NATO must reinforce ‘North Atlantic’ part of the alliance

The following are relevant excerpts from a recent analysis of NATO’s increasing vulnerabilities to Russia in the North Atlantic from Jerry Hendrix, retired U.S. Navy captain, 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.


— The alliance is not adequately prepared to deter Russian aggression, particularly in the vital North Atlantic. NATO members, with a few exceptions (including the U.S.) are also not funding their respective militaries at the treaty-set level of 2 percent of GDP; this has created a shortfall in vital assets such as frigates, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and operations bases.

— NATO is ceding control of the North Atlantic to Russia; this is a problem given that NATO’s European members would rely on the U.S. to quickly reinforce the continent in an emergency.

— New Russian submarines are quiet and capable. It would only take a few of them to interdict American Military Sealift Command ships crossing the Atlantic with men, tanks, and artillery.

— NATO has also allowed key geographic features in the Azores and Iceland to be dominated by Moscow.

 

— Russian aggression in Georgia, its annexation of the Crimea, and its involvement in Ukraine represents the biggest threat to European security since Nazi Germany.

— Europe cannot necessarily depend on the U.S. to come to Europe’s defense quickly should Russia move against a NATO member because a) American armor is no longer stationed on the continent in large amounts; and b) If Russian subs control the Atlanta, convoys would be in danger.

— During the Cold War NATO maintained enough frigates — designed to protect other warships, merchant marine vessels and perform anti-submarine warfare — to protect sea lanes and shipping, but the number today has fallen to about half; the U.S. Navy has no frigates at all (but a new design is underway, expected by 2020).

— NATO also lacks sufficient numbers of long-range anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft (and the bases from which to operate them); U.S. ASW operations-planning bases in the Azores and Iceland have all but closed; these locations are in strategic choke points and they require major upgrades before they could become fully operational again.

— The U.S. has withdrawn most of its forces from Europe since the end of the Cold War, including armored divisions and fighter squadrons; getting them back to Europe in an emergency would be difficult without NATO control over the North Atlantic.

— Many Atlantic-facing NATO members spend too little on their navies’ ASW, undersea capabilities.

— Russian President Vladimir Putin sees regaining control over the Baltics — Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — as a national security issue; doing so provides Russia’s western flank with a security buffer zone with NATO.

— In order to regain full control over the North Atlantic and its various choke points, NATO needs to rebuild and reinvest in frigates and ASW. Also: “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.” [source]

Analysis: Capt. Hendrix, in identifying NATO’s biggest security gap, has also laid out the alliance’s most pressing problems. They are, in no particular order: 1) Lack of investment in their militaries; 2) Over-reliance on the United States; 3) No serious concerns about Russia’s intentions. 

President Trump has reminded NATO countries of their financial obligations to the alliance, which many continue to ignore — maybe out of spite for Trump’s public rebuke. They will be screaming for U.S. assistance if Russian armor begins pouring across a Baltic state, however, and as Hendrix has pointed out, it will be difficult if not impossible — for a time, anyway — for U.S. reinforcements to traverse the North Atlantic.

Prediction: NATO members will make small advances towards shoring up the North Atlantic but the U.S. will have to, once again, take most of the burden. That’s not liable to play sit with Trump. Meantime, Putin will continue pressing his advantages wherever they present themselves. 

 

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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