Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

‘This Presence Will Continue Forever’: An Assessment of Iranian Naval Capabilities in the Red Sea

By James Fargher

International attention has focused on the possibilities of an Iranian closure of the Straits of Hormuz, and the catastrophic effect a blockade would likely have on global energy supplies. Even a temporary closure or military disruption in the waterway would cause energy prices to soar and could politically destabilize the Persian Gulf region. Far less attention has been paid to Iranian activity in the Red Sea, however, despite the crucial importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to world oil shipments. In 2013, an estimated combined total of 8.3 million barrels of oil passed through Bab-el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal at either ends of the Red Sea, making it the world’s third-busiest maritime oil transit chokepoint.1 A limited military conflict in the Sea or the presence of naval mines would cause major disruption to European energy supplies and would force oil tankers to take the much longer southern route around the Cape of Good Hope. In this event, oil prices would likely rise dramatically and remain high until security in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait was restored.

Iran has regularly deployed naval forces to the Red Sea since 2011. Although Iranian naval doctrine has typically concentrated on closing the Straits of Hormuz using asymmetric forces, more recent efforts by Iran’s naval leadership to project naval power beyond the Persian Gulf have resulted in a frequent Iranian naval presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Red Sea remains an important route for Iranian weapons smuggling to militants in Gaza and Syria,2 and senior Iranian naval officers have announced plans to maintain a permanent maritime presence in the region.3  At present, Iran does not possess the same level of naval capability in the Red Sea and the Gulf as it does in its coastal waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Nevertheless, given the importance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to global oil shipments, it would appear that more research is needed to assess Iran’s ability to disrupt shipping from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.

This article aims to outline Iran’s military capabilities in the Red Sea and the southern approach to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. It relies principally on open-source information published on the Islamic Republic’s naval forces, and attempts to make realistic projections about Iran’s ability to intercept the Suez shipping line, which remains limited at present. Even in the case of the much more heavily-guarded Strait of Hormuz, it is generally acknowledged that Iranian forces could only hope to close the waterway for a matter of days or, at best, a few weeks, given its crucial importance for Western oil supplies.4 Attacks on oil shipments to Western Europe and North America in the Red Sea would risk triggering a devastating Western response, and it is not clear whether the Iranians would be prepared to do so. Moreover, in the event of a conflict with Iran, clashes would almost certainly be primarily focused on the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea would likely be a secondary theatre. This analysis therefore attempts to understand what forces Iran would be able to deploy to the area in the event of conflict, and how effective they might be in closing the strait.

This essay begins with a review of recent Iranian involvement in the Red Sea beginning in 2011, as well as its current naval policy towards the region. It will then give a brief overview of Iran’s current naval forces at Iran’s disposal, and will discuss the types of vessels and weapons Iran is capable of deploying to the Red Sea. In so doing, this article will attempt to give a broad summary of Iran’s likely present military capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the kinds of threats which ships in the Red Sea could expect to face in the event of a conflict.

Iranian Involvement in the Sea

Between 1979 and 2011, there was no confirmed Iranian naval activity in the Red Sea. Iran was suspected to have supported a terrorist group which in 1984 claimed it had laid nearly 200 naval mines in the sea, but Tehran denied any involvement.5 In February 2011, however, a small flotilla of Iranian warships was dispatched on a mission to Syria, marking the first time that Iranian vessels had entered the Red Sea and transited the Suez Canal since the 1979 Revolution.6 Several months later, in July the Iranian government announced its intention to deploy one of its submarines on a patrol of the Red Sea. After completing its cruise, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, commander of the Iranian navy, declared that the Kilo-class submarine “could finish its 68-day mission in international waters with full preparation despite all sanctions and through the effort of domestic specialists.”7 Subsequently, at the end of 2011, Iran held naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, with units deployed in the Gulf of Aden as far as the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The purpose of this exercise, declared Tehran, was to show “Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and to test the newest military equipment.”8

After a year-long hiatus, Iran once again deployed units to the Red Sea in January 2013. The Iranian government reported that it would be sending its 24th Fleet on a three-month patrol of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea before transiting the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.9 Citing the need to protect its vessels from pirate attacks, Iran established its own small anti-piracy task force in the Gulf, and in March 2014 purportedly defended an Iranian tanker from an attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.10 In 2015, Iranian-backed Houthi fighters captured the strategic island of Perim in the Strait, and Sayyari announced that “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Navy has deployed in the North of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden and this presence will continue forever.”11

These moves came as part of a wider Iranian drive to expand its regional influence by developing its blue-water capabilities. Iranian warships entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time in the Navy’s history in 2013, and dispatched a vessel to South Africa in 2014.12 The Iranian naval leadership has placed particular effort on projecting naval power onto sea lanes in the Arabian Sea,13 and as a report produced by the American intelligence firm Stratfor concluded, “Iran’s navy cannot project enough power to control key shipping lanes, but Tehran has emphasized its presence around Bab-el-Mandeb as a possible means of disrupting global trade in the event of an attack on Iran and a key point for negotiations in the future.”14

Stratfor’s report also highlighted Iran’s use of the Red Sea as an important shipment route to provide arms to its proxies and allied militant organizations in Gaza and Syria. Rockets bound for Hamas fighters, for example, were discovered in a ship on course for Port Sudan, where they were due to be unloaded and shipped across the Egyptian border to Gaza.15 Israeli aircraft have attacked alleged weapons convoys travelling from Sudan to Gaza, and the Red Sea forms a crucial link in this illicit supply line.16 Iran’s overt involvement in the ongoing Yemeni civil war has further increased the importance of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Tehran’s strategic aims.17

ARABIAN SEA (March 31, 2016) A cache of weapons is assembled on the deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107). The weapons were seized from a stateless dhow which was intercepted by the Coastal Patrol ship USS Sirocco (PC 6) on March 28. The illicit cargo included 1,500 AK-47s, 200 RPG launchers, and 21 .50 caliber machine guns bound for Yemen. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

In addition to using Sudan to supply weapons to its proxies, Iran has been cultivating good relations with Eritrea, which controls the remaining two large ports in the Red Sea.18 Iranian ships frequently dock in Massawa and Assab, and Iran is believed to be concentrating on building its regional influence with key East African states.19 Indeed, as early as 2008, rumors surfaced that Iran had secretly established a naval base in Assab. Whilst there is some satellite evidence suggesting that Iran has established a permanent naval facility in the port, these rumors cannot be confirmed.20

Iran’s Naval Forces

The Iranian fleet is divided between the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN), and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval Forces (IRGCNF). 18,000 sailors are enlisted in the regular navy, whilst the IRGCNF is comprised of 20,000 sailors and 5,000 marines.21 Iran has seven frigates and 32 fast-attack missile craft designed for green-water service which form the core of its surface fleet, all armed with the C-802 Noor long-range anti-ship missile.22 Iran has also invested in a large flotilla of small craft, ranging from offshore patrol boats to armed motorboats and dhows, intended for coastal service and for mounting swarm attacks in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has a squadron of five minelayers, as well as several mine countermeasures vessels, which can be supplemented by its small craft in laying naval mines in the Strait.23 The Iranian submarine service is made up of a total of 29 submarines, divided between the IRIN and IRGCNF.24 Five of these submarines are capable of operating in blue water, and the rest appear to be designed for service in the Persian Gulf. A number of ships and submarines are currently under construction, although information about these vessels remains limited.

The IRGCNF is tasked primarily with defending the Iranian coast and for interdicting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. IRGCNF controls Iran’s asymmetric capability force, including its small attack craft, suicide vessels, and batteries of relatively short-ranged anti-ship missiles. IRGCNF bases are located in the Persian Gulf, and as its focus is limited to Iran’s littoral zone, its vessels are constrained by a smaller operating radius than the regular surface fleet. The IRGCNF also commands over 17 Qadir­-class and Nahangclass midget submarines, the majority of Iran’s submarine force, which are designed for service exclusively in the Persian Gulf.

By contrast, the IRIN controls Iran’s blue-water capabilities. Although both the IRIN and IRGCNF share responsibility for protecting the Iranian coast in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, since 2011 the IRIN has begun to focus on expanding Iran’s regional maritime reach. In the event of a conflict with the United States or with Iran’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rivals, the main Iranian effort would likely be focused on closing the Strait of Hormuz and on attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf. Most of these operations would fall under the responsibility of the IRGCNF, which has the capability to interdict shipping through the Strait with its small vessels and missile batteries. The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, however, falls out of the operating range of most of the IRGCNF’s vessels, and so any operations in the Red Sea or the upper Gulf of Aden would be undertaken by the IRIN.

Surface Ships

According to IISS’ Military Balance, the core of the IRIN’s main surface fleet consists of two Jamaran-class light frigates, three Alvand-class frigates, and two Bayandor-class patrol frigates. Five of these ships date from the 1960s; the Alvand ships were bought as refitted Vosper Mark 5 frigates from the Royal Navy in 1971,25 and the Bayandor ships were purchased from the U.S. between 1964 and 1969.26 The Jamaran frigates are based on the basic Vosper Mk 5 design, although unlike the Alvand and Bayandor ships, they are armed with anti-air defenses. The Jamaran-class is thought only to be armed with two single SAM launchers, firing the SM-1 anti-air missile which was originally developed for the U.S. Navy in 1967.27 The lack of anti-aircraft capabilities indicates that Iran’s core surface vessels are dangerously exposed to air attack, critically limiting their ability to be deployed outside the umbrella of Iran’s coastal defense anti-air batteries.

Iranian navy frigate IS Alvand passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal in February 2011 (AP)

All three classes are armed with the C-802 (CSS-N-8 Saccade) long-range anti-ship missile.28 The C-802 was developed by China to upgrade its own naval surface-to-surface missile (SSM) capabilities, and it is believed to be extremely accurate.29 The missile is powered by a turbojet with a range of at least 120km and carries a 165kg warhead.30 The C-802 is sea-skimming, and a successful Hezbollah attack on an Israeli missile ship in 2006 using the C-802 seriously damaged the Israeli vessel.31

Fourteen of Iran’s smaller missile boats also carry the C-802, although the remainder are armed with the C-704 Nasr short-range SSM.32 The Nasr is a domestically-manufactured missile with a range of 35km and a 150 kg warhead, capable of sinking medium-sized vessels.33 Three of Iran’s frigates received upgraded fire controls to better utilize the Nasr, but the Iranian missile stockpile is thought to be quite limited and mostly concentrated in coastal batteries.34

In theory, Iran could use its surface ships to mount a blockade of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait by attacking ships attempting to pass through the Red Sea. The main Iranian surface fleet clearly has the operating radius to project power into the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden, and its ships are armed with sufficiently long-ranged missiles to engage tankers in the narrow confines of the southern Red Sea. However, the extreme vulnerability of these ships to air attack with their lack of air defense cover suggests it is highly unlikely that these vessels would be capable of maintaining a blockade for long, or would even be risked attempting to do so. The disastrous losses inflicted on the Iranian fleet during the 1988 tanker war by U.S. aircraft highlighted this weaknesses, and prompted Iranian strategists to focus on asymmetric forces as an alternative.35 With both an American F-15 squadron based in Camp Lemonnier36 and ships from EUNAVFOR Atalanta stationed in Djibouti,37 it is doubtful whether any hostile Iranian surface ships would be able to successfully interdict Red Sea shipping.

Submarines and Mines

Since 1988, the main effort by the Iranian naval leadership has concentrated on building up Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, including acquiring a strong submarine force.38 Although most of Iran’s submarines are small or midget craft designed for operations in the shallow waters of Persian Gulf, Iran does possess at least four blue-water submarines.39

Three of these are diesel-electric Kilo­-class submarines, purchased from Russia in the 1990s.40 The Kilo-class was designed as a quiet attack submarine, but because they were intended for colder climates, Iran’s three Kilos do not operate well in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. For this reason, whilst they are currently based in the main Iranian naval station at Bandar Abbas in the Strait of Hormuz, a new submarine base for them is reportedly under construction at Chah Bahar on the Gulf of Oman.41 Not much is yet known about the fourth submarine, the lead boat of the domestically-produced Fateh-class, but it is designed for service in blue water.42

The three Kilo submarines represent Iran’s main operating capability in the Red Sea. Whilst its surface ships are hampered by their vulnerability to air attack and small operating range, the Kilo-class submarine is designed for extended operations in open waters.43 Each Kilo is thought to be armed with wake-homing torpedoes, and they can carry a total payload of 24 mines, deployable through the torpedo tubes.44 A batch of 1,000 mines was included in the original purchase from Russia.45

Since then, Iran is estimated to have built up a stockpile of at least 2,000 mines, including the M-08 contact mine, the MDM-6 pressure mine, and the EM-52 smart mine.46 The Red Sea and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait are too deep for the M-08 contact mine, which operates at depths of up to 110 meters, but potentially within the range for both the MDM-6 and EM-52.47 The EM-52 is a particularly lethal threat, as it is laid on the sea floor and is a guided, rocket-propelled warhead. It is also powerful enough to penetrate a carrier hull.48

Seafloor mines are especially challenging to detect; it took a Royal Navy minesweeper six days to detect a single Iranian smart mine in the Red Sea in the 1980s.49 Caitlin Talmadge, in her analysis of Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, calculated that a task force of 12 NATO ships managed to clear an Iraqi minefield at a rate of 1.18 mines per day, a rate that was unusually fast and done under ideal conditions.50 Given the rugged geography of the Red Sea’s floor and the proliferation of smart mines, it is not clear whether another task force would be able to clear an Iranian minefield at the same rate.

However, the Kilo class is aging, and these vessels are vulnerable to U.S. and British hunter-killer groups. The proximity of Western forces to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the strategic importance of the Red Sea to Western interests suggests that the Kilo submarines would probably only get one voyage to the Red Sea before being neutralized in the case of hostilities. If Iran deployed all three of its blue-water submarines, which is unlikely, they could sow 72 mines at most. If a naval task force was to achieve the same rate of minesweeping as in Talmadge’s analysis, it would take 61 days to clear this minefield completely. Nevertheless, it is improbable that the Iranian leadership would risk all three of its largest submarines on such a risky, possibly one-way mission, and similarly it is unlikely that minesweepers would be able to operate with the same speed in the Red Sea as in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, a rough estimate of Iran’s submarine capabilities and mine stock would indicate that a single Kilo submarine with a well-trained crew could close the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait for at least a week in an attempt to divert attention away from combat in the Persian Gulf.

Ballistic Missiles

Iran does not at present have any fixed-wing aircraft with sufficient range to operate from Iranian bases to the Red Sea. Besides its naval capabilities, it can only reach the Red Sea with ballistic missiles. Iran currently has nine types of missile able to reach the Red Sea; the Shahab-3, -4, -5, and -6, the Ghadr-101 and 110, the IRIS, SAJIL, and the new Emad rocket.51 All of these classes have the range to strike targets in the Red Sea, and all can reach the waterway within ten minutes of being launched.52

A variant of the Emad missile, the long range Shahab-3. (UPI/Ali Shaygan/Fars News Agency)

As a general rule, Iran’s long-range missiles are extremely inaccurate and are designed to hit strategic targets, not individual ships transiting the Red Sea.53 The sole exception is the latest Iranian missile, the Emad, which was designed as Iran’s first precision strike system. The Emad is equipped with an advanced guidance system in the nose cone, and has a reported accuracy radius of 500 meters.54 It also carries a 750 kg warhead with enough explosive power to cripple or sink even a heavy oil tanker.55

Whilst the Emad represents an improvement in Iran’s ballistic missile capability, it is not clear how effective it would be as an area-denial weapon in the Red Sea. It does not appear to be accurate enough to target individual ships, and it will take several years to perfect the guidance technology.56 Furthermore, in order to reach the Red Sea, a costly Emad missile would need to transit across the Arabian Peninsula through Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. The possibility of using ballistic missiles to attack Red Sea shipping is therefore remote.

Conclusion

Iran’s ability to interdict shipping in the Red Sea is limited by its aging surface fleet and by the small number of submarines and missiles it can deploy to the waterway. Despite Iran’s growing interest in expanding its influence into the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the southern Red Sea as a means of securing its regional power, its current naval forces are tasked primarily with shutting the Strait of Hormuz.

Nevertheless, in spite of these limitations, the Iranians do have a narrow range of capabilities in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Although its surface fleet is unlikely to risk its assets by deploying surface vessels so close to U.S. and Saudi airbases during wartime, Iran has demonstrated that it can send submarines on extended cruises of the Red Sea. Its aging Kilo-class submarines are equipped with sophisticated mines in quantities which would take weeks to clear, and could be used to apply pressure on both the U.S. and Western Europe as well as the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf. Iran is already suspected to have laid mines in the Red Sea in the 1980s, and it is capable of doing so again – either as a means of leveraging its position in the Greater Middle East, or as a way to disrupt oil shipping and to open a new theater of operations in the event of a war with its regional rivals.

James A. Fargher works as an intelligence analyst at a political risk firm in the UK, and is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. James holds a BA from Drew University and an MA in modern history from King’s. He specializes in Imperial history and naval theory, with a particular focus on the Red Sea region. 
 

Endnotes

1. Alexander Metelitsa & Megan Mercer, ‘World Oil Transit Chokepoins Critical to Global Energy Security,’ Today in Energy, US Energy Information Administration, 1 December 2014.

2. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.

3. ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

4. Caitlin Talmadge, ‘Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz,’ International Security, 33:1 (Summer 2008), 84.

5. Gerald F. Seib and Robert S. Greenberger, ‘Iran’s Signals Mixed on Mines in the Red Sea,’ The Wall Street Journal, 8 August 1984.

6. ‘Israel anger at Ian Suez Canal warship move,’ BBC News, 16 February 2011.

7. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.

8. ‘Iran Navy to Hold War Games Near Crucial Sea Lanes,’ The New York Times, 23 December 2011.

9. ‘Iran navy to deploy 24th fleet to Mediterranean Sea – commander,’ BBC News, 16 January 2013.

10. ‘Iran Navy counters pirate attack against oil tanker in Red Sea,’ BBC News, 4 Mach 2014.

11. ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

12. ‘Islamic Republic of Iran Navy IRIN / Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/navy.htm.

13. Tarek Fahmi, quoted in ‘Iran Making Naval Moves into Red Sea,’ The Tower, 20 January 2015.

14. Stratfor, ‘Eastern Africa: A Battleground for Israel and Iran,’ Report, 29 October 2012.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. ‘Iran steps up support for Houthis in Yemen’s war – sources’, Reuters, 22 March 2017.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 328.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. ‘Alvand Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/alvand.htm.

26. ‘Bayandor Class,’ Global Security, accessed 30 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/bayandor.htm

27. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.

28. Ibid.

29. ‘C-802 / YJ-2 / Ying Ji-802 / CSS-C-8 / SACCADE C-8xx / YJ-22 / YJ-82,’ Global Security, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/c-802.htm.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ The Military Balance, 2016 (London: IISS, 2016), 329.

33. ‘Kosar / Nasr,’ Global Security, accessed 1 July 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/kosar.htm.

34. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 104.

35. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities,’ 21 August 2015, accessed on 22 June 2016, http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/iran-submarine-capabilities/.

36. Craig Whitlock, ‘Remote U.S. base at core of secret operations,’ The Washington Post, 25 October 2012.

37. David Styan, ‘Djibouti: Changing Influence in the Horn’s Strategic Hub,’ Briefing Paper (London: Chatham House, 2013), 4.

38. NTI, ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities’.

39. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ 329.

40. ‘Kilo Class Submarine,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/kilo.htm.

41. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), ‘Iran Submarine Capabilities’.

42. ‘Fateh (Conqueror / Victor) “semi-heavy” submarine,’ Global Security, accessed 23 June 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/fateh.htm.

43. ‘Iran to send submarines to international waters – Press TV,’ BBC News, 30 July 2011.

44. International Institute for Strategic Studies, ‘The Middle East and North Africa,’ 329.

45. ‘Kilo Class Submarine,’ Global Security.

46. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 92.

47. Anthony H. Cordesman with Aaron Lin, The Iranian Sea-Air-Missile Threat to Gulf Shipping (Washington: Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2015), 21.

48. Ibid., 108.

49. Ibid.

50. Talmadge, ‘Closing Time,’ 95.

51. Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman, ‘GCC-Iran: Operational Analysis of Air, SAM and TBM Forces,’ Centre for Strategic & International Studies (Washington: CSIS, 2009), 37.

52. Ibid., 127.

53. Sam Wilkin, ‘Iran Tests New Precision-Guided Ballistic Missile,’ Reuters, 11 October 2015.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

Featured Image:Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard ride in their boat alongside an Iranian naval vessel (AFP: IRNA)

The Role of the Black Sea in Russia’s Strategic Calculus

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Byron Chong    

Introduction

As one of his last acts of 2015, on December 31st, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally approved his country’s new national security strategy. The content of the updated document reflected the sharp deterioration in Russia’s relationship with the West after the Ukraine crisis – it accused the U.S. and its allies of trying to dominate global affairs and described NATO expansion as a major security threat.1 When this document is analyzed together with Russia’s Military Doctrine issued the previous year, on December 25th, 2014, they provide valuable insight into understanding the Kremlin’s strategic concerns and long-term objectives. Both documents describe a country threatened by NATO’s encroachment towards its borders and its loss of influence over the ex-Soviet states on its periphery. They focus on the need to restore lost prestige and leadership over its neighbors, and halt the Alliance’s eastward expansion.2

For Russia to achieve these long-term objectives, its supremacy in the Black Sea is a critically enabling factor. The unique geography of the region confers several geopolitical advantages to Russia in its confrontation with the West. As such, the Kremlin has sought measures to strengthen its hold over the region. Firstly, it has sought to weaken NATO’s ties to the regional states, working to drive wedges into these relationships, and using military force when necessary to stop the Alliance’s expansion. Secondly, it has been expanding its military capabilities in order to challenge NATO’s presence in the region and ultimately dominate the Black Sea.

Significance of the Black Sea

The Black Sea holds a special significance in Russia’s strategic calculus for several reasons. Firstly, it is an important crossroads and strategic intersection for the entire region. Access to the Black Sea is vital for all littoral and neighboring states, and greatly enhances the projection of power into several adjacent regions. Indeed, dominating the Black Sea would allow Russia to project power toward the Eastern Mediterranean, the northern Middle East, the South Caucasus, and to the rest of mainland Europe.3 Russian military operations in Syria for instance, were supported by the naval presence it maintained in the Eastern Mediterranean – some of which were elements of its Black Sea Fleet.4 

Secondly, the region is an important transit corridor for goods and energy. Control over regional ports and sea lanes would give Russia the power to choke trade and energy routes and blackmail states into compliance. Moscow could also utilize its power and influence in the Black Sea to challenge and disrupt energy supplies via pipeline from the Caspian Basin to Europe. Such a move would weaken prospects for future energy deliveries from states like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and more importantly, undermine the European Union’s efforts to seek energy diversity outside Russia’s orbit.5 

A map of the Black Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

Thirdly, the Black Sea region can be considered as NATO’s ‘soft underbelly’ or the vulnerable spot in its eastern flank. The region is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, and due to geographical proximity, share close historical ties with Russia.6 Historical grievances and ethnic tensions could be harnessed by Moscow as a means to interfere in its neighbors’ affairs and pressure regional governments into aligning itself with Russia. By ‘turning’ regional NATO members, Moscow could severely weaken the Alliance’s internal cohesion and undermine its credibility.7

Russia And The Littoral States

Despite the strategic importance of the Black Sea, Russia had initially lacked the political, economic, and military power to effectively assert itself over the region. This began to change in the early 2000s after major shifts in the regional political environment.8 In Georgia (2003-2004 Rose Revolution) and Ukraine (2004-2005 Orange Revolution), leaders who had been more susceptible to Russian influence were ousted and replaced with pro-Western governments.9 At around this time in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania successfully gained NATO membership – a move that Russia found itself unable to prevent. Of the six Black Sea littoral states, three – Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey – were now members of NATO, and the other two –Ukraine and Georgia – were working in close partnership with the Alliance.10 Alarmed by this turn of events, Russia sought to halt NATO’s expansion in the Black Sea by ensuring that Ukraine and Georgia would never ascend into its ranks. At the same time, it pursued policies to strengthen its own influence amongst the remaining states and weaken their relationship with NATO.11  

The invasion of Georgia in August 2008 demonstrated Russia’s determination to contain NATO in the Black Sea. At the Bucharest Summit earlier that year, the Alliance had been seriously considering Georgia’s application for membership, which greatly concerned the Kremlin.12 Thus, when Georgia sought to reclaim its two separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that summer, Russia saw its opportunity. Its military moved swiftly to support the separatists and pushed back the Georgian forces. After its victory, Moscow agreed to a ceasefire. The invasion had prevented Georgia’s reincorporation, thereby keeping it in a weakened and divided state.13 More importantly, Russia kept a sizable military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, constituting a constant threat to Georgia’s stability and territorial integrity, effectively halting its progress towards NATO membership.14

Russia’s policy toward Ukraine has been similarly aggressive. In 2006 and 2009, Russia used its energy exports as an instrument of intimidation and influence, temporarily ceasing the supply of natural gas to Europe through Ukraine and increasing its energy prices.15 Bilateral relations improved when the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych became Ukraine’s president in 2010. This however, would not last. In February 2014, facing mass demonstrations calling for his removal, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. The new government was vehemently anti-Russian and had clear preference for Western institutions like NATO and the EU.16 While this was disturbing news by itself, what really concerned Moscow was the status of its naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea. Officially owned by the Ukraine, the base was on lease to the Russians and home to its Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol was of great strategic importance, being Russia’s only warm water naval base and an important hub to project its naval power abroad.17 Hence, in order to ensure unrestricted access to Sevastopol, Russia moved in its forces and annexed Crimea in March 2014.18 Concurrently, it supplied arms and support to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine allowing them to escalate their war against the new government in Kiev.19 In pushing the country toward civil war, Russia had sufficiently destabilized Ukraine and prevented it from becoming a Western stronghold on its own doorstep.

 Compared to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia’s policy towards the other littoral states has been relatively restrained. Given their status as NATO members, Moscow has been careful not to test the limits of the Alliance’s security guarantees. Instead, it has resorted to other means to exert its influence. In Turkey’s case, Russia has exploited the Erdogan government’s drift towards authoritarianism.20 Unlike most of the West which has criticized the Erdogan government for its alleged human rights abuses, the Russian leadership has remained supportive, which has earned praise and gratitude from Erdogan himself.21 Besides trying to decouple Turkey’s links to NATO, maintaining cordial relations with Ankara carries another strategic purpose for Moscow. Turkey controls the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits – the vital passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Should Ankara one day decide to close the straits, it could bottle up the Black Sea Fleet and severely limit Russia’s ability to project power further abroad.22

In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, Moscow has sought to subvert and weaken anti-Russian opposition within their governments. To that end, it has been alleged that the Kremlin has forged powerful ties to local business interests and provides support for pro-Russian political leaders and parties within both countries.23 This approach has been broadly successful in Bulgaria, as reflected in the growing support within the local political sphere to end the EU sanctions against Russia.24 Romania however, presents a bigger challenge. Although it has pursued dialogue with Russia, it has also pushed for greater NATO presence in the region. It has taken on a leadership role in the Bucharest Format – a multilateral grouping of nine NATO members created to follow up on NATO commitments.25  The country also currently hosts elements of the U.S. anti-missile shield, which has led the Kremlin to declare it “a clear threat.”26

Strengthening the Military in the Black Sea

The second effort undertaken by Russia has been to build up its military capabilities in the Black Sea. To that end, the Kremlin has embarked on a long-term rearmament program designed to establish an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) zone or ‘bubble’ over the region.27 The concept focuses on deploying capabilities that firstly, prevent forces from entering an area i.e. anti-access; and secondly, limits an opponent’s freedom of action and maneuver within the operational area, i.e. area-denial.28 Within an operational A2/AD bubble, long-range assets could be deployed to strike ground targets, interdict maritime traffic, and impose no-fly zones.29 During a conflict, such a strategy greatly increases the risk of causalities for any hostile force entering the A2/AD bubble. NATO decision-making could be undermined by the raised costs of reinforcing allies in the region, hampering their ability to exert collective defense and weakening the credibility of their deterrence.30  Moreover, NATO’s inaction would greatly enhance Russia’s prestige, demonstrating its ability to challenge the West.    

Within the Black Sea, Crimea will be the main platform for conducting A2/AD operations. Advanced defense systems have been deployed to the peninsula, such as the anti-ship Bastion-P missile system equipped with the P-800 Oniks cruise missiles, along with the anti-aircraft S-300v4 and S-400 Triumf missile systems.31 Upgrade program are underway to refurbish Soviet-era bunkers, reanimate early warning radar systems, and install high-tech electronic warfare equipment.32 Along with Russia’s other missile systems in Armenia, Krasnodar, and Latakia, its A2/AD capabilities extend over major parts of the region – covering much of the Black Sea, and parts of Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The K-300P Bastion-P (NATO reporting name SSC-5) mobile coastal defense missile systems successfully hit a surface target in the Black Sea during a drill in September 2014. (RT)

The Black Sea Fleet is also undergoing a major modernization program. Moscow plans to spend $2.4 billion by 2020 to outfit the fleet with next-generation warships, submarines, and air-defense systems. Up to eighteen new units are being commissioned and many will be equipped with the versatile Kalibr-NK missile system.33 They will be joined by new air assets such as the Su-30M naval aviation fighter and other ground/air attack fighters and helicopters. These capabilities are meant to transform the Black Sea Fleet into a force capable of denying NATO access to the Black Sea and projecting power outward to threaten NATO interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East.34

Russia’s A2/AD capabilities will also be strengthened by the deployment of the Tupolev Tu-22M3 to the region. The long-range bomber can carry Kh-15 or Kh-22 missiles designed to destroy air defense systems.35 The bomber force will be protected by Russian fighters like the Sukhoi Su-24 which can secured a vast majority of the Black Sea airspace and greatly expand Russia’s strategic aviation patrol routes in the region.36 In deploying these different capabilities together, Russia would be able to form a multi-layered, interconnecting defense network that can threaten or interdict any force within the A2/AD bubble.

Enduring Challenges

Despite the aggressive measures taken by Russia, its dominance over the Black Sea continues to face enduring challenges. Turkey for instance, controls Russia’s access between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, but its full cooperation cannot always be taken as a guarantee. Fundamental disagreements exist over the conflict in Syria, with Russia supporting the Assad regime and Turkey opposing it.37 The rise in tensions after the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015 similarly demonstrates the precariousness of their relationship.38 In the event of a crisis, Moscow’s priority must be to ensure that Turkey at the very least remains neutral, allowing Russia to continue resupplying its forces in the Mediterranean. Should the passage be closed by an openly hostile Turkey, Russia would find its forces in the Mediterranean in great danger. With the second most powerful military force in the region, Turkey possesses the offensive capabilities to threaten Russia’s isolated forces.39 A defeat would deal a major blow to Russia’s prestige and status as a military power. Moscow therefore, must continue to engage Ankara, strengthening bilateral ties while seeking ways to find some compromise over their differences.

Istanbul and the Bosphorus Strait (Photo from International Space Station April 16, 2004)

Romania presents another troublesome neighbor for Russia. Although its military capabilities are no match for the larger power, its eagerness to encourage NATO presence in the Black Sea is in direct contradiction to Moscow’s long-term objectives. Both states share a number of unresolved disputes, such as over the theft of Romanian treasures during WWII and over Russia’s refusal to denounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.40 This may have in part, contributed to the Romanian leadership’s pursuit of Alliance membership and general distrust of Russian intentions. To neutralize Romania, Russia may promote pan-nationalist ideas such as the ‘Greater Romania’ concept. This would encourage regional disputes between Romania and its neighbors Ukraine and Moldova. Russia could also fan the flames by orchestrating demonstrations, infiltrating saboteurs, and supporting separatist activities.41 Russia could also hinder Romania’s exploration of natural resources in the Black Sea either through harassment or through legal means by claiming the territorial waters around recently annexed Crimea.42 These measures could intimidate Romania into aligning itself closer with Russia or at least distract it from seeking closer ties with NATO.

Russia’s pursuit of an A2/AD bubble in the Black Sea is also fraught with challenges. The massive rearmament programs come with a substantial price tag. Russia’s state revenues, however, have been severely depleted by the collapse of global oil prices and ongoing economic sanctions.43 In addition, Russia’s shipbuilding industry now faces a shortage of ship engines after Ukraine stopped sales over the annexation of Crimea.44  These issues throw into question how much of Russia’s modernization plans will actually be realized. The A2/AD strategy had been seen as a cost-effective measure to counter NATO’s overwhelming sea power. If Russia fails to achieve the full potential of its plans, it may seriously undermine the effectiveness and deterrence value of the A2/AD bubble. 

Conclusion

As this paper has described, Russia has pursued highly aggressive policies in order to secure its dominance over the Black Sea region. What Moscow must bear in mind however, is that control over the region is not an end in itself, but the means to achieve a greater objective – to keep out NATO interference. In this regard, Russia’s measures have somewhat backfired. Concerned over Russia’s rising belligerence, NATO at the recent Warsaw Summit pledged to increase Allied military presence in the region. Besides strengthening Allied capabilities in the air, land, and sea, there will be increased allied visits to Romanian and Bulgarian ports, and enhanced inter-Alliance training and exercises.45 While it can be argued that these are merely symbolic measures, they could signal the beginning of a gradual NATO build-up around the Black Sea. Perhaps Russia’s greatest challenge now is to find a way dominate the region without causing anxiety amongst the littoral states, as that in turn, may trigger an increased NATO presence. After all, it would be a supreme irony if Russia’s efforts to shut out NATO instead became the contributing factor for a growing Allied presence.

Byron Chong has a Masters in Strategic Studies from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. A passion for history and international politics drew him to this field after his first degree in engineering. His research interests include security issues in Europe and the Asia Pacific.

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Endnotes

1. BBC News, “Russia security paper designates Nato as threat,” 31 December 2015, accessed March 15, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35208636

2. Olga Oliker, “Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Strategy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 7, 2017, accessed March 18, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-russias-new-national-security-strategy

3. Janusz Bugajski and Peter B. Doran, “Black Sea Rising: Russia’s Strategy in Southeast Europe,” Centre for European Analysis – Black Sea Strategic Report No.1 (2016): 2.

4. ibid., 3.

5. ibid., 2, 3.

6. Chris Miller, “Why the Black Sea?” Foreign Policy Research Institute, January 23, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.fpri.org/article/2017/01/why-the-black-sea/

7. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 3.

8. Corentin Laguerre, “Russia’s Self-Inflicted Security Dilemma,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 12, 2016, accessed March 15, 2017, http://cimsec.org/russias-self-inflicted-security-dilemma/29977

9. Boris Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region: A Brief History,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 2, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/geostrategic-importance-black-sea-region-brief-history

10. ibid.

11. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 5.

12. John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault

13. ibid.

14. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 5.

15. Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region.”

16. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.”

17. Jason Chuma, “The Mediterranean: Driving Russia’s Strategic Decisions since 1676,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 15, 2016, accessed March 15, 2017, http://cimsec.org/mediterranean-driving-russias-strategic-decisions-since-1676/30070

18. ibid.

19. Alexander J. Motyl, “Kiev Should Give Up on the Donbass,” Foreign Policy, February 2, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/02/ukraine-will-lose-its-war-by-winning-it/

20. Daniel Dombey, “Turkey’s Erdogan Lurches toward Authoritarianism,” Financial Times, May 6, 2014, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/e89e8d74-cfc1-11e3-a2b7-00144feabdc0

21. Christian Caryl, “New Model Dictator: Why Vladimir Putin Is the Leader Other Autocrats Wish They Could Be,” Foreign Policy, February 13, 2015, accessed March 16, 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/13/new-model-dictator-putin-sisi-erdogan/

22. Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Naval War College Review 69, no. 1 (2016): 74.

23. Dimitar Bechev, “Russia’s Influence in Bulgaria,” New Direction – The Foundation For European Reform, May 12, 2015, accessed March 17, 2017, http://europeanreform.org/files/ND-report-RussiasInfluenceInBulgaria-preview-lo-res_FV.pdf

24. Slav Okov, “Ending Russia Sanctions Among Goals for Bulgarian Kingmaker,” Bloomberg, March 14, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-14/ending-eu-s-russia-sanctions-among-goals-for-bulgarian-kingmaker

25. Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region.”

26. Samuel Osborne, “Russia calls Romania a ‘clear threat’ and Nato outpost for hosting US missile shield,” Independent, February 9, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-romania-clear-threat-nato-outpost-us-anti-missile-shield-putin-tensions-a7571031.html

27. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 10.

28. Guillaume Lasconjarias and Alessandro Marrone, “How To Respond to Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD)? Towards a NATO Counter A2/AD Strategy,” NDC Conference Report No. 01/16, February 2016, accessed March 17, 2017, http://www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=480

29. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 11.

30. ibid., 9,10.

31. Loic Burton, “Bubble Trouble: Russia’s A2/AD Capabilities,” Foreign Policy Association, October 25, 2016, accessed, March 17, 2017, http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2016/10/25/bubble-trouble-russia-a2-ad/

32. Bleda Kurtdarcan and Barın Kayaoğlu, “Russia, Turkey and the Black Sea A2/AD Arms Race,” National Interest, March 5, 2017, accessed March 17, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/russia-turkey-the-black-sea-a2-ad-arms-race-19673

33. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 12.

34. ibid.

35. Burton, “Bubble Trouble.”

36. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 12.

37. Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean,” 79.

38. Toucas, “The Geostrategic Importance of the Black Sea Region.”

39. Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean,” 76.

40. Henry F. Carey, Romania Since 1989: Politics, Economics, and Society, (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2004), 21.

41. Bugajski and Doran, “Black Sea Rising,” 9.

42. ibid.

43. ibid., 10.

44. Steve Micallef, “The Ambitions and Challenges of Russia’s Naval Modernization Program,” Center for International Maritime Security, December 13, 2016, accessed March 17, 2017, http://cimsec.org/ambitions-challenges-russias-naval-modernization-program/30008

45. Boris Toucas, ” NATO and Russia in the Black Sea: A New Confrontation?” Center for Strategic & International Studies, March 6, 2017, accessed March 15, 2017, https://www.csis.org/analysis/nato-and-russia-black-sea-new-confrontation

Featured Image:Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in the Crimean port of Sevastopol (Stringer/Reuters)

Resources, Limited Capabilities Challenge Baltic Navies As Russia Threat Grows

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Jeremiah Cushman

Since regaining their independence in the early 1990s, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have confronted the challenge of how to secure themselves with limited resources. Russian opposition to the Baltic States’ Western orientation has ensured that Moscow remains the primary threat. Since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the countries have become more concerned about their eastern neighbor’s intentions.

During the 1990s, the Baltic States considered three major security policy options: neutrality (Russia’s stated preference); trilateral alliance and close military cooperation with the Nordic states; and working to join NATO and the European Union.1 With a political desire to rejoin the West and ongoing suspicion of Russia, all three countries made joining Western institutions their primary goal. They achieved membership in both organizations in 2004.

With NATO’s Article V collective defense guarantee in hand, the Baltic States were free to choose their own paths to meeting their alliance obligations and homeland defense needs. Estonia has maintained a focus on territorial defense, retaining conscription and large reserves to defend the homeland, while actively participating in NATO and U.S.-led operations with its small active-duty forces. Lithuania followed a middle ground, tailoring some of its forces for missions abroad, while retaining some territorial defense capability. Latvia elected to rely almost entirely on NATO for deterrence, ensuring its forces are fully interoperable and available for alliance operations. Latvia and Lithuania both ended conscription to concentrate on professional forces. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 refocused all three countries on homeland defense, with Latvia and Lithuania re-emphasizing territorial defense capabilities. Lithuania has decided to resume conscription for at least the next five years.

All three Baltic States have focused their naval capabilities on mine countermeasures. This specialization is seen as a concrete way to contribute to NATO missions despite limited resources and to address regional maritime security concerns. The Baltic Sea contains thousands of mines and munitions left over from World Wars I and II, which continue to be cleaned up during NATO and other exercises. Additional capabilities are retained for lower-end homeland security missions.

The threat of Russian ground invasion has been the primary occupation of Baltic military establishments. All three countries nevertheless have significant coastlines on the Baltic Sea with the accompanying maritime security and defense concerns. These include search-and-rescue, exclusive economic zone security, combating smuggling, the threat of amphibious assault, and hostile submarines. The focus on land threats, expense of naval combat platforms, and limited resources have so far prevented the countries from acquiring or maintaining significant naval capabilities. What follows is an analysis of each Baltic State’s respective naval capabilities followed by trends in their combined missions and activities.

Estonia

Estonia focuses its naval forces almost exclusively on mine countermeasures. The current national defense plan, which runs through 2022, calls for modernizing its three Admiral Cowan-class (former British Sandownclass) minehunters, developing its diver group, and maintaining the auxiliary vessel Tasuja (ex-Danish Lindormenclass). The focus is on international military missions, particularly with Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCG). Local maritime security is left to other agencies.

The Police and Border Guard is responsible for surveillance, border protection, search-and-rescue (SAR) and pollution control operations.2 The Navy does not participate in such missions, but can be tasked for SAR as needed.

The Maritime Administration provides navigational security, including sea charts, hydrography, icebreaking, and maintaining a vessel traffic service. Fisheries protection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, although it makes use of Police and Border Guard assets.

A 2016 report found that Estonia’s maritime security suffered from institutional fragmentation and a lack of maritime situational awareness.3 Insufficient investment and poor delineation of responsibilities left the country without the ability to identify or precisely locate unknown vessels within its waters. Should a vessel be identified as hostile, Estonia lacks the ability to engage it.

The divide between the navy and border guard has been exacerbated by domestic politics, including constraints on using defense assets for constabulary duties. The border guard has also benefited from EU investment, which cannot be used for military purposes.

With the appropriate investments, these problems could be resolved within 15 years, says the aforementioned report. This would require institutional reform and significant funding for coastal radars, additional patrol craft, helicopters, coastal defense missile batteries. It remains to be seen if the Estonian government will move forward on these proposals. Until then, it will remain vulnerable to maritime threats.

Latvia

Latvia has a significant mine-hunting capability with a fleet of five Imanta-class (former Dutch Alkmaar class) mine countermeasures ships for NATO operations. Riga also cooperates with Lithuania on mine warfare as part of the Baltic Squadron (BALTRON) program. Estonia withdrew from the unit in 2015 as it refocused its resources on its own minesweeping capabilities.4

Latvia has invested in additional multi-role and patrol capabilities with its Skrunda-class patrol boats. Each features a modular mission bay capable of supporting missions such as mine countermeasures, environmental protection, or armament up to a 35-mm cannon. The Navy has also considered anti-submarine warfare and area air defense capabilities for the class.5 Latvia has also implemented a sea coastal surveillance system (SCSS) to improve maritime situational awareness.

The Latvian Coast Guard service, a component of the Navy, is in charge of search-and-rescue, environmental monitoring, and law enforcement in national waters. The Sea Coastal Surveillance Service monitors and surveys territorial waters. The Border Guard also operates some maritime assets for border protection.

As NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic States, Latvia has proposed that the alliance set up a naval facility in the former Soviet Navy base in Liepaja.6 This facility would create a steady NATO naval presence in the immediate region, enhancing maritime security and providing capabilities the Baltic States lack. Critics note that it might also be viewed as a provocation by Moscow. As it stands, little appears to have happened on this front. The focus continues to be on landward defense.

Lithuania

The Lithuanian Navy, as might be expected of the largest of the Baltic States, has the greatest capability. Mine warfare is a core asset, including two Kursis-class (ex-German Lindauclass) coastal minehunters and two Skalvis-class (ex-British Hunt class) minehunters and the support ship Jotvingis (ex-Norwegian Vidar class). It has a capable patrol squadron consisting of four Zemaitis-class patrol ships (ex-Danish Flyvefisken class). Lithuania acquired the fourth ship, the Selis, in November 2016, in an agreement that also covered two anti-submarine warfare sonars for other ships in the class. The acquisition permitted the decommissioning of the Navy’s last Dzukas-class (ex-Norwegian Storm-class) patrol craft. It may also have been inspired by the increasing Russian threat. The Zemaitis-class ships provide the greatest combat capability of any in Baltic naval service, with modern combat management systems and a 76-mm main gun.

Lithuanian patrol ship Žemaitis (Wikimedia Commons)

The Lithuanian Navy has been described as the most balanced of the three Baltic naval services. It is tasked with monitoring and defending national waters as well as performing search-and-rescue and other maritime security missions. The sea and coastal surveillance service and maritime rescue coordination center are under the command of the navy. The Border Guard Service provides air assets for SAR operations, since the Navy does not maintain its own.

Combined Maritime Capabilities

The Baltic States face a challenging maritime environment. Russia is stepping up its operations, including increased air activity and deploying to the region two Grad Sviyazshk-class patrol craft, equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.7 For the most part, the countries lack the resources to defend themselves against serious naval threats without significant NATO assistance. All are increasing defense spending (Estonia already meets NATO’s 2 percent GDP threshold and Latvia and Lithuania are expected to reach it within the next few years), though ground capabilities remain the priority.

Russia’s capability to potentially control airspace in the region, to include fighter jets and long-range surface-to-air missile systems, poses an additional threat. NATO currently maintains an air-policing capability stationed at air bases in Estonia and Lithuania. Otherwise, the alliance is reliant on assets outside of the immediate region. The Baltic States lack significant air defense capabilities, although talks are underway on a joint procurement of NASAMS surface-to-air missile systems. Their naval platforms are without any such protection.

All three face a number of capability gaps. None has a significant naval combat capability. The Lithuanian navy is the only with ships with naval guns of any size. A mobile coastal missile capability is seen as needed by some. Elsewhere in the region, Sweden has been refurbishing its RBS 15 missile batteries, while Poland has purchased the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile. A joint procurement of such a capability by the three countries could address financial and logistics concerns.

Mine warfare is another gap. Lacking sea control capabilities, strengthening sea denial is an option for bolstering defenses. Finland has expertise in minelaying and could be a valuable partner.

Given recent incidents in Swedish and Finnish waters, some sort of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability may also be required. Lithuania is upgrading the ASW capability on its Zemaitis-class boats, while Latvia could seek such a capability for its Skrunda-class patrol craft. As unmanned systems improve, this could be another avenue for these countries to obtain an affordable ASW capability in the future.

The Baltic States also participate in wider maritime surveillance activities in the region, namely the Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) program. This includes all of the states that border the Baltic Sea, except for Russia. The participants exchange information on vessel data, technical sea surveillance and views on related issues. There is also cooperation at the European Union level.

Conclusion

Despite the similarities of their challenges, the Baltic States have mostly gone their own way on naval policy. Each has a different concept for their navy and maritime security agencies, with cooperation among the states mostly limited to mine countermeasures capabilities. They have not pursued the potential for joint procurement of naval capabilities.

In this new strategic environment, the Baltic States must think carefully about how to maximize their assets, including how border and coast guard services should be utilized in a high-threat scenario. Improving coordination domestically and with their neighbors will enhance security beyond the Russian threat.

Any significant changes will take time to implement. With the increased visibility of potential threats domestically, now seems an opportune time to begin making the necessary investments. By better securing their maritime holdings and strengthening naval defenses, the Baltic States will make a useful contribution to the overall defense of the region in support of NATO and EU objectives.

Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons. He holds a BA in International Relations from Boston University and an MA in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University, where a focused on European security and the Baltic States.

Endnotes 

1. “Between continuation and adaptation: The Baltic states’ security policy and armed forces,” Piotr Szymanski, Center for Eastern Policy (Warsaw, Poland), Nov. 24, 2015.

2. “Cooperation Of Coast Guards And Navies In Baltic Sea Region,” Lt. Cmdr. Taavi Urb, National Defence Academy of Latvia (Riga), April 10, 2011.

3. “The State Needs Warships, Helicopters And Coastal Radar Network,” Oliver Kund, Postimees (Tallinn), Dec. 27, 2016.

4. “Estonia To Withdraw From Baltic Naval Squadron,” Estonian Public Radio, Jan. 8, 2015.

5. “The Commanders Respond: Latvian Navy,” Capt. Rimants Strimaitis, Proceedings, March 2012.

6. “Latvia’s Push For A NATO Naval Base,” Elisabeth Braw, World Affairs Journal, June 21, 2016.

7. “Russia Beefs Up Baltic Fleet Amid NATO Tensions,” Andrew Osborn and Simon Johnson, Reuters, Oct. 26, 2016.

Featured: Featured Image: Estonian Defense Forces, 17 April 2009. (Estonia Ministry of Defense)

Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Buildup and Modernization

European Maritime Security Topic Week

By Alex Schneider

A Neglected Black Sea Fleet

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s naval fleets have been severely neglected. Corruption, defense budget shortfalls, and higher military priorities are among the factors that have prevented the modernization and buildup of the Russian navy. Of the four separate naval fleets—the Baltic, Black Sea, Northern, and Pacific Fleets—Russia’s Black Sea Fleet remains one of the most neglected and obsolete. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war revealed to Russia the need to modernize and increase the size of its Black Sea Fleet, which was reinforced during the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea when NATO naval presence increased in the region.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an authoritative strategic coup by Russia that had two immediate effects: it removed Kiev’s ability to constrain Russia’s Black Sea Fleet buildup and modernization, and it increased the size and strength of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Prior to Crimea’s annexation, Kiev and Moscow had an agreement known as the Kharkov Agreement, which was signed into effect on April 21, 2010 by Dmitry Medvedev, then the Russian president, and Viktor Yanukovych, then the Ukrainian president. Under the Kharkov Agreement, Russia leased the Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine, which was primarily located in Ukraine’s Sevastopol naval port on Crimea. Through the conditions of the lease, Kiev was able to prevent any buildup or modernization of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from occurring. By annexing Crimea, however, Russia forcefully freed the Black Sea Fleet from Kiev’s restrictive conditions.

Current Composition and Limitations

The Black Sea Fleet currently consists of 45 warships and 7 submarines stationed principally out of Sevastopol, located on the west side of the Crimea, and Novorossiysk, located on the west bank of Russia proper. The fleet’s warships constitute 21 percent of total Russian naval warships in service and 10 percent of the total submarine force. With the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia regained the acclaimed strategic port of Sevastopol on the Crimea, which is home to approximately 80 percent of the total tonnage of the Black Sea Fleet, and which is the only year-round ice-free and deep water port the Russians own in the region that is able to moor large warships. Crimea also offers the port of Feodossia that hosts approximately nine percent of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. With approximately 90 percent of the Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea, the significance of Crimea’s annexation by Russia becomes abundantly clear:  it provides Russia with greater security structures and freedom of maneuver for the vast majority of its Black Sea Fleet.

Furthermore, Russia’s navy is comprised largely of Soviet legacy ships that are considerably outdated and in need of much maintenance and repair due to neglect throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s. For instance, the Office of Naval Intelligence assesses that the majority of Russia’s ships and submarines are aged well over 20 years, and were built with a 25-year service life. Currently, the Soviet legacy ships of the Black Sea Fleet are mostly only capable of green water missions that support local defense within the Black Sea and have limited blue water capability for deployment beyond the region.

It is clear that Russia’s Soviet legacy ships have come near the end of their lifespans. As a result, many will be decommissioned in the coming years. With proper maintenance and modern upgrades, however, the operational lives of these ships can be extended 15 to 20 years. Russia recognizes its predicament and knows that in order to claim the status of a great power within the Black Sea region it must repair and modernize its current warships, as well as commission new ships into service with the most current technology available.

Naval Buildup and Modernization

Due to the state of their naval fleets, Russia is ambitiously pursuing its State Armaments Procurement Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020) initiative, which plans to modernize and increase the size of its naval fleets. As a result, the Black Sea Fleet has been allocated much of the funding and materiel because Moscow considers it to be one of the top priorities of the initiative, whereas it provides the Navy with the equivalent of 112.4 billion euros of the Russian defense budget to reach its goal by the year 2020. As many as 18 new warships are anticipated to be commissioned into the Black Sea Fleet by 2020, with more to come in the years after. Funding is also being allocated to the Sevastopol and Novorossiysk naval bases to upgrade their facilities for greater operational readiness.

In addition to upgrading many of the older Soviet legacy ships to remain operational into the near future, the initiative further plans to add many new warships and submarines to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Some of these units have already been commissioned and are now operational, and more are expected to follow by 2020. The following naval vessels are believed to be on the agenda for commissioning into the Black Sea Fleet by 2020: six multi-purpose Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, one or two high-sea multi-purpose Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, one or two Yastrebclass frigates, six Kilo-class submarines, one or two Ivan Gren-class amphibious landing ships, and up to four missile corvettes for near-shore operations.

Some limitations to the SAP-2020 initiative do exist, however. For instance, similar initiatives in the recent past have failed to come to fruition due to the high level of corruption and a lack of financing. Multiple reports have been released outlining how an estimated 50 percent of the Russian military’s procurement money is spent on general corruption, especially bribes. In 2009 alone, corruption resulted in the loss of one billion rubles of its military procurement money, according to the Russian Audit Chamber.

A Russian Navy vessel is anchored at a base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Ukraine. (Reuters)

Furthermore, since the Russian defense budget is tied to the prosperity of the country’s oil and gas exports that make up such a large portion of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a continuation of the SAP-2020 budget will depend on steady and rising prices for these export commodities in the future. Should the economy stagnate and exports decrease, the full budget allocated for the initiative may be reduced, with funds reallocated to more pressing needs within the civilian sector of the state. 

With the acquisition of Crimean oil and gas fields, as well as a crackdown on the corruption of military spending in recent years, the initiative may still prove successful.  Many of the planned ships have already been commissioned, proving Russia’s dedication to see it through. Once these ships are commissioned, the Black Sea Fleet will prove a formidable naval power in the Black Sea region and beyond.

The Future Black Sea Fleet

Once the SAP-2020 initiative is fulfilled, it is expected that Russia will continue its naval buildup for at least the next 10 to 20 years, placing more modern and advanced ships at the disposal of the Black Sea Fleet commander—currently Admiral Aleksandr Vitko. This is evident since Russia has already been working on plans for its next procurement cycle that spans from 2018 to 2025. Russia intends to release SAP-2025 in 2018, which will allocate further funding to continue the buildup and modernization of the Black Sea Fleet through 2025. In the following years, the Black Sea Fleet will become even more capable of acting as an instrument of state supporting Russian national interests in the region.

The primary missions of the Black Sea Fleet are not expected to change drastically in the near future, whereas the SAP-2020 initiative will serve to better support the current missions; the SAP-2025 initiative is expected to follow suit. These missions include, but are not limited to, protecting the enlarged Russian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), securing navigation and sea lines of communication, exercising military and political control in the region, promoting and protecting Russian economic and security interests in and around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, supporting other Russian fleets operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and maintaining military dominance against perceived U.S. and NATO threats in the Black Sea.

The enhanced Black Sea Fleet will also be more capable of providing Russia with a strategic layered defense that only its navy has the ability to provide. The new Kilo-class submarines and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates will be able to provide forward defense by deploying in order to threaten missile-launching platforms. The Black Sea Fleet will probably be most effective in intermediate and close-in defense, however. In this respect, the new platforms will provide a bolstered missile defense shield around Russia’s southern flank, as well as anti-ship cruise missiles for coastal defense.

Conclusion

The Black Sea Fleet modernization and buildup initiative is going to provide Russia with the capability to access the greater oceans and to exert its influence throughout areas located along the world’s major shipping lanes. Russia’s increased presence around the world’s oceans will present new challenges for the United States and its NATO Allies, while presenting further opportunity for Russia in pursuit of its protracted interests. An enlarged and more advanced Black Sea Fleet has the potential to provoke substantial tension with the United States and NATO, especially in the Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, it also has the potential to act as a security partner for the Alliance for operations against regional—and cross-regional—terrorism, trafficking, and piracy. The pursuit of regional cooperation would be beneficial to all parties; however, continued modernization and buildup of its Black Sea Fleet signals that Russian interests are not running a parallel course to the interests of the United States and its NATO Allies.

LT Alex D. Schneider is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He holds master’s degrees from Bowie State University and the Naval Postgraduate School. He is currently finishing training and studies as an Amphibious Warfare Tactics Instructor (WTI). He can be contacted at paula_alex@live.com. The opinions and views expressed in this article are personal in nature and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Russian navy ships, including the ‘Khmelnitsky’ former Ukrainian, now Russian, ASW corvette, are moored in the bay of the Crimean port of Sevastopol on April 1, 2014. (AFP photo\Olga Maltseva)