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.


  1. I agree – I think we can reduce the army whilst increasing the RM, Air Force and RN.

    I really think we should have an “army” of 64 deployable maneovre battalions (of 900 people) creating 16 Brigades. 4 of these brigades should be RM (16 battalions). Note: this is battalion level – other support needed (circa 20 further battalions creating 4 div HQ).

    Ultimately the aim of armed forces is to be more lethal than your enemy and I think we can do that with less soldiers but having the ones we have fully supported with air cover (like the USMC do) so each of these battalions would have the F35, Typhoons, Merlins, Apaches, Chinooks, MIV’s, Escorts, Submarines etc., they need to do their roles and be 4 fully integrated Divisions of circa 35k personnel each with the rest going into a large centralise support and command structure.

    It seems to me the UK MOD is all over the shop with what it is meant to do – and I think it is fairly simple.

    1. Carrier Battle Group (expeditionary Force – power projection) – 12 major vessels – 90 air assets
    2. Carrier Battle Group (expeditionary Force – power projection) – 12 major vessels – 90 air assets
    Note 1: Rota: 1 on – 1 off

    Div 1 (North) – GIUK GAP – 4 Deployable Brigades + HQ + 1 RN Fleet North (18) + aligned RAF
    Div 2 (East) – UK Med – 4 Dep. Brigades + HQ + RN Fleet East (18) + aligned RAF
    Div 3 (West) – Gulf – 4 Dep. Brigades + RN Fleet West (18) + aligned RAF
    Div 4 (South) – Overseas Territories- 4 Dep. Brigades + HQ + RN Fleet South (12-18) + aligned RAF

    Note 2: 4 Year Rota for each Div. Each Division has 1 brigade RM, Light Infantry, Mech1, Mech 2.
    Note 3: All divisions based in UK with Brigades dispersed as required
    Note 4: Divisions 1-4 conduct standing tasks for UK – CBG’s project power and are task specific.

    HQ Div – Centralised Command, Cyber, Logistics, Combat support and Corps training (Medics etc).

    The above may not be perfect – I highly doubt it is – but I do worry that this seems to be lacking in our current organisation and priorities are being missed.

    • Royal marines are separate to the army and shouldn’t be integrated into it. Also how you going to organize the brigades particularly the mechanized brigades.

    • I really feel this outline structure is the right way to go. Army more effective but smaller, leaving more money to expand assets in other areas. We can’t do everything anymore so be focussed lethal and strong in specific areas that count Against the current threats.

    • With the best will in the world you are not getting 64 deployable Battalions, ever. The army is a dogs breakfast. Even if both WCSP and ABSV manage to deliver and CLEP works out we will have enough vehicles for 2 understrength Armoured Infantry Battalion. We have enough Mastiff to mount maybe 6 Battalions but the Army want to bin them for MIV. We have about the same number of Foxhound and that’s about it. We have enough vehicles to mount maybe 8 Battalions in anything but the light role. Light Infantry will be massacred in a peer level conflict and we should have only the specialist RMs and Parachute Regiment continue in that role. Not enough to sustain the force you suggest and there is no money for what would need to be a large fleet of new vehicles in many different variants. On the carriers I agree we should have 2 RFTGs of about 10-12 ships each (CVF, LPD,LSD, FSS, Tide/Wave, 1-2. Point a Type 45 and 2-3 Frigates. This could of course be augmented or reduced as required but it seems a logical place to start. As for the army if we can cobble together enough Warrior to equip 6 Battalions then we could at least manage 3 Armoured Infantry Brigades Each with a Tank Regiment, 2 Battalions on Warrior and 1 on Mastiff. Ditch the Strike Brigades idea and send Ajax where it’s meant to go, the 3 Regiments tasked for the FR role. We can properly support that Division with artillery enablers (REME). Put everything else in the Adaptable Force. It means we are a 1 shot Division force but it’s a very potent Division. Retain and maybe augment 16AA in the Reaction Force as well. No new vehicles would be needed just maybe 100 or so extra Warrior upgraded and some extra CR2 retained and upgraded as well.

      • Agreed on most points. However Light Infantry’s usefulness depends on two things 1:Your Army’s definition of Light Infantry. 2:The terrain and surroundings.
        Examples of number 1:modern Anti-Tank Missiles, MANPADS, and artillery/airstrike spotting go along way to evening the odds when deployed appropriately. Which brings us to number 2:For City fighting, Mountain Warfare, and Jungle Warfare, all favor light quickly moving but well equipped, disciplined, and very well trained infantry. Mechanized forces just have to embrace the suck in the Mountains and in the Jungle are often confined to very few roads and susceptible to unavoidable kill zones. While in Urban Warfare mechanized and heavy force would be able to attain parity only IF they are willing to reduce the City to dust and risk destroying the infrastructure that is often the objective.

      • That is pretty much what we had David until A2020 refine wrecked it with the Strike Brigade concept.

        Only 2 Armored Infantry Brigades planned now each with 1xCh2 / 2 x Warrior.

        Them moving the Armoured Recc Regiments into the Strike Brigades leaving the armour bereft of integral Armoured Recc assets is nuts.

  2. Brilliant read and as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions military aid from the US would be welcomed as well as stationing various Navel assets in Scotland.

    or alternatively

    For every hundred pounds that’s made in the UK, seventy pence goes towards foreign aid.

    Another way to say this is that the government has a target to spend 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income on overseas development aid each year. Gross National Income (GNI) is the UK’s annual output of goods and services, plus any income we get from abroad.

    In 2015, the UK spent £12.1 billion on overseas aid, in line with the 0.7% target.

    Because the UK economy is set to get bigger over the next few years the real value of development aid spending is expected to increase.

    By 2021 we could be spending about £14.4 billion, based on the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts and in 2015 prices. That’s a bit uncertain though; the amount we actually end up spending will depend on how much the economy grows.

    • There is a bit of an answer, and that is that the RN or MOD work out the cost of sending Ocean and Mounts Bay to the Caribbean, not just direct costs but indirect like the proportionate share of those civil servants and lifetime costs of both ships, Gib even for resupply, and send the bill to the DFID. Similar for Invincible in the Phillipines. If this was normal for humanitarian operations involving warships or RN assets, and RAF ones and army (engineers for instance), then it could be factored into and on top of the regular defence budget.

  3. The TU-22s with kh-32 look problematic. How about bringing back the long range Tornado ADV and fitting it with Meteor? Just joking….

  4. This, plus the melting of the ice-cap making the Arctic a future potential area of conflict, is something I’ve been pushing since 2012 – within months of the campaign for Independence for Scotland got underway. With Independence the GIUK becomes largely the GIS – think about that very carefully. It means the rUK is dependent on protection and control of the GIS, and short of the rUK deciding to occupy an iScotland, it requires a full level of political co-operation.

    From that point of view the NATO SecGen both old and then current didn’t help the likes of me trying to keep the peace. The SNP reluctantly switched to full NATO membership from Partners for Peace (along with Ireland and yes, Russia), at their 2012 conference by 52% to 48% after a heated debate and a long count, and as a result 2 SNP MSPs resigned the party, with one moving to the Greens for the next Holyrood election.

    NATO saying “You’ll have to join the back of the queue” was absolute nonsense, Scotland is front-line in this scenario, and shared defence is ultimately the only way it can be achieved. And hey guess what, NATO is supposed to be about shared defence, which taken over its 28 or then 29 members, should mean more efficient use of budgets.

    There’s likely another Independence Referendum on its way, and in light of the problems and solutions highlighted in this article, I hope NATO and the rUK defence establishment don”t go out of their way to hack Indy supporters and parties off.

    BUT, and this is the big but, it’s very unilkely an iScotland would be interested in East of Suez for instance, which means that all of Scotland’s defence forces could be tailored to protect the North Sea, the Baltic and the Arctic. And of course Scotland, the back door to the rest of the UK.

    • interesting read bud, Scottish myself and dont see another Indy ref tbh. i voted no the first time and will follow that up with a NO if need be…..

      to counter your opinion, what percent do you think we’d get out of the current forces, ewuipment, hardware etc? any give away would be detrimental imo

      it would be a sad day to see the breakup of the union and forces imo

      • By population, 8.3% = 1/12th almost exactly. I’d say let the politicians argue about splits of debts and assets, which could see the rUK wanting all the assets and prepared to keep all the debt, or wanting to pay cash instead of assets, or just sharing assets, or some other halfway arrangement. And it very much depends on whether that level of mutual defence co-operation can be kept away from the confrontational politics. I’d suggest actual defence minded people do the hard work of seeing what’s best for both parties and the overall defence of rUK + Scotland, with the polticians giving the nod at the end.

        Working backwards from the position of the “ideal” navy, , the SNP’s budget was £2.5 billion, and if we pick 1st Jan 2021 as the date, (and for the split value all assets as at that date) the SNP budget with inflation and also approaching the 2% NATO 2024 requirement, would be £2.8 to £3 billion. Comparing to Norway and Denmark, making allowances for their higher GDP per capita but lower defence spending as a proportion of GDP (from the NATO tables), that would mean for the ideal Scottish Navy 4 frigates which would be less than a T26 but more than a T31, say halfway. Plus I want an LDA capable of taking 4 or 5 F35B not neccessarily fully fuelled or loaded for take off / landing, plus rotary wing. Then 3 or 4 OPV, 3 or 4 other inshore patrol vessels, maybe MCM for NATO duties. Yes, the budget affords the running of those, it does in proportional comparison for Denmark and Norway.

        Splitting current RN assets is more problematic as even the T23 is probably a higher spec than I’d want, though some are more specced than others. But it could be taking the newer T23 – 3 or 4 of – would supply Scotland’s frigates, and cover the GIS and Baltic as Scotland’s contribution for the time being. I guess if Albion was still in the RN, we’d have to take that though not ideal for what I’d want, Ocean might have been better.. But hey, that would be an item for replacement after iScotland’s first defence and security review.

        This is where the hurdle is the politics – confrontational or sensible. I’d suggest the UK should have a team working on the shared defence theme, and so should after a YES vote if it happens, the ScotGov. It should work independently of the arguing politicians! Some things this team would do is discuss QRA which, sensibly, should keep the current Typhoon squadrons at Lossie for the forseeable future, maybe one coming under the control of iScotland, but the other 2 under the RAF. Probably also the MPA. A nice mess of conflicting command, but then that is also what NATO is all about.

        The problem is that during the Indy Ref 2 campaign we won’t see much of this kind of hopefully sensible talk around, probably just me 🙁

  5. A well written piece.
    Just what this site needs more of.
    Daily Mail ‘cut and paste’ defence pieces should be left for Facebook lol.

  6. This is one of the strongest U.K. Defence Journal articles to be published in recent months. Thanks for bringing us this quality content.

    I thought the article might have mentioned the SOSUS network of sensors that provided a valuable tripwire across the GIUK gap during the Cold War. SOSUS is not operational but could be reestablished.

    It is certainly true that British carrier battle groups would be used to deter Russian submarines from moving into the Atlantic. We are on the right track with our focus on developing first-rate ASW escorts and quality ASW helicopters to protect the carriers.

    It is also positive that Type 45s and Type 26s should be able to provide superior anti-missile capabilities. Since the Cold War, Russian subs have evolved to carry large numbers of supersonic anti-ship missiles. Their subs can now launch swarm attacks. That’s a wrinkle that has emerged recently and must affect maritime security strategic thinking. NATO does not have the numbers of long-range ASW aircraft to keep those submarines far from our carriers. Our SSN numbers are too low to fill the gap.

    To conclude, I think we should reestablish SOSUS and build up our numbers of P8s from the 9 anticipated. The USN should invest much more heavily in ASW ships or else anticipate commiting the bulk of its SSNs to this theatre. A wildcard that should be considered is reinforcement of Northern Fleet assets by Pacific fleet units traversing the now-passable Arctic Ocean. There is even the possibility that Chinese units could bolster the Russians. Certainly, NATO does need to establish a more robust maritime strategy for the northern flank.

    • A problem also that arises increasingly over the next 2 or 3 decades is the further opening of the north-west and north-east passages with ice-cap melt. The Canadians are starting their planning, I see no sign from the UK which sits slap bang in the middle where they meet up, of planning for this. An opportunity, and a challenge.

    • There’s a Youtube out there describing the SOSUS network and why technology had overtaken it and it was obsolete.

      I can’t see anything extra being bought, no new thinking on structure and a continuation down the path of we need Braid for defence engagement, so more Admirals than ships, more Generals than Bns and more horses than tanks.

      DFID? I for one also think that there should be talks with Treasury about the ‘Spend’. Should we do HADR, DFID should cough up.

      @Pacman27 : ‘I really think we should have an “army” of 64 deployable maneovre battalions (of 900 people) creating 16 Brigades. 4 of these brigades should be RM (16 battalions).’

      Sorry, but you need to start taking some meds.

  7. To answer the Russian sub threat, would the cheapest option not be to design and build small autonomous subs that can lurk for extended periods unseen. Have them armed and networked to work together to track and destroy when required. I’m sure I have seen mention of testing of such platforms by the us. Could be a massive force multiplier for a fraction of the cost of an Astute, and allow us to order a decent number and cover a large area. The astute we do have can then focus purely on protection of carrier and trident.

  8. On the SOSUS issue…

    It is true that the Cold War equipment had (inevitably) become obsolete, but the concept of an underwater sensor network in the GIUK gap remains relevant. A new northern maritime strategy should consider the deployment of a permanent network of modern sensors in that location. We need a tripwire. Our SLOCs still run across the North Atlantic.

    While we are at it, we should make a contingency plan for the resupply of the UK in the event those SLOCs are compromised by hostile submarines. Would an air bridge of transport aircraft now be feasible given the fact that large numbers of long-range aircraft now exist? We should plan that sort of thing in peacetime as part of a cohesive maritime security strategy.

    • I’m curious of all this talk of SOSUS and no sensors in the GIUK gap.

      As far as I was aware it was replaced by IUSS “Integrated Undersea Surveillance System” which is very much still in existence.

      • I could never understand people saying “The Cold War is over”. Just evolved was all.

        Supposedly a Russian Sub popped its persiscope up off the Scottish coast, and MPAs were flown in in an emergency. Was that true, or was it a bluff? Or a counter-bluff? Or a counter-counter-counter bluff? Are there people in Western Intelligence that still have Cold War experience? We’ll never know, and hopefully neither will the Russians!

  9. Meanwhile the Chinese must be smiling as their two major world opponents renew adversarial positions. Speaking plainly, I have to ask whether President Trump’s benign election view of ( and dealings with) Russia conceals a willingness to concede the Ukraine and the Baltic states to Putin so that the US can focus on China. The UK must remind him not to do deals with the Devil and must show strong leadership in respect of army and air force presence in the Baltics and eastern europe and RN presence in the Atlantic.
    The Ukraine is being subverted by a divide and conquer appeal to ethnic Russian nationalism. If there were sufficient concentrations of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states Putin would attempt the same strategy. Absent this we see Russian manoeuvres close to their borders; intimidation. China is not a threat to Europe and is only an economic threat to the US, actually to Europe too.
    As China increasingly propers economically on its northern provinces it may become increasingly attractive to Russian migrant labour.
    Our best bet of weakening Putin may be to support China and open up a second ‘Russian front’ in the east to undermine his authority. If anything has to give in our defence posture it should be ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the South China Sea.


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