Analysis 04-13-2024


NATO’s Navy at 75

As NATO celebrates its 75th birthday, one arena of potential military conflict is firmly on NATO’s side – naval strength.  Russia, which has always suffered from a lack of accessible or ice-free naval ports, saw its access to open waters decrease as Sweden and Finland joined NATO.  The Baltic today is less an arena of potential conflict and is now considered as a NATO lake.

The NATO navy is impressive in size and strength.  It has a dozen nuclear aircraft carriers (US and France).  Three nations have nuclear submarines (US, UK, and France).  And the NATO fleet has hundreds of frigates, destroyers, and corvettes.  In total, NATO can call upon over 2,000 ships.

There are also Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG) that are immediate reaction forces of four to six destroyers and frigates.  Command rotates through different NATO nations.  The current commander of SNMG 1 is Spanish.

Russia, meanwhile, is having some problems keeping its Black Sea fleet effective with full strength in the face of Ukraine’s miniscule naval force that has been supported vigorously by NATO.

Not only does the NATO force have an impressive force afloat, but most of its member nations also have ship building facilities, thanks to centuries of shipbuilding experience.  This will facilitate NATO naval expansion.

But, in the face of potential war with Russia over the Ukraine, the NATO navy has problems.  The new generation of military aged men is unwilling to volunteer in numbers necessary to man the fleet.  For the first time in decades, some NATO nations are talking about returning to conscription to fill out its military.

Another problem is that the NATO navy has evolved in the last three decades from a fleet designed for large-scale naval action against the USSR to one designed to counter piracy and non-government actors labeled as insurgents or terrorists.  The US spent a considerable amount of money building a Littoral Combat Ship designed to fight in shallow waters to counter insurgency, only to rediscover that the US Navy needed ships designed for deep water operations.  The result is that the Littoral Combat Ships are being mothballed after just a few years in service.

Modern warships require skilled manpower, and most navies are short of such skilled labor polls.  The US Navy has even suffered from a lack of training, which resulted in several collisions.

But it isn’t just the US Navy.  Other NATO navies like Denmark and Germany have had problems in the Red Sea operations.

A German navy frigate Hessen mistakenly targeted a US Reaper drone in the Red Sea during operations.  The drone wasn’t damaged and continued its mission.

Whether that means the drone’s countermeasures are that good or the German ship’s air defense system is lacking is unknown.

Meanwhile, a Danish frigate suffered a weapons system failure.  The frigate, Iver Huitfeldt, suffered a failure of its phased array radar.  The failure was serious enough that it was unable to launch its anti-aircraft missiles for about 30 minutes while a Houthi missile barrage was fired at merchant ships and naval vessels.

Ammunition from two of the ship’s 76mm cannons was also defective on more than one occasion during operations.  The ammunition detonated early and too close to the ship.

During operations, the Danish frigate downed four drones.  However, it was recalled due to technical problems and sailed back to Denmark.

The operations in and around the Red Sea have highlighted another problem – logistics.  While the US and UK navies have the logistical infrastructure to stay underway for long periods, the smaller nations are unable to stay on station for more than a couple of weeks.  Even the US Navy must send ships back to port to reload their missile launchers.

However, the Ukraine War has encouraged NATO nations to embark on fleet modernization.  The British have once again fielded modern aircraft carriers – the Queen Elizabeth Class, which is designed to work with American carriers in intense air operations.  Although they have had teething problems(term used to describe troubles), that is normal in new ship classes.

Just consider the problems incurred in the American Gerald Ford Class nuclear aircraft carrier.  Its new catapult system didn’t work and there were problems with the arresting gear that stops aircraft after landing.  In fact, the USS Ford is back in Norfolk working out many of the bugs uncovered in its first deployment.

However, most NATO navies focus on smaller warships like destroyers, frigates, and corvettes.  The Italian Navy, which is the second largest navy in NATO, after the US Navy, has active shipbuilding programs for destroyers, frigates, and corvettes.  They also have an amphibious assault ship, the Trieste, which carries marines, helicopters, and the F-35 fighter.

The Italian navy is one of the most active contributors to NATO operations.  Its operations frequently take it to the Indo-Pacific region as the Chinese challenge has grown in recent years.  Its proactive stance in NATO has led it to be called “The West’s policeman.”

The Italian aircraft carrier Cavour, which has qualified to operate with US carriers and the F-35 recently sailed to Japan.  Italian Minister Crosetto noted, “Relations between Italy and Japan are fundamental for facing the geopolitical and technological challenges of the future.”

Sweden’s joining NATO has boosted the NATO fleet.  Experts note that Sweden’s submarine fleet has some of the most advanced submarines ever built.  They can stay underwater for weeks, and they can operate in the shallow Baltic Sea, which US and Russian nuclear submarines can’t.

Proof of Sweden’s world class submarines came in 2005 when a Swedish submarine was able to evade the carrier strike group escorts and “sink” the American nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during an exercise.

As the Ukrainians have shown, the Russian Navy has its problems.  It is also limited by geography.  However, the NATO navies have one overriding advantage – the ability to project power.  Several NATO nations have aircraft carriers, which the British, Americans, and Italians could deploy to the other side of the world.

Although many NATO ships are too small for blue water operations, there are a significant number of frigates and destroyers to deploy around the world.  And, although the Red Sea operations show the weaknesses of some ships, they have shown that they can coordinate their air defenses in the most intense naval operations since WWII.