The Royal Swedish Academy of War Science is presently undertaking a study of strategic and operational requirements for the Swedish Armed Forces in the 2030 timeframe. Its naval section has recently published its findings in a book, Vår marin för ett tryggt Sverige och ett starkt Europa. Marin strategi 2030(Our Navy for a Secure Sweden and a Strong Europe. Naval Strategy 2030).1 This article discusses some of our findings.
Classic naval strategists – Mahan, Corbett, and Castex – basically saw naval strategy as consisting of three major alternative offensive strategies: attack on land from the sea, blockade, and commerce raiding, as well as the corresponding defensive strategies. Sea control (command of the sea is an older term) and its opposite, sea denial are key. French Admiral Raoul Castex summed it up nicely: “Depending on whether one has command of the sea or not, one may or may not:
be in an offensive mode, intercept the communications at sea of the enemy and attack his territory from the sea;
be in a defensive mode, guarantee one’s own communications and prevent the enemy from attacking one’s territory from the sea.”2
Today, the spectrum of maritime warfare is much broader and fluid. Some parts of this spectrum, such as nuclear deterrence, are only relevant to the navies of larger powers, but many are highly relevant also to coastal navies.
Geographically, Sweden is a maritime country dependent on sea lines of communications (SLOCs) for its international trade but also, increasingly, for domestic transportation. Its biggest port is Gothenburg, but there are important ports along all its 2,700 kilometers of coastline. The sea around Sweden is divided into three operational areas by the straits of Öresund and the Åland archipelago. Strategically, Sweden borders the Arctic in the north, Russia in the east, the EU in the south and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The country is not a member of NATO but enjoys a close partnership with the alliance. It is a member of the EU, and has close military relationships with other Nordic countries, especially Finland. The Swedish navy is modern and capable, but much too small for the tasks expected of it.
The Blue Society
The future of humankind lies at sea, which is demonstrated by the 70-80-90-99 rule: the sea covers 70 percent of the surface of the globe, 80 percent of its population lives near the sea, 90 percent of goods are transported on ships, and 99 percent of world’s digital information is carried by submarine cables.3 Two thirds of the world’s wealth is also produced at, or in, the sea. One could talk about a littorialization of the world’s population and thus of its economy.4 In sum these trends form what one could call a blue society – a society turned toward and dependent on the sea, its possibilities, and challenges.
Several important factors drive this development. It is well-known that the globe’s major reserves of oil and gas lie beneath the sea; there are tens of thousands of platforms of different kinds and more than 100,000 people serve on them. Climate change drives the construction of an ever-increasing number of wind farms and other forms of at-sea power generation. Climate change also drives moving traffic of goods from roads to ships (and railways). Mineral resources at sea are increasingly important as well as resources for the biochemical and pharmacological industry. Fishing – catch of wild fish as well as fish farms – is of vital importance for a large part of the world’s population. Shipping and related activities are vital for the economy. Just in the EU, some 574,000 people work in ports, a sector worth a collective €89 billion.5, 6
To conclude, the old adage of Corbett that “Command of the sea, therefore, means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes” is no longer sufficient. The sea itself is now intrinsically important. He is still correct, however, when he stated that naval warfare is not about “the conquest of territory.”7
Littoralization in Scandinavia
Two extreme cases of littoralization are the interlinked mega-regions known as Western Scandinavia and Greater Copenhagen. The former includes southwestern Sweden and southern Norway while the latter covers the Danish and Swedish parts of the Öresund. 30 percent of Norway’s and 33 percent of Sweden’s populations live in Western Scandinavia which is responsible for the major part of Norway’s and half of Sweden’s GDP.8 A driving factor is the area’s largest ports, Gothenburg and Helsingborg, which link the region with the global market. Greater Copenhagen is, from an economic point of view, an integrated area on each side of one of the world’s most busy waterways, where around five million people live.
Even minor disturbances may create great economic danger to the countries in the region. Hybrid warfare could be a very effective mode of attack due to the dependence on vital infrastructure. For instance, just a suspicion of mines in the waterways would cause disruption; such a suspicion is relatively easy to spread through a disinformation campaign. Their actual use would cause great harm. Due to the archipelago covering the port of Gothenburg, preventive mine-hunting would require significant resources.
The defense of such a littoral area with its thousands of islands, broad countryside, as well as modern cities, as well as extensive transport networks would be very complex. One might add the great sensitiveness of modern ports as well as infrastructure in general to attacks in cyberspace.
Infrastructure – Changing the Geography of the Littoral
Trends in building new infrastructure on the sea – the construction of wind farms and diverse platforms for oil and gas including the deployment of Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) and Floating (production) Storage and Offload (F(P)SO) – change the operational seascape.9 These facilities are a sort of hybrid infrastructure, where they retain the permanence of land-based facilities but are located out at sea. In the Swedish context, only wind farms are relevant.
Windfarms may cover large areas and they produce noise that may conceal the presence of submarines. It is believed that a wind turbine has a radar cross section of around 10,000 meters squared. The movements of the blades affect a doppler radar, which is in current use in modern aircraft. Wind farms, covering large areas, constitute a new tactical environment. Submarines, especially midget submarines, and fast attack craft (FAC) may conceal themselves in such areas and would be very difficult to detect. In fact, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran used its oil platforms as bases for their fast attack craft – the famous Boghammar.10 Sweden also has a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Wind farms at sea are bound to play an important part in this program.11 Consequently, such wind farms become strategically important and, hence, a target for warfare.
Another aspect of infrastructure is constituted of cables. Cables may be damaged accidentally or intentionally, but their information could also be intercepted by specialized submarines. It is believed that the Russians are very capable in this area. Stopping information through cable-cutting is a measure already used since the Spanish–American War of 1898. Electrical power is also transmitted through cables on the seabed. The strategically important Swedish island of Gotland is highly dependent on electricity from the mainland. Sweden is also connected to the EU internal energy market through a network of such cables.13, 14
A final type of growing infrastructure is the bridges that connect Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. They are of clear strategic importance but vulnerable. They also constitute physical obstacles – modern aircraft carriers may not enter the Baltic Sea because the bridges are too low. The Great Belt and the Öresund have, historically, had great strategic importance. They still have as they link, or separate, the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic area.
In sum, infrastructure at sea is strategically important, but vulnerable. A complete command of the sea would constitute an efficient defense but such a command is likely impossible. Consequently, this is an area in need of tactical development.
Technology – A Force Multiplier
Naval officers tend to equate military capacity with the number of keels or missile tubes available. These metrics are important of course, but technology creates new possibilities. A primary observation is that distances, expressed as range, depend on technology: “The physical arena is as big as before when considered in linear dimensions, in kilometers. However, when expressed in passage time, it is much reduced.”15 Until now, range has been dependent on a ship’s organic sensors and weapons. Now, the use of drones changes this.
Drones will have an increasing role to play in surveillance, as decoys, and as weapon platforms over, on, and under the surface. Drones for undersea, surface and air use will be networked together. The future naval force will probably have a number of such drones for communications, targeting purposes, and as weapon delivery platforms. With the development of standard interfaces, drones will be able to communicate among themselves. This also means that one ship may use another’s drone. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make it possible for drones to cooperate actively and independently to a great extent.
For the Swedish Navy, there are a number of possible tactical uses. A critical one is the surveillance of the undersea domain in ports and important parts of archipelagos in search of mines and minisubs. Another is increasing the sensor range for ships on surveillance missions. Sweden could perceive cargo ships loaded with military units that “suddenly” steer toward Swedish ports as an important threat.16 AI will help in detecting such moves early on.
Swedish corvettes will (finally) be equipped with medium-range anti-air missiles. This will give these ships quite a new role as part of the Swedish air defense, which has mainly depended on the Air Force. Sweden has bought the Patriot system, but the number of systems and missiles is not known and probably small. The contribution of the Navy, with its staying power at sea, could be significant. New ships may be constructed with built-in sensors in the hull, in engines, and weapon systems. This may make planned maintenance less important as the sensors will be able to report continuously on the condition of the material. The aspect of cybersecurity will, obviously, be very important in this context. These are just some examples of what new technology may have to offer a small navy.
Aircraft carriers are sometimes called “100,000 tons of diplomacy.” But even smaller navies and ships can be applied toward naval diplomacy. The general objective is to shape the strategic environment to one’s advantage, to reassure friends, and earn the respect of potential enemies. Naval presence is the basic action in the context of naval diplomacy; without presence, there is no diplomatic effect. Naval diplomacy and presence can cover a range of actions that are not clearly defined from one another, and may be engaged in simultaneously. Naval presence may produce a number of strategic effects (interdiction, coercion, creation of friendship and confidence) depending on the actions of the deployed naval force. But the result also depends on posture and credibility. This can be illustrated by the following formula: Diplomatic result = (action plus posture) times credibility. Naval diplomacy and presence can cover a range of actions that are not clearly defined from one another. Naval diplomacy also influences one’s own perceptions of others, and can help mitigate the assumptions that come with mirror imaging.
Even a small navy like the Swedish Navy can engage in a range of naval diplomatic activities. To be present at sea with capable naval ships with well-trained crews is a priority in peacetime. It is also necessary in order to keep track of developments in the busy seas surrounding Sweden. Exercises with friends (the U.S., NATO, Finland, and others) create the necessary interoperability and mutual trust needed in crisis and war. It also has a deterring effect showing that they are able to fight together even though Sweden is not a formal member of NATO. Naval visits are a classic and effective way of creating mutual friendships.
More controversial would be efforts to approach the Russian Navy. Russian presence in the Baltic and adjacent seas is a fact and perfectly legal according to the UNCLOS.18 All states in the area share an interest in the keeping of good order and safety at sea. The problem with Russia is, of course, its rather aggressive posture and its actions against Ukraine. However, simple exercises at sea could be a way of creating some degree of mutual trust. As the sea is free, such endeavors would be less controversial than activities on land.
A small navy like the Swedish Navy does not seek to be able to project power on a global scale – not even on a regional one. It cannot protect SLOCs in contested areas far away. But it can, and must, promote and defend its interests at sea in its own area of interest. It can also be a small but important player in larger contexts as shown, for instance, by the Swedish participation in Operation Atalanta off the coast of Somalia.19
In fact, even small navies will see enlarged requirements as a result of the increased importance of the sea in the context of the blue society – a society dependent on the sea and its use. This will include traditional missions like defense of territory against amphibious operations and protection of shipping. But it will also include new missions in the context of the increased importance of infrastructure at sea. Technology will create new possibilities also relevant for small navies, such as through drones, AI, and new missiles.
Representatives of major navies often tend to see smaller navies – without the whole panoply of naval might – as less relevant. But a small navy may be as relevant as a large one in the context of its own strategic environment, and where larger allies may depend on their success.
Lars Wedin is a retired Captain R Sw N. He is the editor of Tidskrift i Sjöväsendet which, since 1835, is the journal of the Royal Society of Naval Sciences founded in 1771. He is also a member of the Royal Academy of War Sciences.
Odd Werin, Lars Wedin: Vår marin för ett tryggt Sverige och ett starkt Europa. Marin strategi 2030, Kungl. Krigsvetenskapsakademien, Stockholm, 2020.
Raoul Castex: Théories stratégiques, Institut de Stratégie Comparée et Economica, Paris 1997, vol V, p. 87.
Slightly adapted from Remarks by the Honorable Ray Mabus Secretary of the Navy 27th Annual Emerging Issues Forum: Investing in Generation Z Raleigh, NC Tuesday, 7 February 2012. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/secnav/Mabus/Speech/emergingissuesfinal.pdf
République Française : Stratégie nationale de sûreté des espaces maritimes, Paris, 2015. p. 5.
Before Brexit and the Coronavirus Pandemic
The EU blue economy report 2019, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg 2019.
Julian S Corbett: Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Conway Maritime Press, London 1972 , p. 90
The realism of this perception is open to some doubt but it is regarded as a fact in Swedish defense policy circles.
Martin Motte: “Splendor Rei Navalis”, Stratégique, no. 118, 2018, p. 81
UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
See Robert McCabe, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller (eds): Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security. Balancing Traditional Roles and Emergent Threats in the 21st Century, Routledge, 2019.
Featured Image: TRONDHEIM FJORD, Norway (Oct. 30, 2018) The Swedish navy corvette HSwMS Nyköping (K34) transits Trondheim Fjord in Norway, Oct. 30, 2018, as part of NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Pedro Miguel Ribeiro Pinhei/Released)
Since regaining their independence in the early 1990s, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have confronted the challenge of how to secure themselves with limited resources. Russian opposition to the Baltic States’ Western orientation has ensured that Moscow remains the primary threat. Since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the countries have become more concerned about their eastern neighbor’s intentions.
During the 1990s, the Baltic States considered three major security policy options: neutrality (Russia’s stated preference); trilateral alliance and close military cooperation with the Nordic states; and working to join NATO and the European Union.1 With a political desire to rejoin the West and ongoing suspicion of Russia, all three countries made joining Western institutions their primary goal. They achieved membership in both organizations in 2004.
With NATO’s Article V collective defense guarantee in hand, the Baltic States were free to choose their own paths to meeting their alliance obligations and homeland defense needs. Estonia has maintained a focus on territorial defense, retaining conscription and large reserves to defend the homeland, while actively participating in NATO and U.S.-led operations with its small active-duty forces. Lithuania followed a middle ground, tailoring some of its forces for missions abroad, while retaining some territorial defense capability. Latvia elected to rely almost entirely on NATO for deterrence, ensuring its forces are fully interoperable and available for alliance operations. Latvia and Lithuania both ended conscription to concentrate on professional forces. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 refocused all three countries on homeland defense, with Latvia and Lithuania re-emphasizing territorial defense capabilities. Lithuania has decided to resume conscription for at least the next five years.
All three Baltic States have focused their naval capabilities on mine countermeasures. This specialization is seen as a concrete way to contribute to NATO missions despite limited resources and to address regional maritime security concerns. The Baltic Sea contains thousands of mines and munitions left over from World Wars I and II, which continue to be cleaned up during NATO and other exercises. Additional capabilities are retained for lower-end homeland security missions.
The threat of Russian ground invasion has been the primary occupation of Baltic military establishments. All three countries nevertheless have significant coastlines on the Baltic Sea with the accompanying maritime security and defense concerns. These include search-and-rescue, exclusive economic zone security, combating smuggling, the threat of amphibious assault, and hostile submarines. The focus on land threats, expense of naval combat platforms, and limited resources have so far prevented the countries from acquiring or maintaining significant naval capabilities. What follows is an analysis of each Baltic State’s respective naval capabilities followed by trends in their combined missions and activities.
Estonia focuses its naval forces almost exclusively on mine countermeasures. The current national defense plan, which runs through 2022, calls for modernizing its three Admiral Cowan-class (former British Sandown–class) minehunters, developing its diver group, and maintaining the auxiliary vessel Tasuja (ex-Danish Lindormen–class). The focus is on international military missions, particularly with Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCG). Local maritime security is left to other agencies.
The Police and Border Guard is responsible for surveillance, border protection, search-and-rescue (SAR) and pollution control operations.2The Navy does not participate in such missions, but can be tasked for SAR as needed.
The Maritime Administration provides navigational security, including sea charts, hydrography, icebreaking, and maintaining a vessel traffic service. Fisheries protection is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, although it makes use of Police and Border Guard assets.
A 2016 report found that Estonia’s maritime security suffered from institutional fragmentation and a lack of maritime situational awareness.3 Insufficient investment and poor delineation of responsibilities left the country without the ability to identify or precisely locate unknown vessels within its waters. Should a vessel be identified as hostile, Estonia lacks the ability to engage it.
The divide between the navy and border guard has been exacerbated by domestic politics, including constraints on using defense assets for constabulary duties. The border guard has also benefited from EU investment, which cannot be used for military purposes.
With the appropriate investments, these problems could be resolved within 15 years, says the aforementioned report. This would require institutional reform and significant funding for coastal radars, additional patrol craft, helicopters, coastal defense missile batteries. It remains to be seen if the Estonian government will move forward on these proposals. Until then, it will remain vulnerable to maritime threats.
Latvia has a significant mine-hunting capability with a fleet of five Imanta-class (former Dutch Alkmaar class) mine countermeasures ships for NATO operations. Riga also cooperates with Lithuania on mine warfare as part of the Baltic Squadron (BALTRON) program. Estonia withdrew from the unit in 2015 as it refocused its resources on its own minesweeping capabilities.4
Latvia has invested in additional multi-role and patrol capabilities with its Skrunda-class patrol boats. Each features a modular mission bay capable of supporting missions such as mine countermeasures, environmental protection, or armament up to a 35-mm cannon. The Navy has also considered anti-submarine warfare and area air defense capabilities for the class.5 Latvia has also implemented a sea coastal surveillance system (SCSS) to improve maritime situational awareness.
The Latvian Coast Guard service, a component of the Navy, is in charge of search-and-rescue, environmental monitoring, and law enforcement in national waters. The Sea Coastal Surveillance Service monitors and surveys territorial waters. The Border Guard also operates some maritime assets for border protection.
As NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic States, Latvia has proposed that the alliance set up a naval facility in the former Soviet Navy base in Liepaja.6 This facility would create a steady NATO naval presence in the immediate region, enhancing maritime security and providing capabilities the Baltic States lack. Critics note that it might also be viewed as a provocation by Moscow. As it stands, little appears to have happened on this front. The focus continues to be on landward defense.
The Lithuanian Navy, as might be expected of the largest of the Baltic States, has the greatest capability. Mine warfare is a core asset, including two Kursis-class (ex-German Lindau–class) coastal minehunters and two Skalvis-class (ex-British Hunt class) minehunters and the support ship Jotvingis (ex-Norwegian Vidar class). It has a capable patrol squadron consisting of four Zemaitis-class patrol ships (ex-Danish Flyvefisken class). Lithuania acquired the fourth ship, the Selis, in November 2016, in an agreement that also covered two anti-submarine warfare sonars for other ships in the class. The acquisition permitted the decommissioning of the Navy’s last Dzukas-class (ex-Norwegian Storm-class) patrol craft. It may also have been inspired by the increasing Russian threat. The Zemaitis-class ships provide the greatest combat capability of any in Baltic naval service, with modern combat management systems and a 76-mm main gun.
The Lithuanian Navy has been described as the most balanced of the three Baltic naval services. It is tasked with monitoring and defending national waters as well as performing search-and-rescue and other maritime security missions. The sea and coastal surveillance service and maritime rescue coordination center are under the command of the navy. The Border Guard Service provides air assets for SAR operations, since the Navy does not maintain its own.
Combined Maritime Capabilities
The Baltic States face a challenging maritime environment. Russia is stepping up its operations, including increased air activity and deploying to the region two Grad Sviyazshk-class patrol craft, equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.7 For the most part, the countries lack the resources to defend themselves against serious naval threats without significant NATO assistance. All are increasing defense spending (Estonia already meets NATO’s 2 percent GDP threshold and Latvia and Lithuania are expected to reach it within the next few years), though ground capabilities remain the priority.
Russia’s capability to potentially control airspace in the region, to include fighter jets and long-range surface-to-air missile systems, poses an additional threat. NATO currently maintains an air-policing capability stationed at air bases in Estonia and Lithuania. Otherwise, the alliance is reliant on assets outside of the immediate region. The Baltic States lack significant air defense capabilities, although talks are underway on a joint procurement of NASAMS surface-to-air missile systems. Their naval platforms are without any such protection.
All three face a number of capability gaps. None has a significant naval combat capability. The Lithuanian navy is the only with ships with naval guns of any size. A mobile coastal missile capability is seen as needed by some. Elsewhere in the region, Sweden has been refurbishing its RBS 15 missile batteries, while Poland has purchased the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile. A joint procurement of such a capability by the three countries could address financial and logistics concerns.
Mine warfare is another gap. Lacking sea control capabilities, strengthening sea denial is an option for bolstering defenses. Finland has expertise in minelaying and could be a valuable partner.
Given recent incidents in Swedish and Finnish waters, some sort of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability may also be required. Lithuania is upgrading the ASW capability on its Zemaitis-class boats, while Latvia could seek such a capability for its Skrunda-class patrol craft. As unmanned systems improve, this could be another avenue for these countries to obtain an affordable ASW capability in the future.
The Baltic States also participate in wider maritime surveillance activities in the region, namely the Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) program. This includes all of the states that border the Baltic Sea, except for Russia. The participants exchange information on vessel data, technical sea surveillance and views on related issues. There is also cooperation at the European Union level.
Despite the similarities of their challenges, the Baltic States have mostly gone their own way on naval policy. Each has a different concept for their navy and maritime security agencies, with cooperation among the states mostly limited to mine countermeasures capabilities. They have not pursued the potential for joint procurement of naval capabilities.
In this new strategic environment, the Baltic States must think carefully about how to maximize their assets, including how border and coast guard services should be utilized in a high-threat scenario. Improving coordination domestically and with their neighbors will enhance security beyond the Russian threat.
Any significant changes will take time to implement. With the increased visibility of potential threats domestically, now seems an opportune time to begin making the necessary investments. By better securing their maritime holdings and strengthening naval defenses, the Baltic States will make a useful contribution to the overall defense of the region in support of NATO and EU objectives.
Jeremiah Cushman is a senior analyst at Military Periscope, where he writes about weapons. He holds a BA in International Relations from Boston University and an MA in European and Eurasian Studies from the George Washington University, where a focused on European security and the Baltic States.
1. “Between continuation and adaptation: The Baltic states’ security policy and armed forces,” Piotr Szymanski, Center for Eastern Policy (Warsaw, Poland), Nov. 24, 2015.
2. “Cooperation Of Coast Guards And Navies In Baltic Sea Region,” Lt. Cmdr. Taavi Urb, National Defence Academy of Latvia (Riga), April 10, 2011.
3. “The State Needs Warships, Helicopters And Coastal Radar Network,” Oliver Kund, Postimees (Tallinn), Dec. 27, 2016.
4. “Estonia To Withdraw From Baltic Naval Squadron,” Estonian Public Radio, Jan. 8, 2015.
5. “The Commanders Respond: Latvian Navy,” Capt. Rimants Strimaitis, Proceedings, March 2012.
6. “Latvia’s Push For A NATO Naval Base,” Elisabeth Braw, World Affairs Journal, June 21, 2016.
7. “Russia Beefs Up Baltic Fleet Amid NATO Tensions,” Andrew Osborn and Simon Johnson, Reuters, Oct. 26, 2016.
Featured: Featured Image: Estonian Defense Forces, 17 April 2009. (Estonia Ministry of Defense)
The governments and peoples of the Baltic States recognize that, following Russia’s takeover of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, they are once again in the Kremlin’s sights facing the prospect of Russian destabilization and even outright invasion.
NATO’s leadership termed Russian strategy “hybrid warfare,” defining it as warfare in which “a wide range of overt and covert military, paramilitary, and civilian measures are employed in a highly integrated design.”1 Questions were raised immediately about the suitability of the designation, as the label NATO adopted fails to adequately capture the reality of what Russia inflicted on Ukraine—and may inflict on states in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR) in the near future.
Russian successes in Crimea reinvigorated two longstanding instruments of its power: its armed forces and its capacity for intensive information warfare.2 “Grey-zone” perhaps captures the orchestrated multidimensional nature of Russian actions calibrated to gain specified strategic objectives without crossing the threshold of overt conflict and exploit Western concepts of war and peace as two distinct conditions.3 Any conflict between NATO and Russia will likely occur at the Article 4 rather than the Article 5 level, complicating any Western response.4
Hybrid War in the BSR: Political and Information Warfare Dimensions
It is possible to count all the fighters, bombers, troops and ships in the Baltic and arrive at a correlation of forces. But the BSR is a peripheral region, and only three things matter when it comes to its security:
The commitment of core NATO powers – especially the U.S. – to the region’s defense;
Russia’s determination to restore its sphere of influence in the region; and
Russia’s desire to probe for Western weakness.
Russia is interested less in territory than in effect. NATO’s focus on military measures to defend the Baltic States may overlook the challenge posed by all arms of Russian power to identify and exploit political, social, economic, and military vulnerabilities in its target states and the Western alliance.
These dimensions have been underplayed in NATO thinking, a tendency reinforced by the military nature of its Charter and institutional culture. Questions remain as to whether NATO’s own legal framework and traditional instruments are sufficient to deal with these non-military challenges, and certainly whether they can respond to a fast-changing situation. The means Russia is prepared to use in order to deceive and confuse NATO are based on the same tools it used during the Cold War, but it has adapted them to the mores of the social media age, which lacks the experience to judge the import of Russian messaging or actions.
Applying the Hybrid Model to Warfare at Sea
Russia’s high-end forces would not constitute the first movers in a hybrid conflict. They should be regarded as deterrents to local resistance and intervention by NATO and other Nordic states. It would rather pursue more ambiguous methods.
Broadly speaking, two scenarios for a Russian campaign in the BSR appear possible:
1. A low-key, possibly opportunistic, campaign that exploits real or manufactured discontent among Russian compatriots to destabilize one or more of the Baltic States, creating a “frozen conflict” that undermines NATO’s credibility; or
2. A more structured, high-tempo campaign to achieve the same objectives against NATO power in the BSR and also render Nordic defense cooperation redundant.
It is reasonable to assume that the Baltic Sea Fleet and other organs of Russian maritime power will play supporting rather than leading roles in any such conflict.
Aside from Moscow’s ability to manipulate the loyalty of Russian expatriate communities in the Baltic states, many of the points where it can apply pressure lie on or under the Baltic Sea itself. These include:
Geographically Isolated Islands and Disputed Borders
The Bornholm, Gotland and the Aland group are respectably Danish, Swedish, and Finnish islands that have considerable strategic significance in the BSR. Many are ideal as bases, supply points, staging areas, and jumping off points for SOF operations and ambushes, while bays, fjords, and peninsulas provide hiding places and launch points for fast raiders.
Modern economies depend upon a remarkably vulnerable information and communications infrastructure. Roughly 95 percent of intercontinental communications traffic—e-mails, phone calls, money transfers, and so on—pass through fiber-optic cables that “lack even basic defenses, both on the seabed and at a small number of poorly guarded landing points.”5
When it comes to the Baltic Sea particularly, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia have only a few nodes that need be severed, while Estonia, the Nordic countries, and Germany have much more redundancy in their connections. Still, the economic disruption caused by severing these undersea cables would be considerable in time and cost and be difficult to mitigate, even for those countries with multiple nodes. They would therefore be a prime target in a hybrid warfare campaign.
It has long been recognized that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland depend upon Russian energy. This exposes them to the possibility of economic coercion. These states have reduced their dependence on Russian supplies, but diversification has been difficult given the cost of replacing existing infrastructure and vulnerabilities remain.
Port and Supply Chain
Ports and ships could be subject to sabotage and strikes using SOF as part of a hybrid offensive. Yet the most serious threat could come from cyberattacks, a concern that already animates much of the landward resilience debate. Modern ports could not operate absent sophisticated computer systems, while modern ships are increasingly automated to cut crew costs. Any prolonged interference with the region’s maritime trade could severely impact industrial production flows and economic security.
Why Would Russia Disrupt the BSR?
Russia is a revisionist power. Internationally, it wants to revise the existing regional order at the least possible political and military cost to itself, diminish U.S. power, and further a multipolar world. Domestically, Putin’s government requires an enemy to divert attention from internal troubles. The Baltic States lie at the point where American power is most extended and Russian power can be concentrated most easily. As Russia is under no illusion it can fight the U.S. directly, or a coalition of America’s core allies, its challenges will stay below the level of direct confrontation.
The Soviet Union invested around fifty percent of its shipbuilding capacity in the St. Petersburg area. A second vital facility is located in the Kaliningrad Oblast. The Baltic Sea has also become a vital conduit for Russian trade. Prolonged interruptions in flows of energy and goods would inflict considerable damage on Russia’s poorly diversified economy. During 2015, 52 percent of Russian container traffic passed through St. Petersburg. Europe remains a major customer for Russian crude oil shipped by tanker from ports near St. Petersburg. On the seabed is the Nord Stream gas pipeline. A second pipeline–Nord Stream 2–has been proposed that would double the capacity. This connection reinforces the dependency and mutual interest that already exists between the EU and Russia and risks compromising Western European responses to possible Russian aggression in CEE.
The Baltic Sea Region has plentiful points of vulnerability where Russia can test Western resolve. While these are not confined to the Baltic States, the most obvious point of leverage is the Russian minorities who reside in each one with concentrations in port cities and other maritime areas.6 Nor are the Baltics removed from Russia’s deeply ingrained sense of insecurity arising out of its loss of strategic depth. Advancing the Russian right flank to the Baltic Sea would right a perceived wrong, prevent the encirclement of Kaliningrad, the main base of the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet, and provide a platform from where Russia could threaten the entire Baltic Sea littoral.
Sweden and Finland are clearly concerned about this possibility. Sweden has returned its army garrison to the strategically important island of Gotland, while towns and cities across Sweden have been told to make preparations against a possible military attack.7 Conscription has also been reintroduced.8 However, any move by either to join NATO could “provoke Russia to launch a pre-emptive provocation in order to demonstrate the alliance’s weakness” and deter either country from proceeding with its application.9
Russian Military Capability
Despite the importance of the Baltic Sea routes, the Russian Baltic Sea Fleet is the weakest of Russia’s four fleets (Baltic, Black Sea, Pacific, and Northern). It continues to have the lowest priority for new units.
That does not mean modernization has not taken place. Since 2007, the fleet has been upgraded with two new classes of corvette equipped with land-attack missiles, a capability that is new to the Baltic Sea fleet.10 However, the fleet’s submarines have not been modernized and remain inferior to German and Swedish boats. Lacking AIP propulsion, which Russian industry is having problems mastering, they are also likely to be noisier. The fleet’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine counter-measures (MCM) capabilities are also limited.
That said, the Baltic Sea is relatively small with an average width of only 193km (120 mi). The sea and surrounding littoral can–and almost certainly would–be dominated by air power and air-deployable ground forces in any high intensity conflict. In particular, Russia is able to effectively dominate large areas of the Baltic Sea and air space using missile forces based in the Kaliningrad and Leningrad oblasts.11 The Iskander-M mobile ballistic missile is capable of hitting targets in much of Sweden and from southern Poland to central Finland, whether fixed or mobile.
NATO movement would be affected in all environments: air transports bringing reinforcements into theater would be at risk from manned interceptors and a layered, air-and-missile defensive system equipped with the S-300 and the highly-capable S-400 systems. Movements by sea would be threatened by the Bastion-P coastal defense system based on the supersonic 300km-range P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missile, which Russia has announced will shortly be deployed to the Kaliningrad Oblast.12
NATO ground forces, meanwhile, would need to travel further than Russian units to reach the capitals of the Baltic states and throughout the transit could be subjected to long-range air and ground-based bombardment.
Naval “Hybrid Warfare”
Hybrid warfare as deployed by Russia in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has received considerable analytical coverage; hybrid warfare at sea less so.13 The geography of the Crimea and Ukrainian theaters, and the circumstances of the incursions, meant the naval role was limited in both. However, Russia appears to have taken note of the success China has achieved with hybrid warfare tactics in the South China Sea, including its harassing behavior as multiple incidents have taken place on and over the Baltic and Black Seas.14 At the same time, Russia has resumed Soviet-style probing missions against NATO countries, while the Baltic states, Sweden, and Finland have all had their territorial waters and airspace compromised.15
The Chinese have made extensive use of their maritime paramilitary forces to assert maritime claims and to deny neighboring states access to waters for fishing and resource extraction purposes. The opportunities for the disruptive use of coast guard and border forces appear to be less in the BSR yet Russian behavior–for instance withholding ratification of the Narva Bay and Gulf of Finland Treaty–demonstrates that they are maintaining the potential for disruption inherent in the handful of disputes that remain.16
Given the essentially political nature of hybrid war, mitigation measures should focus on political, economic, and information outcomes. Still, Russia needs to be convinced that all BSR states are committed to challenging Russian aggression at sea. The maritime component of NATO’s 2014 Readiness Action Plan includes intensified naval patrols in the Baltic built around the Standing NATO Maritime and Mine Countermeasures Groups, increased sorties by maritime patrol aircraft, and an expansion of the annual BALTOPS naval and amphibious exercise.17 However, BALTOPS in large measure still reflects the Alliance’s focus on high-end military operations. Changes have been made that broaden its focus and these need to be maintained and expanded in order to continuing raising maritime readiness and interoperability standards at all stages along the deterrence-to-conflict continuum. In addition, both Baltic and NATO navies need to exercise lower-end maritime security, VBSS, fishery protection, and SAR missions, while regional navies need to demonstrate they can act seamlessly with regional coast guards and border forces, port authorities and other maritime agencies, police forces and intelligence services. Furthermore, cooperation in intelligence sharing and analysis through a BSR Hybrid Threats Fusion Cell coupled with a strategic communications response capability to provide swift and consistent factual responses to false narratives would contribute to building societal resilience.
Societal resilience also requires less dependence on Russian energy supplies. A new facility for the import and regasification of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has been built at Klaipeda in Lithuania. Ensuring its security is vital. Further diversification could be achieved if additional terminals were to be built in Estonia and Latvia with reversible-flow pipelines linking all three. Ideally, a trans-Baltic pipeline should be built to link the Baltic States with the Swedish system.18 These pipelines would supplement the “NordBalt” power cable laid between Sweden and Lithuania. Notably, this link was interfered with by Russian warships on three occasions during the course of its construction. Finally, BSR states need to place a strong emphasis on port and supply chain security. This must include defenses against cyber-attacks. Protecting this largely maritime infrastructure would place a premium on effective Baltic Sea maritime domain awareness (MDA).
Russia considers itself to be a maritime power. It has always sought to control the seas that give it access to the world ocean. The Baltic Sea is vital in this regard. Despite this perception, Russian power, when compared to its Soviet predecessor, is sadly diminished. It is therefore understandable that it should continue to augment its remaining military power with the measures of influence, deception, and covert action that were so characteristic of the Soviet approach to inter-state relations.
Any repetition of the Crimean model is likely to be a whole-of-government effort of political subversion and destabilization in which the conventional military—as opposed to SOF and proxy militia—will play a largely passive role until the last minute, or unless the political campaign fails and can only be redeemed using conventional military force. Whole-of-government aggression demands a whole-of-government response.
In this sense, there is no such thing as maritime hybrid warfare, certainly in Russian political or military doctrine or practice. What states in the BSR may be confronting even now, however, is a long-term campaign of politically motivated societal disruption, aspects of which may occur in, through, or from the maritime domain. The seaborne aspects of the campaign will be maritime rather than exclusively naval in that what takes place could involve any of the ways people use the sea, the seabed, and the airspace over the sea. It will involve warships, submarines, and military aircraft but also include fisheries, shipping and ports, coast guards, and border forces along the way. Conventional naval forces are likely to play an analogous background role in any disruptive campaign at sea in the Baltic, as they did during the Crimea invasion and Ukraine intervention.
Martin N. Murphy, PhD is a Visiting Fellow at Corbett Centre for Maritime Studies at King’s College London. He has held similar positions with CSBA and the Atlantic Council in the U.S. He is the author of three books and numerous book chapters and articles on maritime security and unconventional warfare at sea. His next book, On Maritime Power, is due for publication in 2018.
Gary Schaub, Jr., PhD, is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. Before that he held a number of academic positions in the U.S. including Assistant Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Air War College.
1. NATO. ‘Wales Summit Declaration’. Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales, 5th September 2014.
2. Kier Giles, et al. ‘The Russian Challenge’, Chatham House Report, June 2015, p. 46. NATO Article 4 states that “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” NATO, ‘The North Atlantic Treaty’, last updated 21st March 2016.
3. For clear definitions of “hybrid” and “grey-zone” conflicts, and comparisons between the two, see Frank Hoffman. ‘The Evolution of Hybrid Warfare and Key Challenges’. Statement before the House Armed Services Committee, 22nd March 2017.
4. Stephen F. Larrabee, et al. Russia and the West after the Ukrainian Crisis: European Vulnerabilities to Russian Pressures. Santa Monica: RAND, 2017, pp. 10-11.
5. Robert Martinage. “Under the Sea: The Vulnerability of the Commons,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 1, January/February 2015, p. 117.
6. Martin N. Murphy, Frank G. Hoffman and Gary Schaub, Jr. ‘Hybrid Maritime Warfare and the Baltic Sea Region’. Copenhagen: Centre for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen, November 2016, pp. 11-14.
7. Richard Orange. ‘Swedish towns told to “make preparations regarding the threat of war and conflict” with Russia’. Daily Telegraph, 15th December 2016.
8. Daniel Dickson; and Bjorn Rundstrom. ‘Sweden returns draft amid security worries and soldier shortage’. Reuters, 2nd March 2017.
9. Edward Lucas. ‘The Coming Storm: Baltic Sea Security Report’. Washington, DC: Center for European Policy Analysis, June 2015, p. 4.
10. ‘Russia reinforces Baltic Fleet with ships armed with long-range cruise missiles in ‘worrying’ response to Nato build-up’. Daily Telegraph, 26th October 2016.
11. Kaas. ‘Russian Armed Forces in the Baltic Sea Region’.
12. ‘Russia deploys “Bastion” coastal missile complex to the Kaliningrad region’. UAWire, 22nd November 2016.
13. Charles K. Bartles and Roger N. McDermott. ‘Russia’s Military Operation in Crimea: Road-Testing Rapid Reaction Capabilities’. Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 61, No. 6, November–December 2014, pp. 46–63; Admiral James Stavridis, USN (rtd.). ‘Maritime Hybrid Warfare is Coming’. U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 142, No. 12, December 2016, pp. 30-33.
14. For example, Julian E. Barnes and Gordon Lubold. ‘Russian Warplanes Buzz U.S. Navy Destroyer, Polish Helicopter’. Wall Street Journal, 13th April 2016.
15. Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa and Ian Kearns. ‘Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters between Russia and the West in 2014’. European Leadership Network Policy Brief, November 2014.
16. ‘Russian envoy: Ratification of border treaty with Estonia obstructed by bad relations’. The Baltic Times, 9th July 2016.
17. NATO. ‘NATO’s Readiness Action Plan’. NATO Fact Sheet, May 2015; Megan Eckstein. ‘U.S. Led BALTOPS 2015 begins with heftier presence than last year’s exercise,” USNI News, 5th June 2015; Megan Eckstein.‘Foggo: BALTOPS 2016 includes more anti-sub, more challenging amphibious operations’. USNI News, 15th June 2016.
18. Milda Seputyte. ‘Lithuania grabs LNG in effort to curb Russian dominance’. Bloomberg, 27th October 2014; ‘Sweden gets new LNG terminal’. World Maritime News, 20th October 2014.
Featured Image: Soldiers sit atop of amphibious vehicles as NATO troops participate in the NATO sea exercises BALTOPS 2015 that are to reassure the Baltic Sea region allies in the face of a resurgent Russia, in Ustka, Poland, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)