Counter-piracy operations

  • Last updated: 26 Mar. 2015 11:34

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean undermines international humanitarian efforts in Africa and the safety of one of the busiest and most important maritime routes in the world – the gateway in and out of the Suez Canal. NATO has been helping to deter and disrupt pirate attacks, while protecting vessels and helping to increase the general level of security in the region since 2008.

HDMS ESBERN SNARE disrupts a suspected pirate group


  • Since 2008, at the request of the UN, NATO has been supporting international efforts to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa and in the Indian Ocean.
  • NATO is currently leading Operation Ocean Shield, which helps to deter and disrupt pirate attacks while protecting vessels and helping to increase the general level of security in the region.
  • NATO works in close cooperation with other actors in the region including the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, the US Combined Task Force 151 and individual country contributors.
  • With no successful pirate attacks since May 2012, Operation Ocean Shield now deploys vessels intermittently. During periods without surface ships, maritime patrol aircraft fly sorties and links to situational awareness systems and counter-piracy partners remain in place. 
  • NATO will maintain its counter-piracy efforts at sea and ashore – by supporting countries in the region to build the capacity to fight piracy themselves – until end 2016.

On the request of United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in late 2008, NATO started to provide escorts to UN World Food Programme (WFP) vessels transiting through these dangerous waters under Operation Allied Provider (October-December 2008). In addition to providing close protection to WFP chartered ships, NATO conducted deterrence patrols and prevented, for instance, vessels from being hijacked and their crews being taken hostage during pirate attacks. This operation was succeeded by Operation Allied Protector (March-August 2009), which continued to contribute to the safety of commercial maritime routes and international navigation. It also conducted surveillance and fulfilled the tasks previously undertaken by Operation Allied Provider. This operation evolved in August 2009 in Operation Ocean Shield.

Operation Ocean Shield also contributes to providing maritime security in the region, in full complementarity with the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions and in coordination with other counter-piracy initiatives such as the European Union’s Atalanta, the US Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) and deployments from individual countries such as China, India and South Korea.

The very presence of this international naval force, composed of vessels from NATO and other entities, is deterring pirates from pursuing their activities to the point of completely suppressing piracy in the region. The implementation of best management practices by the shipping industry, as well as the embarkation of armed security teams on board, has also contributed to this trend. There have been no successful attacks since May 2012. Currently, there are no ships held, but pirates still hold a total of 30 hostages ashore. Somalia-based piracy has not been eliminated. Pirates still seek to, and have the capacity to, mount attacks.

Counter-piracy efforts at sea and ashore remain important to prevent a resurgence of piracy. Against this background, at the Wales Summit in September 2014, NATO leaders agreed to continue NATO’s involvement off the coast of Somalia until end 2016.

  • Operation Ocean Shield – ongoing

    The mission, its objectives and scope

    For a long time piracy and armed robbery have disrupted the delivery of humanitarian aid to Somalia, and threatened vital sea lines of communication (SLOC) and economic interests off the Horn of Africa, in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

    Building on the two previous counter-piracy missions conducted by NATO, Operation Ocean Shield initially focused on at-sea counter-piracy activities. NATO vessels conducted, for instance, helicopter surveillance missions to trace and identify ships in the area; they also helped to prevent and disrupt hijackings and to suppress armed robbery. NATO also agreed, at the request of the UN, to escort the UNSOA - United Nations Support Office for AMISOM - supply vessels to the harbour entrance of Mogadishu, Somalia.

    Over time, the operation has evolved to respond to new piracy tactics: the March 2012 Strategic Assessment, for instance, highlighted the need to erode the pirates’ logistics and support base by, among other things, disabling pirate vessels or skiffs, attaching tracking beacons to mother ships and allowing the use of force to disable or destroy suspected pirate or armed robber vessels. With Operation Ocean Shield, the Alliance has also broadened its approach to combating piracy by offering, within means and capabilities to regional states that request it, assistance in developing their own capacity to combat piracy. This capacity building contributes to a lasting solution to piracy and is in line with regional ownership. NATO is not a lead actor in regional capacity building, but it provides added value in niche areas such as military training, command and control, and coordination in complex situations which can benefit countries in the region. NATO is therefore taking advantage of port visits to provide training and conduct ship-rider programmes for the local population.

    In sum, NATO's role is to prevent and stop piracy through direct actions against pirates, by providing naval escorts and deterrence, while increasing cooperation with other counter-piracy operations in the area in order to optimise efforts and tackle the evolving pirate trends and tactics.

    Operation Ocean Shield was approved by the North Atlantic Council on 17 August 2009 and the mandate has been extended until the end of 2016.

    Composition and command of NATO’s naval support

    The current situation

    NATO works hand in hand with the European Union, the US-led CTF-151 and with independent deployers such as Japan, China and South Korea. 

    Since January 2015, NATO ships contribute to the counter-piracy effort through a “focused presence”, in line with the decision taken at the Wales Summit. This means that assets will primarily be deployed during the inter-monsoon periods (spring or autumn) and at other times if needed. During the periods without surface ships, maritime patrol aircraft will continue to fly sorties, and links to situational awareness systems and counter-piracy partners will remain in place. In this effort, the NATO Shipping Centre plays a key role.

    Partner countries have also been contributing to Operation Ocean Shield. So far, NATO has welcomed support from Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia and Colombia.

    Allied Maritime Command Headquarters Northwood (MARCOM), in the United Kingdom, provides command and control for the full spectrum of NATO’s joint maritime operations and tasks, Operation Ocean Shield included. From its location in Northwood, it plans, conducts and supports joint maritime operations. It is also the Alliance's principal maritime advisor and contributes to development and transformation, engagement and outreach within its area of expertise.

    Previous rotations

    From 2009 to end 2014, Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) and Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) alternated between each other for the six-month rotations of Operation Ocean Shield. They otherwise functioned according to the operational needs of the Alliance, therefore helping to maintain optimal flexibility.
    NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups are part of NATO’s rapid-response capacity. It has been decided that, as a principle, the Standing Maritime Groups are no longer being utilised for counter-piracy.

    June – Dec. 2014 – SNMG1
    Commodore Aage Buur Jensen (Denmark) Flagship HDMS Absalon (Denmark)
    ITS Mimbelli (Italy)
    January - June 2014 – SNMG2
    Rear Admiral Eugenio Diaz del Rio (Spain) Flagship ESPS Cristobal Colon (initially ESPS Alvaro de Bazan) (Spain)
    TCG Gökçeada (Turkey)
    HNLMS Evertsen (The Netherlands)
    ITS Mimbelli (Italy)
    TCG Gelibolu (Turkey)*
    HMNZS Te Mana (New Zealand)*
    * Ships initially assigned to the rotation.
    June - Dec. 2013 – SNMG1
    Rear Admiral Henning Amundsen (Norway) Flagship HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen (Norway)
    FF Esben Snare (Denmark)
    USS De Wert (United States)
    HNLMS Van Speijk (The Netherlands)
    Frigate UPS Hetman Sagaidachny (Ukraine)
    January-June 2013 - SNMG2
    Rear Admiral Antonio Natale (Italy) ITS San Marco (Flagship – Italy)*;
    USS Halyburton (United States)*;
    HDMS Iver Huitfeldt (Denmark)*;
    USS Nicholas (United States);
    HNLMS Van Speijk (The Netherlands);
    TCG Gokova (Turkey).
    * Ships initially assigned to the rotation.
    June- Dec. 2012 - SNMG1
    Rear Commodore Ben Bekkering (Dutch Navy) HNLMS Evertsen (Flagship – The Netherlands)
    USS Taylor (United States)
    HNLMS Bruinvis (NL submarine)
    January-June 2012 - SNMG2
    Rear Admiral Sinan Tosun (Turkish Navy) TCG Giresun (Flagship – Turkey);
    HDMS Absalon (Denmark);
    ITS Grecale (Italy);
    RFA Fort Victoria (United Kingdom);
    USS De Wert (United States);
    USS Carney (United States).*
    * Ships initially assigned to the rotation.
    June 2011-Dec. 2011 - SNMG1
    Rear Admiral Gualtiero Mattesi (Italian Navy) ITS Andrea Doria (Flagship – Italy);
    USS Carney (United States);
    USS De Wert (United States);
    NRP D. Francisco De Almeida (Portugal).
    Dec. 2010- June 2011 - SNMG2
    Commodore Michiel Hijmans (Royal Netherlands Navy) HNLMS De Ruyter (Flagship – The Netherlands);
    HDMS Esbern Snare (Denmark)
    TCG Gaziantep (Turkey); and
    USS Laboon (United States).
    Aug. – early Dec. 2010 - SNMG1
    Commodore Christian Rune (Denmark) HDMS Esbern Snare (Flagship, Denmark);
    HMS Montrose and RFA Fort Victoria (United Kingdom);
    USS Kauffman and USS Laboon (United States);
    ITS Bersagliere (Italy); and
    HNLMS Zeeleeuw (NL submarine).
    March-August 2010 - SNMG2
    12 March-30 June:
    Commodore Steve Chick (UK)
    HMS Chatham (Flagship, United Kingdom)
    HS LIMNOS (Greece) - under national control from 30 May
    ITS SCIROCCO (Italy) - under national control from 5 June
    TCG Gelibolu (Turkey)
    USS Cole (United States)
    1st July-6 August:
    Commodore Michiel Hijmans (Royal Netherlands Navy)
    HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën (Flagship, The Netherlands)
    TCG Gelibolu (Turkey)
    USS Cole (United States)
    Nov. 2009-March 2010 - SNMG1
    Commodore Christian Rune
    (succeeded Rear Admiral Jose Pereira de Cunha (PO) from 25 January 2010).
    NRP Álvares Cabral (outgoing flagship, Portugal)
    HDMS Absalon (incoming flagship, Denmark)
    HMS Fredericton (Canada)
    USS Boone (United States)
    HMS Chatham (United Kingdom)
    Aug. – Nov. 2009 - SNMG2
    Commodore Steve Chick (UK) HS Navarinon (Greece)
    ITS Libeccio (Italy)
    TCG Gediz (Turkey)
    HMS Cornwall (United Kingdom)
    USS Donald Cook (United States)

    SNMG1 and SNMG2

    Among NATO’s Maritime Immediate Reaction Forces there are: the Standing NATO Maritime Groups composed of SNMG1 and SNMG2; and the Standing NATO Maritime Mine Countermeasure Groups (SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2).

    The Standing NATO Maritime Groups are a multinational, integrated maritime force made up of vessels from various Allied countries. Their composition varies and usually comprises between six and ten ships. These vessels (including their helicopters) are permanently available to NATO to perform different tasks ranging from participating in exercises to actually intervening in operational missions. These groups provide NATO with a continuous maritime capability for operations and other activities in peacetime and in periods of crisis and conflict. They also help to establish Alliance presence, demonstrate solidarity, conduct routine diplomatic visits to different countries, support transformation and provide a variety of maritime military capabilities to ongoing missions.

    SNMG1 and SNMG2 both come under the command of MARCOM, as do all Standing NATO Forces (i.e., SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2) since the implementation of the new NATO Command Structure on 1 December 2012.

  • Past operations

    Operation Allied Protector (March-August 2009)

    The mission, its objectives and scope

    Operation Allied Protector helped to deter, defend against and disrupt pirate activities in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa. 

    From 24 March until 29 June 2009, the operation was conducted by SNMG1 vessels. As previously indicated, SNMG1 is usually employed in the Eastern Atlantic area, but it can deploy anywhere NATO requires. The first phase of Operation Allied Protector was undertaken as the force left for NATO’s first ever deployment to South East Asia. It made a short visit to Karachi (Pakistan) on 26-27 April. However, with the increase in pirate attacks, on 24 April NATO had already decided to cancel the other two port visits to Singapore and Australia. As such, the second phase of the operation, which was meant to take place as SNMG1 made its return journey towards European waters end June, was brought forward to 1 May.

    From 29 June 2009, SNMG2 took over responsibility from SNMG1. It had conducted NATO’s first counter-piracy operation – Operation Allied Provider (see below).

    Composition and command of the naval force

    24 March-29 June 2009 - SNMG1


    Rear Admiral Jose Pereira de Cunha (Portugal)

    NRP Corte Real (flagship, Portugal) 
    HMCS Winnipeg (Canada) 
    HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën (The Netherlands) 
    SPS Blas de Lezo (Spain) 
    USS Halyburton (United States)

    29 June-August 2009 - SNMG2


    Commodore Steve Chick (UK)

    ITS Libeccio (frigate, Italy)
    HS Navarinon (frigate F461, Greece) 
    TCG Gediz (frigate F495, Turkey) 
    HMS Cornwall (frigate F99, United Kingdom) 
    USS Laboon (destroyer DDG58, United States)

    Operation Allied Provider (October-December 2008)

    The mission, its objectives and scope

    Operation Allied Provider was responsible for naval escorts to World Food Programme (WFP) vessels and, more generally, patrolled the waters around Somalia. Alliance presence also helped to deter acts of piracy that threatened the region.

    While providing close protection for WFP vessels and patrolling routes most susceptible to criminal acts against merchant vessels, NATO ships could use force pursuant to the authorised Rules of Engagement and in compliance with relevant international and national law.
    Allied Provider was a temporary operation that was requested by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 25 September 2008. NATO provided this counter-piracy capacity in support of UN Security Council Resolutions 1814, 1816 and 1838, and in coordination with other international actors, including the European Union.

    NATO Defence Ministers agreed to respond positively to the UN’s request on 9 October, during an informal meeting held in Budapest, Hungary. Following this decision, planning started to redirect assets of SNMG2 to conduct counter-piracy duties.

    SNMG2 was already scheduled to conduct a series of Gulf port visits in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates within the framework of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). As such, it started to transit the Suez Canal on 15 October to conduct both duties at the same time.

    Composition and command of the naval force

    At the time of the operation, SNMG2 comprised seven ships from Germany, Greece, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States, of which three were assigned to Operation Allied Provider:

    • ITS Durand de la Penne (flagship, destroyer D560, Italy);
    • HS Temistokles (frigate F465, Greece);
    • HMS Cumberland (frigate F85, United Kingdom).

    The other four ships (FGS Karlsruhe-Germany; FGS Rhön-Germany; TCG Gokova-Turkey; and USS The Sullivans-USA) continued deployment to ICI countries. This was the first time a NATO-flagged force deployed to the Gulf.

    At the time of the operation, SNMG2 was commanded by Rear Admiral Giovanni Gumiero, Italian Navy, who was appointed to this post in July 2008. He reported to the Commander of Allied Component Command Maritime (CC-Mar) Naples. CC Mar Naples was one of the three Component Commands of Allied Joint Force Command Naples.