In the next five years, the familiar drone of U.S. P-3C Orions will fade over the North Atlantic. Though the United States has not forgotten about the Russian navy, the move is symbolic of an evolving U.S. defense doctrine and the future of global surveillance and global reach for the U.S. military.
The United States is in the process of shifting its P-3C Orion long-range maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft away from the Russian Northern Fleet. On Sept. 30, Naval Air Station (NAS) Keflavik in Iceland will formally close, though most of the Orions already have been transferred back to the continental United States. Iceland is situated in the middle of the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap, the most strategically significant naval battleground of the Cold War and the historical chokepoint and gateway to the North Atlantic. It has held absolutely pivotal strategic importance since the time German U-boats wreaked havoc in the North Atlantic. This transit was so important during the Cold War that the United States lined the ocean floor with the hydrophone sensors of the Sound Surveillance System, popularly known as the SOSUS warning network, which was designed to detect and track scores of Soviet submarines pouring across during a major European war. Even when it was first built, the system was so sensitive that it could track a specific ship from the continental United States and distinguish between different submarines of the same class based on minute differences in their acoustic signature. The complete closure of NAS Keflavik marks the end of an era.
Of course, two very important things have changed: the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet navy rusted away. Much of it is now moored to a pier resting on the harbor floor. In terms of sheer volume, the threat has almost completely evaporated. As for Russian fleet ballistic missile submarines, or boomers, there are giant, gaping holes in their patrol schedule that U.S. nuclear forces are briefed on every morning. U.S. Strategic Command will have several different indications that a Russian boomer has left port before the harbor tugs have left its side, with plenty of time to move assets into place before it crosses the SOSUS net. The importance of U.S. attack submarines and Orions is the ability to take out the Russian boomer. But with the diminished volume, U.K. Nimrod MRA-4s, the British counterpart to the Orion, can more than cover one or two Russian submarines. Meanwhile, the United States appears to have shifted responsibility for tracking and stalking Russian subs almost completely to its own attack submarine force. With Russian boomers still occasionally parking dozens of nuclear warheads off the eastern seaboard, the United States will never completely pass off that responsibility. However, under the cold surface of the Barents Sea, things have changed little in the last 15 years. It has become much quieter, but U.S. attack submarines still lurk and stalk Russian boomers as they conduct strategic deterrence patrols. Though the days of the P-3C Orion are coming to a close, their capabilities are still essential. The U.S. Navy is set to buy more than 100 new P-8A Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft from Boeing to replace the aging Orions, and hopes to have at least 40 deployable at any one time, with the first squadron operational in the next five years. Airborne assets are still an essential component of ASW. But the volume simply is not there in the North Atlantic to warrant a footprint in Iceland. In fact, the closest Orion base in the United States, NAS Brunswick in Maine, will be closed by 2011 and its assets transferred to NAS Jacksonville in Florida. Even though Canada maintains its own CP-140 Auroras (their designation for the P-3) at Canadian Forces Base Greenwood in Nova Scotia, this makes clear in no unequivocal terms what the United States thinks of the threat of a massive assault from the Russian navy. Its closest permanently stationed airborne ASW assets will be in New Jersey. These moves also are symbolic of a post-Sept. 11 U.S. military, which is moving toward a much more expeditionary stance even as it is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The days of maintaining large numbers of U.S. troops in overseas bases are ultimately numbered. The United States does not need to actively maintain large bases in Iceland and Maine in order to occasionally deploy airborne ASW assets. The next quarter century will see huge advances in the U.S. military's ability to conduct surveillance and project force farther than ever before. The new P-8s will probably never be anchored to a specific overseas location in the same way the Orions became a constant presence in Keflavik, although regular training exercises in the North Atlantic seem likely in the foreseeable future. The reduced threat aside, technological advances in surveillance are almost certainly the real driver behind the change in the U.S. presence. The acoustic sensitivity of the U.S. Navy is so far beyond Russian capability that it is hardly even worth a comparison. But the real advances — and exactly what these are remains highly classified — have been in space. Measurement and Signature Intelligence tracks a broad spectrum (from radar and infrared to magnetic and acoustic sensors) and recognizes changes over time. In other words, with the computing power now available, massive amounts of recorded data can be made to highlight meaningful changes. One capability discussed in the open source is the ability to look at a specific chunk of land and know — from space — whether a rat-size or a human-size creature moved across it in the last 24 hours. Similar advances in oceanographic monitoring almost certainly have been made — and this would have been a deciding factor in the closure of Keflavik.