Multinationality: The Way Ahead for Western Maritime Power

By Commander Michele Cosentino, Italian Navy

Throughout Western militaries, the principle of multinationalism has been applied only in the context of such international organizations as NATO or Western European Union, and has been used only for specific tasks and purposes. At present, the evolution of multinationalism—which has affected maritime strategies and doctrines in particular—encompasses not only naval units, but entire naval forces.

NATO's maritime strategy, for example, is focused on protecting peace and managing crises. In turn, this strategy establishes key precepts for allied maritime forces, including flexibility, multinationality, presence, sustainability, various levels of readiness, build-up capability, and maintenance of strategic balance. The importance of NATO's maritime areas, with their seamless boundaries, cannot be underestimated. In peacetime, the free flow of raw materials and goods is important; while in crisis, it is essential for our survival. The free use and control of the North Atlantic, the North Sea, the Channel, the Baltic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Black Sea are imperative to NATO. Less critical, but still highly relevant for NATO security, is the free flow of seaborne trade in areas adjacent to NATO waters where vital interests could be put at risk.

Maritime operations are influenced by a number of factors. The key to any operation is assessing the potential threat and associated risks accurately. But in today's security environment it is difficult to predict the specific type of threat allied maritime forces will face. Therefore, threat assessment often must be made as a crisis is unfolding. Force-employment decisions will be based on rapid threat assessment, and will be shaped by such additional factors as warning time, environment, availability of forces, rules of engagement, command and control, logistics, reinforcement/resupply, and treaty obligations. Because generic requirements call for flexible military forces, maritime forces are well poised to meet them. In fact, maritime forces have proved capable of adapting to different contingencies and can be sized appropriately.

With the exception of the U.S. Navy, no Western naval force can operate across the full range of military missions, e.g., amphibious warfare, mine countermeasures, and air operations. Such shortfalls have led to differing alliances and force packages, which continue to evolve. Understanding this evolution requires an analysis of past experiences, especially actual military operations.

The Beginning

After the establishment of NATO and its integrated military structure, the United States perceived a lack of integration among allied navies. This perception probably resulted from the overwhelmingly land-oriented nature of the alliance, which focused mainly on the defense of Central Europe against a massive attack from the Soviet bloc. Supporting the need for a greater naval role in NATO, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy proposed the establishment of a Multi-Lateral Force (MLF) in the early 1960s. The MLF was to consist of 25 merchant vessels with multinational crews, each vessel armed with eight Polaris ballistic missiles and capable of acting as a maritime deterrent against the Soviet nuclear threat. Although the MLF never materialized, the U.S. Navy insisted on the concept of "naval multinationality" and firmly sponsored the establishment of a multinational crew on board the Claude V. Ricketts (DDG-5). The destroyer was then manned by a multinational crew of officers and enlisted from the United States (176), Germany (49), Greece (32), Italy (26), the United Kingdom (26), and The Netherlands (18). Experience and positive results gained from that experiment paved the way for future implementation of the naval multinationality concept within NATO and for the creation of a true multinational naval force where each participating nation would have its proper visibility.

NATO's Multinational Naval Forces

In the early 1960s, talks began to establish a NATO naval squadron composed of four to six destroyer- or frigate-size warships and mainly tasked to participate in some allied exercises, joint maritime training, and demonstration of solidarity. In 1965, warships from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands were involved in a five-month long exercise that validated the concept of a NATO's multinational naval forces. In December 1967, NATO defense ministers approved the establishment of the Standing Naval Force Atlantic (StaNavForLant). Its concept of operations has been updated with the experience gained since the force's activation and took into account the most recent multinational concepts. StaNavForLant is a versatile, highly mobile and capable force, able to conduct routine presence and surveillance operations throughout the NATO's area of responsibility. It is an immediate reaction force that will deploy, when needed, to a crisis area in order to establish NATO presence, demonstrate solidarity, conduct surveillance, and contain crises. StaNavForLant normally operates as a general purpose task group, consisting of about seven escort-type ships or larger, with at least one fully configured for the command-and-control role, and one underway-replenishment ship. StaNavForLant normally includes warships from the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and Canada, but sometimes warships from Denmark, Norway, and Portugal deploy with the force as well.

A quite different approach was considered for the Mediterranean Sea. In the past, NATO's focus was mainly on Central European front and its resupply through the Atlantic sea lines of communications, while the remainder of the continent—Northern and Southern—was known as "flanks." The increasingly aggressive presence of the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron was recognized as a credible threat to NATO naval operations. This led to the establishment of a naval on-call force in the Mediterranean (NavOCForMed) in the 1970s whose main role was to demonstrate solidarity among Allied nations in the Southern Europe. NavOCForMed normally was activated twice a year for a certain period and included escort-type ships from Italy, the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Turkey, and, since 1982, Spain. After the Gulf War, the importance of the Mediterranean to NATO's security was truly recognized. NavOCForMed evolved into a standing naval multinational force (StaNavForMed), with an operational concept like StaNavForLant. StaNavForMed evolved further by including warships from naval forces unacquainted with the Mediterranean, such as the Dutch, German, and Canadian navies.

In 1973 NATO decided to improve its capabilities in mine countermeasures (MCM) and established a specialized multinational naval force to cope with the mine threat in the English Channel and the North Sea. This force was named Standing Naval Force Channel (StaNavForChan) and was comprised of mine countermeasures vessels from the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, and Denmark, plus an MCM command-and-control ship on a rotational basis. Because of its inherent limitations on speed and endurance, StaNavForChan is not an immediate-reaction force. Although it can deploy and perform missions throughout European waters, StaNavForChan's actual role is as a regional MCM force. To overcome such operational limitations, NATO has decided to establish a similar MCM force for the Mediterranean Sea (tentatively named MCMForMed) comprised of ships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, and possibly the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

Civil war in the former Yugoslavia meant the involvement of NATO's immediate reaction naval forces in the Adriatic in the first actual military operations performed since its inception. After a year of U.N.-sanctioned embargo operations conducted separately by NATO and Western European Union (WEU) naval task forces, StaNavForLant and StaNavForMed were merged with WEU warships to create Combined Task Force 440, which was tasked to execute Operation Sharp Guard from June 1993 to October 1996. After the positive change of situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, NATO concluded the embargo operations, but multinational naval forces shifted to surveillance and escort roles in support of NATO's forces engaged in Operations Joint Endeavor and Joint Guard.

Apart from the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War against Iraq, the U.N.-sponsored Operation United Shield, is a good example of the naval multinationality concept outside a military organization. United Shield was a combined naval force of U.S., Italian, and other naval and amphibious assets that supported ground and Marine forces ashore. The combined naval force was established outside a military organization, but within a formal, U.N.-approved mandate. Careful planning of the entire operation ensured success, validated assigned roles and missions, and confirmed the flexibility of naval forces in littoral and joint operations in distant waters.

Even after the end of the Cold War, multinational naval forces have been demonstrating their capabilities to operate on the sea—and from the sea—in littoral environments and in a new geostrategic context. In the wake of these successes, NATO's naval planners envision expanded roles, and some allied navies are implementing new concepts of power projection. In addition, NATO is establishing a multinational, on-call amphibious force for the Mediterranean, named Combined Amphibious Force Mediterranean (CAFMed), formed with amphibious units normally drawn from Italian, Turkish, Greek, U.S., and Spanish navies. CAFMed also could include ships from such non-Mediterranean NATO nations as the U.K., the Netherlands, and Portugal. It is to be activated for training and exercises and—should a crisis arise—serve as a rapid reaction force.

Today's Naval Pacts and Agreement

Following successes in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and the Adriatic Sea, the ongoing reductions of naval forces are forcing a new approach for naval multinationality. A single navy cannot afford to cope with a crisis on its own. Broader political and military leverage is needed. Naval multinationality therefore has expanded beyond the traditional boundaries of such international military organizations as NATO or WEU. This new approach is trying to overcome an operational shortage of multinational naval forces that have been put together on a temporary basis only. This new approach consists of several bilateral naval pacts and agreements involving European navies and covering a wide range of activities beyond traditional combined maritime operations.

The first cooperation agreement was signed on March 1995 between the Belgian Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy, following a proposal to adapt the preexisting coastal command wartime organization for permanent peacetime use. In addition to establishing common operational and naval command-and-control procedures, Belgian/Dutch cooperation also calls for the integration of training, equipment, logistics, and new construction programs. Although ultimate command of each nation's ships remains with their respective governments, the two navies agreed to combine their operational commands in a single, binational, integrated headquarters located in an underground bunker near Den Helder (The Netherlands). Naval assets have been merged into a new organization led by a so-called "Admiral Benelux" (ABNL), with a Deputy ABNL; these posts are held, on a rotational basis, by Dutch and Belgian admirals. The new organization is responsible for the annual planning of all operational and training activities by integrated Belgian and Dutch forces, and exercises operational command of these activities. When the two governments are involved in actual operations, the operational command of binational naval forces participating in those operations is assigned to ABNL.

After this historic agreement, a new pact to formalize and improve cooperation between the French and Belgian navies was signed in September 1996. Previous agreements governed technical and training issues, including naval officer exchanges for teaching and training purposes; the new cooperation framework consists of regular maintenance activities for Belgian frigates and mine countermeasures ships at French shipyards (notably at Brest) and common logistics and procurement activities for naval materiel. Further improvements could lead to the establishment of a joint operation center for combined development of planning and the conduct of exercises and actual operations.

In October 1996, the defense ministers of France and the United Kingdom signed an agreement to strengthen links between the French and Royal Navies. Although a joint naval command on the Belgian/Dutch model is not planned, the French/U.K. agreement is focused on the possible establishment of combined naval forces for training, exercises, and operational purposes; planning of combined deployments to areas of mutual interest; enhancing cooperation in naval research and development; and improving bilateral cooperation to include other European navies within a NATO or WEU context. A permanent planning group has not been programmed because officers from the two navies meet on a regular basis already, while a steering committee co-chaired by the two naval chiefs of staff supervises the agreement's implementation.

If Western Europe appears to be the cradle of naval cooperation, a similar move (perhaps not so unexpected) has come from the Baltic as well. In March 1997, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania agreed to establish a naval squadron, known as Baltic Squadron (BaltRon) and tasked with rescue and mine countermeasures operations in the Baltic sea. A possible development should be the integration of BaltRon in a standing naval force (with ships provided from other neighboring countries, mainly Germany, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Finland) for use during peacekeeping mission under NATO's Partnership for Peace (PFP) initiative. Such a move could also lead to a new NATO general-purpose standing naval force suited for operations in the Baltic Sea, to be established after Poland enters NATO and flexibly structured to allow participation of other non-NATO PFP nations.

The Way Ahead

In the future, we should encourage further developments of the naval multinationality concept, especially in Europe. Although naval pacts among France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom could produce a northern counterpart of EuroMarFor (the latter especially suited for Mediterranean and adjacent seas-related purpose), they should be seen as the ideal complement of EuroMarFor to properly expand the fields of intervention and activities. This may be seen by some as the establishment of a "European" navy, so all Nations involved should carefully consider the political implications of such a move in respect of NATO and its non-European members. Thus, the logical evolution should be within a strategic maritime partnership between NATO and WEU in order to make best use of naval forces. Through synergistic military and political exploitation of their naval forces' capabilities, Western nations will be able to cope with unpredictable challenges and threats of the future.

Commander Cosentino was graduated from the Italian Naval Academy in 1978. After having served on board submarines and surface ships, he was assigned to NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, for three years. At present, he is serving in the Ministry of Defense, Office of the National Armaments Director, in Rome.


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