Operation Sea Guardian

  • Last updated: 26 May. 2023 10:59

Operation Sea Guardian is NATO’s maritime security operation in the Mediterranean and is presently conducting three maritime security tasks: maritime security capacity building, support to maritime situational awareness and maritime counter-terrorism.


  • Operation Sea Guardian was launched in November 2016 and succeeded Operation Active Endeavour.
  • Operation Sea Guardian currently conducts maritime security capacity building and provides support to maritime situational awareness and to maritime counter-terrorism.
  • Through the operation, NATO is contributing to the maintenance of a safe and secure maritime environment while cooperating with partner countries and other international organisations.
  • Operation Sea Guardian is under the operational command of Allied Maritime Command in Northwood, United Kingdom.


The context

The world’s seas and oceans are of paramount importance in today’s globalised economy as 90 per cent of all traded goods are carried by sea, and communication cables on the sea-bed carry 95 per cent of the world’s cyberspace traffic. The Mediterranean Sea is no exception. Similarly, concerning energy, some 65 per cent of the oil and natural gas consumed in Western Europe passes through the Mediterranean.

In this context, NATO launched Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean Sea. It is the successor to Operation Active Endeavour, NATO’s Article 5 operation in the Mediterranean that was launched in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001. Operation Active Endeavour had helped deter terrorist activity in the Mediterranean Sea and secure one of the busiest trade routes in the world.

Operation Sea Guardian is not an Article 5 operation as Operation Active Endeavour was. It aims to establish maritime situational awareness, support counter-terrorism efforts, including through the hailing (and potentially boarding) of suspect vessels, and contribute to capacity-building for partners.

Operation Sea Guardian contributes to enhanced maritime security across the Mediterranean together with partner countries and other international organisations. NATO continues to cooperate through dialogue at the staff-to-staff level on operational cooperation with the European Union, notably in the framework of annual conferences on “Shared Awareness and De-confliction in the Mediterranean” co-chaired by the EU-led operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI and Allied Maritime Command. Operation Sea Guardian also allows non-NATO countries to contribute as operational partners.

The contours of Sea Guardian

Operation Sea Guardian operates in the Mediterranean and performs the following three maritime security operation (MSO) tasks.

  • Support maritime situational awareness: the focus is on information-sharing between Allies and with civilian agencies to enhance the NATO Recognised Maritime Picture (RMP);
  • Support maritime counter-terrorism: this involves the planning and conduct of a range of operations to deter, disrupt, defend and protect against maritime-based terrorist activities. Essentially, these operations aim to deny terrorists access to designated areas and contain threats through the use of force;
  • Contribute to maritime security capacity building: NATO aims to contribute to the international community’s efforts in developing maritime security with both military and non-military authorities.

If agreed by the North Atlantic Council, Operation Sea Guardian can perform four additional MSO tasks:

  • Uphold freedom of navigation: NATO must be ready and able to act in compliance with and support the principle of freedom of navigation in times of peace and war. This includes surveillance, patrol, maritime interdiction, Special Operations, deployment of law enforcement detachments and, when authorised, the use of force.
  • Conduct maritime interdiction: assets can be assigned for quick-response actions and may use Special Operations Forces and experts in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) weapons to board suspect vessels;
  • Fight the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction: the aim is to prevent the transport and deployment of weapons of mass destruction, and involves the ability to locate, identify and secure illicit CBRN material transiting at sea;
  • Protect critical infrastructure: at the request of a NATO or non-NATO country and in accordance with directions from the North Atlantic Council, NATO helps protect critical infrastructure in the maritime environment, including the control of choke points.

Allies and partners can contribute to the operation in different ways: through “direct support” by placing assets under NATO operational command, and “associated support” with assets that remain under national command. Operation Sea Guardian is under the operational command of Allied Maritime Command in Northwood, United Kingdom, which serves as the Alliance’s hub for maritime security information sharing.

Every year, Operation Sea Guardian conducts five to six focused operations in specific areas of interest in the Mediterranean. These operations use sea, air, sub-sea and other assets, to gather, develop and maintain an accurate picture of daily activity in different parts of the Mediterranean Sea. In this context most focused operations conducted under Operation Sea Guardian also includes port visits to non-NATO countries.