National Security & Defense

NATO Must Strengthen Its Anti-Submarine Capabilities to Meet the Russian Threat

Russian attack submarine Samara in Vladivostok, 2010 (Reuters photo: Yuri Maltsev)
The Kremlin’s expanding fleet of subs is cause for the U.S.-led alliance to beef up its defenses.

The Russian Bear has emerged from a long hibernation to threaten American and NATO interests with highly capable submarines in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. But neither the United States nor its allies are prepared to meet the Kremlin’s challenge.

A generation ago, Soviet submarines roamed the world’s oceans supporting Communist interests and attempting to place themselves in a position to win a final, terrible war. Fast attack submarines searched for American carrier strike groups, transports carrying troops and equipment to Europe, and, most ominously, missile submarines carrying nuclear weapons. To protect these assets, the United States and NATO maintained a fleet of anti-submarine (ASW) frigates, nuclear and diesel powered submarines, and wings of maritime-patrol aircraft that roamed the oceans searching out the Soviet subs. When one was detected coming out of its port in Murmansk, the alliance would begin a marathon tracking operation, the Norwegians turning things over to the Dutch or Americans flying out of Iceland, who in turn passed the job on to the British and then the French, with Americans flying out of Lajes in the Portuguese Azores. These assets would then turn responsibility for tracking the Soviet boat over to assets coming out of Rota, Spain, or Sigonella, Sicily, before the boat turned around and followed its tracks back home as all the NATO elements repeated their performance in reverse.

Unfortunately, in the intervening quarter-century of peace dividends, increased social-welfare investments, and distant wars against radical Islamic terrorism, budgetary priorities and operational focus have shifted away from the historic challenge looming on Europe’s eastern border. Today, Putin’s Russia is in Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine, and Russian carriers and submarines operate off the coast of Syria deep in NATO’s security environment. Yet Lajes is now closed, with China expressing interest in taking on a long-term lease, and the allied base of operations in Iceland has been vacant for the better part of the past decade, although the United States has expressed an interest in returning. The alliance’s frigate fleet has been nearly cut in half and its submarine fleet by a third. Maritime-patrol aircraft have experienced similar cuts and, perhaps most important, the alliance has failed to exercise together sufficiently to guarantee success if called upon to execute the weeks-long dance of a full-up ASW campaign.

During a recent table-top exercise conducted by the Center for a New American Security, participants discovered that in a crisis, they would have enough resources to provide convoy escort for American troops and supplies moving across the Atlantic to reinforce Europe or to conduct an anti-submarine campaign, but not to do both. Top-level participants, including past and current policymakers and military leaders from Norway to France to Germany to the United States, struggled vainly during the “Forgotten Waters” exercise to match means with the alliance’s strategic ends. Challenges ranging from gray-zone interference with navigation systems to the severing of undersea communications cables and a “hot war” scenario stretched participants’ capacity to respond.

Commitments to raise defense spending across Europe to the 2 percent of GDP minimum previously agreed upon by NATO members will help ease strain, so long as increased spending is directed to identified ASW shortfalls. Frigates, submarines, maritime-patrol aircraft, and undersea-monitoring systems should be on the shopping lists of those nations with Atlantic- or Mediterranean-facing security challenges and economies of a scale sufficient to support such acquisitions.

Additionally, the alliance has to commit itself to exercising its ASW capabilities in a consistent and realistic manner. Short exercises involving all parties’ best crews and readiest aircraft will not provide a true chance for senior NATO commanders to evaluate the alliance’s ability to handle new submerged threats. The alliance needs to put to sea for weeks at a time to properly judge the material readiness of its ASW forces.

To be sure, the Russian threat is not large in purely numerical terms. The Kremlin’s fleet is but a fraction of the size it was in the Soviet era, and many of its ships are aging. But there are new ships emerging from Russian shipyards with cutting-edge stealth technology, and any Naval commander will tell you that it only takes one submarine to ruin his day. NATO countries, including the United States, need to commit to rebuilding the alliance’s ASW capabilities. Anti-submarine warfare is one of those key areas of competition where numbers count. As NATO members move to fulfill their defense-spending commitments and keep the alliance relevant, more frigates, submarines, and maritime-patrol aircraft have to be part of their plans. The Russian bear has awoken and begun to roam again. We should be ready to meet it from a position of strength if and when the time comes.

Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a vice president with the Telemus Group, a national-security consultancy.

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