An Asymmetric Approach to the Use of Maritime Forces in Competing with Russia

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The question that this paper seeks to answer is how Allied maritime power can best contribute to competition with Russia.

While considerable attention has been paid to how unwanted Russian actions in the maritime domain can be deterred, less has been paid to the maritime contribution to deterrence more broadly defined. The authors argue that this is a gap in the literature that needs to be filled, since the maritime domain remains an area of overwhelming Allied advantage. The function of this paper is to contribute to discussions of how actions at sea can translate into strategic effects on land in the context of the European theatre.

NATO’s application of maritime power can better translate into strategic effects with three subtle changes: firstly, through the creation of an environment that forces Russia to expend resources on capabilities needed to deny the open ocean to NATO navies; secondly, the employment of maritime forces can serve as a war termination tool by increasing the costs of a protracted conflict in tandem with ground forces, which deny short-term gains; and finally, because many of the platforms which Russia employs for sub-strategic nuclear use are either maritime or, like strategic bombers, can be impacted from the sea with conventional capabilities, a maritime threat to the bulk of Russia’s sub-strategic launch capability can considerably alter perceptions of a favourable strategic balance.

This paper outlines a strategy for how Allied maritime power could be employed to create costly capability requirements for Russia, in order to offset the country’s competitive edge in other domains. The paper’s key findings are:

  • Russia views the maritime domain as critical to the strategic balance – in other words, the capacity to both strike an adversary’s homeland and deflect strikes on Russia itself. Its view of the role of its navy is one that de-emphasises purely naval functions such as seizing sea control.
  • The capabilities that Russia needs to perform both functions are among those which it will find most difficult to generate.
  • By investing in maritime capabilities such as long-range precision strike and operating at a higher tempo on Russia’s extended periphery, the members of NATO can impose opportunity costs on Russia’s military. Investments in deflecting Allied maritime power will prove unavoidable for Russia, and will divert critical resources from its recapitalisation of other joint capabilities.

NATO should, however, recognise its own shortfalls, including the subset of challenges related to military capacity. Firstly, capabilities needed to compete effectively with the Russian Federation in the medium term will be required in a 10-year timeframe, which is shorter than procurement times for most major programmes. The second likely concern is a lack of platforms to hold strike assets, and this also needs to be mitigated. In addition, different approaches to anti-submarine warfare could expand the threat envelope for opponents and mitigate the Alliance’s own potential shortfalls in this area.

Crucially, the question in each instance will be whether the capabilities developed will impose more costs than those required to develop them in the first place. It is conceivable that even marginal investments in the areas described will impose disproportionately costly adaptations on Russia.

The sources informing this paper included desk research on Allied and Russian capabilities, as well as an examination of Russian military literature to identify areas where Russian authors perceive their nation to be vulnerable in the maritime domain.


Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Senior Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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René Balletta

First Sea Lord’s Visiting Fellow

Military Sciences

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