Vice Admiral Keith Blount, NATO’s Commander Allied Maritime Command discusses the range of emerging and traditional threats and risks now pressurising the alliance’s maritime strategy.
NATO’s Commander Allied Maritime Command (COM MARCOM) operates both as the alliance’s theatre maritime component commander and principal maritime adviser to NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR).
The current COM MARCOM is the UK Royal Navy’s (RN) Vice Admiral (VAdm) Keith Blount. Giving the keynote address to the NATO Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Centre of Excellence (CJOS CoE) annual ‘Maritime Security Regimes Roundtable’ on 3 November, VAdm Blount detailed the state-based threats to NATO, which are both enduring and emerging and are present both inside and outside the alliance’s traditional Euro-Atlantic area of responsibility (AOR).
Russia remains a challenge, VAdm Blount explained. He pointed to several capabilities Russia is continuing to prioritise, including nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and the wider ‘Kalibrisation’ of the Russian Federation Navy fleet. In the latter instance, he said Russia is continuing to deploy and employ Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) across its submarine fleet and surface ships. Kalibr is a dual-role (land-attack and anti-ship) and dual-capable (conventional and nuclear) system.
While SSNs and SLCMs are long-established technologies, VAdm Blount explained that “new, cutting-edge technologies like hypersonics such as the Tsirkon missile” constitute a new characteristic of Russia’s traditional conventional threat. “Anything that can fly at that kind of speed coming towards a task group is worth being concerned about, and we need to think about that,” he added, including considering how to deter such threats. The hypersonic threat is not hypothetical. On 18 November, Russia conducted its latest Tsirkon test-firing, from the navy’s Northern Fleet frigate Admiral Gorshkov, in the Arctic region’s White Sea: Russian news agency TASS reported that the test missile struck “a naval target”.
The other primary state-based area of focus for NATO is what VAdm Blount referred to as “the newest competition challenge”, namely People’s Republic of China. “The one that sits in the in-tray somewhere – it’s not right at the top, but we’ve got to recognise it’s in there somewhere – has to be China,” he said. “Our Secretary General [Jens Stoltenberg] is talking routinely now about China as a threat to the international rules-based order – something that China would oppose as a view,” VAdm Blount continued, adding: “The Secretary General has said that countering the security threat from the rise of China will be an important part of NATO’s future.”
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is routinely present in the Indian Ocean and occasionally so in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. However, NATO’s senior leadership talks more frequently of alliance interests in the Indo-Pacific region, and some NATO member-state navies now operate more regularly in the Pacific, often alongside the US Navy (USN): for example, the recent RN HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group (CSG) deployment (with US Marine Corps Lockheed Martin F-35s), which operated across the Indo-Pacific region, included a Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) frigate as well as a USN destroyer.
While noting that a collective alliance naval presence enables NATO to outnumber Russian naval forces in the Euro-Atlantic theatre, VAdm Blount pointed to increased Sino-Russian integration at sea. “We’ve just seen Russian and Chinese combined task groups sailing around Taiwan.” In terms of impact for NATO, he questioned: “What does that mean for us? Where does China sit in isolation, or where do China and Russia sit together?”
The Chinese and Russian navies have also conducted several combined exercises in the Euro-Atlantic theatre, with the most recent event taking place in the Baltic in 2017.
VAdm Blount added that addressing twin state-based challenges, one residing largely in the Euro-Atlantic theatre and one residing largely in the Western Pacific, also raises the question of whether NATO could find itself spread too thinly, changing alliance dynamics. “That in and of itself is worth consideration and close study,” he said.
NATO’s enduring state-based challenge also brings a set of emerging threats to alliance interests below the high end of the operational spectrum. Such threats are classified as asymmetric, hybrid, ‘grey zone’ activities. Much of this activity occurs in the cyber domain – for example, GPS jamming or spoofing ship automatic identification system (AIS) data, VAdm Blount explained. A primary cyber challenge for NATO and other Western stakeholders is attributing attacks to the correct source, and being able to respond appropriately. “It’s obvious when a cyber attack takes place, [for example] on a big banking institution or other entity; you can identify that as a cyber attack. Trying to attribute it is considerably harder,” he said.
NATO is enhancing its technological response to cyber threats. “We now have our own cyber operations centre within SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe], we’re orientating to it ourselves – but there’s a lifetime of work here because, in much the same way as hypersonics replaced missiles that aren’t hypersonic, new cyber capabilities replace older cyber capabilities,” said VAdm Blount. “So, we are forever getting after things that are threatening to get away from us.”
One particular threat that has both cyber and physical dimensions is the security of underwater communications and data cables. While risks to such cables have been a concern for NATO and its member states for many years, such risks were not publicly discussed. However, the extent and specific nature of the threat has become such that senior military and civilian officials within NATO and its member states now talk openly and regularly about it. Such is the importance of underwater cables and their protection that Western officials have coined a new definition for the acronym ‘SLOC’. An example of an emerging threat, VAdm Blount explained, is “the protection of those strategic lines of communication – not so much the sea lines of communication, but a different type of SLOC – that suddenly is so widespread as a challenge, so important, and yet is still to a degree unknown in terms of what is the direct threat, how would we see it, what would the resilience be, what would the alternative modes be if we were to see those things attacked, and how do we get after that as a threat – or indeed how do we deter it from happening in the first place.”
Lower Threshold Threats
Alongside the higher-end, state-based risks, NATO faces various challenges at sea at the lower end of the operational spectrum. Some of these risks are enduring, and some are emerging. However, they are constantly changing.
Maritime terrorism continues to pose a significant risk. “We’ve taken on terrorism with Operation Sea Guardian, a very successful operation located principally in the Mediterranean Sea,” explained VAdm Blount. Sea Guardian tackles three primary tasks – maritime situational awareness, regional maritime security capacity building, and maritime terrorism. While NATO’s at-sea counter-terrorism presence was originally established, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, under the NATO Article V-based operation Active Endeavour, the switch to Sea Guardian in 2016 brought broader focus on maritime security challenges as a whole, while sustaining the sharp spotlight on maritime terrorism. “Since 9/11, we’ve seen the terrorist threat change quite significantly. The areas in which terrorists operate are quite different, and their entire ends, ways, and means calculus change,” he said. “[The] dynamic of modern terrorism is one that changes and morphs quickly and geographically, and is something that we’ve got to continue to get after.”
Piracy remains on NATO’s maritime radar. Operation Ocean Shield, which ran between August 2009 and December 2016, was NATO’s contribution to the international counter-piracy campaign established to address Somali-based piracy around the Horn of Africa. It was also one of the most recent examples of an ‘out of area’ alliance maritime campaign. While the East African piracy risk remains in NATO maritime minds, the new piracy risk is West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.
Assessing the Gulf of Guinea risk, VAdm Blount said: “We see new piracy as something that is very, very different to the Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean piracy model.” He highlighted two particular differences: the fact that Somalia was a failed state; and the very high tempo of operations and greater levels of violence used by Gulf of Guinea pirates.
In the former instance, the lack of governance ashore in Somalia enabled piracy in the first place, but also provided a vacuum that external actors could fill to try to build stability ashore and at sea. That option does not exist in the Gulf of Guinea: moreover, its piracy problem is present in and around the waters of several littoral states meaning that it needs to be tackled almost exclusively at sea.
“We in the alliance have to consider it, not only through whether we become directly involved in it, [but] in a way that has to accept that [NATO countries] are going to get involved in it because of their sovereign desire to do so,” said VAdm Blount. Several NATO countries – including Denmark, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States – have demonstrated their sovereign interest in the region through naval presence. In late November, the RN’s Forth (River Batch II)-class offshore patrol vessel escorted the UK transport ship MV Hurst Point in the Gulf of Guinea, as part of a reassurance presence to the merchant shipping community. However, the need for a Gulf of Guinea presence raises the challenge to NATO of balancing naval presence across alliance areas of interest; member states will face choices between committing assets to national or NATO operations.
There is a further challenge facing NATO and its navies that overlays these other challenges, VAdm Blount explained. “All of the above are becoming increasingly enabled or indeed concentrated through … climate change,” he said. While climate change will affect NATO interests across its traditional AOR and elsewhere, the Arctic region in particular and the opening up of the Northern Sea Route in connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic stands out in importance. This, he said, “is contextual to the way in which we would view China as a competitor, or indeed the way in which we would see new security challenges around the pressure on resources.” “What does that mean to maritime security, what does it mean to the Arctic Council, what does it mean to NATO?” he asked. “That’s before we start talking about rising sea levels and humanitarian security challenges that are posed through them.”
To address such maritime challenges and other domain risks to alliance interests, NATO is continuing to revise its strategic structures. In 2019, NATO published a revised Military Strategy, looking at alliance military requirements from a ‘bottom up’ perspective. On top of this, a current review of the NATO Strategic Concept will provide the ‘top down’ strategic guidance for the military strategy.
Within this strategic construct, NATO’S maritime thinking is based around three pillars – the maritime contribution to collective defence, co-operative security, and crisis management. While maritime security has always been central to alliance maritime thinking, its increasing importance – even when set against the returning focus on high-end, state-based strategic competition – is such that NATO is now considering its addition as a fourth maritime strategy pillar, said VAdm Blount.
Within this maritime strategy framework, NATO has also now defined three functions that shape how the maritime component supports wider alliance strategies and concepts.
First is a ‘strategic’ function, which is the impact of the physical presence of NATO naval forces around its AOR and other areas of interest. Second is a ‘security’ function, which includes addressing the increasing importance of maritime security. Third, overlaying the first two functions and drawing on the inherent credibility they demonstrate in alliance maritime capability and operations, is a ‘warfighting’ function. Together, VAdm Blount summarised, these three functions build the credibility of NATO’s overall deterrent posture.
by Dr. Lee Willett