Category Archives: Global Analysis

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

Sea Control 271 – Navigation in Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas with So Yeon Kim

By Jared Samuelson

So Yeon Kim joins the program to discuss “Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas,” their increasing politicization, and how states use them to protect sensitive ecosystems.

Download Sea Control 271 – Navigation in Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas with So Yeon Kim


1. “Problems and Processes of Restricting Navigation in Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas,” by So Yeon Kim, The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, June 3, 2021. 

Reflecting on Colonial Approaches to the China-Vietnam Dispute in the South China Sea and the Tribute System,”  by So Yeon Kim, Journal of the History of International Law, January 31, 2021.

Jared Samuelson is Executive Producer and Co-Host of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

This episode was edited and produced by Keagan Ingersoll.

The HMS Defender Incident: Lawfare, Optics, and a Changing European Strategic Direction

By Louis Martin-Vézian

On the morning of June 23, 2021, the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender departed its port of call in Odessa, Ukraine, and made way for Batumi, Georgia. While in transit, the destroyer conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) near the southwestern tip of Crimea, triggering a Russian reaction comprising at least three ships and dozens of aircraft. The incident is the latest flare-up in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, yet escalation risks from encounters in the maritime domain are often overplayed by inflammatory communiqués. The crux of the matter remains international law, and information warfare, while harmless posturing is simply the most visible outcome. Diving deeper reveals the determinants behind the UK’s actions, from operational imperatives to legal standings, but also a changing European strategic direction.

The Incident at Sea

Prior to the incident, Defender entered the Black Sea along with the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen to carry out exchanges and exercises with the Romanian, Ukrainian, and Georgian navies. Both ships are part of Carrier Strike Group 21, centered around the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. After departing Odessa, Defender proceeded towards the traffic separation scheme off Cape Florient at the southwestern tip of Crimea. While following the traffic separation scheme, the destroyer briefly entered one of three restricted navigation zones (highlighted in red on the map below) implemented contentiously by Russia within the 12 nautical mile limit of Crimea’s territorial waters.

A map of the events surrounding HMS Defender. Click to expand. (Author graphic)

Upon entering the restricted navigation zone, Russian Coast Guard vessels hailed Defender over the radio and urged it to turn away. After several further communications, a Russian Coast Guard vessel fired three short bursts high into the air, at an angle slightly offset to that of the British destroyer, only after several ‘avoid hit’ commands were given to the gunners. Traditionally, warning shots are fired across the bow of a targeted ship, as they are meant to be noticed and unambiguous. However, for uncertain reasons,1 it appears that in this case the Russian vessel was at least a kilometer behind Defender—hence qualifying the bursts as ‘warning shots’ is a stretch.

Regimes of International Law

The Defender’s transit through Crimean territorial waters came after Russia issued a Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR), which suspended the right of ‘innocent passage’ to foreign warships in the three previously mentioned restricted navigation zones from April 21 to October 31, 2021.2 The right of innocent passage is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Articles 17 to 32. UNCLOS allows for any ships to transit through the territorial waters of another nation if they follow certain broad conditions.

Under UNCLOS Article 25(3), coastal states can implement restrictions on navigation, provided they remain temporary, indiscriminate, and localized. The notice issued by Russia is problematic, not only because it discriminates between “foreign warships and other government ships” and other shipping, but also because it assumes Russia is the coastal state. This latter assumption is rejected both by any reasonable interpretation3 of international law and the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/262.4

However, another regime of international law is at play in Crimea and would support Russia’s NOTMAR—namely, the law of armed conflict and the law of occupation, as articulated by Prof. Stefan Talmon for GPIL – German Practice in International Law.5 The law of occupation provides the occupying power with a wider range of options to restrict navigation in occupied territorial waters as “land dominates the sea,6 and an occupying power inherits controlling rights over the occupied territory’s territorial waters. This would appear contradictory to Russia’s position regarding Crimea, as it no longer differentiates between Crimea and the rest of the Russian Federation since the contentious Crimea-Russia annexation treaty7 signed by Vladimir Putin on March 18, 2014, and ratifiedby the Duma and Federation Council on March 20 and 21, respectively.9

This contradiction between Russia’s best efforts to portray the annexation of Crimea as legitimate and effective, while at the same time subtly referencing rights conferred to occupying powers under the law of occupation, is both flagrant and irrelevant—the law of occupation is in effect whether the occupying power admits to its status or not.10

The Russian attempt to restrict navigation off Crimea would therefore appear to satisfy the conditions required under international law, but a final hurdle remains in the way of conferring it full legitimacy; the NOTMAR mentions “Russian territorial waters” while referring to the waters off Crimea, which is currently considered to be under “temporary occupation.” Prof. Talmon points out that the United States issued a similar NOTMAR during the occupation of Iraq, with the notable difference that it had appropriately referred to the waters in question as “Iraqi territorial waters.” Therefore, a state rejecting the annexation of Crimea would be inclined to ignore the Russian NOTMAR despite its otherwise robust legal standing.

Different Optics, Different Objectives

Following the incident, Russian government sources and media announced that Russian vessels and aircraft fired warning shots at Defender and dropped bombs in its path.11 The Russian government also filed a formal protest and summoned the British ambassador and defense attaché in Moscow. London denied both the shooting and the bombing, possibly on the grounds of lexical accuracy—as the Russian vessel fired ‘near’ and not ‘at’ the British ship—and appeared to present the scuffle as an unrelated gunnery exercise conducted by Russia.12 This would be a tongue-in-cheek way of dismissing the shots as coincidental, therefore watering down Russia’s confrontational narrative.

The presence of a BBC crew aboard Defender further enabled London to deny any excessive Russian declarations. Moscow later published a video13 filmed aboard one of its Coast Guard vessels, showing the moment it fired the alleged warning shots. However, evidence of the shooting had already been broadcasted by the BBC, so the Russian footage achieved little beyond showcasing the significant distance between the two ships, thereby bolstering the British narrative that the incident was over-exaggerated by Russia.

Released Russian video of HMS Defender interaction with Russian Coast Guard.

Strategic Context

The waters around Crimea are a niche aspect of the Ukrainian conflict to challenge. In the maritime domain, the most pressing issue remains the blocking of the Kerch Strait since 2018, for which no FONOP is realistically achievable.14 The British intent behind the FONOP is better unraveled through the strategic implications of the ‘special relationship’ between London and Washington than by any development in the Ukrainian conflict. By carrying out this FONOP in the Black Sea and dispatching the first planned Royal Navy carrier strike group in the Indo-Pacific since 1997,15 16 London is marking its return to the geopolitical scene, at home in Europe and abroad in the Indo-Pacific.

For the United States, having a partner willing to commit politically and operationally to a like-minded view of the global rules-based order is valuable, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin alluded to in his comments17 during the 2021 IISS’ Fullerton Lecture in Singapore. U.S. resources are increasingly scarce and being able to rely on a pro-active ally in Europe will prove helpful as the Pentagon shifts much of its focus from Europe to Asia. Finally, far from a unilateral move by Britain pursued in the wake of Brexit, this FONOP was supported by European partners, both in actions and words: in addition to the endorsement of the Netherlands via Evertsen, Germany was quick to officially denounce the Russian claims as a breach of international law after the incident.


Despite its limited immediate impact, the significance of this FONOP cannot be overstated. Since the end of the Cold War, very few European nations have taken initiatives to upend their strategic interests in the face of powerful adversaries and have instead been relying on the American security umbrella. A multitude of factors are at play to influence this return to geopolitics in Europe, from the specter of Trump’s alienating policies towards America’s allies and partners, to the advent of a multipolar world. Yet this FONOP and renewed European interest in the Indo-Pacific shows that even a strategically independent Europe will remain a natural partner to America for military cooperation and burden-sharing, not just due to shared economic interests, but also common values.

Louis Martin-Vézian is a French student of Economics and Politics at the University of London in Singapore. He has been producing maps and infographics for the past 6 years on his blog, CIGeography, with a focus on defense and security.


[1] Okhotnik-class patrol ships have a stated maximum speed of 27 knots, so it is possible they were outran by the 30+ knots of the British destroyer.




[5] be-very-problematic-and-in-part-contrary-to-international-law/




[9] The treaty is subject to its own controversies, as under international law, treaties must be signed between a minimum of two states; and the Republic of Crimea was never recognized as a state during its brief, forty-eight hours existence. See:





[14] Even ignoring legal hurdles, a FONOP in the Kerch Strait would be challenging, as a simple scuttling under the Kerch bridge could trap a foreign vessel in the Sea of Azov.

[15] HMS Illustrious during the ‘Ocean Wave 97’ cruise visited Tokyo and Hong Kong. See:

[16] In 2013, the HMS Illustrious was also dispatched to the Philippines to carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan; but this deployment was a diversion from its intended course in the Persian Gulf. See:


Featured image: October 4, 2020 – HMS Defender sailing with the newly assembled, United Kingdom-led Carrier Strike Group 21. (Credit: Royal Navy Photo by LPhot Alker)

Made in Latin America: Domestically Manufactured Ecuadorian and Peruvian Ships Meet in the Pacific

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 Sánchez

The Ecuadorian coast guard vessel Isla Santa Cruz escorted the Peruvian training vessel BAP Unión while the latter sailed through Ecuadorian waters as part of a training mission in mid-May. While cordial encounters at sea between ships belonging to friendly navies are quite common, a curious fact about this meeting is that both vessels were manufactured domestically by local state-run shipyards.

Isla Santa Cruz escorts the Peruvian training vessel BAP Unión (Ecuadorian Navy photo)

The significance of this encounter cannot be overstated. The navies of Ecuador and Peru, in addition to other Latin American fleets, will certainly continue to acquire vessels and submarines from extra-regional suppliers for the foreseeable future. But the era of “Made in Latin America” ships is here.

Made in Ecuador, Made in Peru

Isla Santa Cruz (LG 43) is one of four coastal patrol boats, class LP-AST-2606, produced by the Ecuadorian state-run shipyard ASTINAVE. The vessel and its sister ships, Isla Marchena (LG 42), Isla Pinta (LG 44), and Isla Balta (LG 45), are based on a Damen’s Stan Patrol 2606 model. The vessels are operated by the coast guard, a part of the navy, and operate in Ecuadorian waters, which include protecting the maritime biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Isla Santa Cruz was commissioned in 2012.

As for training vessel Unión, the ship was commissioned in 2016. Built by the Peruvian state-run shipyard SIMA’s main facilities in Callao, the ship measures 115 meters in length, displaces 3,200 tons, has a maximum speed of 12 knots and can transport up to 250 officers, crew and trainees. Unión, named after a Peruvian warship that fought in the 19th century War of the Pacific, is the largest training vessel in Latin America. As part of training missions with future naval officers, Unión has also participated in international sailing competitions. For example, in 2017 Unión participated in Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, where the vessel won the race from Boston, Massachusetts to Charlottetown, Canada.

How Often Do Such Meetings Happen?

It is unclear how often locally built vessels meet in Latin American waters. Such meetings can occur via passing exercises (PASSEX), one vessel escorting the other as it voyages through territorial waters, working together in counter-narcotic operations, or via multinational exercises like PANAMAX or UNITAS.

For example, for UNITAS LIX (2018), held in Colombia, the host’s patrol vessel ARC 20 de Julio (PZE-46), manufactured by the Colombian shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR, and the Chilean OPV Piloto Pardo (OPV-81), built by the Chilean shipyard ASMAR, were deployed together. Similarly, UNITAS LVII (2017), held in Peru, included the participation of patrol boats BAP Río Pativilca (PM 204) and BAP Río Cañete (PM 205), built by SIMA, and the Chilean OPV Comandante Toro (OPV 82), built by ASMAR. This author has not been able to find confirmation that these locally-built vessels directly interacted in these exercises, but it is plausible.

Chilean OPV Piloto Pardo (OPV-81). (Chilean Navy photo)

Interestingly, even though there are a plethora of analyses in Spanish and Portuguese about what regional shipyards are producing and the status of regional navies, this author has not found previous research that discusses other instances of locally built vessels meeting at sea in Latin America. Figuring out how often these meetings occur would require exhaustive research through various news sources, including press releases and statements by regional navies, to keep track of when this type of meeting at sea occurs, and researching where each ship was built.

A Look at Ongoing Projects

In various analyses for CIMSEC (see the 2016 commentary “The Rise of the Latin American Shipyard”) this author has discussed the rise of Latin American shipyards, several of which are currently engaged in major construction projects.

Brazil is building four conventional submarines and one nuclear-powered submarine via the PROSUB program, in cooperation with the French shipyard Naval Group; the Chilean shipyard ASMAR is building an icebreaker and plans to construct at least two transport vessels, a project called Escotillón IV; and the Colombian shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR has manufactured a fleet of amphibious vessels (Buques de Apoyo Logistico y de Cabotage) for the local navy, while two units were sold to Honduras (FNH 1611 Gracias a Dios) and Guatemala (BL 1601 Quetzal). COTECMAR has also manufactured several patrol vessels based on a design by the German shipyard Fassmer. COTECMAR’s most recent project was the launch this past September of ARC Isla Albuquerque for the country’s Dirección General Marítima, commonly known as DIMAR, a part of the navy. 

Both Colombia’s COTECMAR and Chile’s ASMAR have ambitious projects for the near future as well, namely the construction of frigates. The Colombian Navy wants to domestically manufacture frigates (a project called Plataformas Estratégicas de Superficie or PES for short) via COTECMAR to replace its aging Almirante Padilla-class frigates, but the project has been delayed. Similarly, the Chilean Navy’s high command aims to also domestically manufacture frigates by 2030.

Even the internationally sanctioned and economically crippled Venezuela is building domestic vessels. Case in point, a 24 April tweet by a Venezuelan military Twitter account shows a video of Centinela, a locally-manufactured speedboat which will be utilized by the national guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana) for coastal operations. At the time of writing, the Iranian forward-basing ship IRINS Makra, formerly an oil tanker, is transporting seven fast attack craft, apparently to be transferred to Venezuela. If this happens, it would be the first time in years that the Venezuelan Navy obtains foreign-made vessels, and highlights the service’s current status in which international suppliers of new ships are very limited in number (this author ahs discussed the status of the Venezuelan navy in a May 10 commentary for Strife, The Venezuelan Navy: The Kraken of the Caribbean?”).

Both Ecuador and Peru have ongoing shipbuilding projects as well. ASTINAVE has teamed up with a German shipyard to build a multipurpose combat vessel. Even though the construction of the MPV70 MKII vessel has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ecuadorian shipyard is upgrading and expanding its infrastructure. Specifically, the shipyard’s main facilities in Planta Centro will be expanded to cope with the new project as the combat ship will be manufactured and assembled in sections.

Similarly, Peru’s SIMA is building BAP Paita, a second landing platform dock (the first one, BAP Pisco, is already operational); while two coastal patrol vessels, BAP Río Tumbes and BAP Río Locumba, were commissioned this past March. SIMA’s facilities in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon, also build vessels for the army’s and navy’s riverine operations.

BAP Río Tumbes and BAP Río Locumba (Peruvian Navy photo)

The Bad News: Argentina and Mexico

Unfortunately, there are shipyards in two countries that have been unable to move forward with new projects. After much fanfare, Mexico’s long range oceanic patrol project (Patrulla Oceánica de Largo Alcance or POLA) is not moving forward, as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is not interested in having the local state-run shipyard ASTIMAR construct new units in partnership with Damen. Only one of this class has been built, the POLA ARM-101 “Benito Juárez.* On June 1, as part of the celebrations for the Mexican navy’s anniversary, the patrol vessel ARM Tabasco (PO-168) was commissioned. But this ship was originally launched in 2019 and it is unclear when ASTIMAR will receive orders for new ships (See Christian J. Ehlirch’s “The Evolution of the Mexican Navy Since 1980” analysis in Strife for more information about the status of the fleet.)

POLA ARM-101 “Benito Juárez. (Photo via Damen Shipyards Group)

Similarly, Argentine shipyards like Rio Santiago and Tandanor are in limbo due to a lack of funds. Two outstanding projects include the construction of two training boats to train cadets (Lanchas de Instrucción de Cadetes or LICA), and one Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull (SWATH) hydrographic ship for the Argentine Navy. The Alberto Fernández administration is reportedly providing funds to finish both projects, however it is unclear when they will be launched.

Why Build at Home?

Navies and shipyards routinely advocate for the domestic construction of vessels, highlighting the advantages of such projects as compared to purchasing from international suppliers. The primary advantage is that domestically manufacturing ships, or submarines in the case of Brazil, means direct and indirect jobs for the citizens of the country where the shipyard is located. SIMA, for example has three facilities across Peru: Callao and Chimbote in the coast, and Iquitos in the Amazon. Similarly, ASTINAVE is preparing to expand its main assembly facility. More shipbuilding orders and new facilities mean more jobs.

For navies, building at home is also preferable as the naval officers and sailors can observe first-hand how a new vessel is built, from the keel laying to the launching of the ship. Shipyard employees are also more intimately aware of the technical aspects of new ships, which can considerately quicken maintenance and repair operations.

Moreover, building at home decreases a dependency on extra-regional suppliers. For example, a navy without a local functioning shipyard that plans to acquire new vessels in order to replace old units may have to settle for what is available on the international market (e.g. used or decommissioned vessels) depending on budgetary issues.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that building new vessels involves a learning curve. By building at home, technicians and the leadership of navies and shipyards will become more ambitious and will aim to build more complex platforms. A quick summary of ASTINAVE’s and SIMA’s projects in the past decade exemplify this learning curve, and also what one could call an “ambition curve.”

ASTINAVE built Isla Santa Cruz and three other small coastal patrol craft in the first half of the 2010s, then two 50 meter offshore patrol vessels (Isla San Cristóbal and Isla Santa Isabel, delivered in 2017), and now is preparing to build a multipurpose combat vessel. Similarly, in recent years, SIMA’s facilities in Callao and Chimbote have built six coastal patrol vessels, a training vessel, and now two complex landing platform docks (this list does not include riverine vessels built by SIMA-Iquitos).

Without a doubt, there is a level of technological capability and expertise that many shipyards do not possess. Hence it is highly implausible to assume that Latin American navies will stop relying on extra-regional suppliers for warships, submarines, coastal patrol vessels or transport ships in the near future. Even a second-hand warship from an “A-class” navy is more technologically advanced than what some regional navies currently operate or can hope to build domestically. Nevertheless, as has been demonstrated in this commentary, many shipyards have the ambition which, if financially supported by their respective governments, will translate into more complex vessels being built in regional shipyards in the near future.

The Ambition for More “Made in Latin America” Ships

Nowadays, occasional tensions and some border disputes notwithstanding, the possibility of inter-state warfare in Latin America and the Caribbean is quite low. Nevertheless, navies must possess minimum deterrent capabilities. Moreover, they have other non-defense tasks, such as combating maritime crimes like illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; drug smuggling; participating in search and rescue; and HA/DR operations.

To carry out these numerous missions, navies must operate modern vessels with different capabilities. While many navies are acquiring brand new vessels – Argentina is acquiring four offshore patrol vessels manufactured by French shipyard Naval Group– due to budgetary issues or what is available in the international market, some services are sometimes forced to acquire decommissioned vessels or ships that do not exactly match the service’s requirements. The result are Frankenstein’s monster-type fleets, with ships of various origins. Over the past decade, Latin American shipyards like Ecuador’s ASTINAVE and Peru’s SIMA have provided an important alternative regarding the procurement of new ships.

The meeting of Ecuador’s patrol vessel Isla Santa Cruz and Peru’s training vessel Unión in Ecuadorian waters was not solely a standard encounter of two friendly navies. It highlights the current status and trajectory of many Latin American shipyards, which are building more technologically complex ships for their respective navies. By the time the young Peruvian cadets aboard Unión become senior officers, this type of meeting on the high seas may become the norm across Latin American waters.

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

*The ARM Reformador (POLA-101) was renamed to POLA ARM-101 Benito Juárez.

Featured Image: March 2017 – COTECMAR delivers OPV ARC Victoria to the Colombian Navy (COTECMAR photo)

Improve NATO’s Black Sea Maritime Posture Through Operation Sea Guardian

By Colin Barnard 

In a recent article for CIMSEC, I proposed three ways to improve U.S. maritime posture in Europe, including the forward basing of small surface combatants in the Baltic and Barents Seas. Due to the Montreux Convention, however, only littoral states are able to base warships in the Black Sea, which excludes the United States and all but three NATO members: Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Recognizing this limitation and others on overall NATO maritime posture in the region, Russia has invested heavily in expanding and modernizing its Black Sea Fleet to maintain a position of relative strength and ensure its unfettered access to sea lanes, which it has used in recent years to continue its destabilization of Ukraine and Georgia and resupply its forces in Syria and Libya (the latter in violation of UN sanction regimes). 

In order to protect its members and their interests against the possibility of further Russian aggression in the region, as well as to safeguard maritime security in the Black Sea, NATO needs to enhance its maritime presence and improve its balance of forces with Russia. To this end, NATO must find a solution to address the current limitations of its Black Sea maritime posture, in particular the Montreux Convention, but also the low capacity of Black Sea NATO navies and the lack of sufficient NATO maritime command and control in the region. This article explains the extent of these limitations and proposes a solution: expanding NATO’s maritime security operation, Operation Sea Guardian, to the Black Sea. 

Limitations on NATO Black Sea Maritime Posture

The most significant limitation on NATO’s Black Sea maritime posture is the Montreux Convention. Some of the many stipulations of the convention are positive for NATO, e.g. giving Turkey control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. However, the agreement forbids non-littoral navies from forward basing warships in the Black Sea and restricts them to sailing there for a period of no more than 21 days. After the 21 days have passed, non-littoral navies must transit back through the Straits to the Aegean Sea in order to reset the clock. These restrictions are problems for NATO because only three of its members—Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey—are allowed to operate navies in the Black Sea on a permanent basis. This is one of the reasons why neither the United States nor NATO had adequate presence and situational awareness at the start of the Russo-Georgia War in 2008 and the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, both of which involved significant Russian naval operations in the Black Sea.

The United States and NATO have since improved their ability to respond to a crisis in the region through NATO Assurance Measures, which include more frequent patrols by U.S. warships and NATO’s Standing Naval Forces (SNF) in the Black Sea, the latter of which is the maritime arm of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (established in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea). Unfortunately, the reality is that neither of these crises lasted long enough for such a response to matter.

More frequent patrols by U.S. and NATO warships in the Black Sea within Montreux’s 21-day limit are critical for conventional deterrence and reassurance to NATO allies and partners, but they are not enough on their own to achieve an adequate NATO maritime posture. Posture implies readiness to respond to the full range of threats, military and non-military, that Russia poses to the region. Effectively identifying and disrupting Russia’s use of criminal networks to destabilize NATO allies and partners alike, for example, requires permanent, sustained presence and situational awareness.

A second limitation on NATO’s Black Sea maritime presence is the low capacity of Black Sea NATO navies. The largest and most capable of the three is the Turkish Navy, which includes submarine forces, but even it cannot provide the presence and situational awareness across the Black Sea that NATO requires. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that Turkish naval forces must split their attention between the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas, where Turkey has numerous interests. Romania and Bulgaria, in contrast, operate only a small number of frigates, corvettes, and mine countermeasures ships between them. Romania has announced plans for four new multirole frigates, which will be useful once delivered, but Bulgaria appears only to be purchasing two, less capable offshore patrol two vessels. 

While these naval forces are a critical part of NATO’s order of battle (and indeed they routinely support NATO maritime activities), they lack the capacity to deter Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and enforce maritime security in the region when not supplemented by other NATO forces. Furthermore, as Russia has increased its air, submarine, and amphibious forces in the Black Sea, large multirole combatants, such as Romania’s two Type 22 frigates, are required in far greater numbers than Black Sea navies can currently field, especially when maintenance and training cycles are factored in. 

In addition to large combatants, more capable small combatants are required to bolster overall presence and perform maritime security tasks such as interdiction operations, which Romania’s new frigates and perhaps Bulgaria’s new patrol vessels, depending on their capability, will help address. Close NATO partners Ukraine and Georgia have the potential to add to the number provided by NATO navies, especially after the U.S. transfer of Island-class cutters to both states, and the planned transfer of Mk VI patrol boats to Ukraine. These platforms will expand Ukraine’s and Georgia’s range of patrolling their own maritime borders with Russia (for Ukraine, this includes inside the Sea of Azov), which benefits NATO as well.

Finally, NATO lacks sufficient maritime command and control (C2) in the Black Sea to conduct operations. Currently, NATO maintains what is called “Tailored Forward Presence” in the region. This presence is centered around a multinational division headquarters in Bucharest, which commands land forces also based in Romania, as well as two NATO Force Integration Units (NFIU), one in Romania and one in Bulgaria. None of these headquarters are maritime. The NFIUs, tasked with integrating NATO forces in the event of crisis and conflict, rely on the SNF to be the maritime arm of the VTJF under control of NATO’s Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in the United Kingdom. In peacetime and the outset of a crisis, NATO relies entirely on MARCOM to conduct maritime operations in the Black Sea. When the SNF is not in the Black Sea, however, MARCOM is not guaranteed to have control of naval forces in the region. This creates a lag, if not a gap entirely, in NATO’s situational awareness and ability to respond to maritime security incidents and crises in the Black Sea. 

Outside observers may argue unwittingly that warships operating under national authority of a NATO member can suffice for overall NATO presence and thus deterrence, but the NATO command structure is distinct from national command structures, with its own C2, classification categories, and so on. The public may not be able to see a difference between a U.S. maritime patrol in the Black Sea and a patrol by a NATO standing maritime group, but the difference matters. This is one reason I argued for NATO navies above the Arctic Circle to form a standing maritime group to provide steady presence and maritime security in the European Arctic. As in the Barents Sea, NATO via MARCOM requires a standing maritime group of some sort in the Black Sea, providing direct input to its operational picture (not via its national command first) and able to react immediately to security incidents and crises at or from the sea. 

Solutions to Improve NATO’s Black Sea Maritime Posture

Recommendations to mitigate the limitations above are aplenty, but common to all are proposals to increase and formalize the rotation of non-littoral NATO navies to the Black Sea, especially from European NATO members. What these proposals lack, however, is a pragmatic way to make such a rotation more appealing to the political leadership that must approve it. Enter Operation Sea Guardian (OSG). Rebranding the rotation in the name of maritime security rather than only a NATO deterrence initiative would likely appeal to politicians across NATO. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to increase the area of operations (AO) for OSG to include the Black Sea. OSG succeeded Operation Active Endeavour (OAE) in November 2016. Unlike OAE, which was focused on counter-terrorism, OSG was expanded to include additional maritime security tasks, three of which are permanently authorized: maritime situational awareness, counter-terrorism, and capacity building. If authorized, forces in support of OSG may also uphold freedom of navigation, conduct maritime interdiction, counter weapons of mass destruction, and protect critical infrastructure.

Currently, OSG’s AO only includes the Mediterranean Sea, but justification for expanding it is easy to find. OSG’s primary line of effort is maritime situational awareness, which entails a broad range of information and intelligence gathering activities, supported by submarines, surface ships, and aircraft. These activities naturally interact with both military and commercial vessels of interest, which do not always stay in the Mediterranean. The Black Sea in particular hosts a number of smuggling operations, most of which have been consolidated and expanded through Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and Georgia. These operations include the overt and covert transport of arms and fuel to Russian-associated forces in Syria and Libya. In the case of Syria, Ben Hodges, a former commander of Allied Land Command and current Pershing Chair at the Center for European Policy Analysis, tweeted that Germany, France, Turkey, and the United States should work together to prevent Russia’s use of its bases and ports in the Black Sea to support the Assad regime. 

Recognition of Russia’s use of ports and sea lanes in the Black Sea to support its forces and proxies not only in the Black Sea, but elsewhere, is important, but preventing it remains a challenge. One way could be to sanction and interdict non-Russian-flagged vessels supporting Russian resupply efforts. In truth, these vessels are already violating EU sanctions on Syria, yet the EU has done nothing to enforce them. OSG would be the ideal operation to support an embargo of non-Russian-flagged shipping supporting Russian resupply efforts. This would likely result in Russia reflagging much of this shipping, as Iran has done to prevent interdiction of its own shipping in European waters; but this would be a good result. Russia should be required to flag all shipping supporting its military and proxy engagements. This would make it easier for the UN, NATO, and the rest of the world to understand where and how Russia engages in the world, which could result in stronger international support against Russia when it undermines international law and norms.

If NATO pursues such an embargo operation, it would serve a more important recognition that maritime security and sanctions enforcement are important in competition with Russia. In his article with CIMSEC critiquing NATO’s 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy, Ian Sundstrom advocated for a NATO maritime operation focused on Russian deterrence, which OSG currently is not. In fact, at present, NATO’s SNF are not the primary forces deployed in support of OSG, though they often augment OSG task groups, which usually means patrolling part of the area designated for an OSG focused operation (FOCOP). The forces which make up OSG task groups are instead volunteered from NATO navies on a rotational basis. MARCOM, which commands OSG, has operational control of these forces for specific periods of time. The reason the SNF are not the primary forces deployed for OSG is because of the prevailing notion in NATO that the task of maritime security is wholly separate from deterrence against Russia. 

This notion has been challenged time and again by crises in NATO’s backyard, yet it remains. For example, OSG has conducted FOCOPs in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean on numerous occasions during the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya, and the task of detecting vessels smuggling arms, fuel, or people in violation of international law has directly overlapped with the task of tracking Russian military activity. The concept of a competition continuum, recently adopted by the U.S. sea services in their latest maritime strategy, recognizes the role of low-end maritime security tasks in military competition. Competing daily against Russia and other malign actors requires not only conventional deterrence demonstrated through the deployment of high-end forces, but also constabulary presence to detect and disrupt “gray zone” activities. Rotational forces supporting OSG centered around the navies of Black Sea NATO members would be able to work together to this end, a framework that can and should be duplicated throughout the rest of Europe. 

An ancillary benefit of expanding OSG’s AO to include the Black Sea would be reassurance to Ukraine and Georgia. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, more recently, its de facto embargo of Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov highlighted by its temporary closure of the Kerch Strait in 2018, the United States and other NATO members have been supporting Ukraine and Georgia in their respective pursuance of NATO membership and deterrence posture against Russia. An OSG task group operating in the Black Sea would be able to sustain presence near the maritime boundaries Ukraine and Georgia share with Russia through exercising, information sharing, and patrolling with Ukrainian and Georgian naval and coast guard forces. Importantly, Georgia has maintained a liaison officer in MARCOM for years, whose role includes support to OSG. Both Georgia and Ukraine were active members of OAE, and the relationships that existed before Russia’s invasions of both countries could be quickly repaired under the umbrella of OSG. 

Caveats and Conclusion

An important caveat to the expansion of OSG to the Black Sea is the need for all NATO members to support it, especially Turkey, which is the prime mover for NATO in the region. OSG has already suffered a black eye in the Mediterranean because of disagreements between NATO members, specifically Turkey and France, over the course of the Libyan civil war. The disagreements culminated last year in an unsafe interaction off the coast of Libya involving the French frigate Courbet, flagship for an OSG task group, and three Turkish frigates operating under Turkish national control (though also, ironically, in associated support to OSG). When Courbet intercepted the Tanzanian-flagged (at the time) vehicle carrier, CIRKIN, identified as potentially carrying military cargo from Istanbul to Libya in violation of UN sanctions, a Turkish frigate used its fire control radar to track the French frigate, or so the French claim. The fallout of this interaction was France’s withdrawal from supporting OSG. 

This interaction should not have surprised anyone. NATO knew its members were increasingly at odds over the clash of interests in Libya, and that Turkey was actively shipping military equipment to its forces and proxies in Western Libya; yet NATO still allowed for an OSG patrol to take place off the coast of Libya. NATO usually suffers paralysis when its members do not agree, though in this case, it was not so much paralysis as it was a failure to address the elephant in the room. Whether one agrees with France or Turkey on its approach to Libyan civil war, the problem for OSG is that it is a maritime security operation, which implies it recognizes and upholds international law, including UN sanctions. Successful expansion of OSG to the Black Seaㅡi.e., providing NATO with rotational forces to enforce maritime security and erode Russia’s ability to destabilize the regionㅡwill require NATO consensus. If NATO cannot find consensus, then the advantage goes to Russia and other malign actors. 

NATO needs to enhance its maritime presence in the Black Sea and improve its balance of forces with Russia, despite the current limitations of the Montreux Convention, the low capacity of Black Sea NATO navies, and the lack of sufficient NATO maritime command and control in the region. These limitations can be mitigated by expanding OSG’s AO to include the Black Sea. An OSG task group supported by the rotation of non-littoral NATO navies, operating alongside Black Sea NATO and partner navies, would improve NATO’s maritime posture in the region to deter Russia and safeguard maritime security—two tasks which are often inseparable. 

Colin Barnard is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer currently in training for an exchange with the German Navy. He was formerly a staff operations and plans officer at NATO Maritime Command in the U.K. In addition to writing for the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings and the Center for International Maritime Security, he is a PhD student at King’s College London with a focus on European maritime security. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the U.S. Defense Department or U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: DARDANELLES STRAIT (Jan. 19, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) transits the Dardanelles Strait, en route to the Black Sea, Jan. 19, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ford Williams/Released)