‘Liminal or hybrid warfare is not going to result in great tank battles in the Fulda or Suwalki Gaps’
Interview by Octavian Manea
SWJ Q&A with Admiral (Ret.) James Foggo, a distinguished Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Over the last decade in Naples, Italy, he served in multiple major commands as Commander, Naval Forces Europe/Africa; Commander Allied Joint Force Command, Naples; Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet; Commander, Submarine Group 8; and Commander, Submarines, Allied Naval Forces South.
OM: Seven years after the Crimea annexation, the Black Sea remains what has been called the ‘soft underbelly of NATO’. How do you see the transformation/the changes in the Russian way of warfare and what worries you about them? There is a term that I found very useful in this context coined by David Kilcullen in his most recent book where he talks about a special type of warfare that of liminal warfare - essentially ‘riding the edge’, exploiting the ambiguity of blurred lines of conflict to challenge an established order and exert control on key parts of the regional commons - practiced in a certain ecosystem, a geographical area ‘transitioning between two states of being…that are in limbo, that have ambiguous political, legal and psychological status’.
JF: My introduction to the Black Sea took place in early 2011. In 2010, I became a one-star admiral in charge of Submarine Group 8 in the Allied Submarine South that included the navies of the Southern Mediterranean and Black Sea region countries that operated submarines (Greece and Turkey). At that time, we were bringing the Arleigh Burke Class Destroyers to Rota, Spain as Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF). It was our desire to use those ships in multi-mission capacity, not just for missile defense which is their primary mission, but to perform other multi-missions: anti-submarine warfare, anti-air warfare, maritime interdiction operations, etc. The US DDG is really a versatile platform. We sent one of these destroyers then to the Black Sea for the first time and the Russians were not happy about it. The Burke Class Destroyers have the ability to carry the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3)--the best ballistic missile interceptor in the world. When the Russians protested against the destroyer sailing in the Black Sea on a legitimate Montreux convention request, the response of the Sixth Fleet Commander at the time—Admiral Harry Harris was –“Well, send another one!” The important lesson learned here is that you have to be present for both your allies and partners to receive reassurance and to let others that want to challenge you know that you are going to be there with like-minded nations in solidarity. In other words, “Virtual presence equals actual absence!” Eventually, the Russians got used to a US DDG entering and operating in the Black Sea.
As this relationship progressed with the post-Soviet era Russian Federation, there was actual dialogue, we had joint military activities with their forces. Every year, it became a milestone event to build and approve the “Russia Work-Plan.” Everything done in collaboration with Russian Forces was approved at the Secretary of Defense level. In fact, during the run-up to the Olympic Games in Sochi we had two ships in the Black Sea, but then out of the blue, came the illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russia Work Plan ground to a halt. We should have seen this coming after the 2008 attack on Georgia but for some reason we didn’t. As a community of western allies and partners we were completely surprised. This was accomplished through what David Kilcullen calls liminal warfare or essentially hybrid warfare by a different name. Personally, I don’t like the “little green men” expression, but I do appreciate and understand hybrid. Undermining a sovereign nation can be done without firing a shot through intimidation, spawning social or nationalistic unrest, capitalizing on social-media and utilizing the new domains of cyber and space in coordinated attacks that occur under the threshold of a NATO Charter Article 5. All these things happened and now Crimea has been annexed and there exists a continuing tension along the border in Donbas or what is often called a frozen conflict. Sometimes this area heats up as we saw most recently with the build-up of a 100,000 Russian forces along the line of demarcation between Crimea and the rest of the Ukraine. In the final analysis, I was relieved that the Russians stood down, but they proved they can do this quickly and that it wouldn’t have taken much to go from an exercise to a real-world operation and cross that line in Donbas. Accordingly, we need to continue to maintain our presence in the Black Sea - the soft underbelly of Eastern Europe.
OM: What does the hybrid component mean when applied to maritime issues? I think we’ve seen of glimpse of that when we look to the Russian actions in the Azov Sea or in the broader Black Sea ecosystem.
JF: Hybrid or liminal warfare conveys that something is “brewing” as I said earlier, and brewing below the threshold of an Article 5 violation. We have this expression in the West called the “boiling frog.” The frog sits in a pot of water that is slowly brought to a boil. In the final analysis, the temperature change is so subtle over time, that the frog never realizes that it’s been cooked. Some of the incremental changes or encroachment that have taken place in the Black Sea region during the last decade and my tenure of seven commands in Europe remind me of the boiling frog scenario.
For example, beyond Russian actions in Georgia in 2008 and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, I was the Commander of Naval Forces Europe in 2018 when the Sea of Azov incident (where Russian FSB vessels fired on, rammed and captured Ukrainian naval vessels) took place. The regulation of the Sea of Azov is different than the regulation of the Black Sea or other body of waters under the UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). The Sea of Azov is regulated by a bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine that was signed in 2004. As a result, it is the business of these two signatories to resolve their differences in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, thereby limiting what Western powers can do on the other side of the Kerch bridge and up to the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Nevertheless, when I was the Naval Forces Europe Commander, I said both publicly and privately, that left unchecked, the West might see an export of this protocol/pattern of bad behavior from the Sea of Azov into the Black Sea. In other words, the Russians could export this protocol of restricting access to the Sea of Azov to the rest of the Black Sea. I believe this is exactly what happened recently, coincident with the build-up of Russian land and air forces near Donbas, followed by Russian Navy forces announcing a number of closure areas in the approaches to the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea throughout this summer and into the fall. This is a form of hybrid warfare.
They tried the same thing during the Trident Juncture 2018 off the coast of Norway and the Norwegians told me it was the first time that they had seen a declaration of a closure area for a missile exercise in their EEZ very close to their territorial waters, as well as in the middle of Trident Juncture maritime operations. When you declare closure areas, under the auspices of the UNCLOS - you don’t “own” that piece of ocean. The oceans are called the “global commons” for a reason. Nations declare closure areas to notify their intent to conduct dangerous military activities (like a missile exercise) for the benefit of civilian traffic in the impacted areas. It is intended to be a safety mechanism but can be abused to cut off sea lines of communications and normal transit routes. This is what is happening today—it is an unfair practice and it should be stopped—so what can you do about it? There is no reason you can’t sail into those areas, particularly if nothing is going on at the time. Demonstrating the will and the ability to project power and presence is very important. Both sides eventually get used to it. It is important to challenge this kind of hybrid warfare at sea with presence operations that are non-hostile. It is also important that in doing so, we reduce the chance of mistakes and miscalculations on the high seas during close encounters between US/NATO and Russian warships. There needs to be a broader NATO multilateral agreement on this and I would suggest that NATO Navies conduct a closer examination of the Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) for risk mitigation during “unplanned” encounters, particularly in the Black Sea.
OM: Let’s reflect a bit on the broader consequences of Russia investing massively in counter-power-projections bastions to neutralize some of the traditional features of the American/Western Way of war. How do they change local balances of power? What worries you the most? How should US and NATO forces change how they operate in increasingly such non-permissive environments?
JF: This should not come as a surprise to the West. It was back at the turnover of the millennium, around 2000, when it was recognized at least in Washington, in some think tanks and amongst the strategic minds in the Pentagon – one of these was Andy Marshall who was the head of the Net Assessment – that an anti-access/area denial strategy was a very real and rather inexpensive manner in which to secure an area of a coastline or airspace against any potential threat or amphibious landing of an opposing force. Early in this century, we started to see the build-up of the highest density of weapon systems (an interlocking system of coastal missiles, interceptor aircraft, air-defense systems, surface ships, and submarines) in one geographic area – Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea. It was really the first A2/AD bastion that was created in this post-Cold War Russian Federation world. An A2/AD strategy can be very effective. It builds on the proliferation of weapons of asymmetric warfare and although it is effective in protecting a coastline, it can also reach out much further than territorial waters and into the open ocean where it can restrict the ability of commercial shipping to conduct freedom of navigation on the sea lines of communication in international waters.
When talking about A2/AD, I always refer back to a famous war-game in United States called Millennium Challenge where a retired Marine Cops officer, Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper took command of the Red Force (the opposing force) and created an A2/AD strategy that it was so effective that the exercise had to be re-set and had to started over. Over time, because the A2/AD strategy has been successful, particularly the Russians and now the Chinese, are both investing their resources to protect their interests and project power far from their respective coastlines. Who would have ever thought that the Russians would have established such a significant presence in Syria? In fact, they’ve created an A2/AD cordon around Syria and out into the Mediterranean which raises tension in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the annexation of Crimea in Black Sea they’ve done the same thing with S-300 and S-400 systems that form a cordon of early warning well beyond 12 miles from land. There are also increasing numbers of reported incidents of GPS jamming or spoofing in the Black Sea and other maritime domains where we operate. These are all functions of the expansion of the domain(s) of warfare from what used to be 3 domains (land, sea, air) into now 5 domains (+ cyber and + space).
One of the things I’ve told to my friends in the Black Sea was that if this A2/AD strategy is being effectively employed by our adversaries, why don’t you try it yourself? In fact, building a network of connected surveillance along the coastline is exactly what Romania and Bulgaria are doing. The challenge is to connect on the other side with Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey as well.
It’s becoming very busy in the Black Sea especially when you add the 6 Kilo class submarines (2 that are operating in the Eastern Med, 4 that are operating in the Black Sea) that carry the very capable Kalibr cruise missile which Russia proved it works very well in combat. With the reach of the Kalibr weapons system, they can essentially target any capital city in Europe. We need to know where those vessels are at any one time. This can be very challenging.
OM: The traditional discussion when you try to counter and A2/AD posture is either to incentivize allies to build their A2/AD capabilities but on the side is also the idea of adopting an ASB (Air Sea Battle) kind of thinking. Is this also part of the broader picture that NATO should have in mind for the Black Sea ecosystem?
JF: The new strategic review that was conducted by NATO happened to be led by one of CEPA’s own Dr. Wess Mitchell, a brilliant diplomat and scholar. To my great delight the report underscored the need for a new NATO maritime strategy. The last one was published in 2011, before of the return of the Russian Federation and the rise of China as a peer competitor.
Often times when a crisis occurs, we are late to recognize it because a failure of indications and warnings, we were not paying attention to signals and then we respond by “running to the sound of guns.” I had two grandfathers in the First World War in the trenches and my father hit the beach in Normandy after D-Day—they
ran to the sound of guns…
In the NATO maritime domain, often times we will also run to the sound of the guns. Is it in response to a snap exercise in the High North or the Arctic region? Is it in response to high tension in the waters off Kaliningrad or is it in response to the most recent build-up in Donbas both at sea and on the land?
With a strategy you have a plan. There are branches and sequels to that plan. These plans are adapted to geographical regions, like the GRPs. When you have a plan then you understand what tools, capabilities and what capacity and types of ships you need to successfully deter or defend. When you articulate those types of platforms and the capabilities that goes with them (anti-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare) that costs the Alliance in terms of resources from individual nations or NATO Common Funding. A strategy can provide some form of coalescence and agreement on who provides what to support the plan.
The last piece of the puzzle that is really important about any strategy is what we in the United States call a Time Phased Force Development Doctrine (TPFDD) – i.e. who goes first and when and where do follow-on forces arrive?
Incorporating all of these things in the paragraphs preceding will constitute a maritime strategy that is much overdue.
OM: What are the implications for the West of what you call as the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic? How should NATO adapt its maritime posture to deal effectively with it?
JF: When I coined the expression the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic with my brilliant co-author, Dr. Alarik Fritz back in 2016, neither of us realized how popular that expression would become.
At the time, we were sounding the alarm on the fact that ‘Russia employs an “arc of steel” from the Arctic through the Baltic and down to the Black Sea. Russia has the capability to hold nearly all NATO maritime forces at risk. No longer is the maritime space uncontested. For the first time in almost 30 years, Russia is a significant and aggressive maritime power’.
This response to our warning order on the return of the Russian Federation (particularly in the undersea domain) was met with strong resolve on the part of the Alliance. We are able to assign an extra fleet to augment the 6th Fleet and MARCOM and our NATO Allies in deterring and defending the euro-Atlantic theatre. When people asked me during my time as Naval Forces Europe Commander—Is the US withdrawing from Europe?—I said absolutely not. Let’s look at some recent events. We just re-inculcated the Second Fleet that’s been decommissioned for a while. We agreed to create a Joint Forces Command HQ in Norfolk, Virginia to bolster the pillar of the transatlantic bridge from the North America to Europe. That was a significant event and expenditure of resources on the part of the United States. Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, USN, has done a great job taking that organization from initial operational capability to full operational capability. He deployed forward and took command of the BALTOPS and established an expeditionary HQ in Iceland in advance of one of our Carrier Strike Group deployments.
It should be also stated that the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic is not only about the Atlantic Ocean. It is also the other oceans and seas that connect with the Atlantic Ocean including the Arctic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea. In fact, the Arctic Ocean represents the trans-Polar bridge between Northern Europe and the Barents Sea in the Western Pacific. It is an area of common ground between the Pacific and the Atlantic and Northern Europe and it brings us together with our Asian allies and partners. This region, encompassing the coastlines of eight bordering Arctic nations, including the Russians (they have 40% of the coastline and a lot of the natural resources are on their continental shelf) we have a new arrival—a self-declared “Near Arctic Nation” – China.
The Baltic Sea is another important region. Like the Black Sea is a closed area of water, you have to get through a strait to get there so there is a choke point. It is a thriving economic area and nobody wants to disrupt that through major power conflict or regional crisis. We want to be calm, prosperous, stable, secure and safe for all the Baltic Sea nations. The same situation exists in the Black Sea or Mediterranean Sea. The concept of the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic and how you respond to it or how you prevent in getting worse is important to all these important bodies of water.
OM: You commanded one of the biggest post-Cold War exercises of NATO - Trident Juncture 2018. Core dimensions of NATO adaptation after Crimea annexation such as VJTF or NRF were exercised then. What were the lessons that you’ve learned from Trident Juncture 2018?
JF: It remains the most successful NATO exercise since the Cold War. For me, Trident Juncture was the pinnacle of my 39-year career and the chance to command a force of 50,000 NATO Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines onboard 70 ships, 265 aircraft and 10,000 tracked or rolling vehicles. It was an Article 5 exercise and even though we used a fictitious adversary’s name as reporters continued to press me, I acquiesced that it was all about the Russians and our ability to deter and defend in the euro-Atlantic theatre. We spend 90% of our time deterring but we wanted them to understand that we are capable of moving a very large preponderance of force into the territory of a NATO nation whose sovereignty had been violated in order to defend it.
Under the Total Defence Concept, we received tremendous support in Norway from “Viking” military and civilian forces alike, including hoteliers, air traffic controllers, cab drivers, barbers and stevedores. The logistical statistics were stunning for the period of the exercise: 58 container ships arrived, 2100 containers delivered, 150 road convoys conducted, 1 million meals served, 660 tonnes of laundry washed, 35,000 beds established in the field.
It was the equivalent of moving 7 brigades in about a month. There was significant planning up until that event and in the future, we are not going to have the time to plan in this time horizon, but what the Trident Juncture demonstrated was that there is an incredible dependence in the Alliance on logistics and military mobility.
The Russians were also invited. They were able to see with complete transparency what NATO accomplished during the exercise. We demonstrated what we wanted to – that NATO alliance is extremely strong, cohesive, capable and so… don’t mess with us!
TRIDENT JUNCTURE contributed to deterrence not only just in the High North and Arctic but also all the way to the Black Sea. The more you raise the risk calculus for the adversary, the less likely they are to cross the line. In the case of hybrid warfare in the Ukraine (not a full member of the Alliance), the risk was low enough to make it attractive. I think that what’s went through the Russian leadership’s decision calculus. In particular, Russian leadership concluded that it could cross this line and take this territory without firing a shot, and so they did it.
We must consider this carefully in preparing for the future. Liminal or hybrid warfare is not going to result in great tank battles in the Fulda or Suwalki Gaps. I don’t think that traditional symmetrical warfare is what is going to happen. It is going to be these little pressurized pockets of intimidation below the threshold of article 5 and the boiling frog scenario – it happens and it’s done before we know it. In conclusion, I submit that if the precursor to war becomes the war itself, then we’ve got to re-evaluate the whole manner in which we conduct warfighting. I think that is where we are today. The next battle of the Atlantic is going to look a lot different than the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic that we are fighting today. Let’s do what it takes to be ready for it…