The Case for a More Robust NATO Presence in the Baltic Sea

NATO exercise in Baltic Sea, May 29, 2015NATO has also begun to plan and exercise for maritime contingencies in the region, with additional bilateral and national exercises as complements. However, without closer coordination and a regional approach to the Baltic maritime domain, current efforts and capabilities will not substantially increase NATO’s capacity to ensure sea and air control, allow reinforcements from the sea, or provide strike from the sea during a crisis or wartime scenario in the region….

Key aspects of a fully developed maritime framework for the Baltic Sea should include considerations for capabilities development, exercises, enhancement of existing regional cooperation, domain integration, command and control, and the role of the United States in the region, as well as the potential benefits for framework development across the Alliance.


Given recent strategic developments in the Baltic Sea region, the high likelihood that Russia will continue its aggressive posture against allies and partners in the region, along with its continued development of an A2/AD challenge in Kaliningrad, NATO should develop a robust response to ensure that the Alliance can provide sea control, sea denial, and the ability to undertake amphibious landings to reinforce allies in case of a crisis in the region. This will mean that regional maritime forces should strengthen and sustain a range of capabilities, including maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; anti-submarine warfare; mine hunting; and mine warfare….

Enhancing Current Cooperation

The Baltic Sea region has a long record of defense and security cooperation. Nordic Defense Cooperation was established in 2009 and includes all of the Nordic nations, with the Baltic states as close observers. The region also includes a number of bilateral cooperation agreements, such as those that Sweden has created with Finland, Denmark, and Poland, respectively. Regional cooperation in the maritime domain has already been particularly effective, with the establishment of Sea Surveillance Cooperation Baltic Sea, a regional effort to enhance maritime situational awareness through information sharing, to include classified or sensitive information in some cases. A maritime framework for the Baltic Sea could build upon the habits of cooperation already established in the region, and more closely align the regional players in meeting the defense and deterrence challenges in the broader Nordic-Baltic region.

Domain Integration and Command Relationships

A key element in an effective response for the Baltic Sea will be an integrated effort among allies and partners. The framework nation approach will allow nations to work together to provide the structure for such an effort. Along with agreement on the framework, NATO should also consider a regional air and maritime command that can not only coordinate exercises and develop contingency plans, but also lead joint operations during a crisis or in war. This command could play a regional role in times of war and crisis under NATO’s Maritime Command in Northwood, UK. Furthermore, the Baltic Sea maritime framework could also play a role in operating with, and enabling the operations of, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and other reinforcing forces in the broader Nordic-Baltic region.  A maritime framework would also enable planning and preparations for VJTF and other naval and amphibious operations in the region. While Multinational Corps Northeast has now been in existence for some time, and plays an increasingly important role for defense and deterrence in northeast Europe, it may not be suitable for it to take on additional maritime duties, as its focus, and heritage, is primarily land-centric.

The Role of the United States, the UK, and France

The role of US, UK, and French forces in the region must also be considered, as they will be central to a range of operations during a crisis, ranging from amphibious landing operations to strike from the sea. The UK and France can add amphibious capacity, along with sea-based air defense, and long-range strike. That would result in substantially increased capability. Even more critically, given that NATO’s members and partners in the region have useful but not full-spectrum capabilities, the United States will have to bring to bear for high-end capabilities, such as strike from the sea, amphibious landings, command and control support, electronic warfare, airborne ASW, and high-end ISR. Indeed, the United States is currently adding substantially to its long-range sea control capabilities through naval missile upgrades. Furthermore, the United States may well want to examine its Air-Sea Battle concept, originally developed for the Pacific, in a Baltic Sea context, to determine how elements of Air-Sea Battle may be applicable to the requirements of the region. US political leadership of and support for the concept of a maritime framework for the Baltic Sea is also crucial to generating regional action on this effort.

Broader Benefits

A NATO maritime framework for the Baltic Sea may also have broader benefits for the Alliance as it orients itself toward the new security challenges in and around Europe. For example, a maritime framework for the Baltic Sea may serve as a test bed for other maritime domains currently under stress, such as the High North, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean (although the challenges in those spaces are, of course, very different). A maritime framework may also further engage Germany in security arrangements for Europe’s northeast, a most welcome development indeed as Berlin explores its future role in European security. Finally, capabilities developed under the maritime framework, such as maritime ISR, would very likely have broader applicability across the Alliance….

While current NATO and national efforts to bolster defense and deterrence in the region through exercises, rotational deployments, and commitments to rebuild capabilities are a good thing, it is time for the Alliance to put its maritime approach to the region also on a long-term footing.

A maritime framework for the Baltic Sea would enable the Alliance to start long-term development of maritime and air capabilities and planning in a way that would focus NATO and national efforts and avoid gaps in both capabilities and contingency planning. It would also send a powerful message to Moscow that the Alliance is indeed prepared to defeat the A2/AD challenge in northeast Europe, and is committed to the defense of its allies on both sides of the Baltic Sea.

Franklin D. Kramer is a Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. Magnus Nordenman is the Director for the Transatlantic Security Initiative and the Deputy Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Franklin D. Kramer and Magnus Nordenman

Image: NATO exercise in Baltic Sea, May 29, 2015 (photo: Specialist Amanda S. Kitchner/US Navy)