There are growing concerns about the dramatic upsurge in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic, with NATO submarine commanders saying that they have not seen this level of activity since the Cold War.
Towards the end of the Cold War, Russian submarine activity dropped off sharply as funds for their massive submarine program evaporated. Traditionally among the most expensive and complex endeavors, the maintenance and operation of Russia’s submarine force is generally agreed to be one of the major factors in the economic failure of the Soviet experiment. The submarine arms race, including the production, running, and maintenance of both ballistic missile and hunter killer submarines, is thought by many historians to have hastened the demise of the USSR through ruinous costs.
Now that a resurgent, and some say revanchist, Russia has emerged under Putin, the Russian submarine program has jolted back into life. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, Russian submarine development has seen a period of significant re-investment that “has not been mirrored” by the West. Royal Navy Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone, Commanding Officer NATO Maritime Command, said that Russian submarines now “have longer ranges, they have better systems, they’re freer to operate.” The National Post also reports that two new classes of Russian submarine have recently been launched, both nuclear powered, one being a ballistic missile type and the other an attack boat. Russia also appears to have significantly upgraded their existing submarine force. Admiral Johnstone also noted an observed improvement in the professionalism and skill of Russian submarine crews, saying that a greater capability in terms of operating and handling their boats had become apparent.
While Admiral Johnstone praised the improvements, saying that they did the Russians credit, he also expressed some concerns. Submarine activity in the North Atlantic has been quiet in recent times, and this sudden pivot back toward the area is somewhat concerning. One obvious concern is the fact that North America’s coastline bounds this region to the East — Russian submarine activity in this area is naturally unsettling for NATO commanders deployed in Atlantic. Adding to these worries is the fact that there is no indication of what the long-term strategic goals behind the pivot might be. Admiral Johnstone pointed out that there has been no communication with Russia about the move, so their intentions in operating within striking distance of the U.S., Canadian, and British coasts are unknown to NATO. There is also the fact that multiple military exercises have been conducted in the region to which NATO countries have not been invited. This can be interpreted in various ways, none of which are particularly comforting, according to the Admiral.
Submarine activity usually has one of two purposes, one being intelligence gathering and the other being the mobile placement of ballistic nuclear and conventional weapons. So it’s not difficult to see why a sudden uptick in Russian submarine activity would be an instant focus for NATO attention. According to Admiral Johnstone, the main focus for submarine patrols in recent times has been the Gulf and the Mediterranean. This is now changing, with many NATO and other nations demonstrating a desire to re-invest in capability in the Atlantic. NATO themselves will be changing its operational priorities as well, in what would appear to be a direct response to this increase in Russian submarine activity.
NATO submarine fleets are currently operating at approximately half of their Cold War operational levels. It looks as if this is set to change, so long as Russia remains silent about what exactly it is doing in these waters, and as long as NATO and Russia continue at the minimal levels of communication and cooperation that currently exist.
[Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]