The US Navy is returning to a Cold War submarine flash point, but the real action may be much farther north

US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Bobby SiensThe Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Atlantic Ocean, July 8, 2018.
  • The US and its allies are reassessing their naval operations around Europe and in the Atlantic.
  • These changes are driven in large part by intensifying Russian submarine activity.
  • But changing capabilities mean NATO may have to look farther north to establish a deterrent.

Units from the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group returned home to Norfolk, Virginia, this week, only three months after deploying.

The Truman’s time at sea was only about half as long as typical deployments, and the early return reflects the Pentagon’s shift toward “dynamic force employment,” a concept touted by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as a way to make the military more responsive to emerging threats.

“The National Defence Strategy directs us to be operationally unpredictable while remaining strategically predictable,” US Navy Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Christopher Grady said a release announcing the return to port, which he said was “a direct reflection of the dynamic force employment concept and the inherent manoeuvrability and flexibility of the US Navy.”

Grady said the carrier group “had an incredibly successful three months in the US 6th Fleet area of responsibility,” an area that stretches from pole to pole between the mid-Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.

Yasen class Russian submarineWikimedia CommonsThe Russian Yasen-class nuclear attack submarine Severodvinsk

However, the Truman and its accompanying vessels finished their time at sea much closer to home – in the western Atlantic closer to Canada than to Europe, according to USNI News.

That area falls under the responsibility of Fleet Forces Command but will soon become the remit of the US Second Fleet, which was reestablished earlier this year amid growing concern about Russian naval activity in and around the Atlantic Ocean.

The cruiser Normandy and destroyers Forrest Sherman and Arleigh Burke are set to return to Norfolk this week, while the destroyers Bulkeley and Farragut remain at sea, a Navy official told The Virginian-Pilot. An official with Fleet Forces Command did not return a request seeking details about what operations these ships have been performing. But anti-submarine operations have become a bigger priority for the US and its allies.

The Truman’s anti-submarine capabilities are limited to the helicopters it carries, but the strike group did deploy earlier this year with more destroyers than usual.

Those ships are outfitted with sophisticated anti-submarine-warfare assets that aren’t typically used in the Atlantic, Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former submariner,told USNI News in June. Operating in the Atlantic would give carrier strike groups opportunities to carry out high-end exercises with partner forces, he said.

US Navy MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopter aircraft carrier USS Harry TrumanUS Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Scott SwoffordAn MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from the ‘Dragon Slayers’ of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 11 alongside the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.

The North Atlantic become an area of renewed focus for NATO in recent years. Alliance officials have said Russian submarine activity in the area is at levels not seen since the Cold War (though intelligence reports from the era suggest that activity is far from Cold War peaks).

Russia’s submarine fleet is is not nearly as big as its Cold War predecessor, but the subs Moscow has added and is working on are more advanced. (NATO navies, too, are smaller than they were during the Cold War.)

“The Russians are closing the gap,” Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said earlier this year. “And they have departed from their traditional sort of approach – with lots of mass and lots of submarines but of sort of varying quality – and they are taking a page from our playbook, which is go for quality instead.”

The US and its allies have put more energy and resources into anti-submarine warfare. That includes a new focus on the Cold War maritime surveillance network that covered the sea between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK – known as the GIUK Gap. The US Navy has spent several million dollars refurbishing Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland to handle the advanced P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft, though the Navy has said those upgrades don’t necessarily mean a permanent presence will be reestablished there.

Nevertheless, focusing on the GIUK Gap may fall short of the challenge NATO now faces.

For much of the Cold War, the Soviet navy lacked land-attack cruise missiles and would have had to leave its “bastion” in the Barents Sea in order to engage NATO forces, which made the GIUK Gap an important choke point at that time, according to Steven Wills, a military historian and former US Navy surface-warfare officer.

North Atlantic GIUK GapGoogle MapsThe GIUK Gap has long been seen as a key choke point in the North Atlantic.

But with the development of sub-launched missiles – especially the modern Kaliber cruise missile – “Today’s Russian Navy can remain within its Barents bastion and still launch accurate attacks against ships in the Norwegian Sea and NATO land targets without leaving these protected waters,” Wills argues in an article for the Center for International Maritime Security, a professional military journal focused on naval strategy.

NATO should adopt a deterrent posture like that of the Cold War, Wills says, “but the locus of the action is much further north than Iceland.”

NATO’s decision to reestablish an Atlantic Command, to be based in Norfolk, is a welcome one, Wills writes, but that headquarters should focus on air and port facilities around the Norwegian and Greenland seas, even forward-deploying to oversee activity there. Surface vessels may need to partner with unmanned assets to cover a greater area as sea ice recedes.

Russia’s Northern Fleet is based on the Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea, and a more active NATO naval presence in the area would almost certainly draw protests from Moscow, which has accused the alliance of trying to box in it and its allies in Europe. But a presence in the northern seas is necessary, according to Wills.

“The real ‘Gap’ where NATO must focus its deterrent action is the Greenland, Svalbard, North Cape line at the northern limit of the Norwegian and and Greenland Seas,” he writes. “It is again time to consider deterrent action and potential naval warfare in the ‘High North.'”

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