From author Ian Birdwell comes The Changing Arctic, a column focusing on the unique security challenges presented by the increasingly permissive environment in the High North. The Changing Arctic examines legal precedents, rival claimants, and possible resolutions for disputes among the Arctic nations, as well as the economic implications of accessing the region’s plentiful resources.
By Ian Birdwell
NATO is justifiably focused on dissuading Russian aggression, especially given the Federation’s aggressive actions over the past two years in the region. However, there is growing concern for NATO’s northern flank: the Arctic Ocean and far northern Atlantic. The warming of global temperatures presents new challenges related to rising sea levels to navies like the United States,’1 but the retreat of ice in the Arctic Ocean poses a new risk as an avenue to exploit NATO’s flank in Europe. Though some budding conversation determining NATO’s role in defending Arctic nations like Norway from new security challenges is occurring,2 NATO’s gaze remains focused on ground threats throughout Eastern Europe. Despite the persistence of NATO’s strategic goals of deterrence and cooperation, a warmer Arctic demands the attention of NATO powers to preserve regional stability. Looking toward the role NATO could play in maintaining an Arctic balance of power into the future, it is important to acknowledge NATO’s regional hurdles and the strategies the alliance could employ to overcome them. NATO’s goal has always been deterrence through mutual defense and cooperation between member state militaries, but this has never rung quite as clear among its member states as it has since the onset of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The crisis, if not instigated by the Russian Federation, certainly advances, exacerbated by the comments of Russian officials and state actions. Since then, Eastern European NATO states have clamored for NATO support in counteracting Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin’s regime regularly draws international ire for their actions moving to exploit Arctic oil resources, the effects those operations may have on surrounding communities, and the measures against those protesting oil exploration.3 For the Russian Federation, the Arctic Ocean represents more than just a birthplace of new oil revenues and potential superpower status, it is one of the only areas of the world were its navy may be able to operate more effectively than NATO.
The Russian Northern Fleet possesses a slight advantage over NATO forces in several crucial areas, including a slight and recent increase in submarine warfare capabilities,4 a focus on constructing Arctic naval installations,5 and a plethora of icebreakers compared to NATO.6 Russian forces certainly retain a regional upper hand at the moment yet the aged nature of their equipment belays an opportunity for NATO to deter Russian regional aggression if action is swiftly taken. Finally, to accommodate necessary actions to dissuade aggression, the alliance must gather the funding to make readiness plans a reality, which could become a difficult prospect. Most NATO members overlook the requirement to contribute two percent of national GDP towards military operations, leaving other NATO states like the United States to fit the bill.7 With a new American administration critical of NATO’s funding woes, member states may grow concerned NATO capital will go toward the defense of Eastern European states or other areas with higher visibility.8
NATO possesses the capability to address and overcome the challenges laid before it. A promising step to move NATO toward readiness for Arctic operations would be to expand the frequency of training activities in the High North. While the norm for nations with Arctic waters like Canada,9 Norway, and the United States,10 the inclusion of non-Arctic NATO powers in a variety of training exercises could prove pivotal in deterring aggression within the Arctic. This past summer, NATO held an anti-submarine warfare exercise called Dynamic Mongoose in the Norwegian Sea that included vessels from eight alliance members.11 With other operations planned for later this year,12 increasing the frequency of such operations, the variety of weather conditions faced, and diversifying into other types of exercises such as amphibious assault drills will allow NATO to become acclimated to regional obstacles and gain the flexibility to respond to threats.
The costlier long-term readiness goal involves the expansion of ports close to or within the Arctic Circle to house larger vessels and the construction of new facilities. Accomplishing this task would help close Russia’s geographic and logistical advantages while assisting troops in becoming acclimated to the region’s weather conditions. Moreover, those expanded ports hold the potential to facilitate an increase in commercial traffic, provide a base for scientific research vessels, and contribute to the logistical support of search and rescue operations – all valuable assets for nations wishing to study a changing global climate. For these reasons, the Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. investigated deepening the Port of Nome.13 Dredging and enlarging ports in the region offer a boon to NATO’s defense goals while boosting Arctic infrastructure for other non-military functions.
The last and largest task for NATO powers concerned about Russian Arctic capabilities is providing the funding necessary to meet their NATO obligations. Each NATO nation with Arctic borders proffers in various declarations their preferred method to move forward with Arctic defense is to cooperate with close allies to fill gaps in their defenses.14 If Canada, Denmark, and Norway,15 NATO Arctic powers currently shy of their NATO percentage pledges, increase their military funding closer to the required two percent of national GDP, then it becomes easier for NATO to achieve its overarching security goals within and outside of the Arctic region.
NATO transformed from a tool bolstering European Defense in the early days of the Cold War into an alliance pulled in several directions in the name of collective security. Today NATO faces a familiar sight, a Europe pressured by an aggressive Russia. Yet as NATO reinforces its easternmost borders, the Russian Federation focuses on a new, warming frontier that could provide a new threat axis where Russia enjoys preeminence.
Ian Birdwell holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.
1. Myers, Meghann “Rising oceans threaten to submerge 128 military bases:report” Navy Times. July 29, 2016 https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/07/29/rising-oceans-threaten-submerge-18-military-bases-report/87657780/
2. Dearden, Lizzie “Norway urges Donald Trump to announce clear policy on Russia amid fears of military activity in Arctic” Independent December 3, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/donald-trump-russia-vladimir-putin-norway-nato-clear-policy-arctic-bases-submarines-military-a7453581.html
3. Luhn, Alec “Arctic oil rush: Nenet’s livelihood and habitat at risk from oil spills” The Guardian December 23, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/23/arctic-oil-rush-nenets-livelihood-and-habitat-at-risk-from-oil-spills
4. Sonne, Paul “Russia’s Military sophistication in the Arctic sends echoes of the Cold War” The Wall Street Journal October 4, 2016 http://www.wsj.com/articles/russia-upgrades-military-prowess-in-arctic-1475624748
5. Einhorn, Catrin, Hannah Fairfield, and Tim Wallace “Russia rearms for a new era” New York Times December 24, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/24/world/asia/russia-arming.html
6. Snow, Shawn “Retired 4-Star: US Military ill-prepared for Arctic confrontation” Military Times December 27, 2016 http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/retired-4-star-us-military-ill-prepared-for-arctic-confrontation
7. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016 http://cimsec.org/norway-faces-new-era-russian-realpolitik-arctic/25984
8. Frum, David “Trump will inherit the biggest NATO buildup in Europe Since the Cold War” The Atlantic January 10, 2017
9. Pugliese, David “Canadian Forces to expand Nunavut training centre as Russia plans more bases in the Arctic” National Post February 23, 2016 http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-forces-to-expand-nunavut-training-centre-as-russias-plans-more-bases-in-the-arctic
10. Schehl, Matthew L. “Marines hit the arctic for largest winter exercise since the Cold War” Marine Corps Times March 2, 2016 https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/story/military/2016/03/02/marine-hit-arctic-largest-winter-exercise-since-cold-war/81161832/
11. North Atlantic Treaty Organization “NATO Launches anti-submarine warfare exercise in Norwegian Sea” June 20, 2016 NATO Press Release http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_132596.htm?IselectedLocale=en
12. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016 http://cimsec.org/norway-faces-new-era-russian-realpolitik-arctic/25984
13. Zak, Annie “Port of Nome sees big growth as traversing the Arctic gets easier” Alaska Dispatch News November 24, 2016 https://www.adn.com/business-economy/2016/11/24/port-of-nome-sees-big-growth-as-traversing-the-arctic-gets-easier/
14. Wezeman, Siemon T. “Military Capabilties in the Arctic: A new cold war in the high north?” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute October 2016 https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Military-capabilities-in-the-Arctic.pdf
15. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Public Diplomacy Division “Defense Expenditures of NATO Countries” North Atlantic Treaty Organization July 4, 2016 http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf
Furthermore, the document underlines that the EU’s capacity to engage with other organizations such as the African Union which “has a direct impact on its ability to safeguard its interests and to strengthen regional and international maritime security.” Africa matters, not only because of migrants boarding rickety boats in Libya to embark on a dangerous trip to Europe. At the same time, European and African governments often have different agendas, underlined by the many challenges to maritime security emanating from the African coastline.
Narrow Focus in the Indian Ocean
Counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean are a perfect example of a maritime security challenge. When attacks by Somalia-based groups became a major worry for the shipping industry, the international community quickly reacted. The EU launched its ‘Operation Atalanta’ in 2008, complemented by other task forces from various NATO countries and other countries like Japan and China, who deployed independently of the task forces.
The question of whether attacks by Somali pirates really justified the large-scale military response is open for debate. Nevertheless, European involvement in the fight against the perceived threat on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes underlined the importance of maritime trade routes for the continent. Almost without warning, European maritime security was suddenly threatened by men armed with AK-47s and RPGs in small skiffs rather than more traditional scenarios that military planners had always imagined.
From a European perspective, the naval response to this non-traditional threat has been largely successful. Even though military officers and shipping industry representatives agree that the threat remains dormant and could resurface in the future, the number of attacks by Somali pirates dropped significantly within a short time. That success was made possible by unprecedented cooperation between naval forces and the shipping industry, as well as self-protection measures of merchant vessels, including the use of privately contracted armed security personnel. At the same time, the EU and other international organizations were heavily involved in capacity-building on land in Somalia.
Successful counter-piracy operations notwithstanding, maritime security in the Indian Ocean region has not been strengthened by a narrow focus during these operations. Whether through the EU or on a bilateral basis, European governments would have the capacities to provide assistance for sustainable projects in African countries. New European-built infrastructure, however, has not been linked to existing organizational structures, namely to the regional economic communities (RECs). Cooperation with security agencies in East Africa has also been limited. As a retired admiral from a NATO nation put it, “We have talked a lot about the region since our navies started operating in the Indian Ocean, but we have not talked a lot with people from the region.”
Failed integration of the RECs is arguably the most notable problem for the long-term sustainability of regional maritime security capacities. These organizations are the cornerstone for peace and security on the African continent. While ambitious plans for the African Peace and Security Architecture have not materialized yet, strengthening capacities within existing organisations would certainly be more sustainable than creating parallel structures in the context of counter-piracy operations.
Somali piracy has never been high on the agenda of governments in East Africa. Attention for maritime topics in general remains limited but problems such as smuggling of drugs and weapons, the illegal wildlife trade or illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are a much higher priority. In some countries, notably in Mozambique and Tanzania, security for the fledgling offshore gas industry is another important issue. European partners would be well-advised to take these priorities into consideration.
Broad challenges in West Africa
West Africa is another region where piracy has been the most headline-grabbing maritime security problem in recent years.iFrom a European point of view, these attacks are less of a threat since they do not take place close to a major international shipping route. Nevertheless, the EU became involved, underlined by the ‘Strategy on the Gulf of Guinea’ and the ‘Gulf of Guinea Action Plan 2015-2020.’ Both documents highlight the EU’s strategic objectives in West Africa: a common understanding of threats, support for multi-agency institutions in the region, strengthened cooperation structures, and above all, the development of prosperous economies.
Practical measures, however, have been extremely limited. In October 2016, the Gulf of Guinea Inter-regional Network (GoGIN) was launched, a four-year, €9.3m project supported by the EU and the government of Denmark. The aim of the project is the allocation of funds to regional or national endeavors to promote maritime security and combat piracy. Like CRIMGO, its predecessor project, GoGIN will be implemented by Expertise France, the French development agency. The agency undoubtedly possesses a lot of regional knowledge in West Africa but it is also a vital tool for the French government to secure political influence, particularly in francophone countries.
Capacity building in West Africa does not have to include large-scale financial commitments by partners from Europe or elsewhere. Similar to East Africa, however, it requires a focus on regional priorities to be sustainable. In the past, European involvement in the provision of maritime security in West Africa has largely been limited to the fight against piracy and armed robbery and, on a more limited scale, against drug smuggling on maritime routes.
Similar to East Africa, however, the priorities of regional governments are notably different from those of the EU. For many countries in West Africa, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is the most important threat in the maritime environment, even though it is not a traditional security concern. Limited maritime situational awareness and almost non-existent law enforcement at sea are aspects that will not be changed overnight but even small-scale NGO projects have shown that improvements are possible even in the short term. European governments certainly have the necessary capacities to provide assistance, but political will is an entirely different question.
Even in areas that are more closely related to traditional maritime security threats, European involvement in West Africa is generally not based on long-term planning. Training courses and other projects are rarely coordinated among partners, availability of relevant personnel is not taken into consideration, and overall goals are unlikely to be based on the priorities of partners in West Africa. Such criticism is mentioned time and again in conversations with naval officers and law enforcement officials from West Africa but does not seem to reach Europe.
European maritime security may not be directly threatened by challenges off the African coastline, but they certainly have an influence on Europe. Addressing these challenges as early as possible would be important to prevent a possible escalation, yet that is true for security challenges in general. Due to the international nature of the maritime environment, however, a lack of security at sea is likely to have an impact on several countries, creating the need for multinational solutions.
The European Union is in a unique position to strengthen maritime security, both at home and abroad. In theory, the combination of civilian and military measures is the perfect fit for a broad range of largely non-traditional maritime security challenges, ranging from piracy and armed robbery at sea to IUU fishing. In practice, however, the EU’s potential is often wasted by concentrating on areas that are important for European governments while failing to address the agendas of partnering governments.
In the Indian Ocean, counter-piracy operations have been very successful but based on a very narrow mandate. Other challenges to maritime security in the region have hardly been addressed so far. This might change in the future; amending the Djibouti Code of Conduct in January 2017 certainly was a step in the right direction. The document was adopted by governments around the western Indian Ocean in 2009 but originally was only concerned with the suppression of piracy. It took signatories around eight years to broaden the document with the Jeddah Amendment, signalling their intention to strengthen the ‘blue economy.’
In West Africa, a similar document was already adopted in 2013 and the European Union has signaled its intention to support implementation. So far, however, that support has been sketchy at best, and one of the EU’s main goals, the development of prosperous economies around the Gulf of Guinea, remains elusive. Addressing maritime security challenges alone will not immediately lead to economic growth, but it would certainly be an important step. The focus on maritime security in the wider context of the ‘blue economy,’ however, is not a traditional task for navies in Europe and will require better coordination between a wide range of partners such as governments, NGOs, and law enforcement agencies outside the military.
Dirk Siebels works as an analyst for Risk Intelligence. His research areas include maritime security issues in sub-Saharan Africa and he presents regularly at academic and military research institutions on related topics. Before starting to work in his current role, Dirk served as an officer in the German Navy and worked as a journalist and PR consultant for several years. He holds an MA in International Studies from Durham University and is currently working on a PhD in maritime security at the University of Greenwich. The views presented here are those of the author.
i West Africa in this context includes all coastal and island nations between Senegal in the north and Angola in the south. These countries are members of ECOWAS or ECCAS, the two regional economic communities for West and Central Africa, and have adopted the Yaoundé Code of Conduct to strengthen maritime security in the region.
Featured Image:Italian Frigate Scirocco Rescues Somali Fishermen (EU-NAVFOR)
Since the Alliance Maritime Strategy (AMS) was published in 2011, the strategic context facing NATO has shifted. The drafters envisaged a world where the Alliance would continue to be an expeditionary one, employing its forces in counterterrorism, counterpiracy, and humanitarian roles in many locations around the world. Under the aegis of this strategy, Alliance maritime forces did precisely that. Operations Ocean Shield and Active Endeavor were conducted in these contexts. The former was a counterpiracy operation off the Horn of Africa and the latter a counterterrorism operation in the Mediterranean. Both ended in 2016, but Active Endeavor was replaced by Operation Sea Guardian, designed in much the same spirit. Its objectives are very similar: maritime situational awareness, protection of freedom of navigation, maritime interdiction against weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and protection of critical infrastructure. This lone maritime operation does not, however, match the strategic realities that NATO faces.
Over the last six years, NATO’s strategic environment has changed significantly. The Arab Spring, beginning in 2011, led to instability on the Alliance’s southern flank, exacerbated perhaps by NATO’s own actions in Libya. One result has been massive cross-Mediterranean migrant flows that European states have been unable to halt. The civil war in Syria has slowly deteriorated to the point that the United States, its allies, and Russia have become involved in the air and on the ground. Naval activity in the Eastern Mediterranean is at levels not seen since the Cold War. Russian, American, and NATO warships continuously ply these seas and the Russian Navy’s only aircraft carrier recently completed its maiden combat deployment from the Eastern Mediterranean.
There and elsewhere, Russian forces regularly intercept NATO aircraft and ships in international airspace and waters, generating tension between East and West and demonstrating a renewed level of aggression epitomized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In 2014 Russia invaded its neighbor and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and the strategic naval base at Sevastopol in the process. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have destabilized Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region and caused concern amongst NATO and non-NATO states that Russia’s next moves may come in the Baltic. NATO was founded to deter and defend against Soviet aggression in Europe, and Russia’s recent actions have shown its enduring necessity after more than two decades of strategic drift. All told, the strategic environment predicted by the drafters of the AMS has evaporated.
NATO has responded to its changing strategic environment almost exclusively through operations and initiatives ashore. To counter Russian aggression and reassure eastern Allies, NATO established two major programs. The first, Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP), installs NATO soldiers in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on a permanent rotational basis. It will be fully established in 2018 and includes troop contributions from 19 member states. The second is Tailored Forward Presence in Romania. This consists of an expanded series of rotational exercises, with the result of near continual NATO presence on Romanian territory. The United States’ own European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), distinct from, but complementary to, NATO actions, is similarly land-focused. Over its three years of existence, from 2015 to today, the annual budget for the U.S. Navy’s participation in ERI has been three percent, four percent, and two and a half percent respectively. The response to Russian aggression has been clearly focused ashore.
The existing initiatives are a step in the right direction, but the lack of a coherent maritime response undermines those efforts and presents opportunities for Russia to exploit. NATO’s sole maritime operation, Operation Sea Guardian, does not support existing efforts to counter Russian aggression. And it is not designed to, as it is specifically not an Article 5 operation. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty requires that treaty signatories come to the defense of one another in case of attack and is considered the bedrock of the Alliance. NATO is right to state that Operation Sea Guardian is not in response to an attack on any member, but by explicitly highlighting that the operation is non-Article 5 in focus, it sends a signal that day-to-day operations are not aimed at deterring NATO’s potential opponents. Operation Sea Guardian is also explicitly focused on Task Four of the AMS, consisting of maritime security operations. These are conceptually distinguished from the deterrence and defense roles of the Alliance delineated in Task One. This further demonstrates to Russia that NATO’s maritime focus is separate from its ground efforts. Even if aimed at deterring Russia, it is insufficiently resourced. One recent “Focused Security Patrol” under the mantra of Operation Sea Guardian comprised three aged frigates (Turkish, Greek, and Italian) conducting 600 combined hours of patrols, or 8 and 1/3 days each, in the Eastern Mediterranean. This level of effort, in both duration and capability, is inadequate in the face of the forces the Russian Navy has maintained in that theater.
Bolstering NATO Seapower
To their credit, Alliance leadership may have begun to recognize the insufficiency of NATO’s maritime posture. As part of Tailored Forward Presence, Alliance defense ministers agreed in February 2017 to increase NATO presence in the Black Sea to improve situational awareness and increase training and exercises. This may improve the situation in the Black Sea, but the problem of deterrence is broader. This ad hoc approach to maritime deterrence will not stop Russia’s pattern of aggressive actions in the seas around Europe.
NATO’s poor showing at sea has led some to argue that the AMS itself needs a total overhaul. Critics are correct in noting that the strategy’s discussion of the maritime security environment is out of date. They also rightly criticize the lack of any resource – i.e. force structure and development – discussion. The strategy is also insufficiently focused on the core collective defense and deterrence mission and therefore not aligned with NATO’s 2015 Political Guidance which reemphasized these core Alliance tasks. The AMS does require a refresh, and policymakers should begin discussions on this now, but without delaying maritime action by the Alliance.
The AMS itself provides the logical basis for conducting peacetime Article 5 operations. The first task the strategy assigns to maritime forces is deterrence and collective defense. By grouping these two concepts together, the AMS links collective defense and deterrence in a continuum of action between peace and war. It highlights that collective defense is the necessary action in response to failed deterrence. Article 5 requires that member states aid one another only in the event of armed attack, but given the defensive nature of the alliance, the terrible consequences of war between NATO and Russia, and the conceptual link between deterrence and collective defense, it is logical to draw explicit connections between peacetime NATO deterrent operations and Article 5 collective defense actions.
Such an explicit connection would improve the deterrent effect of the operation. The AMS notes that deterrence relies upon “proven capability, demonstrations of readiness, and effective strategic communications.” This is firmly based in existing theories of deterrence. An actor, be it a state or group of states, must possess not merely adequate defensive capabilities to either stop enemy aggression or inflict sufficient pain to make the aggression too costly. The actor must also be credibly committed to using this force in the event that deterrence fails. Communicating these two preceding facts to the potential enemy in such a way that their leaders perceive a sufficient threat is the final component. Establishing a new maritime operation would neither change NATO’s capabilities nor fully address the credibility problem inherent in the alliance, but by tying this new operation to Article 5 the alliance would better communicate the seriousness of its commitment to preventing further Russian aggression.
As written, the AMS is flexible enough to serve as the basis for a more coherent maritime response to Russia. As it declares, “the relative weight given to the Alliance’s engagement in each of these roles will depend on circumstances and the resources available.” NATO should rebalance its maritime efforts to increase the relative weight devoted to the deterrence and collective defense mission. This can be accomplished through a combination of three actions: launching a new maritime operation with collective defense and deterrence as its main objective, increasing the frequency and complexity of NATO maritime exercises, and better resourcing the existing Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG) and Standing NATO Mine Countermeasure Groups (SNMCMG).
First, NATO should establish a new operation focused on deterring Russian aggression at sea and, if necessary, exercising collective defense. This operation should explicitly state that it rests upon the foundation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. To date, the article has been activated only once, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Operation Active Endeavor was established as the maritime component of the NATO response to this armed attack on a member state. While Russia has not attacked any members, this recent experience provides some precedent for establishing a maritime operation founded upon Article 5.
To achieve the desired effect, this operation should be wide in its geographic scope and mission to best demonstrate existing capability and readiness. It should be active in the Baltic, Black, Mediterranean, and Norwegian Seas to counter Russian efforts in each of these areas. Russia has increased its maritime presence in each sea to levels last seen during the Cold War and NATO must demonstrate the capability to respond simultaneously in each theater. The operation should also focus on the full-range of maritime missions. It should develop situational awareness of Russian actions, hold Russian maritime forces at risk any time they deploy, and enhance NATO interoperability and build expertise in combined operations at the unit and higher echelon command levels. These actions will better prepare NATO forces to defend against Russian attacks in the event of war and will demonstrate to Russian leaders that NATO stands ready to do so.
Invigorating Alliance Exercises
In addition to a new deterrent operation, NATO should significantly expand the number and scale of its maritime exercises. These exercises should focus on high-end warfighting skills against peer opponents to demonstrate effective combat capability and readiness. Existing maritime exercises are a step in the right direction. The Dynamic-series, consisting of Dynamic Guard, Dynamic Move, Dynamic Mantra, and Dynamic Mongoose in 2017, are focused on air defense and electronic warfare, MCM, and antisubmarine warfare respectively.
The current exercise schedule is focused on the appropriate warfare areas but it must be significantly expanded to develop the level of competence and interoperability that would be necessary in the event of war. Antisubmarine warfare exercises in particular require expansion and should be the highest priority. The Russian Navy sees submarines as its primary capital ships, unlike western navies which prioritize aircraft carriers. Russia has invested heavily in its submarine force, with new classes under development, old classes undergoing modernization, and new Kilo-class submarines destined for its Black Sea Fleet under construction. By focusing efforts on detecting and defeating submarines, NATO can demonstrate to Russia that, in the event of war, its primary naval forces will be defeated.
Air defense and electronic warfare should also be emphasized. Russia has invested heavily in new antiship missiles. NATO navies must demonstrate their ability to defeat these weapons to show Russia that it cannot count on keeping Allied maritime forces outside striking range of its shore. This will warn Russia’s leaders that they cannot initiate conflicts far from Russian shores and rest assured that the Russian mainland will be safe.
Finally, mine countermeasures remains a key enabler for Allied maritime missions and must be strengthened. In particular, the United States should participate in exercises with its own MCM ships to improve its capabilities and highlight the importance of the mission area. Increasing the frequency and complexity of exercises in these three areas would significantly increase alliance capabilities to counter Russian aggression.
Strengthening Standing Maritime Groups
The final component of an improved NATO maritime posture is better resourcing of the SNMGs and SNMCMGs by member states. Discussions of resourcing in the NATO context are often focused on the two percent policy, wherein member states pledge to contribute two percent of GDP towards defense. Total alliance resources are important, as each state’s total military capabilities are the source of NATO-assigned forces; however, they do not translate directly into forces available for Alliance use. Without increasing their defense budgets, each state could improve NATO’s deterrent posture by assigning more existing forces to NATO missions. A brief review of the maritime forces currently assigned to the Alliance will demonstrate the availability for growth.
As currently constituted, NATO’s standing maritime forces consist of two SNMGs and two SNMCMGs. These consist of the three warships and one tanker of SNMG1, ten warships (five of which are small patrol craft) and one oiler of SNMG2, four mine countermeasures (MCM) ships of SNMCMG1, and five further MCM ships of SNMCMG2, for a total of 23 vessels of all types. Looking deeper, one finds no U.S. ships, no French vessels, only one British minesweeper, and only three German ships, one of which is a tanker. The heaviest contributors are the Spanish, Greek, and Turkish navies, who together contribute almost half the ships. Ships rotate through these standing task groups, but the absence of the two largest NATO fleets and the poor showing from the Royal Navy and Bundesmarine indicate a lack of commitment to the Alliance’s maritime posture.
If each member state contributed an additional vessel, NATO’s maritime forces would more than double, sending a clear signal to Russia that the Alliance was ready to defend its maritime flanks. Barring that, if the United States, France, and the United Kingdom each contributed several ships it would vastly improve the capability of these forces. These navies are not only the largest, but their ships are the most capable against the threats posed by Russian forces.
NATO was founded as a means of defending Western Europe against Soviet aggression, but with the fall of the Soviet Union its raison d’être disappeared and the Alliance lost focus. It grew to incorporate many former foes in Eastern Europe and began participating in peacekeeping and expeditionary operations and envisaged a future where it would emphasize missions other than deterrence and collective defense. Recent Russian actions have reminded Alliance members of its original purpose. Through its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its intervention in Syria, and its continued bellicosity at sea and in the air, Russia has proven itself to be a threat to European security once again. NATO has taken actions to deter aggression against its members, but its efforts at sea have been inadequate. Implementing the initiatives above would go a long way toward integrating alliance maritime posture with existing plans ashore, improving the overall deterrent effect. The Alliance has all the necessary tools, its members need only act.
Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Department of Defense.
Featured Image: NATO Standing Maritime Groups operating in the Mediterranean (NATO)
The governments and peoples of the Baltic States recognize that, following Russia’s takeover of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, they are once again in the Kremlin’s sights facing the prospect of Russian destabilization and even outright invasion.
NATO’s leadership termed Russian strategy “hybrid warfare,” defining it as warfare in which “a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures are employed in a highly integrated design.”1 Questions were raised immediately about the suitability of the designation, as the label NATO adopted fails to adequately capture the reality of what Russia inflicted on Ukraine—and may inflict on states in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR) in the near future.
Russian successes in Crimea reinvigorated two longstanding instruments of its power: its armed forces and its capacity for intensive information warfare.2 “Grey-zone” perhaps captures the orchestrated multidimensional nature of Russian actions calibrated to gain specified strategic objectives without crossing the threshold of overt conflict and exploit Western concepts of war and peace as two distinct conditions.3 Any conflict between NATO and Russia will likely occur at the Article 4 rather than the Article 5 level, complicating any Western response.4
Hybrid War in the BSR: Political and Information Warfare Dimensions
It is possible to count all the fighters, bombers, troops and ships in the Baltic and arrive at a correlation of forces. But the BSR is a peripheral region, and only three things matter when it comes to its security:
The commitment of core NATO powers – especially the U.S. – to the region’s defense;
Russia’s determination to restore its sphere of influence in the region; and
Russia’s desire to probe for Western weakness.
Russia is interested less in territory than in effect. NATO’s focus on military measures to defend the Baltic States may overlook the challenge posed by all arms of Russian power to identify and exploit political, social, economic, and military vulnerabilities in its target states and the Western alliance.
These dimensions have been underplayed in NATO thinking, a tendency reinforced by the military nature of its Charter and institutional culture. Questions remain as to whether NATO’s own legal framework and traditional instruments are sufficient to deal with these non-military challenges, and certainly whether they can respond to a fast-changing situation. The means Russia is prepared to use in order to deceive and confuse NATO are based on the same tools it used during the Cold War, but it has adapted them to the mores of the social media age, which lacks the experience to judge the import of Russian messaging or actions.
Applying the Hybrid Model to Warfare at Sea
Russia’s high-end forces would not constitute the first movers in a hybrid conflict. They should be regarded as deterrents to local resistance and intervention by NATO and other Nordic states. It would rather pursue more ambiguous methods.
Broadly speaking, two scenarios for a Russian campaign in the BSR appear possible:
1. A low-key, possibly opportunistic, campaign that exploits real or manufactured discontent among Russian compatriots to destabilize one or more of the Baltic States, creating a “frozen conflict” that undermines NATO’s credibility; or
2. A more structured, high-tempo campaign to achieve the same objectives against NATO power in the BSR and also render Nordic defense cooperation redundant.
It is reasonable to assume that the Baltic Sea Fleet and other organs of Russian maritime power will play supporting rather than leading roles in any such conflict.
Aside from Moscow’s ability to manipulate the loyalty of Russian expatriate communities in the Baltic states, many of the points where it can apply pressure lie on or under the Baltic Sea itself. These include:
Geographically Isolated Islands and Disputed Borders
The Bornholm, Gotland and the Aland group are respectably Danish, Swedish, and Finnish islands that have considerable strategic significance in the BSR. Many are ideal as bases, supply points, staging areas, and jumping off points for SOF operations and ambushes, while bays, fjords, and peninsulas provide hiding places and launch points for fast raiders.
Modern economies depend upon a remarkably vulnerable information and communications infrastructure. Roughly 95 percent of intercontinental communications traffic—e-mails, phone calls, money transfers, and so on—pass through fiber-optic cables that “lack even basic defenses, both on the seabed and at a small number of poorly guarded landing points.”5
When it comes to the Baltic Sea particularly, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have only a few nodes that need be severed, while Estonia, the Nordic countries, and Germany have much more redundancy in their connections. Still, the economic disruption caused by severing these undersea cables would be considerable in time and cost and be difficult to mitigate, even for those countries with multiple nodes. They would therefore be a prime target in a hybrid warfare campaign.
It has long been recognized that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland depend upon Russian energy. This exposes them to the possibility of economic coercion. These states have reduced their dependence on Russian supplies, but diversification has been difficult given the cost of replacing existing infrastructure and vulnerabilities remain.
Port and Supply Chain
Ports and ships could be subject to sabotage and strikes using SOF as part of a hybrid offensive. Yet the most serious threat could come from cyberattacks, a concern that already animates much of the landward resilience debate. Modern ports could not operate absent sophisticated computer systems, while modern ships are increasingly automated to cut crew costs. Any prolonged interference with the region’s maritime trade could severely impact industrial production flows and economic security.
Why Would Russia Disrupt the BSR?
Russia is a revisionist power. Internationally, it wants to revise the existing regional order at the least possible political and military cost to itself, diminish U.S. power, and further a multipolar world. Domestically, Putin’s government requires an enemy to divert attention from internal troubles. The Baltic States lie at the point where American power is most extended and Russian power can be concentrated most easily. As Russia is under no illusion it can fight the U.S. directly, or a coalition of America’s core allies, its challenges will stay below the level of direct confrontation.
The Soviet Union invested around fifty percent of its shipbuilding capacity in the St. Petersburg area. A second vital facility is located in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The Baltic Sea has also become a vital conduit for Russian trade. Prolonged interruptions in flows of energy and goods would inflict considerable damage on Russia’s poorly diversified economy. During 2015, 52 percent of Russian container traffic passed through St. Petersburg. Europe remains a major customer for Russian crude oil shipped by tanker from ports near St. Petersburg. On the seabed is the Nord Stream gas pipeline. A second pipeline–Nord Stream 2–has been proposed that would double the capacity. This connection reinforces the dependency and mutual interest that already exists between the EU and Russia and risks compromising Western European responses to possible Russian aggression in CEE.
The Baltic Sea Region has plentiful points of vulnerability where Russia can test Western resolve. While these are not confined to the Baltic States, the most obvious point of leverage is the Russian minorities who reside in each one with concentrations in port cities and other maritime areas.6 Nor are the Baltics removed from Russia’s deeply ingrained sense of insecurity arising out of its loss of strategic depth. Advancing the Russian right flank to the Baltic Sea would right a perceived wrong, prevent the encirclement of Kaliningrad, the main base of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet, and provide a platform from where Russia could threaten the entire Baltic Sea littoral.
Sweden and Finland are clearly concerned about this possibility. Sweden has returned its army garrison to the strategically important island of Gotland, while towns and cities across Sweden have been told to make preparations against a possible military attack.7 Conscription has also been reintroduced.8 However, any move by either to join NATO could “provoke Russia to launch a pre-emptive provocation in order to demonstrate the alliance’s weakness” and deter either country from proceeding with its application.9
Russian Military Capability
Despite the importance of the Baltic Sea routes, the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet is the weakest of Russia’s four fleets (Baltic, Black Sea, Pacific, and Northern). It continues to have the lowest priority for new units.
That does not mean modernization has not taken place. Since 2007, the fleet has been upgraded with two new classes of corvette equipped with land-attack missiles, a capability that is new to the Baltic Sea fleet.10 However, the fleet’s submarines have not been modernized and remain inferior to German and Swedish boats. Lacking AIP propulsion, which Russian industry is having problems mastering, they are also likely to be noisier. The fleet’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine counter-measures (MCM) capabilities are also limited.
That said, the Baltic Sea is relatively small with an average width of only 193km (120 mi). The sea and surrounding littoral can–and almost certainly would–be dominated by air power and air-deployable ground forces in any high intensity conflict. In particular, Russia is able to effectively dominate large areas of the Baltic Sea and air space using missile forces based in the Kaliningrad and Leningrad oblasts.11 The Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile is capable of hitting targets in much of Sweden and from southern Poland to central Finland, whether fixed or mobile.
NATO movement would be affected in all environments: air transports bringing reinforcements into theater would be at risk from manned interceptors and a layered, air-and-missile defensive system equipped with the S-300 and the highly-capable S-400 systems. Movements by sea would be threatened by the Bastion-P coastal defense system based on the supersonic 300km-range P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missile, which Russia has announced will shortly be deployed to the Kaliningrad Oblast.12
NATO ground forces, meanwhile, would need to travel further than Russian units to reach the capitals of the Baltic states and throughout the transit could be subjected to long-range air and ground-based bombardment.
Naval “Hybrid Warfare”
Hybrid warfare as deployed by Russia in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has received considerable analytical coverage; hybrid warfare at sea less so.13 The geography of the Crimea and Ukrainian theaters, and the circumstances of the incursions, meant the naval role was limited in both. However, Russia appears to have taken note of the success China has achieved with hybrid warfare tactics in the South China Sea, including its harassing behavior as multiple incidents have taken place on and over the Baltic and Black Seas.14 At the same time, Russia has resumed Soviet-style probing missions against NATO countries, while the Baltic states, Sweden, and Finland have all had their territorial waters and airspace compromised.15
The Chinese have made extensive use of their maritime paramilitary forces to assert maritime claims and to deny neighboring states access to waters for fishing and resource extraction purposes. The opportunities for the disruptive use of coast guard and border forces appear to be less in the BSR yet Russian behavior–for instance withholding ratification of the Narva Bay and Gulf of Finland Treaty–demonstrates that they are maintaining the potential for disruption inherent in the handful of disputes that remain.16
Given the essentially political nature of hybrid war, mitigation measures should focus on political, economic, and information outcomes. Still, Russia needs to be convinced that all BSR states are committed to challenging Russian aggression at sea. The maritime component of NATO’s 2014 Readiness Action Plan includes intensified naval patrols in the Baltic built around the Standing NATO Maritime and Mine Countermeasures Groups, increased sorties by maritime patrol aircraft, and an expansion of the annual BALTOPS naval and amphibious exercise.17 However, BALTOPS in large measure still reflects the Alliance’s focus on high-end military operations. Changes have been made that broaden its focus and these need to be maintained and expanded in order to continuing raising maritime readiness and interoperability standards at all stages along the deterrence-to-conflict continuum. In addition, both Baltic and NATO navies need to exercise lower-end maritime security, VBSS, fishery protection, and SAR missions, while regional navies need to demonstrate they can act seamlessly with regional coast guards and border forces, port authorities and other maritime agencies, police forces and intelligence services. Furthermore, cooperation in intelligence sharing and analysis through a BSR Hybrid Threats Fusion Cell coupled with a strategic communications response capability to provide swift and consistent factual responses to false narratives would contribute to building societal resilience.
Societal resilience also requires less dependence on Russian energy supplies. A new facility for the import and regasification of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been built at Klaipeda in Lithuania. Ensuring its security is vital. Further diversification could be achieved if additional terminals were to be built in Estonia and Latvia with reversible-flow pipelines linking all three. Ideally, a trans-Baltic pipeline should be built to link the Baltic States with the Swedish system.18 These pipelines would supplement the “NordBalt” power cable laid between Sweden and Lithuania. Notably, this link was interfered with by Russian warships on three occasions during the course of its construction. Finally, BSR states need to place a strong emphasis on port and supply chain security. This must include defenses against cyber-attacks. Protecting this largely maritime infrastructure would place a premium on effective Baltic Sea maritime domain awareness (MDA).
Russia considers itself to be a maritime power. It has always sought to control the seas that give it access to the world ocean. The Baltic Sea is vital in this regard. Despite this perception, Russian power, when compared to its Soviet predecessor, is sadly diminished. It is therefore understandable that it should continue to augment its remaining military power with the measures of influence, deception, and covert action that were so characteristic of the Soviet approach to inter-state relations.
Any repetition of the Crimean model is likely to be a whole-of-government effort of political subversion and destabilization in which the conventional military—as opposed to SOF and proxy militia—will play a largely passive role until the last minute, or unless the political campaign fails and can only be redeemed using conventional military force. Whole-of-government aggression demands a whole-of-government response.
In this sense, there is no such thing as maritime hybrid warfare, certainly in Russian political or military doctrine or practice. What states in the BSR may be confronting even now, however, is a long-term campaign of politically motivated societal disruption, aspects of which may occur in, through, or from the maritime domain. The seaborne aspects of the campaign will be maritime rather than exclusively naval in that what takes place could involve any of the ways people use the sea, the seabed, and the airspace over the sea. It will involve warships, submarines, and military aircraft but also include fisheries, shipping and ports, coast guards, and border forces along the way. Conventional naval forces are likely to play an analogous background role in any disruptive campaign at sea in the Baltic, as they did during the Crimea invasion and Ukraine intervention.
Martin N. Murphy, PhD is a Visiting Fellow at Corbett Centre for Maritime Studies at King’s College London. He has held similar positions with CSBA and the Atlantic Council in the U.S. He is the author of three books and numerous book chapters and articles on maritime security and unconventional warfare at sea. His next book, On Maritime Power, is due for publication in 2018.
Gary Schaub, Jr., PhD, is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. Before that he held a number of academic positions in the U.S. including Assistant Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Air War College.
1. NATO. ‘Wales Summit Declaration’. Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales, 5th September 2014.
2. Kier Giles, et al. ‘The Russian Challenge’, Chatham House Report, June 2015, p. 46. NATO Article 4 states that “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” NATO, ‘The North Atlantic Treaty’, last updated 21st March 2016.
3. For clear definitions of “hybrid” and “grey-zone” conflicts, and comparisons between the two, see Frank Hoffman. ‘The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare and Key Challenges’. Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, 22nd March 2017.
4. Stephen F. Larrabee, et al. Russia and the West after the Ukrainian Crisis: European Vulnerabilities to Russian Pressures. Santa Monica: RAND, 2017, pp. 10-11.
5. Robert Martinage. “Under the Sea: The Vulnerability of the Commons,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 1, January/February 2015, p. 117.
6. Martin N. Murphy, Frank G. Hoffman and Gary Schaub, Jr. ‘Hybrid Maritime Warfare and the Baltic Sea Region’. Copenhagen: Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, November 2016, pp. 11-14.
7. Richard Orange. ‘Swedish towns told to “make preparations regarding the threat of war and conflict” with Russia’. Daily Telegraph, 15th December 2016.
8. Daniel Dickson; and Bjorn Rundstrom. ‘Sweden returns draft amid security worries and soldier shortage’. Reuters, 2nd March 2017.
9. Edward Lucas. ‘The Coming Storm: Baltic Sea Security Report’. Washington, DC: Center for European Policy Analysis, June 2015, p. 4.
10. ‘Russia reinforces Baltic Fleet with ships armed with long-range cruise missiles in ‘worrying’ response to Nato build-up’. Daily Telegraph, 26th October 2016.
11. Kaas. ‘Russian Armed Forces in the Baltic Sea Region’.
12. ‘Russia deploys “Bastion” coastal missile complex to the Kaliningrad region’. UAWire, 22nd November 2016.
13. Charles K. Bartles and Roger N. McDermott. ‘Russia’s Military Operation in Crimea: Road-Testing Rapid Reaction Capabilities’. Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 61, No. 6, November–December 2014, pp. 46–63; Admiral James Stavridis, USN (rtd.). ‘Maritime Hybrid Warfare is Coming’. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 142, No. 12, December 2016, pp. 30-33.
14. For example, Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold. ‘Russian Warplanes Buzz U.S. Navy Destroyer, Polish Helicopter’. Wall Street Journal, 13th April 2016.
15. Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa and Ian Kearns. ‘Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters between Russia and the West in 2014’. European Leadership Network Policy Brief, November 2014.
16. ‘Russian envoy: Ratification of border treaty with Estonia obstructed by bad relations’. The Baltic Times, 9th July 2016.
17. NATO. ‘NATO’s Readiness Action Plan’. NATO Fact Sheet, May 2015; Megan Eckstein. ‘U.S. Led BALTOPS 2015 begins with heftier presence than last year’s exercise,” USNI News, 5th June 2015; Megan Eckstein.‘Foggo: BALTOPS 2016 includes more anti-sub, more challenging amphibious operations’. USNI News, 15th June 2016.
18. Milda Seputyte. ‘Lithuania grabs LNG in effort to curb Russian dominance’. Bloomberg, 27th October 2014; ‘Sweden gets new LNG terminal’. World Maritime News, 20th October 2014.
Featured Image: Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)