Kola Peninsula.
The Royal Navy played a vital role in this late Cold War approach. In times of tension or war, it would have been the UK-led Anti-Submarine Striking Force (ASWSTRIKFOR) – centred on at least one Invincible-class carrier – that would first help hold the GIUK ‘line’, and then provide the lead ASW element of NATO’s US-led Carrier Striking Force (CARSTRIKFOR) as it proceeded into the Norwegian Sea. Although the life expectancy of such a Royal Navy surface group facing Soviet air and naval forces without major US support was subject to much scepticism, few can doubt its importance in the opening stages of a conflict prior to the arrival of reinforcements. Further forward, UK SSNs would have sought to engage Northern Fleet submarines as close to their home bases as practical, while Royal Marines would have been deployed to defend Norway.
Much has changed since the end of the Cold War. Structurally, the majority of NATO’s maritime command system – most notably Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) and its sub-components highlighted above – has been disbanded. Doctrinally, the most recent Alliance Maritime Strategy – published in 2011 – focuses on lower level security threats rather than interstate conflict. Materially, all of the key allied navies have been subject to drastic cuts. With regards to the UK, the number of destroyers and frigates in Royal Navy service has fallen from 51 in 1990 to 19 today, only six SSNs remain operational, and the RAF has lost its maritime patrol capability. Arguably the most significant US move has been the closure of Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland – a base from which ASW, fighter and AEW support would have been provided to forces defending the GIUK gap.
Despite the recent announcement that a new NATO headquarters – tentatively named Atlantic Command – is to be set up to coordinate the defence of the Alliance’s SLOC, procurement decisions such as an order for nine P-8 Poseidon aircraft to be operated by the RAF, and renewed periodic US Navy deployments to Keflavik, only limited progress has been made in returning maritime operations to prominence following the re-emergence of the Russian threat. In contrast, significant steps forward have occurred in improving NATO’s land force posture in Europe since Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine – particularly concerning the defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These include the establishment of the Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups and Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.
Nevertheless, there is also a blunt truth that NATO needs to face. The entire Baltic theatre – positioned between Russia proper and its heavily militarised Kaliningrad Oblast – is set in the midst of a Russian A2/AD exclusion zone of advanced surface-to-air missiles, precision guided ballistic and cruise missiles, and shore-based anti-ship missiles. Access to the region can be shut down in hours, and as simulations have indicated, the rapid defeat of the outnumbered and outgunned resident NATO forces is highly probable.
If confronted with a scenario in which the Baltic states are occupied, the best recent historical precedent to the situation facing NATO might be the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, and the subsequent allied push for its liberation. However, there would be four key differences between facing Iraq then and Russia today.
Firstly, Moscow has a capacity to disrupt an allied mobilisation – including the shipping of forces from the US. Secondly, Russia can conduct conventional precision strikes at long range. Thirdly, Moscow fields technologically advanced equipment, albeit in limited quantities. The final contrast is the presence of Russia’s nuclear force.
The adoption of a new forward maritime strategy in the alliance’s northern region is crucial to helping mitigate all but the latter challenge. At sea, the North Atlantic is arguably more vital to NATO’s operations than during the Cold War, as the alliance’s ground forces stationed in Europe have been vastly scaled down over the last three decades. The need to conduct an offensive liberation campaign would necessitate a major build-up of US assets.
Moscow has the ability to threaten NATO’s SLOC using submarines and aircraft. Although far fewer in number than during the Cold War, older Northern Fleet vessels are being refitted for further service, and newer types such as the Yasen-class submarine are starting to become operational. In the air, many of the Russian Air Force’s T-22M3 ‘Backfire’ bombers look set to be fitted with the new Kh-32 anti-ship missile. While too weak to halt the flow of reinforcements from North America to Europe outright – at best, perhaps half a dozen Russian Navy submarines would be available for forward operations in the 2020s – even limited losses could prove politically disastrous to NATO.
As was the case during the Cold War, one method to counter this SLOC interdiction would be through the rapid deployment of alliance forces north-east beyond the GIUK gap and into the Norwegian Sea to put pressure on Russia to maintain a defensive posture around its northern waters. The destroying or pinning down of Russian submarines and aircraft close to their bases would also help reduce the threat to the US and Western Europe from cruise missiles.
A further great advantage of positioning forces off northern Norway is that it would bring targets across north-east Russia – including the militarily vital bases on the Kola Peninsula – into the range of NATO ship and submarine-launched cruise missiles and carrier aircraft using stand-off weapons. This would force a diversion of some of Moscow’s best defensive assets from the Baltic, compelling it to fight a war on two fronts. In peacetime, the credible threat of NATO spreading a Baltic conflict beyond the immediate region to threaten wider Russian security would also act as a significant deterrent to Moscow commencing any hostile action in the first place.
The great imponderable of this contingency is the nuclear question, and whether conventional attacks from a NATO maritime force might trigger an unconventional response from the Kremlin. But on that premise, if Russia were willing to try to ‘escalate to de-escalate’ with nuclear weapons, it seems likely that such a move would be triggered by any major NATO counter-offensive. As such, no action short of the alliance’s effective capitulation over the Baltic states would be adequate enough to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.
Once again, the role of the UK in a forward maritime strategy would be pivotal. Indeed, it would arguably be more credible than was the case during the late Cold War. In particular, the air group available in the early 2020s to one Queen Elizabeth class-carrier – 24 F-35Bs with nine Merlins HM.2s in the ASW role and a further four on airborne surveillance and control (ASaC) duty – compares favourably with a late 1980s Invincible-class wartime air group of perhaps ten Sea Harriers FRS.1 and twelve Sea Kings for ASW and ASaC.
While the size of Britain’s surface and sub-surface force has shrunk considerably, so has Moscow’s offensive power. Although the odds would hardly be overwhelmingly in favour of the UK formation, a Royal Navy carrier group (supported by escorts from Northern European navies, submarines and land based aircraft) positioned between Iceland and Scotland on the main GIUK gap route into the North Atlantic would represent a formidable obstacle to any Russian submarines or maritime strike aircraft seeking to interdict NATO’s SLOC. Once it joined up with a US Navy carrier contingent, the combined force would provide credible offensive options.
Although major weaknesses in areas such as ASW have been allowed to emerge in recent years, NATO’s already existing naval superiority over Russia means that rebooting the Alliance’s previous maritime posture would not require unrealistic investment. It has been reported that a new Alliance Maritime Strategy is to be published this year, and such a refreshed doctrine is likely to encourage movement to a more proactive posture. But this would be to little avail without practical commitment – particularly in the form of exercises – to hone skills and generate deterrence, and NATO’s focus on northern waters has recently been sorely lacking. The upcoming Exercise Trident Juncture 2018 – taking place in Norway in October and November of this year – will help to reverse this trend, but a great deal remains to be done. Ultimately, only a full re-evaluation of NATO’s approach to containing Russia that focuses on how to exploit the Alliance’s maritime strength is likely to change the current reality.