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European Navies Are Grappling with Aggressive Russian, Chinese Operations in Baltic, Mediterranean

Chinese destroyer near Vladivostok, Russia during Joint Sea 2017. Russian state media photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The optimism for peace at the end of the Cold War has proven to be a mistake as Russia used the lull in Western defense attention to occupy Crimea and aggressively support separatists in Ukraine and insert itself in the Syrian civil war, three chiefs of European navies agreed on Monday.

“We were very optimistic in 1989,” Vice Adm. Andreas Krause, Inspector of the German Navy, said on Monday at Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2018 exposition.
“2014 came like a surprise.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese began paying more attention to affairs in and around the Mediterranean, including establishing its first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa

“It is a matter of fact that we need to take [Chinese presence] into account” in assessing the changed security environment. It also means improving our capability to deter possible future aggression, said Chief of Staff of the Spanish Navy Adm. Teodoro Lopez Calderon.

For Spain, it means building up its military-industrial strength to produce more capable submarines and frigates that can operate with NATO partners. It also means working with navies and coast guards in the West and North Africa to curtail human trafficking and other illegal activities. He estimated 70,000 illegal immigrants tried to reach Spain last year.

An international Corps of Marines from Sweden, Finland, and the U.K. conduct amphibious assaults on a beachhead in Ravlunda, Sweden, for local media outlets during BALTOPS 2015. US Marine Corps photo.

In Sweden, “we’re emphasizing our region,” the Baltic where Moscow is increasingly making its maritime presence felt at Cold War levels – in the air, on the surface and below. Rear Adm. Jens Nykvist, Sweden’s Chief of Navy, said.
“It is an increasing number of ships” of all flags – commercial and military, operating in the Baltic, and that has really changed Stockholm’s approach to security off its 1,700-mile coastline.

All three said these geopolitical changes have focused their nations’ attention on increasing defense spending and emphasizing modernization and replacement of aging systems. Calderon said that modernization spending was central to deterrence.

Nykvist said, “Increasing the number of surface ships is priority number one” and increasing cooperation with NATO.

All the chiefs wanted to speed the cycle of producing ships. “Ten years is way too long a time,” Nykvist said from design to commissioning.

(left to right)
German Inspector of the Navy Vice Adm. Andreas Krause, Chief of Staff of the Spanish Navy Adm. Teodoro Lopez Calderon, Swedish Chief of Navy Rear Adm. Jens Nykvist

Government, the services and industry “have to talk honestly” about cost, money available, life-cycle expenses, Krause said. Industry needs to add in these conversations a “from here it becomes risky” appraisal.

Krause, looking specifically at European needs, said, “We procure in small numbers,” so savings are difficult to achieve if each nation proceeds independently. He pointed out that Germany and Norway’s recent agreement to produce submarines means really producing a common vessel and not one with the same name and a large number of variants.

Krause said as he looks to the future “the priority is on people” because “they are our most strategic resource.” Using the manning of four future frigates that incorporate more technology and automation as an example, he said the German navy would have eight crews to allow the vessel to operate for two years. “We would swap [crews} every four months.”

Instead of downsizing as the German armed forces did for the 24 years before the seizure of Crimea, “the German navy will grow in numbers and capability … and will remain a reliable partner” to NATO on the northern flank and the European Union mission in the Aegean and Mediterranean to control the flow of migrants on the southern.

“We will continue to be [balanced and flexible] so Spain will be replacing quantity for effective capability,” Calderon said as it fleet modernizes.

Nykvist said presence on the water was crucial for his navy – a gray zone of operations — because the Baltic is a relatively small area and shallow so the potential attack can come quickly and unexpectedly on a nation that received 89,000 ship calls in Swedish ports last year.

  • PolicyWonk

    This is what happens when you take your eye off the ball. The “peace dividend” was taken too far, as is evidenced by the decline in military spending on the part of many of our allies, and nature abhors a vacuum.

    In the meantime, you’ll have Russia trying to fill in the void wherever western leadership/interests are not made clear. And any hopes that the Chinese would stay bottled up in the S. China Sea were obviously pipe dreams (even worse, the USA basically facilitated their military build-up via the monstrous transfers of dual-use technologies during 2002-2008, which was considered the worst in history by the US NIE).

    The presence missions touted as red meat for our “littoral combat pier queens” don’t exist, and our allies have not stepped up to the plate in the interim.

    Good fences make good neighbors. And we (and our allies) have failed to keep the fences in good repair.

    • DaSaint

      Good fences make good neighbors. And we (and our allies) have failed to keep the fences in good repair.

      I like that. So true.

      Japan and South Korea never took their eye off the ball, as they saw what was coming. Australia is now taking adequate steps to catch up, 12 submarines and 8 new FFG planned. New Zealand can only do so much.

      But Europe has to do much more. The decline in the Royal Navy to me is the single biggest vacuum created. Hopefully that can start to be reversed, but I’m not confident it will, when you have ‘alternating carriers’. SMH.

      • muzzleloader

        The British RN is down to 17 surface combatants. There will only be one airwing for both CV’s, and the RN brass is figuring how they will have an escort group and have enough assets for tasking anywhere else.
        I would not be surprised to an Arleigh Burke or a Tico being part of the QE task force when she makes her 1st deployment.

        • DaSaint

          Completely agree.
          How the mighty have fallen. It’s a shame actually.

        • PolicyWonk

          As any bubble-head will tell you, a carrier represents little more than a big, juicy target. Unless you’re providing a reasonable escort that includes an SSN, you don’t want to send one of these into a contested area.

          The Royal Navy is now rather “top-heavy” in that their capital ships don’t have sufficient ships to screen it (not by US standards anyway), and if they were to allocate sufficient ships, there wouldn’t be any left to do much of anything else.

          • Stephen

            Barn doors open & waiting; happens on both sides. This is another skill requiring training & exercise in a NATO mix of ships. I wonder, any hulks laying around the Med that could be ferried to a certain Syrian port? Return the favor the Russians handed Ukraine.

          • muzzleloader

            Believe it or not, there was an article in the UK press yesterday, that the RN is retiring 3 more frigates in return for keeping their amphib HMS Albion. We will see. One of their major woes is simply manpower or should I say, personnel. The brits have at least 3 ships tied up simply because of not enough sailors to crew the vessels.

          • PolicyWonk

            There is such a thing as cutting too far – and IMO the Brits reached that a while ago.

          • El_Sid

            It only seems like that because of the history – but compare with Germany which has a 30% bigger economy but has just 6 SSK’s (all pierside), half as many escort ships, a couple of corvettes and that’s about it – no capital ships at all, no SSBNs, no gators.

            There’s also all the less sexy stuff, from next year the UK will have more auxiliary shipping than the rest of Europe put together, which says something about intentions and capability for bluewater operations.

          • Starviking

            That article was poorly sourced: they said it was from the MoD, but it was actually from an ex-RN seaman to his local MP.

            More on that can be read at the “Thin Pinstriped Line” blog.

        • El_Sid

          Bear in mind that the US economy is 10x the size of the UK economy. So if you were to scale the RN accordingly you’d be looking at 20 carriers, 190 escorts, 40 SSBNs, 70 SSN’s, 50 LPD/LSDs, nearly 500 battleforce ships in total. It’s hard to argue that the RN is small for the size of the economy – try the same exercise for Germany.

          That first deployment will be so high-profile that she will certainly sail to the Gulf with UK escorts only – but then if there’s other players in the team when she gets there, then so what? It would only be returning the favour that’s seen Type 45’s assume AAW command in US CVBG’s over the years. Does that mean the USN is helpless when it comes to AAW? No, it’s just a team game.

          Europe’s problem is that you have small but rich countries like the Netherlands who would have carriers if they were bigger, but their size means that they should have 1/10 of a carrier. It doesn’t work. So it makes sense for big countries like the UK to concentrate on the big stuff like carriers which may appear “top-heavy”, as the likes of the Dutch can provide advanced escorts.

          I’m not pretending it’s ideal, the RN has real problems particularly in retention at a time of record employment, but it’s not the end of the world either.

          As for the submarine threat, from that point of view I’d rather be on a British carrier surrounded by T23/Sonar 2087, Astute and Merlin than on the US equivalent…

          • First the American economy is 7-8x that of the British (depending on whether you chose nominal or PPP), not 10x. Further, counting ships is misleading at best as British ships tend to be single purpose vessels that are noticeably smaller than their American equivalents so tonnage is a better proxy.

            Currently, the USN operates 1100k tons of carriers to the RN’s 72k (15.3x), 835k tons of surface combatants to 113k (7.4x), 734k tons of submarines to 110k (6.7x), and 1017k tons of amphibious ships to 94k (10.8x). As this more balanced comparison shows, the only category where the RN operates proportionally more tonnage is submarines – and that is because 40% of the RN sub force is large SSBN’s compared to 20% for the USN. If we consider SSN’s alone, it becomes 454k to 42k (10.8x).

            As to your assertion that 2087, Astute, and Merlin is vastly superior to SQR-20, Virginia, and Seahawk – well, they were all pretty much designed by the same people so I doubt the technological difference is as great as the RN claims. It also conveniently ignores the air and missile threat where the American systems are a noticeably more capable – let alone the BMD and land attack roles where the RN is next to useless.

      • Murray

        New Zealand is currently undertaking a major upgrade of it’s two MEKO 200 class frigates and has ordered a large replenishment ship from South Korea. This will be ice strengthened for service in Antarctic waters and be capable of operating with USCG icebreakers. The RNZN is also recommissioning two inshore patrol vessels to deter illegal fishing vessels (mainly Chinese) in the South Pacific.

    • Duya Taksis

      “Good fences make good neighbors.” True, but not when you build the “fence” in the middle of the neighbour’s backyard. The “fence” between China and the US is the 175th degree west longitude – straight through the center of the Pacific – not the South China Sea.

      • PolicyWonk

        Partially true. While I appreciate the longitude reference, the US (let alone the rest of the nations on the planet) has been using the S.China for transport of goods for well over a century (and maybe two). The USA hasn’t made claims reaching into Canadian, Bermudian, Mexican, or even Cuban (or other Caribbean) waters.

        Yet here we have China making claims into Vietnamese, Japanese, or Philippine waters, etc., and are building artificial islands atop reefs, etc., that they do not have ownership over according to the international courts (they lost, and decided to ignore the court’s findings).

        Hence – they now have almost all of their neighbors up to their necks in defense build-ups, including Japan, who now openly admits their “helicopter destroyers” can handle F-35’s, and recently reactivated their first contingent of Marines.

        China’s insistence on claiming the entire SCS as their private lake, and subsequent actions, are causing their own published national security nightmare: being surrounded by potential enemies. The fences are going up all over the place – and the more belligerent the Chinese are, the more determined the military build-ups of their neighbors. Diplomatically, the conservatives in the Chinese government are playing the game like the bull in the proverbial China shop: clumsily.

  • Bubblehead

    Everybody has always said, “NATO is the best thing that ever happened to Europe.” I disagree. NATO is the worst thing that ever happened to Europe. Nations used it as an excuse to under-fund their military and ignore defense as a hole. Assuming other Countries would protect them. IE United States.

    • PolicyWonk

      Well, it was the best thing that ever happened because it allowed them to under-fund their military. And lets face it – prior to divorcing ourselves from fiscally/economically responsible policy, we had lots of money for defense, and plenty left over to loan other nations.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Europeans would see that as a great thing!

      • PolicyWonk

        Well, that tune changed when the Russkies annexed the Crimea. This actually gave the EU some opportunities to address defense – the Russians are having to invest a ton of money into the Crimea (which was all but bankrupt).

        Thats a lot of billions of rubles that can’t be spent on the military in the meantime. And their treasury isn’t doing well because of the sanctions installed on Russia by Obama and the EU – let alone very low oil prices and restricted markets.

        • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

          Nothing has bee “addressed”

          European militaries are still in a downward trajectory, whatever meager increases you hear about, these are eaten by pay/benefits and the costs of the EU defence alliance that is duplicating every function NATO already performs.

          Russia’s GDP growth is about the same as the EU’s and slightly behind the USA’s.
          The sanctions were almost entirely focused on individuals and corporate lending.
          Their impact has diminished over time.

          Russia isn’t in the dire straits some might imagine.

          • El_Sid

            Their economy shrank in both 2015 and 2016, last year it grew by 1.5%, current IMF forecast is 1.7% this year. EU was 2.4% and US was 2.3% last year, forecasts for this year are about the same.

            Russia’s still got big problems – two big banks went down last year, and they’re very exposed to the oil price still. It’s not like they’ve got huge pots of cash to throw around like they did at the peak of the oil boom – it’s notable that for instance, the new carrier and Burke equivalents have been pushed as far right as they will go whilst still appearing on Powerpoint.

  • Ed L

    Yes the NATO navies need more frigates, etc. Did Anyone notice the Artillery piece in the foreground? It’s a D-30 122 mm howizter range of 13+ miles introduce in the 1960’s. Very impressive piece

  • Marcd30319

    A good book on this subject is The Decline of European Naval Forces by Jeremy Stohs that was just published by the Naval Institute Press.

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    Vice Adm. Andreas Krause, Inspector of the German Navy

    That must be a great gig.
    Just a daily checklist confirming that everything is non-operational.

  • Scott Ferguson

    That “Peace Dividend” all of Europe has been enjoying, has ENDED.

  • Scott Ferguson

    Russia INVADED the Ukraine.

  • Zorcon, Fidei Defensor

    The Spanish Navy?

  • Dr.Madhav

    The people like you are a burden to the Earth, such a waste to human life! Go and learn some etiquette, you uneducated brute!

  • Dr.Madhav

    I appreciate your response. I only wish for peaceful co-existence without carrying fake narratives (say tarnishing Olympic spirit) and mindless wars. That being said, we all should compete on trade and economy front. It’s something like a triangular competition, say the US, China and India! 🙂

  • Dr.Madhav

    Dear USNI,

    Why my comment is still pending? Are you censoring free speech to which the US and EU takes pride of? So it’s only for show off then, isn’t it?

  • Scott Ferguson

    Yes, it did.

    Shoo suka.

  • Morten Poulsen

    GOD DAMMIT USNI….stop eating my posts!!!….how am i supposed to participate in the discussion when every reply has to await 4-7 days of moderation ? Grrrrrr 🙁