While the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept signed in Madrid described maritime security as “key to our peace and prosperity”, the alliance’s Maritime Strategy was published more than 12 years ago and has not been overhauled since.
NATO is now in dire need of an update so that it aligns with the direction decided in the Madrid concept, and allows for a higher degree of interoperability among allied navies and their partners.
Since the 2011 Maritime Strategy was published, the strategic environment at sea has dramatically evolved. Back then, the strategy depicted a cooperative maritime environment in which the alliance’s contributions would be divided into four different groupings:
- deterrence and collective defense
- crisis management
- cooperative security, and
- maritime security.
Most notably, the document did not make any reference to either China or Russia, which were respectively defined in the 2022 Strategic concept as a “challenge [to] our interests, security and values”, and as “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”.
In contrast, the 2023 geopolitical landscape is radically different and far more troubling. The re-emergence of a Russian submarine threat around the North Atlantic and the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap, the growing targeting of undersea critical infrastructure in the Baltic Sea (likely by China or Russia), and the enduring threats to maritime commerce in the Black Sea region as a result of the war in Ukraine, all represent clear threats to NATO members.
The ongoing conflict in Israel has attracted the largest concentration of naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean since the days of the Cold War, Russia’s militarization of the Arctic region, and Beijing’s growing assertiveness claiming the South China Sea as its own, risks escalating into open military confrontation with the Philippines and other neighbors in the region, if not properly addressed.
NATO allies must thus design a new approach that sets a framework for cooperation and prepares the alliance for the challenges it will face over the coming years.
The new strategy should provide a detailed analysis of the current strategic environment in each region relevant to allied security interests, followed by a clearly defined list of threats, challenges, and strategic objectives. From a purely naval perspective, the strategy should also inform the configuration and deployments of its NATO Standing Maritime Groups (SNMGs.)
The establishment of an additional mine-sweeping naval force for the Black Sea with the navies of Romania and Bulgaria (and possibly) Turkey, the three NATO members bordering this sea, has highlighted the need to adapt the structure of the standing groups to maximize the contributions of all participant nations, perhaps leading towards a narrower geographical responsibility and set missions.
Yet, any decision regarding the SNMGs and their modernization must respond to current strategic requirements and aspire to restore allied navies’ ability to “fight tonight”, bearing in mind that “fleet architectures centered on monolithic multi-mission ships are now becoming a liability” against a vast plethora of modern missile and drone threats (Russia’s Black Sea fleet has taken a hammering from Ukraine, which has no significant conventional surface or subsurface vessels at sea.)
Other key aspects to be addressed in the new strategy are the maritime and naval threats posed by China and Russia, the protection of undersea critical infrastructure, and the current state of the shipbuilding industry in most NATO countries.
Regarding China and Russia, the strategy should outline the threats that both revisionist powers bring to international law and stability at sea, and explore paths to address these without escalation. The implications of their potential acquisition of additional foreign naval outposts in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean should also be considered.
For the protection of critical undersea infrastructure, individual efforts undertaken by NATO members such as the United Kingdom and France offer valuable insights on how to address these challenges, which will involve the use of the latest technologies and investing in modern surveillance systems such as the Royal Navy’s two new 6,000-ton Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ships (MROSS).
Lastly, the strategy should also address the acute shortfalls in the shipbuilding industry of allied partners following several decades of low military spending and shrinking fleets, to assist the necessary naval modernization programs of its members. Ideally, the strategy should also consider the ongoing modernization plans of NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners, and look to complement both modernization efforts as efficiently as possible.
The alliance needs a new maritime strategy to help it navigate an increasingly complex and contested maritime environment. The new strategy must provide a clear definition of the existing threats and challenges and inform the naval modernization efforts of its members’ navies to successfully meet current strategic requirements.
This is an extremely demanding task, but failing to do so might come at a far greater cost to allied security interests during the coming decades.
Gonzalo Vázquez holds a BA in international relations and is currently working as an Intern at the NATO Crisis Management & Disaster Response Center of Excellence in Bulgaria. He is a junior analyst with the Center for Naval Thought at the Spanish Naval War College, and a regular contributor with the Center for Maritime Strategy in Arlington, VA.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.