Security challenges in the North Atlantic - Norwegian, UK and US Perspectives

On 8 March, IFS hosted a seminar on security challenges in the North Atlantic and launched the book “NATO and the North Atlantic: Revitalising Collective Defence”.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The book is published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in its Whitehall Paper series. The editor, Col. John Andreas Olsen, currently serves as defence ​​attaché at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London.

The seminar was organised by the Institute's research programme
Security and Defence in Northern Europe (SNE).

Opening and we​​lcome

Opening the seminar, Sven Holtsmark (director of IFS) and Robin Allers (head of the SNE programme)  pointed out that  research on maritime security  has a long tradition at the Institute, and still is a prioritised topic. This seminar also demonstrated IFS' ambition to facilitate arenas for discussion between policy makers, military leaders, practitioners and academics.

From 1 April 2017, RUSI and the German Council on foreign relations (DGAP) will join IFS and the Center for international Studies and Analysis (CSIS) as partners in the SNE programme.

​​Reflections from​​ former maritime command​ers

Introducing the first session, professor Rolf Tamnes (IFS), one of the authors of the new Whitehall Paper, presented two experienced maritime commanders.

Mark Ferguson's former assignments include service as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, Commander of NATO Joint Command, Naples, Italy and service as the 37th Vice Chief of Naval Operations. He has served in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, in destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers.

Admiral Peter Derek Hudson's seagoing appointments included leading the UK's Amphibious Task Group, serving as a coalition task force commander in the Gulf, and, as a Rear Admiral, commanding UK Maritime Forces. Ashore, he was Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff, and commanded NATO's Maritime Command at Northwood. Following retirement from active service, both admirals remain influential in current debates on NATO and maritime strategy: Ferguson as fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis, and Hudson as member of a Senior Experts Group advising the two strategic commanders on how to reform NATO's command structu​​re.

Pointing to Russia's greater emphasis on the maritime domain, with power projection into the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Admiral
Ferguson highlighted four 'mini-debates' between NATO nations that are likely to shape the Alliance's maritime capabilities in the future:

Firstly, the debate over NATO's identity, which has changed over the last decades due to enlargement and a changing security environment.

Secondly, there is also
  debate on NATO's roles and missions. Challenges in the North Eastern and Southern flanks have implications for NATO's command structure. Defending the Atlantic was once a central mission of NATO. Today, maritime command and control is diffused within the Alliance.

Thirdly, the debate on burden sharing has always been at the heart of NATO. Caught between the need to reduce costs and the challenge to spend more, NATO nations have to become more efficient, increasing naval capabilities through pooling, sharing and innovation.

Finally, the debate on a credible and capable deterrence posture in the maritime domain has to include the new asymmetric (hybrid) threats.

Hudson drew on his experience as head of NATO' maritime command to reflect on today's challenges in the North Atlantic region.  What is the threat, are we up to it, and who should be responsible for taking the right action? The example of the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov's voyage through the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean, demonstrated that the state of Russia's capabilities in the maritime domain is difficult to assess. Diversionary tactics and political posturing are part of Russia's toolbox, and make the strategic environment more complex and difficult for western planners and decision-makers. At the Summits in Wales and Warsaw, NATO has taken important steps, also in the maritime domain, but a lot more can and should be done to enhance capabilities, rethink strategy and streamline command structures. 

In conclusion, Admiral Hudson shared his vision of seeing 'a maritime headquarters with empowered commanders afloat and ashore, shepherding well trained ships and submarines; under fresh doctrine with recertified tactics linked through national and alliance wide planning.' Fulfilling such a vision was not impossible but required political will.

An intervention from the audience brought up the question of reassurance. Hudson pointed out that reassuring partners was crucial and Admiral Ferguson added that reassuring Russia was also a central element of maritime operations. Even at a time when political dialogue with Russia was strained, maintaining military to military contacts was important to avoid unintended conflicts. Professionalism is key, and the Navy spent considerable efforts to train officers to manage critical situations – either provocative or unintended – without losing their cold.

Revitalising collective defence

In the next session, moderated by the book's editor John Andreas Olsen, four authors presented the main points and recommendations from their chapters.

Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general at RUSI, pointed out that the start of the book project in 2016 coincided with Brexit, arguably the most fundamental shift in Britain's relationship with its European partners in recent decades. Although difficult to predict, the ramifications of leaving the EU and the ambition to establish a 'global Britain' are likely to affect the UK's strategic outlook for the years to come. The turning point with regard to security in the North Atlantic, however, was not 2016 but 2014. Britain's interest in the North Atlantic and willingness to invest in capabilities allowing the Alliance to keep control of this strategic area, were influenced by Russia's violation of international law in Ukraine and aggressive behaviour towards its neighbours. After all, the North Atlantic is Britain's immediate neighbourhood, and to maintain a credible deterrent in this strategic region remains important for a range of interests, also economic.​

Heather Conley
, senior vice president and head of the Europe Programme at CSIS, argued that the United States was about to lose its memory of the Cold War. While there is no wish to return to the time before 1989, it is worrying to see a whole generation of political and military leaders lacking the understanding of strategic choke points like the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-UK) gap. The Trump White House's questioning of NATO's relevance had to be countered with publications like this Whitehall Paper. Yet, even more important, Allies had to present concrete initiatives.

r chapter, co-authored with CSIS president and CEO John J. Hamre, comes up with recommendations that would secure the United States' involvement in the region – a more robust MARCOM, a North Atlantic "Quad" (composed of US, UK, Denmark and Norway) and a deeper involvement of Norway and the United States in NATO capabilities projects like the Global Hawk programme to develop unmanned aerial vehicles. An enhanced northern presence should be seen as a building block in a wider geographical understanding of NATO's theatres of operation – including the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea.​

Svein Efjestad
, policy director at the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, called for a review of NATO's maritime strategy and a new level of ambition with regard to sea control. He presented a list of concrete measures that Allies should consider, including new plans for training and exercise and more realistic contingency planning. Given the complexity of maritime challenges, Allies have to address them with a whole of government approach.

Countries with special geographic interests in the region, like the US, the UK and Norway, but also the Netherlands and Germany, could push forward in smaller groupings, but such initiatives must feed back into NATO. On the southern border, coalitions of the willing might have become a more practical solution, but in the North, NATO has to remain the principal framework. At the same time, it was important to avoid that NATO expansion leads to escalating the conflict with Russia.​

Peter Roberts
, director of the military sciences team and senior research fellow at RUSI, provided a British military perspective on the North Atlantic. Referring to the books' foreword by former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US General (rtd) Philip M Breedlove, he underlined the need for command of the seas, and raised the question if we had lost it in the North Atlantic. With its focus on projecting power beyond Europe's borders and its emphasis on short-duration and land-based expeditionary operations, post-Cold War British UK doctrines have neglected the country's deep-water maritime capabilities.

Robert's chapter, co-authored with Admiral Hudson, discusses options for increasing allied forces in the region, but also calls for a reformed NATO command structure in which the Atlantic is recognised as a theatre in its own right. The UK should galvanise NATO efforts to develop a more assertive strategy in this region of strategic importance.​

Security in the North Atlantic – a priority for all?

In the discussion, the panel was challenged about the question of prioritisation. How do recommendations for an increased focus on security in the North Atlantic fit with a strategic environment in which China emerges as the main challenger to Washington's maritime supremacy? Can Europeans expect America to share their concerns about the North Atlantic? Will it ultimately be a European responsibility to secure a credible deterrence in their own backyard? And how can the three countries highlighted in the book – the US, the UK and Norway – convince their European allies to engage in more cooperation in the North Atlantic region, while more direct challenges to their security come from NATO's other flanks?

n his concluding remarks, Col. Olsen summed up the book's six key recommendations:

  1. Renew NATO's maritime strategy.
  2. Reintroduce extensive maritime exercises and sustained presence.
  3. Reform NATO's command structure.
  4. Invest in maritime capabilities and situational awareness.
  5. Enhance maritime partnerships.
  6. Prepare for maritime hybrid warfare.

Together this list of recommendations could form a new security approach to the North Atlantic

Summary by Robin Allers

Publisert 20. mars 2017 09:00.. Sist oppdatert 18. mai 2017 15:37.