In an article last year, Lieutenant Ian Sundstrom and I argued for an upgunned patrol craft (PC) to replace the current fleet of Cyclone-class PCs nearing the end of their already extended service life. More recently, we argued for the U.S. Navy to double-down on forward deployment of such PCs or missile corvettes to increase capability and deterrence across multiple theaters of operations at low cost and to be poised for a fight inside strategic bodies of water. In addition to these strategies, the United States’ NATO allies and partners in the Baltic and Black Seas need to invest in littoral warfare.
Significant efforts have already begun to this end, both bilaterally and via the NATO Defense Planning Process. Without continuous and meaningful dialogue, however, a risk exists of not achieving the correct balance to fill capability gaps in allied and partner naval forces in the Baltic and Black Seas, where the U.S Navy currently lacks permanent presence and where NATO lacks adequate situational awareness. Both the United States and NATO need allied and partner nations in the Baltic and Black Seas to focus on littoral capabilities.
The primary reason for Baltic and Black Sea navies to invest in littoral warfare is to provide capabilities to help protect sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and other crucial maritime economic activity during a conflict. NATO recently has begun to focus on protecting SLOCs, but much of that focus currently is on the open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Considering the threat to shipping, both commercial and military, crossing the Atlantic from North America to resupply and reinforce Europe—a threat that mostly comes from nuclear submarines and long-range bombers—the United States and its allies cannot forget that the threat to shipping does not end at the Strait of Gibraltar or English Channel.
In the approaches to Europe and onward through the Danish Straits to the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, shipping faces a continued submarine threat but also a significant threat from coastal missiles and sea mines. Other maritime economic activity necessary to sustain the alliance in a conflict, such as offshore oil and gas infrastructure, also faces a kinetic threat. Littoral warfare platforms such as missile corvettes and mine countermeasure ships can help protect this activity in the Baltic and Black Seas and would complement U.S. Navy blue-water platforms most likely operating in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap and Mediterranean Sea.
Currently, both the United States and NATO struggle to maintain steady presence and situational awareness in the Baltic and Black Seas because of capability gaps in allied and partner naval forces and the lack of forward basing for U.S. warships. The latter is of particular concern for U.S. strategic posture. While recent calls for the forward deployment of littoral combat ships to the Euro-Atlantic Region are appropriate and would also complement U.S. Navy blue-water capabilities, there are some areas where forward deployment of U.S. assets is not possible, either because of a lack of forward basing or regional restrictions that prohibit forward basing.
The United States might eventually establish a forward base in the Baltic Sea, but only Black Sea nations—Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia—are allowed to maintain warships in the Black Sea under the Montreux Convention, and even then restrictions limit overall tonnage. The U.S. Navy and other navies are allowed to sail in the Black Sea, but only for 21-day periods, and entry/exit times are closely monitored.
U.S. warships could be forward deployed in the Aegean Sea, accessing the Black Sea as needed—but those ships would be of only limited usefulness during the initial stages of a conflict inside the Black Sea, especially if access through the strait were impeded. Conversely, NATO nations in the Black Sea, such as Romania and Bulgaria, could invest in capable littoral warfare platforms without violating the Montreux Convention, such as the Flyvefisken-class patrol vessel. Despite being one of the most valued assets of the Royal Danish Navy, only four Flyvefisken-class patrol vessels continue to operate in the Baltic Sea under a Lithuanian flag, with the remaining vessels decommissioned or sold to Portugal.
Georgia and Ukraine also are likely candidates to acquire such platforms for use in the Black Sea. Had the Ukrainian Navy possessed Flyvefisken-class patrol vessels in the Sea of Azov in November 2018, Russia’s calculation in the Kerch Strait may have been different. Even now, Ukraine requires such an asset at its new base in Berdyansk, permanently stationed in the Sea of Azov and positioned to help with U.S. and NATO efforts to deter further Russian encroachment. In the wider Black Sea, allied and partner navies focused on littoral capabilities would provide NATO with assets capable of both monitoring and responding to continued Russian aggression.
Allied and partner efforts are ongoing to rebuild their navies to respond to a resurgent Russia in the Baltic Sea. Thankfully, much of these efforts are geared toward littoral capabilities, achieving the balance for which Lieutenant Commander Taavi Urb of the Estonian Navy recently argued, which will complement the blue-water capabilities of the U.S. Navy. The bigger issues for the Baltic states will be funding these efforts, ensuring interoperability across combat and communication systems for integrating into a NATO task force, and ensuring effective manning and training.
One possible solution to all three of these issues would be investing in the recently announced Kongsberg Vanguard-class multirole ship instead of the Flyvefisken-class, especially if its manufacturer’s claim of affordability holds up and significant armaments are added. This ship would immediately improve the capabilities of Baltic and Black Sea navies across the spectrum of littoral operations at low cost—manned and unmanned—from basic coastal law enforcement during peacetime to mine countermeasures, antisurface warfare, and antisubmarine warfare during conflict. If all NATO members in the Baltic and Black Seas invest in the same platform, best practices could be shared and exercised as an alliance.
An additional reason to invest in littoral warfare is the threat to commercial shipping outside of conventional conflict. The current crisis in and around the Strait of Hormuz indicates the threats to commercial shipping, not just from pirates and terrorists, but also from state actors. When Gibraltar authorities seized the Syria-bound Grace 1 (now the Iranian-flagged Adrian Darya 1) in early July, Iranian authorities threatened to respond in kind, seizing the UK-flagged Stena Impero in the Arabian Gulf two weeks later. This tit-for-tat exchange echoes the Tanker War of 1988, though certainly not to the same degree of danger—at least not for the time being.
Attacks on commercial shipping are not contained to the Strait of Hormuz. In July, Ukrainian authorities seized a Russian tanker in the port of Izmail, which had been used by the Russian military to block the Kerch Strait in November 2018. So far, Russia has not seized a Ukrainian tanker in return, but such an incident—or worse—is not unlikely.
These incidents are stark reminders of the importance of naval power—specifically surface combatants, both large and small—for the protection of commercial shipping. In the case of the Stena Impero, no allied or coalition surface combatants were nearby when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) deployed fast inshore attack craft (FIAC) to divert the tanker into Iranian territorial waters. Submarines are useless in preventing such an attack. Only a surface combatant could have put itself between the Stena Impero and the IRGCN FIAC to prevent the seizure.
If these de facto shipping wars continue and expand to other areas of the world, small, fast, littoral combatants such as the Flyvefisken or Vanguard-class will be crucial for NATO members and partners, providing another dimension of surveillance to support submarine and maritime patrol aircraft deployments during peacetime, but also a tangible asset to respond to threats against commercial shipping.
In a recent article for the Atlantic Council, Admiral James Foggo, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa/NATO Allied Joint Force Command Naples, emphasized the importance of a “strong alliance of navies” to ensure our basic human rights of “freedom and safety.” Though geared toward the Baltic states, his arguments are just as valid for the Black Sea states. This alliance of navies will be stronger when allied and partner nations focus on littoral capabilities in the Baltic and Black Seas. These capabilities would complement the blue-water capabilities of the U.S. Navy; increase presence and situational awareness in areas where it is difficult for the United States to permanently access; and in crisis, or if conventional conflict returns to Europe, provide NATO with tangible assets to respond to threats against commercial shipping and other maritime economic activity crucial for sustainment of the alliance.