Category Archives: Global Analysis

A Geographical Breakdown of What’s Going on in the World

Should the U.S. Arm Ukraine with Anti-Ship Missiles?

By Mykola Bielieskov

When it comes to U.S. military-technical assistance for Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression, sharing the Javelin anti-tank guided missile with the Ukrainian Ground Forces is what is typically mentioned. And at the beginning of March 2018 the U.S. State Department gave its approval for the provision of this kind of weaponry to Kyiv. There is nothing surprising in this, since the land forces of Ukraine bear the main burden of confronting and deterring further Russian aggression. However, today it is necessary to start talking about the needs of the other branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine given the challenges facing them.

A Navy Adrift

The situation in the Ukrainian Navy is close to a catastrophic one. The Russian Federation’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014 especially negatively affected the fighting capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy as nearly 80 percent of the fleet was lost due to capture and defection. In fact, four corvettes (Lutsk, Khmelnitsky, Ternopil, Prydniprov’ia), two minesweepers (Chernigiv, Cherkasy), the large landing ship Konstantin Olshansky, and the submarine Zaporozhye were captured by Russian forces. In addition, Russian occupants captured and never returned up to 15 auxiliary vessels.

The urgent need for platforms in the Ukrainian Navy could be solved by Western country transfers to Kyiv of older ships, which are decommissioned or near retirement. Actually, from time-to-time this idea is voiced by certain American experts. The U.S. government, among other things, is ready to provide the Ukrainian Navy with two coastal guards ships of the Island class. They, in contrast to Ukrainian artillery boats of the Gyurza-M class, have better seaworthiness and greater autonomy. However, the simple transfer of platforms can only partly solve the problems the Ukrainian Navy faces today. Getting Western ships can solve the problem with minesweepers or auxiliary vessels. However, the main question remains unaddressed: how could the Ukrainian Navy counter attempts by the Russian Federation to use its domination of the Black Sea for further aggression?

As the result of Russian aggression Ukraine lost in Crimea ground-based anti-ship platforms, which were armed with Termit anti-ship cruise missiles. Similarly, after the Crimea occupation, the missile boat Pryluky was returned to Ukrainian authorities but lacked its two Termit anti-ship missiles.

Today the Ukrainian Navy is not able to properly counteract possible attempts by the Russian Black Sea Fleet to carry out an amphibious landing operation. In this contest it is necessary to recall that in 2014-2015 the Security Service of Ukraine exposed and broke down covert attempts to create the so-called secessionist Bessarabian People’s Republic. This fictional republic was going to be based on territories of a southern part of the Odessa oblast. In the event of the establishment of this illicit territory, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have had the opportunity to freely land the necessary troops and to maintain sea lines of communication with a new pseudo-state bordering western Ukraine along with occupied Crimea. Ukraine in this case could not have prevented such contingencies, since the Navy does not have the necessary anti-ship capabilities to destroy combat and landing enemy vessels.

Although Ukraine is developing its own anti-ship cruise missile Neptune, the first public test of which took place in late January 2018, the system is still nascent. The relevant sea-based risks and threats for Ukraine still exist. In addition, the question is how many Neptune missiles Ukraine will be able to purchase annually for their Navy, given that the entire budget for modernization and procurement of equipment is only $600 million this fiscal year.

As a result, it is urgently necessary to start a dialogue on the possibility of transfer to Ukraine of American Harpoon anti-ship missiles with the necessary equipment for guidance and data exchange systems. The U.S. military budget for 2018 FY provides for the allocation of up to $200 million to enhance Ukraine’s defense capabilities, including the possibility of using these funds for purchase of coastal defense radars, minelayers, minesweepers, and littoral ships. This document captures a change in the paradigm of thinking and awareness in the Pentagon of Ukraine’s vulnerability to threats from the sea. However, as has been said above, only vessels or even radar systems will not be enough to remedy the shortfall.

The U.S. Navy is currently developing new generations of anti-ship missiles (LRASM, Tomahawk, and SM-6 anti-ship variants) that have much longer range than the current Harpoon anti-ship missile. However, in the context of a closed sea like the Black Sea, it will be enough for Ukrainian Navy to deploy the latest modification of the Harpoon missile – the Block II ER+. The radius of this modification is up to 134 nautical miles or 250 km. It is notable that the Ukrainian anti-ship missile “Neptune” will have a similar range. It is also indicative that Finland is considering the Harpoon Block II ER + as the main weapon for the future four frigates of the 2020 project, which will operate in the similarly constrained Baltic Sea.

An F/A-18 carries the new Harpoon Block II+ missile during a free flight test Nov. 18 at Point Mugu’s Sea Range in California. The Navy plans to deliver the Block II+ variant to the fleet in 2017. (U.S. Navy photo)

The transfer to Ukraine of Harpoon Block II ER+ anti-ship cruise missiles and related equipment, together with their installation on future fleet and land-based anti-ship platforms, will not only eliminate significant gaps in the country’s defense capabilities. It will also help secure the safety of maritime trade, on which the economy of Ukraine depends critically. This decision will allow the United States to solve several important security issues in the Black Sea region at once. All this happens when the U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships in almost a century (283 ships), and it faces the need for a permanent presence in numerous parts across the world’s oceans, including the Black Sea Basin. Strengthening the capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy will reduce the need for such presence. In addition, strengthening the anti-ship component of the Ukrainian armed forces will make its Navy a truly important component in any joint NATO Black Sea Fleet, an idea which has been discussed for several years. Today, the Ukrainian Navy cannot actually be an effective contributor to the joint efforts of the littoral states to contain the Russian Federation in the Black Sea basin. Ultimately, the presence of Harpoon Block II ER+ missiles together with the necessary radars and information exchange systems with other NATO countries will enable, in practice, to enhance the interoperability of the Ukrainian armed forces with NATO partners. In this way, it will contribute to the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine and the fulfillment of the tasks of the Strategic Defense Bulletin.

Conclusion

Ukraine today, given the need of countering threats from the sea, is in a situation where the need for U.S. anti-ship missiles is much more important than obtaining Javelin ATGMs. The U.S. Defense Department’s budget for 2018 FY records the understanding that Washington should help Ukraine counteract not only land-based but also maritime threats that are actually much sharper, given the current state of the Ukrainian Navy. However, only the acquisition of appropriate anti-ship missiles such as the Harpoon Block II ER+ will enable the Ukrainian Navy to effectively counter the growing capabilities of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea. Such a bold decision will strengthen security in this part of the world, reduce the need for the United States to be constantly present, and make Ukraine a true contributor to Black Sea security.

Mykola Bielieskov is the Deputy Executive Director at the Institute of World Policy.

Featured Image: Day of the Ukranian Navy Ceremony, July 2016. (Ministry of Defence of Ukraine)

Tradewinds 2018 and the Caribbean’s Maritime Security Challenges

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The first two phases of the multinational, Caribbean-focused military exercise Tradewinds 2018 took place between 4-21 June. Said maneuvers, sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), brought together an estimated 1,700 troops from almost two dozen nations. Given the ongoing maritime security challenges that the Greater Caribbean continues to face, these confidence and interoperability-building exercises continue to be very important.

Tradewinds ‘18

The first two phases of Tradewinds 2018 took place in Saint Kitts and Nevis and then in The Bahamas. Phase III, a seminar among regional leaders to discuss the results of the first two phases, occured from 17-19 July in Miami, Florida. The participating nations included the majority of Caribbean states, in addition to Canada, Mexico, the U.S. and extra-hemispheric states like France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Some of the platforms that were deployed include the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr. (WPC-1107); the British RFA Mounts Bay (L3008), a Bay-class auxiliary landing ship dock; Canada’s HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704), a Kingston-class coastal defense vessel; and Mexico’s ARM Oaxaca (PO 161), an Oaxaca-class patrol vessel. As for aerial platforms, these included AS365N3 Panther and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. As SOUTHCOM explains “this year’s focus is on countering transnational organized crime in the region,” apart from other priorities like improving disaster response. Operations at sea including procedures to intercept a non-compliant vessel, and live firing exercises with deck-mounted weapon systems like .50 caliber machine guns and 25 mm cannon.

In general, Caribbean governments and security forces have generally had a positive attitude toward these maneuvers. For example, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis and Minister of National Security the Honourable Dr. Timothy Harris reportedly stated “I have been assured that we can therefore expect training components or injects that reflect real world scenarios so that in the face of a real threat, our security forces and emergency response personnel will be able to coordinate seamlessly and in a manner and time that both meet international standards.” Similarly, Christian J. Ehrlich, an external analyst at the Strategic Research Institute of the Mexican Navy (Instituto de Investigaciones Estratégicas de la Armada de México), explained to the author that Tradewinds will help improve  interoperability between regional navies and coast guards.

Caribbean Threats

The Caribbean’s maritime security challenges are very diverse. They include drug trafficking (Washington’s primary concern), weapons and human trafficking, illegal fishing, not to mention search and rescue operations. These crimes have been extensively recorded, but it is worth noting that some occurred, somewhat ironically, at the same time that Tradewinds was taking place. For example, in mid-June Her Majesty’s Bahamian Ship (HMBS) Durward Knowles, a patrol vessel, intercepted a 50-ft Dominican fishing vessel that was poaching in Bahamian waters. Around the same time, the Dominican Republic chased a speedboat until it stopped in the coast of Pedernales province. Aboard were 351 packets which apparently contained cocaine. A month earlier, in early May, it was the Jamaican Defense Force’s turn to catch a vessel at sea, as a ship reportedly intercepted off the coast of Westmoreland had 764.9 pounds of compressed marijuana.”

Even more, piracy is becoming a noteworthy problem: in 2017 the organization Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) “recorded 71 incidents in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most incidents in the region occurred in territorial waters, with anchored yachts being the primary targets for attackers.” There were also 16 attacks against tankers and three fishing vessels, among other types of ships. A map prepared by OBP shows a cluster of incidents off the coast of Belize, Colombia, Venezuela as well around the islands of Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Map of 2017 incidents by Oceans Beyond Piracy.

Not counted in the report was a late-April 2018 incident along the Guyanese-Surinamese border, where pirates attacked a group of four fishing boats, robbing the crew and killing several of them.

The Status of Caribbean Maritime Forces

Some Caribbean defense forces have attempted to upgrade and expand their maritime fleets in order to take better control of their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). For example, the Royal Bahamas Defense Force (RBDF) has cquired several vessels constructed by Damen Shipyard  via the Sandy Bottom Project. These include Damen Stan 3007 and Stan Patrol 4207 patrol vessels as well as one Stan Lander 5612 auxiliary transport, roll on-roll off vessel. Similarly in 2016 the Jamaican Defense Force (JDF)  upgraded its fleet by receiving two new Stan Patrol 4207 from Damen in 2017. That same year, the JDF received two 38-foot SAFE boats and two 37-foot Boston Whaler vessels, donated by the U.S. More recently, in late July 2018, the Barbados Coast Guard commissioned patrol boat Endurance, a 958Y inshore vessel donated by China earlier this year.  The ambitious Sandy Bottom Project notwithstanding, Caribbean defense forces in general have limited defense budgets, hence new platforms, aerial or maritime, are not acquired or modernized regularly. Moreover, the aforementioned examples also highlight the continuous reliance on extra-regional allies  for donations in order to expand the naval inventory of these defense forces.

Mr. Ehrlich mentions that greater regional cooperation and interoperability is needed in order to make up for a limited number of platforms and personnel, and in order to decrease the region’s dependence on SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Coast Guard. The Mexican Navy could step up its presence in the Caribbean to help its partners with maritime security, but unfortunately the Mexican Navy seems to be more focused on its Pacific territory.

As a final point, it is important to highlight the troubling scandals regarding regional defense officers that are caught in cahoots with criminals. For example, Colonel Rafael Collado Ureña of the Dominican Republic’s Army, was arrested in mid-2017 in Puerto Rico as he was about to carry out a sale of 12.9 kilograms of cocaine. Around the same time, a member of the Jamaican Defense Force was arrested at Kingston airport as he tried to board a flight to Toronto with 2.8 kilograms of cocaine

Final Thoughts

Exercise Tradewinds 2018 recently concluded, and hopefully the maneuvers and training exercises that Caribbean forces carried out with counterparts such as those from Canada, Mexico, the UK, and the U.S, will be helpful for their future patrol and interdiction operations in their respective EEZs. We can also hope that these ongoing exercises, as well as generally cordial regional diplomatic, trade and defense relations, will lead to greater interoperability between regional forces.

While Tradewinds 2018 can be regarded as a success, these maneuvers will have limited positive impact if Caribbean defense forces do not obtain additional funding for new aerial and naval platforms given the size of the Caribbean Sea. Even more, scandals among security personnel, namely their involvement in criminal activities, stain the reputation of regional defense forces and limit the success of any training operations.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (June 16, 2018) British ship RFA Mounts Bay (l3008) leads United States Coast Guard Cutter Charles David Jr (WPC-1107) (center, rear), Mexican Navy ship ARM Oaxaca (PO 161) (center, front), and Canadian Ship HMCS Shawinigan (MM 704) (right), during a formation exercise in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of the Bahamas during the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise, Tradewinds 18. (Royal Canadian Navy Photo by Able Seaman John Iglesias/Released)

Déjà Vu at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue?

By Tuan N. Pham

Introduction

Last year, CIMSEC published an article analyzing Beijing’s decision to send an unusually low-ranking delegation head, Lieutenant General (LTG) He Lei who serves as the Vice President of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Academy of Military Science (AMS), to the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The selection was a sharp departure from general past practice. In 2011, Beijing dispatched its Defense Minister (the highest-ranked representative to date) followed by the Vice President of the PLA AMS (lowest-ranked representative so far) the following year. From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese delegation was led by a deputy chief-level PLA general officer, closer in rank to the other attending defense ministers. This year, Beijing chose once again to send LTG He to the premier security forum in the Indo-Pacific region, despite last year’s pledge to send a delegation led by a four-star officer of Central Military Committee rank.

It was speculated that Beijing’s decision was a subtle refutation of last year’s stated agenda of “upholding the rules-based regional order, practical measures to avoid conflict at sea, and nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific” and pointed to a deeper problem that China has with the annual dialogue itself. Beijing chooses not to discuss its maritime disputes in any multilateral forum, asserting that bilateral negotiations are the appropriate mechanism to deliberate such contentious issues. The South China Sea (SCS) is a recurrent SLD topic – and China, much to its chagrin, has little influence over the non-friendly and as the Chinese might suggest, hostile agenda. There’s a growing sense within Beijing’s political elites that the SLD has become nothing more than an international forum to highlight (and shame) China’s perceived rule-breaking behavior in the region.

It was also suggested that Beijing may have been short-sighted. By downgrading its presence at the SLD, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States and its allies. China yielded another highly visible international platform where its competitors could stake out their strategic positions, counter Chinese strategic messaging, and further challenge and encourage Beijing to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system.

The following analysis compares and contrasts the 2017 and 2018 dialogues in terms of Chinese themes, narratives, responses, and outcomes while trying to answer questions such as why did Beijing again send LTG He, what message is Beijing trying to convey, and what does it portend for the region in the near future?

2017 SLD Highlights

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the keynote speech, averring that Asia’s future peace and prosperity depend on preserving the rules-based regional order that has worked so well for so long. He suggested that China can only expand its strategic influence to match its economic might within the bounds set by the same rules-based regional order. The message implied that Beijing was undermining the rules-based order in Asia and warned that a coercive China would drive its regional neighbors to bolster alliances and partnerships between themselves and the United States. Prime Minister Turnbull also exhorted his regional neighbors to assume greater responsibility for their own security and prosperity.

During the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called out China for disregarding other nations’ interests and international law, militarizing the SCS, and undermining regional stability. He reiterated that the United States would continue “to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and demonstrate resolve through operational presence in the SCS and beyond.” Secretary Mattis urged China to recognize that North Korea has become a strategic liability and cautioned Beijing that seeking cooperation on Pyongyang did not mean Washington would not challenge Chinese activities in the SCS. Secretary Mattis also restated America’s steadfast commitment to the defense of Taiwan as outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act. 

During the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order), then-Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada leveled similar criticism against China in her speech. She implied that Beijing bore most of the responsibility for the extant regional instability and criticized China for “unilaterally” altering the status quo in the East China Sea and SCS. Minister Inada also urged Beijing to follow international law and respect the prior year’s tribunal ruling on the SCS and expressed support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were expectedly swift and coordinated, but ultimately uninspiring. The PLA delegation held a media briefing on the summit’s sidelines at the end of the second day, defending China’s position as a rising power that abides by international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The delegation repeated longstanding policy positions on Taiwan, North Korea, and the SCS while expressing frustration that Beijing is unfairly singled out for criticism. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed the tepid response the next day and called out Mattis and Inada’s statements on the SCS and Taiwan as “irresponsible.”  

During the second special session (New Patterns for Security Cooperation), LTG He presented a self-serving speech underscoring the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework featuring “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security.” LTG He emphasized China’s peaceful and benevolent rise that contributes to global peace and prosperity and promoted the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while promising to advance within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations the adoption of a Code of Conduct framework for the SCS.

2018 SLD Highlights

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the keynote speech. Although the tone of his speech was largely conciliatory and deferential to Beijing, Prime Minister Modi repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific,” highlighting the critical role that America plays in the regional (and global) order, and underscored the imperative for a common rules-based system based on the consent of all.   

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 – Keynote Address by Narendra Modi (Photo by IISS)

During the first plenary session (U.S. Leadership and the Challenges of Indo-Pacific Security), U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis rebuked China for “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific and declared that America does not plan to abandon its leading role in the region. He also specifically called out Beijing’s destabilizing militarization of the SCS, while further encouraging and challenging China to act responsibly in accordance with established global rules and norms.

During the third plenary session (Shaping Asia’s Evolving Security Order), the Vietnamese Minister of National Defense General Ngo Xuan Lich made the emphatic point that “under no circumstances could we excuse militarization by deploying weapons and military hardware over disputed areas against regional commitments.” Two weeks later, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry denounced China’s recent redeployment of missiles to Woody Island as a serious violation of its sovereignty in the SCS (Vietnam also has its claims) and that this has threatened freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry also “requests that China immediately put an end to these wrongful activities and withdraw the military equipments it had illegally deployed on Vietnams Hoang Sa Islands (Paracel) Islands.”

During the fifth plenary session (Raising the Bar for Regional Security Cooperation), the French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly and British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson largely echoed Secretary Mattis’ sentiments with the former making the bold statement on the SCS…“fait accompli is not a fate accepted” (referring to Chinese attempts to deny international access to the disputed waters). Both announced their intent to jointly sail their deployed naval vessels across the SCS to demonstrate their nations’ inherent right to traverse international waters and to send the “strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation.

Chinese diplomatic and media responses were again expectedly swift and coordinated, but much sharper and more assertive (and perhaps even better prepared) than last year. The PLA delegation forcefully defended Beijing’s military activities in the SCS and sharply criticized Secretary Mattis’ “irresponsible remarks” on the issue and for his unhelpful “hyping” of the situation. LTG He also took advantage of the public forum to reiterate Taiwan as a Chinese “core interest” and a “red line that cannot be challenged.” This is part of its deliberate campaign to push back hard against the Taiwan Travel Act, approval of marketing licenses to sell U.S. technology to Taipei that would allow for building of advanced Taiwanese submarines, a U.S.-Taiwan agreement to share defense research, and the dispatch of formal U.S. officials to the opening ceremony of a new office building to house the American Institute in Taiwan (the defacto U.S. Embassy).   

During the fifth special session (Strategic Implications of Military Capability Development in Asia-Pacific), LTG He vigorously defended Beijing’s actions and activities in the SCS to include the recent deployments of weapon systems to its military outposts. He re-asserted the Chinese strategic narrative that the islands belonged to China, Beijing was only acting to defend the country’s indisputable sovereignty, and that U.S. FONOPs were the “real militarization of the SCS.” He also reiterated the point that China has not obstructed any military vessels following international laws and was open to discussions on the interpretation of FON. The rest of his speech characterized the ongoing PLA reforms and modernization efforts as benign and largely defensive in nature, praised Beijing for its constructive role in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and repeated last year’s talking points on the need for a new Asia-Pacific security framework and the BRI.   

So What’s Next

At the end of the day, the scope, nature, and extent of China’s present participation in the SLD can best be summed up as taking the middle road (hedging). Beijing wants to respond to any policy criticism and challenge any narrative counter to their own at the forum, but does not want to openly endorse or promote the SLD. It seems content for now to limit its role in the special session, and reserve the right to speak at the higher-visibility plenary session when warranted (only individuals of full ministerial rank can speak in plenary).

That said, Beijing may one day conclude that the juice may not be worth the squeeze. Why bother with the biased and fading SLD, when it can focus instead on building up its own Xiangshan Forum? This regional forum is already widely seen in Beijing as a growing counter to the SLD and an important part of a strategic agenda to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence. If so, one can expect a re-emerged, revitalized, and restructured Xiangshan Forum after an unexpected and self-induced one-year hiatus.

The BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and subdued geo-strategic implications) ultimately needs an accompanying and complementary security framework with Chinese characteristics that the forum can help foster and promote under Beijing’s terms.

The new Chinese strategic approach calls for the balanced integration of interests – both long-term economic development with concomitant security reforms intended to restructure and realign global political and security order. This will be pursued in tandem with safeguarding and enhancing the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist and authoritarian system until it can be the center of that new Beijing-oriented global order. 

Conclusion

Beijing clearly views the SLD as an adversarial international forum used by its perceived strategic rival – Washington – and its allies to unfairly criticize (and contain) China. But despite the critiques, Beijing may also see some value (but not necessarily the overwhelming need) to participate in these multilateral dialogues and perhaps begrudgingly accept the criticism of China as a natural outgrowth of its rise as a global power.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: SINGAPORE (June 1, 2018) Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivers remarks during the first plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 June 2. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua Fulton/Released)

A New Gap in the High North and Forward Defense Against Russian Naval Power

By Steve Wills, CNA Analyst

The stand-up of a new NATO Maritime headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, the re-establishment of the U.S. Navy’s East Coast-based Second Fleet and the prospect for a new NATO Maritime Strategy this year have again fueled interest in naval warfare in the wider Atlantic Ocean. One of the most commonly mentioned landmarks in this emerging environment is the iconic Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The scene of the German battleship Bismarck’s passage to the Atlantic and the transit highway of early Russian ballistic missile submarines to their patrol stations near the United States and Europe, the GIUK Gap is synonymous with naval warfare in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, current references to the GIUK gap harken back to a different time and strategic situation that is markedly different from the situation today.

Despite early assessments that the Soviet Union was going to target the sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Atlantic, the Soviets never intended to make interdiction of Atlantic convoys a priority mission. Defense of their ballistic missile submarines, countering Allied aircraft carrier battle groups, and littoral defense and support to the Soviet Army were always their main priorities. Today’s much smaller Russian Navy has similar missions and strategic geography, but now boasts long range cruise missile armament.

The NATO Alliance must return to a deterrent posture similar to that of the Cold War in order to prevent potential Russian aggression, but the locus of action is much further north than Iceland. The real “Gap” where NATO must focus its deterrent action is the Greenland, Svalbard, North Cape line at the northern limit of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas. It is again time to consider deterrent action and potential naval warfare in the “High North.”

Never the GIUK Gap Anyway

While important in the Second World War and perhaps the early and middle Cold War, the GIUK Gap did not have the same geographic significance in the late 1970s and 1980s. While earlier Russian ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) had to first sail close to the U.S. coast and then to the middle Atlantic in order to launch their weapons, the advent of the Delta and Typhoon classes with improved sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) allowed Soviet missile boats to launch their weapons from the safety of Soviet littoral waters. Intelligence gathered by U.S. and Allied sources in the late 1970s suggested that rather than conduct a rerun of the failed German U-boat campaigns of the World Wars, Soviet submarines were to be deployed in a largely defensive posture close to the Soviet homeland. Earlier work by the Center for Naval Analyses had suggested that Soviet attack subs would be prepared to defend their own SSBNs, attack U.S. Navy carrier battle groups, and perhaps venture forth to attack U.S. SSBNs. But attacking logistics and commerce on the Atlantic SLOCs was a fourth-priority mission at best.

The High North region.

By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was planning, in the event of a failure of deterrence, to take the war to the Soviet littoral waters and homeland. This was a global effort that included U.S. and Allied action against the Soviets in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas. U.S. submarines would stalk and sink their Soviet counterparts and SSBNs while U.S. carrier battle groups would attack Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula (as well as other locations around the periphery of the Soviet state) to prevent a correlation of forces that allowed for a successful Soviet land attack in Central Germany.

A series of exercises begun in the early 1950s at the dawn of NATO’s existence had exercised both naval attacks on the Soviet homeland and the defense of Atlantic SLOCs, but the exercise effort moved into high gear in the 1980s. The advent of the aggressive Maritime Strategy meant the Navy would no longer focus on just the defense of SLOCs as it had been told during the Carter administration. Encouraged by Reagan administration Navy Secretary John Lehman and led by experienced flag officers such as Admirals “Ace” Lyons, and “Hammerin Hank” Mustin, a string of aggressive naval exercises in both the Atlantic and “high north” practiced to defend Norway, drive the Soviets back to their home waters, and attack their bases on the Kola peninsula. Instrumented by the SOSUS system and patrolled by aircraft based in Iceland, the GIUK Gap was a strong symbolic barrier, but it was at best the southern signpost of a war to be fought much further to the north. The late Cold War focus on the maritime high north put Norway on both Brussels’s and Washington’s military strategic maps in an unprecedented way.”

The Reality of New Great Power Competition in the High North

The return of a revanchist Russia to the business of great power competition after a quarter century of decline has brought back Norway and its adjacent seas into U.S. and NATO strategic focus. The Russian Navy submarine force is less than a fifth of the size of its Soviet forebear. Many of these units will soon be ready for retirement, and are spread over four fleets. Despite those handicaps, Russian units are now equipped with the 3M-54 (Kaliber) cruise missile, which significantly extends Russian combat capability. This is also why the Russian Navy’s mission set now includes an emphasis on non-nuclear deterrence.

Soviet forces operating within their “bastion” defenses in the Barents Sea during the Cold War had to come south in order to engage NATO maritime forces and lacked a land attack cruise missile capability. Today’s Russian Navy can remain within its Barents bastion and still launch accurate attacks against ships in the Norwegian Sea and NATO land targets without leaving these protected waters. If the Russians do leave their bastions it would most likely be on raiding missions enabled by land attack cruise missiles. Russia has a long tradition of raiding for short-term tactical and longer-term strategic gain, and such operations could manifest themselves in the maritime environment.

Possible zones of Russian bastion defense. (RUSI)

NATO faces significant challenges in dealing with this renewed Russian threat. The Alliance’s naval forces are significantly smaller than during the Cold War and the United States Navy is less than half the size of its 1980s counterpart. Norwegian naval force structure is shrinking and even with planned qualitative improvements will not alone be sufficient for potential naval combat in the High North. Norway is set to significantly reduce its surface force through a planned decommissioning of its Skjold-class missile corvettes and remaining mine warfare ships in the next several years. The reductions are necessary in order to pay for new German-built submarines, P-8 Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), and F-35A aircraft. The submarines and MPA purchases are appropriate force structure for potential combat in the Norwegian Sea south of Svalbard and north of Iceland, but reductions will result in a lack of surface patrol units necessary for maintaining sea control.

The F35A can support sea control, but may be occupied elsewhere in defense of Norwegian shore-based infrastructure. For example, the Russian Air Force has launched a number of mock attacks on the Norwegian Joint Command Center at Bodo in recent years and F-35 aircraft may be largely focused on the defense of Norwegian C4I infrastructure. The Norwegian Coast Guard which contributes significantly to patrol efforts in the region has decreased in strength from 31 to 15 units from 1992 to the present. These Coast Guard units are also lightly armed and insufficient for contesting and retaining sea control in the region.

The only significant Norwegian surface force structure in the next decade is likely to be the AEGIS Nansen-class frigates. These ships are capable multipurpose surface combatants, but their small numbers will require a significant commitment of NATO forces to the Norwegian Sea early in a conflict with Russia to ensure that Russian units, especially nuclear attack submarines, do not transit the Norwegian Sea “SLOC” to the North Atlantic. A key element of the Nansen’s antisubmarine capability, the NH90 helicopter, has failed to deliver on its promised number of flight hours. While there may be enough helicopters for the frigates, there are no NH 90 helos with which to equip the Norwegian Coast Guard for its mission of Norwegian and Greenland Sea patrol and surveillance. The Norwegian Joint force is growing in capability, but even with improvements in air and subsurface units it likely cannot prevent passage of Russian Northern Fleet submarines through the Norwegian Sea.

The Royal Norwegian Navy frigate KNM Roald Amundsen (F311) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 16 February 2018 as part of the U.S. Navy’s Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group (HSTCSG) while conducting its composite training unit exercise (COMPTUEX). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Swofford)

Organizing for Maritime War in the High North

Once just the remote operating grounds of Russian ballistic missile subs, the Eastern Barents and Arctic Seas can now serve as bases for cruise missile platforms to threaten NATO units and land-based targets in and facing the Norwegian Sea. The NATO Alliance is moving in the right direction by reinstituting an Atlantic Maritime headquarters but more must be done to prepare for a conflict in the High North.

Increased Alliance submarine operations in the Norwegian, Barents and Arctic Seas serve to operationalize those headquarters changes. The North Atlantic SLOCs are important, but the Russians are not looking at the mid-Atlantic except for perhaps targets of opportunity. Joint and combined Allied activities that make use of the numerous air and port facilities around the Norwegian and Greenland Seas should be the main focus of JFC Norfolk. A NATO Joint Task Force (JTF) element, perhaps forward deployed afloat or ashore, may need to be present in the immediate area to direct operations.

Unmanned systems technology holds the promise of mobile, underwater detection grids that unlike the Cold War SOSUS nets can move themselves to better identify and localize submerged targets. The Norwegian and Greenland Seas are NATO lakes and receding sea ice has made for a wider and more open battlespace that allows for greater use of shore-based facilities in the region over a longer portion of the year. Small surface combatants such as the U.S. FFG(X) and LCS might operate in conjunction with unmanned units and maritime patrol aircraft and submarines to conduct a regional joint and combined antisubmarine warfare campaign.

Conclusion

A revanchist Russia does not directly threaten North Atlantic sea lines of communication, and the place to deter or engage them won’t be the GIUK gap. NATO must prepare to deter and if necessary engage Russian naval forces in the High North long before these units can get into range of resupply ships or NATO nation port facilities on the European mainland. The Alliance has taken positive steps to meet this renewed maritime challenge, but must not be haunted by U-boat and Soviet ghosts from past Atlantic wars. The place to respond to a new Russian naval threat is close to its home base and not astride critical transatlantic communication routes.

Steven Wills is an Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.

Featured Image: Norweigan Navy Skjold-class corvette.