NATO’s maritime activities
The world’s oceans connect us. They are essential to global commerce and our way of life. Today, shipping makes up 90 per cent of all international trade in raw material and manufactured goods, and tankers carry more than half of the world’s oil. The maritime domain is of strategic importance for NATO and NATO is determined to help protect its Allies from any possible threats at sea or from the sea. Maritime forces play a critical role in protecting the sea lines of communication and choke points, as well as securing supplies and reinforcements along the transatlantic routes during crisis and conflict.
- The Alliance Maritime Strategy, agreed in 2011, clearly identifies the parameters for NATO's maritime activities, which can cover collective defence, crisis prevention and management, cooperative security and maritime security.
- Maritime forces increasingly contribute to deterrence and defence and projecting stability through three primary functions: strategic, security and warfighting.
- NATO is reinforcing its maritime posture and is taking concrete steps to improve the Alliance’s overall maritime situational awareness, deter and defend against all threats in the maritime domain, uphold freedom of navigation, secure maritime routes and protect its main lines of communication.
- The Alliance has Standing Naval Forces – NATO's highly trained maritime, immediate-response capacity.
- NATO’s maritime and joint exercise programme is key to interoperability and improving core warfighting competencies.
- NATO is currently carrying out Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean and is providing assistance to help deal with the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea.
- The reinforcement of coordination and cooperation with the United Nations and the European Union, as well as with other regional organisations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the African Union is also essential to efforts in the maritime domain.
The Alliance Maritime Strategy and the Alliance Maritime Posture
The 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy derives four maritime roles for the Alliance to contribute to: deterrence and collective defence, crisis management, cooperative security and maritime security. Since 2014, the Alliance’s adaptation to the changed security environment has been pursued along two essential tracks: strengthening the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture and enhancing NATO’s contribution to projecting stability. Reinforcement of the Alliance Maritime Posture is an integral and cross-cutting part of the implementation of these two tracks and was reconfirmed in the 2022 Strategic Concept.
The Alliance Maritime Strategy describes NATO’s four strategic roles or what it does in the maritime domain. The Alliance Maritime Posture describes NATO’s functions or how it uses the maritime domain and the Alliance’s naval forces.
NATO is strengthening its deterrence and defence posture in all domains. The maritime domain encompasses oceans and seas, on, above and below the surface, in all directions. It is a continuum and it is fully connected to other domains and areas. The Alliance’s naval forces include those maritime forces, sensors and other capabilities under national or NATO command that contribute to Alliance security.
The Alliance Maritime Posture comprises the Alliance’s naval forces, their presence within the maritime domain and the operational and cooperative activities that they conduct in the performance of three functions, which contribute to Alliance security:
Strategic function: the presence of maritime forces creates strategic and deterrent effects, including for assurance and messaging, and demonstrates NATO’s intent to operate without constraint and as required. The flexibility of maritime forces provides nearly instant availability of inherently tailorable force packages yielding a range of attractive, measured and viable political and military options.
Security function: maritime security has become a mainstay of NATO’s maritime activities. Allies have developed sophisticated skills, tactics, techniques and procedures associated with maritime security. The maintenance of a safe and secure maritime environment can be undertaken through a range of maritime security operations and/or activities. Maritime forces can provide a ready and flexible mechanism and significant versatility for a broad range and scale of missions and tasks.
Warfighting function: during peacetime and in a crisis, maritime forces are primarily deterrent in nature. They can contribute to conventional operations, nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defence, to advance Alliance security interests. Allies’ maritime forces provide deterrence and defence in their contiguous seas, extending the defence of their national territory and can project power at distance. Maritime forces can rapidly transition from low-intensity to high-intensity missions and tasks. Surface, sub-surface and above-surface capabilities and forces work together to exercise sea denial or control, support reinforcement, protect assets, project power and support joint forces and joint effects.
Maritime and joint exercises are key to maintaining and developing warfighting competencies and improving Allies’ combined maritime skills and readiness for all operations. Some areas and competencies being incorporated into future exercises include high-end warfighting capacities, such as the protection of sea lines of communication and rapid reinforcement, carrier strike, amphibious forces, anti-submarine warfare, land attack, deep-precision strike, and integrated air and missile defence; countering hybrid threats in the maritime domain; and countering threats in cyber space.
NATO’s Standing Naval Forces and capabilities
NATO has Standing Naval Forces (SNF) that provide the Alliance with a continuous, credible and agile maritime capability that can be rapidly deployed in times of crisis or tension. The SNF are a multinational deterrent force that can provide a rapid response to defend against any potential adversary, and contribute to crisis management, security cooperation with partners and maritime security. They carry out a programme of scheduled exercises, manoeuvres and port visits. In February 2022 when NATO activated its Graduated Response Plans in reaction to the war in Ukraine, they became part of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.
NATO’s SNF 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 multinational, integrated maritime forces 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. They are usually composed of between two and six ships from as many NATO member countries.
As part of NATO’s Standing Naval Forces, SNMG1 and SNMG2 fall under the authority of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). In December 2012, Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) became the operational hub for all Alliance maritime operations. As such, authority and operational command over the SNMGs are normally delegated to MARCOM.
Located in Northwood, United Kingdom, MARCOM also hosts the NATO Shipping Centre (NSC), which is the link between NATO and the merchant shipping community. Permanently manned by NATO, the NSC is the primary point of contact for the exchange of merchant shipping information between NATO's military authorities and the international shipping community. It also 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 World Wars, thereby contributing to global navigation safety.
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.
NATO’s maritime operations/activity
Building 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.
Operation Sea Guardian
In November 2016, Operation Sea Guardian (OSG) was launched as a flexible operation, potentially covering up to seven maritime security operation (MSO) tasks. To date, this Operation has been carrying out three standing MSO tasks, namely: maritime security capacity building; support to maritime situational awareness; and support to maritime counter-terrorism. Operation Sea Guardian is operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Upon North Atlantic Council agreement – NATO’s top political decision-making body – OSG can execute any of the additional four MSO tasks: upholding freedom of navigation; maritime interdiction; fighting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the protection of critical infrastructure.
OSG brings together naval assets from several Allied countries for set periods of time. These focused operations are conducted at a tempo of three continuous weeks every two months, in total six a year. Although there is no permanent ship presence at sea throughout the duration of the whole year, maritime situational awareness is maintained throughout the year through the information network of Allied Maritime Command.
Support to the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea
NATO has contributed to international efforts to assist with the refugee and migrant crisis. To that end, NATO ships have – since February 2016 – been conducting reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of crossings within the Aegean, in cooperation with relevant national and EU authorities. NATO ships have been collecting valuable information, which has been used by both the Greek and Turkish navies and coastguards, and by Frontex (the EU’s border management agency) to take action, for instance, by intercepting the migrant boats first sighted by NATO. Information-sharing between NATO and Frontex has proven to be a valuable activity.
Operation Ocean Shield
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). NATO continues to be engaged in counter-piracy efforts in that area through maritime situational awareness and sustained links with counter-piracy actors.
Operation Active Endeavour
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.