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Invisible Contest: The Submarine Cat-And-Mouse Game

HIGH NORTH NEWS: Russia’s growing military activity in the ocean gap between Greenland, Iceland, the U.K. and Norway has the U.S. and Norway concerned.

Written by Berit Enge Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The nuclear submarine K-114 "Tula" at a mooring of the naval base of the Northern Fleet of the Russian Federation in the city Gadzhiyevo.Wikimedia Commons/Mikhail Fomichev

The United States and NATO have the most advanced submarines and surveillance equipment in the world. But as Russian technology rapidly improves, the Western underwater lead is shrinking. The U.S. is concerned, and keeps a particularly close eye on what happens in the waters off Norway’s coast.

The New York Times recently ran a front page article about the expanding rivalry and military buildup between the U.S. and Russia. The intensity of Russian submarine patrols has increased considerably over the past couple years, and it is the growing activity level in the GIUK gap, the area between Greenland, Iceland and the UK, that especially worries Washington.

While Russia has strengthened its submarine capacity since the end of the Cold War, most NATO countries have cut defense spending and lost some or all of their ability to keep track of Russian activities in this ocean area.

The U.S. and NATO have retained technological superiority, but the technology gap has shrunk considerably over the past decade. In 2008, Russia initiated a military modernization program, including the development of quieter submarines capable of escaping Western surveillance and an underwater drone carrying nuclear weapons. American experts expect that by 2020, Russia will have modernized most of its military equipment, and U.S. military leaders and their supporters are adamant that Western defense budgets must be increased in order to keep up.

Weakened surveillance capacity

Magnus Nordenman, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, warns that the West’s surveillance capacity in the north is reduced.

“Western surveillance ability of the GIUK gap, which is frequently referred to as the GIUK-Norway gap, is weaker than it was during the Cold War,” said Nordenman. “The U.K. and the Netherlands closed down their surveillance patrols several years ago. The U.K. is now rebuilding its fleet and plans to place P-8 Poseidon aircraft, but this is still a couple of years away. Norway has its Orion aircraft, but they are old and have limited capacity. And Russia has made major investments in their submarines, the crown jewels of the Russian military,” he said.

Gateway to the Atlantic

For Russian subs stationed at the Kola Peninsula, the GIUK gap is the gateway to the Atlantic.

Nordenman points to Russia’s recently updated national security and maritime strategy, which clearly states that Russia must seek access to the Atlantic. That access goes through the GIUK gap, which explains the frequent submarine traffic through the area.

Russian subs have been spotted close to the east coast of the United States, and they operate in close proximity to fiber optic cables carrying enormous amounts of internet data between the continents. A mishap in this environment would be disastrous, and an attack would be catastrophic.

“We are in what I would call a long-term moment of tension with Russia,” said Nordenman, who emphasizes that a crisis elsewhere, such as in the Baltic Sea, would make access to the Atlantic imperative for Russia.

Stronger U.S. presence

The U.S. is revitalizing their Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, where P-8 Poseidon aircraft will have what the U.S. military calls a “persistent, but not permanent” presence. This will be an important strengthening of the ability to track submarine traffic. The U.S. will also send 12 F-15 aircraft and 350 airmen to Iceland and the Netherlands for support and training.

The recent incident in the Baltic Sea, where two Russian jets came dangerously close to the U.S. warship USS Donald Cook, has renewed fears that an unintended mishap could spin out of control and cause a serious conflict. President Obama has chosen not to confront President Putin over the incident, keeping the topic off the list in a recent phone conversation, but others, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, have strongly condemned the Russian behavior. Members of Congress have also used strong rhetoric to decry what they see as Russian aggression.

The 2017 defence budget is now making its way through Congress, and high-ranking members have warned that the budget will “scare Russia.” Among other things, Congress is expected to sign off on $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), designed to support European allies. This is a quadrupling from the 2016 ERI budget.

The U.S. Navy is also expected to receive a healthy increase in next year’s budget, including resources for an expansion from the current 272 ships to 350. This will intensify navy shipbuilding to the highest level since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s.

The contest continues on the surface and underwater. In the New York Times, James Stavridis, former admiral and supreme allied commander of NATO, said that we are not quite back in a Cold War. “But I sure can see one from where we are standing,” he said.

The view from Norway’s coast might be particularly clear.

This story originally appeared in High North News under the title “Kapplop under overflaten: Russisk modernisering bekymrer USA” and is republished here with permission.

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