NATO’s maritime activities

The world’s oceans connect us. They are essential to global commerce and our way of life. Today, shipping makes up 90 per cent of all international trade in raw material and manufactured goods, and tankers carry more than half of the world’s oil.


The maritime domain is of strategic importance for NATO and NATO is determined to help protect its Allies from any possible threats at sea or from the sea.

Maritime forces play a critical role in protecting the sea lines of communication and choke points, as well as securing supplies and reinforcements along the transatlantic routes during crisis and conflict.

NATO overall maritime activities

  • The Alliance Maritime Strategy identifies the parameters for NATO’s maritime activities, which can cover collective defence, crisis prevention and management, cooperative security and maritime security.
  • Maritime forces increasingly contribute to deterrence and defence and projecting stability through three primary functions: strategic, security and warfighting.
  • NATO is reinforcing its maritime posture and is taking concrete steps to improve the Alliance’s overall maritime situational awareness and defend against all threats in the maritime domain, uphold freedom of navigation and secure maritime routes.
  • The Alliance has Standing Naval Forces – NATO’s highly trained maritime, immediate-response capacity.
  • NATO is currently carrying out Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean providing assistance to help with the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea.
1/3 The Alliance Maritime Strategy and the Alliance Maritime Posture |

The 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy derives four maritime roles for the Alliance to contribute to: deterrence and collective defence, crisis management, cooperative security and maritime security.

The Alliance Maritime Strategy describes NATO’s four strategic roles or what it does in the maritime domain. The Alliance Maritime Posture describes NATO’s functions or how it uses the maritime domain and the Alliance’s naval forces.

NATO is strengthening its deterrence and defence posture in all domains. The maritime domain encompasses oceans and seas, on, above and below the surface, in all directions. It is a continuum and it is fully connected to other domains and areas.

The Alliance’s naval forces include those maritime forces, sensors and other capabilities under national or NATO command that contribute to Alliance security.

The Alliance Maritime Posture comprises the Alliance’s naval forces, their presence within the maritime domain and the operational and cooperative activities that they conduct in the performance of three functions, which contribute to Alliance security:

Strategic function: the presence of maritime forces creates strategic and deterrent effects, including for assurance and messaging. The flexibility of maritime forces provides instant availability force packages yielding a range of attractive, measured and viable political and military options.

Security function: maritime security has become a mainstay of NATO’s maritime activities. Allies have developed sophisticated skills, tactics, and procedures associated with maritime security. The maintenance of a safe and secure maritime environment can be undertaken through a range of maritime security operations and/or activities.

Warfighting function: during peacetime and in a crisis, maritime forces are primarily deterrent in nature. They can contribute to conventional operations, nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defence. Allies’ maritime forces provide deterrence and defence in their contiguous seas, extending the defence of their national territory. Maritime forces can rapidly transition from low-intensity to high-intensity missions and tasks.

Maritime and joint exercises are key to maintaining and developing warfighting competencies and improving Allies’ combined maritime skills and readiness for all operations. Competencies being incorporated into future exercises include high-end warfighting capacities, such as the protection of sea lines of communication and rapid reinforcement, anti-submarine warfare, land attack, and integrated air and missile defence; countering threats in cyber space.

2/3 NATO’s Standing Naval Forces and capabilities |

NATO has Standing Naval Forces (SNF) that provide the Alliance with a continuous, credible and agile maritime capability that can be rapidly deployed in times of crisis or tension. The SNF are a multinational deterrent force that can provide a rapid response to defend against any potential adversary, and contribute to crisis management, security cooperation with partners and maritime security.

NATO’s SNF consist of four groups: the Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMGs) composed of SNMG1 and SNMG2; and the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups (SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2). All four Groups are integrated into the NATO Response Force (NRF), the Alliance’s rapid-reaction force.


The Standing NATO Maritime Groups are integrated maritime forces made up of vessels from various Allied countries. These vessels are permanently available to NATO to perform different tasks as operational missions. They help establish Alliance presence, demonstrate solidarity, conduct routine diplomatic visits to different countries, and provide maritime military capabilities to ongoing missions.

SNMG1 and SNMG2 are composed of between two and six ships from NATO member countries.


The Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Groups – SNMCMG1 and SNMCMG2 – are forces which primarily engage in search and explosive ordnance disposal operations. SNMCMG2 also conducts historical ordnance disposal operations to minimise the threat from mines dating back to the World Wars, thereby contributing to global navigation safety.

Both SNMCMG groups are key assets in the NATO Response Force (NRF) and are able to fulfil a wide range of roles from humanitarian tasks to operations.

SNMCMG1 was formed in the Belgian port of Ostend on 11 May 1973 to ensure safety of navigation around the ports of the English Channel and northwest Europe. Today, the Group is capable of operating nearly anywhere in the world.

3/3 NATO’s maritime operations |

NATO’s maritime operations have demonstrated the Alliance’s ability to achieve strategic objectives in vastly different contexts.

Operation Sea Guardian

In November 2016, Operation Sea Guardian was launched as a flexible operation to support maritime situational awareness; and support to maritime counter-terrorism.

Operation Sea Guardian is operating in the Mediterranean Sea with focused operations, conducted at a tempo of three continuous weeks every two months, in total six a year. Although there is no permanent ship presence at sea throughout the duration of the whole year, maritime situational awareness is maintained throughout the year.

Support to the refugee and migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea

NATO has contributed to international efforts to assist with the refugee and migrant crisis. To that end, NATO ships have been conducting monitoring and surveillance of crossings within the Aegean, in cooperation with relevant national and EU authorities.

NATO ships have been collecting valuable information, which has been used by both the Greek and Turkish navies and coastguards.

Operation Ocean Shield

From 2009 to 2016, Operation Ocean Shield contributed to international efforts to suppress piracy and protect humanitarian aid shipments off the Horn of Africa. NATO continues to be engaged in counter-piracy efforts in that area through maritime situational awareness and sustained links with counter-piracy actors.

Operation Active Endeavour

From 2001 to 2016, Operation Active Endeavour (the predecessor to Operation Sea Guardian) helped deter, detect, and if necessary disrupt the threat of terrorism in the Mediterranean Sea. The operation evolved out of NATO’s immediate response to the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001.


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