US allies worried about pricey weapons should look at what Russia’s doing, the Navy’s top officer in Europe says

A Russian S-400 air-defence system on display, with tulips in the foreground, at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea, April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak
  • US and NATO officials have expressed concern about the growing size and sophistication of the Russian military arsenal.
  • But the way Russia is deploying those weapons has some lessons for countries that want to bolster their defences without breaking the bank, according to the head of US Naval Forces in Europe.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Usually when US military officials discuss Russian weapons systems, it’s with words of caution.

Navy Adm. James Foggo, the head of US Naval Forces Europe and Africa, for example, has warned more than once about increasingly sophisticated Russian submarines and their ability reach into Europe with sub-launched missiles.

But in Washington, DC, in December, when asked about the US military’s adoption of unmanned systems, long-range weapons, and long-range sensors and what that could mean for his operations, Foggo struck a different tone, citing Russian tactics as ones to emulate.

“As far as defensive capabilities, as I tell the allies and the partners, if you are limited in the amount of resources that you have and you want to protect your shores, then think about what the Russians do with [anti-access/area-denial] and go after similar systems – smart mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, coastal radars that are connected,” Foggo told reporters at a Defence Writers Group breakfast.

FILE PHOTO: Russian servicemen stand next to a new S-400
Russian troops next to a new S-400 air-defence system deployed at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, March 11, 2019. Reuters

Russia has spread anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, systems across its eastern boundaries, putting air-defence systems like the S-300 and S-400, anti-ship missile systems, and cruise and ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, on the Crimean Peninsula, and elsewhere around the Black Sea.

“Buildup in Crimea, particularly of the S-300, S-400 weapon systems, coastal-defence radar systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, and the like, that would be able to deny access to the waters around that territory,” Foggo said at the breakfast.

These systems have even appeared at Russia’s base in Tartus, Syria, Ben Hodges, who commanded the US Army in Europe between 2015 and 2017, told Business Insider in 2018, calling it “part of creating an arc of A2/AD.”

Defence on the cheap

Russia has invested heavily in A2/AD as a way to mitigate disadvantages it has with NATO in other areas, such as naval forces and air power. The Swedish Defence Research Agency has also argued that the limitations of those systems plus NATO’s countermeasures mean the “A2/AD bubble” is not as imposing as it’s made out to be.

Nonetheless, the Russian approach to A2/AD was still worthy of study, Hodges said in an email.

“I completely agree with Admiral Foggo’s recommendations,” Hodges said, noting that a November 2019 report he coauthored for the Centre for European Policy Analysis, where he is the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies, made similar recommendations to US allies and partners in the Black Sea region.

NATO British navy destroyer HMS Duncan Black Sea
Ships from Standing NATO Maritime Group Two, including the HMS Duncan in the foreground, and Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group Two sail together during a routine patrol in the Black Sea, February 5, 2018. NATO/Royal navy LPhot Paul Hall

“Nations that cannot afford large maritime forces, surface ships, and all the attendant infrastructure can still defend their coastlines, waters, [exclusive economic zones], and critical maritime infrastructure with the capabilities” Foggo described, Hodges said.

“I’d also add UMS (Unmanned Maritime Systems),” he added. “NATO has a serious program working on this now, and Romania, for example, has just announced it is joining it.”

NATO countries gathered in Portugal in September with dozens of unmanned underwater, surface and air vehicles to test the integration and coordination of those systems above, below, and on the water.

Hodges also strongly recommended that those countries work on intelligence- and information-sharing, which would improve their situational awareness and help develop a common maritime picture in the Black Sea region.

“This would reduce the chances of being surprised by Russian naval forces or special forces and raise awareness of violations of international law by the Russian navy or ships violating sanctions,” he said.

Unman up

NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance RQ-4D
NATO’s first Alliance Ground Surveillance RQ-4D arrives at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy, November 21, 2019. NATO

In his remarks in December, Foggo sounded a similar note, saying that “knowing what’s going on out there is extremely important” and underscoring the utility unmanned systems have in providing that awareness.

“For unmanned systems, [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR] is probably one of our limitations. We could use more of it,” Foggo said.

NATO as a whole is working on bolstering its unmanned ISR capabilities.

In November and December, the alliance took delivery of the first two of its five Alliance Ground Surveillance aircraft, which are RQ-4D remotely piloted aircraft designed for NATO’s requirements. The aircraft will be collectively owned by the alliance and all members will have access to the data they gather.

“If you can put an unmanned system up then there’s less of a risk, less of a threat,” Foggo said in December.

“We’ve seen some of this recently. The Iranians shot down one of our unmanned drones, and one was also shot down over Libya. We didn’t lose a pilot. We lost an unmanned system,” Foggo added. “So that’s indeed unfortunate, and it’s wrong; however, we can use more of that in the theatre to give us better intelligence and better situational awareness of what’s on the ground, so I’m all for it.”