NATO’s maritime domain
The world’s oceans are increasingly busy maritime highways. Today, 85 per cent of all international trade in raw material and manufactured goods travels by sea, and tankers carry more than half of the world’s oil. The stakes of maritime security are high, and NATO is determined to help protect its Allies from any possible threats at sea or from the sea.
NATO has Standing Naval Forces (SNF) that provide the Alliance with a continuous naval presence. This multinational deterrent force constitutes an essential maritime requirement for the Alliance. It carries out a programme of scheduled exercises, manoeuvres and port visits, and can be rapidly deployed in times of crisis or tension.
NATO’s Standing Naval Forces consist of four groups: the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) composed of the SNMG1 and the SNMG2; and the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2). All four groups are integrated into the NATO Response Force (NRF), the Alliance’s rapid-reaction force.
SNMG1 and SNMG2
The Standing NATO Maritime Groups are a multinational, integrated maritime force made up of vessels from various Allied countries. These vessels are permanently available to NATO to perform different tasks ranging from exercises to operational missions. They also help to establish Alliance presence, demonstrate solidarity, conduct routine diplomatic visits to different countries, support partner engagement and provide a variety of maritime military capabilities to ongoing missions.
SNMG1 and SNMG2 function according to the operational needs of the Alliance, therefore helping to maintain optimal flexibility. Their composition varies and they are usually composed of between two and six ships from as many NATO member countries.
SNMG1 and SNMG2 fall under the authority of Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), Northwood, United Kingdom, following MARCOM’s December 2012 inauguration as the operational hub for all Alliance maritime operations. MARCOM also has two subordinate commands – Submarine Command (COMSUBNATO) and Maritime Air Command (COMMARAIR) – as well as the NATO Shipping Centre, which plays an important role in countering piracy.
SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2
The Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2 are multinational forces that primarily engage in search and explosive ordnance disposal operations. SNMCMG2 also conducts historical ordnance disposal operations to minimise the threat from mines dating back to the Second World War.
Both SNMCMG groups are key assets in the NATO Response Force (NRF) and are able to fulfil a wide range of roles from humanitarian tasks to operations. They can deploy at short notice and are often the first assets to enter an operational theatre.
SNMCMG1 was formed in the Belgian port of Ostend on 11 May 1973 to ensure safety of navigation around the ports of the English Channel and northwest Europe. Originally called “Standing Naval Force Channel”, its name was changed several times to reflect its expanding area of operation. Today, the Group is capable of operating nearly anywhere in the world.
SNMCMG2 developed from an on-call force for the Mediterranean, which was created in 1969. It also evolved over time to reflect its new responsibilities.
SNMCMG2 and SNMCMG1 were both given their current names in 2006.
Built on the strength of its naval forces, NATO’s maritime operations have demonstrated the Alliance’s ability to achieve strategic objectives in vastly different contexts. Since October 2001, Operation Active Endeavour has been established to deter, detect, and if necessary disrupt the threat of terrorism in the Mediterranean Sea. The operation evolved out of NATO’s immediate response to the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001 and, in view of its success, is being continued. Since 2009, Operation Ocean Shield has contributed to international efforts to suppress piracy and protect humanitarian aid shipments off the Horn of Africa. And in 2011, Operation Unified Protector delivered power from the sea and comprised a major maritime arms embargo on Libya.
In order to address new threats, NATO adopted the Alliance Maritime Strategy in January 2011. In full consistency with the 2010 Strategic Concept, the Strategy sets out ways in which NATO’s unique maritime power could help resolve critical security challenges.
There are four areas in which NATO’s maritime forces can contribute to Alliance security. The first three are the “core tasks” of NATO, as defined by the Alliance’s Strategic Concept: deterrence and collective defence; crisis management; and cooperative security. In addition, the Maritime Strategy sets out a fourth area: maritime security.
Deterrence and collective defence
NATO has significant maritime capabilities and inherently flexible maritime forces, which are key to deterring aggression. As such, maritime activities contribute to nuclear deterrence as well as to deterrence from conventional attacks. NATO will ensure it can deploy its maritime forces rapidly, control sea lines of communication, preserve freedom of navigation and conduct effective mine counter-measure activities.
NATO maritime forces can also play an important role in crisis management. These responsibilities can include enforcing an arms embargo, conducting maritime interdiction operations, contributing to the Alliance’s counter-terrorism efforts, and providing immediate humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
NATO’s maritime forces not only contribute to ensuring Alliance security. Engagement with partners also helps to build regional security and stability, contributes to conflict prevention and facilitates dialogue. These efforts also promote cooperation and complementarity with other key actors in the maritime domain, such as the United Nations and the European Union.
The Alliance Maritime Strategy reiterates NATO’s commitment to help protect vital sea lines of communication and maintain freedom of navigation. This includes surveillance, information sharing, maritime interdiction, and contributions to energy security, including the protection of critical infrastructure.
Maritime security is rising on NATO’s agenda and Allies are increasingly determined to implement the Maritime Strategy – an objective the Alliance set itself at the Wales Summit in September 2014. This endeavour encompasses a complete revamping of NATO’s maritime forces, an extensive multi-year programme of maritime exercises and training, and the enhancement of cooperation between NATO and its partners, as well as other international actors, in particular the European Union.