Responding to Russian challenges in NATO protected waters requires a deep understanding of the Northern European maritime environment, says a new report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Challenges like detecting advanced submarines and gaining a holistic understanding of the maritime environment require that NATO and its partners advance their Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) capabilities. The report’s authors make specific recommendations for creating MDA networks to enhance security in Northern Europe. The following is a summary of the Contested Seas report, which can be downloaded here.

Northern Europe, and specifically the Baltic and Norwegian Seas, has been the site of increasingly provocative and destabilizing Russian actions. The country’s use of a range of military, diplomatic, and economic tools to undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its allies highlights the need to monitor and understand Russian activity. The region is characterized by complex factors like unique geographic features, considerable civilian maritime traffic, the presence of advanced Russian and Western military capabilities, and strategic proximity to Russia and the Kola peninsula, home to the Russian Northern Fleet. While the Norwegian and Baltic Seas do differ in key ways, they are linked by the emerging risk posed by Russia’s long-range strike capabilities.

Responding to Russian challenges across the competitive space requires a deep understanding of the Northern European maritime environment. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), defined by the United States as the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of a nation or region, is an exceptionally broad concept. At its core, MDA has three functions: the collection of raw data, the analysis of that data, and the action of disseminating information to and coordinating among the different components of the framework. In order to provide security in Northern Europe, NATO and its allies must use MDA frameworks to understand and respond to the challenges above, on, and underneath the sea, as well as the surrounding land environment.

While some constructive work has been done to address the evolving Russian threat, NATO and its partners must make changes to their current MDA capabilities to evolve alongside with it. Russia presents three challenges of particular concern to the MDA efforts in Northern Europe: maritime hybrid warfare, electronic and cyber warfare capabilities, and long-range strike systems.

  1. Maritime Hybrid Warfare—The Russian military is experienced and effective in its use of hybrid warfare, seen in Syria, Crimea, and Northern Europe. The ambiguity possible in the maritime domain lends itself well to this strategy. Russia uses three specific approaches in this realm: deception through different types of vessels including civilian ships, deniable forces like the amphibious and light infantry that easily navigate the complex Baltic and Norwegian Seas, and the country’s well-developed and diverse force for seabed warfare.
  2. Cyber and Electronic Warfare—Russia’s advanced EW capabilities have the potential to hinder information gathering and dissemination methods, which are both vital functions of MDA. These capabilities are challenging for military personnel but potentially devastating in civilian contexts, especially as civilian networks and technology (like GPS) are far less secure.
  3. Long-Range Strike Capabilities—New challenges for NATO and Northern European partners have emerged with Russia’s development of a long-range precision strike complex. The weapons, now being mounted on new and existing Russian naval vessels, give these vessels the option to stay in the Barents or White Seas and strike targets across Northern Europe. This, combined with air force capabilities based on the Kola Peninsula and in Kaliningrad, presents threats unlike any seen by NATO before. These capabilities require NATO and its partners to use MDA frameworks to monitor launch platforms across the domain.

The modern history of MDA begins in the United States, with Homeland Security Presidential Directive – 13 (HSPD-13) / National Security Presidential Directive – 41 (NSPD-41) issued in 2004 by President George W. Bush. The document lays out core interests for the United States to enhance security in the maritime domain and creates a cooperative framework to support MDA operations across different spheres. At the same time, the European concept of maritime security awareness was built upon the U.S. definition of the challenge, placed within the context of rising illicit traffic in the Mediterranean.

A weakness of the original MDA and Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA) concepts is that many of the associated capabilities and frameworks are focused on civil maritime issues. Given the global proliferation of advanced military capabilities, like antiship cruise missiles, NATO and its partners require a holistic understanding of the maritime environment that focuses on everything from civil maritime actions to high-end military operations and even issues associated with the maritime environment.

A key implication of the heightened maritime threat environment is the need to improve the integration of and attention to undersea aspects of MDA. Antisubmarine warfare (ASW), a traditional strength of Western naval intelligence and operations, has atrophied since the end of the Cold War. Today, Russian submarines with conventional long-range missiles pose a threat to NATO. ASW must be integrated with MDA to address these concerns. Comprehensive understanding of the undersea realm should extend beyond ASW. Russia’s amphibious special forces and combat swimmers threaten more than just military targets, including civilian vessels and undersea cables, which are an integral part of MDA. ASW technology can be useful in countering these and other threats.

In the Norwegian Sea, the biggest challenge for NATO is detecting advanced ultra-quiet submarines. This issue is sharpened by dramatically depleted stockpiles of sonobuoys, a constant need for increasingly advanced sonobuoy technology, and an American unwillingness to share highly classified information about the undersea domain. NATO would benefit from an apparatus like the ASW Operations Centers (ASWOC), used most prominently during the Cold War to streamline ASW operations. Integration of platforms is a challenge in the Baltic Sea as well, largely because Sweden and Finland are not NATO states, making data sharing challenging.

Frameworks like Sea Surveillance Co-Operation Baltic Sea (SUCBAS) and the Maritime Surveillance (MARSUR) project facilitate the work of regional states to address these issues but more must be done. Additionally, NATO monitoring of the Baltic region is largely domain specific and suffers from not examining the maritime domain holistically. The alliance and its partners should also act to focus on resiliency to continue to operate in the face of jamming and nonkinetic attacks from Russia.

The key to enhancing MDA capabilities in Northern Europe is the integration of frameworks across the maritime domain. Cooperation between NATO states and allies is vital to understanding the complex environment. The CSIS study team has identified seven recommendations of particular importance:

  • Create a Baltic Sea MDA analytic center at the Baltic Maritime Component Command (BMCC) at Rostock, Germany;
  • Empower a small analytic team at the BMCC to focus on maritime hybrid issues;
  • Develop a training course for military intelligence officers on best practices for Baltic Sea MDA analysis;
  • Create a classified Baltic Sea data environment that can incorporate both NATO and partner states;
  • Develop a multinational operational framework for the Baltic Sea;
  • Integrate subsurface sensors and antisubmarine warfare into a comprehensive MDA framework; and
  • Acquire significant stockpiles of advanced sonobuoys and associated acoustic processing systems.

These priority recommendations are presented in detail in the report, along with others. Collectively, their implication would markedly enhance security in Northern Europe by closing identified gaps and ensuring capabilities for collection, analysis, and action in MDA.

By Kathleen H. Hicks, Senior Vice President; Henry A. Kissinger Chair; Director, International Security Program, CSIS and Andrew Metrick, Associate Fellow, International Security Program, CSIS

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