High-profile accidents involving warships from First-World nations since 2016 suggest the existence of a readiness crisis in Western navies. The ramming and sinking of the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad by a commercial oil tanker earlier this month only highlights the fact that there is an issue. Maritime operations are dangerous, even in the best of times. Accidents happen, and sailors inevitably lose their lives. Yet the number of incidents that have taken place in the past twenty-four months suggest a deeper problem.
The readiness issue has been smoldering for decades in most Western navies. In many cases it goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union consequently removed the predominant naval threat facing the navies of the West. Thus began a period of force downsizing, and budgetary restrictions. The Global War on Terror relieved some of these pressures temporarily. However, since Islamic terrorist groups, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to mount a legitimate maritime threat, the navies of the United States and her allies have played secondary roles through the duration of the GWOT.
In truth, Western navies continue to move about aimlessly with no clear picture of what their goals need to be, or how to reach them. The main purpose of a navy is to fight and win a war at sea. Sadly, this is the mission that a frighteningly large number of Western navies appear ill-equipped to take on.
Since today is Thanksgiving, my intention was to keep this post limited to 300 words. This topic deserves more attention though. I’m going to come back to it a few times between now and Christmas and delve deeper into the naval readiness issue.
I hope everyone has had a wonderful Thanksgiving.
The Royal Norwegian Navy is having a bad day. The frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad was rammed by a Maltese-flagged oil tanker Sola TS, in the pre-dawn hours. The collision took place as the tanker was departing the Sturte oil terminal which is located 50 km northwest of the Norwegian port city of Bergen. Ingstad was at anchor in the harbor, according to reports, when she was struck by the oil tanker. The initial damage was so severe that the frigate’s captain ordered the ship to be deliberately beached to prevent her from capsizing. The possibility of that happening was great enough for the captain to evacuate the crew from the ship. Seven sailors have been reported injured in the incident.
The cause of the accident remains unclear at the moment. The fate of the frigate is also unclear. Crews are working to assess the damage, and determine the next step. The Maltese tanker was not damaged and her crew sustained no injuries.
Ingstad is a Nansen-class frigate. The five ships in the class are the backbone of the Royal Norwegian Navy, and are capable warships. Ingstad was returning from participation in the NATO exercise Trident Juncture 18.
As more information becomes available, I will post it here, along with some thoughts about what this incident could mean for the Royal Norwegian Navy in the future.
Two US warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait on Monday. The cruiser USS Antietam, and destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed through the strait to demonstrate the US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a US military spokesman. This was the second Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise conducted by US naval forces in the Taiwan Strait over the past three months. Chinese warships shadowed Antietam and Wilbur during the voyage, maintaining a safe distance, and not making any moves that could be considered provocative.
The US move is likely to aggravate the already high tensions between the United States and China. Along with the ongoing trade war, US Freedom of Navigation exercises in the Western Pacific have irritated Beijing. By extending the exercises to include the Taiwan Strait, the Trump administration is also sending a message that its support of Taiwan remains unchanged. This could be difficult for Beijing to stomach. The People’s Republic of China still regards Taiwan as a ‘lost province’ of sorts to eventually be reunified with the mainland. China has vowed to reclaim Taiwan at some point, and through the use of force if necessary.
The USS Harry S Truman, and her escort ships entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, marking the first time a US aircraft carrier has operated above the Arctic Circle in nearly 30 years. The last time was in September, 1991 a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. USS America moved north of the Circle while taking part in the NATO exercise Northern Star. Coincidentally, the reason for Truman’s venture north is also to participate in a NATO exercise. Trident Juncture 18 is scheduled to officially begin on 25 October.
In the last decade of the Cold War, US aircraft carriers operated north of the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea on a fairly regular basis. If hostilities had ever broken out between NATO and the Warsaw Pact back then, the Norwegian Sea would’ve been a hotly contested piece of water. The US Navy’s Maritime Strategy had called for multiple carrier battlegroups to operate in the Norwegian Sea, in close proximity to the Soviet mainland. The concept at the time was for the carriers to eventually bring the war to Soviet soil with heavy airstrikes against military targets on the Kola Peninsula. Back then, whenever a US carrier moved north of the Arctic Circle ostensibly to take part in an exercise, it was also there to send a message to Moscow.
The same could very well hold true today. Truman’s journey north serves as a reminder of the US Navy’s global reach, and striking power at a time when tensions between Russia and the West remain high.
Later this month NATO will begin its largest series of exercises since 2002. Trident Juncture 2018 is set to begin in late October and run through early November. The field exercise phase of TRJE 18 will run from 25 October through 7 November and take place mostly in Norway. Land operations will take place in a zone extending from south of Trondheim to Rena Camp. Air operations will be conducted in Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish airspace, while seaborne operations and activity will occur in the eastern reaches of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, Norwegian Sea, and North Atlantic. TRJE 18 will conclude with a command post exercise ( CPX) scheduled to take place at the Joint Warfare Center in Stavanger, Norway from 14-23 November.
Many of the troops, and units expected to take part in the exercise have already arrived in Norway. The deployment phase of the exercise has been underway since August. TRJE 18’s forces will be made up of 45,000 troops from NATO nations, as well as from Sweden, and Finland, 10,000 land vehicles, 150 combat aircraft, and 60 ships. It will be the largest military exercise to occur in Norway since the annual NATO Ocean Venture exercises in the ‘80s. Much like Ocean Venture, TRJE 18 is designed to send a message to Moscow about the current readiness level of NATO forces. In fact, NATO has invited Russia to send observers to monitor the exercises. It is unknown at present if Russia has accepted the offer or not.
TRJE 18 comes at a time when tensions between NATO and Russia remain heightened. The US Ambassador to NATO has made comments recently about Russia’s continued violations of the INF Treaty. Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison stoked alarm among journalists, and some diplomats when she spoke of ‘taking out’ the Russian SSC-X-8 missile, a platform built in direct violation of the INF Treaty’s terms. At present, Russia has two battalions equipped with the missile deployed in close proximity to its western frontier. Hutchinson apparently misspoke and the phrase ‘take out’ was referring to the US developing countermeasures to neutralize the advanced cruise missile should it be launched in anger against US or NATO targets.