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Do Navies Need to Club Together to Secure the Seas?

Commentary, 31 May 2012
Maritime Forces
As navies around the world consider how to support increasing commitments with reduced resources, some are considering whether improved co-operation can offer better value in supporting national objectives.

As navies around the world consider how to support increasing commitments with reduced resources, some are considering whether improved co-operation can offer better value in supporting national objectives.

By Dr Lee Willett, Senior Research Fellow, Maritime Studies, RUSI

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The importance of the use of the sea in international security matters remains undiminished. As a result, the collective, international obligation to secure safe access to the sea-lines and choke points through which global trade and other interests flow also endures. However, as the on-going financial crisis continues to constrict government spending, the ability of many Western navies to project power is under pressure.

The open nature of the sea lends itself to developing naval co-operation in pursuit of common goals. As RUSI's forthcoming Future Maritime Operations Conference will discuss, navies have an established history of working together to support global security and prosperity. Today, navies are assessing how improved co-operation can enhance the value of their inherent mix of hard and soft effects to offer better strategic value in support of national and international interests.

A number of recent multinational operations have highlighted the potential benefits of co-operation, not only between navies themselves but also between navies and other agencies. The presence of European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and US-led international task groups have enabled many different navies to participate in counter-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa. Western, Chinese and Russian navies working to a shared strategic interest would have been politically inconceivable only a few years ago. In responding to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Italian Navy carrier ITNS Cavour (CVH-550) brought relief supplies and personnel from other national agencies (including Carabinieri police and medical units) and other nations (including Brazilian military and civilian emergency response forces). Off Libya in 2011, a number of navies - including emerging navies such as Italy and Turkey as well as traditional naval powers like the US, France and the UK - worked together across the spectrum of tasks.

Good Practise

European navies are looking at fresh opportunities for co-operation. This is being achieved through bilateral relationships, for example the Anglo-French partnering on maritime capability development. It is also being pursued through multilateral developments such as the European amphibious initiative and pan-European efforts to improve maritime surveillance capability.. Through NATO membership, many European navies are also experiencing what the UK First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope referred to as an 'awakening' in NATO's maritime consciousness. 2011 alone, for example, saw NATO conduct three maritime task group operations concurrently. These were the Operation Active Endeavour maritime security framework in the Mediterranean, the Operation Unified Protector task group off Libya, and the Ocean Shield Somali counter-piracy operation.

A primary stimulus for growing naval co-operation was the US Navy's 'Thousand Ship Navy' concept. This notion evolved into the 'Global Maritime Partnerships' framework, under which navies and other maritime stakeholders work together to establish operational structures at sea which not only provide security in the region in question but can spread out like an ink spot into adjoining areas. Good examples of this are the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force (CJIATF) and the Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (ReCAAP) frameworks in the Caribbean and the Malacca Strait respectively. A number of other new examples of co-operation can be found in the Pacific, for example the US basing of Marine Corps forces in Northern Australia and (imminently) Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore. The US retains very close links with the Japanese and South Korean navies also.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing models of naval co-operation is also one of the most longest-standing: the 'five-eyes' naval partnership, involving the US, UK, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand navies. As well as bringing shared strategic interest and presence in all seven of the world's major oceans, these five navies possess (through their common strategic culture and long-established history of co-operating at sea) an almost instinctive level of understanding - something which can be strengthened further while also providing a template for improved co-operation within other groups of navies.

Challenges to Co-operation

There remain some challenges to co-operation. Some traditional tensions will be hard to release. For example, even though both navies are part of the counter-piracy campaign in the Indian Ocean, reports that an Indian Kilo-class submarine shadowed the Chinese counter-piracy task group in 2009 demonstrates that deep co-operation between some particular navies may be a political step too far.

Even amongst navies of common strategic mind and purpose - such as the major Western navies, - there are still some boundaries to co-operation. Nations will deploy their navies to regions of critical national interests, regardless of the presence of allies. Navies may not be able to afford each of the capabilities they require, but many would be loathe to rely on another nation - even a very close ally - for the ability to perform tasks of critical sovereign national interest. Moreover, in the current fiscal climate, co-operation on equipment programmes may not be a political option if it reduces national export capacity or puts jobs at risk. Yet the critical question raised by the financial crisis is whether its enduring severity will force nations and navies to consider removing some of these barriers.

Speaking at the United States Military Academy, West Point in February 2011, the then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the assembled faculty and Army officer cadets that, in the wake of the US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, in his opinion 'any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined'". The US is now developing a concept for Air-Sea Battle. In the Libya campaign, the international sea-base also made a significant military and political contribution to the operation. Together, do these factors suggest that the reality of enduring financial instability, an increasingly volatile international system and reduced political appetite for intervention ashore may see increasing government consideration of whether improved naval co-operation can offer increased political choice, military flexibility and strategic value in support of international stability?

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