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An `Awakening’ at Sea?: NATO and Maritime Security

Commentary, 7 April 2009
International Institutions, Maritime Forces
NATO's current maritime operations are important and effective, but their scope is limited by fickle political agendas. The Alliance needs to look beyond current flashpoints to future risks and develop a new maritime strategy.

NATO's current maritime operations are important and effective, but their scope is limited by fickle political agendas. The Alliance needs to look beyond current flashpoints to future risks and develop a new maritime strategy.

By Lee Willett, Head of Maritime Studies Programme

The sea has increasingly been used by terrorist organisations both as a means for moving personnel and materials and as an environment for conducting attacks. Recent years have witnessed a sea-borne terrorist operation against Mumbai, the attacks at sea on the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Cole in Yemen and on the French tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden, and also the foiled Al-Qa'ida plot to target military shipping transiting the Strait of Gibraltar. These instances have underscored the need for a specific focus on counter-terrorism operations at sea.

In October 2001, immediately after 9/11, NATO established Operation Active Endeavour to tackle maritime counter-terrorism threats emanating from and moving through the Mediterranean region. Active Endeavour remains NATO’s only Article V military commitment. The operations conducted by NATO naval forces under Active Endeavour have enabled NATO naval units to develop expertise ‘relevant to wider international efforts to combat terrorism and, in particular, the proliferation and smuggling of weapons of mass destruction, as well as enhanced cooperation with non-NATO countries and civilian agencies.’[1] This expertise is already being employed in other contexts – particularly in response to the upsurge in piracy in the Indian Ocean off the East African coast. In 2008, NATO ships escorted World Food Programme ships between Mombasa and Mozambique. In 2009, the three task groups currently assigned to counter-piracy operations in the region – the US-led Coalition Task Forces (CTF) 150 and 151, and the European Union Operation Atalanta – will be joined shortly by a NATO task force from Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG2) deployed on Operation Pearl. That operation was a return trip to Australia via the Far East, India and the Horn of Africa designed to demonstrate deployability, sustainability and presence out of area.[2] 

Refocusing on maritime security

The upsurge in incidences of piracy in the Horn of Africa region has turned the political spotlight onto counter-piracy operations and maritime security as a whole. This switch in focus is very welcome, yet it is somewhat sudden. Alongside using the sea for high-end military operations, navies have always been responsible for protecting sea lines of communication and commercial shipping, keeping open maritime choke points and guarding against the illegal use of the sea – all tasks have long been vital to stimulating the global maritime trading network upon which nations depend. Yet in today’s political landscape there is a strong demand for the development of political consensus, military concepts and fiscal capacity for addressing maritime security.

Active Endeavour clearly has had significant politico-strategic benefit for Alliance members and others. With a growing number of nations participating (including non-NATO nations such as Russia and the Ukraine), and with technological co-operation amongst contributing nations improving, the presence and the effects that Active Endeavour can generate have increased.

However, the contribution of NATO as an alliance to maritime security operations remains somewhat embryonic and is still in need of further political and military development. In a recent speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope (the UK’s Commander-in-Chief Fleet and Commander NATO Allied Maritime Component Command) argued that NATO’s ability to address maritime security issues in recent years has been limited severely by what he saw as a lack of policy focus on the issue. This neglect is the result of resource challenges and the overriding political focus on land campaigns.[3] Yet he went on to argue that there has in fact been an ‘awakening’ of NATO’s desire to address maritime security issues. Encountering ‘the most challenging security environment since World War Two’, Stanhope added that it is still ‘only natural for NATO to have a strong interest in enhancing its contribution to Allied and international maritime security’, with the sea being the ‘vital connecting medium’ between NATO’s key areas of interest.

Looking beyond the media agenda

In political terms, it will be important for NATO members to find a way of maintaining – and broadening - the current focus on maritime security. The case of SNMG2’s deployment to the Horn of Africa illustrates the fickleness and media-sensitivity of the political agenda. Piracy has been a global problem for some time. Yet it did not appear to be something governments made a concerted effort to address: amongst key nations (for example, the UK) maritime security is still not a stated Military Task. In other words, maritime security is not a force driver which generates a funding line for requisite equipment. However, the increased media and political spotlight on pirate attacks in the Horn of Africa region, and the concerns this has generated at the highest levels of governments and international organisations over increasing threats to energy supplies, has resulted in there now being no fewer than four separate naval task groups deployed to the same region to conduct the same task. Yet there is no political talk of deploying any multinational naval task group to the Gulf of Guinea on the west side of Africa, where narcotics smuggling is rife, where pirate attacks on oil and other resources cause immediate price spikes and where, critically, there is also a lack of governance ashore.

Maritime security, what is more, extends beyond the questions of piracy and terrorism. Russia, NATO’s perennial opponent, has deployed ships to three different oceans in the last six months albeit essentially as symbolic acts of naval diplomacy. More worrying for NATO, however, was that following Russia’s invasion of Georgia – and in particular Moscow’s evident willingness to use its Black Sea Fleet to blockade legitimate maritime trade travelling through the region – the Alliance struggled to respond at sea. In the UK, it was noted widely in the media that the Royal Navy did not have a ship available to contribute to the NATO force which finally deployed to the Black Sea. Building an alliance is all about burden sharing, so no one nation should be expected to contribute every time. However, in the face of a resurgent Russia, the inability of a core Alliance member such as the UK to find a free asset at such a critical time should be a cause for concern. It highlights not only the consequences of absolute reductions in naval force levels amongst NATO states but also of relative reductions in the ability of some notable members to contribute to Alliance tasks because of increasing national commitments and declining numbers of ships. As Admiral Stanhope mentioned, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has said that NATO nations will need to halt the decline in ship numbers.

Future flashpoints

Terrorism, Africa and Russia are all, however, very much concerns of the present moment. There is the need to think today about what will happen tomorrow. How will NATO construct its maritime forces to deal with the security challenges which will emerge in the Arctic? The region is home to 22 per cent of the world’s energy resources and there are abundant potential legal disputes over ownership of these resources and of access to waters across the region. Commercial shipping will use Arctic sea lanes regularly to slash transit distances between Europe and the Far East by as much as half, and there is a lack of littoral infrastructure in the region. As a result of all this we will see, at least in the short- to medium-term, navies taking primary responsibility for delivering much of the security in the region. When one adds the fact that all the littoral states bar Russia are NATO members but that many nations – including Russia and China - will see critical national interests lying in the region, the potential for Arctic flashpoints involving NATO navies is significant.

Building on the awakening of political interest within NATO on this issue, the Alliance is already moving to update what Admiral Stanhope regarded as an out of date doctrinal approach. By early 2010, it should be in a position to release a new Maritime Strategy. It is hoped that the strategy will meet Admiral Stanhope’s requirement for improving security at sea by showing greater understanding of the complexities of the task and developing a commonly-agreed conceptual framework for delivering a Comprehensive Approach for maritime security.

Yet, as NATO seeks once again to define its relevance in the new strategic environment, it will need to retain the ability to take on a wider range of maritime security tasks in more regions. It will require, above all else, the political will of its members to remain focused on the issues and the political commitment to provide sufficient resources to address them. The considerable diplomatic utility of navies for international security may have become clearer in recent times. However, as Admiral Stanhope argued, despite the apparent ‘awakening’, we must remain vigilant about keeping maritime security on the agenda. Today is ‘not the time to disinvest in a vital part of our security architecture’.


[1] NATO. Operation Active Endeavour>

[2] CTF 150 is the original, US-led coalition task force with a remit focused largely on counter-terrorism operations, with increasing focus on counter-narcotic operations, but with only limited forays into counter-piracy operations. CTF 151, a US-led counter-piracy task group, was established early in 2009 and has a specific remit for the Horn of Africa. Its establishment with a specific counter-piracy remit enables non-EU and non-NATO states who do not wish to be engaged in counter-terrorism or counter–narcotics operations still to make a contribution. Operation Atalanta, a fully-fledged EU operation and indeed the first EU naval operation, was launched in December 2008, once again with a remit specific to counter-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa region. There are also national task forces in the region, including one from France. Other major navies, such as China, India and Russia, have deployed ships to the region without affixing them to a particular task group.

[3] Speech available on-line here>


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