WASHINGTON: “We are observing the manifestation of a more aggressive, more capable Russian navy,” the US Navy’s top commander in Europe said today. And if that fleet is Putin’s seagoing hammer, missile bases ashore are his land-based anvil. Complementing Russian naval modernization, Adm. Mark Ferguson said, we have seen “the construction of an arc of steel from the Arctic to the Mediterranean”: land bases from the far north to Kaliningrad on the Baltic, Crimea on the Black Sea, and now Syria, whose batteries of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles threaten NATO forces far out to sea.
The Commander of Naval Forces Europe (COMNAVEUR) fleshed out the final, maritime dimension to the Obama Pentagon’s picture of the Russian threat, which seems to have surpassed China and terrorism as the greatest concern. We’ve already heard from Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James (the first to label Russia our greatest threat), Gen. Joseph Dunford, the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Ferguson’s counterparts and his commander: Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, head of US Army Europe; Gen. Frank Gorenc, US Air Forces Europe; and Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander. While each has a unique take on the threat, the common concerns are clear:
- In the electromagnetic spectrum, Russia’s electronic and cyber-warfare capabilities can disrupt NATO sensors, communications, and command & control;
- On land, Russia’s use of proxies, deniable “Little Green Men,” and propaganda can baffle NATO decision-making processes designed for more clear-cut threats;
- In the air and at sea, Russian long-range missiles — from land bases (that “arc of steel”), surface ships, and submarines — create “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) zones in which NATO forces may not survive;
- Putin’s Russia may lack the sheer mass of the old Soviet juggernaut, but it’s much nimbler and nastily inventive. This bear can dance.
That means NATO must think much faster on its feet to keep up, Ferguson said today, even as Russian jamming, hacking, and disinformation disrupt our decision-making process. “Responsiveness is is a new element [in NATO thinking], as have we seen that Russian actions have fully integrated the elements of speed and strategic surprise,” Ferguson said this morning.
Those operations include the coup in Crimea by “Little Green Men” bearing no national insignia and the surprise intervention in Syria. In Russian training — which also serves as diplomatic signaling — “we are seeing more frequent snap exercises, focused on rapid mobilization and movement directed by central headquarters,” he said. “We have seen large numbers of ships get underway with little or no notice.”
The new Russian rapidity requires a radically different NATO response than in the Cold War, Ferguson said. Back then, he said, “we had exercises like REFORGER [Return of Forces to Germany],” in which naval forces focused on escorting massive army reinforcements across the North Atlantic to respond to an even more massive Soviet land invasion. Other naval theaters — the Arctic, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean — were very much on the margin. The whole mobilization moved with a certain apocalyptic ponderousness.
In a future conflict, by contrast, “it will be very different,” said Ferguson. “It will be very focused and happen rapidly on the flanks” — e.g. the Baltic and Black Seas — “[with no] time to build up and then execute.”
NATO naval forces could easily find themselves on the front line from minute one. In fact, they could suddenly discover they’re deep inside enemy-controlled waters. Russian missiles based in Kaliningrad and Crimea — two key points of that “arc of steel” — cover much of the Baltic and Black Seas respectively.
Then there’s the Russian submarine fleet, which has grown stealthier, sorties more often, and is getting better armed. Reviving large-scale sub-hunting is a top priority for Ferguson. “We have an immediate challenge of bringing back multinational, coalition, theater anti-submarine warfare,” he said. France and Britain are leading the way, along with the US, “but other nations need to join this as well.”
The threat isn’t only to NATO shipping but to land targets, thanks to new sea-launched cruise missiles like the Kalibr. “Just this week,” he warned, “the first Kalibr-equipped Kilo-class submarine transited from the North Sea to the Black Sea — the first of six — bringing within its range the eastern half of Europe.”
Distances that armies once covered in months of marching, missiles can cross in minutes. “What I think has changed so dramatically is the very rapid [potential] escalation of conflict,” Ferguson said. “One of the things I spend time thinking bout is being careful about miscalculation and making sure that you don’t have an unintended escalation.”
Ferguson made clear he hoped this wouldn’t ever happen. Indeed, he had some cause for optimism. On a policy level, Russian officers met their NATO counterparts in Naples this year to revive talks on avoiding incidents at sea. On a practical level, he said, “for our ships in the Baltic and Black Sea, we have seen more aggressive behavior from the [Russian] air forces and the aircraft overflights, but our interactions with the [Russian] maritime forces have been professional and responsible.”
But if shooting does start, “it will happen very rapidly,” Ferguson warned. “It will combine hybrid and conventional elements, cyber, electronic warfare, jamming,…. designed to cripple the decision-making cycle of the alliance. Their capabilities are focused on the creation of ambiguity.”
That’s a culture shock for political and military leaders used to live video from drones over the front line. It’s a shock for field commanders and junior personnel used to having GPS-precise positions of themselves, their comrades, and their targets.
“This is a fundamental shift in culture for maritime forces,” Ferguson said. After years of Western naval dominance, he said, “the maritime space is contested, [and] you will have to think about very high-level electronic jamming , about perhaps loss of satellites for the Global Positioning system, and then how will you operate in that environment.”
That requires “integrating these types of effects into our training and exercises, [to see] what happens when you starts to lose capabilities to jamming, to cyber, to asymmetric means,” Ferguson said. “We’ve got to weave it into the NATO exercises to make sure all the allies see how quickly capabilities can be degraded.”
NATO needs to get more nimble at all levels, however, Ferguson emphasized, not just the tactical and technical. In a crisis, it needs the capability to rapidly request any nearby, ready ship from its member nation’s navies to form an ad hoc task force, “as opposed to the current construct which is, you give me a ship for six months,” he said. “Nations are finding that difficult to do.”
At the highest level, he added, “NATO, the North Atlantic council, has to act rapidly to give us the authorities and permissions to move.”
For an alliance that operates on consensus of 28 different members, that’s an ambitious goal.