What lies beneath… the weaponising of news

One of the latter-day episodes of submarine warfare – or shall we say covert operations – touched on in ‘The Deadly Trade’ (aka ‘The Deadly Deep’) was the alleged intrusion into Swedish waters of a Russian craft in 2014. Such episodes can easily spark armed confrontation, but for luck and the innate mysteries of the undersea environment (which sometimes makes it hard to say definitely what is lurking down there). This was my article from October 2014 on the Swedish episode

Similar controversies were a feature of the Cold War in the Baltic, when the Swedes were heavily taxed sometimes pursuing suspected Russian (and NATO) submarine intrusions into their waters. The most notorious episode was the grounding of a Whiskey Class diesel submarine of the Soviet Navy in October 1981. There was no doubt that Swedish forces had caught the Russians in flagrante making an illegal foray close to Karlskrona, as the boat S-363 was skewered by rocks in full view of the world.

A Soviet Navy submarine of the Whiskey Class underway during the Cold War. A diesel boat of this type ran aground in Swedish territorial waters, late 1981. Photo: US DoD.

What has sparked my return to the topic of the 2014 Swedish intrusions is a story by Elisabeth Braw of the London-based think-tank RUSI that raises some interesting issues on how the media reports such events (and whether or not it is being drawn into an info war between Russia and the West). The answer is yes, especially in the era of so-called fake news, where military operatives of the Kremlin and others states, not least China, and those of some Western powers, are weaponising it (and in some cases have been doing so for some time).

In her ‘Foreign Policy’ article Elisabeth Braw writes: ‘The military could, for example, provide training to a wide range of journalists, and not just about the latest in military equipment but about the wide spectrum of today’s national security threats and what sort of information helps the adversary.’

An image purporting to show a small, suspect object moving on the surface within Swedish waters at the time of the 2014 episode. Issued by the Swedish defence ministry.

However, as we are not officially at war with China and Russia, it’s pretty hard to persuade the free media of democratic countries that they should start censoring themselves against the ‘adversary’. Let’s face it, some of the stuff the defence ministries of Western nations pump out is also propaganda, and it is down to journalists to filter out the crap, in order to gain something close to the truth.

There are things the defence ministries of the democracies can do to foster understanding of complex issues and therefore dominate the news agenda. While journalists should strive to know their subject, report accurately, the navies/militaries of democracies must be as open as possible, establish rapport with the media (and not just the elite who inhabit a capital city). They should, for example, educate journalists in how navies work – especially technical topics that must be demystified via simple language.

The Finnish Navy guided-missile corvette FNS Naantali on patrol in the Baltic. Photo: US Navy.

In her piece Elisabeth Braw does refer to a Finnish effort to educate journalists in the face of what we in the trade used to call ‘jacked up’ stories – the sort of things that has been going on for decades, walking the razor’s edge between truth and making a good headline.

The Finnish military have their own special interest in countering what they perceive as Russian media manipulation. They obviously operate all the time in close proximity to the Kremlin’s forces in the Baltic Sea and ashore. Shortly after Sweden’s mystery submarine intrusion, they experienced their own episode. In spring 2015 Finland’s naval forces even reportedly used low power explosive charges to see off whatever was down there. Explaining the vagaries of detecting and then classifying what it actually was also presented challenges for the Finns.

I gained true understanding of how things work – including trying to pin down what lurks in the deep dark ocean – partly by going to sea (on, over and under it) with navies. I also started out reporting on defence matters in an era when people talked to people. Even serving personnel felt they could talk to journalists without fear of being disciplined for not doing it in a heavily controlled (make that censored) environment.

Often today’s naval/defence spokespersons talk in corporate/technical gibberish, trotting out dull propaganda tropes in their press releases and on social media – instead of using plain language. It makes one suspect they don’t themselves fully understand military and naval operations or their context. In that case, how can they explain anything to journalists?

The Swedish Visby Class corvette HSwMS Karlsand on patrol in the Baltic. Photo: US Navy.

Finally, if the military of the West starts off in an adversarial relationship with journalists then it is onto a loser in a democracy. Of course, that problem does not exist in nations such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, for example, where press/media freedom is heavily restricted or even non-existent. The way for defence ministries in the democracies to counter state-controlled ‘fake news’ garbage from so-called ‘adversaries’ is to mount a charm offensive and educate the media, presenting the facts of the case and leaving them to come to their own conclusions.

Don’t blame reporters for not fully understanding the complexities of finding and identifying a potential submarine intruder if you have never made a proper effort to educate and inform them in the first place. Putting out information is not the same as making it comprehensible…if you get what I mean…

* ‘The Deadly Trade’ is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK and as ‘The Deadly Deep’ by Pegasus Books in the USA Cold War submarine intrusions into Swedish waters, including the notorious ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ incident are covered in ‘Undersea Warriors’, recently published by Pegasus Books in the USA It was first published in the UK as ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion)
Iain Ballantyne is also the Editor of the monthly global naval news magazine WARSHIPS IFR and has been writing on naval and military matters since 1990.

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

Only the Dead Have Seen the Last of Submarine Warfare – Part Two

Iain Ballantyne, author of ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, concludes a two-part look at the contours of a fast evolving new undersea confrontation. Iain is talking about the history of submarine warfare during this year’s Isle of Wight Literary Festival and will touch on some of the topics outlined below.

The bad old days are back. Just as happened during the Cold War face-off, today the Russian Bear and the West are snarling at each other in a war of words while their militaries train relentlessly for the day it all turns red hot. They hope that by being ready for combat they will deter the other side from launching an attack, though there is no capitalism versus communism ideological struggle underpinning it this time.

Pumped up, ultra-muscular nationalism allied with a desire to maintain superpower status and control scarce natural resources to shore up a tottering economy seems to drive Russia. It also nurtures massive resentment towards the West for not respecting it enough post-1991 and is intensely hostile towards EU and NATO expansion into its ‘near abroad’.

In the West, there is bewilderment at how things could suddenly get so serious again, with reluctance to invest in hard power tools in a time of economic and political turbulence.

There has been a nerve agent assassination plot committed on a NATO member state’s soil by Russian military intelligence agents. A series of cyber attacks on commerce, industry and national infrastructure along with alleged interference in the political process are also suspected of being staged by Russia. There is a temptation to see this as the most vital East-West battleground – a conflict in which cyber weapons and the occasional foray by not-so-secret agents are the main weapons deployed by Russia. In reality it is all running in parallel with the flexing – and even use – of hard power military muscle by the Kremlin, including submarines.

The newly upgraded Oscar II Class guided-missile submarine Orel returning to her Northern Fleet base in the Kola Peninsula. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

With Moscow’s submarines now at their most active since the end of the Cold War, President Vladimir Putin has authorised construction of up to a dozen Yasen Class, nuclear-powered attack submarines. An expansion of Russia’s conventionally powered submarine force is well underway too. The new Improved Kilo Class boats are cruise missile capable, with some having already launched attacks against rebel targets in Syria (to shore up the Damascus regime). The older, nuclear-powered Oscar II Class – so called carrier-killing guided-missile boats (SSGNs) – are also being regenerated with new weaponry. They will form a serious threat to Western naval forces.

NATO has responded by proposing establishment of an Atlantic Command to operate in times of crisis to counter surges in Russian naval activity. The precursor to this has been reactivation of the US Navy’s 2nd Fleet organisation to take overall charge of co-ordinating efforts from the North Atlantic down to the Caribbean. In recent years there has been an upsurge in NATO Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) exercises, from the Mediterranean to the Arctic. The Russians have responded by staging their own ASW training in the same operational theatres, most recently as part of the huge time zone-spanning Vostok-18 exercise.

The Astute Class attack submarine HMS Ambush (nearest) during an ASW exercise in the Mediterranean with other NATO units. Photo: WO Artigues (HQ MARCOM)/NATO.

Beyond such play-acting, serious though it is, there have been episodes where units from both sides of this so-called new Cold War have been engaged in hunting each other. Russian submarines have trailed a Franco-American carrier strike group in the Mediterranean while Moscow’s anti-submarine vessels pursued a Dutch diesel boat seeking to gather intelligence on the Russian Navy’s own aircraft carrier operating off Syria. A US Navy attack submarine has allegedly engaged in trailing Russian surface warships in the Med. In more northern waters the Finns, Swedes, Norwegians and Balts have responded to suspected submarine intrusions (and in the case of the Finns even using depth charges).

Aside from those shadow games, the bombardment of Assad regime chemical warfare sites in Syria this April saw a nuclear-powered submarine launching cruise missiles from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. It was not a British boat, but the USS John Warner, one of the USN’s Virginia Class SSNs. There were reports in the media of Royal Navy submarines also being on standby to participate in the attacks. In the end, so it was claimed, rather than launch cruise missiles, an Astute Class boat was engaged in an undersea game of cat and mouse with two Russian Navy Improved Kilo Class submarines deployed from Tartus, Moscow’s main naval facility in Syria.

However, there are also doubts an Astute Class SSN was there at all – due to a lack of availability in the UK’s SSN force. Yet in the current war of nerves between the Russia and the West, which takes so many different forms, just the thought of a British, or American, SSN lurking in the eastern Mediterranean was surely a powerful inhibitor on the Russians? A Kilo might be super-stealthy at slow speed on battery power, but nothing beats the sheer speed and hitting power of SSN. The mere suspicion of one being nearby would make a Kilo captain very cautious.

The Russians have, meanwhile, described Britain’s new super-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth – which this autumn made her maiden transatlantic voyage to welcome aboard her first F-35B strike jets – as ‘just a convenient, large maritime target’. Russia undoubtedly has every intention of sending out submarines to find and trail Queen Elizabeth, in order to gain intelligence on the carrier’s performance that may help sink her, should it ever come to hot war.

Resuscitating the NATO ASW effort is no small task. Rear Admiral Roger Lane-Nott, a former RN Flag Officer Submarines (FOSM), warned at the end of last year: ‘The chilling fact is that the organisations, relationships, intelligence, and capabilities that once supported a strong ASW network for NATO in the North Atlantic no longer exist.’

An exterior view depiction (from astern) of the forthcoming City Class (Type 26) frigate (or Global Combat Ship as the design is officially known). Image: BAE Systems.

The commitment to building eight new generation City Class (Type 26) ASW frigates is, however, a major investment UK national security and will be big boost to NATO defences. They are to be base ported at Devonport, the traditional home of the RN’s ASW primary surface warships. Three Type 26s have been ordered at the time of writing, to be named Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast, with another to be christened Birmingham.

There have also been cash injections into programmes to build new Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and to ensure a seventh Astute Class SSN (to be christened Agincourt) is constructed. The arrival of the first of nine new P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPAs) for the RAF in 2019 is another welcome sign of long overdue revival.

There have even been encouraging indicators the British political leadership is finally awake to the new struggle for the freedom of the oceans – and the need for strong ripostes. UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson in late May gave the inaugural Sir Henry Leach lecture during the RUSI Sea Power conference in London.

He pointed out that Russia’s submarine activity has “increased ten-fold in the North Atlantic.” Mr Williamson went on: “But that’s not all. In 2010, the Royal Navy had to respond once to a Russian Navy ship approaching UK territorial waters. Last year we had to respond 33 times. It goes to show the increasing aggression, the increasing assertiveness of Russia, and how we have to ensure we give the right support to our Royal Navy in order to give them [sic] the tools to do the job and keep Britain safe.”

Whether or not the Royal Navy is getting enough of the tools – and quickly enough – to do the job is open to debate. Were the UK sticking to a North Atlantic orientated maritime defence strategy, then seven Astutes, eight Type 26s, six Type 45 destroyers, nine P-8s and two new super-carriers (the cutting edge of the New Navy) would be just about enough to cope – but British strategic over-reach looks likely to be layered on top of existing overstretch, with simultaneous major long-term commitments to the Arabian Gulf and also patrolling the South China Sea.

During the Cold War a Soviet Navy submarine of the Whiskey Class is escorted out of NATO waters by the British frigate HMS Rothesay. Photo: Via US DoD.

Back in the late 1960s the British gave up enduring commitments – and shore bases – east of Suez at a time when they had dozens more frigates and destroyers, several aircraft carriers and dozens of nuclear and conventional submarines, with around 20,000 sailors at sea. Today the Royal Navy is so short of sailors it is selling off warships or putting them into mothballs so their people can be sent elsewhere.

The Royal Navy is redefining the concept of spreading the jam very thinly but it gamely battles on, retaining a reputation for excellence and playing in the big league in those niche areas. It must be hoped the gaps it its sovereign capabilities are not one day exploited ruthlessly by a merciless opponent (like Russia).

The challenge The Royal Navy is facing today – and for decades to come – is clearly formidable, especially in the realm of ASW, with the current head of US Navy forces in Europe, Admiral James Foggo warning in a podcast this month (October): “Russia has renewed its capabilities in the North Atlantic and the Arctic in places not seen since the Cold War.”

The admiral also warned that Russia is seeking to “project power” not only into the Arctic but also the North Atlantic and Greenland Iceland UK Gap (GIUK) – Britain’s back yard. Foggo did not hide the nature of the undersea threat: “I think Russian submarines today are perhaps some of the most silent and lethal in the world,” he said, though adding that the US Navy’s own “hold the edge.”

The admiral also explained that Moscow is tasking its submarine forces with finding weak points in NATO’s armour. “We know that Russian submarines are in the Atlantic, testing our defences,” said Admiral Foggo. He suggested the Russians are “preparing a very complex underwater battlespace to try to give them an edge in any future conflict. And we need to deny them that edge.”

Admiral Foggo believes Russian “actions and capabilities [have] increased in alarming and sometimes confrontational ways”. Moscow is laying down the gauntlet to both the USA and NATO, which inevitably includes the UK.

Admiral James G. Foggo during a meeting with Admiral Ketil Olsen, Military Representative of Norway to the NATO Military Committee. Photo: NATO.

Its Trident nuclear missile submarines have been subjected to attempts by Russian SSNs to find and trail them, so negating the deterrent’s chief effect – the ability to deter a potential enemy by hiding in the sea and being ready to strike with devastating force at any moment.

Admiral Foggo remains “concerned about the potential for miscalculation” and suggests NATO cohesion is key to handling the risks. That has to include seeking a decisive edge in both submarine warfare and ASW, with British naval forces compelled to be at the fore, for reasons of geography if nothing else.

• This is an adapted and updated version of an article that was published in The Association of Royal Navy Officers Newsletter (Summer 2018)

Recent episodes in the new East-West naval rivalry and action-packed aspects of submarine warfare across the ages are recounted in Iain Ballantyne’s new book ‘The Deadly Trade: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (752 pages, hardback £25.00/eBook £12.99). More details here.  It is available via Amazon and Waterstones or other retailers and shops.
Iain Ballantyne is also founding and current Editor of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine, www.warshipsifr.com which in 2018 celebrated its 20th birthday.

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