Over the past two years since the hostilities in Ukraine began, we've seen a cooling off of diplomatic relations between Russia and NATO, most particularly the United States. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has become the new "boogeyman" and has become the point man for just about anything that goes wrong globally including defecating on the carpet of an American diplomat's home and rearranging their furniture and hacking into the Democratic National Committee's computers to steal the DNC's deepest, darkest secrets about how the party was going to rid itself of the scourge that was Bernie Sanders. The mainstream media in the United States, Europe and Canada has latched onto the genesis of the "Cold War Part II" and seems to be swallowing hook, line and sinker, the talking points that are fed to it by Washington. With that in mind, let's take a look at a recent report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) which looks at the potential for submarine warfare in Northern Europe, comparing the current subsea capabilities of NATO and Russia. While many of us would think that Russia's relatively weak economy, thanks in part to the impact of sanctions on Russia, would have negatively affected its ability to fund its submarine program, such does not appear to be the case.
Let's start with a map showing NATO member countries (in purple) and NATO's partners around the globe to give you a sense of the potential theatre of operations should hostilities break out:
Here is a map showing NATO's presence in Europe during the Cold War:
The study by CSIS focusses on the scope of the Russian undersea challenges in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. The authors note that the deployment levels of Russia's submarine fleet in this region is at its highest level in the post-Cold War era. This has taken place despite the fact that dropping oil prices, a devaluation of the ruble and an overall weakening of the Russian economy has resulted in budgetary constraints for most of the Russian military machine. In the State Armament Program for 2011 to 2020, 26 percent of the 19.5 trillion ruble budget was allocated to the navy. Russia is in the process of modernizing its oldest Soviet-era submarine fleet, replacing it with a modern ballistic missile submarine force. Over the past two years, Russian submarines were reportedly present in Swedish waters in the Baltic Sea in 2014 (unconfirmed), off the coast of Finland in April 2015 (also unconfirmed), and off the coast of Scotland in 2014 (also unconfirmed). Press reports also note that Russian submarines are operating in regions where critical communications cables cross the North Atlantic. It is important to note that there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding all of these incidents, however, it is this ambiguity that is causing concern among NATO partners.
Russia's Navy has three objectives:
1.) Sea-based deterrence through the use of a nuclear maritime force that is at a high state of readiness.
2.) Sea Denial which consists of sea control (dominance of the marine region) through the use of blockades etcetera and sea denial through the use of submarines equipped with long-range, antiship cruise missiles.
3.) Signalling Russia's intentions to regain control of its traditional sphere of influence through the manipulation of its adversaries (i.e. Sweden's response to the alleged surfacing of a submarine in 2014).
Let's look at Russia's current submarine capabilities. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia inherited approximately 240 submarines, a number that has declined to around 56. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Navy and its submarine program, at the end of the Cold War, analysts believed that the USSR was very close to overtaking the United States in terms of acoustic quieting of its subsea fleet, a critical part of submarine warfare. Russia also maintains a large fleet of anti-submarine capable materiel including dedicated surface naval vessels and long-range aircraft.
Here is a table showing the current types of Russian submarines:
Russia divides its Navy into four fleets including Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, Baltic as well as a flotilla based in the Caspian Sea. The Northern Fleet is Russia's largest and most formidable. Here is a table showing an inventory of the current Russian Northern Fleet:
The Baltic Fleet has no nuclear-powered submarines and has only two diesel-powered, 1980s vintage Kilo-class SSK attack submarines. Part of the reason why the Baltic Fleet is so small is that the Baltic Sea is a very shallow and highly complex subsea operating environment that is littered with ordinance from the First and Second World Wars. This is a particularly problematic operating theatre for the United States; its Virginia-class submarine is 377 feet long and draws 30 feet of water, making it very difficult to operate in the Baltic Sea region.
Now, let's look at the flip side, the submarine and anti-submarine capabilities of NATO in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea regions:
Here is a table showing the submarine fleets of NATO member states in 2000 and 2016:
You can quickly see where the problem lies. In general, there has been a decrease in the capacity of NATO member states to mount a credible anti-submarine warfare campaign in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. Much of the equipment is aging in contrast to the improvements in Russia's submarine acoustic quieting. As well, in 2000, the United States was responsible for 54 percent of the submarines operating in the region; this had risen to 65 percent in 2016.
In contrast, let's look at more details on Russia's plans for its submarine fleet. Over the next decade, Russia plans to build an additional eight to ten Dolgorukiy-class SSBNs, eight to ten Severodvinsk-class SSNs and a mix of diesel-powered SSK submarines. The Severodvinsk-class vessels are leading edge and are the first Russian submarines to use a vertical launch tube for cruise missiles. They are also the first Russian submarines to be equipped with a life of the boat nuclear reactor that will not require a mid-life refuelling. It also appears that Russia is developing unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) that will revolutionize undersea warfare. Interestingly, it appears that Russia has purchased tactical unmanned aerial systems from Israel that they may have reverse engineered to install on UUVs.
While Russia is stirring the pot in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea regions, China is making no secret of its maritime aspirations in the South China Sea. Under the "Asia-Pacific Rebalance" policy of the United States, the U.S. Navy plans to have 60 percent of its entire fleet based in the Pacific by 2020. This means that the inventory of American submarines and anti-submarine equipment will shift from their traditional locations in the North Atlantic to America's ports of call in the Pacific Ocean, making protection of the region more difficult.
Let's close with these quotes from the study:
"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 anti-ship 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 along with key regional partners, Sweden and Finland, must rebuild lapsed proficiency in integrated anti-submarine warfare in order to deter and, if necessary, counter Russian undersea activities across Northern Europe. This should be pursued through (1) preparing organizational structures, (2) upgrading capabilities, and (3) enhancing posture. These steps will serve as the cornerstone for improving allied proficiency in the undersea domain. The long-term success of these e orts will ultimately depend on the alliance and its partners maintaining a unifed political front in the face of Russian aggression, as Russia will exploit any ssures in European collective security."
It certainly appears that NATO has its work cut out for it if it hopes to successfully defend the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea regions. Russia has quite clearly stated its intentions.