NATO at sea: deeper role for alliance in maritime security

NATO forces board a suspected pirate vessel. UK Ministry of Defence, CC BY-NC

As NATO meets in Wales, the public’s attention is bound to be on how the organisation will handle the conflict in Ukraine. But the meeting is also an important window of opportunity to develop a long term plan for maritime security.

Summits are not only an opportunity to think about how to fix current crises but also a chance to develop strategies and responses to future challenges. The safety of our seas often escapes public attention but with piracy on the rise in African seas and resources facing increasing pressure, the issue is becoming more and more important.

Protecting the seas is vital for a number of reasons. For a start, fish is an essential source of nutrition for large portions of the human population so fighting illegal and unregulated fishing is of major importance. Sustainable fishing means prevents the vicious circles of poverty, underdevelopment and violence.

The sustainable exploitation of ocean resources has been identified in the so-called Blue Growth agenda as one of the future drivers of the global economy but this means that coasts need to be secure. Tensions between states over contested maritime borders, such as in the South China Sea or the Arctic have the potential to escalate and NATO has a role in stopping them from becoming crises. Indeed, the oceans have already been described as the battle space of the future.

But perhaps most pressing remains the problem posed by piracy. About 90% of the world’s goods are transported by ship, making secure sea lanes the backbone of international trade. But maritime crime makes shipping a risky business.

NATO is a vital player in maritime security since, together, NATO states have the largest fleet in the world. The alliance has the resources for rapid responses in crisis situations, the capacity to monitor the oceans and keep the sea lanes safe through strategic presences.

NATO currently has two major maritime operations. The counter-terrorism mission Operation Active Endeavour patrols and monitors the Mediterranean Sea and the counter-piracy mission Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa is a core component in the global fight against piracy.

NATO’s role in counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, has particularly shown how important the organisation is in making the seas safer. When piracy attacks off the Somali coast escalated in 2008, NATO was the first to respond. The counter-piracy mission Allied Provider started to protect international shipping in 2008 until other international actors – such as the European Union, with its EU NAVFOR mission – could scale up their engagement. NATO’s follow-up operation Ocean Shield is one of the three major naval missions which contributed to curbing Somali pirates.

But while dramatically reduced, Somali piracy has not been entirely eradicated. Many of the pirate networks are still intact and the mandate of Ocean Shield only runs until 2016. It is time to think about the future of this operation and whether NATO should maintain its presence or can move responsibility to other actors.

The success of Ocean Shield also raises the question of whether NATO should engage in other piracy prone areas, such as the current hot spot of Western Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. In the long run, the most sustainable measure will be to assist states in ensuring maritime security in their own national waters but NATO can help them make a start. NATO has been contributing to maritime capacity building in Africa and the Western Indian Ocean region. The African Union, meanwhile, has recently launched a maritime strategy to build its anti-piracy efforts. It’s important that NATO’s involvement continues but also that more is invested to help coastal states set up navies and coastguards.

NATO’s maritime work is organised by the Alliance Maritime Strategy, which dates back to 2011 but this places more emphasis on deterrence and traditional security than foregrounding non-traditional threats such as piracy. In 2014 it is not only time to ask whether the strategy already needs revising, but how to actually start implementing it. The UK and the EU both launched new maritime security strategies in 2014 which take a comprehensive approach. NATO would be wise to take the strategy in a similar direction, recognise that maritime threats are interlinked and elaborate how its work is tied to the new initiatives.

These questions as well as the overall role of NATO in ensuring international maritime security will have to be addressed during the Wales summit. And a concrete plan for action is needed. The maritime dimension of international security will become ever more important and now is the time to start planning for the future.