NATO’s maritime activities
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 is implementing the Alliance Maritime Strategy that lays out the parameters for NATO's maritime activities. These activities fall under the areas of collective defence, crisis management, cooperative security and maritime security.
- The Alliance has Standing Naval Forces – NATO's highly trained maritime, immediate-response capacity.
- NATO is currently leading Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean and is providing assistance to help deal with the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea.
- Cooperation with non-NATO partners, including other international organisations such as the European Union, is fundamental to efforts in the maritime domain.
More background information
In full consistency with the 2010 Strategic Concept, the 2011 Alliance Maritime 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 helping 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 continuing to rise on NATO’s agenda and Allies have been implementing the 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy – an objective the Alliance set itself at the Wales Summit in September 2014. This encompasses a complete revamp 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 (EU). NATO has therefore been reinvigorating, for instance, the Standing Naval Forces so that, inter alia, they meet the requirements of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) Maritime, as reiterated at the Warsaw Summit in 2016; improving education, training and exercises, particularly at the tactical and operational levels; improving the capacity of Allies to deploy follow-on forces; enhancing NATO-EU coordination and cooperation in the maritime domain; strengthening engagement with non-NATO member countries; reinforcing the maritime capacities of regional partners in areas of strategic importance to the Alliance as part of the defence capacity-building initiatives; focusing on the future adaptation and evolution of NATO’s current maritime operations; and providing assistance with the refugee and migrant crisis.
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 SNFs consist of four groups: the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) composed of SNMG1 and 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. In November 2016, Operation Sea Guardian was launched and started to carry out three maritime security operation (MSO) tasks, namely: maritime security capacity building, support to maritime situational awareness; and support to maritime counter-terrorism.
Operation Sea Guardian can execute any of the additional four MSO tasks, if decided by the Allies: upholding freedom of navigation, maritime interdiction, fighting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the protection of critical infrastructure.
NATO has also been assisting Frontex (the European Union’s border management agency) as well as Greek and Turkish national authorities in their efforts to tackle the migrant and refugee crisis in the Aegean.
From 2009 to 2016, Operation Ocean Shield contributed to international efforts to suppress piracy and protect humanitarian aid shipments off the Horn of Africa, succeeding Operation Allied Protector (March-August 2009) and Operation Allied Provider (October-December 2008). And from 2001 to 2016, Operation Active Endeavour (the predecessor to Operation Sea Guardian) helped 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 2011, Operation Unified Protector delivered power from the sea and comprised a major maritime arms embargo on Libya.