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Aligning capabilities of NATO Navies to the future operating environment

Speech by Vice Admiral Sir Clive Johnstone on the occasion of the Surface Warfare Conference – London, 31 January 2019


Good Morning.  It is a pleasure to see so many old friends and key leaders of the maritime enterprise in the room. This year’ Surface Warship’ Conference comes at time when we are thinking deeply about the future and the capabilities we need to match it.

This question set is a challenging one – as the alignment of capabilities to a future operating environment requires a common understanding of what a common operating environment is. I can safely say that as sailors this is easy – we all get it, and I suspect have a common view. 

The challenge is that this is far more difficult for our policy makers and politicians – they have to pick their way through a very congested policy environment and a frighteningly fast moving technology context. 

They also need to balance defence budgets against powerful and understandable domestic demands on the exchequer.

As NATO’s Maritime Commander I think it is my responsibility to demonstrate through use and experience where capability requirements are headed and how we might shape our fleets, doctrine, tactics and procedures to deter an evolving enemy and to guide national procurement decisions. 

This is a relatively new place for a NATO maritime commander to be, or perhaps it is better to call it a ‘Back to the Future’ moment. 

Today, MARCOM can speak from operational experience in a way that Maritime NATO could not have in a generation.  The change, of course, is the return of peer competition and the emergence of new warfighting technologies that threaten the comfortable status quo we have enjoyed since the 1980s. 

As a result, MARCOM, the Standing Naval Forces our Operation Sea Guardian have been at the cutting edge of deterrence and defence.

All that said, I want to start with some words of warning.

  • - Today, when discussing current capability and thinking,  we are in the shadow of yesterday.  It is already too old; my sense is that today’s capabilities will not deter aggression or win the war.  They may maintain an uneasy peace but when stressed, ageing capability will not either be usable or effective – it will not be credible and going full circle, without combat credible forces, there is no real deterrence.
  • - Second, tomorrow’s capability is already visible and being used in other industrial and economic sectors, as well as by our adversaries.  Cyber, AI, Unmanned, Space and Autonomous.  These are daily fare in academia, the legal and accountancy professions; they are working in offshore oil and gas fields, in nuclear investigation and employed by the Russians in Syria and elsewhere and by the Chinese.  Cyber-attack is pervasive.  Indeed, we are most certainly not at peace in the cyber domain.

  • - Third, while we speak and worry a lot about Hybrid, Cyber et al we should heed the lesson from the Russians out of Syria that one needs both ‘soft measures’ but also hard, persistent kinetic lethality and the intent and commitment to use it.

Our problem I suggest might be in ourselves, in our relative complacency, lack of imagination; in our industrial base and finally because we still find it hard to message simply to our policy makers and politicians what the future looks like and why they need to support it. 

The historian Andrew Gordon refers to the 19th century as the ‘Lea of Trafalgar’, a long period of pride and relative satisfaction with a way of naval warfare in which Britain had triumphed and that was assumed to endure forever.

 I think we are living at the very end of a similar period, however, the future is not out of our grasp, but I would suggest we do need to release our imagination.  I suspect that the future sits with the human and technology interface, as well as being very clear headed about the requirement for real kinetic effect.  I also suspect real revolution only comes with a different approach to technological and procurement strategies so that we can evolve at ten times the speed and a quarter of the cost than we are currently doing. 

We have seen elements of this before: in the wild experimentation of the Dreadnought era; and in the incredible innovation of the 1950s that led to Nautilus, the Polaris programme, and the nuclear submarine fleets that followed.  It is notable that in both cases the planning and procurement rulebook was ripped up by people who nonetheless knew how to ‘work the system’ – Fischer, then by Rickover and Rayborn.  Admiral Gorshkov did something similar for the Soviet Navy.

In all those cases, there was a lot of clarity about the struggle being waged.  What the competition was about.  Clausewitz tells us that the first requirement of strategy is to understand the nature of the war we are in.  We will never recapture that level of innovation until we can agree and commit to the battle we are fighting.



So, I’ve been Commander of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command for the last three years and I could not be more proud of NATO’s evolution and development.  I have never seen any organisation change, modernise and sharpen such as over the last three years. 

In my own HQ I have seen a total revolution in affairs over the last four or so years  That is partly because the new competition at sea and its parameters became so clear to us. 

But we do have a problem.  We are still unable to define the threat because of many nations different perspective of the threats – and then to understand how we – the maritime community explain how we match up to the new threats.

We do have some support.  SACEUR, General Curtis or ‘Scap’ Scaparrotti has been a strong supporter of a more comprehensive view of Alliance defence that incorporates lessons from China, Russia and from North African and Middle Eastern security as well as counter terrorism and social instability. 

We are taking his thinking forward to codify a common threat picture and how we should see the world.

 Let’s have a think about this. I think I am going to tackle this in the following way.

  • How do we see the world?
  • What are our deductions?
  • How are we tackling it?
  • What are we doing about it and exemplars of progress and challenge?
  • What we take away from Operational Sea Guardian and operating in the Med?
  • Perhaps some deductions in the end…


How do we see the world.

Three years ago, when I took Command, I said that the international situation was changing. 

Old naval powers were returning a blue water force.  New technologies like the Russian Kalibr cruse missile and A2/AD networks were expanding. ASW was challenge once again.  In 2019 that competition at sea and those technologies are the ‘new normal’. 

The Russian and Chinese Navies are now firmly established in seas that we long assumed had no challengers or competitors.  But the Russian Squadron is back in Syria, probably to stay.  Chinese naval power in the Horn of Africa is a given and they are making ever more visits to European waters.  Russian submarines are in the Atlantic in levels not seen since the Cold War and their Black Sea fleet is the most potent it has been in professional memory.

In addition, we are seeing new things: the advent of hypersonic missiles, expanding use of electronic warfare techniques including GPS jamming.  Surveillance and potential tampering with undersea cables.  And of course, the daily conflict for the strategic narrative in social media and the info sphere.

There is also a geographic element: from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Sea of Azov to the Baltic and High North, an effort is underway to dominate strategic seas and create Grey Zones where Allied access is inhibited or intimidated.  In this at least, our competitors are refreshingly old-fashioned: they see the world in terms of geographic power and the need to control space. 

They seek to deter or intimidate by expanding that sphere of the Global Commons – whether sea, air, space or cyberspace – which they can determine.

What are our deductions?

First, the new challenges from Russia, possibly from China and from extremism and terrorism will be with us for some time.  Indeed, while the Russian challenge may be a generational one, the West’s future relationship with China will likely dominate the 21st century and the 22nd.  The time for long term investment in our collective defence and security posture is past due.  These challenges will endure.

But there is a big difference from our experience of the Cold War, especially the nature of the Russian challenge.  Back then, we looked East to the NATO-Warsaw Pact borders.   The Soviet Navy was a threat, but the Allied navies has a pretty firm grip on the Atlantic. 

Today, Russian strategy is to project power and focus efforts almost everywhere except the plains of central Europe.  Instead, we see action in the Baltic and Black Seas, the Eastern Mediterranean, the High North and the North Atlantic.  Further, their posture is not steady but shifts with opportunity.  This is not being surrounded so much as dealing with a chessboard, and a constantly changing one at that.

Finally, we deduce that a much more robust and holistic deterrent posture is needed to secure Alliance defence and security.  Much is being done ashore – enhanced Forward Presence, the stand up of new land forces corps and divisional headquarters, harmonising transport standards to facilitate rapid deployment across Allied territories.  But naval and air power also needs investment – and perhaps more important – a true integration into our strategic perspective – the joint plan!.

How are we tackling it?

Well, how are we tackling the challenges and the future…… on many levels?  Let me explain.

Firstly - Formal authorities.   The Brussels Summit confirmed the Alliance mandate to reinforce NATO’s maritime posture.  We are working very hard on this as For us, that means three things above all else:

    • a well-resourced and capable Standing Maritime Force,

    • a flexible force,

    • close coordination with Allied forces acting under national authority.

Next, conceptual development:  As many here will know, maintaining the Standing NATO Maritime Groups at strength has been a challenge for some years.  The reasons are understandable – smaller fleets but even greater national demands on them, reduced operating budgets and less steaming hours.  

But lack of value or purpose in an SNMG commitment – a view held with some justification in the recent past – is just no longer true.  The training opportunities are excellent, particularly in focused areas like ASW.  But more, the impact of a robust SNF on Alliance posture and deterrence is powerful. SNF are now operationally effective and being employed as such.  Look at our role in the Eastern Med last August when eight Kalibr-shooters took up station in what looked like a major Syrian attack on Idlib.  Apart from the tasking delivering for the alliance, the experience is also very valuable for nations – operations offer experience that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

We are looking to build a new SNMG model around a core of high-end capability, to which other assets can be added.  But I see this as a transitional move.  In the longer term, I believe we need to innovate in two import ways: 

First, NATO needs at least one, immediately available ‘striking force’.  A high-end task group that possesses the latest in missile strike, air defence, ASW, EW and Cyber capabilities, as well as submarine and MPA support.  We might be prepared to ease back on 24/7 365 presence if this force was credible, trained and tested as a complete package.

To compliment that, we also need one and preferably more ‘sensing’ forces.  These could be general purpose frigates, corvettes, and tankers, there for presence, I&W, interoperability and to foster partnership activity.  They should also become vehicles of experimentation – able to employ autonomous underwater and air vehicles and trial novel minehunting and clearance.

As important as the posture of the SNF is its flexibility.  The prize here is giving SACEUR and MARCOM greater flexibility in carrying out the operational schedule approved by the ambassadors in the North Atlantic Council.  With more control over ‘when’ things like partner engagements or exercises happen, MARCOM can deliver not only the tasks demanded of us but seriously increase the credibility and deterrent value of the Standing Forces.

And then? At a less formal level, we are working closely with Allied navies to understand our collective maritime readiness and to forge ad hoc task groups, often coordinated by MARCOM but remaining under national control, to respond to challenges.   MARCOM has built an effective operational network and narrative with Allied and partner navies, underpinned by a very close policy cooperation with the US Navy including OPNAV, Fleet Forces Command-Second Fleet and NAVEUR-Sixth Fleet, with the High Readiness Force Maritime Headquarters, the Allied and Partner Fleet Commanders, and Allied research and training centres.  

Our challenge now is to deliver that narrative of the Maritime Enterprise to the joint environment and the political level.

Moving forward lets talk a little bit more explicitly about threat capabilities or concerns and how we are dealing with them – clearly we are skimming the waves at this classification.

Kalibr.  With three years behind us in tracking and posturing against Russia’s light fleet of Kalibr platforms – DDGs, FFGs, SSKs, PGGS – we have learned that a credible NATO maritime presence where the Kalibr-firers are located supports deterrence.  NATO and Allied units need to be able to assure the Alliance that the missile threat can be managed and countered.

Intensity of ASW, credible capability.  A major push during my tenure as MARCOM was to improve our ASW capability.  Through a series of exercises in the Med, off Norway and off Iceland, as well as operations, I believe we have done so.  Certainly, we have dusted off tactics and procedures.  The lesson for me is the critical need for MARCOM to have ready access at all times to a minimum ASW force in a strategic sea like the Med or North Atlantic, even if that is one good ASW frigate with a towed array, one SSK and a regular MPA schedule.

But as I said, that is today’s technology.  Worried about ASW - MARCOM is fostering experimentation with autonomous underwater vehicles as a key agenda item agenda in every ASW exercise we were able to.   There is terrific scope for the use of wave gliders or similar technology  in understanding the acoustic environment.  We are working closely with CMRE – the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation – in bringing R&D to NATO for operational exploitation. I would like to see NATO just purchase such assets as the underwater equivalent of AWACS, so that they are part of every NATO task group.

Information flow, data handling and secure communications is also a real focus. Under the recent NATO Adaptation decisions, MARCOM has been reconstituted as the Alliance’s Theatre Maritime Component.  This requires us to maintain 360 degree coverage of the maritime domain, connectivity with all NATO and Allied forces, indeed with every stakeholder in NATO defence and security at sea. Our Maritime Operations Centre recently underwent a major upgrade to give us this capacity and I will see a substantial increase in MOC staff this year. 

BUT there remain challenges.  Ensuring secure communications to our Standing Forces often takes too long and carries too much bureaucratic pain.  We need to be better at addressing the cyber challenges to secure data transfer.  And it is still a challenge to get everyone to share operational information, and sometimes to understand what was needed.

There is another kind of connectivity I would also like to flag:  Success for MARCOM and NATO depends on how well we connect to those other stakeholders in maritime security and defence. 

Since its creation, MARCOM has had a close relationship with the EU’s Operation Sophia in the Central Mediterranean.  Their activity was complimentary to our Operation Sea Guardian and we have endeavoured to support them wherever possible with information and occasionally refuelling.  I have a close personal contact with Rear Admiral Credendino, and our staffs liaise continuously.

I must also mention our operational partners in Operation Sea Guardian, Georgia and Israel.  Both have Liaison Officers at MARCOM who add greatly to our regional understanding. Both countries have provided valuable information on the patterns of life at sea. 

Turning to Sea Guardian itself, I might surprise you by saying that it has been an unexpected success up to this year. OSG was built to re-vamp our maritime security effort, make it intelligence led and separately resourced from the Standing Forces. And most ambitiously, to make an actual difference in deterring and countering terrorism and deterring transnational organised crime that often supports it. 

We have succeeded on several fronts.  The operation has had a good resource profile up through 2018 and, being careful here, nations have made it an intel-driven operation.  It looks very little like the search for ‘anomalies in ship behaviour or AIS transmission’ of years past.  And again, being careful, we have made a difference in countering terrorism by uncovering the linkages between terror groups and criminal activities.

Our take away for this conference is that there is still a demand for maritime security and MIO capable ships in Alliance inventories.  Criminality and trafficking at sea remains huge and we need the assets to monitor, track, board and seize.  We need the secure communications and the bridges to info systems of INTERPOL, national home offices, and the police.

So …Crikey a great deal going on and I have given this a most ambitious sweep. I would want you to take away the nature of the Chess Board not the Cold War.  I think we are tracking hostile activity across a broad range of fronts and locations – we are not fighting for territory but deterring a foe in a space that is media one moment, cyber the next, freedom of movement the next and then presence the next.  And ... ideas and values throughout. Singly one moment and then in a handful of linked points the next.

Aligning capabilities – well ... information systems, security and discipline so that we can build networks and partnerships is critical.  Then fast, agile and credible platforms – capable of presence at less cost and delivering credible effect.

And of course all this backed up with credible strike capability in the air and from the sea.

Thank you.

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