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Slowing Alliance - NATO's New Maritime Strategy and the Need for Reform

Commentary, 25 March 2011
International Institutions, Maritime Forces, Middle East and North Africa
Despite NATO's new Alliance Maritime Strategy, the protracted discussion around how best to respond to events in Libya means that Alliance solidarity and the need for reforms are increasingly important issues.

Despite NATO's new Alliance Maritime Strategy, the protracted discussion around how best to respond to events in Libya means that Alliance solidarity and the need for reforms are increasingly important issues.

By Felix F. Seidler for













NATO's Major Drawback

NATO's recently agreed new Alliance Maritime Strategy (AMS) is facing its first confrontation with reality sooner than expected. Since 23 March NATO, 'as its very name suggests, a maritime alliance',[1] is enforcing an arms embargo along Libya´s coast. NATO, 'truly a maritime alliance in action',[2] is likely to enhance maritime operations worldwide, not just in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa.

The AMS acknowledges, henceforth, that 'the alliance may be challenged in mission areas it has traditionally dominated.'[3] But Operation Odyssey Dawn - which has thus far failed to receive a NATO mandate, as the no-fly zone did on 25 March[4] - shows the wide range of activities the Alliance's ships will have to conduct in future missions. Nevertheless, US-French disagreement about the command structure, combined with Germany's withdrawal of ships, suggests that political consensus, not tightened budgets or constrained capabilities, are likely to prove NATO's major drawback in the 21st century's maritime security environment. And a slowing Alliance, as the protracted no-fly zone discussion illustrates, is most certainly not what states need in the current international security environment. 

A Step Forward

On a positive note, NATO found consensus five months after Lisbon to concretise the strategic concept by a new AMS. While arguing for a 'substantial re-appraisal of the contribution of maritime forces in supporting NATO's objectives over the coming decades',[5] the new AMS repeats the strategic concept's core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security, but also names 'maritime security' as a fourth core task.

On the one hand, the strategy's security environment description is little more than a summary of obvious trends such as the increasing threat to the security of sea lanes posed by piracy. But on the other hand the new AMS, unlike the strategic concept, contains a clear definition of 'Allies' security interests', which are 'the maintenance of the freedom of navigation, sea-based trade routes, critical infrastructure, energy flows, protection of marine resources and environmental safety'.[6] The first two are to be expected in a list of any military alliance's interests, but concerns about infrastructure, energy and resources are clearly inspired by recent phenomena such as fragile economies, growing populations and the resultant struggle for resources. The NATO Emerging Security Challenges division's Energy Security Department is also likely to push for infrastructure, energy and resources to move up the Alliance's agenda. Nevertheless, NATO has to handle energy security with care, as a military alliance working more actively on energy security may provoke counter-reactions by other states such as, presumably, China. 

Libya demonstrated that crisis management will be NATO's most important maritime task - above deterrence and collective defence, co-operative and maritime security. In Lisbon, the Allies agreed that Russia should be a strategic partner, and that no country should act as the Alliance's advisory. Therefore, collective defence and deterrence will only play a significant operational role for the Alliance in the case of sea-based missile defence. Interestingly, the maritime strategy's collective defence section calls for 'the ability to deploy, sustain and support effective expeditionary forces'. The Allies are clearly preparing for more out-of-area missions. This argument is strengthened by the co-operative security section which does not include, probably as a lesson learned from the Horn of Africa, any geographical limitation for partnerships. Its well-rehearsed command and control structures, its naval capabilities and expeditionary joint operations experience make NATO unique for co-operative maritime security worldwide. Therefore, the new AMS contains, unsurprisingly, 'diplomatic activities' like port visits by the Stand NATO Naval Maritime Groups, 'partner capacity building' and 'joint training' as means for implementing co-operative security.[7]  

Some port visits and joint exercises, for example with the South African Navy,[8] have already taken place. Additionally, the AMS' declaration that maritime out-of-area missions can include 'additional maritime security task beyond surveillance and patrolling' has to be considered a conceptual reflection of the Alliance´s experiences in and around Somalia. Furthermore, the Allies logically agreed to 'blue water' out-of-area tasks, as the Alliance's naval capabilities 'can contribute to international efforts to fight proliferation',[9] 'support the protection of freedom of navigation'[10] and 'contribute to energy security including protection of critical energy infrastructure and sea lines of communication'.[11] Covered in diplomatic language, the new AMS, therefore, is a further conceptual step towards a globally engaged NATO.

Harmed Solidarity

Embargo operations came fifth on the new AMS' crisis management section's mission list. However, NATO's navies were given a 'critical enabling role in arms embargo and interdiction operations'. Now the fifth-placed mission is the first to be executed, but, by virtue of the role the document accords to naval forces, the conceptual test is already passed. NATO's naval forces will unquestionably fulfil the orders given from the North Atlantic Council - not only in the embargo mission but, if ordered, in the case of humanitarian assistance or whatever military strike. With NATO's Standing Naval Maritime Group 1 and Standing Naval Mine Countermeasures Group 1 starting Operation Unified Protector immediately on 23 March, less than twenty-four hours after the decision, and Allied ships to join and replace them quickly after,[12] NATO's problems are not operational, but political.

After the unforeseen revolutions in the Arab world, security policy in times of rapid globalization requires fast decision making under the 'pressure of event'. But NATO needed too much time, including major political quarrels within the Alliance, to agree on the embargo. Government clashes over the no-fly zone underline that decision making processes and states' behavior do not meet the requirements of crisis management in the 21st century. Germany's withdrawal of ships poses further questions about the Alliance's solidarity. Germany's Bundeswehr, already overstretched and currently undergoing its biggest reform ever, will not be able to make a significant contribution. Furthermore, German public opinion alone will prevent Merkel and Westerwelle from sending the Bundeswehr in to another combat mission. But the German government's order, immediately after the agreement on Operation Unified Protector, to take its two frigates and two support ships out of NATO and in to national command, simultaneously withdrawing its seventy soldiers from the AWACS,[13] is the opposite of what Alliance solidarity within modern maritime crisis management asks for. French and Turkish national egoisms also did their bit to harm alliance solidarity. Even more, alliance solidarity is harmed by the no-fly zone mandate. While NATO controls the already enforced no-fly zone, the British-French led 'coalition of the willing', which has its own political committee to lead the operation, is still allowed to conduct its own airstrikes.[14] Solidarity among allies is a different matter, contrary to what such discussions and their outcome might suggest.    

Reforms Needed

NATO needs new decision-making processes for crisis response. As the Libyan case emphasises, the Alliance cannot afford long delays before reacting to a crisis, as doing so jeopardizes both operational success and Alliance solidarity. Hence, following the conceptual reform provided by the new strategic concept, organizational and political reform is also needed. Otherwise states, on land and ashore, will leave NATO - like France, the UK and the US did with Operation Odyssey Dawn - and seek to manage crises independently with increasing frequency. However, it is not in the Allies' interests to lose NATO´s unique experiences, structures and capabilities. Who else should replace NATO?

Even in times of constrained budgets, an expeditionary NATO needs investments in naval capabilities. USS Kearsage and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle underlined the emerging role of aircraft/helicopter carriers and amphibious assault ships. Like the US, the UK, France, Spain and Italy, non-NATO countries like Russia, China, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia are investing in these capabilities. Prospectively, US' and European countries' budget situation will only get worse. To keep an expeditionary NATO capable of affirmative action, Europeans should focus on role specialization and, additionally, think about creating common expeditionary strike groups. In such groups, every nation could contribute with what it is best at. As NATO itself stated, it may be 'challenged in mission areas it has traditionally dominated',[15] first and foremost due the BRIC's and other states' growing naval armament. The need for reform to bring a faster NATO back on track, whatever the outcome of intervention in Libya may be, is tremendously visible. 

Felix F. Seidler is a German international security blogger. He studied Political Science, Law and History at Würzburg University, Germany.

Main and thumbnail images courtesy of  Lt. Panagiotis Tripontikas, GRC Navy


[1] Jason Alderwick and Bastian, ʻNavigating Troubled Waters: NATO´s Maritime Strategyʼ, Survival (Vol. 52, No. 4,  August-September 2010), p. 13.

[2] Diego Ruiz-Palmer, ʻThe end of the naval era?ʼ,, 2010, accessed 24 March 2011.

[3] e.g. ʻAlliance Maritime Strategyʼ, p.1, accessed 21 March 2011.

[4] Article finished on 25 March 2011.

[5] ʻAlliance Maritime Strategyʼ, p.1

[6] Ibid. p.2.

[7] e.g. ʻAlliance Maritime Strategyʼ, p.5, accessed 21 March 2011.

[8] Brooke Smith-Windsor, ʻSecuring the Commons: Towards NATO´s New Maritime Strategyʼ, NATO Defense College Research Paper (No. 49, 2009), p. 6.

[9] e.g. ʻAlliance Maritime Strategyʼ, p.5, accessed 21 March 2011.

[10] Ibid. p.5. 

[11] Ibid. p.7.

[12] Jorge Benitez, ʻNATO briefing on Operation Unified Protectorʼ,, 23 March 2011, accessed 24 March 2011.

[13] e.g. Spiegel Online, ʻDeutschland zieht Marine aus dem Mittelmeer abʼ, 22 March 2011, accessed 22 March 2011.

[14] e.g. ZDF, ʻNATO in Libyen für Flugverbot zuständigʼ, 25 March 2011.

[15] e.g. ʻAlliance Maritime Strategyʼ, p.1, accessed 21 March 2011.

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