May 03, 2017

CNAS Releases Report on Russian Challenges in the North Atlantic

Washington, May 3 – As Russia continues to look for opportunities to undermine the European project and weaken transatlantic resolve and unity, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Transatlantic Security Program Director Julianne Smith and CNAS Defense Strategies and Assessments Program Director Jerry Hendrix have written a new report, “Forgotten Waters: Minding the GIUK Gap.” The report stems from CNAS’ Forgotten Waters tabletop exercise in February of this year. In the exercise, 70 high-level participants from Europe and the United States were divided into six teams representing the major nations and entities with interests in the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. The teams were given three sequential, unclassified, and increasingly escalatory moves to which they had to respond.

The study highlights several key insights from the completion of the tabletop exercise and issues recommendations for the United States and its allies to clarify their strategy and strengthen their capabilities.

Please find the report below:


Russia’s aggressive actions in recent years have reminded us of the importance of transatlantic resolve and of maintaining strong deterrence. In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, and particularly during the most recent tenure of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has changed; once a reluctant but pragmatic partner, it is an increasingly aggressive actor as in earlier strategic eras. Its military has begun to transition, too: in a state of disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is now a steadily modernizing force with significant capabilities focused on traditional and asymmetric missions. Russia has paired its military capabilities with an array of gray zone tactics involving proxies, subterfuge, and disinformation designed to intimidate neighbors and sow divisions among the transatlantic partners. The current reality of Russian power and ambition necessitates a renewed examination of Russian strategy across traditional and emerging domains.

The maritime domain, in particular, is once again garnering increased attention among NATO allies, especially as Russian submarines have become more capable, while Allied anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities have atrophied over time. Defense experts now caution that the “GIUK Gap”—a line stretching between Greenland and Iceland to the United Kingdom—is a potential flashpoint between NATO and Russia, whose Murmanskbased Northern Fleet must transit the Gap to reach the Atlantic. So that Russia’s maritime assets might project force and support its interests, Putin revamped Russia’s national security strategy in 2016 to stress unfettered maritime access to the Atlantic. This partially explains why the GIUK Gap has seen more submarine traffic and higher tensions in recent years. Although Russia recently announced cuts to its defense spending, the authors believe that it will continue to devote resources to advanced nuclear submarines and other platforms that promise asymmetric advantages. Russian submarine patrols in the area hit recently a post–Cold War high; low-level, high speed Russian aircraft flybys of U.S. naval warships have increased. As a result, focus on Allied maritime capabilities that could deter these actions has heightened.

Although America’s Navy remains considerably larger than Russia’s, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway have announced both upgrades and expansions to their maritime patrol aircraft fleets after realizing that they had allowed these capabilities to wane over the past two decades. The Pentagon has proposed a five-year investment of $8.1 billion in undersea warfare capabilities, including nine Virginia-class attack submarines that can launch up to 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles each. The United States is also planning to use part of the recently quadrupled U.S. European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) to modernize facilities at Iceland’s Keflavik Air Station to support rotational deployments of the P-8 aimed at increasing surveillance of Russian maritime traffic. In 2016, the United States also deployed F-15 aircraft and 350 Air Force personnel to Iceland and the Netherlands for support and training. Furthermore, both the Norwegian and United Kingdom governments have agreed to purchase P-8s to improve allied capability to monitor the GIUK Gap. These moves represent a renewed interest in ASW to address the security needs of the GIUK Gap.

Smith and Hendrix are available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at or 202-457-9409.


  • Julianne Smith

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy, where she coedits “Shadow Government.” She is also a senior advisor at WestExec Advisors, an adjunct senio...

  • Jerry Hendrix

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program

    Jerry Hendrix was the Senior Fellow and the Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain in the United States Navy, his staff ...