Russia is challenging NATO at sea as well as ashore. The rather muted response of the Alliance focuses on more information and new command structures to provide a competitive edge. These measures alone will not be a sufficient deterrent.

States are changing the way warfare is waged. New doctrines of engagement are emerging, tactics have altered, new thinking in the Frunze Academy has developed alternatives to the Western orthodoxy about how militaries gain a competitive edge in conflict. Despite the headlines of little green men on land, the great power competition is more evident at sea, where the absence of clear observable borders, a lack of governance, patchy surveillance and a poor security tapestry allow for actions between naval forces that, on land, would be acts of aggression triggering large scale political and military ramifications.

NATO maritime forces strengthen interoperability and increase combined anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capability and capacity, during NATO’s annual Dynamic Manta exercise in the Ionian Sea (March 2018). Pictured: ESPS Victoria; photo by FRAN CPO C. Valverde

But this view on the way warfare is waged is being dictated by NATO’s adversaries, forcing the Alliance to be not only reactive, but also largely absent from the debate. In short, NATO seems to have neglected the sea as a domain of competition, influence and warfare, and for understandable reasons, as Allies refocused on other challenges. The Alliance appears to be stuck in orthodox thinking of crisis management, hoping that technology and gradual improvements in the readiness and interoperability of member states’ militaries will suffice against an adversary that simply will not conform to Western ideas about how they should be engaging. This is the epitome of ‘second generation warfare’ derived from Bill Lind’s ‘4th generational warfare handbook’.

The United States and United Kingdom might be advocating for change through a technological offset, a wave of innovation, and greater precision. But all of these cost money and NATO’s political leaders, rightly, want detail for their new maritime strategy.

The challenge presented at successive NATO summits seems to be in crafting a single maritime strategy that suits all of Alliance members and their differing views on the security threats being faced at sea. Yet different groups of states have markedly different maritime priorities.

Different priorities

The Northern Group makes a compelling argument for a plan that prioritises conventional naval forces, capable of deterring and countering Russian submarine and capital ship deployments now on a scale not seen since the height of the Cold War. Vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure at sea, the vital connections to North America (both above and under the Atlantic Ocean), as well as the internal seas within Europe, have allowed Russian naval forces to contest NATO superiority at sea, specifically in the North Atlantic Ocean, Arctic, Norwegian and Baltic Seas . Wide recognition of these weak spots in the core NATO area of interest resulted in a recent decision to establish a new Atlantic Command for NATO.

Yet other Alliance members do not see the Russian threat as the pre-eminent security challenge that they face at sea. Many states with Mediterranean coastlines (specifically Italy, Greece and NATO partner Malta) have greater concerns in dealing with migration.

The construction of a coherent maritime strategy for the Alliance is therefore not straightforward. In including all of these threats, the future strategy is at risk of a dilution of ideas and ideals to the lowest common denominator at which all members can agree. The result of such an approach could have little utility as a deterrent, if the thrust – as with the 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy – were constabulary actions (maritime security) or counter terrorism, areas on which all agree, rather than a specific deterrence strategy with teeth.

Indeed, both the activities of Russia and the capabilities it is developing threaten all states in the Alliance, not simply those in the Northern group.

Russian military capabilities: what’s new?

Given Russian actions in the Baltic, Norwegian Sea, North Atlantic, North Sea, Aegean, Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean, and Red Sea, any new maritime strategy must answer the question of how to deal with Russia at sea as its primary focus, giving the Alliance – and the new Atlantic Command – a compelling purpose able to galvanize all navies to its cause.

The Russian Navy dispatched its Moskva guided missile cruiser to the Mediterranean Sea in late August 2013, due to growing tensions with Western countries over the conflict in Syria. © US Naval Institute News

Moscow has funded, delivered and tested new land attack and naval strike missile systems, new sensor arrays, new platforms and new tactics, all of which appear to have stolen any purported Third Offset that the West hoped to develop itself. These capabilities are designed for use in high intensity war fighting. Russia appears to be using these below the threshold of war, whether hybrid, new generation war, or through an updated version of active measures.

Russia has a relatively small defence budget, certainly in comparison to NATO at large. In any calculation of a correlation of forces, the Alliance certainly retains a significant advantage on paper. Yet the Russian Armed Forces are having significantly more success on the battlefield than NATO; it could be argued that this has resulted in greater political influence and leverage as well from North Africa to the Middle East.

The aggressive posture and activities of Russia in the Baltic, the Balkans, the Arctic, Syria and Ukraine are well known. The new military capabilities being demonstrated and tested in Syria are stimulating arms sales in the Middle East and Pacific, as well as with NATO Allies. Less well understood are moves by Russia in the Balkans and its active presence in Scandinavia: a well tried and tested doctrine of espionage, deception, subterfuge and sabotage that seeks to undermine Western ideology, NATO cohesion and Alliance credibility.

At sea, Russia is in the process of rebuilding its naval forces. The age and readiness of its vessels across the Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, Baltic and Caspian Sea fleets are no worse than those across NATO, yet the build programme is aggressive and ambitious, focusing on blue-water high intensity warfighting capabilities. Delivering the 100 additional warships (54 major combatants) and submarines (24 new conventional and nuclear hulls) planned before 2020 will be challenging, but it is a coherent force design that will continue to challenge NATO’s naval power for at least two decades.

There are three notable aspects of Russian naval force development. First, the continued development of the Russian submarine programme, combining autonomous systems with traditional manned platforms. Second is the evolution of Russian missile technology, covering land attack, naval strike, cruise and short-range ballistic systems capable of overwhelming or defeating Western defences.

Finally, it is clear that Russian forces are not simply investing in new capabilities and technology. Instead it seems that they see opportunities in combining technologies with high political will, an ability to act unpredictably and to out-think NATO. Russia’s Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6 is a good example of this, combining autonomy, weapon knowledge, undersea expertise and stealth into a potentially lethal combination. It is a clear competitor to DARPA’s upward falling payloads.

Russia is in the process of rebuilding its naval forces. Recent reports suggest that it may upgrade its high-performance Cold War Alfa class of submarines (pictured here) with sophisticated new technology. © The National Interest

That concept of fighting – marrying high political will with geographic unpredictability, knowledge of key domains and a willingness to act outside Western rules of engagement (legally, ethically and morally) – is a distinct challenge for political and military commanders in NATO. By exercising hybrid, grey zone or threshold approaches to activities short of conflict, Russia has seized the initiative on land, and is doing so at sea.

Moscow can now disrupt European states with capabilities that threaten undersea cables (power, internet and water), fishing and trade activities, Arctic routes, and potentially dictating the pace and scale of migration flows. Simultaneously, Russian air, surface and subsurface forces distract and discombobulate commands from seeing the entirety of the picture. Actions in the Atlantic, under the ice in the Arctic, the Aegean, the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean are all linked in Russian thinking. It is a coherent and masterly plan – if somewhat opportunistic in character.

An inadequate Alliance response

In response, the Alliance has increased its focus on the maritime domain.  NATO’s Defence Ministers agreed last November to reinforce the Alliance’s maritime posture as an integral component of its strengthened deterrence and defence posture.  This should enable Allies, by the time of the 2018 Brussels Summit, to take decisions on the way naval forces and capabilities are commanded, exercised and employed, including for warfighting. But these actions alone are not enough, nor do they address the Alliance presumption that more information equals success.

The belief that more information will be decisive stems from JFC Fuller’s ‘Plan 1919’ in which decapitation of leadership acts like a “bullet to the brain” of an enemy and wins the war. Speed, Manoeuvre and Surprise have been intrinsic to NATO doctrine since the 1980s, and the disinvestment in military forces since 1990 has necessitated the need to become ever more efficient in using scarce platforms to match an enemy.

Information has emerged as the key requirement in implementing such a strategy based on Fuller’s assumptions. As a result, the NATO force design has become increasingly information dependent, with greater centralised command and control at every level. Russia recognised this as NATO’s weakness in the 1991 Gulf War, and since 2003 has consistently invested more than 20 per cent of its annual defence budget in electronic warfare and cyber tools capable of breaking the connectivity on which NATO doctrine and commanders now rely.

Effective solutions that contribute to ‘modern’ or ‘tailored’ deterrence are now needed, not more ethereal papers, policies and strategies. It would be distinctly useful for the Alliance to consider how it wants to deter Moscow’s ambitions at sea: remain reactive or take the initiative? This might well be in a geographic area where Russian forces go unchallenged like under the ice in the Arctic, or in a domain that Moscow cares about, for example, in Missile Defence.

Facing Russia’s naval forces on a platform-to-platform basis is a worthy consideration. This would require the Western naval forces to shift from expeditionary doctrines based on power projection platforms to one that supports surface combatants and submarines with greater investment being placed by the Alliance as a whole on naval warfare.

Tactics also need addressing. While NATO naval operating procedures have advanced rapidly in the area of land attack, there has been no significant advance in anti-submarine warfare (ASW) tactics since the 1950s. Western skills at deep water ASW might be improving but have not regained the expertise or scale that existed at the height of the Cold War. This is a concern. The British Secretary of State for Defence said on 21 February 2018 that there had been a tenfold increase in Russian submarine activity. NATO does not currently have sufficient training, tactics or resources to challenge them at every stage, even if there is the political will to do so.

Missile defence is one domain in which NATO could deter Moscow’s ambitions at sea.
Pictured: NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence. © NATO

Interestingly a similar problem set has been recognised by Admiral Swift in PACCOM, and the result has been the re-emergence of Fleet Problems. Swift’s staff recognised that training had become prescriptive in delivering efficient readiness and therefore undermined the creativity and initiative of crew and staffs. In being open to less finely planned war games, Swift claims to have seen a stark change in performance, lethality and originality. More important, these exercises have revealed stark failures in USN tactics, techniques and procedures, many of which are common to NATO.

There is no one area in which Russia is outperforming NATO but their approach in combining technology, ways of fighting, platforms, weapons, sensors alongside an aggressive political will to act makes them challenging adversaries. It is not so much that Russia is winning, but that NATO is losing the battle at sea. A new NATO response must be as forthright, tightly bounded and smart as the approaches developed at the Frunze Academy (the military academy of the Russian General Staff).

The question is whether Western military leaders have the ability to match those aspirations, particularly in the underwater domain. Altering the command structure might help (but only if properly resourced with the right people), but a new maritime strategy is unlikely to. A ten- or twenty-year plan is admirable, but today sailors, soldiers, marines and aviators will be fighting with what they have at hand, not the laudable words on a piece of paper. Real actions and activity are required at sea if the Alliance is serious about deterring Russia, because right now the North Atlantic is the weak link in NATO. That’s a lot for the new Atlantic Command to deliver.