Russian submarine activity is at the highest levels seen since the end of the Cold War. More submarines are under way and extending their patrols ever farther from traditional Russian home waters to include deployments to the East Coast of the United States in 2009 and 2012. Extended submarine patrols are one way for Russia to demonstrate that it is back as a key player on the global stage, and control of the seas by NATO is no longer guaranteed.
Russia operates three major navy bases in the Atlantic: the Baltic Fleet headquartered at Kaliningrad, the Black Sea Fleet headquartered at Sevastopol, and the Northern Fleet headquartered at Severomorsk. The center of gravity for Russian naval power is in the Barents Sea, which contains the Northern Fleet and major shipyards located within the TheWhite Sea. The Northern Fleet contains the main fighting power of the Russian Navy, including its majority of major surface combatants, nuclear attack submarines, and nuclear ballistic-missile submarines.
Naval power stationed within the Barents Sea has one great weakness: There is only one way out. For a Northern Fleet unit to get to the North Atlantic—such as a submarine deploying to the U.S. East Coast—it must round North Cape, transit the Norwegian Sea, and then pass between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (known as the GIUK Gap). Increasing the NATO submarine presence within this area can help keep Russian submarine activity in check.
One way allied submarine presence can be increased is through expanding NATO sub-on-sub antisubmarine warfare (ASW) exercises within this strategic transit lane to include not just submarines in the Sixth Fleet area of responsibility (AOR), but also U.S. submarines stationed in Norfolk or Groton still in their deployment workup cycles.
Using Norfolk as the more limiting case, it is approximately 2,500 nautical miles to the GIUK Gap, so at 16 knots that is approximately one week of transit time each way. A typical time for an ASW exercise is three to four days, so in total less than 20 days at sea. Another option would be to meet halfway at the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (made famous by The Hunt for Red October [Naval Institute Press, 1984]). Exercising at the Grand Banks would reduce the transit to approximately 1,400 nautical miles, so at 16 knots the transit time is reduced to approximately four days.
Only so much can be gained through ASW exercises involving just U.S. submarines. Engagements between captains and crews who have been trained at the same submarine school, using the same doctrine, in the same well-known local waters present only a limited test of skill. Compare this with the opportunity to test tactics and technology against an ally with different training and experiences. The data and lessons learned could prove beneficial to future tactical and technical development.
Understanding acoustics and the ocean environment are vital to successful peacetime and wartime ASW engagements. The environments of the Grand Banks and GIUK Gap are different and orders of magnitude more challenging than those seen in local waters off of the U.S. East Coast. The opportunity allotted to captains and crews for area familiarization and learning the acoustic environment within these challenging areas could pay dividends if subsequently tasked to find and track a Russian submarine headed toward the United States.
As Russian submarine activity continues to rise, coordinated ASW exercises with our NATO partners and between the geographic AORs of U.S. European and Northern commands will become increasingly important. Full command and control for such an operation has not been exercised since the Cold War. NATO antisubmarine exercises in the Grand Banks or GIUK Gap would expand opportunities to test current doctrine and experiment with different ASW techniques. Once the best methods are found, then they can be practiced. NATO submarines having routinely conducted exercises together that cross between geographic AORs, under a well-established command-and-control system, will execute seamlessly when they are needed for real-world operations.
Expanding NATO ASW exercises will improve readiness and increase allied submarine presence in key strategic areas. Submarines will not just be present, but postured to find other submarines (only for the exercise, of course).