WASHINGTON — A resurgent Russia is creating an "arc of steel" meant to challenge and confront NATO, a top US naval officer warned Tuesday.
"We are observing the manifestation of a more aggressive, more capable Russian Navy," Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of US Naval Forces Europe and commander of the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, said in Washington. "It is naval capability focused directly on addressing the perceived advantages of NATO navies. And they are signaling us and warning us that the maritime domain is contested."
Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Ferguson described a revived Russian military that is expanding its capabilities from Cold War days.
"Responsiveness is a new element, as we have seen that Russian actions have fully integrated the elements of speed and strategic surprise," he said, adding that "the language coming from the Russian military reflects the mindset and actions characteristic of direct challenge and confrontation with NATO."
Earlier this year, Ferguson noted, Russia unveiled a new maritime strategy placing "greater emphasis on the seas surrounding Russia, [amid] talks of projection into the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
"They have talked about establishing a permanent presence in the Mediterranean and in breaking out from their perceived military encirclement by NATO military structures, economic sanctions and political isolation."
Ferguson described Russian activity on multiple fronts — reactivating Cold War military bases in the Arctic, reviving capabilities in the Baltic, and the recent deployment of ground, air and sea forces to Syria.
"This remilitarization of Russian security policy is evident by the construction of an arc of steel from the Arctic to the Mediterranean," Ferguson said. "Starting in their new Arctic bases, to Leningrad in the Baltic and Crimea in the Black Sea, Russia has introduced advanced air defense, cruise missile systems and new platforms.
"It is also building the capability to project power in the maritime domain. Their base in Syria now gives them the opportunity to do so in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"This is a sea denial strategy focused on NATO maritime forces. Their intent is to have the ability to hold at risk the maritime forces operating in these areas and thus deter NATO operations."
On land Russia could confront Black Sea countries, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The sea frontiers form flanking areas that would support operations on the ground.
"Their Arctic bases and their $2.4 billion investment in the Black Sea fleet expansion by 2020 demonstrates their commitment to develop their military infrastructure on the flanks," Ferguson pointed out.
He also noted the dramatic rise in new submarine capabilities.
"They are also expanding the reach of assets to project power from this arc, specifically the proficiency and operational tempo of the Russian submarine force is increasing. According to Russian Navy chief Admiral [Viktor] Chirkov, the intensity of Russian submarine patrols has risen by almost 50 percent over the last year. Russia has increased their operational tempo with this force to levels not seen in over a decade," Ferguson said.
"Russia has also introduced new capabilities, such as newer and more stealthy nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile defense submarines," he added. "They are also expanding the reach of their submarines with advanced cruise missiles. Just last month the first Caliber [cruiser missile]-equipped Kilo [diesel-electric] submarine transited from the Northern Fleet to the Black Sea — the first of six — bringing within its range the eastern half of Europe."
Russian tactics using deception and ambiguity are combined with new abilities in cyber and electronic warfare, Ferguson told the Atlantic Council audience.
"Russia is also integrating asymmetric capabilities fully into their conventional military actions. This involves the use of space, cyber, information warfare and hybrid warfare designed to cripple the decision-making cycle of the [NATO] alliance," Ferguson said.
"Their capabilities are focused on the creation of ambiguity. On land, Russia exploits ethnic and religious divisions, makes use of an aggressive information campaign, and extensively uses misinformation and deception to de-legitimize the forces under attack while confusing the attribution of their actions. At sea they are focused on disrupting decision cycles."
Across the Russian services, there has also been a significant increase in "snap" drills, where units are given little or no notice to get underway or take to the air.
"They are also centralizing their national and military decision-making," Ferguson said. "We are seeing more frequent snap exercises focused on rapid mobilization and movement directed by a central headquarters, to include their naval forces. We have seen large numbers of ships get underway with little or no notice."
To meet these challenges, Ferguson said NATO and US forces should have three priorities.
"We must invest in our navies in three areas to be a credible deterrent in the maritime domain," he said.
"First, we must in training at the high end of warfighting skill. Second, forces must be on call for real world operations.
"And third, we must invest to pace the growing Russian capabilities."