The transatlantic alliance successfully navigated some rough seas in 2014. A year that began without any allied consensus on NATO’s proper direction in the world looks set to conclude with unanimity in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foray into Ukraine. Last month’s NATO summit in Wales especially seemed to prove that Europe still can give a good account of itself when necessary. Yet the hard work of follow-through on all the political commitments made there remains to be done, and the fundamental question raised by Russia’s belligerence—whether NATO will endure as a viable military entity—warrants close scrutiny in 2015. In no case more so than NATO’s maritime domain, where the Ukraine crisis prompted only slight adjustments at the same time it highlighted the need for a major course change.
As is the case with successful NATO summits, there was something for everyone to like in the one completed a month ago amid the backdrop of fevered U.S. diplomacy to forge a new coalition for action in Iraq and Syria. Allies demonstrated resolve against Russian aggression, which was not a given as recently as late August until France finally halted its planned sale of amphibious assault ships to Moscow. Allied policymakers will advertise the heads of state and government pledge to arrest the decline in NATO member defense spending, and rightly so when one considers how dire the trends in Europe looked to be on track for the foreseeable future. Finally, NATO approved a ‘Readiness Action Plan’ by which the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) can expect more responsive tools at his disposal the next time allies require strategic assurance or crisis response.
Crucially, this action plan will not merely improve the quick-reaction capability of the existing NATO Response Force. It will also codify a fundamental and much-needed maritime reform effort that has meandered over recent years, and which only came into the frame for this summit’s agenda as our allies grappled with the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Much more than just a response to Europe’s immediate challenge to the east, however, the reform effort now under way holds broader potential to advance U.S. interests in more equitable burden-sharing for today’s dynamic security environment. It should interest U.S. planners looking for viable options to offset risk through partnerships at sea.
Implementing Previous Strategy Is Headway?
When it comes to the maritime domain, it is more accurate to say the new action plan garnered high-level political will to implement an Alliance Maritime Strategy already agreed to by NATO members in 2011. (As is also often the case with NATO, commitments made there frequently require great expense of political capital by one or more allies, or an external shock to the system, to bear fruit.) So while NATO’s maritime strategy—which envisioned four allied naval force roles that are generally aligned with U.S. naval strategic thought—would be validated by NATO’s part in Libya that same year, the document was never likely to improve allied force contributions to NATO absent other factors. Two more years would pass until the depth of U.S. defense cuts began to demonstrate to our European allies that the Navy faced more global force management trade-offs in the future. Indeed, it would take Russia’s rapid seizure of military installations in Crimea this past winter for some allies to recall NATO’s keen interest in ready access to the eastern Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black seas.
Unfortunately, the challenges facing NATO in the maritime domain only worsened since 2011. While the Alliance Maritime Strategy agreed that NATO’s naval forces should be ready, interoperable, and prepared to contribute to allied deterrence, crisis management, cooperative security, and maritime security, in truth the alliance’s standing naval force formations remained chronically undersubscribed since the strategy was conceived. These ‘Standing NATO Maritime Groups’—ostensibly allies’ maritime contribution to the high-readiness NATO Response Force—routinely operated below the identified requirement, and were used primarily to cover shortfalls in ongoing allied maritime counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations.
If it was ever satisfactory to allow allies to perpetuate those maritime security operations without resourcing them, and to allow the exercise regime for what was intended as a fuller-spectrum naval response capability to atrophy as a result, SACEUR’s paucity of maritime options this year in the wake of Ukraine showed clearly this was no longer the case. Allied Maritime Command, the sole remaining NATO headquarters charged with maritime operations and fast-approaching “full operational capability” without a solution for the dearth of naval assets available to it, was understandably concerned over the possibility of events pulling NATO up short. A confluence of regularly scheduled NATO operations reviews and summit-driven policy discussions on allied maritime training after a decade of counterinsurgency managed to shift some attention to the burgeoning naval capability gap. Russia’s “little green men”—who as one of their first acts scuttled an old Soviet hull in Sevastopol harbor to keep Ukraine’s navy pier-side—did the rest.
The difficulties NATO encountered this spring as it scrambled to implement immediate assurance measures unquestionably reflected a lack of political will among some allies to stand up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin militarily. But the episode also laid bare how risky it was to allow the standing naval forces (which should be the alliance’s most inherently flexible response option) to be double-booked patrolling off the Horn of Africa, tethered in port awaiting counterterrorism surveillance tasking or, in the case of NATO’s mine countermeasures groups, temporarily deactivated. Worse still, the weeks of intense scrutiny over what small contributions allies might make to the strategic reassurance effort highlighted how limited NATO’s aspirations for its maritime forces in reality had become. (In the end, NATO sent only one mine countermeasures group—to the Baltic Sea—as part of the immediate assurance effort).
Considering that recent history, it is encouraging to see allies emerge from Wales with an agreement to source ongoing maritime operations separately, and to revitalize NATO’s standing naval formations with training that attracts more national contributions. Yet, if this agreement is to build interoperability across the envisioned range of missions, we and our allies must act upon it.
Emerging Opportunities for the U.S. Navy
If the U.S. Navy is as interested in deepening partnerships as higher guidance dictates and the agenda of the recent International Seapower Symposium indicates, we would do well to jump on the opportunity Wales presents reform NATO’s maritime approach. We could use the alliance’s belated enactment of its maritime strategy to bring more capable and willing allies up the combat effectiveness curve from de-confliction towards greater integration on higher-end mission areas. As we know from experience, the change will be ours to lead. Some capable allies are skeptical of U.S. influence in NATO and would prefer to pursue interdependence as a European Union (EU) project; some probably believe they preserved this imperative given the summit declaration’s refrain of “complementarity” with EU efforts. Even those allies keen to expand their operational profile at sea under NATO reiterate when given an opportunity that only the United States can set the bar for international maritime cooperation. Thankfully, the NATO context gives us access to the capable partners we need to prioritize for enhanced interoperability, while limiting our overhead costs by allowing us to rely on the combined force allocation process that already exists within the alliance.
Sustained budget pressure and unchecked operational demand certainly make this a tough time for the United States to revive and lead maritime initiatives in Europe. However, even though our formal contributions to NATO standing naval forces are modest and likely to remain so in this environment, we maintained a rather high maritime profile in European waters this year. From BMD ships on rotational deployment out of Norfolk, to our new forward-deployed naval forces out of Rota, Spain, to transiting amphibious ready groups and strike groups, the U.S. Navy kept a considerable—if episodic—baseline presence in and around the Mediterranean. The application of some of those passing assets toward strategic reassurance and multilateral exercises in the Black Sea, combined with our first NATO standing naval group command assignment in several years, places us in good standing to press our allies for more, higher-quality force contributions towards our common goals.
SACEUR uses two watchwords when talking about the implementation of NATO’s newly agreed action plan: affordability and sustainability. We should keep those in mind and consider how long we will be able to keep this window of opportunity open through the force of our maritime example alone. While under U.S. command, Standing NATO Maritime Group Two has engaged in more advanced exercises than is typical for NATO formations, though the United States is not likely to increase our formal contribution toward standing allied naval formations more generally. If there are any funds forthcoming in response to President Barack Obama’s FY15 supplemental budget request, known as the ‘European Reassurance Initiative’, they might not yield any uptick of U.S. naval presence in Europe given other force management priorities and increasingly limited fleet supply.
Accordingly, now is the time for a determined push by U.S. leadership to get greater contributions at sea out of NATO. We can do this in the near term by putting high-level attention on how NATO structures a training and exercise plan to improve high-end interoperability with key allies, and in so doing lock in a mutual commitment to prepare together for a broader set of contingencies. We can go farther still to shape the debate underway in NATO military channels on what assets other than surface combatants and mine countermeasures ships allied navies should make available to SACEUR, and under what circumstances. This entails senior leader bandwidth in venues such as the semi-annual NATO chiefs of defense conference recently held in Vilnius, Lithuania, and going beyond our current ad hoc approach, which with very narrow exceptions relegates us to taking what we can get through partnerships as opposed to building what we really need in our allies. It involves a concerted effort to set the agenda within NATO’s Military Committee on maritime plans and policy. And it may even require us to reconsider how and when the U.S. Navy makes forces available to NATO in support of a more formidable exercise program.
Rather unexpectedly, old-style Russian aggression on the Eurasian landmass managed to build rapid consensus around the need to close a yawning gap in NATO’s level of maritime ambition. Yet summit meetings come and go, and too many of the enterprises fueled at them fail to launch for the United States to wait and see how this one fares. By taking credit for what we’re already doing at sea unilaterally in European waters today (often quite literally on behalf of European interests), and by attempting through NATO channels to solidify deeper partnerships with our most like-minded allies, the United States can offset the risks associated with our shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific, and with the interminable pull on our attentions of the broader Middle East.