The Hidden Potential of NATO’s Gator Navies

NATO Response Force and Allied Marines from the U.K., U.S., Sweden, and Finland simulate amphibious assaults on a Swedish beachhead during BALTOPS 2015.

Sgt. Tatum Vayavananda

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NATO Response Force and Allied Marines from the U.K., U.S., Sweden, and Finland simulate amphibious assaults on a Swedish beachhead during BALTOPS 2015.

Improving U.S.-European amphibious interoperability would bolster the alliance’s defense posture in a non-provocative manner that complements recent moves in land forces.

The Trump administration has vowed to strengthen the U.S. military, nudge NATO allies to honor their financial commitments, and, if possible, avoid confrontation with Russia. Fostering allied maritime and amphibious capability development would support all three policy aims. A push for U.S.-European amphibious interoperability at the alliance’s upcoming summit in Brussels would reward allies that have invested in naval infantry forces and ships, while at the same time improving U.S. defense posture in a non-provocative manner that complements recent moves in land forces.

NATO’s force-posture responses to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea have been primarily — though by no means exclusively — land-centric: enlarging its NATO Response Force, establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force as NRF’s spearhead force, and deploying rotational, battalion-sized formations to Poland and its three Baltic neighbors. A natural next step is to bolster allied maritime presence. Already, there are efforts to improve surface- and submarine-warfare capabilities; these should be supplemented with a focus on expeditionary capabilities and amphibious interoperability.

This approach has three principal benefits. First, Marines and naval infantry operating from amphibious ships offer a rapidly employable force with less escalatory risk than additional army deployments near Russian borders (although this too may be necessary). If designed as a scalable organization supported by sea-based logistics, one or more multinational amphibious task forces would enable the North Atlantic Council and Supreme Allied Commander Europe to shift forces expeditiously and based on the security environment, unencumbered by negotiations for host-nation access and infrastructure considerations. This would support recent NATO efforts to develop executable operational plans that allow speedier political-military decision-making. While not a substitute for additional heavy army forces, Marines and naval infantry enabled by organic sea- and airborne fires can boost NATO deterrence in northern Europe.

Second, such forces would also be able to respond rapidly to threats to southern Europe. NATO keeps two surface combatant groups and two mine countermeasures groups in the Mediterranean region — the Standing Naval Forces that constitute the NRF’s maritime element — but any operations that would use landing forces or sea-based aviation would need individual member countries to deploy troops and aircraft carriers for reinforcement. Time-consuming political negotiations and operational planning may hamper collective action in a crisis. A pre-planned multinational amphibious task force—which could be among the on-call units that make up the NRF’s Initial Follow on Forces Group—may provide NATO a speedier option, demonstrating a credible response that reduces tensions with less visibility (read: fewer political risks) compared to deploying ground troops. Relevant scenarios include non-combatant evacuations, responses to mass migration, expeditionary raids against terrorist groups in North Africa or the Levant, and more sustained joint campaigns benefiting from maritime hubs.

Third, designing this capability requires few additional resources. Five European NATO members — France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom — already have an independent amphibious assault capability: that is, the necessary ships, landing craft, helicopters, naval infantry, and maritime logistics to project a battalion-sized landing force ashore. In 2000, these countries established the European Amphibious Initiative (EAI), which later added five more NATO members plus Sweden and Finland. Amphibious interoperability between allied navies allows the U.S. and Europe to reinforce each other’s security by capitalizing on Europe’s modern, highly capable amphibious ships and small carriers, platforms the U.S. Navy lacks in adequate quantities to meet the Pentagon’s worldwide requirements for presence and deterrence. At the same time, the U.S. offers something EAI lacks: maritime logistics for sustained operations and a deep bench of operational planners serving at headquarters staffs on both sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, some of the technical and organizational infrastructure for a multinational amphibious task force is either in place or in development. NATO’s maritime training schedule has taken on progressively more challenging scenarios in exercises such as the annual BALTOPS (held in the Baltics), biannual BOLD ALLIGATOR (eastern United States), and EAI’s periodic EMERALD MOVE. In 2015, the U.S. Marine Corps established an Allied Maritime Basing Initiative, or AMBI, to certify MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft for flight operations aboard European L-class ships. Most recently, the United Kingdom and the United States announced that U.S. Marine F-35B Joint Strike Fighters may embark on the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden journey in about four years. These recent activities reinforce Europe’s longstanding integration at the bilateral level, including through the United Kingdom-Netherlands Landing Force and Spanish-Italian Amphibious Force. What is missing is an architecture that ties these initiatives together and offers tailored force packages in support of NATO exercises and operations.

Building on AMBI and related efforts, NATO’s maritime powers continue to develop technical interoperability, a baseline requirement for multinational operations. This work includes tasks such as certifying aviation platforms for cross-deck operations and ensuring that communications systems remain compatible in high-end training venues such as TRIDENT JUNCTURE, NATO’s largest exercise. Next, allied naval leaders could develop, exercise, and refine command and control constructs for a range of plausible scenarios. No new organizations are needed since SACEUR already oversees a pair of three-star maritime headquarters: Maritime Command in Northwood, United Kingdom and Striking and Support Forces NATO in Lisbon, Portugal. Finally, while developing and rehearsing the capability, NATO could synchronize future deployments and consider integration into the NRF’s Initial Follow on Forces Group construct.

Skeptics of amphibious forces, whether U.S.-only or multinational, point to operational access challenges posed by competitors such as Russia. It may be exceptionally risky to deploy an amphibious platform or conduct a landing in proximity of long-range missiles and rockets. This is a serious planning consideration, but one that applies to all joint forces, not just amphibious forces, and varies greatly according to scenario and campaign assumptions. If viewed as one element of NATO’s joint toolkit, multinational amphibious force packages afford maritime and land commanders greater flexibility, complicate the opposing side’s planning, and provide credible combat power for crisis management and collective defense from the High North to the Mediterranean.

At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, member countries pledged to “continue to reinforce our maritime posture by exploiting the full potential of the alliance’s overall maritime power.” The 2017 Summit in Brussels presents an opportunity to refine allied ground posture while adding this maritime dimension.

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