NATO’s Alliance Maritime Strategy (AMS) is 12 years old and must be updated to better align with the Strategic Concept agreed last year.  

The 2011 AMS was valuable in its time, aligning NATO nations’ maritime endeavors with the 2010 Strategic Concept, at a time when expeditionary operations dominated strategic planning.  

But Putin’s land grabs in Ukraine starting in 2014 began to push the maritime strategy towards obsolescence. By 2016 it was clear to this author and others that an updated approach was needed. The existing strategy focuses on cooperative maritime security, including with partners the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and others; it even addresses energy security which has become especially important since the. Nord Stream pipeline sabotage in September. However, it fails to fully address the strategic environment of aggressive great power competition. 

The 2022 Strategic Concept accurately depicts today’s security environment by pointing to Russia as the primary authoritarian threat and recognizing China’s effective alliance with the Kremlin and its use of coercive behavior. NATO deserves a new maritime strategy that keeps pace. The 2011 AMS mentions neither Russia, nor China. 

Russia’s war in Ukraine has highlighted the maritime threats that the two authoritarian powers pose to NATO:  

  • After seizing Crimea in 2014, Russia rapidly emplaced surface-to-air and anti-ship missile batteries in the peninsula, expanding its anti-access/area denial threat from the eastern third of the Black Sea to nearly its entirety. 
  • Russian ships and submarines at sea have launched numerous salvos of Kalibr land attack cruise missiles, from the opening shots of 24 February 2022 to ongoing strikes on civilian targets including housing and shopping malls (seen most recently in a July 6 attack on apartments in Lviv.) The ebb and flow of the war have played out in the littorals like Snake Island. 
  • Naval mines have seriously affected Black Sea maritime trade and have endangered the territorial waters of NATO allies like Romania and Bulgaria. 
  • Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and the constant threats to terminate the Black Sea Grain Initiative by reimposing its blockade has demonstrated the global impact of a maritime clash on Europe’s Eastern Flank. 
  • International airspace and maritime routes will continue to be potential flashpoints so long as Russia reacts to NATO units with unsafe and unprofessional operations (as with the Russian downing of a US drone and a failed attempt to fire an air-to-air missile at a British reconnaissance aircraft, both over the Black Sea.).  

While the Vilnius Summit does not aim to deliver a new AMS, NATO Heads of State will address maritime issues when considering Ukraine, and NATO’s force presence and readiness.  

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As Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to NATO, wrote in May, the alliance cannot be passive in the Black Sea and should do everything in its power to break Russia’s blockade of Ukraine to support the principle of freedom of navigation. Continued international support for the free flow of Ukraine’s grain and other exports would benefit Ukraine, the West, and the international rules-based order. 

There is much to consider for the military aspects of post-war Ukraine beyond the huge task of reconstruction and rebuilding. Prior to Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine last year, the Ukrainian navy was signing contracts to bolster its fleet — including a $2.2bn deal with the UK for a frigate, two minehunters, and at least two missile boats, and a contract with Turkey for four to five corvettes. It is important to build this future force but also to regenerate Ukraine’s shipbuilding industrial base.  

NATO leaders should explore all possible means for mine clearance in the Black Sea, to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) — even if limited to the three Black Sea alliance states — and promise a direct military response to any attack by any entity on international shipping in the Black Sea.  

Vilnius will also take steps to implement NATO’s increased force presence and posture launched at last year’s summit in Madrid. On July 7, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg previewed major steps to strengthen deterrence and defense. The three regional defense plans — for the High North, the Nordic-Baltic region, and for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea — will have significant naval components. It will be critical to follow the allocation of forces to these plans, to exercises, and to the rotational regional presence. NATO’s standing naval formations — two Standing NATO Maritime Groups and two Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Groups — are part of the expanded high readiness forces. The details on maintaining these ready forces and employing them in competition or in conflict will be important.  

It is a concern that the Vilnius Summit proceedings will not address the need to replace the 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy. However, work can begin on the numerous naval and maritime measures that will form the building blocks once NATO does get started on a new strategy.  

Steven Horrell is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is a former US Navy Intelligence Officer, retiring as a Captain in 2021. 

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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