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.