Under the waves of the Atlantic Ocean a new front line has emerged as a resurgent Russia tries to exert its influence on the global stage. Russian submarines have been challenging NATO in the biggest increase of underwater military activity since the height of the Cold War.
Submarines from NATO and the Soviet Union vied for control of strategically critical parts of the Atlantic Ocean throughout the course of the Cold War but the collapse of communism left Western navies as the dominant force for the last 25 years as Russia’s navy decayed from lack of investment. Western military attention shifted away from the seas and expensive anti-submarine warfare capabilities took a backseat to a new era of threats. Under Vladimir Putin and a long period of economic growth in the early 2000s, Russia reinvested in the military and the Russian Navy began to extend its reach into the Atlantic Ocean once again
Russian activity in the Atlantic has been on the rise for a number of years and the British First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, acknowledged the threat in a message to the Royal Navy in January 2017: “In northern Europe and the Baltic, we are responding to the highest level of Russian naval activity since the end of the Cold War.” Jones’ comments echoed those of his colleague Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, the head of NATO’s maritime forces, who stated in 2016 that his NATO forces report “more activity from Russian submarines than we’ve seen since the days of the Cold War.” The head of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet, Vice Admiral James Foggo III called this the start of “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic,” referencing past submarine battles from WWI, WWII, and the Cold War.
NATO, therefore, is clearly aware of the growing problem but Western forces are stretched thin with global commitments and years of defence cuts. The UK has lacked a Maritime Patrol Aircraft since the Nimrod MR2 was retired in 2010 and the replacement P-8 Poseidon will not enter service until at least 2019. Sudden submarine activity in waters around the British Isles has prompted the UK to use patrol aircraft from Canada, France and the United States to track the vessels. A Royal Canadian Navy submarine was re-tasked from a NATO exercise to track Russian submarine activity last year in a move that was called “historically significant” by Rear Admiral John Newton, commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic.
The head of the Russian Navy, Viktor Chirkov, has admitted that Russian submarine patrols have grown 50 percent since 2013 and the surge in activity has grown as part of Russia’s latest military adventures. The invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the more recent intervention in Syria has led to a steady stream of Russian ships and submarines transiting through the North Sea en route to the Western Mediterranean to conduct missile strikes.
In October 2017, then UK Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, cited Russian activity in an address to the House of Commons Defence Committee, and called for spending on capabilities to address the threat. “We have seen an extraordinary increase in Russian submarine activity over the last couple of years in the North Atlantic,” he said. NATO’s acknowledgement of the changing situation prompted it to restore anti-submarine warfare to its list of 16 priority capabilities for the Alliance at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales and the last week’s NATO Defence Minister meeting came with the announcement of plans for a new command structure, set to re-establish an Atlantic Command “to ensure that sea lines of communication between Europe and North America remain free and secure. This is vital for our transatlantic Alliance.”
As increased Russian activity continues to pressure Western militaries, Atlantic countries should pay heed to warnings of dwindling ship numbers and capabilities in their navies. Canada is choosing a Halifax-class frigates replacement next year in the biggest defence procurement project the country has ever undertaken and the UK has started to build eight new ASW Type 26 frigates. Combined with attack submarines and Maritime Patrol Aircrafts, these new frigates will be the backbone of NATO’s anti-submarine warfare capability in the North Atlantic for decades to come.
The Royal Navy’s nuclear powered Astute-class attack submarines are entering service at present and will provide a formidable counterpart to Russian equivalents but the RCN has suffered years of problems with the four conventionally powered (SSK) Victoria-class submarines. A recent report called for a future fleet of 12 new SSKs for Canada, with some estimations putting the price at $50 billion. Canada should take the warnings over the Russian submarine threat seriously as it plans the future of the Royal Canadian Navy.
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