October 7, 2015
On Tuesday, October 6, the Atlantic Council hosted Admiral Mark Ferguson, Commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples, US Naval Forces Europe, and US Naval Forces Africa, for the event, "NATO's Role at Sea." It addressed NATO's shift in focus over the last decade from its traditionally ground-centric operations spanning the Balkans and Afghanistan to a renewed focus on the maritime domain, now threatened by Russian assertiveness and the ongoing Mediterranean migrant crisis.

In his remarks, Admiral Ferguson underscored the challenge of adapting to a more aggressive and capable Russia. Russia's maritime investments (including new ballistic missile submarines), its aggressive buildup of an "Arc of Steel" comprised of bases on the country's outer flanks from the Baltic to Black Seas, and its concerted effort to enhance power projection capabilities are characteristic of a new posture in direct conflict with NATO. The need for NATO to respond to the maritime challenge is urgent because Russia, by its actions, has conveyed the message that "the maritime is contested space." Admiral Ferguson surveyed Russia's strategic integration of diverse domains, including cyber, space, and hybrid warfare, and concluded that by exploiting ethnic divisions within states and disrupting decision-making processes at sea, Russia has made it clear that it seeks to divide NATO from within and paralyze its operations. The Alliance's members must be on guard against this.

In addition to the threat posed by Russia, Admiral Ferguson spoke about the challenge posed by the south. Non-state and transnational organizations like the Islamic State have been difficult for NATO to handle, because they lack normal state structures for negotiations. In the maritime space, "they may be a barrier or a highway," but they also threaten existing infrastructure and energy investments. The challenge for NATO is to provide leaders with situational awareness and options to respond to these new threats effectively.

Admiral Ferguson's recommendations focused on bolstering the alliance's cohesion and efficiency:

  • NATO should improve collective response by integrating a range of institutions, for instance by facilitating a more robust sharing of information. This is a politically necessary first step.
  • NATO should consider mechanisms to provide cooperation. This could happen by providing a forum, if useful, or some other means of working through issues collectively.
  • NATO should develop an execution regime with a southern focus to deal with the challenges emanating from nontraditional threats.
  • Episodic maritime exercises are crucial, but they are not enough. NATO members must be willing to put personnel and assets on call. They must be willing to invest in high level operations on the seas.
  • Finally, the alliance must work harder to address Russia's integration of asymmetric tactics by enhancing its own capabilities to match and exceed those of Russia.

Admiral Ferguson observed that NATO has successfully maintained dominion over land and air, but now is the time to focus efforts on building and sustaining a credible deterrent in the maritime domain. This will be the challenge of the upcoming Warsaw summit.