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.

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Northern flank protection and deterrence role should be core RM, QE & ASW NATO contribution.


So with Keflavic closed is the author saying QE class will be used as ‘fleet carriers’, supersized Invincibles?


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… Read more »

Harry Bulpit

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.

Tim sinnett

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.

David Stephen

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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

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.


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,… Read more »


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.


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

Daniele Mandelli

Lol are there any left? Maybe at Cosford?


A class act. Excellent radar, long range, variable sweep for high speed dash and loitering endurance….


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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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

Nick Bowman

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… Read more »


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)… Read more »

David Steeper

SOSUS was being read by the USSR thanks to a KGB spy in the US.

Tim sinnett

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.


Is the new strategy for the Northern Flank to send HMS Sutherland to the South China Sea?

Daniele Mandelli

Unsure without checking but is it one of the tail 23’s?

Nick Bowman

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… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

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!

Daniele Mandelli

Agree Dad’s the Cold War never ended, certainly in the intelligence field and the game of cat and mouse played unseen between USN, RN, and Russian submarines.


How many SSNs were operational last year 😉


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… Read more »