Russian naval assets are very active offshore in support of Moscow’s Ukrainian campaign. NATO has responded with a large-scale deployment of its naval forces.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Turkey has, unsurprisingly, enacted its powers under the Montreux Convention, thereby preventing the passage of warships through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. NATO has therefore concentrated its forces around the Eastern Mediterranean and the North Sea.
The main objectives of these deployments are the protection of shipments of Western-supplied military equipment to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They also send a message to Moscow that NATO is keeping a close eye on the conflict, and is determined to maintain the security of neighbouring countries of the multinational alliance, despite not becoming directly involved in the land war.
An early catalyst for NATO naval operations was the deployment to the Black Sea of a Russian Task Group, operating from Moscow’s naval base in Tartus, Syria. This task group included the Slava-class cruisers Marshal Ustinov and Varyag and a number of Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines.
The response from NATO was the early deployment to the Eastern Mediterranean of three Carrier Strike Groups (CSG) led by the Italian Navy’s Cavour, operating Harrier fighter-bombers, the French Navy’s Charles De Gaulle with Rafale fighter-bombers, and the US Navy’s Harry S. Truman, with an air group that includes F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter-bombers and EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes, with escort provided by surface warships and submarines.
This show of force visibly demonstrated NATO’s determination to protect its Eastern flank by means of long-range power projection of its maritime forces. The CSGs carried out surface and sub-surface warfare evolutions while their fixed-wing aircraft components engaged in multiple air policing operations over Eastern Europe in conjunction with land-based NATO aviation assets.
Following up on this deployment was Exercise Cold Response 2022, conducted in northern waters. The exercise fleet was led by the British carrier Prince of Wales, the current NATO High Maritime Readiness Force flagship. The carrier did not operate any of the UK’s still-scarce F-35B fighter-bomber force, but hosted anti-submarine and troop-carrying helicopters from the UK Royal Navy and a number of other navies. Other major units were the Italian carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi and the amphibious warfare vessels Rotterdam and Albion, from the Netherlands and UK respectively.
Some 27,000 soldiers and marines were reportedly involved in what was billed as the largest Arctic exercise to have been held since the end of the Cold War. Personnel from some 25 nations were involved as participants or observers.
This long-planned exercise was intended to gain experience of sustained combat in conditions of extreme cold, but it doubtless also made clear to Russia’s President Putin that NATO has the capability to mount a response from seaward to any serious escalation of the conflict in Ukraine.
At least 50 NATO-assigned major warships are known to have been deployed in these operations, including an unprecedented five aircraft carriers from four nations.
Major NATO warships confirmed to have participated in operations in and around Eastern Mediterranean and North Sea:
- United States
- Aircraft carrier: Harry S. Truman
- Command ship: Mount Whitney
- Forrest Sherman
- Jason Dunham
- Aircraft carrier: Charles De Gaulle
- Destroyer: Forbin
- Amphibious warfare vessel: Dixmude
- Corvette: Erfurt
- Replenishment ship: Berlin
- Aircraft carriers
- Giuseppe Garibaldi
- Aircraft carriers
- Frigate: Fridtjof Nansen
- Amphibious warfare vessel: Rotterdam
- Van Amstel
- De Zeven Provincien
- United Kingdom
- Aircraft carrier: Prince of Wales
- Amphibious warfare vessel: Albion
- Frigate: Northumberland
- Frigate: Peter Willemoes
In addition to the above assets, numerous auxiliary support ships, submarines and mine warfare vessels have reportedly been deployed
Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.