Washington – Some of the roughest waters in the world are in what sailors call the High North, especially the Barents Sea on the northwest Arctic coast of Russia. In a tightly confined bay, the base of Severomorsk is home to Russia’s most capable naval force, the Northern Fleet. This past week a flotilla including three American destroyers, a massive supply ship and a British frigate entered the Barents, the first such venture for U.S. surface ships since the end of the Cold War.
Seeking to avoid any surprises, the U.S. Navy informed the Russians of the deployment, although there isn’t any requirement to do so under international law. The area where the flotilla is operating is clearly high seas, through which any nation is free to transit. The U.S. Navy reported that it is conducting a variety of training events, including for anti-submarine warfare.
This is a difficult place to operate, even in relatively mild late spring. It is also famous to naval personnel from the days of the Murmansk convoys in World War II, when allied ships were bringing war materials to Russian partners in the fight against Hitler.
I sailed those northern waters (not quite to the Barents, but inside the Arctic Circle) years ago in both an aircraft carrier (relatively smooth sailing) and in a destroyer about a tenth the size of the carrier. The destroyer struggled in heavy seas, and over a third of my crew lay flat on their backs with seasickness. Both deployments were post-Cold War and in relatively benign times in terms of interacting with the Russian fleet. That is not the case today.
Indeed, relations between Russia and the United States are deteriorating badly. Over the past few weeks, Russian bombers and submarines have conducted close-in patrols around the coasts of both the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The U.S. has protested Russian testing of anti-satellite weapons, and the two nations are in a diplomatic disagreement over a possible extension of the New Start nonproliferation treaty, which expires early next year. There have also been new outbreaks of combat in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are clashing with the government forces. Why is the U.S. picking this moment to send a powerful group of ships north?
There are three key reasons. First is simply responding to Russia’s provocations. In particular, Russian surface ships have been undertaking forceful and dangerous maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean on the fringes of the Syrian conflict. Russian bombers have been probing the northern borders of the alliance from Alaska to the Baltics. And, above all, we have seen increased Russian submarine activity throughout the north Atlantic. The allied surface flotilla, which unlike submarine deployments is highly visible, sends a clear signal to Moscow.
Second, deployments like this are a rare but important training opportunity. U.S. ships typically operate in the far more benign waters of the western Pacific, Mediterranean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and central Atlantic.
As I learned over the course of that rough week at sea up north, our crews need to practice operating in very demanding seamanship environments. Operating the weapons and sensors, and particularly the difficult replenishment at sea (taking on fuel, ammunition and stores while “hooked up” to the supply ship and crashing through difficult waters), is not something in which you can have full confidence until you execute it repeatedly.
Finally, this type of alliance operation is crucial — and in that sense, this flotilla is a disappointment. The U.S. wanted a large group participating, yet only the British chose to come along. The Norwegians, who normally have been very willing to cooperate in their backyard, are missing in action. This is especially surprising considering that Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a former Norwegian prime minister who has been particularly forthright in pushing back on Russian bad behavior.
It would have been reasonable to expect the Germans, Italians and French — all of whom operate surface ships capable of handling the northern waters — to come along. And Canada, with the largest NATO border on the Arctic, was conspicuously absent as well.
An interesting tie-in to the deployment is the selection days ago of an Italian-designed frigate, the Fremm class, as the newest U.S. Navy warship. While the ships will be built by American workers in a Wisconsin shipyard (owned by the Italian shipmaker Fincantieri SpA), the selection is a powerful signal of engagement and cooperation between U.S. and European defense firms.
It should also improve future interoperability between the U.S. Navy and the NATO allies who already operate the Fremm class. Over time, one hopes, such cooperation will encourage broader participation in group deployments like this one to the Arctic.
Still, even this modest flotilla is a sensible and clear demonstration to Russia that the U.S. and the U.K. are willing to operate in challenging waters in a corner of the world’s oceans that the Russians wrongly see as their own property.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.