The North Atlantic is reemerging as a contested space, given Russia’s revanchist posture in Europe and the resurgent Russian navy, in particular its submarine force. The United States already is responding, renewing the rotational presence of P-8 Poseidons at Keflavik airbase in Iceland and identifying Russian naval power as a key challenge for U.S. maritime forces. The Second Fleet, with responsibility for operations in the North Atlantic, also was just reestablished after a nearly decade-long hiatus.
U.S. allies have begun to respond, too. The United Kingdom and Norway have announced purchases of P-8s to bolster their ability to conduct airborne antisubmarine warfare (ASW) and monitor the far North Atlantic. NATO once again is hosting ASW exercises in the North Atlantic, and a revised NATO command structure will feature an Atlantic command of sorts, which will rebuild some aspects of NATO’s Allied Command Atlantic, which was shuttered in 2004. In addition, in late 2018 NATO conducted Exercise Trident Juncture in and around the North Atlantic, which included some 50,000 personnel, 250 aircraft, and 65 warships. The exercise also featured the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), marking the first time in more than two decades that a U.S. aircraft carrier had operated in the far North Atlantic.
These are encouraging signs. However, a long-term effort to secure the Atlantic and ensure U.S. and allied naval forces are able to operate there and bring in U.S. reinforcements in the event of a crisis with Russia in Europe requires both a strategy and a clear understanding of how technology, geopolitics, and the Russian challenge have evolved. To build a strategy and effective long-term response, the United States and its NATO allies must have firm answers to five key questions:
1. What is the nature of the challenge?
The previous struggles over control of the North Atlantic (World Wars I and II and the Cold War) focused primarily on antishipping campaigns and a countering effort to protect the convoys bringing fuel, foodstuffs, arms, and troops from North America to Europe. The later Cold War years also saw the introduction of a new U.S. maritime strategy intended to put pressure on and hold at risk vital Soviet basing areas on the Kola Peninsula and the submarine-based nuclear deterrent based there. These efforts influenced naval strategy, technology development (in particular in ASW), the placement of bases, and international defense cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic.
While there are lessons to be learned from these previous sea control and sea denial efforts, it is important not to overlearn them by assuming the challenge today is essentially the same. Russia’s Northern Fleet, based on the Kola Peninsula, is more capable and more active today than at any time since the end of the Cold War, but its submarine force is likely too small to be able to sustain an effective antishipping campaign far out in the North Atlantic.
Instead, the 21st century conventional challenge coming from Russia’s Northern Fleet is its ability to launch long-range cruise missiles from its submarines. This growing capability has been demonstrated repeatedly in the Mediterranean and Caspian seas against targets in Syria. Standoff land-attack capabilities would allow Russia to strike the airports and seaports as well as the command-and-control infrastructure in northern Europe that would be needed to flow in reinforcements and command operations during a crisis with Russia. Also, the mere existence of this capability could be a deterrent against a NATO intervention to come to the aid of its eastern members during such a crisis. Russia’s submarines would be able to remain relatively close to home ports and away from the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap that proved to be such an effective barrier during the previous battles for the Atlantic.1
The implications for the United States and its allies are clear. Sophisticated Russian submarines paired with long-range cruise missiles mean U.S. and allied maritime forces must operate in the far North Atlantic and in the Norwegian and Barents seas. This will place unique demands on those maritime forces.
2. Who are the players?
In the past, warfare and interactions in the North Atlantic have been nearly the exclusive domain of the nations of the region—the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, and Russia—and they remain leading players. But the North Atlantic of today, in particular the far north, is more crowded.
Non-Atlantic actors such as China also have taken an interest in the region. In mid-2018, Denmark blocked a Chinese firm’s bid to construct an airport in Greenland over national security concerns.2 China also recently signaled an interest in buying a stake in the Lajes airfield in the Azores, which played a key role in U.S. airborne ASW operations during the Cold War.3 The Chinese navy is a more frequent visitor to European waters, with a noncombatant evacuation from Libya in the Mediterranean in 2011 and a joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise in the Baltic Sea in 2017. Chinese warships likely will be at least an occasional presence in the North Atlantic in the coming years.
This does not mean plans must be made to fight China in the North Atlantic. However, the United States and NATO must be aware of and prepared to monitor and interact with another growing naval power operating in waters of key interest to the transatlantic alliance.
3. Who is on our team?
The U.S.-led Cold War effort in the North Atlantic included NATO and a long list of its European members, including the United Kingdom, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. Indeed, victory in the struggle to control the North Atlantic historically has gone to the side that has been able to marshal the largest number of allies. Currently, however, only a handful of NATO nations are tackling the emerging challenges in the North Atlantic, in particular the United States, Norway, and the United Kingdom.
The effort to secure the North Atlantic region could benefit from additional players on the U.S.-NATO team. Denmark has a strong Atlantic connection through its location at the inlet to the Baltic Sea and as the nation that exercises sovereignty over Greenland. The Netherlands is another continental European nation with a strong connection to the Atlantic. France operates one of Europe’s most capable navies, with excellent Atlantic naval basing. Canada also should consider its role in defending the North Atlantic region, given its geography, membership in NATO, and position as a maritime nation.
4. What technologies are needed?
The struggle over control of the North Atlantic always has been technology-intense, with investments ranging from undersea sensors and sophisticated weapons to advanced maritime patrol aircraft and top-of-the-line submarines. Broadly speaking, current technology efforts are dominated by reinvestment in current capabilities, such as Norway and the United Kingdom’s announced buys of P-8 Poseidon aircraft. That certainly is needed, but the United States and its NATO allies also need to explore how new technologies related to ASW, such as unmanned systems, robotics, and big data, can be leveraged to give an edge in the emerging contest in the Atlantic.4
5. What does hybrid warfare look like in the North Atlantic?
Hybrid warfare at sea is an emerging global challenge. Russia already has proved its capacity to influence events at sea and along the shore using information operations and “little green men” and by disrupting undersea infrastructure. The North Atlantic is replete with opportunities for efforts that fall below military aggression but that would cause uncertainty, stifle political decision-making, disrupt military operations, and put pressure on societies and economies.5
For starters, the North Atlantic north of the GIUK gap hosts offshore oil and gas infrastructure that is vital to the United Kingdom and Norwegian economies, as well as to the energy security of Europe and the transatlantic economy. Svalbard, a collection of islands under international treaty but sovereign territory of Norway, is home to a large number of space satellite receivers used by NASA and others because of its ideal location for receiving data from systems in orbit.
The North Atlantic also is home to the world’s largest concentration of submarine cables, which carry more than 90 percent of the communications between North America and Europe. These cables are key conduits for internet-enabled societies and vital to U.S. military global command and control.6
Russia already has taken an interest in transatlantic submarine cables and is investing in a special-purpose submarine force capable of conducting technical work on the seabed. The United States and NATO must consider possible hybrid scenarios and responses, along with making the infrastructure in and around the North Atlantic more robust and resilient. This is not an easy task, as many of the requirements and challenges do not fall neatly into the portfolios of navies and the defense community.
The Russian navy is far from the size and scope of its Cold War forebear, but it is a resurgent force that has received significant investments over the past decade, particularly in the Northern Fleet. And while it cannot directly challenge the United States and NATO at sea, it is capable of holding key maritime domains at risk, attacking the infrastructure needed to flow in reinforcements to Europe, and causing uncertainty and disruptions that would influence events and decision-making ashore.
A clear understanding of the nature of the challenge, the changing geopolitics of the North Atlantic region, and the resources available would help the U.S. Navy and its European friends and allies build an effective strategy. It also would ensure the response is right-sized, a key consideration since U.S. maritime forces will be asked to respond to a number of challenges across the globe in an era of great power competition. The North Atlantic is indeed once again contested, but not in the fashion that many imagine. Now is the time to get the strategy right.
1. See, for example, Steve Wills, “A New Gap in the High North and Forward Defense against Russian Naval Power,” CIMSEC, 17 July 2018.
2. Aaron Mehta, “How a Potential Chinese-Built Airport in Greenland Could Be Risky for a Vital U.S. Air Force Base,” Defense News, 7 September 2018.
3. Paul Ames, “China’s Atlantic Stopover that Worries Washington,” Politico, 29 September 2016.
4. See, for example, Bryan Clark, “Game Changers—Undersea Warfare,” CSBA, 27 October 2015.
5. ADM James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), “Maritime Hybrid Warfare Is Coming,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 142, no. 12 (December 2016).
6. An accidental break of a cable in the Mediterranean in 2008 slowed U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle operations over Iraq to a crawl, as the available bandwidth between the area of operations and operators in the continental United States dwindled.
Listen to a Proceedings Podcast interview with Mr. Nordenman below: