Sailing Across the Bridge

By Admiral James G. Stavridis, U.S. Navy

To this end, NATO planners are developing a maritime security operations concept. If approved, I believe this concept will counter unlawful or disruptive activities on the sea and preserve maritime security through operations conducted in cooperation with other national authorities, international organizations, and commercial enterprises.

The 1999 NATO Strategic Concept acknowledged tectonic shifts in the security environment after the Cold War and committed the alliance to broadening its reach, while preserving and improving security. This view reflected the wider range of threats that faced the alliance's strategic interests and took into account the increase in globalization. A key focus of the Strategic Concept was the notion that threats to NATO's collective security originate not only in Europe but throughout the world and are in many cases sponsored by non-state actors-and even individuals.

The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, the 11 March 2004 attacks in Madrid, and the 11 July 2006 attack in Mumbai-though certainly not the only instances of such extremist activity-are excellent examples of just how widespread those threats really are. No region of the world is immune.

These often asymmetric threats may disrupt what A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower dubs "a global system that links every country on earth." In each of these cases such disruption occurred, and in the wake of 9/11, NATO responded by invoking Article V of the alliance's charter for the first time. Pursuant to that demonstration of NATO's solidarity and resolve, the alliance launched the ongoing Operation Active Endeavor. To date, this operation has been a conduit for NATO and partner ships to patrol the Mediterranean, monitor shipping, and to detect, deter, and protect against terrorist activity.

Globalization and Security

As threats to regional and global systems multiply, disruptions in other parts of the world can affect security and economic stability inside every nation's borders. NATO nations and partners and non-NATO associates such as Russia, Ukraine, and China already collaborate to suppress terrorism and piracy. So must security organizations around the world foster and build cooperative relationships-even in the midst of competition-that enhance our capacity to meet these challenges.

As the alliance develops the new Strategic Concept under the leadership of Secretary General Rasmussen, I believe it must pursue closer relationships with the United Nations, the European Union, emerging non-NATO partners, and other private and public enterprises. The maritime environment will continue to play prominently in NATO's efforts to enhance security and stability in the Mediterranean and to strengthen and build bridges with other nations.

The alliance faces a number of security challenges at present, including:

Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons;

The vulnerability of its critical infrastructure, including undersea communications cables, which, if compromised, could cripple the global economic system;

Preventing or disrupting the transport of terrorists and criminals at sea and the trafficking in persons and illegal drugs.

In the longer term, the alliance must contend with:

Increased access to the high north and the potential for intense competition among the five Arctic powers (the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway);

Shifts in global maritime traffic patterns resulting from the melting of the polar icecap;

Increased competition for natural resources;

The potential for mass migration, both legal and illegal;

Natural and manmade disasters; and

The weakening of the Rule of Law.

As the list above illustrates, some challenges are strictly military, while others cross boundaries between defense, law enforcement, and civilian policy. NATO can span those gaps. But one area in particular that specifically relates to maritime security, is of common interest, and requires our urgent attention, is piracy.

Piracy and Cyber-Threats

Since the Age of Sail, the security and economic prosperity of maritime nations have depended largely on the sea. But just as the pirates and privateers of the 16th and 17th centuries plundered the shipping lanes, so too do modern-day pirates and criminals threaten the free and lawful use of the oceans today. "Our world," writes journalist William Langewiesche, "is an ocean world, and it is wild." 1 On this "outlaw sea," piracy is merely a symptom of a greater potential for crime and instability.

Its impact is not trivial. Piracy has flourished off the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean shipping lanes, and pirate attacks have more than doubled worldwide during the first six months of 2009, from 114 to 240. In this year's second quarter alone, seaborne gangs boarded 78 vessels, fired on 75 ships, hijacked 31 vessels, have taken more than 500 mariners hostage, have injured 19, kidnapped 7, and killed 6; 8 remain missing. 2

The recent spike in pirate attacks in the strategic waterways off the Horn of Africa is a matter of great concern. Pirates have become increasingly bold. The hijacking of the 1,091-foot, 162,000-ton Saudi-owned very large crude carrier the Sirius Star and its subsequent $3 million ransom payment; the hijacking of Maersk Line's 500-foot, 17,000-ton M/V Alabama and its release in the wake of the felling of the hijackers by U.S. Navy SEALs; and the hijacking of the 4,000-ton M/V Arctic Sea , recovered thanks to the cooperative efforts of Russia and NATO, are a few examples of bold attacks that threaten international trade. 3

The costs also are extensive. More than 80 percent of international maritime trade moving through the Gulf of Aden involves Europe. Pirates have carried out more than 100 attacks in 2009 in the Gulf of Aden and off the Somali coast alone. In June 2009, marine insurers were charging between 0.05 percent and 0.175 percent of the value of a ship per voyage in the Gulf of Aden versus zero to 0.05 percent in May of 2008. For a vessel the size of the Sirius Star, that amounts to between $150,000 and $500,000 per trip.

Some countries are making large investments in maritime security by increasing their military presence in high-risk areas to deter piracy, and shipping companies are taking expensive measures to assure the safety of their ships and their crews. These measures include rerouting ships to bypass the Gulf of Aden, hiring private security guards, and installing non-lethal deterrence equipment. But these actions come at a price, which ultimately is passed along to the consumer. The costs are significant.

For example, routing a tanker from Saudi Arabia to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope adds approximately 2,700 miles to the voyage and approximately $3.5 million per year in fuel costs, and routing a liner from Europe to the Far East via the Cape of Good Hope rather than through the Suez Canal would incur an estimated $89 million annually, without considering the added costs associated with the disruption in global supply chains. 4 Table 1 includes some additional expenses.

NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations, are collaborating to address the problem of piracy, and many other countries, including Australia, China, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, Somalia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Ukraine, are cooperating to address the issue. But it is a persistent problem that will require a comprehensive, long-term approach to solve.

As nefarious an activity as piracy is, it isn't the only potential threat to maritime safety and commerce. Hazards lurk in the cyber-sphere as well. We depend on networked systems to monitor, route, and control global maritime traffic and cargo, to navigate, and to communicate. These systems are vulnerable to disruption, both accidental and deliberate. Thus the cyber domain is yet another dimension in which NATO should pursue cooperation and collaboration for maritime security.

Working Together

Throughout history, the collaborations between maritime nations at sea have achieved mutual goals that cannot be met on land. Sailors share risks and learn common lessons at sea, regardless of their nationality. Those lessons can be applied to international relations, and we can use the maritime environment to link people, cultures, and ideas. Loosely affiliated operations such as NATO's Operation Ocean Shield, begun on 17 August 2009 to support international efforts to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, is an excellent example of such a collaborative effort among international partners.

At the NATO Heads of State and Government summit in Riga, Latvia, in 2006, the North Atlantic Council was tasked to "improve the coherent application of NATO's Crisis Instruments as well as practical cooperation at all levels with partners, the U.S., and other relevant international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and local actors." 5 Pursuant to that goal, the maritime operations concept applies the comprehensive approach to the maritime environment.

There are many ways to collaborate and cooperate. In conducting maritime security operations, NATO's military capabilities and capacity for maritime engagement must be integrated with the efforts of nonmilitary government agencies and public and private ventures. We must find ways to collaborate and cooperate with the European Union, the UN, regional maritime security organizations and even commercial entities and think creatively to leverage nontraditional maritime security capabilities. In particular, synergies should be explored at the political level with the European Union to rationalize the assets applied to the maritime domain.

There are also expansive capabilities in the commercial sector. Stephen M. Carmel, senior vice president, maritime services at Maersk Line, Limited, recently wrote an article about how to employ commercial shipping in preserving maritime security. 6 Carmel describes how Maersk Line—the world's largest container shipping company with over a thousand ships of various types—can offer what he called "overwhelming, persistent global presence" and a "good vantage point from which to see what is going on in the global commons."

Commercial shipping vessels are commonplace in the maritime environment. In Maersk's case, the company has operations in nearly 300 ports around the world and makes 33,000 port calls a year; that's one port call every 15 minutes, every day of the year. 7 No single navy can make such a claim, and no single nation can see what Maersk's ships see every day; and that's just one company.

The implications of these statistics are enormous. If each one of the thousands of commercial vessels that every day ply the waves were to engage in a partnership for maritime surveillance and reporting, our domain awareness would potentially improve by orders of magnitude, as would their own security.

Current Barriers

There is a longstanding tension between the need to preserve freedom of navigation and the need to regulate traffic to prevent threats and criminal activity from developing and proliferating.

Given the vast expanse, the seas are extremely difficult to police. Terrorists and criminals exploit this weakness with impunity. Admittedly, though enforcement capacity is greater in allies' ports, the volume of traffic makes the task of identifying and acting on threatening or illegal activity extremely challenging. Civilian law enforcement also is restricted by the primacy given to flag-states' jurisdictions, which limits the rights of one state to intervene in another's maritime activities.

In general, the capabilities of maritime law enforcement agencies become more limited the farther offshore they move. They all lack the command, control, and communications infrastructure to support operations at extended range. Effective operations depend on their ability to locate a suspect vessel and estimate its trajectory and intent.

Barriers to information-sharing among the civilian agencies and, in some cases, statutory limitations on what may be shared between intelligence and police authorities, also limit the correlation of information. Furthermore, most of the agencies involved have limited capacity to undertake and sustain operations at strategic distance, in areas important to the allies.

Strengthening Maritime Operations

Though we live in an era of persistent conflict, in which terrorist and criminal threats exist both on shore and at sea, I envision a world that will continue to grow more interconnected and more interdependent. The NATO alliance holds tremendous potential through maritime operations to help defuse conflict and connect the nations of the world.

As I stand on the transatlantic bridge and regard the challenges in the coming decades, I see the relevance of maritime security. While we will continue to work hard on our land-oriented operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and elsewhere, we need as well to spend time, intellectual energy, and resources both to understand and counter the potential threats, such as piracy, to the alliance in the maritime environment.

Our security and prosperity depend on the sea. NATO's skill in cooperating and collaborating in the maritime sphere will remain a vital component of its continued commitment to keep the seas open as a bridge, and not a barrier, for the lawful use of all.

1. William Langewiesche. The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime. New York, NY: North Point Press, 2004.

2. MC2 Matjam Schaeffer, "Combined Maritime Forces Works with International Navies to Counter Piracy," .

3. Rawle O. King, "Ocean Piracy and Its Impact on Insurance," Congressional Research Service, 6 February 2009.

4. "Economic Impact of Piracy in the Gulf of Aden on Global Trade," .

5. SPC(R) Proposals to develop and implement NATO's contribution to a Comprehensive Approach dated 12 June 2007?subsequently endorsed at the Bucharest Summit in 2008.

6. Steve Carvel. "Commercial Shipping and the Maritime Strategy," Naval War College Review, Spring 2008

7. Ibid. 

Admiral Stavridis is Commander of the United States European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.



More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership