The Naval Alliance: Preparing NATO for a Maritime Century

"Out of 36 operations launched by the Alliance since the end of the Cold War, 10 were primarily maritime operations."In the coming decades, it is likely that the maritime domain will become increasingly congested and competitive. This development is driven by global megatrends, including the rise of new powers, climate change, disruptive technologies, and urbanization and littoralization. These factors will make the maritime environment more complex, and will include security challenges from both nonstate and state actors. Indeed, the return of geopolitical competition, with the Ukraine crisis only being one example of this rekindled contest, may be felt most acutely at sea in the coming decades.

Looking ahead, there are important roles for maritime forces to fulfill in terms of accomplishing the core tasks of the Alliance, including collective defense and deterrence, crisis management, and cooperative security. Moving forward, maritime forces may be best positioned to respond to a crisis outside of NATO’s borders, or to operationally advance the Alliance’s partnership agenda with actors that are far removed from the North Atlantic region. Maritime forces also bring powerful capabilities to NATO’s collective defense and deterrence toolbox, an aspect of NATO’s military power that is increasingly relevant in light of the Ukraine crisis, among other things.

In the emerging global security environment, NATO must also mind a number of maritime spaces that are directly related to the security of Alliance members. These include the Baltic, the Mediterranean, the Norwegian sea, and the Black Sea, as well as strategic choke points through which much of the trade to and from Europe passes. In and around these seas, NATO will face traditional security challenges, as well as new ones spawned by social turmoil and political instability. In other words, these seas constitute NATO’s flanks in an increasingly turbulent and contested world.

In order to better prepare for a maritime century, NATO should consider, among other things:

Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness. NATO, its members, and the broader transatlantic community are already working hard to bolster maritime-domain awareness through a number of national, bilateral, and multinational efforts. However, these efforts must be further reinforced, in order for the Alliance and its members to better understand and monitor those maritime domains that are of special interest to the transatlantic community. For example, NATO has built up considerable domain awareness on the back of Operation Active Endeavour, but this awareness must be preserved and strengthened, in order for it to be helpful beyond this operation.

Reenergize the European Amphibious Initiative. This initiative—launched in 2000 by Italy, France, the UK, and the Netherlands—was an excellent effort to increase interoperability among European amphibious forces. However, the initiative has been on pause for some time. Now is the time to reenergize the European Amphibious Initiative, in order to pool and share amphibious capabilities across the Alliance. This initiative would also serve as an ideal platform for European participation in US amphibious exercises and training, something that was already done to a limited extent during Exercise Bold Alligator in 2012 off the coast of North Carolina.

Give Smart Defense a Naval Dimension. NATO’s Smart Defense initiative is an effort to sustain and build capabilities during these austere times by using cross-national cooperation, pooling, and sharing. However, only a few of the Alliance’s Smart Defense projects fall into the naval realm. NATO’s members should look to increase the number of maritime-related projects under Smart Defense. For example, this could include areas such as joint maintenance of ships and naval aviation platforms and antisubmarine warfare training.

Focus on High-End Naval Capabilities. Over the last decade, the naval forces of most NATO members have focused on low-intensity efforts such as counterpiracy, escort duties, and supporting operations ashore. Some have even played a role in immigration enforcement, in concert with coast guards and law enforcement agencies. In order for naval forces to remain credible in a more competitive environment, NATO’s member must regain and sharpen high-end naval combat skills, including countermine warfare, antisubmarine warfare, and surface warfare. The naval exercise Noble Justification, which included high-end warfighting elements, is an excellent start. This line of effort must be sustained in the years to come.

Share Technologies and Operational Concepts to Help Alliance Members Prepare for an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) World. The United States is currently developing new operational concepts and surveying technologies to develop approaches to effectively operate in future challenging Anti-Access/Area Denial environments, While primarily intended for the Asia-Pacific region, the A2/AD challenge is of increasing importance in Europe as well. Many European navies already have well-developed concepts for operations in high-threat environments that include hostile submarines, mines, and missile threats. NATO could serve as the platform for sharing operational concepts, tactics, methods, and technologies between small European navies and US naval forces. This would bring another opportunity for European and the US navy to work and exercise together, thereby enhancing interoperability and familiarity. It would also be a valuable European contribution to US security interests in the Pacific and beyond.

Resource the Standing NATO Maritime Groups. There are currently two Standing NATO Maritime Groups, as well as Standing Mine Countermeasures Groups. Of long standing, they constitute NATO’s multinational, quick-reaction maritime force. They are consistently underresourced and lack the ability to sustain high-intensity operations over a prolonged period of time. It is politically and strategically important that the Alliance now resource them properly, in order for the Alliance to have a seapower tool readily available for emerging contingencies and to signal the Alliance’s seriousness about the maritime dimension of its core tasks. Indeed, this need was specifically highlighted in the Wales Summit Declaration in September 2014.

NATO Must Secure Access to the Enabling Domains. Modern naval operations are enabled and supported by cyberspace and assets in outer space for, among other things, communications, targeting, tracking, and domain awareness. These same assets and networks are used to speed up and expand the commercial use of the maritime domain. Although NATO has begun to develop its strategy for protecting its networks and assets in cyberspace, in order for them to operate in difficult environments, that is not the case for outer space. NATO must begin to develop concepts and strategies to ensure access to space, and vital assets there, during crisis scenarios and high-end warfighting. This is important in and of itself, but also speaks directly to the current and future efficacy of NATO naval power….

NATO will always need a full spectrum of air, ground, and naval capabilities in order to remain militarily and politically credible to both its members and potential adversaries. The last decade has skewed the Alliance toward ground-centric and low-intensity operations. This is an understandable development given the bloody, costly, and protracted campaign in Afghanistan and the peacekeeping missions in the Balkans. In the future, however, the global maritime domain will again be increasingly important as an arena for collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. And the domain’s importance as the global conveyer belt of goods, components, raw materials, and energy supplies will only continue to grow. The maritime domain will also be a leading space where emerging powers such as India, China, Brazil, and others express their expanding commercial, political, and security interests. Moving forward, the contest between Russia and NATO will also likely be increasingly expressed at sea. NATO and the broader transatlantic community must therefore maintain credibility in the maritime domain in order to safeguard transatlantic interests and advocate good norms, constructive behavior, and respect for international law.

Magnus Nordenman is deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

NATO naval operations

Image: "Out of 36 operations launched by the Alliance since the end of the Cold War, 10 were primarily maritime operations."