NATO's disappearing navies invite trouble in the Baltic Sea

NATO's disappearing navies invite trouble in the Baltic Sea
© US Navy/Getty Images

War clouds once again are gathering over the Arabian Gulf, though none of the leading actors in this latest crisis really want war. On July 19, Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) ships seized a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, and its 23 crew members as it transited the Strait of Hormuz, in retaliation for Britain’s impoundment of a Syrian-bound Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar two weeks earlier. 

The Iranian operation was cleverly calculated to rattle a Conservative government that has been far too preoccupied with Brexit and is about to replace its leader. At the same time, Tehran once again was testing Washington’s resolve, much as it did when one of its drones came within a thousand yards of an American amphibious warship, which was brought down by the ship’s new air defense system.                                              

Iran is  fully aware, however, that it can only push the West so far before facing retaliation — not only from London, but from the United States, despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE’s clear aversion to becoming enmeshed in another Middle East conflict. Nevertheless, because Washington cannot simply sit back as Iran becomes increasingly aggressive in the Strait of Hormuz, the administration continues to maintain an aircraft carrier task force in the Gulf of Oman, while rotating its warships into the Gulf itself. 

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Moreover, the Navy stands ready to deploy a second carrier to the region, as it did earlier this year. In so doing, it is stretching the Navy to the breaking point, given its commitments in the Western Pacific and the Mediterranean. 

The Navy’s fleet numbers some 285 ships, less than half the number that operated at the end of the Cold War. Yet its missions have not changed, nor have the locales in which it primarily operates. Given the massive cost of new warships — carriers cost roughly $13 billion, destroyers some $2 billion and submarines about $3 billion, and production times that can run five or more years — America must rely more heavily than ever on allied forces to take up the slack. 

Yet the latest Strait of Hormuz incident demonstrates that allied navies are in even worse straits than that of the United States. Britain’s defense ministry has acknowledged that the Royal Navy simply does not have the wherewithal to protect all its ships in hostile waters; indeed, Britain’s naval force has plummeted far more quickly than that of the United States.

The shortfall in both American and British warships is especially worrying with regard to the eastern Baltic Sea, where Russian forces loom large, and whose littoral includes five NATO allies. While the Baltic states are too small to field major navies, Poland and Germany likewise have allowed their naval forces to atrophy. The German Navy is barely operational; most of its ships are tied up in port. The Polish Navy is hardly better; the Polish fleet is desperately in need of modernization

Warsaw’s defense planners have signaled that they wish to acquire three new submarines for the fleet, which would bolster Poland and NATO’s deterrent against possible Russian aggression in the region. But the Polish government has yet to decide from whom to buy those submarines. France, Sweden and Germany have been competing for the sale for the past two years. Warsaw initially preferred acquiring the boats from France, since the only French Scorpene-class subs are armed with naval cruise missiles. 

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But ongoing tension with Paris since 2017, including Poland’s decision to cancel a buy of 50 French Caracal helicopters, has soured the Poles on any other French sale. That development has not led to a Polish decision to buy submarines from one of the other two competitors, however. On the contrary, Poland has announced that it will continue to operate its obsolescent Kobben class submarines, one of which was supposed to have been decommissioned in 2018.

In addition, Warsaw continues to assign higher priority to its land and air forces. Indeed, Poland’s recently announced plan to acquire 32 F-35A fighters from the United States, at a cost of some $90 million per aircraft, renders it highly unlikely that it could acquire much in the way of new naval capabilities any time in the near future. Yet there is an urgent need for NATO’s larger Baltic partners to fill a naval gap that is beyond the capacity of Britain, once a major actor in the Baltic area, and that of the United States, given ongoing tensions in the Gulf, and for that matter, in East Asia and the Mediterranean.

With Germany preoccupied with a leadership change because of the pending departure of Angela Merkel, only Poland is currently in a position to bolster NATO’s naval deterrent in the region, much as it has done for its land forces and plans to do for its air forces. There is much to be said for Polish-Swedish cooperation in the Baltic, which a buy of Sweden’s A-26s subs would foster. Regardless from whom the Poles acquire their submarines, however, it is of the utmost importance that they finalize a purchase that will take years to complete and whose costs, therefore, could be spread over time. 

In so doing, Poland would significantly enhance NATO’s deterrent in the Baltic Sea at a time when freedom of navigation is being tested from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.