Ukraine Update: 20 January, 2022 (Late Evening)

It has been a long day. I was hoping to get a second update posted in the afternoon, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Things are happening now and it appears the final stages of preparations before hostilities commence are either underway or about to be. We’ve discussed Russia’s movement of more troops and equipment into close proximity of the Ukrainian border. The arrival of Russian army units in Belarus has also been mentioned. Ostensibly they are there to conduct exercises with Belarussian forces. Thursday saw Russia announcing that major naval exercises will be held at the end of this month and in February across a large swath of the world’s oceans. The exercises will take place in parts of the North Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. 140 warships and support vessels and 60 aircraft will be involved, along with an unknown number of submarines. This constitutes a considerable amount of the Russian Navy’s inventory. At first look, the primary purpose of the maneuvers seems to be to provide cover for potential naval movements into the Black Sea to coincide with operations against Ukraine. The worldwide scope of the maneuvers though, lead me to suspect there’s another element at work here. A projection of Russian sea and air power in areas where NATO and Russian navies operate in close proximity to each other. Intimidation tactics, for lack of a better term. Another possibility is that Ukraine is not the only area that Russia has plans for. Maybe the exercises are indeed cover, but for Moscow to strategically position its naval and air forces across the global gameboard. In the event NATO stands up militarily to Russian aggression in Ukraine, these forces could be utilized to cause serious damage to NATO naval forces and land installations in the first hours of hostilities. An improbable prospect, but a prospect, nonetheless.

Russia is not the only country that announced military moves today. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters that her country will be deploying warships to support NATO forces in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. A minesweeper is moving east at present and a frigate is expected to sail within 3-4 days.  The Spanish government is also close to a decision on sending warplanes to Bulgaria to help bolster NATO’s Southern flank as tensions with Russia continue to rise.

Britain Receives Its First P-8A Poseidon

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Earlier this week the first of the Royal Air Force’s new P-8A Poseidon MPA (maritime patrol aircraft) touched down at Kinloss, Scotland. It is the first of nine Poseidon aircraft purchased by the Ministry of Defense and marks Great Britain’s return to the fixed wing ASW (anti-submarine warfare) game. The RAF and Royal Navy have been without shore based MPAs for over a decade following the retirement of the Nimrod in 2009. During the eleven year period between then and now, Britain was forced to rely on its allies to provide ASW coverage around the British Isles, and in the North Atlantic. The gap in coverage came at a critical time, as tensions with Russia rose following the annexation of Crimea, and the Ukrainian intervention in 2014. Russian naval operations in the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea increased shortly afterwards, reemphasizing the importance of the waters to NATO.

This is a step in the right direction for the Brits though. Over the past three years or so, Britain has become serious about redressing their military deficiencies. The British armed services had become a hollow shell as weapons systems were cut, and units disbanded in order to foot the bill for Britain’s commitments overseas such as in Afghanistan. Like many other European powers, British military power diminished. The Royal Navy was especially hard hit by the budget and force cuts and is presently rectifying the situation. The final three Astute class attack submarines are under construction, as well as the first of the new Dreadnought class SSBNs. On the surface side, the second Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales was recently commissioned. The first two City class frigates are also under construction and will help enhance the escort forces for the carriers.

This is certainly progress considering how much combat power had been gouged out of the British military between 2005 and 2014 or so. A lot of work still needs to be done but the Brits are moving in the right direction.

Trident Juncture 2018 Set to Begin Later This Month

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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.

Saturday 5 May, 2018 Update: US 2nd Fleet Stands Up Once Again

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On Friday the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, announced the reactivation of the US 2nd Fleet, which was the US Navy fleet responsible for operations in the North Atlantic until it was deactivated in 2011. Its AOR, and operations were taken over by the 6th Fleet, which covered both the Mediterranean and Atlantic during the time. The move has been expected for some time now. As relations between the United States and Russia began their downward trend after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian naval activity in the North Atlantic increased. In the later years of the Obama tenure, the US Navy began to take a hard look at the possibility of standing up  2nd Fleet once again. The prospect did not begin to gain momentum until 2017 when the Trump administration and then-new Secretary of Defense James Mattis began to take a hard look at the US military and the changing geopolitical realities around the world

Richardson alluded to that in his remarks. “Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex.” This move is a clear indication that the Pentagon has placed a high priority in countering Russia’s heightened military activity. A large part of this strategy includes a US pivot back to Europe and the North Atlantic.

Increased Russian naval activity in the Atlantic over the last 2-3 years has been a concern for NATO as well as the US Navy. In a nod to the Cold War days and SACLANT, NATO’s new Atlantic Command will join the 2nd Fleet as being headquartered in Norfolk.

NATO Slow In Waking Up to the Russian Military Threat

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Contrary to what its press releases, and statements by alliance officials proclaim, NATO has been playing catchup to Russia in the military arena since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Instead of taking steps which would seize the initiative from Moscow and serve to dictate the flow of events, the alliance has been doing the exact opposite. It is no secret that NATO’s options are limited. After all, it is a defensive alliance in title, and purpose, having been created  as a counterweight to the expansive policies and actions of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War revamped NATO’s priorities and mission. Western Europe no longer needed defending to the degree that it had from 1949 to 1991. Peacekeeping in the Balkans, and an expanding role in the Global War on Terror defined NATO over the next twenty three years. During that time, the once massive military infrastructure that had been created to challenge Soviet military power was downsized, or dismantled, and largely forgotten.

As Russia began emerging as a viable military threat in 2014, NATO was slow to react. New missions, and duties were not provided with the necessary support and command infrastructures. During the Cold War years, every military unit assigned to NATO belonged to a respective parent command, was keenly aware what its role and mission would be in a time of conflict, and practiced incessantly to master that role if the balloon ever went up. In recent times this has not been the case. Ground, air, and naval units have been tagged for missions they’ve never previously undertaken or trained for, with little or no support from the alliance.

Now, as 2017 is nearing an end, NATO looks eager to start rectifying the command dilemma. Since November, the alliance has been working on a plan to stand up an entirely new naval command, likely to be labeled the North Atlantic Command. Russian naval activity in the Atlantic has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. The latest concern is Russian submarine activity around undersea data cables in the North Atlantic. The importance of these cables cannot be overstated. They carry nearly all of the communications on the Internet. Cutting them would bring the web to a crashing halt. Tapping them would provide Moscow with valuable insights on global internet traffic.

This activity, as well as other maneuvers by Russian attack submarines is compelling NATO navies to refocus on Anti-Submarine Warfare, or ASW as it is commonly labeled. There has been little, if any emphasis on ASW since the Cold War ended. There was little need. For most of the 90s and 00s, Russian subs rarely ventured out into open ocean. Since 2014, however, Russian sub activity has been on the rise, ops tempos have increased dramatically, and new subs are coming on line at a rapid pace.

In early 2018 it will be useful to take a detailed look at how NATO intends to deal with the growing Russian threat at sea, as well as in the air, and on land. Although the attention of the world will continue to be focused mainly on what’s happening in North Korea, the chill in US-Russia relations, and recent moves concerning the situation in Ukraine suggest  a flare up in Eastern Europe or at sea between NATO and Russian forces is very possible.