FORGET THE SEA OF AZOV – NATO Should Help Ukraine by Exploiting Strategic Leverage Elsewhere

Obviously the international community should do all it can to respond resolutely in the face of Russian aggression in the Sea of Azov, but the reality is that it is considered by Moscow to be mare nostrum. That may not be morally or legally correct, but it is now a cold, hard fact.

The request by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for NATO vessels to be sent into the Sea of Azov is understandable, but unlikely to happen. The Sea of Azov is not even considered international waters but is, rather, shared between Russia and Ukraine. Only vessels flying the flags of Russia and Ukraine may navigate freely in the Sea of Azov, though it now appears Moscow believes its vessels alone should have that right.

The Alliance would be well advised to forget about direct intervention in the Sea of Azov altogether, unless it wants to go toe-to-toe with the Russians and suffer heavy casualties in a conflict that could rapidly escalate with no good outcome for anyone.

Pressure can still be applied in the Black Sea – and NATO regularly deploys task groups and individual vessels close to Russian shores – but it should never be overlooked that it is an area where (like the South China Seas these days) ‘big boys rules’ apply.

Utmost vigilance, constant readiness for aggression from Russia and fine decision-making are needed during near-to-the-knuckle encounters.

The British destroyer HMS Duncan’s encounter with multiple Russian strike jets last May and the even more recent close call between a US Navy intelligence-gathering aircraft and a Russian fighter jet demonstrated this.

The British destroyer HMS Duncan exercises with the Bulgarian frigate BGS Drazki during the May 2018 deployment in which the Royal Navy vessel was harassed by Russian aircraft. Photo: Royal Navy.

In the risky game of countering Russia’s pursuit of anti-access, area denial – or A2/AD as it is called in modern military speak – there is no way that either Ukraine or NATO can win in an enclosed sea dominated by Russia geographically, such as the Sea of Azov.

There is past evidence of why that is the case.  While for the most part the Russian Navy recorded a less than impressive record during WW1 and WW2 – ceding the main offensive effort at sea to allies and showing little gratitude at the time (perhaps due to the heavy priced paid on land by the Soviet Union) – there was a notable exception.

That was the Russian Navy gaining the upper hand in the Black Sea during WW1 – giving the Turks a rough time and also making life miserable for German U-boat interlopers – achieving a good measure of success with mine warfare, something it also used to good effect in the Baltic during the same conflict.

In WW2 the Soviets in the end prevailed in the Black Sea primarily due to the efforts of their army and air force, the Axis fleets suffering the problem of weak surface forces and Germany only being able to send in smaller U-boats overland via rail shipments, due to neutral Turkey controlling access to the sea.

And today the Russians not only have an array of sophisticated mines at their disposal – ideal for use in the littoral waters of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov and sewing confusion in the Turkish Strait – they can achieve local air superiority and have formidable land-based missile systems. They aspire to the same thing in the Baltic, using their Kaliningrad enclave to dominate its southern end.

A Russian fighter jet comes dangerously close to a US Navy intelligence-gathering aircraft over the Black Sea. Image: US DoD.

In the Black Sea the naval base at Sevastopol is home to some of the better surface combatants and also cutting edge Improved Kilo Class submarines. Some have already been used in anger, to conduct cruise missile bombardments of targets in Syria.

So, unless NATO and the Ukraine want to push the all-out war button to overwhelm the Russian home team advantage, what else can be done? NATO and the rest of the international community can best help Ukraine and Alliance members states menaced by the Kremlin’s aggressive hybrid warfare by sending in units to hold the line in the Black Sea, while deploying Alliance naval forces elsewhere to decisive effect.

It is true that in the conventional sense, across the board, the Russian Navy would currently be no match for NATO in full-on conflict, but Moscow will do all it can to avoid that. It will seek to use its submarines – which now possess capabilities not far off the best NATO can offer – along with its new deep ocean spy vessels, corvettes and frigates in places and at times of its own choosing, careful not to over-reach itself and with limited objectives (within the doctrine of ‘war in peace’).

Today it is control of the Sea of Azov, probably as a preliminary to a drive by ‘rebel Ukrainian’ forces along its northern coast to link up Russian itself with the Crimea, ensuring access to the key naval base at Sevastopol and other military bases in the peninsula. Access to the Mediterranean and protecting Russia’s southern flank is an enduring strategic objective for Russia, hence the heavy involvement in Syria where there is a major Russian naval support facility.

Occasionally Russia cocks a snook at the West by sending submarines into the Irish Sea, or deploys them to poke about in the Baltic, or long-range maritime strike aircraft test NATO air defences. Its surface vessels and (surfaced) submarines quite legitimately pass close to NATO coastlines while heading south to Syria from the Baltic or the Northern Fleet bastions in the Arctic.

Arleigh Burke Class destroyer USS Farragut conducts a replenishment-at-sea alongside the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman during the carrier’s most recent deployment into the North Atlantic. Photo: US Navy.

NATO can regain the initiative, put the Russians off balance and also keep them tied down by returning to the tried and test strategy that won the Cold War. NATO, which in this case means the US Navy, the Royal Navy and Marine Nationale, should deploy nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) into the North Atlantic and Arctic to reinforce the message that those international waters will never be the exclusive preserve of the Russians. NATO surface vessels should also return to establishing freedom of navigation in those seas, including the Barents.

The French Navy (Marine Nationale) nuclear-powered attack submarine FNS Perle calls at a Canadian naval base during a 2016 ASW exercise in the North Atlantic. Photo: Canadian DND.

The recent Exercise Trident Juncture off Norway saw the first deployment into Arctic waters by a US Navy Carrier Strike Group (CSG) in decades, while a little publicised element of the same exercise was the presence of British and French SSNs during Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) training alongside Norwegian conventional boats. In the near future the Royal Navy should take a leaf out of its own Cold War playbook, when it used to deploy its last big deck carrier, HMS Ark Royal, way up into the N. Atlantic, and resume such operations.

A Super Hornet strike jet launches from USS Harry S. Truman during her autumn 2018 deployment in the North Atlantic. Photo: US Navy.

Aside from giving the Russians something to think about in the High North – tying down their best naval assets and keeping them stretched and pushed very hard up there – any Russian surface warships and submarines venturing further south and into the Mediterranean should not be just playfully shadowed by harmless Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). They should be relentlessly trailed, hailed and interrogated by destroyers, frigates and aircraft. NATO submarines should also trail them.

In other words Moscow’s naval units should be subjected to exactly the same treatment the Russians mete out to NATO and allied vessels, and all of course conducted legally within international waters and using (safe) norms of behaviour. NATO units will undoubtedly face severe provocation in return but must keep a cool head.

There will inevitably be risks, just as there were during the Cold War, but that is what navies are there for – laying down the red lines at sea that aggressors must not cross, in order to keep the rest of us safe.  To not respond in the fashion suggested will only encourage Moscow (especially in the Black Sea, Baltic and Arctic) and its strategic pal Beijing (in the South China Sea and further afield) to close off more of the open commons of the sea to use for their own ends and coerce other nations.

Iain Ballantyne is author of the recently published ‘THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hardback). and Editor of the global naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review and its ‘Guide to the US Navy 2019

Submarines are the Answer to Alleged Kremlin Transgressions

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s vow in the House of Commons that Russia would receive a ‘robust response’ from the UK if it had a hand in the attempted assassination in Salisbury of an ex-military intelligence officer (and one-time double agent) would not have caused much fear in Moscow.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s subsequent demand that the Kremlin explain how a military grade nerve agent came to be used in a Wiltshire community was met with angry denials that it had anything to do with Russia. Moscow demanded that the UK stop inventing so-called fairy tales and hand over a sample of the Novichok nerve agent allegedly used in the attack for analysis in Russian labs.

Where the stand-off would go next was uncertain at the time of writing.

Strong words of condemnation, chucking a few diplomats out of Britain or withdrawing the England team from a footie tournament – the World Cup, due to be held later this year in Russia – would just make President Putin snigger at the continuing weakness of an old Cold War foe the Russians used to respect.

One of the major reasons they took Britain seriously once upon a time was its ability to carry out operations in a part of the world Moscow considers home turf, though not via alleged assassination plots in quiet cathedral cities.

The UK’s deep cover operatives were submariners, with Prime Ministers from the late 1960s to the 1990s frequently giving personal authorization to send nuclear-powered attack submarines into the Barents Sea.

The sails of the US Navy attack submarines USS Connecticut and USS Hartford break through the ice on March 10 as part of ICEX 2018, which also, for the first time in some years, involves a British submarine. Photo: US Navy.

That is where they should be today, gathering intelligence on Putin’s new sea-based missile capabilities, which he is using to threaten the West. They should be trying to detect the Russian Navy’s increasingly formidable nuclear attack submarines as they break out into the Atlantic to menace the UK directly. They also need to trail Russia’s conventional submarines as they deploy to go and fire cruise missiles into Syria or, in future, other cauldrons of war and misery the Kremlin might seek to exploit for strategic advantage. British submarines must return to the shadow game of tracking and trailing Russia’s submarines as they try to interfere with NATO operations, plus seeking out its nuclear missile craft, which are poised to strike at all times.

A submariner keeps watch from the sail of the attack submarine USS Hartford after the boat has surfaced through the ice in the Beaufort Sea during ICEX 2018. Photo: US Navy.

However, the UK no longer maintains a presence in Arctic waters with surface warships or submarines at a level that would ever worry Moscow. This is due to successive governments hollowing out the Royal Navy’s fighting capabilities, cutting its people and warships back to the bone and failing utterly to maintain a strong enough submarine force. Increasingly it is other nations – and in the case of Canada using submarines that the UK sold off as it felt it wouldn’t need them – taking up the strain and sometimes performing a job the Royal Navy did so well.

Britain’s submarine warfare proficiency was once the envy of not only the Russians but also the Americans. It is why novelist Tom Clancy said of the Royal Navy’s submarine force during the Cold War: ‘While everyone deeply respects the Americans with their technologically and numerically superior submarine force, they all quietly fear the British.’

Britain does maintain a reputation for excellence in undersea warfare – and right now it has deployed its first submarine for some years to exercise under the Polar ice with the Americans – but there remains severe lack of submarines, a shortage of people and lack of funding to stay at sea that undermines all that (and the UK’s standing in the world).

The will-they-won’t-they pantomime over the question of whether or not Britain will build a seventh Astute Class attack submarine is a good illustration of how UK governments in recent years have turned global fear (and respect) of the Royal Navy into something approaching derision (among both friend and foe). NATO allies are mystified and deeply saddened by the self-inflicted destruction of the British fleet.

The recent hokey-cokey act over the Astutes followed claims the UK’s amphibious warfare forces are to be disemboweled in yet another round of defence cuts. It was suggested that the extremely capable assault vessels HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are to be axed and sold off – and the government has still not denied it may happen. On top of that at least 1,000 elite Royal Marine commandos might be given their marching orders. Those specialist ships and highly-trained commandos are key elements in the defence of NATO’s northern flank against potential Russian aggression, so Moscow has no doubt been delighted with the idea (at a time when it is building up its own amphibious forces).

With the future of the UK amphibious ships and Royal Marines far from settled the Astute submarine farce then unfolded.

President Putin is, as explained in the final section of my new book ‘The Deadly Trade’, deploying submarines to shock and awe the world – via missile boat diplomacy – and will have been very pleased to hear the UK might only build six Astutes. He has given orders for Russia to construct a dozen new Yasen Class attack submarines (a development of the formidable Akula) and so the dithering over the seventh Astute will have been music to his ears.

The once mighty Royal Navy, having recently been reduced to sending out plastic mine-hunters and fishery protection vessels to shadow Russian naval task groups passing close to British shores (due to a chronic lack of frigates and destroyers), was providing further evidence of a paper British lion. It can roar and bluster about ‘robust action’ but it currently has not much naval muscle left to do anything meaningful by way of conventional deterrence.

Nonetheless, on March 6, the Ministry of Defence was delighted to issue a confirmation that the seventh Astute Class submarine will indeed be built – giving the so-called good news to finally bury the potential bad news its own indecision and history of defence investment failures had created in the first place.

The Astute Class attack submarine HMS Ambush during Exercise Dynamic Manta 2015. The Arctic should once again become a major focus for British and NATO submarine operations. Photo: NATO.

In a written statement to the House of Commons, the day after the Salisbury alleged assassination story hit the headlines, defence procurement minister Guto Bebb was pleased to reveal the UK government would fund the seventh boat.

However, you have to ask what the point is of promising to construct a seventh submarine when it has been revealed by the National Audit Office that, during construction of earlier submarines, the process was badly delayed by some of their equipment being transferred to the few Astutes already in service – robbing Peter to ensure Paul can stay at sea.

And what is the point of building new submarines if you can’t recruit enough submariners to take them to sea? It is no secret that attack boat crews the UK needs to be out there – showing Russia it can’t have it all its own way – are being transferred into the Trident missile vessels just to keep them on deterrent patrol. Which means the attack boats cannot always deploy to exert their presence in waters close to Russia, or anywhere else.

It’s a disgraceful shambles and no way to manage a navy. Promises of a seventh Astute Class submarines are nothing but window dressing for a crisis in national defence that the government so far shows no inclination to really sort out.

The reality is that seven Astutes are not enough, but for the first time in more than a century Britain is not building any other kind of attack submarine as a follow-on or alternative. Ensuring the UK has enough nuclear-powered attack submarines it can send into Russian home seas – staying in international waters of course – in order to carry out some espionage on Moscow’s growing missile might and expanding submarine force is the answer. Having a dozen boats means the UK will be able to deploy up to half a dozen at a time globally, including some allocated to the Arctic.  This will not only counter Russia’s recent cheeky submarine forays close to the UK but also tell Putin that a line has been drawn against transgressions elsewhere (at sea, in the air or on land).

The Royal Navy attack submarine HMS Tireless sits on the surface of the North Pole during ICEX 2004. Back then the British fleet operated 11 attack submarines, and today it has half a dozen in commission. Photo: US Navy.

If Russian attack submarines again come into waters close to the UK – seeking out the Royal Navy’s Trident deterrent submarine as they deploy on patrol from the Clyde, or sticking two fingers up to Britain by making fast, submerged transits of the Irish Sea – it should be answered robustly alright.

Putin needs to know that the British fleet will return to its perfectly legal pursuit of sending anti-submarine and intelligence gathering frigates, plus attack submarines, into the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea. The Russian Bear must find himself chasing his tail in his lair rather than snarling unchallenged in the face of the West.


THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hardback) has just been published and is a follow-on to ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books, 2013)  which told the story of Royal Navy submariners undertaking dangerous missions against the Soviet Union across the Cold War.

While working as a newspaper defence correspondent Iain sailed into the Barents Sea aboard a British anti-submarine frigate, during the warship’s special diplomatic mission to visit Murmansk and Archangel. At the end of the Cold War he also visited the other restricted Russian naval bases zones of Kronstadt and Sevastopol. He has twice been under the sea in nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine and is the founding and current Editor of the globally read naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review.

Like ‘Ice Station
Zebra’… For Real

Russian paratroopers leap headlong into the slipstream of a transport aircraft disgorging them over the vast icy wastes of the North Pole; tumbling head over heel, drogue chutes trailing behind, one-by-one the soldiers’ main parachutes deploy. They glide down to land on a drifting ice floe next to a research station.

This isn’t a scene from the late 1960s movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’ that I saw at the cinema when I was a kid, but happened a day or two ago and was filmed by highly skilled cameramen and pumped out as the latest example of Russian military derring-do propaganda.

Russians in the ice

Russian troops pose for a group shot on the Arctic ice. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

Russia is currently boosting its presence in the Arctic, progressing rapidly via commissioning of new nuclear-powered submarines, flights by far-ranging aircraft, plus deployments of paratroopers and naval infantry. The Kremlin is staking a claim to vast natural resources on the seabed under the ice. It is aiming to dominate the Arctic Ocean just like the Chinese on the other side of the world are laying claim to the entire South China Sea. It is yet another illustration of the uncanny ability of fact to mimic fiction.

Ice Station Zebra

The poster for the movie of ‘Ice Station Zebra’. Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

For those scenes of Soviet paratroopers raining down on the North Pole in the movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’, must have implanted themselves as powerfully in the brain of young Russians as much as they took hold of my imagination. Now they have turned Hollywood’s iconography back on the West by presenting a spectacular real-life adventure to show how Russia’s paratroopers can achieve extraordinary things even today, and for real.

Of course, as soon as Moscow reset its relationship with the West to one of overt rivalry, it was inevitable games of military one upmanship would unfold. The story behind‘ Ice Station Zebra’, as explained in my book ‘Hunter Killers’ (and very briefly in a previous post on this site) was even more fantastic than both the Alistair MacLean novel, published in 1963, and the 1968 movie.

In recent years it has emerged that the CIA in May 1962 was involved in exploits to counter Soviet listening stations on the Polar ice. Even if he did not know precise details of the CIA mission, MacLean certainly did plenty of research into under-ice operations by submarines and the espionage roles of ‘research stations’ on ice floes.

In real life, the USA’s Office of Naval Research, Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA put together ‘Operation Coldfeet’. This involved two ‘intelligence collectors’ being parachuted onto the ice close to a drifting, and recently abandoned, Soviet research station.

The Russians had conducted an evacuation because they believed the ice would soon crush it. After seven days collecting intelligence the two Americans were picked up in breath-taking fashion by a specially converted former B-17 bomber. Using a so-called ‘Skyhook’ it plucked them and their intelligence goodies from the ice and reeled them in.

The CIA recently revealed they brought home ‘valuable information’ on how the Soviet Union was utilising its scientific research stations. ‘The team found evidence of advanced acoustical systems research to detect under-ice US submarines,’ a CIA document reveals, ‘and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques.

And today, never mind the macho exploits of Russian paratroopers, the most interesting game of all in the so-called new Cold War, will be what transpires beneath the ice, both in terms of Russia exploiting oil and gas reserves and potentially a fresh face-off between the submarines of the West and the Russian Navy.

US Seawolf Class submarine

A US Navy nuclear-powered submarine surfaces through ice in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: US Navy.

Just a few months ago the US Navy sent a cutting edge nuclear-powered attack submarine, USS Seawolf, on a voyage under the North Pole. As defence writer and analyst David Axe wrote on his web site and in a recent edition of the magazine I run the Seawolf departed Bremerton in August 2013 and then four weeks later suddenly turned up in a Norwegian port.  Axe noted: ‘it seems Seawolf travelled to Norway along a path rarely taken by any vessel: Underneath the Arctic ice. The US Navy doesn’t like to talk about its submarines. After all, a sub’s biggest advantage is its stealth.’ And Seawolf’s main mission is intelligence gathering. The Russians can beat their chests and show off as much as they like by parachuting onto an ice floe at the North Pole, but another game is afoot out of sight. And it is far stranger, and more serious, than any fiction.


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