September 1, 2012  

Punching above their weight

How four small European navies can support U.S. strategic rebalance

The U.S. admires certain nations for their willingness to be involved in crises and contingency operations, but we rarely challenge them to lead. We must change this — by helping carefully selected nations to improve their ability to participate in and ultimately take charge of regional security efforts, and by championing them as fuller partners and even leaders.

Such efforts will be key to implementing the president’s new Defense Strategy Guidance, which calls on historic allies and partners, especially those in Europe, to assume innovative roles as security producers. For the U.S. Navy, these “operationalized partnerships” promise optimized presence, engagement and war-fighting efforts and a way to ease the coming strain of more Pacific operations and a stricter fiscal environment at home. These partner countries would be able to plan, train and operate on a more equitable scale, creating a “deeper bench” of maritime players who could carry out certain roles and missions in lieu of day-on/stay-on U.S. naval presence — or even co-lead such efforts.

Good candidate nations are ones that show a desire for active partnership in global responsibility and have demonstrated a stakeholder mentality, even under fiscal and political stresses. Their militaries develop and maintain proficiency in important capabilities; their political leaders back the required defense investments and engagement.

Four small northern European countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, are prime candidates for operationalized partnerships. Their navies can or could provide unique aspects of maritime security that support the new U.S. defense strategy. Moreover, these governments — three NATO allies plus one member (Sweden) of the alliance’s Partnership for Peace effort — have signaled their willingness to lean forward on security matters through policy declaration, operational commitment or defense investments. Finally, they are part of a region whose members have been asked by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior officials to shoulder more weight as the U.S. prioritizes security responsibilities in Asia and the Middle East.

As these four countries shift from their Afghanistan-era focus on ground forces, the U.S. must reward their willingness to develop more expeditionary and operational maritime forces, as well as encourage them to evolve into collaborative security providers. It can do this by helping them build specific capabilities and regional relationships.

Looking to Improve

A survey of defense spending plans underscores these nations’ determination to improve their militaries.

Norway’s defense spending is expected to increase in the near term, with its compounded annual growth rate projected to approach 7 percent, among the highest in Europe. The improvement of operational and deployable capabilities figures prominently in the “Long Term Plan for the Norwegian Defence Sector,” released in March. Its drawdown from Afghanistan will free up funds for the planned purchases of Norway’s new Naval Strike Missile, the NH90 maritime helicopter and F-35 strike aircraft.

Sweden’s military is slated to get some $6 billion for core defense functions in 2012, including a $34.7 million increase that includes priority funding assigned for training and exercises meant to improve capabilities for international missions. The country’s recent creation of a Defense Export Agency underscores its resolve to strengthen its industrial base.

Denmark’s Ministry of Defense saw its 2012 budget rise about 16.6 percent over the previous year, with small annual increases of about 173 million kroner ($28.6 million) projected through 2015. In talks this year, Danish Defense Minister Nick Hækkerup told U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta the development of the Danish armed forces will remain focused on cooperation with allies and partners.

For the Netherlands, cuts in ground forces have allowed sustained investment in the Navy and Marine Corps. The Dutch will maintain counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia, and they plan to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, two efforts that highlight a continuing interest in an operationalized relationship with the U.S. Navy, NATO and other multinational defense organizations.

These nations are determined to harness the transition from combat in Afghanistan to invest in future capabilities, supporting their own nations and improving their integration with the U.S. military. This is exactly the time for the U.S. Navy to influence European decisions on where to spend defense funds.

High North Cooperation

The development of concepts and capabilities for operating in Europe’s near-abroad of the Arctic and Africa offer rich areas for collaboration. In the High North, for example, the U.S. could join existing programs or even galvanize new efforts to develop core capabilities such as maritime domain awareness, navigation and international delineation, and search and rescue. Such involvement could help to satisfy the demand signal instituted by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25/National Security Presidential Directive 66, which established the policy of the United States with respect to the Arctic region, directing future American participation in Arctic maritime security development.

The Swedes, for example, are leading efforts to integrate maritime surveillance information, especially within the European Union’s program for the development of a Common Information Sharing Environment. They led nine other EU nations, plus Norway and Russia, in the two-year Maritime Surveillance in the Northern Sea Basins pilot project, which concluded early this year. Meanwhile, Norway’s Defense Ministry has proposed a maritime monitoring system with two integrated components, one covering the smaller Baltic Sea area and the other a larger swath of the North Atlantic, Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea.

The Nordic nations also understand that Arctic capability rests on movement and logistics efforts. These are possible through the development of support vessels, which could function as command platforms, transport and supply ships, and amphibious landing capabilities. Former Norwegian Defence Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg’s February 2009 report, “Nordic Cooperation on Foreign and Security Policy,” recommended such action for northern Europe, to include establishing a Joint Operating Unit comprising naval, amphibious and air assets to monitor and patrol common territories near and in Arctic waters. Moving forward with this concept, Oslo is seeking funding and platform technology to support a nascent Nordic amphibious unit as a maritime response force in the High North.

Denmark as well sees a rising need to enforce sovereignty in the Arctic, especially in light of expected increases in maritime traffic and extraction of natural resources. The Danish armed forces are also looking to increase the capabilities of their air base at Thule, Greenland, which they share with the U.S. Air Force and which has a deepwater port and medical, logistics and support facilities. The government’s recent Arctic Strategy noted that Thule could host collaborative exercises, training and deployments. Expansion of Thule’s functional capabilities could allow Navy and Marine Corps assets to rotate into Thule for High North training alongside the Air Force, the Danes, and other allies and partners.

The U.S. could also work with its partners to test anti-access/area denial countermeasures in Arctic conditions, a wise move considering the interest of China and many other nations in establishing water- and airspace claims in the region.

Littoral Collaboration

The Arctic is not the only place where these partners can share in this kind of development. The Baltic and North Sea regions offer unique training grounds for exercising a wide spectrum of littoral operations, and testing and exercising high-end combat based on littoral A2/AD tactics in confined and shallow waters are a natural fit for northern European navies.

While several European nations train for littoral warfare, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have exceptional niche capabilities and extensive experience in NATO and EU exercises. Mine countermeasures, operations in shallow or confined waters and amphibious operations are all areas where the U.S. can gain and train with these partners. The U.S. Navy should increase its coordination with these nations to forge the tactics required to fight and win in the littoral arena across the spectrum of warfare intensity.

In particular, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are well-poised for deeper integration and training with U.S. forces. Sweden and Norway, for example, have long been involved with the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program, having helped develop initial requirements since at least 2004. A deeper collaboration might involve developing LCS operational concepts through activities in constrained and shallow waters by modern stealth corvettes, such as the Norwegian Skjold- or Swedish Visby-class ships. This work would also help these talented players assume leadership roles in the growth of littoral warfare tactics writ large — for example, a move to become a laboratory for Middle Eastern and Asian partners on coalition force techniques and procedures.

Mine Warfare

The threat of mines — a classic naval defensive weapon — is regaining attention as a non-flashy, low-end A2/AD tactic. The Dutch, Norwegians and Swedes have invested heavily in mine-hunting and mine warfare command ships for use by NATO and other multilateral training and exercise efforts. Their latest corvettes are built to incorporate mine warfare modules, and they are innovative developers of autonomous underwater vehicles. Critically, they showed their willingness to use these resources in the recent Libyan conflict.

Future collaborative efforts would be of great value to the U.S. not only in traditional operating areas, but also in crisis choke points — for example, if United Nations sanctions led Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz, or if tensions escalate with China in the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea region, affecting Indian Ocean trade routes to growing Asian markets.

The U.S. Navy can continue to serve as mine warfare “first responders,” but should build up key partners’ abilities to take over for longer-term operations. The political and economic importance for this task would resonate among European nations, especially if under the auspices of a multilateral or international effort.

The logistics and lift aspects of mine warfare are the critical vulnerabilities for America’s partners, and ways must be developed to get these expert navies to the fight. The U.S. must seek more rapid movement of allied and partner capabilities outside of Europe’s immediate peripheries, especially for scenarios involving the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. That means developing exercises and training with the core northern European mine warfare navies that practice moving to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East.

Events such as these would also help deepen collaboration between these European experts and non-European partners in mine warfare: specifically, Gulf Cooperation Council and Asian nations with the facilities and expert cadres. Combined efforts with these sophisticated naval partners would be a big step toward mitigating risk on a global scale.

Amphibious Forces

All four of these partner candidates are keenly interested in improving their amphibious capabilities.

Nordic planners see increasing value in amphibious assets to “carry out intelligence, reconnaissance and protective missions in the coastal zone … with sea-going capability based on a large mother ship carrying high-speed boats in an internal dock and equipped with heavy weapons,” Stoltenberg noted in his recent study.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands views amphibious capability as a way to increase its attractiveness as a partner in international operations, whether directly with the United States or as part of a coalition. The Dutch Marine Corps has long sharpened its proficiency as part of the UK/NL Amphibious Force and, more generally, NATO. The Dutch Navy underlined its interest in the area through its recent participation with U.S. naval forces in the Bold Alligator exercise off the eastern coast of the United States and is laying plans for a Joint Support Ship. Not unlike current U.S. Navy work with the Afloat Forward Staging Base platform concept, the new ship would improve command-and-control and expeditionary force insertions. Requirements include support for CH-47 heavy-lift helicopters, roll-on/roll-off logistics, and berthing and workspace for up to 150 embarked staff members.

The U.S. should encourage these advances in Nordic and Netherlands amphibious capabilities by increasing cooperation in expeditionary operations. Moreover, the U.S. should challenge them to deploy and expand partnership capacity building in the near-abroad of Africa and the Arctic. With U.S. help, these European nations could take a more active leadership role in the Africa Partnership Station effort and other Africa Command engagement activities to develop coastal maritime security on the continent.

The U.S. should also, where appropriate and feasible, help create a Nordic amphibious response force capability in the Arctic. Should these nations move forward in security responsibility within Europe’s near-abroad of Africa and the Arctic, the United States would gain a long-term benefit of greater flexibility for our own naval force presence requirements, especially during the rebalancing of Navy posture toward the Pacific.

Beyond Europe

The U.S. government must heed the charge from Gates and others and challenge select nations to become active security producers.

“It’s a time of budget constraints, so we’ve got to innovate, we’ve got to share capabilities, share technologies and be willing to work together,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the International Seapower Symposium in October. “No one can do it alone.”

Nations will cooperate where they can recognize and understand a value driver, such as cost savings, operational efficiencies or national interests. Therefore, it is important for the U.S. to design a modern partnership plan for the post-Afghanistan period and articulate this construct to Congress and foreign leaders. There are good answers to nations’ political concerns about cooperation, and it is in the best interest of the United States to be fully invested in finding those answers and supporting key agents for change among allies and partners.

Europe is the obvious place to start developing the idea of operational partnerships. As Adm. James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, told Congress in March, “in the years ahead, even as our nation shifts its strategic focus to the ‘Asia-Pacific,’ the reality remains that our most willing, effective, credible and enduring strategic military partners reside in Europe.”

The proposed concept to harness the niche skill sets and expeditionary mindsets in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands can evolve into a plan for operationalized partnerships, improving cooperation that provides a direct return on U.S. investment. While some may argue this concept is an outsourcing of U.S. involvement, the payoff of operationalized partners working together with the U.S. — European, Asian and Middle Eastern — reduces long-term cost to the United States and creates the environment for better and interoperable forward effects.