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Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 2

Read Part One here.

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Germany is heavily involved in­ issues related to the­ Arctic, from the consequences of climate change to maritime security and the preservation of the Arctic as an area of cooperation. However, the Arctic has lost its exceptional character as a place of­ peaceful cooperation and stability. In addition to Russia’s militarization, persistent territorial and resource disputes are now emerging in the Arctic and sub-Arctic region, most recently around the Svalbard archipelago administered by Norway.1

Geo-strategically, Germany lies at the interface between the High North, the Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, and the European mainland. Important maritime and land­ connections in terms of foreign trade and security policy run either through Germany or along its territory. As a member of the EU and the Council of the Baltic Sea States as well as an observer on the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, Berlin has numerous issues on its agenda relating to the Arctic. It has summarized these in the guidelines­ for German Arctic policy.2

From a security policy perspective, Germany’s interest in the region must be seen above all in the context of NATO. For this reason, the main area of operation for the German Navy and the focus for its future capability development will be related to NATO’s northern flank—the maritime space between the Arctic region, the GIUK gap, the North-Atlantic and the North Sea as well as the Baltic Sea region.3 The aim is to defend Europe against possible threats while keeping the main trans­port and connecting lines open. Part of the NATO context is also Germany’s function as a hub for Allied logistics. As the host country for Allied troop and materiel movements, the German armed forces have additional tasks in the areas of support, logistics, and security. German military airfields can also serve as bases for Allied aircraft, from helicopters to maritime patrol aircraft and jets. From Germany, they can reach most areas of operation, including the Arctic-North Atlantic region.

Germany depends on secure sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation. However, these are being called into question by the growing­ rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia, which is also taking effect in the High North. As potential peer competitors of NATO, China and Russia view their security ­policy and economic interests ­not in a regionally limited but in a broader geo-strategic ­context.

It is in Germany’s interest to counteract existing geopolitical tensions in the region and prevent conflicts of interest and potential crises in the Arctic in accordance with the guidelines of German Arctic policy. Ensuring freedom of navigation, Germany feels compelled to react to Russian activities and contain the potential for further destabilization.

The German Navy in the Arctic-North Atlantic Region

Against the backdrop of a possible arms race and escalation spiral, Germany must also fulfil its NATO obligations in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. The participation of the German Armed Forces in drills and exercises in the Arctic or sub-Arctic region should be understood as an expression of reliability to the Alliance, reassurance, and a signal of deterrence. On the land side, these exercises included the participation of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in the major NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018 in northern Norway4 and the participation of the naval sea battalion in Arctic training with Dutch marines in 2019. The latter served to prepare a joint German-Dutch amphibious task group.

On the naval side, the sub-Arctic area in the North Atlantic and the northern Baltic Sea is one of the standard maritime areas in which the German Navy operates. It does so in standing NATO maritime task groups and in bilateral cooperation, especially with Norway. Within the framework of NATO’s Baltic Maritime Coordination Function (BMCF), the German Navy intends to assume responsibility for the entire Baltic Sea in the ­future. In the conceptual capstone paper of May 2021 for the German Armed Forces of the future,­ the Baltic Maritime Coordination Function was even listed as a priority in the reform project.5 The assumption of a geographical responsibility and coordination function for NATO by the armed forces of a member country outside of the NATO command and force structure is a security policy novelty in the Alliance. Poland and Germany have separately applied to take on the BMCF. After the inauguration of a new government in Germany in December 2021, Minister of Defense, Christine Lambrecht, has put all reform projects related to the capstone paper currently on hold. But the German application for the BCMF has already been passed to NATO for approval in autumn 2020.6 The decision about the function has been postponed several times, due to frictions about the content and details with Poland.

Against the background of the increased confrontation between NATO and Russia in the region, a closer coordination appears not just to be necessary in peace time, even more in times of crisis and conflict. Therefore, a permanent adaptation of NATO’s structural footprint in the region with more regional ownership would generate more flexibility and contribute to an enhanced deterrence posture as well as a required pre-condition if deterrence fails.

In the Baltic and the North Sea, Germany’s responsibility for the protection of its coastal waters, adjacent sea ­areas, and sea lanes is obvious. However, NATO’s northern flank consists not only of the sea area between Denmark and the Baltic, but also extends across the European North ­Sea to the North ­Pole. Due to Russia’s increased military activities, the security ­and resilience of the countries in this area must be increased. One of the simplest ways to increase both deterrence and ­defense capability ­is to have as complete a picture of the situation as possible. The aim is not only to identify aggressive behavior, but also to be able to prove it. By doing so, NATO could send a clear signal to Russia where the limits of destabilizing­ ­military activity­ in the region lie.

Germany’s Reconnaissance Problem

Knowledge about the activities, interrelationships,­ and developments in a security-relevant area makes it­ possible to move from a reactive to an active security policy. For this reason, it is essential to have an encompassing as possible picture of the situation­ in the area, preferably in real time. This requires certain key capabilities. It is precisely with these key ­capabilities for the High North, such as maritime reconnaissance, submarine hunting capabilities, and submarines, that Germany has repeatedly experienced difficulties. Of the German Navy’s former eight P-3 C Orion maritime ­­reconnaissance aircraft, only four are still in operation.7 The overall availability of this aircraft type for operational purposes is assessed by around fifty percent.

Originally, this type of aircraft was not to be replaced until 2035 by the Franco-German­ Maritime Airborne Weapon System (MAWS) project. The regular use, wear, and the escalating costs of maintaining the P-3C Orion have led to the decision to withdraw the weapon system completely from service as early as 2025.8 Even now, the operational availability of this aircraft is often uncertain, so that the German Armed Forces may ­no longer be able to meet its operational obligations with this model. For this reason, Berlin has agreed on an interim solution (of an already available model in small numbers) to fulfil the tasks already ­stated in the context of Allied operations and permanent contributions in the medium term and to bridge the period until the MAWS is available.

In its last session before the summer break in 2021, the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag approved the acquisition of five P-8A Poseidon aircraft for 1.43 billion euros.9 This aircraft meets all the high technical and operational requirements currently ­placed on a maritime patrol aircraft. Norway has also opted for this model for reconnaissance in the High North.10

As an interim solution, the P-8A could remain in service with the German Armed Forces well beyond 2035 should the MAWS project be delayed or encounter problems. ­However, there are press reports that France is annoyed about Germany’s ­decision in favor of the P-8A interim solution and may therefore want to cancel the MAWS project.11

Operationally, the P-8A Poseidon can be deployed across the entire­ geographic spectrum of NATO territory or beyond. Technically, it is designed for both modern anti-submarine warfare and surface ­reconnaissance, and it should be compatible with most Allied systems ­without ­problems. In a more long term perspective, the F126 frigate with modern sensor technology for underwater distance­ detection will complement the German Navy’s anti-submarine capabilities.12 These, in turn, could­ make a significant contribution to the existing Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) or a possible NATO ­Expanded Task Force (NETF) ­, which was tested during Trident Juncture ­2018. The assumed area of operation of the NETF would be the Arctic-North­ Atlantic region. It would be flanked­ by NATO’s SNMGs in the Mediterranean and the Baltic and North Seas.

Given the availability, maintenance cycles, and concurrent mission loads of current German MPAs, the acquisition of five P8 aircraft appears only makeshift to meet requirements. A timely addition of another five models would provide the flexibility needed to augment contributions within the alliance.

Submarines and Cooperation with Norway

The best submarine hunter is still the submarine itself. With its sensor technology, it operates in the same medium as the unit to be searched for and can quickly penetrate the most diverse water layers, which influence sound transmission through temperature and salinity. At the same time, a searching submarine faces the same challenges as the submarine for which it is searching. It does not want to be discovered. Accordingly, it must incorporate the same tactical considerations, geography, and environmental influences as well as the limits of technical possibilities into its planning. The boundaries between hunter and hunted blur seamlessly. However, given the Alliance’s large geographical area of responsibility or the maritime space alone, from the Arctic to the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, NATO has only a few operational submarines. The German ­Navy currently has six Type 212 submarines, which are ideally suited for deployment in the maritime regions of the High North due to their small size and quiet, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. Most of the time, however, only half of the boats are ready for deployment.13 This is due to­ staffing problems­ in the German Armed Forces and technical difficulties, to include failures and planned maintenance.

It is foreseeable that the German Navy will receive new units of the type U212 CD (Common Design). This acquisition was also approved by the Budget Committee before the summer break.14 The U212 CD was developed jointly by Germany and Norway. The requirements of the German and Norwegian navies for their missions were taken into account.15 On the basis of a common list of requirements, the two countries have ordered six largely equal ­submarines from the Kiel shipyard ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). Four of them are to be delivered to Norway, two to Germany. The former type U212A’s high signature requirements are combined with greater range, speed and sea endurance. The boat can also defend itself with missiles against flying opponents. Thanks to the identical boats, interoperability ­between the navies of the two countries is to be improved. However, it is already becoming ­apparent that both the German and Norwegian special requests for equipment, armament and systems will in fact result in two different submarine types. In the period 2029-2035, they are expected to provide the Norwegian­ a smooth transformation from the former Ula-Class submarine to the new Type 212CD. The first boat is to be delivered to Norway in 2029. This is at least the first step in the effort to close or at least reduce ­military capability gaps.

European vs. Indo-Pacific Priorities

Against the backdrop of China’s power politics in the Indo-Pacific region, however, the United States is increasingly challenged outside Europe and its ­periphery, although the U.S. Navy has strengthened its presence in the North Atlantic, reactivating U.S. Second Fleet in July 2018 to do so. However, many of the U.S. Navy’s specialized capabilities will be ­deployed in areas where a confrontation with China can no longer be ruled out. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, has stated that the Arctic may well have a significant geo-strategic role for the United States in the future. At present, however, he said, there are other priorities in terms of capabilities and their funding. The escalation dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are assessed as more pressing.16 No reduction or shift of American capabilities in the North Atlantic has yet been observed. Nevertheless, this remains an option for action by U.S. forces in the event that the situation in the Indo-Pacific intensifies.

It is in Germany’s interest for the United States to face up to the challenges in the Indo-Pacific. However, Washington has a legitimate expectation that European countries will address the immediate challenges­ to Europe’s security, including in the High North, more independently and credibly. Beyond command and control or coordination tasks, this requires strengthening military capabilities­, increasing readiness, closing specific capability gaps, and making more appropriate deployments available. All of this feeds directly into any defense planning and deterrence maintenance by NATO. Germany still has considerable deficits here. While Germany is often highlighted as a likeminded security ally, in a recent study, none of the four Nordic states—Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish—identified Germany as the key European security and defense partner.17

Germany will therefore have to make a far more substantial contribution to the effectiveness of European­ diplomacy and the Alliance’s defense capabilities in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. To this end, the capabilities of the German Armed Forces and the German Navy must be further improved. Berlin must be made fit for a cold response.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and Project Director of SWP´s Armed Forces Dialogue (in cooperation with the German Ministry of Defence) and SWPs Maritime Security Dialogue. He has published extensively about the Arctic region, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, arms control, international security, maritime security, and nuclear strategy; i.a. with Göran Swistek, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention (Berlin: SWP, 2021) and most recently a book about the Arctic, Climate Change and Geopolitics (Der Kampf um den Nordpol. Die Arktis, der Klimawandel und die Geopolitik der Großmächte, Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2022). Recent publications:

Commander Goeran Swistek, German Navy, is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He was previously advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief of the German Navy and Assistant Chief of Staff N3 (Current Operations) on the German Maritime Forces Staff (DEU MARFOR). He holds a master’s degree in International Security Studies. His areas of expertise include the German Armed Forces, International Security and Defense Policy, Maritime Forces and Navies, Maritime Security, NATO and Defense Planning, and Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region. Recent publications:


[1] Nilsen, Thomas, “Russia complains of Norwegian navy’s visit to Svalbard,” Arctic Today, 2021,

[2] Federal German Government, Policy Guidelines for the Arctic,

[3] See also: Kaack, Jan Christian, Chief of German Navy, Absicht 2022 (Intent 2022),

[4] Wiegold, Thomas, Trident Juncture: Es geht nicht nur um den Kampf um die Brücke von Telneset – Augen geradeaus!,

[5] German Ministry of Defence, BMVg, Eckpunkte für die Bundeswehr der Zukunft, Berlin: BMVg, 18 May 2021, S. 12,

[6] Swistek, Goeran, Abschreckung und Verteidigung im Ostseeraum, Berlin: SWP, 15 December 2020 (SWP-Aktuell 2020/A 100),

[7] Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/28697,­286/­1928697.pdf.

[8] Wiegold, Thomas, “Chancen der Marine auf P-8 Poseidon als neuer Seefernaufklärer steigen,” 2021,

[9] Wiegold, Thomas, “Bundestag gibt fast 20 Mrd Euro für Rüstungsprojekte frei – Auflagen unter anderem für FCAS und Puma-Schützenpanzer,” Augen geradeaus!, 23 June 2021,

[10] Nilsen, Thomas, “Norway’s new ‘eyes and ears’ in the north performs maiden flight,” The Barents Observer,

[11] Otto, Adelbert, La Tribune sagt, Paris wird das deutsch-französische MAWS-Verteidigungsprogramm aufgeben (‚Paris will abandon the MAWS project), Technik-Smartphone-News, 11 July 2021,

[12] Publication of the German Parliament, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 19/28697,

[13] Wiegold, Thomas, Kein einziges deutsches U-Boot fährt mehr, 2017,

[14] Wiegold, Thomas, Bundestag gibt fast 20 Mrd Euro für Rüstungsprojekte frei – Auflagen unter anderem für FCAS und Puma-Schützenpanzer, Augen geradeaus!, 23 June 2021,

[15] Bredick, Marcus, Startschuss für U 212 CD, Marineforum, 23 March 2021,

[16] Everstine, Bryan W., “DOD Leaders Want More Arctic Funding, But Not Right Now,” Air Force Magazine, 2021,

[17] Kristin Haugevik et al, Nordic partnership choices in a fierier security environment: Towards more alignment, 2012,

Featured image: NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN (April 14, 2022) The German Sachsen-class air-defense frigate FGS Sachsen (F 219) transits the North Atlantic Ocean in support of exercise Northern Viking 22. (Courtesy photo by German Navy)

Germany in the Arctic-North Atlantic: Reassessing “Forgotten Waters,” Part 1

By Michael Paul and Göran Swistek

Since the end of the Cold War, little attention has been paid to the Arctic-North Atlantic area and the so-called “GIUK gap”  the maritime space between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. The GIUK gap borders the Arctic region and creates a maritime bottleneck between the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore, it features a unique underwater topography with isothermal temperatures and hosts critical undersea infrastructure.Russia´s aggressive policies and military invasion of Ukraine has increased the relevance of this maritime space. It is therefore useful to remember a report published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) a few years ago, after completing a series of table-top exercises called “Forgotten Waters.”2 The exercises focused on the current condition, role, and importance of the GIUK gap. In the report, the authors concluded that the exercises revealed a lack of familiarity among both European and American participants with this maritime space.

For all these reasons, the GIUK gap constitutes an important chokepoint today just as did during the Cold War, where the maritime capabilities of the Soviet Union had to pass NATO surveillance and tripwires. The first part of this two-part series will examine the importance of the GIUK gap and the wider Arctic-North Atlantic region in which it is located; the second part will focus on Germany’s strategic role in the region as a European leader and NATO member.

The Geo-Strategic Situation3

The West’s relationship with Russia is the worst it has been in several decades. This is evident not only in the Black Sea region, where the Russian war in Ukraine is ongoing, but also in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. There, the NATO state of Norway has a short but direct land border and a long maritime border with Russia. In the same ­region, the non-NATO states of Finland and Sweden­ are adjusting their security policy course vis-à-vis Moscow.4 As a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine, public approval for NATO membership has reached a majority of more than half of the population in both states. Helsinki and Stockholm submitted NATO membership requests on 18 May, putting the topic on the agenda of the upcoming NATO Summit in June.5 If accepted, their membership would change not just NATO’s strategic geography but also further enhance its force and capability contribution. At the same time, it might be portrayed as a further escalatory step in Russia’s threat perception towards NATO.

From a geo-strategic perspective, an Arctic-North Atlantic area can be defined. In the past few years, NATO has revived the description northern flank for this area, as a complement to the nearly analogous term High North. The expression northern flank is a verbal construct of the Cold War that has now been brought back into use, not just within NATO but also by many observers and analysts. In the 1980s especially, NATO protected the maritime dimension of its northern flank as a counter to the Soviet Union’s Bastion concept.6 At that time, the northern flank referred to the area formed by Norway, Denmark, and parts of the North German Plain; it was under the responsibility of Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe.7 Today, the expression is used as a collective term in a variety of contexts. Within NATO, the narrow interpretation counts Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Norway, and the UK as northern flank states.8 A more comprehensive version adds the Baltic States and NATO’s Baltic rim.9

Geo-strategically, the European continent is an extension of the Eurasian land mass in the shape of a peninsula. However, most of Europe’s Atlantic coastline is freely accessible. For Russia, the shortest access route to the Atlantic is via the Baltic Sea or the Arctic. Important maritime and military capabilities have been relocated there; however, their freedom of movement is limited. Three of the Russian Federation Navy’s four basing areas — for the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Fleet, respectively — are anchored in waters that are separated from the high seas. Russian warships can therefore only reach the open sea through maritime canals or bottlenecks, making them easy to detect and track.10 In the Arctic, the situation initially appears to be more convenient for Russia’s naval forces. However, limiting factors there include rough weather conditions, the temporary presence of ice, and military-operational bottlenecks, namely between the GIUK gap and the area from mainland Norway via Bear Island to Svalbard (the Bear gap). Russian foreign and security doctrine is dominated by geo-strategic areas and their interlinking with geo-economic advantages.

Russia’s Arctic policy, both economic and security-related, is also a part of its strategy for expanding its political and economic influence in Europe. For Russia, the joint and coordinated collaboration of its Northern and Baltic Fleets is therefore increasingly important both for preserving its geo-strategic and geo-economic interests and defending its territory. Whether from Russia or NATO’s perspective, the High North is not a clearly definable geographic area. Instead, it closely interacts — as does the Arctic — with the adjacent geographical and geo-strategic areas of the Atlantic, the Baltic and Black Seas, and their military, political, and economic uses. In its center are the forgotten waters, particularly the GIUK gap. This maritime bottleneck plays a key role in NATO’s military operational planning and is therefore once again in focus of Allied surveillance.

Russia’s military expansion and cooperation with China

All Arctic states are interested in a peaceful and stable situation in the Arctic­ region. However, Moscow’s military policy is based on the assertion­ that the United States and NATO are threatening Russia. In Russia’s National Security­ Strategy of July 2021, the United States and NATO, which are perceived as already engaged in far-reaching hostile activities vis-à-vis Russia, are­ labelled as the greatest military threat to Russia.11 In the Arctic region, Moscow has been steadily extending its military sphere of influence further and further beyond Russian territory. The Russian government has justified military modernization in the Arctic, including the reactivation of Cold War bases, by claiming these were necessary steps to protect its national interest. After all, it is one of the most crucial tasks of the armed forces to safeguard Russia’s interests in the region.12 But this also involves ensuring that fossil energy resources, which are vital as exports and a source of state royalties and tolls, can be transported safely by ship. Recently, indications have intensified that Russia plans to establish a separate Arctic Fleet.13 This fleet would be focused on securing the Russian Arctic front and the Northern Sea Route, relieving the assets of the Northern and Pacific Fleets that are currently fulfilling these tasks.

Developing and exploiting Arctic resources while simultaneously expanding the infrastructure of a main maritime transport route requires great expenditure. Russia cannot afford it on its own. Its dependence on fossil fuels as the geo-economic foundation of its national power and on China as a geostrategic partner leaves it in a fragile position. Chinese and Russian­ geo-economic interests in the Northern Sea Route as part of a future larger Polar Silk Road are not identical, but they are essential for Russia’s use of the Arctic as a national resource base and for its own role as a future trade hub­.

The desired ­strengthening of Russia’s great power ­status finds its military expression in the fact that Moscow is promoting the joint and coordinated interaction between Russia’s Northern and Baltic Fleets. This is intended to safeguard geo-strategic and geo-economic ­­interests and to ensure the defense of Russian territory. In addition, the melting sea ice will make it ­possible to send fleets­ across the North Sea to the Atlantic ­or the Pacific. As a result, despite efforts by Arctic states to preserve peace and stability, military activities in the Arctic-North Atlantic region will further increase, eventually strengthening its maritime partnership with China.14

Allied activities in the High North

Uncertainty is rising about the increasing militarization of the Arctic-North Atlantic region and the growing presence of Russian but also Allied naval units in its waters. Recently, NATO has been communicating its military determination and readiness in the region, most notably via the execution of the largest Allied maneuvers since the end of the Cold War. With the participation of 50,000 soldiers, 250 aircraft, and 65 ships, Trident Juncture 2018 not only involved the relocation of the then German-led land VJTF, but also the recapture of an occupied part of Norway and integration of an American carrier strike group to control the sea area between Iceland, Greenland, and Norway.15 In response, Russia conducted Ocean Shield 2019, involving a strategic scenario stretching from the Arctic and the North Atlantic to the Baltic Sea.16 In May 2020, the U.S.-led destroyer task group, comprising USS Donald Cook, USS Roosevelt, USS Porter, USNS Supply, and British destroyer HMS Kent, patrolled the Barents Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War.17 Soon afterwards, in September 2020, HMS Sutherland, RFA Tidespring, and USS Ross repeated the patrol.18

In July 2021, Irish media reported the presence of a Russian reconnaissance ship not far from its territorial waters.19 Its position matched remarkably with the layout of the inner European and transatlantic undersea cables leaving Ireland.20 The use of unmanned, underwater drones was also observed. The Irish Armed Forces intelligence service then launched an official investigation into the incident.21 In early January 2022, one of the two existing underwater cables that connect the SvalSat park on Svalbard with the Norwegian mainland had been cut through human involvement, resulting in the loss of backup satellite connections for several days.22 The mechanical disruption took place half way in-between Norway and Svalbard at a water depth of around 2,700 meters. The sabotage has still not been attributed, but not many actors have the technical capabilities to execute such a sophisticated and covert manipulation of maritime infrastructure.

In August 2021, parallel to the implementation of the Russian large-scale exercise Zapad 2021, a small contingent of Russian warships and auxiliary ships was dispatched to the waters around Iceland,23 where it stayed for several days. Overall, the Zapad 2021 exercise was declared a priority for the Russian Northern Fleet,24 although in retrospect activities in the maritime domain by Russian naval units were equally noticeable from the Black and Baltic Seas to the Arctic-North Atlantic area.

This increase in Russian naval activity has triggered structural responses in the United States. Since July 2021, NATO’s newest joint force command (JFC) in Norfolk, Virginia has acted as the headquarters for the Atlantic and the maritime space of the Arctic and subarctic region. In the future, it is to lead regional activities within its sphere of responsibility. U.S. Second Fleet has also been re-established and assigned to JFC Norfolk, led by a dual-hatted U.S. commander, which promises to bring a noticeable increase in capabilities and more flexibility to NATO. Since its re-establishment, U.S. Second Fleet has already conducted an Arctic exercise, involving the use of emptied or long-time unused military bases in Iceland.25 The United States continues to provide reliable ­security­ for a stable northern ­flank of NATO, enabling the trinity of deterrence­, defense, and dialogue to be maintained undiminished for a decade­.

Only a few years ago, Norway still regarded the Arctic region as a region of cooperation. Traditionally, Oslo has tried to pursue a ­balanced policy ­between deterrence and ­cooperation. After 2014, this approach has become more difficult due to the changed security situation. In the last ­version of its Long-Term Defence­­ 2020, Norway acknowledged that the High North has become an arena of great power rivalry and therefore increasing instability.26 Norway sees itself as the eyes and ears of NATO and therefore invests considerable sums in reconnaissance. ­Starting from Evenes Airport, the Norwegian Air Force is currently testing its first Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft.27 Five of these maritime reconnaissance aircraft were ordered in 2017 and are to be ­gradually transferred into active service by 2022. The Norwegian Armed Forces intend to completely replace their aging fleet of Lockheed P-3C/N and Dassault Falcon 20 maritime patrol ­aircraft by the end of 2023.28

In the overall ­network of NATO defense planning, Norway plays a leading role in the region. Alone, it does not see itself directly threatened by Russia­. As a member of NATO, however, it is noticing the increasing­ deterioration of security relations and considers a shift of tensions to the High North as a real danger.29 Russia fosters such perception through an increase in exercises such as Ocean Shield 2019, which took place with around 70 warships and 58 aircraft in the vicinity of Norwegian territorial waters. In October 2019, ten Russian submarines passed through the North Sea on their way to the North Atlantic, the largest such deployment since the Cold War. The Norwegian Armed Forces are renewing their capabilities to monitor such activities. With the planned deployment of new maritime patrol aircraft in the­ High North, the distances to possible areas of operation will be minimized.30 Since the Arctic-North Atlantic region is an extensive sea area in which submarines can move almost unrestrictedly, the corresponding reconnaissance requirements must in principle be deployed everywhere and flexibly.

However, Norway’s five new maritime patrol aircraft are not alone sufficient to provide NATO with a comprehensive and virtually gapless picture of the vast maritime area in the Arctic-North Atlantic region. To this end, other NATO members must make contributions, especially those with appropriate capabilities and a geo-strategic connection to the area. Germany is one of these states, along with the United States, Iceland — with Keflavik as an important air base for the deployment of Allied P-8 aircraft — Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Part 2 of this article will focus on Germany.

Read Part Two.

Dr. Michael Paul is a Senior Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and Project Director of SWP´s Armed Forces Dialogue (in cooperation with the German Ministry of Defence) and SWP’s Maritime Security Dialogue. He has published extensively about the Arctic region, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, arms control, international security, maritime security, and nuclear strategy; i.a. with Göran Swistek, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention (Berlin: SWP, 2021) and most recently a book about the Arctic, Climate Change and Geopolitics (Der Kampf um den Nordpol. Die Arktis, der Klimawandel und die Geopolitik der Großmächte, Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2022). Recent publications:

Commander Goeran Swistek, German Navy, is a Visiting Fellow in the International Security Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). He was previously advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief of the German Navy and Assistant Chief of Staff N3 (Current Operations) on the German Maritime Forces Staff (DEU MARFOR). He holds a master’s degree in International Security Studies. His areas of expertise include the German Armed Forces, International Security and Defense Policy, Maritime Forces and Navies, Maritime Security, NATO and Defense Planning, and Security Policy in the Baltic Sea Region. Recent publications:


[1] Smith, Julianne & Hendrix, Jerry, Forgotten Waters. Minding the GIUK Gap. A Tabletop Exercise, Washington, DC: CNAS, May 2017,

[2] Ibid

[3] This section is a revised and updated version of Paul, Michael &  Swistek, Goeran, Russia in the Arctic. Development Plans, Military Capability, and Crises Prevention, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 2022/SWP Research Paper,

[4] Paul, Michael & Ålander, Minna, Moscow Threatens the Balance in the High North. In Light of Russia’s War in Ukraine, Finland and Sweden Are Moving Closer to NATO,” Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), March 2022 (SWP Comments).

[5] NPR News, Finland and Sweden formally submit NATO membership applications, 18 May 2022,

[6] Russia has deployed submarines in the Russian Arctic with weapons that guarantee about two-thirds of the country’s maritime nuclear second-strike capability. The Soviet-era concept of the bastion, now revived, stipulates a protective zone for these submarines that stretches across the Barents Sea to Greenland.

[7] Milton, T. Ross, “The Northern Flank,” Air Force Magazine, 1 April 1988, flank/.

[8] Lorenz, Wojciech, “Defence Priorities for NATO’s Northern Flank,” Warsaw: Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), 8 May 2019.

[9] See, e.g., “Maritimes Symposium über die ‘Renaissance der Nordflanke’”, bundeswehr-journal, 17 November 2016,

[10] English, Robert David & Gardner, Morgan Grant, “Phantom Peril in the Arctic. Russia Doesn’t Threaten the United States in the High North – but Climate Change Does,” Foreign Affairs, 29 September 2020.

[11] Dyner, Anna Maria, Russia’s National Security Strategy, 2021,

[12] Paul, Michael & Swistek, Goeran, “Russia in the Arctic,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), 2022,

[13] Daly, John C.K., “Russia Considers Developing a New Fleet in the Arctic, Jamestown, 2022,

[14] Paul, Michael, “Partnership on the High Seas” China and Russia’s Joint Naval Manoeuvres,” SWP Comment, 2019,

[15] Argano, Maria Elena, “Trident Juncture 18 ‘From the largest ship to the smallest drone:’ the implications of the largest NATO exercise,” EU-Logos Athéna, 05 December 2018,

[16] Tømmerbakke, Siri Gulliksen, “Russia to Test Missiles Off the North Norwegian Coast This Week,” High North News, 04 February 2020,

[17] USNI News, “U.S., U.K. Surface Warships Patrol Barents Sea For First Time Since the 1980s,” 2020,

[18] Ibid

[19] H. I. Sutton, “Russian Spy Ship Yantar Loitering Near Trans-Atlantic Internet Cables,” Naval News (online), 19 August 2021,

[20] Details of the undersea cables can be found here: “Submarine Cable Map,” 23 September 2021,

[21] Mooney, John, “Navy called in as Russians suspected of targeting undersea internet cable,” The Sunday Times (online), 15 August 2021,

[22] Staalesen, Atle, “‘Human activity’ behind Svalbard cable disruption,”

[23], “Coastguard tracked Russian naval ships” (online), 31 August 2021,

[24] The Independent Barents Observer, “Northern Fleet Commander says Zapad-2021 will be next year’s main effort,” 28 September 2021,

[25] USNI News, “U.S. 2nd Fleet Flexes Arctic Operational Muscle,”

[26] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Long Term Defence Plan 2020: Capability and Readiness,—english-summary.pdf.

[27] O’dwyer, Gerard, “Norway sets timeline to deploy sub-hunting aircraft in the Arctic,” Defense News, 27 August 2021,

[28] Dr. Åtland, Kristian, The Building up of Russia’s Military Potential in the Arctic Region and Possible Elements of its Deterrence, Centre for Russian Studies.

[29] Norwegian Ministry of Defence, Long Term Defense Plan 2016: Capable and Sustainable,

[30] O’dwyer, Gerard, “Norway sets timeline to deploy sub-hunting aircraft in the Arctic,” Defense News, 27 August 2021,

Featured image: The U.S. Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE-8) conducts a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), right, and the German Navy frigate Hessen (F221) in the Atlantic Ocean on 28 February 2018. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

Data as an Approach to Yemen’s Maritime Security Challenges

By Jeffrey Payne and William Thompson

According to a study by Stable Seas, illicit actors are exploiting instability in Yemen’s maritime environment exacerbated by the ongoing civil war. This breach in maritime security has been made more acute because of damage to the country’s infrastructure, including a substantial portion of the facilities supporting Yemen’s maritime industry. Naval installations and two professional military education (PME) institutions — the Naval Institute and Naval School — were damaged during the conflict. As a consequence of the civil war, Yemen faces limited maritime resources and institutional capacity to police its waters and counter the rise of maritime crime. While Yemen’s maritime challenges cannot be comprehensively addressed until the conflict is resolved, there are strategies that can help allocate resources toward mitigating security gaps. Data can provide a strategic framework for addressing Yemen’s maritime security challenges while also strengthening partnerships and improving maritime domain awareness in the wider Red Sea Region. Specifically, data is an instrument for addressing three security challenges: maritime enforcement, coastal welfare, and rule of law. 

Maritime Enforcement

Maritime enforcement can be made more effective by implementing a system of maritime monitoring. This system would collect and report data on what is happening within Yemen’s territorial waters, especially what types of threats are present and what trends exist. Maritime data reveals patterns that can help human operators recognize anomalies. A more comprehensive picture built from this data would also assist policymakers in mapping an adequate response. Yemen does not have the ability at present to dispatch vessels to monitor its waters at sufficient scale. Adaptation is necessary, and data can provide a path forward for generating new insights into maritime insecurity. It is true that before a data-driven approach is adopted, a system of data collection must be built. Although it would take time to implement such a system, a data-driven strategy is a clear pathway for long-term investment into the country’s security and development that is also feasible within the constraints of the larger political environment of the civil war.

Consider the example of arms trafficking. Type 56-1 rifles are a prominent weapon documented in Yemen and Somalia with strong evidence suggesting Iranian origins. These weapons are transported via dynamic maritime trafficking networks. To complicate matters further, the total travel time for a small vessel between Yemen and its coastal neighbors is only a few hours. This means law enforcement must respond quickly, which is only possible when supported by real-time monitoring. Moreover, collecting data and mapping the location of interdictions or other maritime incidents may help predict future smuggling patterns, which would empower law enforcement to be more precise in how they orchestrate patrols or plan interceptions. Yemen will not stop smuggling in its waters, but it can raise the stakes for criminal actors and increase the cost of their illegality.

The scale of information can also be increased when other actors agree to share maritime data, such as Combined Maritime Forces in Bahrain, regional states, and active non-regional states and actors. If Yemen presents a willingness to use data more routinely, then it may incentivize neighboring partners to participate in information-sharing. The relationship between data and cooperation is cyclic — as more data is collected and shared, states are better informed about possible security threats. A more informed response has a greater likelihood of success, which provides policymakers with more intelligence about illicit activities at sea, thereby encouraging more partnerships.

Coastal Welfare

Maritime domain awareness, enhanced through data collection and monitoring, can improve coastal welfare insecurity. Based on the definition provided by Stable Seas, coastal welfare encompasses the “physical and economic wellbeing” of coastal communities, including the health of local fisheries. Specifically, there exists a relationship between the fishing industry in poor coastal areas and criminality. An increase in piracy often follows an increase in unemployment among individuals employed by coastal industries. Extremist groups and pirates may recruit local fishermen for their navigation skills, and a struggling fishing industry may make local communities more susceptible to joining criminal organizations. Piracy and other forms of violent criminal conduct are correlated with illegal and unreported fishing, which not only damages local marine ecology, but threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities. Yemen’s coastal communities have been grossly impacted by the civil conflict, and the subsequent loss of income and labor stability equates to an environment where many turn toward illegal activities.

A free and easily accessible source of data to highlight in the case of coastal welfare is the visible infrared imaging radiometer suite (VIIRS). VIIRS data captures the location of maritime activity at night and can be a mechanism by which to better enhance maritime domain awareness. Such data may be collected to identify clusters of maritime activity and enhance management of fishing resources and suspected smuggling.

Rule of Law

Finally, a data-driven approach to maritime security has institutional implications that could bolster rule of law. Many of the advantages of data lay in the process by which it is analyzed and communicated to internal and external partners. Maritime professionals need to be trained in different aspects of data management, and teams of analysts need to be employed to evaluate policies based on empirical evidence. Various branches of Yemeni law enforcement will be able to communicate faster and more effectively, increasing Yemen’s institutional capacity to police its waters and develop new solutions to emerging threats. The costs of integrating a more data-driven approach are initially structural in nature, as it requires the retooling of the workforce. Financial costs, while a burden, are not insurmountable given the expansion of commercial firms, applications, and free data. With international assistance also becoming more common, such as through the U.S. SeaVision and EU IORIS systems, the financial burden becomes less prohibitive.  

Expanding information sharing could become the basis for intensified institutional cooperation in the region. Despite the challenges it faces, Yemen remains an active member of the maritime community in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean Region. Yemeni coast guard and port security officials routinely engage in training platforms and educational forums with their immediate neighbors, the European Union, and the United States, among others. Partner efforts should not only prioritize technical training for Yemeni maritime professionals, but also actively provide analysis premised upon their own maritime data.

Existing Technology

Data collection and processing applications already exist in the public realm, as do open-source datasets. Yemen does not need a cohort of technological experts to utilize these applications and deliver improved assessments. The applications that process data also assist in the analysis. Combined with active assistance from partners, Yemen could significantly improve its access to and analysis of a large amount of information. Platforms such as ArcGIS and QGIS are relatively easy to use and support various kinds of data mapping. Other platforms report data on the maritime domain, such as Global Fishing Watch, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Anti-Shipping Activity Messages database, and Esri’s ArcGIS online repository of public data. These platforms often report maritime data as CSV, geoJSON, shapefiles, or other formats that can be imported into a mapping software and visualized. Outside of mapping software, other open-source software such as Python and R contain numerous packages for importing and mapping data.


Data has the potential to be a central pillar of maritime security in Yemen and maritime domain awareness in the wider Red Sea Region. The transnational nature of maritime security necessitates a cooperative enterprise where data is requested and shared among state actors. Regional pursuits for maritime domain awareness depend on lowering the barriers between state actors, which the collection and sharing of data will help stimulate. Because data can be easily shared, it is an asset in building a stronger maritime community through a collective understanding of challenges. Therefore, Yemen should intensify its use of maritime data and request assistance in doing so, while partner nations with greater capability should provide as much assistance as possible. This will build trust and provide a clear collaborative framework for securing the greater Red Sea Region.

Jeffrey Payne is a Professor at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC.

William Thompson is a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center or the U.S. Government.  

Featured image: Yemen coast guard vessels patrol the waters near Mukalla, Yemen, on November 29, 2018 (Credit: AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Fighting, Fishing, and Filming: The Islamic State’s Maritime Operations

By Lucas Webber

In 2004, two US Navy personnel and one member of the Coast Guard were killed in a blast while attempting to board a boat near the Khawr Al Amaya oil terminal off Basra. Two other explosive-laden watercraft detonated nearby, though they did not cause any casualties. The attacks were later claimed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the time and the founding father of the Islamic State (IS) movement. Notably, the statement drew a comparison to the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen, demonstrating AQI’s historical knowledge of jihadi attacks by sea and their strategic consciousness about the insurgent opportunities inherent to the maritime domain. Additionally, the statement threatened a continuance of attacks by sea, land, and air “until victory or defeat.” AQI would make good on this promise the following year, firing rockets at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Israeli port of Eilat.

These maritime attacks were also bolstered by AQI’s river-based movements and knowledge. The historian Kimberly Kagan describes how, during the 2007 surge, AQI (then called Islamic State in Iraq) “operated almost freely in a pendulum-like arc south of Baghdad, swinging from the Euphrates to the Tigris,” adding that “they traveled southeast along the Euphrates River, often by boat, from Fallujah to Sadr al Yusufiya.”

This mode of maritime activity by IS’s organizational predecessor would continue and ultimately expand under the Islamic State. IS has proven highly adaptable and, accordingly, has sought to use geography to its advantage. In the case of Iraq and Syria, the networks have long operated along the coasts and throughout the region’s river systems. IS has traditionally exploited the maritime domain for its kinetic operations, for propaganda purposes, and, in some cases, to raise funds. To be sure, the IS movement is a primarily land-centric phenomenon, yet the propensity for maritime operations is deeply ingrained into its organizational DNA.

A screenshot portrays a group of IS fighters (Credit:

The Islamic State has historically been quite active along the Euphrates and Tigris, traversing throughout to move fighters, weapons, explosives, and supplies; conduct reconnaissance; prepare for and launch attacks; and strike using gunboats and boat-borne IEDs. The rivers have allowed IS fighters to avoid roads, checkpoints, and bridges. In fact, IS has even blown up such structures, including a bridge connecting Dhulueya and Balad using explosive-laden watercraft.

The Islamic State’s use of river systems was so prevalent during its high period that anti-coalition forces conducted intense airstrikes against jihadis travelling by boat. One report from 2016 stated the US and its allies had sunk over 100 IS boats up to that point, with 65 of them destroyed in a single month. The group has used barges, motorboats, and rowboats to travel around the area.

IS fishing propaganda (Credit: Weddady).

The Islamic State’s military strategy includes a significant media warfare component, and some part of this has been leveraged to weaponize the maritime domain. The Islamic State movement was early to recognize the US Navy as central to American power projection, with IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani boasting that “Allah’s law” is “being implemented despite” the opposing military coalition’s “legions, arsenals, planes, tanks, missiles, aircraft carriers, and weapons of mass destruction.”

Further solidifying this weaponization of the maritime domain, another IS figure lamented in March 2015 that “today, Worshippers of the Cross and the infidels pollute our seas with their warships, boats, and aircraft carriers and gobble up our wealth and kill us from the sea.” The group’s supporters responded to this statement with optimism, saying IS will “take to the sea in what is only a matter of a short time,” forecasting the “creation of an Islamic fleet by the Islamic State,” and saying that an IS navy would aim to sink “warships and [commercial] ships… and to threaten their shores and lines of communication… an entire fleet, God willing, not just a single ship.”

For the Islamic State, the seas have also been viewed as a way to infiltrate the soft underbelly of Europe and to attack and invade its enemies in the West. One propagandist suggested that a Mediterranean maritime presence could “bring us closer to conquering Rome sooner rather than later.”

In a particularly notable video intended to show off the skills of its forces, fighters flaunted their amphibious capabilities by swimming in the Tigris and maneuvering in small boats.

Aside from threats, IS’s propaganda apparatus has produced photos and videos of militants paddling, fishing, selling their catches at local markets, and even scuba diving — such imagery was intended to show the serenity of life in the caliphate and the high spirits of the Islamic State’s rank and file.

Another IS fishing propaganda photo (Credit:

However, some of this activity served more practical purposes. As the Islamic State’s caliphate territory was rolled back by the US-led military coalition, the organization exploited the fishing industry as a source of funding. In 2016, Reuters reported about how the group turned to farming and selling fish in Iraq to finance their operations. It should be noted, though, that the Islamic State and its previous iterations had reportedly been involved in the industry since at least 2007 when AQI was fighting the Americans following their 2003 invasion.

IS-associated militants on a boat in the Lake Chad region (credit: Evan Kohlmann).

Even with the loss of land control in Iraq and Syria, IS guerrillas continue to operate along the region’s river systems. And with the organization’s international expansion and the establishment of a global network of insurgent hubs, the group’s branches, from the Sulu-Celebes Sea to the Lake Chad Basin, are more actively incorporating maritime activities into their insurgency campaigns.  

Lucas Webber is a researcher focused on geopolitics and violent non-state actors. He is cofounder editor at and writes a newsletter at You can find him on Twitter: @LucasADWebber

Featured Image: Islamic State video portrays Islamic State fighters using boats to cross the Euphrates (credit: Oryx).