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Manning the Distant Rampart: Maritime Strategy in an Age of Global Competition

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Topic Week

By Harry Halem

Introduction – Maritime and Grand Strategy

During the third presidential debate of the 2012 election season, then-President Obama famously characterized the foreign policy of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as decades out of date. When Romney identified Russia as the primary geopolitical foe of the U.S., Obama responded with “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Six years later, candidate Romney’s prediction seems prescient, not antiquated. Russia and Iran now operate alongside one another in Syria, China continues to expand its maritime footprint in the South and East China Seas, and all the while North Korea’s nuclear arsenal holds America’s attention. Concurrently, the EU still struggles to respond to migrant flows from the Near East and North Africa, terrorist organizations persist despite ISIS’ destruction, and the world’s major powers struggle to counter transnational issues like piracy, international crime, and climate change.

Great power competition has clearly returned. But nontraditional issues have retained their relevance, with great powers using them as strategic facilitators in their quest to gain marginal advantages. In this international environment, the sea has retained its unbroken importance. The overwhelming majority of humankind’s physical trade is still transported on maritime highways, while the geography of contemporary global flashpoints, and the ambitions of great powers and nonstate actors, makes the sea central to international competition.

America’s sea services, therefore, require a new maritime strategy. One can understand maritime strategy as the relationship between naval and maritime power and a nation’s ultimate security objectives. This, in turn, stems from a grand strategy, a nation’s understanding of how to produce security from threat perception, safeguard its interests, and defend its honor. Crafting a new American maritime strategy thus requires a revitalized grand strategic paradigm, which entails a review of the nation’s enduring interests, and the specific threats it faces. From this broader paradigm, one can establish the relationship between a nation’s security and its maritime security, and outline a specific naval force structure.

The American Republic’s strategic objective remains preventing a hostile actor or coalition from dominating the Eurasian landmass. This requires fighting conflicts as far away from the American homeland as possible by establishing control of strategically vital regions in Eurasia. One can identify the illiberal entente of Russia, China, and Iran as the greatest adversaries of the U.S. The ultimate goal of this entente, and particularly of China, is to accumulate strategic nuances that can be used to crack America’s alliance structure or stage a coup de main against American forces.

One can identify three objectives for the sea services from this set of circumstances. First, American naval power must ensure access to specific narrow seas and maritime chokepoints. Second, the U.S. Navy (USN) and Marine Corps (USMC) must be able to deny America’s enemies their initial objectives in a broader conflict, with the goal of deterring or preventing a coup de main. Third, the sea services must field sufficient forward presence to preclude a fait accompli in various regions. One can identify a varied force structure to achieve these goals: a multi-Carrier Strike Group surface force optimized for sea control, a specific fleet of small surface combatants for use in the pre-conflict “grey zone,” a forward-deployed submarine force, and a USMC large enough to defend isolated outposts and mount large-scale counteroffensives.  Absent such changes in force structure, America’s adversaries will be able to take advantage of critical capability gaps.

Grand Strategy – Manning the Distant Rampart

Politics, like any human interaction, is not strictly scientific. However, one can identify enduring interests for different international actors. For example, any power that wishes to dominate Europe must contest control of the Mediterranean. This was true of Rome, the Venetian Republic, the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, Britain, the French Republic, and Imperial and Soviet Russia. Similarly, specific regional actors have enduring interests. One can identify an intelligible French territorial interest from the mid-15th century onward which, whether Valois, Bourbon, Bonapartist, or Republican, had an overwhelming interest in ensuring Central Europe’s political weakness, and dominating it if possible. Only two world wars and a sustained confrontation between superpowers mitigated this strategic objective.

Similarly, different “problems” exist in international politics. Geostrategists are familiar with Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “Problem of Asia” – the threat of Russia’s expansionist impulse and geographic position, or the potential power of a unified China, would pose to international stability. The “German Problem” is similarly enduring: a united Germany, absent clear military restraint, naturally jeopardizes European security because of the population and resources it can muster.

The American Republic faces what one could term the “Eurasian problem.” American safety and prosperity is directly tied to the Eurasian balance of power. Eurasia contains the majority of the world’s population and resources. Hence, the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power or coalition would ultimately pose a direct threat to American survival – such an actor or coalition would always retain the ability to deny America access to markets, or launch an offensive against the Western hemisphere. However, unlike similarly insular maritime powers like Japan and Britain, the United States lacks easy access to Eurasia by virtue of its distant geographic position. Even launching small-scale raids on the European coastline would require a notable exertion of American power if not for the positional advantages gained through alliances.

Waiting until conflicts reach the Western hemisphere jeopardizes American interests. It is unlikely that a hostile Eurasian power could actually conquer the territorial United States. However, a Eurasian power could come to dominate Latin America over time while attacking strategic points in the Caribbean and along the U.S. coastline, slowly eroding the position of the U.S., and forcing it to acquiesce to an unfavorable and likely illiberal international order. Nuclear weapons compound the issue. Mutually Assured Destruction would provide much less comfort against an anti-ballistic missile network and tactical nuclear arsenals distributed throughout the Western Pacific and Latin America.

Two strategic precepts flow from the Eurasian problem that the American Republic confronts. First, the U.S. must ensure a favorable Eurasian balance of power. Second, the best way to preserve this balance of power is by fighting wars and influencing events away from the Western Hemisphere. By maintaining overseas bases, partnering with regional powers, and fielding a powerful Navy, the U.S. can man what Professor Harold Rood termed in his 1967 prize-winning essay for Proceedings the “Distant Rampart.”

Just as France’s leaders have followed a consistent logic in their foreign policies despite changes in regime and ideology, so have the American Republic’s statesmen done the same. The American Revolution can be understood in part as an attempt to prevent the colonies’ interests from being overshadowed by those of Europe’s great powers during post-conflict settlements. The Monroe Doctrine began forward defense: preventing foreign meddling in the Western hemisphere precludes a campaign against America’s homeland. The belated American entry into both World Wars demonstrates strategy’s eventual triumph over ideology – American leaders could not accept German, either Imperial or Nazi, domination of Europe.

The unfortunate side effect of the American Republic’s ascendancy in the post-WWII era was the relative diminishment of allied European military power and global political networks born from colonial interests. Rather than simply supporting allies in key regions, during the Cold War the U.S. was forced to man the Distant Rampart itself, maintaining a permanent and prominent military presence in Europe and Asia, and committing to large-scale interventions in Korea and Vietnam.

Although the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1991, the Eurasian problem still persists.  Advances in Artificial Intelligence are poised to revolutionize global economics and finance, but unless one can solve fundamental resource questions, maritime trade will remain central to the global economy, making hostile control of Eurasia an economic threat. Moreover, Eurasia’s resources comparative to the Americas ensure the persistence of the Eurasian problem.

Manning the Distant Rampart, then, must remain the core of American grand strategy. As such, maritime power is the most fundamental component of America’s national power because maritime power is what ultimately assures American access across the large oceans that separate it from the Eurasian landmass. Dominating Eurasia requires dominion over the large oceans that surround it and the narrow maritime chokepoints that connect key geographic regions. With such dominion, a would-be authoritarian hegemon can bully smaller states into submission by threatening to deny them access to regional trade, eroding their sovereignty through naval patrols in their territorial waters, and staging amphibious assaults upon their territory. Eurasia’s narrow seas also include maritime chokepoints that constrain nearly all seaborne movement – controlling even one of these chokepoints gives the dominating power the ability to manipulate the global economy, and deny other powers secure lines of communication while facilitating the transfer of forces between theaters. Maritime strategy, therefore, is a significant part of American grand strategy, as Eurasia’s proximate maritime features and chokepoints have always been central areas of contestation in great power competition.

Threats – the Illiberal Entente and its Wildcards

Delineating specific roles for the sea services requires a review of the specific challengers the American Republic faces, along with the “wildcards” that said challengers can employ or benefit from, particularly terrorism and non-state actors.

Nearly 111 years ago, Britain, France, and Russia cemented the mutual political and strategic understanding that is termed the Triple Entente. While each partner was an erstwhile rival or enemy of the other two, all three shared an interest in containing Imperial German power. One can see a similar arrangement developing between three aspiring hegemons today – China, Russia, and Iran. Each has either openly facilitated or tacitly acquiesced to the aims of the other two, in the belief that destabilizing American power elsewhere will enable its own regional objectives.

China poses the most obvious threat. It has the world’s largest population (1.4 billion) and either its largest ($21-23 trillion PPP) or second-largest ($11-12 trillion nominal) GDP. Scaling for personnel costs and adjusting the purchasing power of U.S. and Chinese budgets, China may spend roughly the same and possibly more than the U.S. on weapons systems, military operations, and training exercises.

China’s contemporary military is the culmination of four decades of development and reform. The PLA is the largest active military in the world. Its Navy is one of six that operates both a fixed-wing aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. Its Air Force operates the world’s third largest combat aircraft fleet, and is one of three to field strategic bombers. Moreover, its Navy is scheduled to possibly outstrip America’s in size by 2020.

China’s internal system rests upon contradictory premises. Selective liberalization and capitalization are in tension with socio-political uniformity. Since Deng Xiaoping’s victory over the Gang of Four, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has restrained itself from overt, society-wide ideological engineering. Rather than pursuing a socialist utopia, the PRC’s social contract requires the continual increase of living standards, particularly for the urban middle class, in return for acquiescence to the regime’s social control. Such a social contract is not fully legitimate – a fact that helps explain the CCP’s fixation on Taiwan, an economically vibrant democracy that demonstrates an alternative developmental path.

One can link this fixation on legitimacy with the CCP’s ideational aims. Chinese rhetoric about its “century of humiliation” must be taken seriously in understanding China’s perspective. As the preeminent Western power, the lynchpin of the contemporary international economic order, and with its network of Pacific bases and a blue-water Navy, America is China’s obvious rival. Many elements of China’s economy are dependent on seaborne commerce, such as how China’s economy requires natural resources for production and its population needs more energy than China’s domestic deposits provide.

Hence, China has embarked upon a campaign of hedging against U.S. offensive action and global economic shock, the two events that can disrupt Chinese growth. In maritime terms, this is best expressed in its South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) aggression. The majority of China’s imports pass through these waters, making hostile control of them in war a mortal threat to Chinese ambitions and stability. Additionally, control of the SCS and ECS allows China to isolate Taiwan and cut off energy flows to Japan, breaking up the U.S. regional alliance structure. On land, China is attempting to acquire resources at the point of extraction, especially in Africa and Central Asia. Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative seems grandiose and ill-fated until one identifies it as a component of Chinese hedging. Rather than attempting to compete with American maritime advantages overland, China could be attempting to create a windpipe to relieve itself during a major crisis. Concurrently, China has expanded its maritime trade fleet, an asset that ensures energy and other imports during the next international economic contraction.  Finally, Beijing’s hedge includes the ultimate goal of transforming China’s economy, to ensure the rising living standards its urban middle class demands. Chinese encroachments into Latin American markets facilitate this objective, while also offering it access into the geopolitical backyard of the U.S.

While China operates largely independently in the Pacific, Russia and Iran have intertwined objectives in the Near East and Europe, making it reasonable to address both powers simultaneously.

Putin’s Russia lacks the USSR’s military capabilities, but the laws of geopolitics still apply. While Russia’s military weakness relative to China has diminished its role in Asia’s balance of power, the Russian problem remains relevant for Europe and the Near East. Russia’s overarching strategic objective, whether Imperial, Soviet, or Putinist, has been securing itself from European invasion. European nations have been united twice under an anti-Russian coalition – in both instances, Russia survived an invasion attempt, but only after immense loss of life and expenditure of resources. Controlling Eastern Europe gives Russia a buffer against potential aggression, while establishing itself as Europe’s preeminent power offers long-term security. This combines with Russia’s ideological impulses, which Imperial and Soviet Russia both shared. Russia’s self-image demands respect, whether as the Roman Empire’s successor, leader of international Marxism, or simply Europe’s foremost state.

Considering Russia’s diminished power position, obtaining Eastern Europe as a buffer and expelling America from the European continent requires creative strategy. Rather than physically removing the U.S., Russia is attempting to “crack” NATO by attacking its members’ domestic institutions, likely as a prelude to crisis generation. The Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea are central to this goal – control of both allows Russia to dominate the Balkans and pressure Europe’s “soft underbelly.”

Russia’s objectives in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea mesh with Iran’s regional ambitions. One should not underestimate the religious animus that drives the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic’s political structure, despite its electoral obfuscation, heavily centralizes control in the clerical class and the IRGC. Locked in religious competition with Israel and sectarian competition with Saudi Arabia, the Iranian regime’s “governance of the jurist” engenders an aggressive, anti-Western foreign policy. Additionally, the Iranian people still remember the Anglo-American engineered deposition of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, adding distrust to Iranian avarice. Even more apparent than Iran’s ideological goals are its actions. Tehran has manufactured a corridor from Iran’s borders to the Eastern Mediterranean through proxies in Iraq and Syria. Despite its nuclear arsenal, Israel’s population precludes an actual offensive campaign against Iran, while Saudi Arabia, despite Mohammed Bin Salman’s reforms, remains corrupt and internally weak. If Israel or Saudi Arabia could subjugate Iran, one of the two would have done so already, rather than allowing the Islamic Republic to continue increasing its power. The Iran-Iraq War demonstrated the true strength of Iran’s society. Israel and Saudi Arabia, therefore, seek a reasonable accommodation, while Iran desires domination.

To facilitate their mutual aims, Tehran and Moscow have entered into an increasingly public partnership. Russia’s increased presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and support of the Assad regime occurs in tandem with Iran’s increasing control over Iraq, and its support for Hezbollah. Russia lacks a territorial interest in the Near East, while Iran’s primary rivals are land-based. Hence, the two powers cooperate to achieve their joint goals, with Russian weapons finding their way to Iranian proxies, and Iranian special forces working alongside Russian troops. Recent news of a Russo-Israeli agreement on Iran’s withdrawal from southern Syria does not change this relationship. Russia requires Iran’s partnership, absent increased Turkish stability or a literal revolution in Saudi Arabia, while Iran can still support Hezbollah, even if its forces are not stationed on Israel’s northern border.

Not only do the actions of each of the illiberal entente’s members support others’ positions – all three partners use strategic wildcards to expand their power.

Iran’s relationship with Russia has already been explicated. Less obvious is its relationship with China. Aside from the military relationship between Tehran and Beijing, Iran can influence the Strait of Hormuz, an important strategic chokepoint for China especially. This past April, India and China imported nearly half of Iran’s oil production. Oil travelling to China from Iran by water must pass through the Strait of Hormuz, off Iran’s coastline, and the Strait of Malacca, on the SCS’ southern rim. Even if China gains control of the SCS, the U.S. Navy could exert distant pressure in the Indian Ocean, denying China-bound ships the opportunity to even reach the Strait of Malacca and where directly blockading the Strait of Malacca would be economically catastrophic.

China and Iran are developing the mutual tools and positions to respond to such a move. Iranian long-range missiles like the Shahab-3, with its 2000-kilometer range, can reach a longitudinal line running from the Horn of Africa to the Indian coast. If the road-mobile weapon is based in Houthi-controlled Yemeni territory, one could envision an even greater area of coverage.  Concurrently, China now holds two ports in the Indian Ocean: Gwadar, on the Pakistani coast, and Colombo, in Sri Lanka. Neither location is militarized today, but both could become focal points for Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean in the future.  Even absent the hardening that would make these ports tenable in a major conflict, China can still use them to escort China-bound shipping in a “grey zone” scenario as described above. China lacks regular  Mediterranean presence, but Iranian and Russian acquiescence to China’s Eastern Mediterranean economic expansion indicates similarly overlapping interests. One could envision the Greek port of Piraeus becoming a shared location for the illiberal entente’s members

China, Russia, and Iran also benefit from strategic wildcards that can disrupt the status quo, and provide cover for expansion. ISIS posed an undeniable security threat to Iran and Russia. But it is also clear that, without Iraqi state weakness, Iran’s project to create a chain of proxy or allied states spanning the Near East would be much further from completion. Russia would have lacked cover to expand its reach into the Eastern Mediterranean and threaten Europe’s underbelly without the rebel and jihadist threat against the Assad regime. Similarly, the PLA Navy would not be able to deploy as easily to the Indian Ocean without the cover of antipiracy operations. China’s current antipiracy Indian Ocean presence consists of two frigates and 700 Special Operations Forces and other soldiers. But if China’s presence in Africa, anchored in Djibouti, expands, this could turn into a larger, more permanent force. One should note that a Sino-Iranian response to American interdiction of China-bound shipping in the Indian Ocean would likely involve the forces engaged in antipiracy operations off the Horn of Africa.

None of these adversaries have the immediate goal of war with the United States. However, all three powers have the potential to execute faits accomplis – quick, decisive actions that cannot be responded to absent general escalation. Russia maintains overwhelming relative superiority in the Baltics and Ukraine. Putin could one day elect to quickly connect St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad, or drive further west in Ukraine. China outnumbers and outclasses the Philippines and Vietnam in the SCS. If Chinese violations of Vietnamese or Philippine fishing waters, or a repeat of the Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff, prompt a strong militarized response, the PLAN and PLAAF would enjoy steep superiority over their regional counterparts. Vietnam would fare better in a full-scale confrontation, but China could still obtain the more limited objective of neutralizing the Vietnamese Navy by drawing it out into a lopsided engagement. In each of these situations, the U.S. will be faced with the choice between escalation, and the potential of general war between nuclear-armed powers, or acquiescence to adversarial expansion and intimidation, and the erosion of its strategic position.

Moreover, an ultimate goal of China, may be to stage a coup de main against American forces in the Pacific. China’s long-range missiles would isolate America’s Pacific bases from one another and American forces from their allied counterparts, while long-range strike aircraft and amphibious units would overwhelm remaining outposts, and leave China with a free hand to neutralize Taiwan. Bursting through a cordon of the First and Second Island Chains, PLAN submarines could attempt to tie down U.S. follow-on forces by attacking naval bases at Pearl Harbor, Kitsap, and San Diego. Even more unconventionally, a great power adversary could smuggle weapons of mass destruction into major American cities using clandestine naval power, as ML Cavanaugh suggests in his provocative Modern War Institute piece, and hold the U.S. population hostage through threat of an unpreventable nuclear strike. Accumulating nuanced advantages through repeated faits accomplis can facilitate ultimate objectives.

Manning the Distant Rampart – Maritime Strategy and Force Structure

The clearly maritime nature of contemporary great power competition, along with the specifics of the illiberal entente’s objectives and capabilities, necessitates a specific maritime strategy. The USN should be tasked with three major missions: maintaining control of certain strategic chokepoints, the prevention of a coup de main by manning specific Distant Ramparts, and the prevention of faits accomplis.

First, the sea services must control specific international chokepoints which correspond to the narrow seas previously discussed. Most important to this strategy is control of the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, and the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. Control of these three chokepoints enables a far blockade/interdiction strategy critical to victory in a long-term conflict. Control of the Eastern Mediterranean hems in Russia from the South, facilitates operations against Iranian expansion in the Near East, and shortens transit time between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Control of the Strait of Hormuz and Western Indian Ocean enables a far blockade or interdiction operation against China, and provides critical screening for forces moving between the Far East and Europe. Finally, control of the Strait of Malacca and the Indonesian Throughflow, while not a foolproof method to prevent Chinese submarine leakage into the Indian Ocean, would at least make it more difficult for PLA Navy surface combatants to operate in this maritime space. Moreover, were China to militarize Colombo and Gwadar, and create a major facility in Djibouti, American and Allied forces would likely be able to prevent their relief and neutralize their combat efficacy.

Second, the USN and USMC must maintain overwhelming force superiority at critical sections of the Distant Rampart. In particular, the Ryukyu Islands, Indochinese coastline, and Persian Gulf must be unimpeachably secure. Crushing smaller adversaries like the Philippines and, depending on the conflict, Vietnam, could be executed before the arrival of American follow-on forces. A Taiwanese fait accompli is also possible, particularly if China struck after eliminating Vietnam or the Philippines. However, if China were not to secure a quick victory, it would need to isolate Taiwan from external supply lines and possible vectors of foreign intervention. This involves cutting through the Ryukyu Islands and Luzon in a pincer movement. Similarly, a quick descent upon the Strait of Malacca could require neutralizing Vietnam as an adversary – forces operating from Da Nang and Hai Phong would directly threaten the Southern Seas Fleet’s bases on Hainan Island and in Zhanjing. Ensuring American strength at each of these points would make the risk of these decisive actions much greater. If China cannot neutralize Taiwan with an overwhelming first strike, and if reinforcing CSGs and submarines operate behind a nest of island-based missile defenses, China will need to actually fight for the First Island Chain, rather than gaining it as a launchpad for further operations. If a Chinese move against Malacca requires eliminating an American-aligned Vietnam that can stall an offensive, the possibility of a quick, decisive strike spiraling into a broader war increases. And if America holds force superiority at key strategic points, this broader war looks increasingly less attractive for China. A similar concept applies in the Persian Gulf. A quick Iranian strike against Saudi Arabia or an attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz would be much less attractive if American forces in the Persian Gulf could intercept incoming Iranian missiles, sink the inevitable swarm of fast attack craft and missile boats, and eliminate the Iranian naval command at Bandar Abbas. Maintaining superiority at critical points on the Distant Rampart ensures that America’s adversaries will need to seriously consider the implications of full-scale and long-term war, rather than being tempted to strike quickly and decisively.

Third, the sea services, and the Navy in particular, must guard against smaller-scale faits accomplis from America’s adversaries by maintaining long-term and sufficient presence and combat power in the narrow seas, namely the SCS, ECS, Baltic, and Eastern Mediterranean.  The specific force structure in the first three differs from that in the last. The SCS, ECS, and Baltic are potential “hot zones,” in which China or Russia could stage a quick strike against an American ally or U.S. forces.  For long-term combat power, submarines are more important in these areas than surface combatants – although small surface combatants used as a tripwire, and to engage in grey zone operations, are relevant. By contrast, Russia’s aim of cracking NATO involves applying coercive naval and maritime pressure to Southern Europe and, potentially, Israel. Particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, land-based airpower can prove decisive in preserving sea control, as Britain’s experience during the Second World War demonstrated.  Thus, the USN’s Eastern Mediterranean role must be to outmuscle Russian warships, serving as a visible marker of American interest in, and commitment to, a favorable regional balance of power.

A specific force structure and distribution descends from this strategy. The two major chokepoints that the U.S. must control – the Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Malacca – require frequent carrier coverage, or at a minimum, a large, visible surface presence. In addition, the USN must provide a capable battle force ready to deploy to Asiatic waters, which likely includes two on-station CSGs at any time. Presuming contemporary operational tempo during peacetime, this necessitates an expansion of the U.S. carrier fleet to 15 ships from its present 11. Despite their age, the Navy could consider bringing the USS Enterprise and John F Kennedy out of retirement, at least until the mid-2020s, when CVN-80 will be commissioned. With four surface combatants and one submarine per CSG, the Navy will need to dedicate 20 surface combatants and five SSNs exclusively to maintaining these permanent formations. That is absent the surface action groups necessary to operate a far blockade. The Future Surface Combatant’s development offers a significant opportunity in this regard: developing a family of warships intended to operate as a cohesive, networked whole in blockade operations would benefit America’s long-term strategy.

Preventing faits accomplis requires a similarly significant force restructuring. The basis of this deterrence force should be the four Ohio-class submarines the USN has modified to carry cruise missiles, operating alongside Surface Action Groups (this makes eight more deployed DDG-51s, DDG-1000s, or CG-47s). Such formations will be particularly important in the Baltics, SCS, and ECS, environments in which America’s adversaries could contest access in crisis situations. The SSGNs will be able to avoid enemy detection, and inflict substantial punishment on advancing forces and their supporting infrastructure with their 154 cruise missiles. However, the U.S. must consider revising longstanding biases, and forward-deploying small surface combatants optimized for lethality, rather than emphasizing survivability and defensive armament. Conventionally-powered attack submarines may also be a part of such a force, either directly in the U.S. fleet, or operated by American allies with weaker military capabilities.

Most importantly, preventing a coup de main requires a radical overhaul of the USN’s and USMC’s present operational outlook. While the far blockade is invaluable to winning a major great power war, it is unlikely to deter one. Short, decisive actions that transform the regional balance of forces are unlikely to be deterred by long-term punishment strategies, of which the far blockade is an example. The case of Germany in 1914 is illustrative. British strategy was premised on maintaining the far blockade against Germany, and in conjunction slowly grinding down Germany’s military positions on the European continent. The strategy worked, but only after 1.1 million British and Imperial lives were lost. If Britain had attempted to deny Germany its immediate objectives in 1914, and threatened to deploy 30 or more divisions in support of France at the outbreak of hostilities, the already anxious Moltke the Younger may have objected to the Schlieffen Plan in its totality.

Similarly, denying China its objectives in the Pacific requires ensuring that Taiwan remains defended and supplied despite an overwhelming initial Chinese offensive. Neutralizing Taiwan is essential for China’s long-term war objectives in a protracted and wide-scale conflict. If the island remains functionally independent, it could act as a strategic salient for hostile forces, and a staging point for attacks against Chinese shipping and naval units. The two-CSG battle force proposed previously would help protect Taiwan from China’s initial offensive. However, the USMC must also fortify the islands that provide access to Taiwan, namely the Ryukyus and the north of the Philippine archipelago. This not only entails an expansion of the USMC, but also a modification of its role. Marines fortifying these islands must field their own long-range anti-ship and anti-air missiles, while the Marine air units deployed would be focused upon air defense and sea control, rather than ground attack.

The exact size of such a fleet and Marine Corps would fluctuate depending upon specific operational choices. However, one can expect the USN would break 350 ships, while the USMC would expand to 190,000-200,000 men.

Conclusion

Such a force expansion would be costly, but is miniscule compared to the price of fighting a major war unprepared. Manning the Distant Rampart is an expensive process, even with allies to shoulder the load. But abandoning it, as empires from Rome onward have learned, is even more dangerous. By refocusing U.S. maritime strategy on forward defense and offensive action, one can hope for, if not the realization of American security goals, then at least the right general approach to the Republic’s challenges.

Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at hh66@st-andrews.ac.uk

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (March 11, 2018) An F-35B launches off the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) as part of a routine patrol in the Indo-Pacific region. Pilots with the “Green Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), assigned under the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, are scheduled to conduct a series of qualification flights on Wasp over a multi-day period. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)

Russia-China Naval Cooperation in an Era of Great Power Competition

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Week

By David Scott

Introduction

On 30 May 2018, Admiral Harry Harris, the retiring chief of the newly renamed U.S. Indo-Pacific Pacific Command (IndoPacom), noted that “China remains our biggest long-term challenge” and “a resurgent and revanchist Russia, remains an existential threat to the U.S” – and that consequently “Great Power competition is back.” Such competition brings Russia and China together as political partners, and is echoed in their increasing naval cooperation. Such naval cooperation provides one another with tacit support in their respective areas of geopolitical interest.

Straight balancing imperatives against the U.S. bring Russia and China together. This was first evident in their 1997 “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” which was followed by a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed in 2001, and proclamation of a “strategic partnership.” Joint military exercises were initiated in 2005, with maritime exercises starting in 2012. Their military cooperation has clear “geopolitical signaling” to the U.S.-led order, reflecting their maritime strategies.

Russia’s Maritime Strategy

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the Russian Federation suffered a decade of chaos under Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s and with it a sharp decline in maritime power from the preceding Soviet period. Vladimir Putin has sought to establish Russia as a major power again, and to push back the advancing influence of the U.S., NATO and the EU. Military power and military assertiveness has been a feature of Putin’s presidency.

This renewed Russian pushback was reflected in the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, released in 2015, which sought to restore Russia’s position “among the leading maritime powers,” and concluded in its final sentence that it aimed to make Russia “a great maritime power.” It stressed that as an “instrument of foreign policy […] naval activities are the highest state priorities.” The navy had a global remit:

“The Navy is intended to ensure protection of the national interests of the Russian Federation and its allies on the World Ocean by military means, maintaining military and political stability at the global and regional levels […] ensures the naval presence of the Russian Federation; shows the flag and demonstrates military capabilities on the World Ocean.”

Russia’s areas of strategic interest were recast on a wider scale again; “the Russian Federation identifies the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian, Indian Ocean and Antarctic areas as the main regional priority areas of the National Maritime Policy.” To reverse the Yeltsin-period of industrial collapse of the 1990s, a naval shipbuilding program was announced.

Chinese Military Strategy

The current rise of China is a process where economic modernization is now feeding into military modernization. This military modernization includes naval advancement, where China’s navy is moving from a local coastal activities to oceanic-going “far seas operations” (yuanhai zuozhan). China’s 2013 Defense White Paper announced its intent “to accelerate the modernization of its forces for comprehensive offshore operations, develop advanced submarines, destroyers and frigates […] blue-water capabilities.” Faced with U.S. naval strength in the West Pacific, China has adopted a naval strategy of penetrating the “first island chain” (dì yi dao lian) running from Japan down the Ryukyu chain to Taiwan, establishing naval presence in its “core interests” (hexin liyi) claims to most of the South China Sea, and in a “two-ocean strategy” (liang ge haiyang) of establishing ongoing naval presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Like Russia, China is accelerating its naval shipbuilding program, including aircraft carrier capabilities.

Bilateral Naval Exercises 2012-2018

A significant development in the China-Russia relationship has been their series of large-scale naval exercises held since 2012. At a time when both powers have been under growing criticism from the West, their overt readiness to publicly operate militarily side-by-side has been an act of political solidarity. They continue to claim that these drills are “not aimed at third parties,” but in reality pointed messages are being sent to third parties like the U.S. and others with whom Russia and China are in competition with.

The geographic scope of the Russia-China naval exercises has been wide ranging, with each country hosting in different waters.

Three of the exercises have taken place in Russia’s backyard – the Mediterranean (2015), Black Sea (2015), Baltic (2017), and Okhtosk Sea (2017). One has been in mutual areas of interest – the Sea of Japan (2013, 2015, 2017). Three have been in China’s backyard – the Yellow Sea (2012), the East China Sea (2014) and the South China Sea (2016). The 2018 exercises are scheduled to be held in the Yellow Sea, coming full circle back to the start of the cycle of exercises that commenced in 2012.

Russia’s Strategic Backyard

2015: Mediterranean

With this exercise, Russia was sending a very explicit message to the U.S. and NATO. This was at a time when Russia was reinserting itself back into the Mediterranean as a permanent maritime presence, through re-setting up in September 2013 the “5th Operational squadron” for operations in the Mediterranean, to be serviced and repaired at Tartus in Syria. This was again made up of ships from the Black Sea Fleet and Northern Fleet, which of course participated in the Russia-China naval exercises in 2015.

Tartus had operated under a Soviet-Syrian agreement concluded in 1971, with a view of supporting the Soviet Navy’s 5th Operational Squadron in the Mediterranean, in its rivalry with the U.S. 6th Fleet based in Italy. This Soviet squadron had been disbanded in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tartus was subsequently the focus, along with Hmeymim airbase, for the flow of Russian military supplies into Syria from 2012 onward. This growing Russian military role in Syria, on the side of Assad, attracts increasing criticism from European states, the U.S., and NATO, but China’s readiness to exercise with Russia in the Mediterranean in 2015 gave Russia extra support. Direct Russian military intervention quickly followed in September 2015. Russia’s maritime presence in the Mediterranean was further strengthened on 18 January 2017, when Russia and Syria signed an agreement, whereby Russia was allowed to expand and use the naval facility at Tartus for 49 years on a free-of-charge basis and enjoy sovereign jurisdiction over the base, with full immunity from Syrian jurisdiction for Russia’s personnel and material at the facility. The treaty also allows Russia to keep 11 warships at Tartus, including nuclear vessels.

China’s implicit message in the 2015 exercise was to show its assertion of its blue water capabilities. A more subtle message was to accustom Europe to China’s presence and emerging maritime interests in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean has come into the purview of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pursued by China since 2013. In particular, the main Greek port of Piraeus has increasing “geopolitical” importance to China, a “bridgehead” into Europe; the so called “dragon head” from the MSR route coming through the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Greece’s troubled relationship with the EU had seen China stepping in with financial aid, including the running of the Piraeus port by the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) since 2008. In July 2014 China and Greece agree to make the year 2015 the “China-Greece Maritime Cooperation Year.” Consequently, China strengthened its Mediterranean presence by COSCO’s acquisition of a majority stake (i.e. moving from administering to owning) in the Piraeus Port Authority in April 2016.

2015: Black Sea

Technically speaking the Black Sea was not the focus of the bilateral China-Russia naval exercise program. However, immediately following the bilateral 2015 Mediterranean exercise, the Chinese missile frigates, the Linyi and the Wei Fang, proceeded into the Black Sea, to take part in World War Two commemorations at Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast.

Russia’s context was simple, growing assertion in the Black Sea littoral. This had first been seen in its ongoing presence in Trans-Dniester since the 1990s, then followed with intervention in Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, and particularly manifested in  2014 with the occupation of the Crimea, and with it securing full control of the deep water facilities of Sevastopol. China’s deployment to Russia’s Black Sea coast in May 2015 in effect gave unofficial support to Russian actions in the Ukraine in February 2014, which caused outrage across the rest of Europe, and with it sanctions and cutting of various political, economic, and military links.

2017: Baltic Sea

The Chinese destroyer Hefei, the frigate Yuncheng , and the replenishment ship Luomahu sailed to the Baltic to carry out Maritime Interaction 2017 exercises with 18 other Russian ships from the Baltic Fleet from 21-28 July 2017. They first met in the waters off the Kaliningrad enclave, currently a “fault line of East-West tensions,” carried out exercises including live fire exercises, before the Chinese vessels sailed right up the Baltic to Russia’s St. Petersburg for a friendly port call. This represented a particularly far-reaching deployment of Chinese naval presence, but the context was very much Russian reassertion of military power in the Baltic, where Kaliningrad is not only the headquarters for the Russian Baltic Fleet, but is also a forward point for various missile deployments.

Rising confrontation has been a feature of the Baltic. Cyber-warfare attacks have been carried out by Russia against Estonia in 2016, and NATO exercises had immediately preceded the Russia-China naval exercise – the Suwalki Gap exercises in June 2017 and the Tobruq Legacy 2017 exercises in Lithuania in early July 2017. The Russia-China naval exercises in late-July were in turn followed and reinforced by the Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2017 held in September in the vicinity of Kaliningrad, which was the largest Russian exercise since the end of the Cold War. For Russia, the Baltic Sea exercises with China were one of several shows of strength with the purpose of sending a signal not only to the Baltic States, but also NATO, which had increased its presence in Poland and the Baltic states. China in itself presented no particular military danger to the Baltic States, but its very visible presence alongside Russia sent a signal of tacit support to Moscow.

2017: Okhtosk Sea

The Okhotsk Sea lies between the Kurile chain of islands and the Kamchakta peninsular. It is very much Russian waters, facing the northern Pacific and the U.S. Aleutian islands, with naval facilities at Petropavlovsk. The 2017 Russia-China exercises in the Sea of Japan were extended northwards into the Okhtosk waters in September 2017. From Russia’s point of view such military exercises support its increasing grip on the Okhtosk Sea, demonstrated with how it closed down these waters to outside shipping and fishing in 2014, which some argued will “embolden” similar Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Common Backyards

2013, 2015, 2017: Sea of Japan

The Sea of Japan lies between the Japanese archipelago, the Russian island of Sakhalin and Far Eastern province, and the Korean peninsula. Vladivostok is the home of the Russian Pacific Fleet, currently recovering from the decay witnessed in the 1990s. Naval exercises between Russia and China were carried out in the Sea of Japan in July 2013, August 2015, and September 2017. The 2015 exercises included joint amphibious landing drills, of relevance for China and Russia in their respective island disputes with Japan.

The Kurile island chain is administered by Russia, but territorial disputes remain with Japan over the four southernmost islands which Japan calls the “Northern Territories.” Russia has continued to reassert its continuing grip on this chain, with increased naval strength a signal to Japan.

Disputed features of the Kuril Islands (DW.com)

China has no direct frontage onto the Sea of Japan, but it continues to seek access to the Pacific Ocean through the “first island chain” running down through the .U.S Aleutian islands down through the Japanese archipelago. Naval exercises in the Sea of Japan send a message from China to Japan, the more so following the 2013 exercise where five Chinese naval vessels conducted their first known passage of the Soya Strait located between Hokkaido in northern Japan and Russia’s Sakhalin Island. The 2013 exercises were preceded by live fire joint U.S.-Japanese naval exercises in the Eastern Pacific. Comments in China were pointed: “all military drills have imaginary enemies, otherwise it’s just a game. For the U.S. and Japan, their joint drills in San Diego targeted China. And the upcoming Sino-Russian exercises will obviously target Japan or even the U.S. in response.” The five Chinese vessels participating in the 2015 exercise sailed from the Sea of Japan into Aleutian island territorial waters, a message to the U.S.

China’s Backyard

Three venues for the China-Russia exercises have been in China’s backyard, namely the Yellow Sea (2012), the East China Sea (2014), and the South China Sea (2016).

 2012: Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea is bounded by China, running up from Shanghai on the one side and the Korean peninsula on the other side. It in turn runs into the Bohai Sea, the maritime gateway to Beijing. A degree of naval “competition” is apparent with the U.S., which continues to deploy into these waters and carry out naval exercises with South Korea. The immediate context for the China-Russia 2012 exercises in April were the U.S. joint naval exercises with South Korea in March, as well as those in November 2010 which had attracted much Chinese criticism. Another set of exercises with South Korea and Japan took place in the Yellow Sea in June 2012; complete with the USS George Washington nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; with the state media warning that “U.S. in position to strangle China’s maritime lifelines.”

2014: East China Sea

These exercises were launched by both Presidents Xi and Putin at Shanghai in May 2014. Russia’s motives were secondary, i.e. tacitly supportive of China’s increasing naval presence in the East China Sea where “core interests” are at stake for Beijing. These revolve around the Senkaku islands controlled by Japan but which China claims as the Diaoyu islands, disputed exclusive economic zones between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and disputed airspace above these waters. Chinese actions in 2012 and 2013 provide the immediate context for Beijing’s decision to operate with Russia in the East China Sea. Firstly, increasing deployments of Chinese naval units in the waters immediately around the Senkaku/Diaoyu have been rising since 2012. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) proclaimed in November 2013 was a further sign of China’s push to establish jurisdiction over the East China Sea. Moreover, from the East China Sea, China seeks to penetrate Japan’s Ryukyu island chain into the Pacific, with naval deployments becoming a regular pattern through the Miyako and Ishigaki straits since 2008. The 2012 deployment through the Miyako Strait was particularly significant as China told Japan that “with the expansion of China’s maritime transport lines and interests, the Chinese navy will inevitably extend its combat forces to the Pacific.

2016: South China Sea

The two sides conducted their annual naval exercise, Joint Sea-2016, in the South China Sea with a focus on “island-seizing.” This is a key arena for China, a so-called “core interest” (hexin liyi) in which China’s “9-dash line” encloses most of the South China Sea, including the Paracels (occupied by China since 1974 but disputed with Vietnam) and the Spratlys (some land holdings occupied by China but disputed with Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, as well as waters disputed with Brunei and Indonesia). The China-Russia naval exercise in September 2016 was preceded in July 2016 by the ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which had seriously undermined China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, since it held that China’s so-called historical rights gave no validity for claims for Exclusive Economic Zones, and that none of the land features were proper “islands” under the UNCLOS categorization which could generate exclusive Economic Zones, and criticized Chinese creation of artificial concrete land features. It was significant that immediately before the start of the exercise Putin affirmed “we stand in solidarity and support of China’s position – not to recognize the decision of this court.” Given that China’s militarization of these artificial holdings had attracted widespread regional and international criticism, Russia’s readiness to then conduct military exercises with China, particularly involving South China Sea amphibious “island-seizing” operations, in effect provided tacit support for China’s maritime reinforcement of its position. 

Looking Forward

The 2018 exercises to be held in the Yellow Sea returns their cooperation to Northeast Asia, at a time when both China and Russia are moving to strengthen involvement in the Korean peninsula, and shape developments in their favor. These naval exercises have become a well-established feature in China-Russia military cooperation, which are in turn part of their wider strategic cooperation.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defense College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tartu since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Rear Adm. Du Xiping, front right, deputy commander of China’s Beihai Fleet, shakes hands with Captain First Rank Sergei Yuriyevich Zhuga of Russia’s Pacific Fleet during a welcome ceremony at a naval base in Qingdao, east China’s Shandong Province, Saturday, April 21, 2012. A China-Russia joint maritime drill is scheduled from April 22 to 27 on the Yellow Sea, Xinhua said. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zha Chunming) 

Russia’s Arctic Ambitions Held Back by Economic Troubles

The following article was originally featured by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Michael Lambert

During the Cold War, the geographical position of the Arctic and the technology available put the region in the geopolitical spotlight. The Arctic was the shortest flight path for Soviet and American intercontinental bombers between the United States and Soviet Union. Later, with the advent of ballistic missiles, the Arctic’s strategic relevance began to fade – only to be reignited in the 1970s with the arrival of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and strategic bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles.

The United States cooperated closely with Canada to stop the bomber threat coming from Moscow. The end result was a number of early warning radar lines across Canadian territory, most recently the joint Canada-U.S. North Warning System (NWS) built in the late 1980s, as well as significant air defense (and later aerospace) cooperation evident in the bi-national North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was also increasingly intent on penetrating the Soviet nuclear bastion in the Arctic with its own nuclear attack submarines.

The Soviet Union was itself directly exposed to strategic bombers located in Alaska. Looking at the strategic context until 1991, the USSR gathered a significant number of defense forces in the Soviet Arctic, going from advanced air defense systems in Rogachevo, Amderma, and Alykeland Ugolnye Kopi to submarines able to launch nuclear weapons from the Soviet Far East. The United States and the Soviet Union both conducted military exercises in the Arctic, and eventually had the technological capabilities to destroy each other multiple times. However, it was difficult for the United States to say if Moscow was trying to develop a defensive or offensive policy in that part of the world – although that uncertainty did not prevent the U.S. from moving decisively to try to mitigate this potential threat.

Moscow conducted an impressive number of nuclear experiments in the area. By the end of the 1980s, the USSR Northern Fleet had 172 submarines, including 39 SSBNs, 46 cruise missile submarines and 87 attack submarines, and between 1967 and 1993 Soviet and Russian submarines carried out a total of 4,600 training missions. However, looking at the size of the Arctic, the numbers are less impressive, and it seems difficult to know if the area was considered to be an outpost or a buffer zone, in so far as archives regarding Soviet nuclear weapons are still classified in Russia today.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited almost all Soviet facilities and nuclear equipment, including in the High North. Does the Russian approach toward the Arctic differ from the Soviet one? Under then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, supported by Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s Arctic forces were almost entirely disbanded for economic reasons during the 1990s. The Kremlin did keep its SSBNs to ensure nuclear deterrence and a minimum presence in the area. But it also diminished the number of aircraft and anti-aircraft systems as well, the latter decision largely due to the difficulty with modernizing equipment needed to detect and intercept American bomber aircraft, such as the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

With the return of Moscow on the international stage, Russia’s new nuclear policy in the Arctic has become a major issue for the relationship between the United States, Canada, Northern Europe (NATO and non-NATO members) and Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, current Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the modernization of Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces and its Northern Fleet to be a state priority.

More than 80 percent of Russia’s strategic maritime nuclear capabilities is located in the Northern Fleet, mostly in the form of its ballistic missile submarine fleet. It is also focused on developing infrastructure needed to operate such capabilities, such as the refurbished military airfields in its northern region that will provide aerial support for its Northern Fleet. In the Russian Military Doctrine of 2014, the Arctic was highlighted as one of the three key regions for military development, alongside Crimea and Kaliningrad. And, since 2008, Russia has reestablished long-range aviation patrols and increased the presence and activity of the Northern Fleet.

Putin’s policy in the Arctic can be interpreted as partly an attempt to protect future economic and military interests of the Russian Federation. After all, Russia has significant economic interests in the Arctic and needs to protect them. More than 20 percent of the country’s GDP is produced in the northern part of Russia, with approximately 75 percent of oil and 95 percent of natural gas reserves located in the area. In addition, it also is a means to put more pressure on Washington and its allies (including Canada) in the context of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. As well, it provides an opportunity to threaten (and therefore possibly deter) countries showing a growing interest for NATO membership, such as Sweden and Finland.

Russia has recently unveiled a new military base at Franz Joseph Land in the Arctic Sea, following its initial Northern Clover Arctic base on Kotelny Island, north of Siberia. The Franz Joseph Land archipelago had been abandoned in 1991 but the Russian Air Force decided to reopen Graham Bell Airfield (named the “Arctic Trefoil”) to protect Moscow’s interest in the area. However, Russia’s 150 soldiers are probably not enough to stop any foreign forces and control the 191 islands in this peninsula.

recent article published at the Department of Geography at Laval University also underlines the limitations of Russian Air Force operations in the Arctic, pointing particularly at the relative modest number of air military patrols in the region compared to the significant number of intrusive patrols (bombers and fighters) close to Japan, Northern Europe, and the Baltics.

In that context, it seems difficult to say if Russia is able to conduct any large military exercises in the Arctic, due to the size of the region and the limited number of troops on the ground. A brief look at the equipment available like the Tupolev Tu-160 – a Soviet bomber produced in the USSR between 1984-1991 and upgraded by the Russian Air Force – shows their limited capabilities to conduct an attack against Alaska or Northern Europe from the area, although their development of long-range cruise missile technology could change that calculus.

The Russian Federation is also facing difficulties when it comes to submarines. The Russian Navy cancelled the modernization program for its venerable Typhoon-class vessel in 2012, and most of its newer Borey-class SSBNs are under construction and those vessels earmarked for the Northern Fleet (Knyaz PozharskiyGeneralissimus Suvorov) won’t be ready until 2020. Indeed, the Yury Dolgorukiy is the only submarine located in the Arctic at the moment.

Despite Putin’s stated interest in strengthening the Northern Fleet, this situation should remain the same for the foreseeable future – especially following Moscow’s revised funding scheme for the Arctic. The expected budget approved for the military in the Arctic until 2020 is 17 times lower than the original sum. This arises from Russia’s current economic crisis, brought on not least by international sanctions after its military intervention in Ukraine.

In this context, rather than fixating on Russian activities in the Arctic, the United States and Canada should continue to focus the brunt of their attention on Europe and Syria – where the Russian presence remains far more intrusive, robust, and ultimately destabilizing.

Michael Eric Lambert received a PhD in History of Europe and International Relations from Sorbonne University, France. He is Founder and Director of the Caucasus Initiative, a new independent and unaligned European Policy Center with the mission to analyze contemporary issues related to de facto states and the Black Sea area.

Featured Image: Russian submarine (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Dimensions of Russian Sea Denial in the Baltic Sea

By Tobias Oder

Introduction

Over the last few years, the Russian Federation pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy in Eastern Europe. Geopolitical infringements on Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are coupled with hybrid warfare and aggressive rhetoric. The buildup and modernization of the Russian armed forces underpins this repositioning and Russia has taken major steps in increasing its conventional and nuclear capabilities.

The significant rearmament of its Western exclave Kaliningrad requires special attention.1 The recent buildup of Russian A2/AD forces in Kaliningrad, coupled with increasingly assertive behavior in the Baltic Sea, poses a serious challenge for European naval policy. Should Russia make active use of its sea denial forces, it could potentially shut down access to the Baltic Sea and cut maritime supply lines to the Baltic states. The full range of Russia’s A2/AD capabilities in Kaliningrad comprises a wide array of different weapon systems, ranging from SA-21 Growler surface-to-air missiles2 to a squadron of Su-27 Flanker fighters and another squadron of Su-24 Fencer attack aircraftsthat can be scrambled at a moment’s notice to contest Baltic Sea access.4 German naval capabilities to counter the SS-C-5 Stooge anti-ship missile system,Russia’s mining of sea lanes, and its attack submarines are of particular interest in retaining Baltic sea control.

Russian A2/AD Systems

The K300 Bastion-P system includes in its optional equipment a Monolit-B self-propelled coastal radar targeting system.6 This radar system is capable of, according to its manufacturer, “searching, detection, tracking and classification of sea-surface targets by active radar; over-the-horizon detection, classification, and determination of the coordinates of radiating radars, using the means of passive radar detection and ranging.”7The manufacturer further states that sea-surface detection with active radar ranges up to 250 kilometers under perfect conditions, while the range of sea surface detection with passive detection reaches 450 kilometers.8

With regard to its undersea warfare capabilities, the Russian Baltic Fleet currently only operates two Kilo-class submarines. Of these diesel-powered submarines, only one is currently operational with the other unavailable due to repairs for the foreseeable future.However, the entire Russian Navy’s submarine fleet is currently undergoing rapid modernization and the Baltic Fleet will receive reinforcements consisting of additional improved Kilo-class submarines.10 Despite the fact that the Baltic fleet remains relatively small in size, these upgrades amount to “a level of Russian capability that we haven’t seen before” in recent years.11

With its formidable ability to float through waters largely undetected and versatile missile equipment options capable of attacking targets on water and land, the Kilo-class presents a serious threat to naval security in the region.12 In fact, its low noise level has earned it the nickname “The Black Hole.”13

The Baltic Sea is relatively small in size and has only a few navigable passageways that create chokepoints. Therefore, it resembles perfect terrain for the possible use of sea mines.14 While often underestimated, sea mines can have a devastating impact on naval vessels. Affordable in price and hard to detect, they can be an effective area-denial tool if spread out in high quantities.15 Russia still possesses the largest arsenal of naval mines, and according to one observer, Russia has “a good capability to put weapons in the water both overtly and covertly.”16 The versatility of possible launch platforms, ranging from full-sized frigates to fishing boats, makes an assessment of current capabilities in Kaliningrad a difficult endeavor.

A Possible Scenario for Russian A2/AD Operations in the Baltic Sea

Given Russia’s long-term strategic inferiority to western conventional capabilities, a realistic scenario will bear in mind that Russia is not interested in vertical conflict escalation. Instead, it is primarily interested in exploiting its temporary regional power superiority.17 Thus, its endgame will not be to destroy as many enemy vessels as possible, but rather to send a signal to opponents and deter them from navigating their ships east of German territorial waters as long as needed.18 Ultimately, A2/AD capabilities only have to inflict so much damage to make defending the Baltic States appear unattractive or too costly to decision makers, especially if those measures can create the perception of Russian escalation dominance.19

Russia is very inclined to use means that offer plausible deniability, to possibly include sea mines.20 The Baltic Sea is still riddled with sea mines from both World Wars21 and if Russia manages to lay sea mines undetected, it can make the argument that any incidents in the Baltic Sea involving sea mines were simply due to old, leftover mines instead of newly deployed Russian systems.

Should measures to deploy sea mines in the Baltic Sea fail, Russia may consider use of a  more overt, multi-layered approach to sea denial. We can expect that a realistic scenario will feature a mixture of above-mentioned approaches that include submarine warfare as well as the use of anti-ship missiles. Russia could also make use of its naval aviation assets and other missile capabilities stationed in Kaliningrad.

Strategic Implications and NATO’s Interests

It is difficult to interpret the deployment of these weapon systems and missiles as anything different than an addition to Russia’s A2/AD capabilities. Russia is actively trying to improve it strategic position to deter possible troops movements on land as well as on the water.22 They mirror Russia’s claims to its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and serve as an example of Russia’s attempts to exert authority over its periphery, effectively giving Russia the potential to deny access to the Baltic Sea east of Germany.

If Russia increases its A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic Sea, it complicates NATO’s access to the Baltic states during a potential crisis. This is especially startling due to the fact that NATO troops are currently stationed in the Baltics and cutting off maritime supply routes would leave those troops extremely vulnerable. If Russia can effectively cut off NATO’s access to the Baltic states, it increases the “attractiveness to Russia of a fait-accompli.”23 Ben Hodges, then-commanding general of the United States Army in Europe, shared these concerns: “They could make it very difficult for any of us to get up into the Baltic Sea if we needed to in a contingency.”24 In case regional states will be called to fulfill its alliance commitments in the Baltic Sea, Russian submarine blockades, along with mining and missile deployments, will be a major roadblock and possibly threaten safe passage for European vessels.

NATO has an immense national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the Baltic Sea and ensuring free access. On average, 2,500 ships are navigating the Baltic Sea at any time and its shipping routes are vital to European economic activity.25 In the 2016 German Defence White Paper, this is clearly identified: “Securing maritime supply routes and ensuring freedom of the high seas is of significant importance for an exporting nation like Germany which is highly dependent on unimpeded maritime trade. Disruptions to our supply routes caused by piracy, terrorism and regional conflicts can have negative repercussions on our country’s prosperity.”26 Thus, if Russia impedes freedom of navigation in this area with its A2/AD capabilities, it will significantly damage Germany’s and other European nations’ export potential. However, vulnerabilities are not limited to shipping routes but also include the Nord Stream gas pipeline and undersea cables upon which a large part of European economies depend.27

A map of the Nord Stream infrastructure project (Gazprom)

In sum, Russia’s A2/AD systems, along with updated submarine capabilities and the potentially disastrous effects of disrupted undersea pipelines and communication cables, enhance Russia’s strategic position and makes hybrid warfare a more realistic scenario. This kind of instability would have serious security and economic implications for NATO.

Recommendations

Should the Baltic Sea fall under de facto authority of the Russian Federation or witness conventional or hybrid conflict, then NATO would face dire economic consequences and live with a conflict zone at its doorstep. This is especially concerning given the poor state of Germany’s naval power in particular. The German Navy lacks most capabilities that would qualify it as a medium-sized navy, and its strategy is mostly agnostic of a threat with significant A2/AD capabilities just East of its own territorial waters.28 Since it is in Germany’s vital interest to maintain freedom of navigation in the Baltic Sea and plan for a potential use of Russian A2/AD capabilities, the German Navy should shift its operational focus to the Baltic Sea. Having outlined the means through which Russia can deny access to the Baltic Sea, specific recommended actions can follow.

Effectively countering the effects of anti-ship missiles stationed in Kaliningrad requires two measures. First, it requires the German Navy to equip its ships and submarines with standoff strike capabilities that enable them to engage Russian radars and anti-ship missiles from outside their A2/AD zone.29 In practice, this requires the procurement of conventional long-range land-strike capabilities for the German Navy. To this day, the entire German fleet lacks any form of long-range land-attack weapon for both surface vessels and submarines.30 Second, if the German Navy has to operate within Russia’s A2/AD environment, it should equip its surface ships with more advanced electronic warfare countermeasures that disrupt sensing and enable unit-level deception.

Russia’s submarines are traditionally hard to detect, but they can be countered by Germany’s own class of 212A submarines. Those feature better sonars and are even quieter, giving them an advantage over Russia’s submarines.31 However, in order to fully exploit this advantage, Germany has to do a better job of committing resources to the maintenance of its submarines as all six of its active submarines are currently not operational due to maintenance.32

German Type 212A submarine U-32. (Bundeswehr/Schönbrodt)

A large part of the effectiveness of anti-mine operations hinges on preemptive detecting. If Germany and other NATO allies can catch Russia in the act of laying mines, it will actively decrease the possible damage those mines can do to vessels in the future and thus their effect on sea denial.33 It can do so by increasing its sea patrols in the region. These patrols can include minimally armed vessels such as the Ensdorf and Frankenthal classes in order to avoid incidental confrontations and to assume a non-threatening stance toward Russia. If preventive action fails, Germany should be ready to employ a NATO Mine Countermeasure Group in order to clear as many mines as possible and to ensure safe passage of ships.

Conclusion

The buildup of forces on Russia’s Western border is paired with a more aggressive stance by the Russian military. Over the last months, the Baltic Sea became “congested” with Russian military activity, leading to increasingly closer encounters.34 In April 2014, an unarmed Russian Su-24 jet made several low-passes near a U.S. missile destroyer, the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea.35 Later in 2014, a small Russian submarine navigating in Swedish territorial waters spurred a Swedish military buildup along its coast due to “foreign underwater activity.”36 And during July 2017, Russia conducted joint naval exercises with China in the Baltic Sea. By conducting a joint naval drill with China in these waters, the Russian military demonstrated strength and flexed its military muscle in a message specifically directed at NATO.37 These actions by the Russian military all point toward conveying the message that Russia does not want the presence of foreign militaries in Baltic Sea waters and is capable of taking countermeasures to exert its sovereignty in the region.

Tobias Oder is a graduate student in International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He focuses on international security, grand strategy, and transatlantic relations

References

[1]  “The Baltic Sea and Current German Naval Strategy,” Center for International Maritime Security, last modified July 20, 2016, accessed September 22, 2017, http://cimsec.org/baltic-sea-current-german-navy-strategy/26194.

[2] Also known as S-400 Triumf.

[3]  “Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia,” The Military Balance 117, no. 1 (2017), 183-236.

[4]  “Entering the Bear’s Lair: Russia’s A2/AD Bubble in the Baltic Sea,” The National Interest, last modified September 20, 2016, accessed September 24, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/entering-the-bears-lair-russias-a2-ad-bubble-the-baltic-sea-17766?page=show.

[5] Also known as K-300P Bastion-P.

[6]  “K-300P Bastion-P System Deliveries Begin,” Jane’s, last modified March 5, 2009, accessed November 20, 2017, https://my.ihs.com/Janes?th=janes&callingurl=http%3A%2F%2Fjanes.ihs.com%2FMissilesRockets%2FDisplay%2F1200191.

[7]  “Monolit-B,” Rosoboronexport,, accessed November 20, 2017, http://roe.ru/eng/catalog/naval-systems/stationary-electronic-systems/monolit-b/.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  Kathleen H. Hicks et al., Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2016).

[10]  Karl Soper, “All Four Russian Fleets to Receive Improved Kilos,” Jane’s Navy International 119, no. 3 (2014).

[11]  “Russia Readies Two of its most Advanced Submarines for Launch in 2017,” The Washington Post, last modified December 29, 2016, accessed September 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/12/29/russia-readies-two-of-its-most-advanced-submarines-for-launch-in-2017/?utm_term=.2976db8c1710.

[12]  “The Kilo-Class Submarine: Why Russia’s Enemies Fear “the Black Hole”, The National Interest, last modified October 23, 2016, accessed November 21, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-kilo-class-submarine-why-russias-enemies-fear-the-black-18140.

[13]  “Silent Killer: Russian Varshavyanka Project 636.3 Submarine,” Strategic Culture Foundation, last modified July 14, 2016, accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2016/07/14/silent-killer-russian-varshavyanka-project-636-3-submarine.html.

[14]  Stephan Frühling and Guillaume Lasconjarias, “NATO, A2/AD and the Kaliningrad Challenge,” Survival 58, no. 2 (April-May, 2016), 95-116.; Alexander Lanoszka and Michael A. Hunzeker, “Confronting the Anti-Access/Area Denial and Precision Strike Challenge in the Baltic Region,” The RUSI Journal 161, no. 5 (October/November, 2016), 12-18.; Hicks et al., Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe.

[15]  “Sea Mines: The most Lethal Naval Weapon on the Planet,” The National Interest, last modified September 1, 2016, accessed November 21, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/sea-mines-the-most-lethal-naval-weapon-the-planet-17559. In fact, even a small number of sea mines have the capability to disrupt marine traffic due to the perceived risk of a possible lethal encounter (Caitlin Talmadge, “Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz,” International Security 33, no. 1 (Summer, 2008), 82-117.).

[16]  “Minefields at Sea: From the Tsars to Putin,” Breaking Defense, last modified March 23, 2015, accessed November 21, 2017, https://breakingdefense.com/2015/03/shutting-down-the-sea-russia-china-iran-and-the-hidden-danger-of-sea-mines/.

[17]  Frühling and Lasconjarias, NATO, A2/AD and the Kaliningrad Challenge, 95-116, 100.

[18]  Lanoszka and Hunzeker, Confronting the Anti-Access/Area Denial and Precision Strike Challenge in the Baltic Region, 12-18 Specifically, commentators outline various scenarios that all share the basic notion that the ultimate goal is to deny NATO forces access to its eastern flank (“Anti-Access/Area Denial Isn’t just for Asia Anymore,” Defense One, last modified April 2, 2015, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2015/04/anti-accessarea-denial-isnt-just-asia-anymore/109108/).

[19]  Andrew F. Krepinevich, Why AirSea Battle? (Washington, D.C.: CSBA, 2010). For a more detailed discussion of potential Russian escalation dominance, see David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016); “Demystifying the A2/AD Buzz,” War on the Rocks, last modified January 4, 2017, accessed September 24, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/01/demystifying-the-a2ad-buzz/.

[20]  Rod Thornton and Manos Karagiannis, “The Russian Threat to the Baltic states: The Problems of Shaping Local Defense Mechanisms,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 29, no. 3 (2016), 331-351. The idea behind plausible deniability states that Russia will only make use of means to disrupt Western forces if they cannot explicitly trace their origins back to Russia and that they cannot hold Russia accountable for these actions. This, in turn, leads to insecurity among NATO allies and prevents the alliance from taking collective action.

[21]  “German Waters Teeming with WWII Munitions,” Der Spiegel, last modified April 11, 2013, accessed November 25, 2017, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/dangers-of-unexploded-wwii-munitions-in-north-and-baltic-seas-a-893113.html.

[22]  Martin Murphy, Frank G. Hoffman and Gary Jr Schaub, Hybrid Maritime Warfare and the Baltic Sea Region (Copenhagen: Centre for Military Studies (University of Copenhagen), 2016), 10.

[23]  “The Russia – NATO A2AD Environment,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, last modified January 3, 2017, accessed September 23, 2017, https://missilethreat.csis.org/russia-nato-a2ad-environment/.

[24]  “Russia could Block Access to Baltic Sea, US General Says,” Defense One, last modified December 9, 2015, accessed September 23, 2017, http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2015/12/russia-could-block-access-baltic-sea-us-general-says/124361/.

[25]  Frank G. Hoffman, Assessing Baltic Sea Regional Maritime Security (Philadelphia: Foreign Policy Research Institute, 2017), 6.

[26]  Federal Ministry of Defence, White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr (Berlin: Federal Ministry of Defence, 2016), 50.

[27]  Murphy, Hoffman and Schaub, Hybrid Maritime Warfare and the Baltic Sea Region.

[28]  Bruns, The Baltic Sea and Current German Naval Strategy.

[29]  Andreas Schmidt, “Countering Anti-Access/Area Denial: Future Capability Requirements in NATO,” JAPCC Journal 23 (Autumn/Winter, 2016), 69-77.

[30]  Hicks et al., Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe.

[31]  Hicks et al., Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe.

[32]  “All of Germany’s Submarines are Currently Down,” DefenseNews, last modified October 20, 2017, accessed November 21, 2017, https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2017/10/20/all-of-germanys-submarines-are-currently-down/.

[33]  Talmadge, Closing Time: Assessing the Iranian Threat to the Strait of Hormuz, 82-117, 98.

[34]  “Russian Warships in Latvian Exclusive Economic Zone: Confrontational, Not Unlawful,” Center for International Maritime Security, last modified May 15, 2017, accessed September 23, 2017, http://cimsec.org/russian-warships-latvias-exclusive-economic-zone-confrontational-not-unlawful/32588.

[35]  “Russian Jet’s Passes Near U.S. Ship in Black Sea ‘Provocative’ -Pentagon,” Reuters, last modified April 14, 2014, accessed September 23, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-russia-blacksea/update-1-russian-jets-passes-near-u-s-ship-in-black-sea-provocative-pentagon-idUSL2N0N60V520140414.

[36]  “Sweden Steps Up Hunt for “Foreign Underwater Activity”,” Reuters, last modified October 18, 2014, accessed September 23, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sweden-deployment/sweden-steps-up-hunt-for-foreign-underwater-activity-idUSKCN0I70L420141018.

[37]  “Russia Says its Baltic Sea War Games with Chinese Navy Not a Threat,” Reuters, last modified July 26, 2017, accessed September 23, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-china-wargame/russia-says-its-baltic-sea-war-games-with-chinese-navy-not-a-threat-idUSKBN1AB1D6.

Featured Image: Russian troops load an Iskander missile. (Sputnik/ Sergey Orlov)