Over the past year, tensions between Russia and NATO over the war in Ukraine have extended past NATO’s south-eastern border up to its most vulnerable north-eastern partners. It is along this border that Russia has launched three surprise military exercises in the past year, incorporating land, air, and sea offensive elements in scenarios eerily resembling invasions of the Baltic States. These recent aggressive moves have reinvigorated recognition by NATO of the importance of Baltic security and demonstrated present deficiencies of Baltic member states.

On February 5, 2015 the Atlantic Council hosted the Chief of the German Navy Vice Admiral Andreas Krause, along with a panel of experts from a wide array of institutions, to discuss the new challenges in the Baltic and Ukraine and the direction of German naval strategy.

The panel began the discussion addressing NATO’s currently low focus on naval security. Through over ten years of commitment to and experience in low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, and with many member states involved in numerous bilateral and multilateral missions of comparable low intensity characteristics, NATO has stressed principally addressing the challenges of land war against opponents of varying technological and organizational sophistication.

Now confronting a sophisticated naval threat in the Baltic, NATO must shift gears and ensure it has the fleet strength, interoperability, and technological capability to match the Russian navy. Three principles led the discussion on this matter: Germany must utilize its force multilaterally, US presence in the Baltic is of utmost importance, and burden-sharing, particularly in the current European economic climate, is a must for NATO. Experts stated that this gear shift requires renewed focus on NATO’s Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE), a NATO asset whose capabilities are not well-advertised. Continued research is key, as NATO must retain technological edge.

The panel outlined policy decisions which would align Germany and NATO to confront these threats. Experts stated that Germany should show the NATO flag, a visible sign of solidarity, not only on land but at sea as well. They also emphasized that NATO must maintain a high state of readiness in the Baltic, and can only do so through multilateral exercises on interoperability. On this point it was noted that German naval readiness is currently high, with its forces constantly contributing to all four maritime response forces, however preplanned gaps in ship availability were also noted. In order to achieve NATO readiness, multilateralism in the Baltic is a necessity, and naval interoperability exercises in the region must be reemphasized. While solutions for the Baltic were widely agreed upon, opinions on strategic options toward Russian involvement in Ukraine varied more dramatically. Some experts were skeptical about arming the Ukrainian military, while others believed that a political solution required some sort of military solution.

Experts also highlighted personnel deficiencies facing the German navy and the effect this has had on German naval strategy. With conscription recently coming to an end, the Bundeswehr has transformed into a fully professional military. This has produced some problems for the German navy, which had previously relied on conscription for forty percent of its personnel. Experts noted that, compounding this issue, the majority of the country’s population lives at significant distance from the sea, making the importance and attractiveness of the navy less apparent. Solutions have included public outreach events, which have had notable success, and the production of new ships which fit Germany’s new naval doctrine. Germany’s ship-building will focus on making ships with increased automation to decrease crew size and to decrease scheduled maintenance requirements to increase availability. In this manner, Germany can operate a small navy with few personnel while maintaining a full range of operational capabilities.