We tend to go on and on about random exercises here on Foxtrot Alpha, but this time, it’s different. Operation Dynamic Mongoose is the biggest anti-submarine exercise NATO has ever conducted, and it reflects both deep-seated fears and the effort to catch up on years of management mistakes.
And yeah, Dynamic Mongoose is a pretty silly name.
When NATO says that the exercise is the biggest one it’s ever held, they aren’t joking. Submarines from Germany, Norway, the United States, and Sweden are converging on chilly Norwegian waters, variously playing the hunter and the pursued. Particularly astute observers of geopolitics might note that Sweden, funnily enough, isn’t actually a member of the vaunted North Atlantic Treaty Organization. While it is friendly with virtually every country in the alliance, it’s never formally joined up for a variety of reasons.
But when it comes to hunting for submarines, Sweden recently received a big reason to up its game, so here it is.
It’s not just about Sweden, however. More than a dozen surface ships from Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the US are taking part as well, along with a ton of personnel and aviation elements.
In short, it’s kind of a big deal. But the reasons why NATO has decided to make such an effort now don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s the result of years of buildup, and, because this is NATO, Russia.
The buildup in this case isn’t actually the result of an increase in forces, but rather the opposite. In the immediate post-Cold War era, when it looked as if humanity might be seeing a new dawn of peace. To anyone that’s been alive in the past 20 years, it’s a bit obvious that that didn’t happen. But for awhile there, it looked like this whole “easy peace” thing might work out, and we even had the Red Army Choir sing “Sweet Home Alabama” with a bunch of Finns in weird suits with even weirder hair.
Things were looking pretty great.
So great, in fact, that the United States Navy (and by extension, NATO) cut deep into its anti-submarine warfare efforts. Billions of dollars were poured into technologies for low-intensity, littoral conflicts, and things once used to hunt Soviet submarines, like the aircraft carrier-based S-3 Viking, were retired without direct replacement.
And it wasn’t just the Americans cutting back, either. The British Royal Air Force retired its land-based Hawker Siddeley Nimrods, and the Dutch put a heavy anti-air emphasis into its surface fleet. Similar re-focusing was reflected pretty much across the board when it came to NATO budgeting, if for nothing else than a great sense of optimism about the future.
But while everything was looking all shiny topside, underneath the surface the world was getting more dangerous. Major advances were made in submarine stealth, with technologies like Air Independent Propulsion coming to the fore, enabling less wealthy countries to build non-nuclear yet incredibly quiet submarines.
And the whole time, lurking like the big bear in the room no one wanted to talk about, was the Russian Navy. It completely atrophied in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with once-mighty Typhoon-class ballistic missile subs left rotting away in icy shipyards. But it didn’t stay that way long.
With the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with the corresponding rise in global oil prices, the Russian Navy saw a bit of a rebound. Massive development was put into new submarine technologies and classes, along with new submarine-launched ballistic missile technology.
In just the past few years, the world has seen Russia launch submarines of the Borei-class and Yasen-class for the first time, in addition to new improved Kilo-class submarines and special service subs, as well as the entry into service of the Bulava submarined-launched ballistic missile. The size of the Russian sub fleet now totals around 60 boats.
But it’s not just Russia. China, too, has found submarines to be a cost-effective way of making sure NATO doesn’t get too comfortable with its aircraft carriers, and the contentious staredowns in the South China Sea look like they’re going to get worse, before they get any better. Couple that with Type-093G subs capable of launching supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and suddenly NATO isn’t very comfortable at all.
Put the lack of submarine hunting equipment and skills on the NATO side, and the increased focus on subs on the Russian, Chinese, and yes, even the nutty North Korean side, and you can see why NATO now wants to make a show of force in its anti-sub capabilities.
The only question is whether or not this whole thing is effective. We’re not the only ones who are curious, either. From the sound of people on the inside, it looks like Russia’s interested, too.
Photos credit: NATO Maritime Command, the Associated Press