Category Archives: Global Analysis

A Geographical Breakdown of What’s Going on in the World

The U.S. Needs an Official Sixth Fleet History, and the Europeans Do Too

By Sebastian Bruns 

Part of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. European Command, the Sixth Fleet is the principal organizing body for American naval activities in and around Europe. In 2020, the United States Sixth Fleet, one of three numbered fleets designated specifically for American forward naval presence, celebrated its 70th anniversary. U.S. naval presence in Europe goes even further back than that. In the early 19th century, the Barbary pirates of Northern Africa constituted one of the pivotal founding memories for the American sea services. U.S. presence in the region continued over the centuries. In 1946, President Harry Truman dispatched the battleship USS Missouri to Turkey in a show of force in the emerging post-World War II order. 

The Sixth Fleet area of responsibility includes, inter alia, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the North Sea. It also includes the eastern Atlantic Ocean, although that responsibility is shared with the recently reactivated U.S. Second Fleet based in Norfolk, Virginia. Additionally, Sixth Fleet operations from Naples, Italy, cover vast stretches of the African coast, excluding those that are part of the area of responsibility of the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Manama, Bahrain. 

The Fifth Fleet and the third forward-based establishment, the U.S. Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, have been the subjects of official naval history publications.1 These explore the history of American institutionalized naval activity in the region in question and provide policy-makers a grasp on the opportunities for and challenges to U.S. naval forward presence. The Sixth Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Europe are conspicuously absent from that canon.

Emblem of United States Sixth Fleet (U.S. Navy)

In fairness, the Sixth Fleet suffered a significant downgrade of geostrategic significance after 1991. With the demise of the Soviet Navy and American political interest shifting first to troop reduction and then to other areas of the world, Europe became somewhat of a secondary operating theatre. This is not to say that the U.S. Navy and its allies did not field substantial maritime assets for crises and armed conflicts such as Operations Desert Storm (1991), Sharp Guard in the Adriatic (1993-1995), and Odyssey Dawn in Libya (2011). 

In Northern Europe, maritime operations that had been a cornerstone of the 1980s maritime strategy all but ceased. Illustratively, American naval commitment to the annual exercise Baltic Operations – or Baltops – waxed and waned.2 For the American public and its naval planners, the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Strait featured much higher on the agenda than operating areas around the European peninsula. 

In line with the changing international security environment, American troop presence in Europe was significantly reduced. At the same time, most European countries also massively decreased the size, and often the capabilities, of their armed forces. The objective: cashing in on an assumed “peace dividend” and reflecting the changing character of armed conflict they confronted. Instead of Soviet submarines or Warsaw Pact amphibious forces, it was the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the counterterrorism and counterinsurgency land wars of the 2000s that occupied American and European planners’ minds. European navies often bore the brunt of the cutbacks and resource allocations involved and are only slowly recovering.3

However, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ensuing war in Eastern Ukraine, the disintegrating Middle East with the Syrian civil war, the rise and fall of the Islamic State, and widespread instability in all of Northern Africa coupled with sea-borne mass migration and refugees are just some of the significant developments of the 2010s that have thrust Europe – and the importance of the U.S. Sixth Fleet – back on center stage of international security politics. Russian undersea activity in the Mediterranean and on the northern flank is creating massive headaches for those who engage in the somewhat lost art of anti-submarine warfare. The Baltic Sea region is now considering Crimean scenarios in its backyard. 

The strategic geography of Europe has evolved, but so has the Russian naval posture thanks to Russia’s embrace of hybrid or gray-zone tactics. To make matters even more challenging, China has significantly upped its influence on Europe. Beijing promises economic benefits by way of digitalization and its Belt and Road Initiative. Critical European maritime infrastructure has also been in the focus of Chinese state-owned businesses, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is making regular port calls to European waters. It also conducts naval exercises with the Russian Navy in the Baltic and Black Seas.4

Finally, another significant problem stems from within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) itself. Alliance coherence has suffered over the years from diverging interests in member states, competition for influence, lackluster defense spending, and those global challenges that defy traditional nation-state capacities: migration, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. American troop presence, and the reduction thereof, was used as a bargaining chip by President Donald Trump as recently as 2020 in order to punish Germany and to reward other member states.

This goes to show how little the importance of American military presence in Europe is understood on either side of the Atlantic. This is particularly the case for U.S. naval forces that have quietly gone about expanding their forward presence and rotational deployments. Still, comparatively little literature exists in the public domain about American naval engagement in and with Europe. An official, unclassified history of the Sixth Fleet would go a long way to provide policy-makers and the public with information about the bigger picture of naval cooperation and U.S. Navy activities in Europe. 

USS Ross (DDG 71)
USS Ross (DDG 71) moored pierside in Rota, Spain March 29, 2017. Ross, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is conducting naval operations in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert S. Price)

It would also be immensely helpful for those defense specialists in Europe that seek to work with the incoming Biden/Harris administration. After all, the annual Baltops exercise has seen a significant uptick in U.S. Navy visibility (the 2019 maneuver was commanded by Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, Commander, U.S. Second Fleet), but American naval presence is rarely contextualized or studied. Four ballistic missile defense destroyers of the Arleigh-Burke-class are now forward-stationed in Rota, Spain, complemented by Aegis Ashore installations in Romania and Poland. These trends, as well as those adverse challenges described above, are likely to continue in one form or another. 

It is highly unlikely that this year, 75 years after the Missouri’s trip to Turkey, will be commemorated with a similar U.S. naval deployment – due to the absence of battleships in the American warship inventory, the raging pandemic, and the divide in Turkish-American and Turkish-NATO relations in the wake of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s politics. It should, however, signal the start to an honest effort conceptualizing American naval presence and seapower in Europe. It is as important for Americans as it is for Europeans.     

Dr. Bruns heads the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security (CMSS) at the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel. His work focuses on naval strategy and the German and U.S. navies. Together with Sarandis Papadopoulos, he has recently published Conceptualizing Maritime & Naval Strategy. Festschrift for Captain Peter M. Swartz, United States Navy, retired (Nomos, 2020). He is the 2021-2022 Fulbright McCain Fellow at the US Naval Academy.


1 Robert Schneller, “Anchor of Resolve. A History of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Fifth Fleet”, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. 2007; Edward Marolda, “Ready Seapower. A History of the U.S. Seventh Fleet”, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C. 2012. 

2 See Ryan French & Peter Dombrowski, “Exercise BALTOPS: Reassurance and Deterrence in a Contested Littoral”, in Beatrice Heuser, Tormod Heier and Guillaume Lasconjarias (eds.), Military Exercises: Political Messaging and Strategic Impact. NATO Defence College: Rome 2018, pp.187-212. 

3 See Jeremy Stöhs, The Decline of European Naval Forces. Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty. USNI Press: Annapolis 2018. 

4 See Sebastian Bruns & Sarah Kirchberger, “The PLA Navy in the Baltic Sea. A View from Kiel”, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 16 August 2017. 

Featured Image: Ships assigned to Combined Task Force One Five Zero (CTF-150) assemble in a formation for a photo exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Bart Bauer.)

TIAR 21: Maritime security, the TIAR, and IUU fishing in the Western Hemisphere

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez


An international fishing fleet is currently sailing through international waters in the South Pacific, passing close to Ecuador and Peru, and it is currently sailing close to Chile en route to Antarctica The navies of these countries are on alert and governments are sharing information to monitor the fleet.

In light of this development, what more can regional governments do to jointly combat illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing? One tool in the region’s arsenal could be amended in order to combat this particular type of threat: the Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty (Tratado Inter-Americano de Asistencia Recíproca: TIAR), more commonly known as the Rio Treaty as or the Rio Pact. 

Extra-Hemispheric Fishing

For months, a multinational fishing fleet of around 300 ships has operated in the South Pacific, close to the territorial waters of South American nations. Several of these vessels have been identified as originating from the People’s Republic of China, but it is unclear if the majority of vessels are Chinese.

The author recently discussed the fleet in an August 14 commentary for CIMSEC (“The Ecuadorian Navy’s Constant Struggle Against IUU Fishing”) when the vessels crossed international waters between Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, which are part of Ecuador. At the time of this writing, the fleet is heading south, and has already passed through international waters close to Peru. At the time of writing, the fleet is passing close to Chile’s territorial waters

Regional navies are actively monitoring the fleet. The Peruvian navy announced, via Communique 08/2020, that is has deployed a King Air B200 aircraft, the coastal patrol vessel Rio Cañete, in addition to other units for surveillance and patrol operations. Similarly, Chile’s general maritime directorate (Dirección General del Territorio Marítimo y Marina Mercante: DIRECTEMAR) has explained that it is aware of the fleet sailing southward, as “every year, some of these ships cross our  coasts and then cross the Magellan Strait,” as they chase maritime life, including squid. The directorate similarly stated that it is ready to deploy units to monitor the fleet. 

Nevertheless, given the vast size of the fishing fleet and limited maritime and aerial assets that the Ecuadorian, Peruvian, and Chilean navies and air forces possess, it is unclear if any vessels have managed to cross, or will cross in the future, into the waters of these countries to carry out illegal fishing activities.

The U.S. government has taken a more active role regarding this situation, especially given that at least several dozen vessels are Chinese. For example, the U.S. embassy in Peru issued an alert via Twitter about the “Chinese fishing fleet” operating close to Peruvian waters. Previously, the National Security Council tweeted that it “stands with President Lenin [Moreno] ….against any direct aggression, directed towards their economic and environmental sovereignty,” when the fleet passed near Ecuador.

Enter The TIAR

At this point, it is worth discussing what other legal tools regional governments possess to face the problem of predatory fishing from extra-hemispheric fishing fleets. Several of these ships come from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, among other Asian nations. They travel to South Pacific waters (and other bodies of water across the world) since their own territorial waters have been over-fished and depleted. The aforementioned TIAR could be reformed to more effectively combat IUU fishing.

A brief historical summary is necessary: “the most immediate foundations of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance go back to, at least, the Declaration of Lima of December 24, 1938,” explained a scholar to the author. In other words, while the Rio Pact is often associated with the Cold War, the idea of collaboration and hemispheric solidarity predates this period of history.

The TIAR was created in 1947 and is known for Article 3, a clause that calls for collective security should one of its members be attacked. The Treaty has been invoked around 20 times since its inception, such as to support the U.S. blockade against Cuba during the missile crisis. The treaty was also invoked after the 9/11 attacks.

Most recently, in late 2019, parties to TIAR invoked it as part of a regional strategy to pressure the regime of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. It is important to stress that TIAR’s collective security clause was not invoked to justify some type of joint military operation against Venezuela. Rather, the treaty was activated to apply sanctions on individuals associated with President Maduro’s administration.

Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Venezuela have withdrawn from TIAR. However, Venezuela returned by decision of interim President Juan Guaido, but President Nicolas Maduro, whose government has de facto control of the country, is against it.

TIAR 21: Looking Forward

TIAR was designed with a focus on inter-state wars and extra-hemispheric aggressions. The document was revised and amended in 1975, but the overall objective remains the same. With that said, there are sections that could potentially be interpreted as referring to IUU fishing.

For example, Article 5 explains how the TIAR’s council can meet if there is “a conflict or serious event that might endanger the peace of America,” while Article 9 mentions how “the sending by or on behalf of a State of armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries, which carry out acts of armed force against another State.” Similarly, Article 11 mentions how “the High Contracting Parties recognize that, for the maintenance of peace and security in the Hemisphere, collective economic security for the development of the Member States of the Organization of American States must also be guaranteed.” It goes without saying that economic security for coastal nations includes the fishing industry.

While none of these articles mentions IUU by name, or directly addresses transnational, non-traditional security threats such as illegal fishing, it could be argued that the spirit of some of these articles touches on this problem. The fact that TIAR has been invoked to apply sanctions against the Maduro government already serves as precedent for the Treaty being utilized to address issues that are not directly linked to military aggressions by extra-hemispheric powers.

Another possibility is that the TIAR could be reformed and expanded to include non-traditional security threats like IUU fishing. This new version could be a combination of the existing document and other international agreements that deal with maritime issues, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This new document could be called TIAR 21, in that it should be updated to address 21st century Western Hemispheric security threats and challenges. Ideally, parties to TIAR 21 could activate it when, for example, a large extra-hemispheric fishing is operating close to their borders, so neighboring states can deploy naval assets to support patrol operations in territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

There are several issues to keep in mind when it comes to updating the TIAR to include IUU fishing. One question is whether TIAR 21 could only be activated to deal with extra-hemispheric fishing vessels. There is a fair amount of intra-hemispheric IUU fishing in the region. For example, the Royal Bahamas Defence Force apprehended two Dominican poaching vessels in its waters in mid-September. Thus, it would be problematic if Western Hemispheric countries activate TIAR 21 against one another to combat intra-regional IUU fishing.

Similarly, what would activating TIAR 21 mean exactly when it comes to IUU fishing? Ideally, regional navies could be deployed to monitor extra-hemispheric fishing fleets. It is logical to assume that at some point, some of these vessels will enter into the territorial waters of Ecuador, Peru, Chile or Argentina, as such incidents have repeatedly occurred in the past. Thus, by activating TIAR 21, a government could request that other governments deploy vessel or aerial assets to assist with monitoring this fishing fleet, and intervene if necessary if one crosses into its own territorial waters.

This proposal is not without precedents. Thanks to the Shiprider Agreements the U.S. has signed with several Caribbean nations, an officer from Jamaica, for example, can sail in  a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) vessel and be able to apprehend a vessel operating in Jamaica’s territorial waters. The Jamaican law enforcement officer is the individual actually making the arrest, even if he is the sole Jamaican aboard a USCG ship.

Nevertheless, this proposal is also problematic, as there are historical animosities throughout Latin America that may prevent countries from wanting to allow the vessels of other navies in their territorial waters without an escort. There is also the problem of regional navies not having sufficient assets to deploy to assist a fellow navy, even if requested. This is another issue that will have to be addressed, but the general concept is that greater cooperation amongst South American navies and air forces is needed to combat extra-hemispheric, non-traditional security threats.

Finally, it is worth noting that international organizations, not just individual governments, have offered their support to South America as regional nations deal with the latest fishing fleet crossing the South Pacific. For example, in late September, representatives from the United Nations met virtually with government officials from Ecuador to discuss how the UN can help Quito protect the rich biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands. Similarly, the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (Comisión Permanente del Pacífico Sur: CPPS), which has Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru as members, issued a declaration on August 5 calling for greater cooperation and exchange of information to address the presence of international fleets in the region and the dangers of overfishing.

In other words, there are several mechanisms already trying to help combat IUU fishing, but apart from information sharing, more actual vessels in the water are needed to monitor and, if necessary, intercept, these fishing vessels.


Looking forward, the Organization of American States, under which TIAR operates, and its member states should consider reviewing and upgrading TIAR and updating it into an agreement that can help Western Hemisphere states  addresses 21st century threats, thereby creating a  “TIAR 21.” 

When discussing maritime security, there is a natural tendency to primarily focus on the number and sophistication of maritime and aerial assets, followed by overall strategies that navies, combined with other services, can carry out to combat an aggressor. However, it is important to also think even farther “outside of the box,” and discuss the legal documents and arrangements that governments can utilize to obtain international support to protect maritime territory from major threats like illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Members of the Rio Treaty meet to discuss possible sanctions on Venezuela, Monday, September 23, 2019, in New York (Photo via AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Crippled Capacity: How Weak Maritime Enforcement Emboldened Ansar al-Sunna

By Kelly Moss

Two months ago, the insurgent group Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa (“Ansar al-Sunna”) attacked the strategic port of Mocímboa da Praia in Mozambique for the second time in six months. Unlike the day-long siege on March 23rd, Ansar al-Sunna has occupied Mocímboa da Praia since August 13th, indicating a significant escalation in insurgent capabilities.

Ansar al-Sunna was established in Mozambique in 2015 and became increasingly violent beginning in October 2017. Attacks have centered on the Cabo Delgado province, where the group originated, particularly the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia. Despite having a formal affiliation to the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, the insurgency finds deeper roots in local socio-economic and political grievances stemming from an emerging and exploitative regional liquified natural gas industry, and perceived and actual political marginalization by the state, amongst other things. However, the insurgency has reportedly seen incoming recruits from other East African countries, raising concerns over the potential regionalization of this primarily local conflict.

Regardless, the Mozambican government’s repressive response, eerily similar to tactics used in Nigeria’s counterterrorism campaign against Boko Haram, has only served to stoke domestic tensions and fuel anti-state propaganda in support of Ansar al-Sunna. In terms of maritime capabilities, Stable Seas’ new report, Violence at Sea: How Terrorists, Insurgents, and Other Extremists Exploit the Maritime Domain, demonstrates that since March, Ansar al-Sunna has increasingly used the sea for operational and financial purposes, including moving supplies and fighters for tactical support, targeting ports and coastal communities, and exploiting pre-existing maritime-enabled illicit trafficking networks for funding.

This story is much bigger than Ansar al-Sunna’s most recent attacks. Speculation over Mozambique’s response to the group, particularly discussions of regional engagement by the Southern African Development Community and South African Navy, raises questions about the role of the maritime domain in countering Ansar al-Sunna, highlighting the importance of strong national maritime enforcement capacity and its pivotal role in countering violent non-state actors (VNSAs) globally.

The Criticality of Maritime Enforcement Capacity

Maritime Enforcement Capacity (MEC) can be broadly defined as the ability of a state to effectively monitor its territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, and enforce maritime legislation, including those targeting trafficking networks and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. States with high MEC can successfully interdict transnational criminal actors, conduct operations, and patrol their waters to defend against intra- and inter-regional threats, and respond in real time to maritime-based threats. Absent strong MEC, even the most well-developed maritime security legislation is rendered effectively useless – a fact willingly and aggressively exploited by nefarious actors.

Enter Mozambique. With a Stable Seas Maritime Security Index MEC score of 31, the fourth lowest in East and Southern Africa, Mozambique’s control over its territorial waters and related activities is severely limited. This is largely due to an underdeveloped navy with limited operational capacity to enforce maritime security along the Mozambican coast, the fourth longest in Africa. According to multiple sources, domestic naval operations are slim due to a lack of serviceable assets (12 patrol and coastal combatant vessels), exacerbated by a lack of available fuel for training missions. Furthermore, naval personnel estimates are small compared to the rest of the Mozambique Defense Armed Forces (FADM), with 2020 estimates suggesting 200 active naval officers out of 11,200 FADM troops.

A map of jihadist attacks along Mozambique’s coastline (Graphic via The Economist)

To attempt to boost this low MEC, the Mozambican government has taken steps toward improvement, including asset procurement, regional exercise participation, and bilateral maritime cooperation agreements. Regarding assets, Mozambique purchased three HSI 32 Interceptor naval patrol vessels from France in early 2016 and was donated 10 speedboats and two other fast interceptor boats, along with military training, from Portugal and India in 2018 and 2019. Mozambique also routinely participates in regionally-led trainings with other East African Djibouti Code of Conduct signatories, as well as maritime security trainings by the International Maritime Organization and Cutlass Express, a maritime training exercise for East African countries that is supported by U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Naval Forces Africa. Additionally, Mozambique has recently pursued bilateral maritime cooperation agreements with Italy, India, and Seychelles. Despite these laudable efforts, MEC remains limited, as demonstrated by the recent inability of the FADM to defend and reclaim control of Mocímboa da Praia’s port from Ansar al-Sunna.

Weak Maritime Enforcement Capacity Emboldens VNSAs

So what does MEC have to do with VNSAs like Ansar al-Sunna? Weak MEC emboldens VNSAs both directly and indirectly, thereby allowing them to exploit diminished interdiction capabilities, limited operational assets, and strategic confusion.

Weak Interdiction Capacity

Weak interdiction capabilities facilitate illicit trades, contributing to the sustainability and longevity of VNSAs. A key dimension of MEC is the ability of states to apprehend illicit products that are trafficked to ports (via containerized shipments) and offshore landing sites (via small dhows). Due to Ansar al-Sunna’s elusive nature, speculation abounds as to where the group’s funding streams lie, but it is believed that illicit trades play at least some role. This is reinforced by the fact that Mocímboa da Praia is a longstanding hub for these types of trades. Of the numerous illicit trafficking networks in the region (timber, rubies, wildlife, gold, etc.), narcotics are the most likely industry for Ansar al-Sunna engagement, according to the Global Initiative for Transnational Crime. Indeed, one of the world’s largest heroin trafficking routes spans Africa’s east coast from Pakistan to South Africa. Mozambique is a key transit point on that route, one that has been increasing in recent years, per the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While it is unlikely that Ansar al-Sunna has been able to fully infiltrate these markets, the group likely has control over some coastal landing sites in the area, allowing them to levy taxes on heroin, as well as other illicit products. These funds can then be used to procure arms, recruit individuals, and finance operations. Should Ansar al-Sunna retain control of Mocímboa’s port in the long-term, these funding streams could increase.

To increase interdiction capabilities, and by extension MEC, Mozambique and other states should focus on strengthening port inspection processes and training relevant authorities, addressing domestic corruption that allows illicit goods to flow through major ports, and modernizing port technology to minimize vessel wait times that can result in insufficient inspections.

Limited Operational Assets

Limited operational assets and other domestic response capabilities make deterring and responding to maritime-based VNSA attacks difficult, leaving coastal areas vulnerable to attack. Responding in real-time to VNSA attacks requires the state to have adequate force numbers, weapons, and other assets. For attacks committed in the maritime domain, this means having serviceable vessels and a robust naval force, both of which are lacking in Mozambique. Without these, the state cannot thwart active attacks or deter VNSAs from exploiting the maritime domain for operational purposes. Even more concerning is when assets do exist, but training and institutional knowledge on how to actually use them is limited, hindering the utility of these vessels.

In Mozambique, this asset vulnerability has allowed Ansar al-Sunna to target coastal communities and military assets with little consequence, including the port in Mocímboa da Praia. In the August 13th attack, preliminary reports suggested that the group resupplied itself with weapons, fighters, and supplies via dhows, contributing to Ansar al-Sunna’s resilience. This tactical exploitation of the maritime domain has continued, resulting in attacks on numerous surrounding islands, including the September 9th attacks on Ilha Vamizi and Ilha Metundo. At this point, it is important to note that naval forces are not inherently necessary to disrupt attacks on ports, or on other land-based maritime assets, but that they are a useful deterrent mechanism, and in some cases, an integral response mechanism to VNSA attacks at sea.

While acquiring assets is the easiest way to improve the operational dimension of MEC, this is not feasible for certain states. Even when vessel acquisition is part of foreign maritime capacity-building efforts, this does not always translate to assistance with the operating costs of acquired vessels. In these situations of financial constraint, there is still room for improvement, including training land-based forces in amphibious warfare and basic port operations, providing robust technical training to armed forces on available and serviceable naval assets, and leveraging intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to track VNSA activity before attacks happen. For Mozambique, this could involve leveraging the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Center in Madagascar.

Strategic Confusion 

Domestic operational limitations make coordinating a strategic response to maritime-based VNSAs difficult, delaying response times, stoking regional tensions, and elevating group notoriety. When VNSAs execute significant attacks via the maritime domain and the targeted country is unable to adequately respond because of low MEC, uncertainty abounds as to what happens next. If the recipient country decides that it wants maritime assistance and support from other regional actors, independently or through a unified response, questions then arise as to whose responsibility this becomes.

Food aid is seen at a World Food Programme (WFP) site for people displaced in Cabo Delgado province, in Pemba, Mozambique, August 25, 2020. (WFP/Falume Bachir/Handout via Reuters/File Photo)

For Mozambique, does the onus fall on regional actors with the strongest navies and coast guards, such as South Africa? As Leighton Luke raises, will the South African Development Community activate Articles 6 and 9 of their Mutual Defence Pact? Or will recent discussions about European Union involvement come to fruition? If so, will these forces be amphibious or primarily land-based? Who is ultimately responsible in countering VNSAs when the host country cannot? As this confusion and ambiguity abounds, drawing the attention of regional and international actors, VNSAs reap benefits. In the case of Ansar al-Sunna, regional discussions since May and the onslaught of international attention amidst a continuing occupation since August 13th has lent the previously little-known group from northern Mozambique international legitimacy and notoriety.

To mitigate the political and strategic uncertainty that can result from low MEC, it is important for regional security institutions to have maritime security strategies in place that broadly delineate responsibilities in the case of maritime VNSA attacks against an operationally-limited country. In these resource-constrained countries, it is also important to incorporate the maritime domain into national counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies. This would be a useful mitigative action and allow for a more holistic response to the maritime capabilities of VNSAs, should the need arise.


Taking a more expansive view, Ansar al-Sunna’s most recent campaign serves as a warning for other states with low MEC. Whether or not maritime-capable VNSAs are currently present in a state should not deter states from taking action now. The threat is too real. In a mere five months, Ansar al-Sunna became one of the most active maritime-oriented VNSAs on the African continent, highlighting the importance of closing domestic maritime security gaps. Ultimately, investing in MEC is a holistic mitigative and response measure to the myriad threats posed by VNSAs, one that will reward proactive states best and better position them to successfully counter future threats.

Kelly Moss is an African Maritime Security Researcher at Stable Seas, a program of One Earth Future. Her research and publication background focuses on terrorism and substate violence in sub-Saharan Africa. Kelly graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she received her master’s degree in Security Studies, and has worked at three U.S. federal government agencies, including the Bureau of African Affairs at the Department of State.

Featured Image: The sun rises as fishermen seek clams and bait in Pemba, Mozambique, July 12, 2018.(Reuters/Mike Hutchings/File Photo)

The Ecuadorian Navy’s Constant Struggle Against IUU Fishing

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

An international fishing fleet composed of some 340 vessels is currently sailing through international waters close to Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a constant challenge for Latin American navies, but the recurring presence of large, predatory, extra-regional fishing fleets exacerbates an already problematic situation.

The Latest Extra-Regional Fleet

According to Ecuadorian authorities, a fleet of some 340 vessels is operating through a corridor of international waters between Ecuador’s EEZ and the Galapagos Islands. Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin has stated that the Ecuadorian government has been aware of the fleet for over a month, as it traveled from south to north from Peru. As of 7 August, the Ecuadorian navy has deployed corvette Manabi (CM-12), with a helicopter aboard, and the coastal patrol boat San Cristobal (LG-30) to monitor the fleet. Additionally a CASA aircraft, assigned to the navy’s air wing, has carried out surveillance operations.

Several vessels have been identified as originating from China, which has prompted some media outlets to generalize it as a “Chinese fishing fleet.” Quito has stated vessels have come from other countries as well, but without specifying which ones. It is well-known that fishing fleets from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also operate in the South Pacific, hence it is likely that some vessels come from these nations as well. Given that this is a fleet numbering in the hundreds of vessels, it is likely a mixed bag of nationalities.

How to Defeat IUU Fishing?

When it comes to IUU fishing, as this author has discussed in other commentaries for CIMSEC, (see “Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing,” and “A Growing Concern: Chinese Illegal Fishing in Latin America”) this is a problem of “levels” for Latin America. What is meant by this is that the first level focuses on domestic IUU fishing (a vessel fishing within its country’s territorial waters), then at the regional level (ships registered in one country operating in the waters of another country), and finally at the extra-hemispheric level (the presence of extra-regional fishing fleets).

Thus, while the large international fleet close to Ecuador is making global headlines, this is not the sole incident currently taking place in the region. In fact, while eyes are focused on the South Pacific, the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense has reported that a fleet of approximately 19 Brazilian fishing vessels are operating without permission in its territorial waters as well. Uruguayan and Brazilian authorities are discussing this issue. While 19 ships will not be as destructive as 340, the problem is still significant.

A fishing boat of Brazilian origin photographed from a Uruguayan Navy aircraft (Uruguayan Ministry of Defense)

Regional governments, ministries of defense, and navies regularly explain their strategies to combat IUU fishing. Unsurprisingly, much attention is given to greater cooperation between defense ministries and armed services, and to a large extend, this is occurring. For example, the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (Comisión Permanente del Pacifico Sur: CPPS), which has Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru as members, issued a declaration on August 5 calling for greater cooperation and exchange of information to address the presence of international fleets in the region and the dangers of overfishing. Moreover, the U.S. National Security Council  also tweeted its support for Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, stating, “The United States stands with President @Lenin and our friends and partners in #Ecuador against any aggression directed toward their economic and environmental sovereignty.”

As for partnership between navies, this is also taking place. An interesting example occurred in 2018 in the Caribbean when the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) chased three fishing vessels for illegally fishing in Bahamian territorial waters. The ships crossed into Cuban waters to escape their pursuers, but Cuban authorities located these ships, apprehended them, and turned them over to the RBDF. This is an important example of international cooperation to combat a crime that respects no borders.

There is also greater reliance on technology, such as satellites, to locate and monitor suspicious vessels, and to figure out their ports of origin, which is what the Ecuadorian government states it has done. In other words, regional navies and other agencies are making positive announcements, and there are sufficient examples of successful interdictions and international partnerships. But alas, the problem continues.

More Ships, Please

One obvious issue has to do with numbers, namely how many vessels and supporting aircraft can Latin American and Caribbean navies deploy to combat this crime. Regional vessels routinely carry out myriad tasks at sea, including combating IUU fishing, drug trafficking and smuggling, in addition to carrying out search and rescue operations, support operations to coastal communities, in addition to routine patrols and even unconventional missions. While the Ecuadorian navy is monitoring the international fishing fleet, the service reported on July 20 that naval personnel, along with fishermen and representatives from the Ministry of the Environment, freed a whale that got stuck in a fishing net in the Tonchigue area. Vessels also have to be docked to undergo maintenance or upgrades, which can put them out of commission for extended periods of time.

To be fair, Latin American navies are obtaining new equipment that can be utilized to combat IUU fishing. Case in point, Argentina’s newest Offshore Patrol Vessel Bouchard (P-51), acquired from France, has already successfully stopped a Chinese fishing vessel in its territorial waters this past May. Similarly, Peru recently launched two new domestically manufactured OPVs, Río Tumbes and Río Locumba, which will be very helpful for combating maritime crimes.

As for Ecuador, a very noteworthy development occurred recently, where in late July the Ecuadorian navy commissioned a new support vessel, BAE Hualcopo. What is remarkable about Hualcopo is its background: the vessel used to be known as Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, and it was detained in 2017 by Ecuador for operating without authorization by the Galapagos Islands as part of a large Chinese fishing fleet. Upon inspection, authorities found aboard the vessel around 300 tons of fish, including endangered sharks. In 2019, as part of a lengthy legal process, Ecuador’s judicial system (Corte Nacional de Justicia – CNJ), ruled that the vessel was permanently forfeited, and it was eventually transferred to the navy. Now Hualcopo will carry out support operations for the Ecuadorian navy and may very well be involved in stopping the same IUU fishing activities that it carried out in its previous life.

Hualcopo raises an important issue, namely the fate of vessels that are seized as part of the war against IUU fishing. Personally, this author has not heard of other navies gaining control of vessels detained for IUU, hence Hualcopo may set an interesting precedent. Certainly some detained vessels may be too old or incompatible with a navy’s requirements and operations, but others could be given a second life, particularly large ships that can be utilized for transportation.

Final Thoughts 

Regional navies have enjoyed plenty of successes, and many are upgrading and expanding their fleets, even by re-purposing a one-time fishing vessel, namely Ecuador’s Hualcopo. However, the sheer size of some of these fleets engaging in IUU fishing dwarfs most regional and global navies. For example, while a fleet of 19 Brazilian vessels is not as large as a fleet of 340, it is sizeable enough to be a challenge for the Uruguayan navy, which is known for its aging fleet.

The international fishing fleet currently operating close to Ecuador’s territorial waters will certainly not be the last. Because of their maritime biodiversity and limited naval and aerial platforms, Latin American and Caribbean waters will remain viable arenas for IUU fishing.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: A fishing boat seen from an Ecuadorian Navy aircraft, August 7, 2020. (Reuters/Santiago Arcos)