Undersea Warfare in Northern Europe
Russia is expanding its undersea operations as part of a broader strategy of coercion aimed at its neighbors, NATO, and the United States. Russia has a long history of emphasizing its maritime capabilities for the purpose of strategic signaling, including the use of targeted provocations. Suspected territorial incursions in the Baltic Sea and provocative patrols in the North Atlantic have caused alarm among NATO and partner nations, in part because they have underscored the extent to which NATO and regional partner antisubmarine warfare (ASW) capabilities have atrophied since the end of the Cold War.
The Russian Navy and its submarine force have remained somewhat insulated from the economic and personnel challenges impacting Russia’s broader military modernization efforts. Moscow has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the development and maintenance of its submarine-based strategic deterrent and has emphasized nonnuclear submarine capabilities, certain surface warfare capabilities, and long-range antiship missiles over carrier battle groups, for example. For this reason, Russian submarines are generally believed to be very capable vessels when properly maintained. In Northern Europe, the Russian Navy’s use of submarines to signal presence, reach, and power achieves an effect that is disproportionate to the resources committed.
NATO and partner nations do not currently possess the ability to quickly counter the Russian undersea challenge in much of the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. Declining capabilities are not only to blame, however; equally problematic is the lack of integration among relevant allies and partners. An effective ASW capability will take a federated approach that integrates national and NATO platforms, sensors, and personnel in a coordinated manner. This integrated capability needs to be undergirded by a coherent and cohesive doctrine and regularly exercised to build a true capability at both a national and alliance level.
Given competing priorities, tight defense budgets, and seam issues in the European defense community between NATO members and the vital partner countries of Sweden and Finland, organizational reforms paired with a federated approach to capability development and small posture adjustments are needed to begin rebuilding the U.S. and European ASW capability in Northern Europe.
1. Preparing Organizational Structures: Using exclusively NATO structures may fail to properly leverage partner capabilities and expertise. NATO–Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) cooperation may be able to serve a bridging function to drive interoperability and combined operational proficiency. An ASW-focused Center of Excellence could also usefully serve as a hub for research, planning, doctrine development, lessons learned, and rebuilding and integrating undersea warfare capabilities.
2. Upgrading Capabilities: In order to develop a system that is effective against new and emerging technologies, NATO and its partners need to build a multidomain, multiplatform ASW and maritime surveillance complex, ideally within a federated construct, that prioritizes payloads over platforms. The specific recommendations contained in this report bring together different sensors and strike capabilities hosted on large and small, manned and unmanned space-based, aerial, surface, and subsurface platforms.
3. Enhancing Posture: NATO can optimize its ASW posture to ensure that the right capabilities are in the right places at the right time by reopening Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland and encouraging Norway to reclaim and reopen its submarine support facility at Olavsvern.
The organizations, relationships, intelligence, and capabilities that once supported a robust ASW network in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea no longer exist. Building a federated approach to countering the twenty-first-century challenge posed by Russian undersea assets in this region is a critical step in preventing Russian naval coercion against the United States, NATO, and key European partners.