Category Archives: Europe

Analysis related to USEUCOM

Russian Black Sea Fleet Activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea: Implications for the Israeli Navy

By CDR (ret.) Dr. Eyal Pinko

In recent years, and significantly since the 2011 Syrian uprising, the Russian Navy’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria has expanded dramatically. The increasing Russian presence in Syria is part of Russia’s updated naval doctrine, which was first published in 2012, and revised in July 2016. This doctrine was called the Revised Russian Naval Doctrine up to 2030

As in the case of previous strategic doctrines, it defines the navy’s role as part of Russia’s security policy, its goals, its main directions for the buildup of naval forces, and the geographic areas of naval operations. The doctrine also includes and specifies an assessment of threats to Russian maritime security up to 2030. 

The doctrine states that the maritime domain’s main threat originates from the U.S. and NATO forces, which endeavor to dominate the ocean and achieve absolute superiority at sea. It also states that the Russian Navy must be ready to deal with technologically advanced adversarial navies, which are equipped with high-precision weaponry and missiles, and that Russia must strive for a situation in which its navy remains in second place regarding warfare capability. 

This aspiration expresses the Russian understanding that the U.S. Navy is the most advanced globally and that Russia does not intend to build a navy similar in size or quality. 

The new doctrine relates in a general way to the need for operational capability in all regions and ensuring the ability to maintain Russian naval forces’ long-term presence in strategically critical maritime arenas. It explicitly emphasizes the strategic importance, from the Russian government’s perspective, of naval presence in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Arctic.  

The Russian strategy in the Mediterranean Sea becomes more strategically important because of U.S. naval forces’ reduced presence in the Mediterranean arena in the last decade. It began under President Obama’s administration and continued with even greater intensity under President Trump’s administration. 

The reduction of the U.S. naval presence in the region results from a strategic decision made by the two U.S. presidents to transfer the bulk of its naval forces to Asia to view China and North Korea’s growing threat. 

The primary objective of Russia’s increased involvement in the region is to reposition itself as a world power. Through its focused and determined intervention in Syria, Russia demonstrated that it is a key player whose involvement is essential to resolving international issues. For more than four years, the West, which had failed to resolve a steadily exacerbating problem in Syria, was now forced to consider the Russian positions even more carefully and involve Moscow in resolving the crisis.1

The second objective of Russia’s involvement was to leverage the Syrian issue to resolve problems in other areas vital to it, mainly Europe in general and Ukraine in particular. Russian involvement in Syria intended to pressure the West to remove the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe following Russian operations in Ukraine.2

The Russian naval presence in Syria is one of the significant ways in which Russia implements its maritime strategy. In practice, the implementation of the Russian maritime strategy in the Mediterranean is manifested in the expansion and upgrade of the Russian naval port at Tartus, the deployment of strategic weapon systems along the Syrian coast, such as the advanced S-300 and PANTSIR (SA-22) air defense systems, the SS-N-26 Yakhont shore-to-sea anti-ship missile systems, SS-26 Iskander short-range ballistic missile, long-range detection systems, and advanced electronic warfare systems.

The reinforced presence of Russian military forces in the Mediterranean and particularly in Cyprus and Syria also include the deployment of corvettes, submarines (equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles), fighter aircraft squadrons, and helicopters. 

The Russian aircraft squadrons, which are deployed at the Khmeimim base near Tartus’ port, are intended to provide an air ‘umbrella’ to the Russian Navy operating in the Mediterranean. 

In January 2017, Russia signed an agreement with the Syrian regime to lease a naval base within the Tartus port and the Khmeimim airport for 49 years with automatic renewal for another 25 years. Russia began constructing the port and its expansion to station 10 to 20 ships there and to provide maintenance capability. As part of the agreement, the defense of the base from sea and air attack is under Russian responsibility, while its physical protection on land in Syria’s commitment. 

The Russian maritime strategy’s implementation can be seen in the prolonged campaign in Syria, during which the Russian Black Sea Fleet demonstrated an intensive presence in the arena. The Black Sea Fleet performed patrols and was also responsible for supplying weapons systems and munitions from Russia to Syria using supply and auxiliary ships, which brought cargo from its base in the Black Sea to Tartus. 

Furthermore, during 2016-17 the Russian Navy carried out several attacks on high-quality ground targets in Syria using submarines and surface vessels firing cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea. 

In this context, it is worth mentioning the demonstration of power by the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean and notably opposite the Syrian coast from November 2016 until late January 2017. The aircraft carrier, which was accompanied by a large task force (and perhaps even a submarine), was the platform from which attack aircraft took off for missions in Syria. 

Even though two aircraft that took off from its deck crashed and its exit from the Mediterranean was accompanied by black smoke seen coming out of the ship’s funnels, the Kuznetsov’s presence in the Mediterranean and primarily off the Syrian coast had significance from the perspective of Russia’s ability to project power and its desire to be an influential and dominant player in the Mediterranean arena. 

The Russian Navy’s presence in Syria enables Russian strategic and critical capabilities such as power projection with an air-defense umbrella, logistics basing for operations in the region, and securing oil transportation from Iraq or Syria to Russia.

Russian Mediterranean Activity  Impacts on the Israeli Navy 

For many years, the Israeli Navy operated secretly and discreetly in the Mediterranean as one of the area’s strongest navies. The Israeli Navy operated in this arena and executed its missions during peace and war times almost freely. However, the Israeli Navy is affected by the Russian Navy’s presence and operations in the arena on several operational levels

First, Russian intelligence gathering on Israeli naval activity affects the freedom of executing routine secret operations and will also affect the ability to perform them in crisis times. The intelligence gathered enables the Russians to build a maritime picture and evaluate the Israeli Navy’s routine operational activity (from this, it can also identify any non-routine activity it carries out).

The first of four new Saar 6 ships, left, is docked in Haifa, Israel, on Dec. 2, 2020. (Photo via Heidi Levine/AP)

It can be assessed with high probability that intelligence gathered by the Russian Navy is also conveyed to Syrian and Iranian troops and indirectly even to the Hezbollah terror organization. 

Second, the presence of Russian vessels not only threatens the secrecy of Israeli navy operations in the arena but also exposes its ships to Russian forces (including Russian Navy firepower). This causes an inability for the Israeli Navy to maneuver freely in the arena where Russian vessels are present without prior coordination (deconfliction). 

The threat to the secrecy of Israeli naval operations will make it difficult to carry out intelligence missions and special operations both in peace and in war. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that in the case of war or conflict, the Israeli Navy will be highly challenged in attacking its adversaries’ vessels and coastal targets (both in Lebanon and in Syria) by the presence of Russian Navy vessels and aircraft. 

The Russian Navy’s presence and maritime control in the Mediterranean region threaten Israel’s vessels and aircraft operations, essentially constituting access denial operations carried out by the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean arena towards the Israeli Navy. 

Eyal Pinko served in the Israeli Navy for 23 years in operational, technological, and intelligence duties. He served for almost five more years as the head of the division at the prime minister’s office. He holds Israel’s Security Award, Prime Minister’s Decoration of Excellence, DDR&D Decoration of Excellence, and IDF Commander in Chief Decoration of Excellence. Eyal was a senior consultant at the Israeli National Cyber Directorate. He holds a bachelor’s degree with honor in Electronics Engineering and master’s degrees with honor in International Relationships, Management, and Organizational Development. Eyal holds a Ph.D. degree from Bar-Ilan University (Defense and Security Studies).


1. Yadlin Amos, “Russia in Syria and the Implications for Israel,” Strategic Assessment, Volume 19 No. 2 (7/2016): 9. 

2. Ibid.

Featured Image: Russian Navy Captain Alexander Shvarts stands near the main gun system on the Russian missile cruiser Moskva as it patrols in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Syria, on December 17, 2015. (Max Delany/AFP)

Improve U.S. Maritime Posture in Europe Through Strategic Realignment

By Colin Barnard 

In July 2020, senior U.S. military leaders announced a realignment of the U.S. strategic posture in Europe, projecting the movement of troops and materiel from various locations in Germany to elsewhere in Europe and back to the United States. General Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM) and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), argued the realignment enhances deterrence against Russia. Conversely, a former commander of EUCOM and SHAPE, retired Admiral Jim Stavridis, called the realignment a “victory for Putin.” 

With President Biden’s defense team set to review the realignment during the 120-day period granted under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, it is worth evaluating, which, if either, of the above statements is correct. I argue that the planned realignment should go forward, but only if it includes improvements to the U.S. maritime posture, including: additional forward basing for U.S. warships, better collaboration with NATO on maritime domain awareness, and more U.S. foreign area officers embedded in the NATO command and force structures.

The Benefits of Realignment

The potential benefits of the planned realignment should be easy for the Biden team to identify. Relocating EUCOM headquarters from Germany to near SHAPE’s headquarters in Belgium would, as General Wolters stated, “improve the speed and clarity of…decision making and promote greater operational alignment” of U.S. and NATO forces. Currently, General Wolters has to fly between these two headquarters just to address his staffs in person. While this is merely an inconvenience in peacetime, it is an unnecessary burden that could be dangerous during crisis or conflict.

Another benefit is the movement of air forces from Germany to Italy, closer to their parent headquarters and in a better position for operations across the Black Sea region and the Mediterranean. Russia’s continued presence in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria, and its expanding footprint in Libya, warrant attention from both U.S. and NATO forces in Europe and highlight the need to think beyond the traditional notion of a front line with Russia that only faces eastward. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the realignment, however, is the movement of 1,000 troops to Poland, raising the total U.S. troop presence there to 5,500. Defense cooperation between the United States and Poland—a key NATO ally that borders the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and the infamous Suwalki Gap, and has an important coastline on the Baltic Sea—is crucial for deterring Russia. Additionally, the United States has recently improved on defense cooperation agreements with Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, and Georgia

Along with these bilateral agreements, Biden’s team should also consider NATO’s collective deterrence efforts—for example, two forward presence initiatives implemented by NATO in 2016, which placed four battalion-sized battlegroups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. 

What is still inadequate in U.S. bilateral and NATO deterrence efforts, however, is the maritime domain. Deterrence and defense against Russia require more than just ground troops. It is a multi-domain effort requiring significant maritime forces.

The Maritime Domain

Russia is first and foremost a land power, but it is increasingly focused on naval modernization and stand-off capabilities designed to challenge the international order at sea, and neither the United States nor NATO are keeping pace. Fortunately, the most recent U.S. maritime strategy acknowledges this reality and emphasizes the importance of U.S. maritime presence and power projection to compete with Russia. Surprisingly, however, the realignment does not call for a fixed number of U.S. maritime assets in Europe, nor for additional forward naval bases to support them.

The realignment does not entail any reduction in U.S. maritime presence either, which is actually anticipated to increase in the near future—most notably via two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers joining the four already stationed in Rota, Spain. These destroyers, along with NATO’s Standing Naval Forces, are at the forefront of daily competition with Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean, Black, Baltic, and Barents Seas. But the realignment does not address the remaining inadequacies of the U.S. maritime posture in Europe, something the Biden team now has time to correct. 

Before noting these inadequacies, it is worth mentioning that NATO members are making significant strides to improve their naval forces, and the United States has increased its naval deployments in support of NATO objectives, leading Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 for all of 2019, sailing its forward-deployed destroyers regularly into the Black Sea to reassure NATO allies and partners, and, most recently, sailing three destroyers into the Barents Sea for the first time since the end of the Cold War

Last year, retired Admiral James Foggo, former commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe, highlighted the challenge Russia poses in the maritime domain, indicating that more remains to be done. The European theater needs more U.S. naval forces, for which the realignment should account. While the Biden team should and will seek a broad range of input regarding the realignment, three recommendations for addressing the currently inadequate U.S. maritime posture in Europe are included below.


1. Forward Basing 

The Black, Baltic, and Barents Seas are areas of increasing naval competition with Russia, but U.S. naval forces can only access the first two via chokepoints, and all three lie far away from existing U.S. naval bases and logistical sites. While it is important for NATO member and partner states bordering these bodies of water to improve their own naval forces, the forward basing of U.S. naval forces nearby, specifically small surface combatants (such as the future Constellation-class frigate), would yield the United States and NATO important advantages over Russia.

First, forward-based U.S. surface forces would be able to develop sufficient interoperability with NATO allies and partner naval forces operating in the Black, Baltics, and Barents Seas, which is critical for integrating as one force during crisis or conflict. Outside of crisis or conflict, this interoperability is important for the United States and NATO to perform low-end maritime security tasks necessary for maintaining “good order at sea,” identified by Joshua Tallis at the Center for Naval Analyses and the new U.S. maritime strategy as a central part to winning strategic competition. 

Second, the logistical sites required to sustain forward-based forces would be critical during a crisis or conflict. Existing U.S. logistical sites, such as those in Spain, Italy, and Crete, lie too far from these bodies of water, and supplying forces within them would require transit via potentially contested chokepoints. Forward-based forces able to fight on day one, and sustain the fight with nearby logistical sites, would be a credible deterrent against Russia. These forces would be well poised to shape the maritime battlespace, protect sea lines of communication, and keep chokepoints open.

While forward basing would be possible in or close to the Baltic and Barents Seas, the Montreux Convention prevents the United States and any other non-littoral state from permanently stationing naval forces in the Black Sea. Nevertheless, much could be done to improve the maritime posture in the Black Sea short of forward basing U.S. naval forces there. One particularly creative idea proposed by Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation is for Danubian states such as Germany to sail warships for longer durations in the Black Sea using the Danube River to reset the time limits of Montreux, and potentially for non-Danubian states to do the same using the Danube-Black Sea Canal.

2. Maritime Domain Awareness

U.S. maritime domain awareness (MDA) in Europe also requires improvement. Defined as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the global maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States,” global MDA requires significant collaboration among allies and partners, but currently even regional collaboration on MDA within NATO is inadequate. An exhaustive list of recommendations designed to improve U.S. collaboration with NATO is beyond the scope of this article, but two specific suggestions are worth noting.

First, the United States and NATO need to identify and acquire the capabilities required for effective MDA of the European theater as an alliance. Collaboration is only possible if those collaborating have the capabilities to do so. These capabilities need not only be military, though military platforms are certainly a crucial part of MDA. Commercial services and open-source methods for tracking vessels of interest at sea—ideally that avoid national classification issues, which often prevent effective intelligence sharing—are also needed. 

Second, the United States and NATO need to establish a more direct link to events at sea instead of relying on maritime fusion centers (MFCs), which are agencies and processes designed to connect commercial and governmental maritime actors. While crucial for collating and disseminating information related to safety and security incidents, such as search and rescue or piracy, MFCs are only as good as the information they receive. One way to establish a more direct link to the biggest maritime actor of all—merchant vessels—is through the states and organizations that flag and insure them, such as Norway and the Norwegian Shipowners’ Mutual War Risks Insurance Association

Among the many services the association offers its 453 members, encompassing 3,391 merchant vessels and offshore rigs, are intelligence reports generated by its Intelligence and Operations Center (IOC) after a security incident occurs. Some of the first and most accurate intelligence available after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps attacked merchant vessels in 2019 came from the IOC, as Norwegian-flagged vessels were damaged in two of the attacks. Though the Norwegian example is perhaps unique, identifying and developing voluntary linkages with similar organizations across Europe would go a long way to improve U.S. and NATO MDA.

3. Foreign Area Officers

Finally, U.S. Navy foreign area officers (FAOs) should be better utilized to synergize U.S. bilateral and NATO capacity building and deterrence efforts in the maritime domain. FAOs are the U.S. military’s international engagement professionals, working across the globe in U.S. embassies, military headquarters, and on battlefields to develop and maintain critical relationships with allies and partners, to include facilitating defense and security cooperation agreements. While every branch of the U.S. military has FAOs assigned to the NATO alliance, the U.S. Navy should dedicate more. 

NATO as an organization relies on bilateral agreements between individual NATO members and key partners such as Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, and Georgia to build capacity and improve its deterrence posture in the maritime domain. However, a gap in information sharing exists between the predominantly non-American officers at NATO and their American counterparts, even though they are all working on engagements with the same partners. While the details of finalized U.S. bilateral agreements eventually make their way to NATO, the lack of real-time synchronization severely impedes NATO efforts to plan and exercise based on these agreements. 

The simplest solution to bridge this gap is to embed more U.S. Navy FAOs within the NATO command and force structures. In the command structure, U.S. Navy FAOs are already present at two of NATO’s joint force commands, but NATO’s theater maritime command does not have a single U.S. Navy FAO on staff. In the force structure, Navy FAOs could be attached to European maritime headquarters that are capable of providing the maritime component command for the NATO Response Forces in the event of crisis or conflict. Adding more FAOs to the line officers (e.g., surface, aviation, submarine, etc.) already at these headquarters would provide more regional focus and expertise than line officers alone.

These NATO-focused FAOs would not work alongside a country team in a U.S. embassy or contributing to strategic and operational planning at a U.S. military headquarters, but they would gain valuable experience in support of European national and NATO exercises, operations, and planning groups, which would pay dividends when serving in traditional FAO billets. Though spread across the European theater, these FAOs would interact with each other regularly during exercises and at workshops and meetings. They would be a vast network into which American Embassies and the U.S. EUCOM, 2nd Fleet, and 6th Fleet headquarters could tap at any time. 


U.S. military presence in Europe continues to be necessary, but what that presence looks like, and where it is, should always be subject to reassessment. Security environments are not static, nor are the threats within them. During its review of the realignment, Biden’s team should keep a multi-domain focus when determining the right mix of forces forward deployed in Europe while taking into account existing NATO deterrence initiatives and the challenges posed by Russia at sea. 

A U.S. strategic posture realignment in Europe should go forward as long as the U.S. maritime posture in Europe improves as a result. Increasing forward basing for U.S. warships, collaborating better with NATO on MDA, and embedding more U.S. FAOs in the NATO command and force structures will enhance deterrence against Russia even more than General Wolters stated. Contrary to Admiral Stavridis’ statement, it would be a nightmare for Putin rather than a victory.

Colin Barnard is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer currently in training for an exchange with the German Navy. He was formerly a staff operations and plans officer at NATO Maritime Command in the U.K. In addition to publishing for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings and the Center for International Maritime Security, he is a PhD student at King’s College London with a focus on European maritime security. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Defense Department or U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: NATO Standing Maritime Groups operating in the Mediterranean (NATO)

The U.S. Needs an Official Sixth Fleet History, and the Europeans Do Too

By Sebastian Bruns 

Part of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. European Command, the Sixth Fleet is the principal organizing body for American naval activities in and around Europe. In 2020, the United States Sixth Fleet, one of three numbered fleets designated specifically for American forward naval presence, celebrated its 70th anniversary. U.S. naval presence in Europe goes even further back than that. In the early 19th century, the Barbary pirates of Northern Africa constituted one of the pivotal founding memories for the American sea services. U.S. presence in the region continued over the centuries. In 1946, President Harry Truman dispatched the battleship USS Missouri to Turkey in a show of force in the emerging post-World War II order. 

The Sixth Fleet area of responsibility includes, inter alia, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the North Sea. It also includes the eastern Atlantic Ocean, although that responsibility is shared with the recently reactivated U.S. Second Fleet based in Norfolk, Virginia. Additionally, Sixth Fleet operations from Naples, Italy, cover vast stretches of the African coast, excluding those that are part of the area of responsibility of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Manama, Bahrain. 

The Fifth Fleet and the third forward-based establishment, the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, have been the subjects of official naval history publications.1 These explore the history of American institutionalized naval activity in the region in question and provide policy-makers a grasp on the opportunities for and challenges to U.S. naval forward presence. The Sixth Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Europe are conspicuously absent from that canon.

Emblem of United States Sixth Fleet (U.S. Navy)

In fairness, the Sixth Fleet suffered a significant downgrade of geostrategic significance after 1991. With the demise of the Soviet Navy and American political interest shifting first to troop reduction and then to other areas of the world, Europe became somewhat of a secondary operating theatre. This is not to say that the U.S. Navy and its allies did not field substantial maritime assets for crises and armed conflicts such as Operations Desert Storm (1991), Sharp Guard in the Adriatic (1993-1995), and Odyssey Dawn in Libya (2011). 

In Northern Europe, maritime operations that had been a cornerstone of the 1980s maritime strategy all but ceased. Illustratively, American naval commitment to the annual exercise Baltic Operations – or Baltops – waxed and waned.2 For the American public and its naval planners, the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Strait featured much higher on the agenda than operating areas around the European peninsula. 

In line with the changing international security environment, American troop presence in Europe was significantly reduced. At the same time, most European countries also massively decreased the size, and often the capabilities, of their armed forces. The objective: cashing in on an assumed “peace dividend” and reflecting the changing character of armed conflict they confronted. Instead of Soviet submarines or Warsaw Pact amphibious forces, it was the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency land wars of the 2000s that occupied American and European planners’ minds. European navies often bore the brunt of the cutbacks and resource allocations involved and are only slowly recovering.3

However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ensuing war in Eastern Ukraine, the disintegrating Middle East with the Syrian civil war, the rise and fall of the Islamic State, and widespread instability in all of Northern Africa coupled with sea-borne mass migration and refugees are just some of the significant developments of the 2010s that have thrust Europe – and the importance of the U.S. Sixth Fleet – back on center stage of international security politics. Russian undersea activity in the Mediterranean and on the northern flank is creating massive headaches for those who engage in the somewhat lost art of anti-submarine warfare. The Baltic Sea region is now considering Crimean scenarios in its backyard. 

The strategic geography of Europe has evolved, but so has the Russian naval posture thanks to Russia’s embrace of hybrid or gray-zone tactics. To make matters even more challenging, China has significantly upped its influence on Europe. Beijing promises economic benefits by way of digitalization and its Belt and Road Initiative. Critical European maritime infrastructure has also been in the focus of Chinese state-owned businesses, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is making regular port calls to European waters. It also conducts naval exercises with the Russian Navy in the Baltic and Black Seas.4

Finally, another significant problem stems from within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) itself. Alliance coherence has suffered over the years from diverging interests in member states, competition for influence, lackluster defense spending, and those global challenges that defy traditional nation-state capacities: migration, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. American troop presence, and the reduction thereof, was used as a bargaining chip by President Donald Trump as recently as 2020 in order to punish Germany and to reward other member states.

This goes to show how little the importance of American military presence in Europe is understood on either side of the Atlantic. This is particularly the case for U.S. naval forces that have quietly gone about expanding their forward presence and rotational deployments. Still, comparatively little literature exists in the public domain about American naval engagement in and with Europe. An official, unclassified history of the Sixth Fleet would go a long way to provide policy-makers and the public with information about the bigger picture of naval cooperation and U.S. Navy activities in Europe. 

USS Ross (DDG 71)
USS Ross (DDG 71) moored pierside in Rota, Spain March 29, 2017. Ross, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price)

It would also be immensely helpful for those defense specialists in Europe that seek to work with the incoming Biden/Harris administration. After all, the annual Baltops exercise has seen a significant uptick in U.S. Navy visibility (the 2019 maneuver was commanded by Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, Commander, U.S. Second Fleet), but American naval presence is rarely contextualized or studied. Four ballistic missile defense destroyers of the Arleigh-Burke-class are now forward-stationed in Rota, Spain, complemented by Aegis Ashore installations in Romania and Poland. These trends, as well as those adverse challenges described above, are likely to continue in one form or another. 

It is highly unlikely that this year, 75 years after the Missouri’s trip to Turkey, will be commemorated with a similar U.S. naval deployment – due to the absence of battleships in the American warship inventory, the raging pandemic, and the divide in Turkish-American and Turkish-NATO relations in the wake of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s politics. It should, however, signal the start to an honest effort conceptualizing American naval presence and seapower in Europe. It is as important for Americans as it is for Europeans.     

Dr. Bruns heads the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security (CMSS) at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel. His work focuses on naval strategy and the German and U.S. navies. Together with Sarandis Papadopoulos, he has recently published Conceptualizing Maritime & Naval Strategy. Festschrift for Captain Peter M. Swartz, United States Navy, retired (Nomos, 2020). He is the 2021-2022 Fulbright McCain Fellow at the US Naval Academy.


1 Robert Schneller, “Anchor of Resolve. A History of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Fifth Fleet”, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. 2007; Edward Marolda, “Ready Seapower. A History of the U.S. Seventh Fleet”, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C. 2012. 

2 See Ryan French & Peter Dombrowski, “Exercise BALTOPS: Reassurance and Deterrence in a Contested Littoral”, in Beatrice Heuser, Tormod Heier and Guillaume Lasconjarias (eds.), Military Exercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact. NATO Defence College: Rome 2018, pp.187-212. 

3 See Jeremy Stöhs, The Decline of European Naval Forces. Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty. USNI Press: Annapolis 2018. 

4 See Sebastian Bruns & Sarah Kirchberger, “The PLA Navy in the Baltic Sea. A View from Kiel”, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 16 August 2017. 

Featured Image: Ships assigned to Combined Task Force One Five Zero (CTF-150) assemble in a formation for a photo exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Bart Bauer.)

On The Decline of European Naval Power: A Conversation with Jeremy Stöhs, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

By Roger Hilton

RH: You state that after the end of the Cold War many states had been able to consolidate their militaries despite fiscal restrictions. This all changed in 2007-2008, this groundswell of financial issues, tanking economies, and soaring national debt. You argue that even previous levels of defense spending and the corresponding force structures were unsustainable in many cases. It is evident that we have fairly polarizing periods here. On the one hand we have the reduced defense spending period of the immediate post-Cold War, and then the high defense spending in the latter 2000s, immediate post 9/11 era. Can you help us understand the short and long-term impact that the global financial crisis had on naval procurement?

JS: In the 1990s a lot of states still invested heavily in modernizing their militaries, and you see a real strengthening of naval forces. Just take a look at the Greek Navy; also the French are still spending quite a lot on national defense. The real problem really starts in the 2000s. Purely from a platform-centric point of view, much of the damage to European navies began in the 2000s I would say. You see the decommissioning of numerous vessels and platforms without replacements – the Danish submarine flotilla for example or large parts of the Dutch escort fleet. You have problems with procurement processes, you see this with the German and Spanish submarine programs. This was really exacerbated by the financial crisis, putting procurement projects on hold or canceling them outright. My British colleagues will attest to this, most infamously the cancellation of the British Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, which left the Brits without any dedicated fixed wing maritime surveillance platform. But that’s just one of many examples.

RH: When it comes to specific examples in your book you describe a bleak picture that in the decline of the 2000s, on top of the financial crisis, it essentially removed some features of European navies, possibly for good. You cite the devastating example of the Dutch, who went from having one of the most capable Cold War fleets to what some observers describe today as a second-rate Navy. Could you elaborate a bit on this example?

JS: I think this is one of the best examples of the decline of European naval power. This also happened before the financial crisis. The Dutch defense studies postulated in 2003 and 2005, they spelled out that the Navy had to find a new balance, and this meant selling six of their frigate to Belgium, Chile, and Portugal. This would leave them with a fleet escort of a total of six frigates. And instead of buying new frigates, they would receive Holland-class OPVs, which while being the “Rolls Royce” of OPVs, don’t have the fighting power of a frigate of course.

And then you have at the same time the earlier 2000s, the fleet of Orion maritime patrol aircraft being sold to Germany, and all that happens prior to the crisis. I think what the crisis then did, including for the Netherlands, is that it significantly impacted training and readiness, and that definitely had long-term effects on naval forces. Another example is the new submarine that should be commissioned will probably be introduced sometime in 2028 or 2030, something like that, and the current submarines will have reached 40 years by then, which is quite a long period of time. So that just shows these long procurement processes and the problems they suffered.

RH: To shift to some encouraging news, despite the tight national purses that affected procurement, what are your thoughts on the FREMM project between France and Italy that was designed to build a multi-purpose frigate? In the book you said the project was deemed as a success, but is still subject to economic limitations. Today with more appetite for spending, is this a concept that can be recreated with success today?

JS:  I like the FREMM frigates not only because they are beautiful ships, both the French and Italian version, and they might also be the U.S. Navy’s next frigate, so that this is a first…but what I find interesting is that this Franco-Italian cooperation project worked relatively well. They included lessons learned from the previous cooperation which was the Horizon project, an air defense destroyer, a trilateral cooperation between the British, the French and the Italians. It ultimately produced only two destroyers for France and Italy, and the British went on to produce their own destroyer, the Daring-class. What they learned is that you don’t have to build an identical ship, but actually can have some similarities and at the end of the day you have ships that are cousins. That really is an example of how corporations in the defense sector can work. But of course the French aren’t procuring nearly as many as they initially planned, and now they’re selling some to Morocco and Egypt. There are other examples but that is one.

RH: On Greek and Turkish maritime capabilities, you established that unlike most European nations, the Hellenic Navy had seen the fewest doctrinal changes. It remained focused on defending its adjacent waters and fulfilling its NATO obligations. At the same time you assert that the naval balance of power in the region had shifted to its traditional regional competitor, Turkey. How do you forecast the competition in the maritime domain playing out between these two ‘allied’ powers?

JS: This was the most interesting case study to me because those were two countries that in the 1990s and 2000s adhered to traditional national defense strategies and did not jump on the power projection bandwagon. You only see a little bit of it in Turkey’s force structure and operations, but Greece is really still adhering to territorial defense, SLOC protection, and it has the fleet for that.

You see a similar trajectory in recent years, both have had shed unnecessary addendums and allowed the older combatants and ships to be decommissioned to more effectively modernize their fleets through this period of the 1990s and 2000s. Both of them actually have larger fleets now than they had in the 1990s, not only in regard to the order of battle, but also more capable fleets relative to other powers.

Greece was of course hit very hard economically and put a number of programs on hold such as its fast attack craft and German submarines. Turkey on the other hand has incrementally been creating a capable domestic defense sector, despite setbacks. They’re really trying to create their own capability in terms of being able to build their own weapon systems, everything from tanks, UAVs, and now up to frigates. They started building licensed, state-of-the-art German submarines. Now they are also building the Spanish-designed TCG Andalou aircraft carrier which is a very interesting development of course for power projection.

But on the other hand, two caveats I want to add here, both of them have challenges they face, and one is of course fiscal for the Greeks. For the Turks, I believe it’s hard to imagine after two consecutive purges in the military so I’m told, that that has not had a negative effect on the Navy. While the current naval officers are loyal to President Erdogan, I would be looking over my shoulder if I were them.

The Turkish Navy also has to keep a close eye on the Russian fleet, which unlike the Baltic in my opinion, is considerably more powerful than it was a couple years ago. It’s a development that is evolutionary rather than revolutionary as long as Turkey remains in NATO.

RH: For the third period you cover, 2014 to the present, post Crimea annexation, we arrive at a juncture for European navies. The annexation of Crimea set off waves of reverberations that are still being felt today. Russia’s annexation caught policymakers by surprise, and in response to bolster their defense, actions taken by NATO and the EU have attempted to address this previous complacency. Compounding matters, as you state, is the proliferation of terrorist attacks in Europe, creating a permanent sense of insecurity. Then enter a wild card – President Trump’s America First nationalist policy and Washington’s rebalancing toward the Indo-Pacific region. When taken together these events have only amplified the sense of uncertainty. Is it a little too late for European naval forces to defend themselves without the full support of the U.S.?

JS: Does the U.S. have an interest in staying engaged in Europe? There is no doubt about it. I think for the foreseeable future, it’s a pipe dream to believe Europeans will gain full strategic autonomy from the U.S. I think that is a buzzword that is being spread in Brussels and throughout Europe. There are several areas in which the European Union wants to become truly autonomous. This includes politically, operationally, and also industrially and technologically autonomous.

And while there is a sense in the globalized world that there is such a sense of technological autonomy, I find it really difficult to believe that there will be operational autonomy, in terms if when push comes to shove and European states are engaged or see a necessity to engage in high-intensity warfare or a military campaign, they will not only need the U.S. they will need other European countries to support them in some way. I don’t see any scenario where that need will be lessened at the operational level, or at the political level. What they need is as much independence as possible, but that does not mean autonomy.

RH: As a product of this tumult you state how closer cooperation between Europe’s armed forces has emerged. Can you discuss some of the future and completed programs, and if this cooperative model is sustainable in the long-term when it comes to naval forces?

JS: What I think is important is that with respect to fiscal austerity, there is a very interesting idea on how European naval forces can deal with times of fiscal austerity. It provides four possibilities on fiscal austerity. First, shortcuts, or settling for less. Next, jointness and working with other military services. Then, multilateral and combined operations in cooperating with other states. And the fourth is leap-frogging or offsetting and using asymmetric technologies. European navies have been doing a bit everything, but their governments have been choosing number one too much, namely settling for less.

They are closing their interoperability gaps, which is an obvious problem of course.  I have to say, we complain a lot, but no alliance has had better interoperability than NATO. There’s been discussion of including Japan and Germany in the Five Eyes agreement. We have a multitude of bilateral and multinational naval cooperation: the Swedish-Finnish efforts, the German-Dutch amphibious forces, the Belgian-Dutch BeNeSam; I could go on. What I would like to see is an equivalent of a NATO AWACS, or an equivalent to the aerial tanker and transport fleet. I thought when the deal didn’t go through with the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships the French were building for the Russians, that could have helped trailblaze this idea of having a ship under the NATO flag with different countries providing the crews and aviation platforms. But from what I heard it was  discussed for about ten minutes and then the idea was laid to rest. But maybe ten years from now we’ll actually see something like that happen.

At the beginning I pointed out that even a land-locked country like Austria can have agency at sea, and Austrian Special Forces were deployed and embarked on a German vessel in an EU operation at sea. If 20 years ago you had suggested that the EU would be conducting naval operations in the Med, and there would be Austrian Special Forces embarked on that vessel, they would have probably thought you were crazy. But that just goes to show what naval forces can do, and that we all can contribute and that sea power is shared.

RH: Coming to the last point here in the third period, in parallel to this cooperation theme, you stress the need for nations to strike a capabilities balance. In search of harmony, how do European navies reconcile investing resources in high-intensity capabilities aimed at deterring conflict with other navies rather than in investing in low-intensity capabilities designed for the maintenance of maritime order?

JS: In general, what I currently see, at least in some circles, is that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. Yes, I believe naval forces are built for warfighting, that’s their primary mission and function. But people are readily forgetting about all the other things naval forces can do, from constabulary duties, the diplomatic roles, that’s often brushed aside because it’s not as glamorous. I think we have to be careful that we don’t only emphasize that because for the first time naval forces will have to do really everything because the challenges are so great. The range of missions runs the gamut of the intensity spectrum and we can’t just say, well, we’ll do collective defense or anti-submarine warfare and we won’t worry about migration, for example.

What I argued for is that niche specialization is important. It provides small countries that have very limited budgets the ability to add something to the greater whole, to NATO or the EU for example. But that can be taken too far as well or not suffice. What I argue for are baseline capabilities. Rich states such as Germany and the Netherlands can invest in having balanced navies that can conduct a wide range of missions not specialize in niches. However, I think for smaller states that specialization can be dangerous because it can limit possibilities and can make you very dependent on others for aid.

The limit of course is GDP, and whether there is funding for naval forces. For a Latvia or a Slovenia that will be difficult. But what is necessary is prudent thinking about contributing to naval operations. I mentioned earlier Austrian boarding teams that can be deployed on EU missions or the possibility of a small Swedish warship operating off the Horn of Africa.

I would also argue to not make the mistakes of the past. Perhaps as a scholar that didn’t live through the Cold War, it seems to me I see people reverting to an older, more comfortable view. Kaliningrad Oblast is often described by NATO zealots as a seemingly impenetrable fortress that renders all NATO and partner navies in that area sitting ducks. A scholar at the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia, Steven Wills, who has a piece on CIMSEC, discussed how the West got Soviet naval strategy entirely wrong in the 1960s and 1970s. I wonder today if we’re prudent enough to get our analysis right.

RH: Let’s return to our initial question. Are European naval forces doomed to impotency, or is reform and renewed power projection possible? How do you rate their chances for success?

JS: I wrote an article recently for The Naval War College Review titled “Into the Abyss” where I argued that by 2014 the situation was quite bleak. The decline was so pronounced in many of the navies and their capabilities were so atrophied that this really called into question their ability to provide credible deterrence. And they were smaller than any time in recent history, they lost capability, and the idea of deploying them in contested environments had almost been forgotten. There was a preoccupation with low-intensity operations, counter-piracy operations, but the basic function of warfighting had been forgotten to a certain extent.

But, at the same time, I see light at the end of the tunnel. I know for a lot of people who want to see change happen quickly and see budgets rise very quickly. It bears remembering that in the 1990s they were using vessels designed in the 80s and 70s, so it will take time for the changes to take place and we have to be very smart in the risks we assume in defense spending. But I do see light at the end of the tunnel what European naval forces are concerned.

RH: This positivity you’re sharing with us is certainly an exercise in patience and prudent decision-making in defense spending. Looking to the future, do you have any last strategic takeaways that we should be conscious of?

JS: For anyone who is interested in European naval matters it is important to scale down your expectations. European navies and their militaries are sometimes seen as collectively powerful because Europe as a whole is more populous than the United States and its cumulative GDP is also higher. The United States and Europe are similar, so it seems. And that’s a very inviting idea, but it just does not work because Europe has different states with very different interests.

It’s important to remember that the individual defense budgets of the respective states are but a fraction of that of the United States. But what is more important for the smallish navies is that they still play an important role in the freedom of the seas and good order at seas, and also in military operations. There is a necessity for far greater research on European naval forces, especially of their development over the past decades. There is very little comprehensive research on what they have been doing, what their policies were, what they changed what the force structures were, and so on. So, I am just trying to contribute to that a bit.

Finally, as a strategic takeaway, without giving away too much of what’s in my book, I believe that in an age of great power competition it is very likely that the 21st century will be one of continued American naval power despite all the naysayers. I believe it will also be an era of rising (or already risen) Asian naval power. The question is really to what degree it will involve European sea power and naval power.

I encourage readers to reach out to us at ISPK and the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security to discuss these pressing questions. We believe shared knowledge is empowerment.

RH: On that note Jeremy, thank you for taking the time for helping us to discuss this pressing but under-the-radar issue. If our readers would like to follow up on Jeremy’s work, please check out his book The Decline of European Naval Forces. You can also look for the Routledge handbook of Naval Strategy and Forces, edited by Sebastian Bruns and Joachim Krause, which is an indispensible resource. For more info on the book and other podcasts, don’t forget to visit and follow us on Twitter at @SeapowerSeries for more updates.

Jeremy Stöhs is a security and defense analyst at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) and its adjunct Center for Maritime Strategy & Security as well as a fellow at the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda & Security Studies (ACIPSS).

Roger Hilton is the defence and Security stream manager at GLOBSEC, a global think-tank based in Bratislava, Slovakia  as well as a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute (CGAI).

Featured Image: Norwegian Sea, Nov 7. 2018. TRIDENT JUNCTURE 18 PHOTEX. (NATO Photo by Wo Fran C. Valverde)