Operation Sea Guardian

  • Last updated: 28 Mar. 2020 13:47

Maritime security is high on NATO’s agenda. In November 2016, NATO launched a maritime security operation (MSO) – called Sea Guardian – which can perform a broad range of tasks. Currently and in line with decisions taken by the North Atlantic Council (NAC), it is operating in the Mediterranean, focusing on three of the seven MSO tasks.



  • Operation Sea Guardian is a flexible operation that can potentially cover the full range of MSO tasks. At present, it is carrying out maritime security capacity building, and providing support to maritime situational awareness and to maritime counter-terrorism.
  • Operation Sea Guardian can execute any of the four additional MSO tasks, if requested by the NAC: uphold freedom of navigation, conduct maritime interdiction, fight the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and protect critical infrastructure.
  • Through Operation Sea Guardian, NATO is contributing to the maintenance of a secure and safe maritime environment, while collaborating with other actors, such as the European Union (EU) by providing support for instance to Operation Sophia in the Central Mediterranean.
  • Operation Sea Guardian was launched in November 2016 and succeeded Operation Active Endeavour.
  • It comes under the operational command of  Allied Maritime Command ( MARCOM), Northwood, United Kingdom.

More background information

  • The context

    In today’s globalised economy, 90 per cent of the total volume of goods is moved by sea and communication cables that carry 95 per cent of the world’s cyberspace traffic lie on the sea-bed. The Mediterranean Sea is no exception. In terms of energy alone, some 65 per cent of the oil and natural gas consumed in Western Europe pass through the Mediterranean each year.

    In this context, NATO launched Operation Sea Guardian, which aims to reinforce maritime situational awareness, counter-terrorism efforts including through the hailing and the boarding of suspect vessels, and capacity-building in the Mediterranean Sea. These tasks focus on gathering relevant information about current maritime activities in the Mediterranean region to help identify possible security concerns, and therefore continue to develop maritime security awareness in the region. Nevertheless, if the NAC so decides, the Operation can conduct any of the agreed four additional MSO tasks: uphold freedom of navigation, conduct maritime interdiction, fight the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and protect critical infrastructure.

    Within the framework of Operation Sea Guardian, NATO supports the EU’s Operation Sophia with regard to information-sharing, logistical support and the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2357 (the arms embargo against Libya).

    As such, the Mediterranean offers opportunities to deepen maritime cooperation at operational and tactical levels between NATO and the EU, building on previous experience and successes, in particular in the Indian Ocean and the Aegean Sea.

    The Operation comes under the operational command of the Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), Northwood, United Kingdom. MARCOM serves as the hub of maritime security information-sharing for the Alliance.

  • The contours of Sea Guardian

    Operation Sea Guardian succeeded Operation Active Endeavour. Similarly to the latter, Operation Sea Guardian operates in the Mediterranean and performs the three below-mentioned MSO tasks. However, it is not an Article 5 operation as Operation Active Endeavour was.

      • 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 NAC, Operation Sea Guardian can perform the following 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 NAC, NATO helps protect critical infrastructure in the maritime environment, including the control of choke points.