‘Forward-deployed” American naval forces — those that have home ports outside the United States, such as the forces currently based in Japan and Spain — have provided great strategic value to the United States over the past century. Their positioning far from home waters conveys to potential enemies that we are always present and always “interested” in the geographic regions where those ships sail. It also allows for a smaller overall naval force and reduces the distances involved for logistical-support vessels that normally have to operate far from America’s shores. It’s clear that we are once again immersed in a great-power competition with Russia and China. We should consider whether there are other regions, such as the Baltic and Black Seas, where U.S. Navy forces should be permanently based to provide support to allies and protect U.S. national interests.
The United States Navy has made use of forward-deployed naval forces for more than a century. An Asiatic squadron operated from ports in China and the Philippines during the 19th and early 20th century. After World War II, the Sixth Fleet protected American national interests in the Mediterranean during some of the tensest moments of the long Cold War. The Vietnam War was fought by ships operating from the deep-water port at Subic Bay, in the Philippines. Today, Navy ships take up station from bases in Japan and Spain. These bases provided strategic, fiscal, and logistics advantage.
The United States has a number of strategic reasons to take a heightened interest in the Baltic and Black Seas. First, members of the NATO alliance, a mutual-defense organization that enjoys overwhelming support from the American people, border their waters. Second, the United States has growing commercial interests in these waters as U.S. export trade continues to flourish. American interests have grown to such extent that the U.S. Navy has begun to increase its presence in these waters and stepped up naval exercises conducted with local allies. Lastly, Russia, under the bellicose leadership of Vladimir Putin, has threatened and intimidated nations whose borders touch the Baltic and Black Seas.
These small seas have increased in international prominence in recent years. Clearly, Russia, under the leadership of former KGB officer Putin, has been frustrated by NATO’s consistent expansion and its own loss of respect and influence in Eurasia. Although its economy, population, and military have all shrunk considerably since the Cold War, Putin has played his weak hand of cards extremely well, using “little green men” and hybrid warfare to invade Georgia, annex Crimea, and occupy a large portion of Ukraine. In addition, Putin has used energy exports to coerce his European neighbors and conducted numerous cyberattacks to undermine trust in key transnational institutions. Also, we should not forget that Putin used chemical nerve agents to attack former Russian citizens on foreign soil in Great Britain, an atrocious act by any measure. By these coercive activities, Putin is attempting to re-inflate Russia’s sphere of influence in Eurasia and satiate the Bear’s historic hunger for expansion.
However, two maritime areas, the Baltic and Black Seas, jut dangerously into Putin’s desired sphere, touching Russian territory and providing access for anyone who would challenge Putin. These seas present challenges. Like land, oceans and seas have unique geographies. Some are deep, others shallow, most are open, but a few are strewn with rocky islands and narrow channels. Also, different regions have varying weather patterns, which drive wind and wave action, which also affect local ship design.
It suffices to say that maneuverable, small, and shallower-draft surface ships work best for navies that seek to operate on the Baltic and Black Seas, owing to waves, depth, and bottom composition. Neither sea, owing to limited depth and irregular bottom composition, is a comfortable environment for submarines to operate in, especially the large nuclear-powered submarines favored by the American Navy. And super carriers, with their deep drafts and need for running room to launch and recover aircraft, almost certainly will not operate in these waters. The U.S. Navy’s multirole Arleigh Burke–class destroyers could work well, though the ships’ deep keels might inhibit their ability to operate in some regions. There are not enough Burkes to be everywhere the U.S. Navy needs to be at this time, but the Black and Baltic Seas are natural homes for smaller frigate and corvette combatant vessels similar to the littoral combat ships that the U.S. Navy currently has in production.
Poland and Romania have proven themselves stalwart friends.
Ships like these need bases from which to operate and allied nations willing to weather the occasional storm that men like Putin might send their way. Fortunately, two nations that border the Baltic and Black Seas have already demonstrated their resolve through their willingness to host ballistic-missile-defense sites in Europe, despite Russia’s strong protests. Poland and Romania have proven themselves stalwart friends. Both have met the defense-spending goal of 2 percent of GDP established at NATO’s 2014 summit. Romania’s naval bases at Constanta and Mangalia and Poland’s naval base at Gdynia have sufficient port infrastructure to support U.S. naval combatants and logistics ships.
Basing littoral combat ships in Poland and Romania — perhaps sending a batch of the steel-hulled Freedom-class ships to Poland and a parallel complement of the aluminum-construction Independence class to Romania — would protect American interests, serve as the centerpiece for NATO maritime squadrons in those waters, increase the combat readiness and lethality of our allies, and demonstrate to Putin and his neighbors that the reestablishment of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe will not occur soon.
Recognizing that the United States is once again in a great-power competition is the first step in a strategic process. The second is returning to the types of deployment patterns, including the increased use of forward-deployed naval forces, that won the Cold War. The forward basing of American littoral combat ships to the Baltic and Black Seas would send all the right signals. It would demonstrate that the United States has permanent diplomatic, military, and commercial interests in the region. Basing American sailors and their families on foreign soil would assure allies that the United States is fully committed to their defense. And it would teach Putin that a weak hand well played is still a weak hand.