10 January 2018
NATO plans to expand a naval command post in Britain after a "significant" increase in Russian submarine activity off British waters and across the alliance, The Times understands.
Allied Maritime Command (Marcom) at Northwood, a sprawling base in northwest London, would increase by 100 to 200 NATO personnel from its present strength of 300 under the proposals, according to military sources.
An Atlantic command is also expected to be revived in the United States after a similar structure was disbanded at the end of the Cold War, when NATO relaxed its focus on ensuring the safe passage of reinforcements from America to Europe in a crisis.
A rise in Russian underwater maneuvers in recent years has prompted the rethink. This includes activity from six improved Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. NATO is also concerned about Russian boats interfering with transatlantic communication cables.
"You see them [Russia] active across the entire NATO area of interest," a NATO official said. "It is significant, it is growing . . . They are able to hold much of NATO maritime forces, as well as much of NATO critical infrastructure, at risk from their maritime forces."
A Royal Navy frigate yesterday escorted Russian warships through the Strait of Dover in an increasingly common occurrence. A particular challenge is the enhanced capability of Russian submarines, which are faster and quieter than during the Cold War, making them harder to detect. This has eroded NATO's advantage in quieter boats. It has also made it more difficult for the Royal Navy's four nuclear-armed submarines to avoid detection, something they achieved throughout the Cold War.
Keeping the on-duty Trident submarine undetected is a founding principle of Britain's nuclear deterrent, guaranteeing the ability to fire back if the UK were ever under nuclear attack.
Another problem for NATO is its failure to maintain investment in anti-submarine warfare over the past 25 years when land-based campaigns in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated. This has resulted in fewer submarines, frigates and submarine-tracking aircraft.
Admiral Sir George Zambellas, a former first sea lord, said that whoever controlled the underwater domain controlled the surface, the air and also, in future, space. "If you don't invest in that arena in peacetime you are not able to respond in war, when the potential enemy has been doing the reverse," the admiral said.
The size of the Russian navy, including its submarine fleet, has also shrunk since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it kept partly finished submarines on the production line and maintained its engineering and submariner skills, analysts said.
When the Kremlin increased military spending about a decade ago, the navy and in particular submarines benefited, they said. Russia believes it could use its underwater prowess to exploit NATO's weaknesses.
A final decision has yet to be made on increasing manpower at Northwood and creating the new Atlantic command. No such decision is expected to be reached until a NATO summit of alliance leaders in July in Brussels.
Under the proposals US Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk could provide leadership in the Atlantic at a time of crisis. This would complement the role of Marcom, which is led by a Royal Navy officer.
A second NATO official said: "Details about the geographical footprint and force levels of the new command structure have not yet been determined and will be discussed in the coming months."