NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has a problem in the North Atlantic. It is not prepared for Russian aggression, at either the strategic or the tactical level. This can be seen in the nonchalant way the alliance regards key strategic choke points in the Atlantic, in particular the waters around the island nation of Iceland in the north Atlantic and Portugal’s Azores islands in the mid-Atlantic. It can also be seen in the individual fiscal commitments towards defense by individual NATO nations. For instance, Germany currently spends only about 1.2 percent of its GDP on its defense and Iceland spends only about 0.1 percent of its GDP. This is troubling, given the Russian threat that looms on the horizon.
NATO may soon find itself at risk because of its inattention to the key geographical feature that dominates its structure. To be clear, this is not the European continent, with 27 countries that make up the preponderance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The nations that belong to the alliance in Europe are contiguous to one another and largely integrated in their mutual defense, such as it is in an era when defense spending amounts to 2 percent of GDP or less. No, the area of risk for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is in the moat that separates Europe from its large, defense-minded neighbor, the United States, in North America. It’s the Atlantic Ocean that presents the alliance’s highest risk — or, rather, the alliance’s lack of focus on the critical task of maintaining access to it, and NATO’s shaky awareness of the critical importance of the key geographic features in Iceland and the Azores.
Geography Determines Strategy
Just over a century ago, two geostrategic giants — one from a great land power, the United States, and the other from the small island sea power, Britain — conducted a debate in front of the world, a debate that has largely been forgotten. The American, Alfred T. Mahan, a Navy captain, argued that control of the sea was the key to global leadership, while the Briton, Alfred MacKinder, argued that whoever controlled the “world island” of Eurasia would lead. Neither ended up winning the debate, as the two world wars that followed proved that land and sea presented both strengths and weaknesses, and that the importance of geography should never be underestimated.
Today, Russia has the advantage in the “heartland” of MacKinder’s world island, as demonstrated by its entry into Georgia, its illegal seizure of Crimea, and its occupation of a large section of Ukraine. Not since Hitler moved with European acquiescence into the Sudetenland and then invaded Poland has Europe witnessed such territorial aggression. All the while Europe has watched uneasily, debating whether to provide manpower or even lethal supplies to Ukraine as that nation struggles to maintain its independence. NATO itself also continues its uneasy and only partially acknowledged internal debate as to the true meaning of its essential Article V and its application if and when Putin takes the next inexorable step toward regaining Russia’s lost empire of buffer states in the Baltics. NATO’s European members take quiet solace at night in the thought that, should Putin move against a NATO nation while they dream, the Americans will come to their aid. Except maybe they won’t, mostly because they can’t.
Over the past generation, the United States has withdrawn most of its forces from Europe. Armored divisions that once lived in Germany are now based in Texas. Squadrons of Air Force fighters and bombers that once took off and landed at European airfields now lie distributed about the North American continent. If Putin moves, these forces will need to cross the Atlantic quickly to reinforce European allies before Russia’s new acquisitions undergo rapid “local plebiscite” elections in order to justify a new status quo, and Europe will not move to oppose Putin without a solid confidence in American aid, which may not be able to get there.
Russia Seeks to Control the Core and the Rim
The problem is that Russia has made significant investments in advanced submarines that can dive very deep, move rather quickly, and operate extremely quietly. One or two of these boats, loosed into the Atlantic, could easily interdict American Military Sealift Command ships crossing the ocean with men, tanks, and artillery. In the past, NATO maintained a healthy supply of anti-submarine frigates to provide convoy escort for these ships, but today NATO has half the frigates it once had and the United States Navy has none. Additionally, in the past, NATO had the ability to fly long-range anti-submarine-warfare patrol aircraft from air bases in Norway, Iceland, Scotland, the Azores, and Rota, Spain, to maintain a continuous search-and-tracking capability in the Atlantic. Today the alliance has fewer than half the maritime patrol aircraft it once had, and its anti-submarine-warfare operations-planning centers in Iceland and the Azores have largely been shuttered.
These locations represent strategic choke points in that both enemies and friends must pass near them, guided by the underwater geography of the Atlantic. Mahan identified choke points as strategic maritime centers of gravity, and NATO’s decision to leave them unguarded represents a significant strategic error. While it is true that runways and hangars still exist on both Iceland and the island of Lajes in the Azores, they and the operations-and-planning centers that once supported 24/7/365 anti-submarine operations have not been maintained sufficiently to enable the rapid reinitiation of operations.
These locations represent strategic choke points in that both enemies and friends must pass near them, guided by the underwater geography of the Atlantic.
Iceland essentially spends nothing for its own defense. Although it is quick to talk about its financial contributions to the alliance and to other member states, its only significant contribution is its territory and key strategic location. Portugal, which has owned the Azores since the 15th century, spends more on its own defense than does Iceland. Its 2016 figure of 1.84 percent of GDP on defense spending is respectable, though still short of the 2 percent that it committed to, along with the rest of the alliance, in Wales during the 2014 summit. However, Portugal’s problem is not so much how much it spends, but what it spends it on.
Portugal is one of Europe’s smaller nations, with a land mass of 92,000 square kilometers, but its sea frontier, due to its ownership of the Azores, is actually 1.7 million square kilometers, or 18 times its land mass. Thus, it is strange that Portugal spends only 31 percent of its defense budget on its navy, allocating 43 percent to its army and air force. As it is, the Portuguese navy struggles to patrol its vast sea frontier with two AIP submarines and five older frigates of Dutch and German design, even as it works to bring ten smaller offshore patrol vessels of an innovative indigenous design into the fleet. As its budget grows, Portugal, like the other Atlantic facing members of the NATO alliance, would be wise to invest more in anti-surface and anti-submarine capabilities and capacities.
For Vladimir Putin, the recovery of the three Baltic countries — Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — is synonymous with the reestablishment of Russian security. He felt that Russia has been endangered by NATO’s “expansion” to his western border and he pays no heed to the security concerns of those nations that labored as slave states under the Soviet Union. For him, the matter goes beyond Russia’s historic paranoid need for defense-in-depth buffer states to shield its core centers. It goes to the fact that intellectually he rejects the presence of truly free democracies and free economies on his border that do not fall under the central control of his oligarch-backed government. There is something in Putin that rejects governance that is not answerable to him. The creative instability of freedom is what he fears.
If NATO is to retain its ability to defend itself in MacKinder’s heartland of Eastern Europe, it must recover its ability to control Mahan’s chokepoints in the North Atlantic. NATO nations must rebuild the alliance’s fleet of frigates to levels sufficient to support simultaneous anti-submarine-warfare and convoy-escort evolutions. These types of ships — small, inexpensive, and capable of executing both anti-surface and anti-submarine missions — are critical enablers of the alliance as a whole. In addition, the alliance should increase its investments in those islands that overlook the key geostrategic chokepoints that control access to the North Atlantic. The support infrastructure on bases in Norway, the United Kingdom, and Spain should be modernized while runways, hangars, and support installations in Iceland and the Azores should be revamped altogether. These, along with frigates at sea, are the capabilities that will guarantee NATO alliance access to the Atlantic. Without them, the Atlantic will be in doubt, which is to say that NATO will be in doubt.
— Jerry Hendrix is a retired U.S. Navy captain, an award-winning naval historian, and a senior fellow and director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security.