scorecardAs Russia's ground forces struggle in Ukraine, NATO navies are staying focused on Moscow's submarines
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As Russia's ground forces struggle in Ukraine, NATO navies are staying focused on Moscow's submarines

Christopher Woody   

As Russia's ground forces struggle in Ukraine, NATO navies are staying focused on Moscow's submarines
LifeInternational4 min read
  • From early February to early March, NATO navies trained to conduct anti-submarine warfare around Europe.
  • Those exercises took place as Russia built up its ground forces around Ukraine before launching an attack.

While international attention has focused on Russian ground force's invasion of Ukraine, NATO navies have continued to train against the Russian undersea threat.

Between early February and early March, NATO navies conducted two large exercises focused on anti-submarine warfare, a challenging discipline that has gotten more attention from US and allied navies in recent years in response to Russia fielding more sophisticated submarines.

From February 7 to February 18, ships and submarines from the Norwegian, Danish, German, and Dutch navies took part in the Norwegian-led exercise Arctic Dolphin off of Norway's west coast.

Arctic Dolphin was meant to improve interoperability between those navies and to support Norway's Submarine Commander Course.

Surface ships focused on anti-submarine warfare while participants in the commander course had to anticipate and react to the maneuvers of the surface ships.

"It is really nice to practice with actual submarines instead of a simulated exercise," a watchkeeping officer aboard a Danish frigate said. "With the sonar teams in the operations room and lookouts on the bridge, we're building the picture together."

Between February 21 and March 4, ships, subs, and aircraft from nine NATO member navies took part in exercise Dynamic Manta in the waters off of Sicily.

The annual exercise focused anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare in the Mediterranean Sea — its counterpart exercise, Dynamic Mongoose, takes place in the North Atlantic.

Dynamic Manta — which had a smaller US presence than in past years — involved 16 anti-submarine warfare exercises simulating basic- to advanced-level scenarios, NATO's Allied Maritime Command said in a release.

The subs involved took turns hunting and being hunted by ships and aircraft, with each ship doing "a variety of submarine warfare operations."

British P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft took part in both exercises. Poseidons are considered the best sub-hunting planes in operation, and in January the UK received last of the nine P-8s it said it would buy in late 2015.

The two P-8s that operated from a US Navy base in Italy for Dynamic Manta were the first British Poseidons to conduct anti-submarine warfare from "an overseas operating location," according to the Royal Air Force.

New subs, new threat

Arctic Dolphin and Dynamic Manta were both long-planned exercises that reflect a renewed focus on anti-submarine warfare prompted by the modernization and expansion of Russia's undersea force.

After Russia's 2014 attack on Ukraine, the US "saw an uptick of Russian navy submarine out-of-area deployers, which culminated in Russian general-purpose submarines" operating off of the US East Coast, Vice Adm. Daniel Dwyer, commander of the US Navy's 2nd Fleet, said at the WEST Conference in San Diego in February.

"It was determined at that point that the Atlantic no longer provided that geography that enabled our protection and that standoff [distance] that we've enjoyed for so many decades," added Dwyer, whose command was reactivated in 2018 in response to that undersea activity.

Russian submarines have also added the ability to attack land targets with cruise missiles, which they demonstrated for the first time with strikes on ISIS targets in Syria in 2015, surprising US military leaders in Europe.

NATO commanders fear those missiles could be used against ports and other infrastructure in Europe, potentially interfering with resupply and reinforcement efforts. Recent US and NATO drills have focused on getting convoys across the Atlantic and to disembarkation points in Europe.

US military leaders also see those missiles as a growing threat to the US mainland. US Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who is responsible for North America as head of Northern Command and NORAD, has repeatedly warned about air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.

VanHerck has pointed specifically to Russia's Severodvinsk-class guided-missile submarines, calling them "on par with ours" and telling lawmakers this month that those subs, also called the Yasen class, "are designed to deploy undetected within cruise-missile range of our coastlines to threaten critical infrastructure during an escalating crisis."

"This challenge will be compounded in the next few years as the Russian Navy adds the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile to the Severodvinsk's arsenal," VanHerck told the House Armed Services Committee.

VanHerck has advocated new and modernized detection systems to spot activity in the sea and the air around the US, including updates to the Navy's Integrated Undersea Surveillance System, which is important "as Russia and China continue to field highly advanced guided-missile submarines," VanHerck told lawmakers.

Russia's struggles on the ground in Ukraine have raised questions about the quality of its military and its leadership after years of investment and upgrades. Russia's navy has had a limited role in the conflict so far, and the US Navy's top civilian official has cautioned against drawing conclusions about its capabilities.

"One should never underestimate one's adversary," Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro said this month at the McAleese defense conference. "Perhaps the shortcomings that we've seen with regards to the Russian army as it invades Ukraine, the same disadvantage doesn't necessarily translate over to the navy and their submarine force."

Moscow is investing "very strategically and wisely" in its submarines, "and their technology approaches ours," del Toro said, "so one should never underestimate that capability and the threat that that capability presents to us."