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)

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