Russia is challenging NATO at sea as well as ashore. The rather muted response of the Alliance focuses on more information and new command structures to provide a competitive edge. These measures alone will not be a sufficient deterrent.

The following article was written by Professor Peter Roberts, a Director of Military Sciences and Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a London-based global think tank.

States are changing the way warfare is waged. New doctrines of engagement are emerging, tactics have altered, new thinking in the Frunze Academy has developed alternatives to the Western orthodoxy about how militaries gain a competitive edge in conflict. Despite the headlines of little green men on land, the great power competition is more evident at sea, where the absence of clear observable borders, a lack of governance, patchy surveillance and a poor security tapestry allow for actions between naval forces that, on land, would be acts of aggression triggering large scale political and military ramifications.

NATO maritime forces strengthen interoperability and increase combined anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capability and capacity, during NATO’s annual Dynamic Manta exercise in the Ionian Sea (March 2018). Pictured: ESPS Victoria; photo by FRAN CPO C. Valverde

But this view on the way warfare is waged is being dictated by NATO’s adversaries, forcing the Alliance to be not only reactive, but also largely absent from the debate. In short, NATO seems to have neglected the sea as a domain of competition, influence and warfare, and for understandable reasons, as Allies refocused on other challenges. The Alliance appears to be stuck in orthodox thinking of crisis management, hoping that technology and gradual improvements in the readiness and interoperability of member states’ militaries will suffice against an adversary that simply will not conform to Western ideas about how they should be engaging. This is the epitome of ‘second generation warfare’ derived from Bill Lind’s ‘4th generational warfare handbook’.

The United States and United Kingdom might be advocating for change through a technological offset, a wave of innovation, and greater precision. But all of these cost money and NATO’s political leaders, rightly, want detail for their new maritime strategy.

The challenge presented at successive NATO summits seems to be in crafting a single maritime strategy that suits all of Alliance members and their differing views on the security threats being faced at sea. Yet different groups of states have markedly different maritime priorities.

Different priorities

The Northern Group makes a compelling argument for a plan that prioritises conventional naval forces, capable of deterring and countering Russian submarine and capital ship deployments now on a scale not seen since the height of the Cold War. Vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure at sea, the vital connections to North America (both above and under the Atlantic Ocean), as well as the internal seas within Europe, have allowed Russian naval forces to contest NATO superiority at sea, specifically in the North Atlantic Ocean, Arctic, Norwegian and Baltic Seas . Wide recognition of these weak spots in the core NATO area of interest resulted in a recent decision to establish a new Atlantic Command for NATO.

Yet other Alliance members do not see the Russian threat as the pre-eminent security challenge that they face at sea. Many states with Mediterranean coastlines (specifically Italy, Greece and NATO partner Malta) have greater concerns in dealing with migration.

The construction of a coherent maritime strategy for the Alliance is therefore not straightforward. In including all of these threats, the future strategy is at risk of a dilution of ideas and ideals to the lowest common denominator at which all members can agree. The result of such an approach could have little utility as a deterrent, if the thrust – as with the 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy – were constabulary actions (maritime security) or counter terrorism, areas on which all agree, rather than a specific deterrence strategy with teeth.

Indeed, both the activities of Russia and the capabilities it is developing threaten all states in the Alliance, not simply those in the Northern group.

Russian military capabilities: what’s new?

Given Russian actions in the Baltic, Norwegian Sea, North Atlantic, North Sea, Aegean, Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and Red Sea, any new maritime strategy must answer the question of how to deal with Russia at sea as its primary focus, giving the Alliance – and the new Atlantic Command – a compelling purpose able to galvanize all navies to its cause.

The Russian Navy dispatched its Moskva guided missile cruiser to the Mediterranean Sea in late August 2013, due to growing tensions with Western countries over the conflict in Syria. © US Naval Institute News

Moscow has funded, delivered and tested new land attack and naval strike missile systems, new sensor arrays, new platforms and new tactics, all of which appear to have stolen any purported Third Offset that the West hoped to develop itself. These capabilities are designed for use in high intensity war fighting. Russia appears to be using these below the threshold of war, whether hybrid, new generation war, or through an updated version of active measures.

Russia has a relatively small defence budget, certainly in comparison to NATO at large. In any calculation of a correlation of forces, the Alliance certainly retains a significant advantage on paper. Yet the Russian Armed Forces are having significantly more success on the battlefield than NATO; it could be argued that this has resulted in greater political influence and leverage as well from North Africa to the Middle East.

The aggressive posture and activities of Russia in the Baltic, the Balkans, the Arctic, Syria and Ukraine are well known. The new military capabilities being demonstrated and tested in Syria are stimulating arms sales in the Middle East and Pacific, as well as with NATO Allies. Less well understood are moves by Russia in the Balkans and its active presence in Scandinavia: a well tried and tested doctrine of espionage, deception, subterfuge and sabotage that seeks to undermine Western ideology, NATO cohesion and Alliance credibility.

At sea, Russia is in the process of rebuilding its naval forces. The age and readiness of its vessels across the Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, Baltic and Caspian Sea fleets are no worse than those across NATO, yet the build programme is aggressive and ambitious, focusing on blue-water high intensity warfighting capabilities. Delivering the 100 additional warships (54 major combatants) and submarines (24 new conventional and nuclear hulls) planned before 2020 will be challenging, but it is a coherent force design that will continue to challenge NATO’s naval power for at least two decades.

There are three notable aspects of Russian naval force development. First, the continued development of the Russian submarine programme, combining autonomous systems with traditional manned platforms. Second is the evolution of Russian missile technology, covering land attack, naval strike, cruise and short-range ballistic systems capable of overwhelming or defeating Western defences.

Finally, it is clear that Russian forces are not simply investing in new capabilities and technology. Instead it seems that they see opportunities in combining technologies with high political will, an ability to act unpredictably and to out-think NATO. Russia’s Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 is a good example of this, combining autonomy, weapon knowledge, undersea expertise and stealth into a potentially lethal combination. It is a clear competitor to DARPA’s upward falling payloads.

Russia is in the process of rebuilding its naval forces. Recent reports suggest that it may upgrade its high-performance Cold War Alfa class of submarines (pictured here) with sophisticated new technology. © The National Interest

That concept of fighting – marrying high political will with geographic unpredictability, knowledge of key domains and a willingness to act outside Western rules of engagement (legally, ethically and morally) – is a distinct challenge for political and military commanders in NATO. By exercising hybrid, grey zone or threshold approaches to activities short of conflict, Russia has seized the initiative on land, and is doing so at sea.

Moscow can now disrupt European states with capabilities that threaten undersea cables (power, internet and water), fishing and trade activities, Arctic routes, and potentially dictating the pace and scale of migration flows. Simultaneously, Russian air, surface and subsurface forces distract and discombobulate commands from seeing the entirety of the picture. Actions in the Atlantic, under the ice in the Arctic, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean are all linked in Russian thinking. It is a coherent and masterly plan – if somewhat opportunistic in character.

An inadequate Alliance response

In response, the Alliance has increased its focus on the maritime domain.  NATO’s Defence Ministers agreed last November to reinforce the Alliance’s maritime posture as an integral component of its strengthened deterrence and defence posture.  This should enable Allies, by the time of the 2018 Brussels Summit, to take decisions on the way naval forces and capabilities are commanded, exercised and employed, including for warfighting. But these actions alone are not enough, nor do they address the Alliance presumption that more information equals success.

Read the full article courtesy of the NATO Review here.

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There are obvious questions to ask, not that there’s an instant answer expected, in fact perhaps these are “standing” questions which need to be addressed every so often.

1). Is the maritime threat from Russia exaggerated?
2. Is there any harm or danger in exaggerating the threat?
3. Is there any harm or danger in countering the threat if indeed exaggerated?
4. Is there any harm or danger in countering it directly anyway?
5. Is there a better political solution?
6, Is there any danger in overemphasising the possibility of Russia as an enemy?


Morning Dadsarmy. I think the key question is your number 5. There always has to be a better political situation and it resides in competent diplomacy. The muutal Sabre rattling not only with Russia but Iran,North Korea etc. is guaranteed to move us closer to the inevitable ignition point. It is a scary but certain fact that most Wars have been caused or started around relative trivialities or by single psychopathic or macho Gung-Ho individuals- Hitler. George W. Bush, the WW1 Generals and Imperials etc.. It is not beyond belief that short man Putin having a really bad day could… Read more »


ps-In case anyone thinks I may be a Russian agent provocateur, I am no particular fan of Putin but the mutual enemies lie elsewhere-ISIS and other radical Islamists. Thes are the ones who would not hesitate to detonate Nukes in Moscow or New York if they could get their hands on them

Stuart Willard

Funny that no one ever mentions Russia’s substantial military on its borders with others including NATO. It far out ways any military on the other side yet that far inferior effort is questioned without any sense of equivalence and deemed provocative, or in this case ‘ganging up’ as mutual defence against a much stronger nation seems to be called by many. So far all actions across borders in Europe has been by Russian backed or covert forces as has been practically all provocative air activity threatening others airspace or indeed naval assets. Do NATO aircraft ever buzz Russian ships, past… Read more »


Good post Stuart. Maybe the simple truth is that Wars are inevitable-no matter what we do or say. I also think that in some respects we are victims of our own Democracy inasmuch as we put more store in the rights of others than they do in us. Thus we(self included) like to think we could sit down and have a reasoned conversation with Putin that might change things but maybe he and Kim and the whole gang of them are simply immune to reason. So we are ,either way, doomed to be just helpless spectators.


European NATO members have no interest in militerising relations with Russia. This is demonstrated by chronic underfunding by its members. Even the US underwent a strategic realignment to eat Asia. It is Putin that has reignited the cold war by invading Georgia and Ukraine, engaging in cyber warfare and looking for examples to stir up trouble in places like Syria. This is painfully slowly resulting in a reluctant, sparadic and inadequate reaction by NATO. Ironically, it may be the absence of focus on Russia that has triggered Moscow’s sabre rattling. Like North Korea the point is Russia wants to be… Read more »

Stuart Willard

Indeed it is laughable that a country with an economy somewhere between Spain and Italy on a good day but with a giant military machine poking sticks at all and sundry around it is deemed less aggressive than a group of countries with massively greater economic muscle who jointly don’t have a fraction of that military might despite it all sitting threateningly on their doorstep. Funny old world.


what relevance do you think britain has? its a tiny insignificant nation with 3 submarines, russia has 60, as well as many new systems which it managed to build even though it has a small economy. It shows much greater assymetric innovation than britain, which depends on other nations for its hardware. Its not laughable that the biggest country on earth feel it has more relevance than a tiny racist island off the coast of the more important EU. Russia pays no regard to the british “navy”, disrespecting it routinely by sailing through the channel without permission. It has destroyed… Read more »

David E Flandry

Why, exactly, does there always have to be a better political situation(solution).


the russians have been painted as the big bad wolf, for many years, its political aloofness and the paranoic nature, that nobody likes us.has given the impetus to the keep up with the jones’ attitude, that the u.k, france and now india, pakistan, japan,even italy are showing they have the financial clout, planning and clear desire to get to the top table in all things naval. the u.k on the other hand has few of thes, politically there’s not so much difference between the u.k’s parties,even though one of them is run by a potty communist. finances seem to be… Read more »


i’m more bothered about the china intent and its ambitions in the pacific

andy reeves

my first comment is, thats all been common knowledge for years now, so, what is the grand plan? outspend the russians? or rely on superior technology to use as a shield, europe with a coordinated plan could/should have a strategy for all this, i’d say european countries should work on having ‘first dibs’ on buying retired or retiring assets worldwise. is the u.k too snobbish to go second hand? i think so.pakistan is retiring its six ex royal navy type 21’s a return of these ships to the u.k for thorough examination and purchase option could be worth a look… Read more »


One would hope that the US Navy reactivating the 2nd Fleet recently is an example of NATO beginning to take the threat seriously.


By NATO you mean the US and UK,

I dont really see a lot of NATO outside of our 2 countries to be honest

And its always been the same.

Sceptical Richard

Pacman27, that’s not true. France does as much as we do if not more. And Denmark, Holland, Poland and the Baltics are always there, present and correct. Just because they are pinpricks alongside the US does not mean that they can’t be relied upon as allies.


This is not true. Members are well represented in the Baltic balttle groups, standing maritime groups and air policing missions. Try googling them or looking at the NATO website.


the u.k and france militarily are so alike, you can hardly tell them apart we, like ducks/lemmings follow the u.s into their folly’s thow the yanks must chortle at our meagre offerings to the cause. i just despair i really do.


Some of you might the following:
The destroyers & frigates of the most powerful European Navies today


The submarines of European Union in 2018:


the u.k and france militarily are so alike, you can hardly tell them apart we, like ducks/lemmings follow the u.s into their folly’s thow the yanks must chortle at our meagre offerings to the cause. i just despair i really do.


Apologies, the above links take you to the twitter site and not to the relevant tweets. Here is the correct info-graphic:

Sceptical Richard

Thanks Farouk, all useful information


Missing the Danes. And again bear in mind what we DO know about the Darings – underarmed, crew issues, do I need to mention engines and again the German Navy having severe isdues with their surface fleet and the Norgies with 2 of their premier destroyers u/s…


That infographic is well… interesting however how many Uk and German subs are u/s, and how many for the other navies? Refits? Crew working up? Age? The Russians are not interested in top trumps 😉

Sceptical Richard

Don’t think the article contributes any new fresh thinking to the debate. It’s nothing we don’t already know. Banking on the (correct) assumption that the west will do anything to avoid direct confrontation with Russia, they have decided to push their luck beyond the conventions and norms of what has hitherto been regarded as civilised behaviour between law abiding states, and largely have got away with it. This has encouraged them in their doctrine and will seek to push the boundaries even further. Western governments including our own find it hugely difficult to justify to their electorates significantly increasing defence… Read more »


if our nation is supposedly bigger than, say, turkey, how have been able to create such staggering armed forces and we couldn’t?

Sceptical Richard

PS: History teaches us of course, that when nations that act as bullies or demand recognition and world status beyond their economic and political clout, are successfully contained through concerted economic and political sanctions and actions, they then tend to lash out militarily. That’s the dangerous part.


No what history teaches us is being dismissive and provocative such as allowing countries bordering the Russian Federation into NATO and the EU. Will lead to reactions the Baltic countries are right on the Russian border a relatively short distance to the current capital at Moscow and spitting distance from St. Petersburg. Then western countries particularly the UK allowing defectors (a lovely modern word for traitors) from the Russian State to not only reside within their borders, but to do so openly without any regard to discretion or secrecy. How would this not be interpreted at the very least as… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Agree. Western hypocrisy alive and well.

Despite this. HMG need to wake up and get more mass into the military.


Putin’s strategy here, in simplistic terms, is: “To fill a vacuum” IMHO

China will be Russia’s greatest enemy in the end…



Yes China and the Soviets came within inches of war in the 60s. Chinese long term goals have not changed. Hegemony of the East including Siberia.

David Steeper

Russia will not go to war with China for the same reason it won’t go to war with NATO. Even with most EU states contributing sweet fa it would be a very short war.


Hi David, Your right unless the nuclear genie is summoned immediately. However, I also believe that won’t happen. What I do believe is that China will steadily encroach upon Siberia where on there side of the border there are over 100,000,000 Chinese. On the Russian side there is roughly 1 person per square mile. By 2050 Russia will have a population of ~ up to 50 percent of whom aren’t Russian. Whatever the Chinese concept of Lebensraum is, I believe that they have already planned for it and will start implementing it when they think the time is right.… Read more »


Apologies all for any typo’s It’s 4:57 am here and I’ve got a wicked case of jetlag!



Doh! Left out the population stat too!

~ 129,000,000 in Russia by 2050.



You’ve gone through a list of things that has antagonised Russia without once mentioning the US, instead blaming it all on Western Europe, what an idiot. Another deluded Trump supporter, you must be crying into your cereal bowl every morning now your hero Trump has just about been devoured by the Anti-Putin deep state. I can remember him onstage “I wanna be friends with Putin” You lot lapped it up like one man was going to go against the entire US deep state and change America’s policy on Russia. And he’s failed, he never even got close. Take a look… Read more »


Don’t be ridiculous crying in cereal bowls in the morning is a progressive and socialist past time. Conservatives and Libertarians eat bacon drink coffee then go to work and pay taxes. So that the United States can afford to clean up European mistakes around the globe again and again ad infinitum.


“So that the United States can afford to clean up European mistakes around the globe again and again”

And so you bloody well should, children are ment to look after their elders ?

David E Flandry

Please go troll somewhere else. Your post is off-topic ranting.


when we inventory our meagre off ering of a fleet, why don’t we include the carriers and alboions?even our mighty archers are not worthy of a mention. i’m sick of the’fitted for but not with’ nonsense we talk about the carriers not having missile defences, well, nor do the albions, which if fitted with say the rim 116 combined anti air and ciwscheap at just£800000 each and fitted on the new u.s carriers. imagine the headline ‘unarmed navy ship sunk 400 sailors and marines(and a few bicycles) lost.who’d carry the can for that one?

Central Battery Ironclad

Hopefully this will provide Western nations with further impetus to collaborate to produce supersonic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles and bridge the technological gap with Russia in this area. Our ships need more offensive clout.

[…] Will the Alliance discover navies again? — UK Defense /Journal […]

Mr J Bell

Central Battery Ironclad (great name by the way) is right we need to maximise our own navy’s warfighting capabilities. Arm the hell out of all possible vessels then get on with building large numbers of a decent type 31 design.
So mk41 vl for type 45s.
Norwegian anti ship missile and RAM for rivers batch 1 + a CIWS fit for the river 1+2s.
Sea ceptor and Norwegian anti ship missiles for bays and Albion class.
It would not take that much money to maximise what we already have in terms of hulls

David Steeper

The big question for me is not when NATO will discover its navies but when the UK discovers its Navy ?


Bit harsh as we launch two super carriers and contract two new classes of frigate while the army shrinks to 82,000. Clear prioritisation and the correct one from my point of view. Good luck telling the army the navy is the forgotten service.


Is it the late 1930 s happening all over again ,do our western leaders not learn from the lessons of history appeasement only show weakness to countries like Russia Iran and North Korea


a short term opportunity has been missed. i wrote to my m.p about the ocean issue, he gladly forwarded it to the m.o.d who actually answered, i reminded them of the way the aircraft carrier evolved from converted merchant ships saying i believe the removal of the upper superstructure of a bay class and fitting a full, or thee quarterdeck would have provided the replacement for ocean main benifit? they are already built. also i suggested that the river class could be upgunned to a modern corvette level and designated ‘light frigate take the sigma corvette 9133 type, its 10… Read more »