The icy waters of Murmansk harbor now cover one of the world’s largest floating dry-docks. Last week, a catastrophic power failure seems to have caused the dock’s pumps to jam, rapidly flooding the ballast tanks. As a result, PD-50, the largest floating dry-dock of the Russian Navy, sank to the bottom of the shipyard and now lies 160 feet below the surface.
Much attention has focused on damage to Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kutznetsov, which was in PD-50 at the time of the incident. However, the loss of the dry-dock may have a more significant long-term impacton Russia’s ability to sustain its Northern Fleet. As a consequence, the ability of Russia to recover, repair, or even replace the dock assumes considerable importance because it is a maintenance asset of strategic import.
Russia’s ability to overcome this setback is further complicated by European Union (EU) sanctions, where the legal and practical effects of the EU sanctions regime will strongly affect Russia’s ability to replace this key maritime asset.
Proceeding on the assumption that these sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, the question is whether the export ban on arms or dual-use goods includes replacement parts for PD-50—or indeed an entirely new dock—if supplied from within the EU.
Looking first at the arms question arising from article 4, the list of prohibited equipment is detailed in the EU Common Military List (2015/C 129/01). The most relevant items are ML9.1 (“vessels (including components) designed or modified for military use”) and ML17b (“construction equipment specifically designed for military use”). Although a floating dry dock, or the components to repair it, may fit the description of a “vessel” or “construction equipment,” it would be difficult to argue that a floating dry dock is designed for military use. It is even harder to conclude that a floating dry dock is specifically designed for military use. Components for a floating dry dock (or even a dock itself) are therefore unlikely to be considered arms under article 4 and would not be caught by the ban on arms sales.
The ban on dual-use goods, set forth in article 2, is more likely to be applicable. Dual-use items are defined in Council Regulation (EU) 428/2009 and include all items that can be used for civil and military purposes. Military end-use includes the “use of production equipment and components for the maintenance of military items,” as stated in article 4(2)(b). Although PD-50 is owned and operated by a private company, this definition focuses on the use of the equipment rather than the owner. The use of a dry-dock for the maintenance of an aircraft carrier (indisputably a military item) strongly suggests that it is caught by this provision. One could argue that this is an unduly broad interpretation of the phrase “production equipment,” but a contextual reading of the article clearly shows that these provisions are intended to cover a wide range of items that may be used to support military infrastructure.
This conclusion is bolstered by article 2(1) of Reg. 833/2014. Article 2(1) states that where the end-user is the Russian military, any dual-use item shall be deemed to be for military use. Again, an argument could be constructed that the private ownership of the dock places it outside the scope of the provision by asserting that the end-user is the company rather than the Russian military. However, given the almost exclusive use of the dock for warship repair and maintenance, a strong case can be made that, appearances aside, the end-user of the dock (or any replacement) would be the Russian military, even if the actual ownership rests elsewhere.
The only caveat to the above analysis is that the sanctions do not affect the completion of contracts entered into before 1 August 2014. It is possible that the purchase agreement for the dock included an ongoing contractual obligation to provide replacement parts. If so, this would be unaffected by the sanction regime. In reality, it is very unlikely that such a provision was included and thus, this caveat can probably be discounted.
Unsurprisingly, there are few concrete details about the state of PD-50 and the prospects for the recovery of this strategic asset. Even a Russian news agency has accepted that this is a complex operation and unlikely to be completed within six months. A rapid repair or replacement of the dock is required to avoid severe pressures on the maintenance and availability of crucial Northern Fleet units and to conduct complex modernization work. Any support for this work is likely to be hampered by the EU sanctions regime, which now assumes additional significance following the sinking of PD-50.
Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker is a serving Royal Navy officer and barrister. He is currently the Associate Director for the Law of Coalition Warfare at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law (@StocktonCenter), part of the U.S. Naval War College. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
These views are presented in a personal capacity and are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any ministry or government.
Featured Image: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutznetsovin dry-dock PD-50. (Lev Fedoseyev via Tass)
One week before Christmas 2017 the USS Little Rock left Buffalo, New York on its maiden voyage to its future homeport in Florida. The crew of the newest Littoral Combat Ship in the Navy proudly entered the port of Montreal seven days later as part of a goodwill port visit between the United States and Canada. A frigid cold snap sank in while Little Rock sat pier-side and the St. Lawrence river froze over three weeks earlier than anticipated. Commercial icebreakers, frequently used to navigate the St. Lawrence river, were unable to operate after January 11th due to ice thickness, and the riverway was closed to traffic by the St. Lawrence River Authority. The Little Rock, the newest ship in the Navy, left Montreal nearly three months later once ice levels decreased sufficiently for the river authority to allow commercial icebreaker operation.
The story of the Little Rock unfolds across the Arctic, albeit on smaller scales, as climate change provides unprecedented access to the region. Fishermen push farther north, cruise lines dare to operate through the Northwest Passage, merchant shipping increasingly travels along Arctic routes, and native communities are forced to travel greater distances to maintain subsistence traditions. Within American waters the Coast Guard is solely responsible for providing mariners with safety from the elements, illicit activity, and man-made disasters. With limited resources they accomplish their mission in the areas they are able to access. With only two operable icebreakers the Coast Guard is unable to safely conduct their mission in regions which are increasingly accessible due to receding ice levels. This gap in capability exacerbates international and economic consequences of an increasingly accessible Arctic against American interests. To conduct sustained Arctic operations in the national interest new icebreakers are needed and soon.
The U.S. Coast Guard lists three active commissioned icebreakers; USCGC Polar Star, Polar Sea, and Healy. Of the three, only the Polar Star and Healy are capable of Arctic operations. The Polar Sea suffered major propulsion problems in 2010, relegating it to a spare part depot for the Polar Star, and where both ships are over 10 years past their designed service life of 30 years.1 Furthermore, Polar Star is reserved to ensure access to McMurdo station, rendering Healey the only commissioned vessel to access Arctic ice-covered regions.
The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions, nine of which pertain to the Arctic and require icebreaking capability.2 The Healy solely executes these missions from the sea. In 2017 these missions included extensive research with 40 embarked scientists, ice breaking patrols miles north of the Alaskan coast, and search and rescue (SAR) training. These missions also include protection of marine living resources, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and migrant interdiction, which haven’t required persistent icebreaking capabilities in the recent past. Increasing levels of human activity in the Arctic indicate those missions are increasingly relevant and the recent dearth of those mission sets reflects a period of good fortune rather than trends to be continued. Finally, the Coast Guard allots 185 “Days Away from Homeport” (DAFH) per ship per year, including transit time and port visits to actual on-scene operations.3 Budgeting Healy’s DAFH reveals, optimistically, an icebreaker availability during only one-third of every year.4 The Coast Guard’s Arctic icebreaking forces are very capable but extremely limited. They are being are asked to do more now and will be asked to do even more in the future, but this will far outstrip existing resources.
Why Icebreakers Matter
Rapidly decreasing ice levels and increased human activity in the Arctic change the mission from seasonal operations to a year-round endeavor. Historically, Arctic patrols occur during warmer months when activity levels necessitate a Coast Guard presence. In 2012 a record low minimum sea ice extent was observed, followed closely by record low sea ice maximum extent in 2016.5 Those changes allow higher levels of human activity throughout the year, requiring a concomitant year-round icebreaking capability.
The lack of capability immediately threatens U.S. interests in the region including energy security, disaster response, and Maritime Domain Awareness. In the winter of 2011 Nome, Alaska nearly ran out of fuel used for heating and cooking. A Russian ice-hardened tanker managed to break through extensive inshore ice to provide refueling but no American assets were able to provide similar services. The refueling shows a fortunate coincidence of Russian capability and American need, however, an alternative scenario can be easily imagined.6 Privatized icebreakers such as the Aiviq, an ocean-going tug owned by Dutch Shell Oil company, provide extremely limited ability to assist offshore developments in production and disaster response.7
In congressional testimony, following the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, USCG Admiral Thad Allen stated the Coast Guard doesn’t have enough icebreakers to respond to a major spill north of the Alaskan coast.8 The World Wildlife Foundation models spills in oil and gas producing regions, such as the Barents and Beaufort Seas, and claims the ecological damage of those potential spills is greatly exacerbated by a lack of access which is in turn worsened by a lack of icebreakers.9 Maritime Domain Awareness requires constant monitoring via multiple sensors and engagement from multiple platforms. Much of this can be accomplished by remote sensing but human knowledge and experience on how to operate in Arctic environments cannot be replaced.10 The crew of the Healey comprises the majority of American government maritime experience in Arctic ice-bound environments, revealing a major gap in Maritime Domain Awareness. These examples project the need for more icebreakers to operate in the Arctic, although many needs already go unmet.
A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found the Coast Guard delinquent in meeting four interagency icebreaking missions including persistent assured access for the Department of Defense, fisheries enforcement, search and rescue, and winter research for the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.11 In total, governmental agencies made 32 requests for icebreaking services from the Healy in 2017, only 25 of which went fulfilled.12 Central to each deficiency is icebreaker availability, and even more requests could have been filed. Using the aforementioned “Days away from Homeport” allotment provided by the Coast Guard, a minimum of three icebreakers is required to provide persistent access and capability in the Arctic.
Critics contend that procuring more icebreakers is optimal but untenable within current budget constraints. The Coast Guard High Latitude Mission Analysis Report in 2010 concluded six icebreakers (three medium and three heavy) are required to meet mission demands in the Arctic and Antarctic.13 That same report cites four core missions as the minimum requirements driving icebreaker acquisition: Arctic West Science, Arctic North Patrol, McMurdo Station resupply, and Polar Freedom of Navigation missions.14 The consensus of multiple sources is that specific Arctic missions are going unmet and the minimum procurement requirements to close that gap illuminate the desperate need for more icebreakers.
Among Arctic nations the United States uniquely lacks robust icebreaking capabilities. Russia already boasts an icebreaking fleet 46 strong, including seven nuclear-powered vessels. Other nations, such as Finland, Canada, and Sweden all employ seven or more icebreakers, providing sufficient capability to operate routinely in Arctic waters.15 This disparity in capability opens the door for external intervention against American interests in the Arctic and challenges American leadership on Arctic issues.
The icebreaker gap exacerbates traditional maritime issues such as freedom of navigation and commerce by predetermining which nations can access waterways. Russia notably exploits this difference in the North Sea trade route where merchants may transit, aided by Russian icebreakers, for a hefty toll.16 Icebreakers further enable Arctic nations to conduct regular commerce in the Arctic during times the U.S. is unable to without their assistance. Additionally, as the Little Rock incident shows, ice heavily limits military mobility. The lack of domestic icebreakers makes freedom of navigation vulnerable to the whims and interests of countries with the capacity to outdo U.S. efforts. Ongoing international arbitration over Arctic economic claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea could become a moot point if nations able to access disputed areas do so unilaterally and lay de facto claim to the resource rich region.
Freedom of access to Arctic areas has broader implications than the immediate effect of restricted access. International institutions are resource driven. Those who hold relevant resources in an international organization (such as NATO) are able to drive the agenda for how those resources are used. To date, the Arctic Council has passed three binding agreements. Two of those agreements, on search and rescue and maritime oil spill response, pave the way for icebreaker-laden states to take larger roles in the implementation of those agreements. If the United States is unable to match resource contributions for these efforts then the U.S. bargaining position for future Arctic Council resolutions will be significantly hampered.
It might seem that parity in the number of icebreakers is a worthwhile outcome. However, icebreaker parity with Russia is an undesirable and unachievable goal for American Arctic operations. The Arctic is central to the Russian way of life, demanding more and better ways to cope. An American icebreaking fleet simply needs the ability to access areas in pursuit of national interests and contribute to international efforts under existing agreements. Given the relative size of the American Arctic coastline and population compared to other Arctic countries a small but capable icebreaking fleet is sufficient to ensure American interests.
Funding and Procurement
The lack of action to date stems from a lack of funding and not recognition of the need. The Coast Guard traditionally lacks the independent funding to procure icebreakers or other large-scale expenditures. Consequently, large Coast Guard acquisitions frequently partner with the Navy Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund (SCF) to make the size of those acquisitions tenable within the context of the Coast Guard’s meager budget. The Coast Guard’s Procurement, Construction, and Improvement Fund is responsible for all new purchases and upgrades of the Coast Guard’s entire fleet with only a $1.54 billion budget.17 Conversely, the Navy was appropriated over $20 billion in 2017 explicitly for new ship construction.18 Icebreaker procurement considerations are included in the Navy’s new shipbuilding budget as part of a “block-buy” contract system. Under a block-buy system procurement costs over multiple years provide the total cost of a project as it is built. This process, combined with fixed cost contracts, helps decrease the total cost of the project and budget demands on a yearly basis. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 allots the Navy’s Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund $150 million for domestic construction of a heavy polar icebreaker to be built and transferred to the Coast Guard.19 This initial step is crucial, but insufficient, toward reestablishing an icebreaker fleet.
Detractors argue that foreign construction or leasing provide the best path to more icebreakers. The first option happens to be illegal, requiring a waiver from the president for foreign construction of military platforms.20 The political component of the equation removes the likelihood that foreign construction is viable considering domestic shipyards are capable of producing these ships. Additionally, domestic production provides domestic shipbuilding experience, a significant factor in reduced costs for purchases of multiple icebreakers. Because of those learned efficiencies projections for purchase drop nearly $200 million as additional platforms are purchased.21 Leasing is similarly constrained by the lack of available assets on the global market to provide medium to heavy icebreaking capability.22 To lease a heavy icebreaker it would have to be built, a process that takes a comparable amount of time to building them domestically. The only commercial icebreaker available for lease, the Aiviq, has a poor track record of performance, including responsibility for the grounding of a drilling rig in 2012 when it lost propulsion. For legal, political, and marketplace reasons leasing and foreign construction are untenable options for meeting American icebreaker needs.
Climate change provides unprecedented Arctic access but much of the region remains restricted by ice. The United States Coast Guard uses icebreakers to meet that challenge. Established icebreaker levels fail to meet current interagency demands and are projected to meet even fewer of those demands. International icebreaker competition has immediate economic first-mover consequences and institutional repercussions for nations with adequate Arctic resources. Building heavy icebreakers in the short-term to complement Healy proves the most tenable option while meeting the minimum requirements for Arctic capabilities and international obligations. In a resource-constrained budgetary environment prioritization of other interests prevented purchase of replacement icebreakers. Recent steps toward expansion of the icebreaker fleet are encouraging but remain insufficient to meet the minimum force level needed for persistent American Arctic presence.
Matt Hein is a Surface Warfare Officer currently studying for his Masters in Security Studies at Georgetown University. He can be found on twitter @Matt_TB_Hein. These views are presented in a personal capacity.
 O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 9
 The two missions not explicitly linked to the Arctic are drug interdiction and human smuggling interdiction.
 O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 48
 “One-Third” based on transit time from Seattle to Nome, and assumes three port visits of 5 days each while away from homeport subtracted from 185 days.
 Meador, Ron. “As Climate Change Reshapes the Arctic, Scientists Are Struggling to Keep Up.” MinnPost, 27 Apr. 2017, www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2017/04/climate-change-reshapes-arctic-scientists-are-struggling-keep.
 Demarban, Alex. “Russian Icebreaker to Deliver Fuel to Nome, Highlighting Shortage of U.S. Icebreakers.” Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Daily News, 5 Dec. 2011, www.adn.com/rural-alaska/article/russian-icebreaker-deliver-fuel-nome-highlighting-shortage-us-icebreakers/2011/12/05/.
 “Oil and Gas in the Arctic.” WWF, 17 Mar. 2018, wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/what_we_do/oil_gas/.
United States, Congress, Chief of Naval Operations. Maritime Domain Awareness Concept, 30 May 2007. www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/Navy_Maritime_Domain_Awareness_Concept_FINAL_2007.pdf.
 The Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade, and Acquisition Program. Department Of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, 2011, www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/OIG_11-31_Jan11.pdf.
 O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf 26
 United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 10
 United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 12
 O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 13
 Lavelle, Marianne. “Arctic Shipping Soars, Led by Russia and Lured by Energy.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 1 Dec. 2013, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/11/131129-arctic-shipping-soars-led-by-russia/.
 United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview. United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview, Coast Guard Office of Budget and Programs, 2018. http://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/budget/2019%20BIB_FINALw.pdf
 Labs, Eric. “The 2018 Outlook for Navy Shipbuilding.” Congressional Budget Office, 15 Jan. 2018, www.cbo.gov/publication/53446. 7
 O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 37
 O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf.19
 Judson, Jen. “The Icebreaker Gap.” The Agenda, 1 Sept. 2015, www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/09/the-icebreaker-gap-000213.
Featured Image: 16 May 2003, Antarctica — Coast guard icebreaker travels through ice floes which have broker off sea ice edge in late summer, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (Image by Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
When it comes to U.S. military-technical assistance for Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression, sharing the Javelin anti-tank guided missile with the Ukrainian Ground Forces is what is typically mentioned. And at the beginning of March 2018 the U.S. State Department gave its approval for the provision of this kind of weaponry to Kyiv. There is nothing surprising in this, since the land forces of Ukraine bear the main burden of confronting and deterring further Russian aggression. However, today it is necessary to start talking about the needs of the other branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine given the challenges facing them.
A Navy Adrift
The situation in the Ukrainian Navy is close to a catastrophic one. The Russian Federation’s occupation of the Crimea in 2014 especially negatively affected the fighting capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy as nearly 80 percent of the fleet was lost due to capture and defection. In fact, four corvettes (Lutsk, Khmelnitsky, Ternopil, Prydniprov’ia), two minesweepers (Chernigiv, Cherkasy), the large landing ship Konstantin Olshansky, and the submarine Zaporozhye were captured by Russian forces. In addition, Russian occupants captured and never returned up to 15 auxiliary vessels.
The urgent need for platforms in the Ukrainian Navy could be solved by Western country transfers to Kyiv of older ships, which are decommissioned or near retirement. Actually, from time-to-time this idea is voiced by certain American experts. The U.S. government, among other things, is ready to provide the Ukrainian Navy with two coastal guards ships of the Island class. They, in contrast to Ukrainian artillery boats of the Gyurza-M class, have better seaworthiness and greater autonomy. However, the simple transfer of platforms can only partly solve the problems the Ukrainian Navy faces today. Getting Western ships can solve the problem with minesweepers or auxiliary vessels. However, the main question remains unaddressed: how could the Ukrainian Navy counter attempts by the Russian Federation to use its domination of the Black Sea for further aggression?
As the result of Russian aggression Ukraine lost in Crimea ground-based anti-ship platforms, which were armed with Termit anti-ship cruise missiles. Similarly, after the Crimea occupation, the missile boat Pryluky was returned to Ukrainian authorities but lacked its two Termit anti-ship missiles.
Today the Ukrainian Navy is not able to properly counteract possible attempts by the Russian Black Sea Fleet to carry out an amphibious landing operation. In this contest it is necessary to recall that in 2014-2015 the Security Service of Ukraine exposed and broke down covert attempts to create the so-called secessionist Bessarabian People’s Republic. This fictional republic was going to be based on territories of a southern part of the Odessa oblast. In the event of the establishment of this illicit territory, the Russian Black Sea Fleet would have had the opportunity to freely land the necessary troops and to maintain sea lines of communication with a new pseudo-state bordering western Ukraine along with occupied Crimea. Ukraine in this case could not have prevented such contingencies, since the Navy does not have the necessary anti-ship capabilities to destroy combat and landing enemy vessels.
Although Ukraine is developing its own anti-ship cruise missile Neptune, the first public test of which took place in late January 2018, the system is still nascent. The relevant sea-based risks and threats for Ukraine still exist. In addition, the question is how many Neptune missiles Ukraine will be able to purchase annually for their Navy, given that the entire budget for modernization and procurement of equipment is only $600 million this fiscal year.
As a result, it is urgently necessary to start a dialogue on the possibility of transfer to Ukraine of American Harpoon anti-ship missiles with the necessary equipment for guidance and data exchange systems. The U.S. military budget for 2018 FY provides for the allocation of up to $200 million to enhance Ukraine’s defense capabilities, including the possibility of using these funds for purchase of coastal defense radars, minelayers, minesweepers, and littoral ships. This document captures a change in the paradigm of thinking and awareness in the Pentagon of Ukraine’s vulnerability to threats from the sea. However, as has been said above, only vessels or even radar systems will not be enough to remedy the shortfall.
The U.S. Navy is currently developing new generations of anti-ship missiles (LRASM, Tomahawk, and SM-6 anti-ship variants) that have much longer range than the current Harpoon anti-ship missile. However, in the context of a closed sea like the Black Sea, it will be enough for Ukrainian Navy to deploy the latest modification of the Harpoon missile – the Block II ER+. The radius of this modification is up to 134 nautical miles or 250 km. It is notable that the Ukrainian anti-ship missile “Neptune” will have a similar range. It is also indicative that Finland is considering the Harpoon Block II ER + as the main weapon for the future four frigates of the 2020 project, which will operate in the similarly constrained Baltic Sea.
The transfer to Ukraine of Harpoon Block II ER+ anti-ship cruise missiles and related equipment, together with their installation on future fleet and land-based anti-ship platforms, will not only eliminate significant gaps in the country’s defense capabilities. It will also help secure the safety of maritime trade, on which the economy of Ukraine depends critically. This decision will allow the United States to solve several important security issues in the Black Sea region at once. All this happens when the U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships in almost a century (283 ships), and it faces the need for a permanent presence in numerous parts across the world’s oceans, including the Black Sea Basin. Strengthening the capabilities of the Ukrainian Navy will reduce the need for such presence. In addition, strengthening the anti-ship component of the Ukrainian armed forces will make its Navy a truly important component in any joint NATO Black Sea Fleet, an idea which has been discussed for several years. Today, the Ukrainian Navy cannot actually be an effective contributor to the joint efforts of the littoral states to contain the Russian Federation in the Black Sea basin. Ultimately, the presence of Harpoon Block II ER+ missiles together with the necessary radars and information exchange systems with other NATO countries will enable, in practice, to enhance the interoperability of the Ukrainian armed forces with NATO partners. In this way, it will contribute to the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine and the fulfillment of the tasks of the Strategic Defense Bulletin.
Ukraine today, given the need of countering threats from the sea, is in a situation where the need for U.S. anti-ship missiles is much more important than obtaining Javelin ATGMs. The U.S. Defense Department’s budget for 2018 FY records the understanding that Washington should help Ukraine counteract not only land-based but also maritime threats that are actually much sharper, given the current state of the Ukrainian Navy. However, only the acquisition of appropriate anti-ship missiles such as the Harpoon Block II ER+ will enable the Ukrainian Navy to effectively counter the growing capabilities of the Russian Federation in the Black Sea. Such a bold decision will strengthen security in this part of the world, reduce the need for the United States to be constantly present, and make Ukraine a true contributor to Black Sea security.
Mykola Bielieskov is the Deputy Executive Director at the Institute of World Policy.
Featured Image: Day of the Ukranian Navy Ceremony, July 2016. (Ministry of Defence of Ukraine)
Despite early assessments that the Soviet Union was going to target the sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Atlantic, the Soviets never intended to make interdiction of Atlantic convoys a priority mission. Defense of their ballistic missile submarines, countering Allied aircraft carrier battle groups, and littoral defense and support to the Soviet Army were always their main priorities. Today’s much smaller Russian Navy has similar missions and strategic geography, but now boasts long range cruise missile armament.
The NATO Alliance must return to a deterrent posture similar to that of the Cold War in order to prevent potential Russian aggression, but the locus of action is much further north than Iceland. The real “Gap” where NATO must focus its deterrent action is the Greenland, Svalbard, North Cape line at the northern limit of the Norwegian and Greenland Seas. It is again time to consider deterrent action and potential naval warfare in the “High North.”
Never the GIUK Gap Anyway
While important in the Second World War and perhaps the early and middle Cold War, the GIUK Gap did not have the same geographic significance in the late 1970s and 1980s. While earlier Russian ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) had to first sail close to the U.S. coast and then to the middle Atlantic in order to launch their weapons, the advent of the Delta and Typhoonclasses with improved sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) allowed Soviet missile boats to launch their weapons from the safety of Soviet littoral waters. Intelligence gathered by U.S. and Allied sources in the late 1970s suggested that rather than conduct a rerun of the failed German U-boat campaigns of the World Wars, Soviet submarines were to be deployed in a largely defensive posture close to the Soviet homeland. Earlier work by the Center for Naval Analyses had suggested that Soviet attack subs would be prepared to defend their own SSBNs, attack U.S. Navy carrier battle groups, and perhaps venture forth to attack U.S. SSBNs. But attacking logistics and commerce on the Atlantic SLOCs was a fourth-priority mission at best.
By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was planning, in the event of a failure of deterrence, to take the war to the Soviet littoral waters and homeland. This was a global effort that included U.S. and Allied action against the Soviets in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans, and the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas. U.S. submarines would stalk and sink their Soviet counterparts and SSBNswhile U.S. carrier battle groups would attack Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula (as well as other locations around the periphery of the Soviet state) to prevent a correlation of forces that allowed for a successful Soviet land attack in Central Germany.
Soviet forces operating within their “bastion” defenses in the Barents Sea during the Cold War had to come south in order to engage NATO maritime forces and lacked a land attack cruise missile capability. Today’s Russian Navy can remain within its Barents bastion and still launch accurate attacks against ships in the Norwegian Sea and NATO land targets without leaving these protected waters. If the Russians do leave their bastions it would most likely be on raiding missions enabled by land attack cruise missiles. Russia has a long tradition of raiding for short-term tactical and longer-term strategic gain, and such operations could manifest themselves in the maritime environment.
NATO faces significant challenges in dealing with this renewed Russian threat. The Alliance’s naval forces are significantly smaller than during the Cold War and the United States Navy is less than half the size of its 1980s counterpart. Norwegian naval force structure is shrinking and even with planned qualitative improvements will not alone be sufficient for potential naval combat in the High North. Norway is set to significantly reduce its surface force through a planned decommissioning of its Skjold-class missile corvettes and remaining mine warfare ships in the next several years. The reductions are necessary in order to pay for new German-built submarines, P-8 Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), and F-35A aircraft. The submarines and MPA purchases are appropriate force structure for potential combat in the Norwegian Sea south of Svalbard and north of Iceland, but reductions will result in a lack of surface patrol units necessary for maintaining sea control.
The F35A can support sea control, but may be occupied elsewhere in defense of Norwegian shore-based infrastructure. For example, the Russian Air Force has launched a number of mock attacks on the Norwegian Joint Command Center at Bodo in recent years and F-35 aircraft may be largely focused on the defense of Norwegian C4I infrastructure. The Norwegian Coast Guard which contributes significantly to patrol efforts in the region has decreased in strength from 31 to 15 units from 1992 to the present. These Coast Guard units are also lightly armed and insufficient for contesting and retaining sea control in the region.
Increased Alliance submarine operations in the Norwegian, Barents and Arctic Seas serve to operationalize those headquarters changes. The North Atlantic SLOCs are important, but the Russians are not looking at the mid-Atlantic except for perhaps targets of opportunity. Joint and combined Allied activities that make use of the numerous air and port facilities around the Norwegian and Greenland Seas should be the main focus of JFC Norfolk. A NATO Joint Task Force (JTF) element, perhaps forward deployed afloat or ashore, may need to be present in the immediate area to direct operations.
Unmanned systems technology holds the promise of mobile, underwater detection grids that unlike the Cold War SOSUS nets can move themselves to better identify and localize submerged targets. The Norwegian and Greenland Seas are NATO lakes and receding sea icehas made for a wider and more open battlespace that allows for greater use of shore-based facilities in the region over a longer portion of the year. Small surface combatants such as the U.S. FFG(X) and LCS might operate in conjunction with unmanned units and maritime patrol aircraft and submarines to conduct a regional joint and combined antisubmarine warfare campaign.
A revanchist Russia does not directly threaten North Atlantic sea lines of communication, and the place to deter or engage them won’t be the GIUK gap. NATO must prepare to deter and if necessary engage Russian naval forces in the High North long before these units can get into range of resupply ships or NATO nation port facilities on the European mainland. The Alliance has taken positive steps to meet this renewed maritime challenge, but must not be haunted by U-boat and Soviet ghosts from past Atlantic wars. The place to respond to a new Russian naval threat is close to its home base and not astride critical transatlantic communication routes.
Steven Wills is a Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are his own and are presented in a personal capacity.
Featured Image: Norweigan Navy Skjold-class corvette.