Posted: January 18, 2018 3:20 PM

NATO Eyes New Atlantic Command to Strengthen European Maritime Capabilities

By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent

WASHINGTON — With the aggressive re-emergence of the Russian Navy and a growing Chinese naval presence, the European maritime environment “is becoming the place where things will be tested as never before,” NATO’s top naval commander warned.

While the increasing activities of the Russians have been most troubling in the Baltics and the Black Sea, there is growing concern that the allies might have to fight for control of the vital sea lines in the North Atlantic. That has led to a proposal to create a new NATO command to coordinate alliance efforts in that theater, U.K. Royal Navy Vice Adm. Clive C.C. Johnstone, commander, Allied Maritime Command, told an Atlantic Council forum Jan. 17.

The alliance’s perception is not that there are a lot of enemies out there, “but that we are in a period of competition like we’ve never seen before,” Johnstone said.

That is based on the view that Russia is preparing itself to challenge the alliance in European waters and China is doing the same, he said

As more nations are positioning themselves as competitors, “we need to be more competitive,” he added.

“These competitors are not nice guys, they are tough,” Johnstone observed. “I would suggest that the importance of sea power in this contested environment is increasing.”

The belligerent behavior of Russian ships and aircraft around NATO nations, which has emerged under President Vladimir Putin, has sparked a major reorganization in the alliance, Johnstone said, and he predicted “this year, 2018, will be a year of decision. We have to acknowledge that the world has changed.”

Johnstone said the idea of the new NATO Atlantic Command has been “accepted as a principle” by allied military leaders, and is expected to be approved at the alliance’s summit in Brussels in February.

Responding to a question, Johnstone acknowledged that controlling the North Atlantic could not be done just by naval forces, and said he has the assurance from the U.S. Air Force commander in Europe of the necessary air power and a joint air command operation.

He suggested that “another major player” would be Marine Corps Forces Europe, which could bring the flexibility and speed of amphibious forces.

Allied navies also have re-energized their training in anti-submarine warfare, in recognition of the growing size and modernization of Russia’s sub force.

The value of the new Atlantic Command would be its ability to bring all the components together in a high-end fight, Johnstone said. He said his command also is working on a new maritime posture statement that he hoped would be ready for the Brussels summit.

Johnstone said his command has six surface action groups, and four standing naval forces, with dedicated ships to cover NATO’s key operating areas, including the Baltic, Mediterranean and Aegean seas. With 12 frigates, 12 mine sweepers, two submarines and other elements, he commands the second biggest navy in NATO, behind only the U.S. Navy.

His is one of the three, three-star component commands under NATO Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti.

The admiral conceded that NATO did not aggressively challenge the growing Russian naval presence in the Baltics and the Black Sea, but has become more active in those areas, and in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia has deployed a naval force as part of its support for the Syrian regime.

Johnstone said the allies “have to be very careful about picturing the Russians as 10-feet tall. … They have deficiencies just like us.”

Observing the Russian Navy exercises, he said, it appears they have recognized they have to work on the fundamentals.

“We used to make the assumption we were better than them,” he said. But with the Russians’ improved capabilities, “I’m not sure can make that assumption now.”

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