Russian submarines have become quieter and more deadly in the past ten years than ever before, and Pentagon planners are worried about it. President Trump ran on a platform that included an emphasis on rebuilding American naval capacity. From a Cold-War high of over 600 ships, the Navy inventory dropped to only 284 ships, many of which were not battle ready. Trump stressed the need for a return to a 350-ship navy.
If Putin senses weakness of will, or a poorly defended strip of territory, he will move into it….
There are more ways to combat Russian submarines than navy ships, however. In the 2018 defense budget, Congress has authorized nearly $15 million to refurbish a NATO airbase on Iceland. Naval Air Station Keflavik is maintained by the Icelandic Coast Guard, but during the Cold War it was home to U.S. warplanes. This is the second year that has seen substantial spending from the defense budget on renovations at Keflavik. In FY 2016, the Pentagon received $21 million to begin the project.
After the end of the Cold War, U.S. forces left the air base, and it was closed in 2006. In 2016 the U.S. and Iceland agreed to reopen it, after years of increasing Russian aggression. The concomitant increase in Russian submarine traffic in the North Atlantic made reopening Naval Air Station Keflavik an obvious choice.
P-8 Poseidon Sub Hunters
The 2017 budget anticipates a return of sub-hunter aircraft making regular patrols. U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon airplanes will return to Keflavik, and take up their mission of tracking Russian submarines from there. The Christian Science Monitor quoted Carl Hvenmark Nilsson, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Having eyes and ears in Iceland brings tremendous strategic value and provides a listening post for the US and NATO allies in terms of tracking Russian movement, especially in the Arctic.”
Nilsson said the returned U.S. presence also will have a deterrent effect. “It will also send a very clear message to the Kremlin that it will be a measure from NATO to deter Russia from further intrusion of international water.” He added that it “is money very well spent for NATO and for the US Navy.”
Tensions have mounted in Europe in the last three years, after Russian President Putin’s “little green men” seized the Crimean peninsula and invaded Ukraine. Russian military forces have conducted exercises in the Kaliningrad exclave near the Baltic States, and Russian submarine activity in the area has increased dramatically. The P-8 Poseidon sub hunters are needed again in Iceland.
Mind The Gap
NATO land war planners focus on the Suwalki gap, the small strip of the Polish-Lithuanian border that is bounded by Belarus on the east and Kaliningrad on the west. It would take Russian land forces very little effort to close off that region in a so-called “anti-access area denial” attack (A2AD). A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) defines A2AD forces “as those that contribute to denying an adversary’s forces access to a particular region or otherwise hinder freedom of maneuver.”
A glance at an undersea map tells a different story.
The gap that NATO naval forces worry about is the “GIUK gap.” The name derives from Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom, and refers to the ocean passages to Iceland’s north, between it and Greenland; and to its south, between it and the UK. Looking at a traditional map makes it look like a huge expanse of open water, where tracking submarines would be near impossible.
A glance at an undersea map tells a different story. The Center for a New American Security held a tabletop war game exercise this summer called “Forgotten Waters.” The purpose of the exercise was to focus attention on the importance of the GIUK gap. The resource materials included a map of the undersea topography surrounding Iceland, in which it is obvious that there is only one narrow, relatively shallow channel to the south of the island country. There is a slightly wider and deeper channel to the north.
Russian Submarines Forced Into Shallow Channels
On each side of the gap, the undersea terrain is steep and unnavigable, except in those two narrow channels. Any Russian submarines traversing the gap would be forced into those channels. Airborne sub hunting patrols provide a very effective gate and early warning system for NATO of any undersea activity.
Putin’s aggression will continue to increase as long as it is unopposed. He has shown that he is opportunistic in his attacks. If he senses weakness of will, or a poorly defended strip of territory, he will move into it in his attempt to expand the borders of Russia. If NATO is to deter further Russian aggression in the North Atlantic region, sending P-8 Poseidon planes to Iceland is a very wise move.