Danger in the North: reviewing The New Battle for the Atlantic by Magnus Nordenman3 min read
In the spring of 2015, the crew of a Scottish fishing boat, the Aquarius, were shocked when one of their nets started moving in front of the boat as if having caught something large, heavy, and mobile. For 15 minutes, they chased after their own equipment until, finally, one of the boat’s propellers cut the rope.
It’s possible that the crew of the Aquarius ran afoul of a whale. But it’s more likely they came within dangerous proximity of a Russian submarine.
This is the story which begins The New Battle for the Atlantic: Emerging Naval Competition with Russia in the Far North. Security expert Magnus Nordenman’s book is a slim, densely-packed summary of what he considers an area of serious concern for members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the military alliance which defends most of the nations of the North Atlantic region.
Much of The New Battle for the Atlantic consists of background information. Nordenman provides a geographical overview of the North Atlantic, a primer on the capabilities and limitations of modern submarines, and a concise history of warfare in the region. Nodernman is an economical writer, and he wastes not an inch of page on superfluous detail. I will almost certainly return to The New Battle for the Atlantic as a reference on technology, geography, history, or strategy.
Having provided adequate context, Nordenman turns to the issue of Russian engagement in the North Atlantic. This region in particular, he argues, is vulnerable to sabotage from Russian submarines and warships. It is a hub of economic activity and home to a number of important military outposts. Perhaps just as importantly, North America and Europe are linked via thousands of kilometres of underwater communications cables running across the North Atlantic. If these cables were disrupted, the World Wide Web as we know it would be compromised. Nothing on that scale has ever happened, but it is well within the means of the Russian Navy which, Nordenman cautions, has drastically improved the quality of its craft in recent decades. Indeed, Russia has signaled to the world not only its upgraded capabilities, but its heightened interest in being respected as a naval power.
Although the tone of The New Battle for the Atlantic is measured and calm, the content suggests urgency. In the course of a few short years, Russia has re-emerged as a threat in a region where both military and civilian interests are at risk. Russia’s capacity to disable international telecommunication links presents a clear danger to both the European and North American continents. Moreover, the inability of NATO forces to capture or even detect with any precision the Russian vessels that have infiltrated the waters of the North Atlantic in recent years suggests a palpable asymmetry.
Nordenman concludes his book with a number of suggestions as to how the alliance could prepare for and deter Russian aggression in the North Atlantic. He calls for a doubling down on efforts to patrol the region, renewed investment in submarines and other naval craft, increased armed forces activity, and the development of a hybrid warfare strategy.
Nordenman’s suggestions are sensible, but they don’t adequately reflect the political and economic limitations constraining the alliance. At present, NATO is in trouble; its central mission is unclear, military spending is a low priority for many member-states, and relations between some states show signs of deterioration. Recent developments in American domestic and foreign policy have led some European leaders to begin distancing themselves from the USA, which remains the de facto leader of the alliance. Moreover, a handful of prominent NATO members, including Italy and Turkey, have built stronger relations with Russia over the past few years, and are perhaps less likely to prioritise Russia as a threat. It is worth remembering that NATO’s central decision-making body relies on consensus, and, in the present day, it’s hard to find anything that all 30 member-states can agree on.