NATO’s Maritime Vigilance: Optimizing the Standing Naval Force For The Future


Winter, 1968. A multinational force of American, British, Dutch, and Norwegian ships sails the North Atlantic, defending NATO’s shores under a shared flag — a first in modern history.

Five decades later, when NATO’s core mission is more relevant than it has been in a generation, the alliance’s navy is adrift. NATO still maintains standing naval forces, units that are directly under the bloc’s day-to-day operational command. Yet even in this time of high tension, very few combatants are attached to the alliance’s two major standing naval groups. As of mid-December, three combatants formed Group One, with one ship each from the Dutch, Danish, and French navies. Only two combatants comprised the Group Two (from the United States and Spain). This is not an overwhelming force presence for the NATO at-sea commanders tasked with standing the alliance’s maritime vigil. Rather, it is a shadow of the alliance’s historic approach to maritime security.

The alliance can do better for NATO Maritime Command, the frontline commanders, and itself. And while history may not be repeating itself, the return of a revanchist Russia makes NATO’s previous maritime structure a good source of wisdom for the alliance’s future. A common thread observable in the alliance’s past is the value of aligning naval forces to defined regions for specified objectives. This regionalization and specialization, found throughout an assessment of NATO’s maritime command structures over time, offers pathways to envisioning a standing maritime force fit for purpose in the new Europe. 

NATO’s standing naval forces offer a relatively low-cost means of sending high-value political signals of alliance unity and defense, at speed, without the potential political baggage of ground formations. This is especially valuable for the United States now that it is focusing more attention on its naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. In the run-up to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, maritime forces were a central tool that the alliance used to demonstrate resolve for collective defense. In a Europe newly destabilized by Russia’s subsequent invasion, and with global demands weighing on U.S. force obligations, both NATO and the United States stand to gain from a deeper reassessment of how the alliance organizes and employs the naval forces under its command. Throughout the bloc’s Cold War history, such units contributed to guarding maritime chokepoints and prompted constructive debates on the strategic role of navies in defense of Europe. Now is the time to revisit that history in service of defining NATO’s maritime future and the U.S. contribution within it, channeling constrained U.S. Navy assets where they are most needed and enhancing the bloc’s naval capacity to maintain deterrence and fight if need be.

NATO’s Maritime History

The history of NATO’s maritime command and control is replete with examples of narrowly scoped geographies and tailored missions. The bifurcation of NATO’s warfighting terrain into its two better known commands, Allied Command Atlantic and Allied Command Europe, placed the maritime domain at the center of one supreme allied commander’s responsibility and on the flanks of the other’s. A third major commander, Allied Command Channel, was responsible for the English Channel and the North Sea. From NATO’s earliest days, two of three major commands were organized around maritime geography, enabling defense of the alliance’s maritime approaches, providing for reinforcements to Europe from North America, and countering the Soviet submarine threat.

Among subordinate commands, specialized and regionalized entities formed, many built around critical maritime geography. In 1962, the commander of NATO’s Northern Forces established Allied Forces Baltic Approaches. In 1967, the approaches to the Mediterranean became the responsibility of a dedicated commander in Iberian Atlantic Command, which monitored the entrance to that sea. Thus, by the mid-1960s, NATO’s three major maritime chokepoints — the Strait of Gibraltar, the Skagerrak, and the English Channel — had dedicated commanders to oversee their defenses.

Within this cauldron of regionalization also came the development of specialized operational formations. The commander of Allied Forces Southern Europe, which has historically always been led by a U.S. Navy admiral, designed Striking and Support Forces Southern Europe as the main Mediterranean combat element, with the U.S. Sixth Fleet as the backbone of the force. To the west, Allied Command Atlantic pushed the creation of its own Striking Fleet Atlantic, rooted in U.S. Second Fleet-based carrier battle groups with their aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons. As we will see, this construction of regional commands and task-organized forces (more of which were to come) offer a valuable model for NATO today.

Enter the Standing Naval Force

It is in this historical context that the forces known today as Standing NATO Maritime Groups One and Two were established, albeit not at the same time nor with the same structure. Despite their current naming convention, which implies parity in size and mission, these forces are rooted in distinct histories. These histories are relevant to understanding why their futures need not mirror one another, and why the current grouping of forces should be understood as different from one another.

Group One is older than Group Two. Adm. Richard Colbert created this first permanent peacetime naval force in 1968 as an arm of Allied Command Atlantic: Standing Naval Force Atlantic. The command’s principally maritime missions of defending sea lines of communication and reinforcing Europe with maritime surge forces made an ideal candidate for testing a coalition naval force. Colbert’s vision — one he had pushed before, in other regions, to less effect — was this time eased into existence by the exercise series dubbed “Matchmaker.” These months-long naval exercises, begun in 1964, provided the organizational superstructure to make the standing naval force a reality. The chairman of the NATO Military Committee described Colbert’s force as “simply Matchmaker made permanent,” which is apt, given that the first deployment built on the staff and plans already underway for the next exercise serial.

Among the valuable offshoots of the standing naval force was the conversation it sparked on the maritime domain in NATO strategy. From the alliance’s inception, NATO’s maritime geography was understood as part of a wider whole. As naval analyst Peter Swartz writes of the first Supreme Allied Commander in Europe: “Eisenhower’s strategic concept was to have powerful American and British naval striking forces under his command on both NATO European flanks [i.e., its northern and southern seas], with NATO’s ground and air forces concentrated in the center.” By the late 1960s, NATO studies tied to the creation of the standing force developed the concept of “External Reinforcements of the Flanks,” one insight of which was that the northern and southern flanks were operationally distinct from one another.

The force’s creation also precipitated debate on how to manage the political signaling inherent in standing naval formations. Three sticking points stand out in contemporaneous documentation: First, whether peacetime operations (including port visits) would require “final political clearance;” second, how forces that may be under operational control of other commanders factored into the group’s crisis response constraints; and third, the flexibility of the group to react to contingencies without senior (read: slow) political approval. In other words, many of today’s alliance management concerns at sea are not exactly new.

Perhaps because of the inherent political complexity of the combined force’s status and tasking, the idea of a standing naval force was appealing but not identically cloned in the Mediterranean. There, in 1969, Allied Forces South established an on-call force. It was not until 1992 that a standing Naval Force Mediterranean replaced the on-call force structure, which would become Group Two. It took another four years until Allied Command Channel launched its Standing Naval Force Channel in 1973, which was predominantly a mine countermeasure force and which did not see a Mediterranean counterpart until 1992.

Post-Cold War Drift

After the Cold War, the loss of threat (and with it, mission), as well as drastic cuts to U.S. and European defense budgets, brought  steady de-regionalization and de-specialization for NATO’s maritime forces. Institutional changes gradually optimized the alliance bureaucracy for its transition to peacetime in the 1990s, focusing (like NATO’s constituent members) on efficiency as the guiding sentiment for operational structure. 

In 1994, NATO downsized from three major commands to two (Europe and Atlantic), decommissioning Channel Command and assigning its waters to Allied Command Europe. In 1999, internal housekeeping reduced the number of subordinate entities within the remaining major commands by two-thirds. Allied Command Atlantic began to lose its distinct Navy flavor over time, headed by U.S. Marine and Army generals before being stripped of its operational role in 2003. That last shift resulted in the closure of three mostly maritime subordinate commands, including what used to be Iberian Atlantic Command based in Lisbon, Portugal. 

At the operational level, the original standing naval force (Atlantic) drifted into counter-narcotics and disaster relief missions in the Caribbean, while Striking and Support Forces South began a series of moves that culminated in its operational remit expanding to the entire NATO area of operations under the banner of Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO. And such changes were not only relegated to NATO, as the U.S. Sixth Fleet grew from its focus on the Mediterranean to fit the expanded scope of European Command’s remit. As Swartz notes, these changes marked “the demise of the very concept of separate maritime theaters of operation, in both the U.S. command structure and that of the NATO alliance.”

The consolidation trend now seems to be moving in reverse. In response to the Russian threat, NATO and the U.S. Navy created a third Joint Forces Command (in Norfolk). This emulates the location and mission of Allied Command Atlantic and relies on a recommissioned U.S. Second Fleet operating as the surge base for Atlantic operations. NATO’s 2021 Brussels Summit Communique also implies a deepening commitment to regional approaches in its section on command and control. More broadly, the communique references sub-divisions of NATO’s geography — such as the Black Sea, High North, and Mediterranean regions — implying regional sub-groupings of interest meant to address regional security challenges. As the threat to the North Atlantic has reemerged over the last few years, it is telling that regionalization and specialization have again materialized as important solutions to NATO’s maritime defense.

The Future

To be sure, NATO’s maritime history is replete with examples of alliance management driving policy choices. The United States, for example, created Striking Fleet Atlantic in part to ensure that it would maintain control over nuclear weapons deployed at sea. Where commands are located, and which leadership positions are held by which countries, are always political issues. Yet, NATO’s maritime heritage is not simply one of creating commands for the sake of alliance politics. The promulgation of regionalized, maritime-focused commanders and dedicated task forces is an example of where concessions to coalition maintenance produced uniquely durable solutions. In other words, while alliance management may have underpinned some decisions, that pressure ultimately yielded a more effective theater-wide approach to maritime security. This analysis of NATO’s history reveals that external constraints can provide value when designing structure and forces for operations at sea — and constraints can come in various forms, including the United States’ growing desire to shift its naval focus out of Europe.

Naval combatants may be multi-mission, but without clear authority a force can be hobbled by the mismatch between broad capability and unclear intent. The instinct to create yet more layers of command, in response to these challenges, is not the solution to be taken from this history. Rather, the value of regionalized and specialized bodies is in creating constraints that serve as proxies for addressing complex issues of authorities and alliance management. While commanders might reasonably balk at more limitations, when done well, command and control should ultimately set clear expectations and enable commanders to make operational decisions with confidence and at the speed of relevance. Mission command — that central edict of naval leadership — cannot exist without clarity of purpose.

Scoped missions tailored to geography would help alleviate the evergreen concern among national leaders of their forces being used for reasons beyond their approval. These concerns are longstanding: Discussions around the original standing force’s creation exhibit the same apprehensions over span-of-control and political-versus-military signaling that effect standing force maneuverability today. Here, again, narrower geography and set missions may offer improvements. Mission-tailored task forces would enable allied politicians to make risk-informed choices about the nature and extent of their contributions, while allied navies could pitch more tangible benefits to their joint and civilian masters.

Of course, a standing force is only as strong as its components. Historically, U.S. commitments to Standing Naval Force Atlantic were durable and balanced, consistently lending surface combatants and episodically a commander, without swamping the initiative with too much enthusiasm. In fact, central to the original force proposal was the expectation that no nation would contribute more than a quarter of its strength, offering a model for sustainable cooperation and equitable burden sharing across the alliance. No one nation can, or should, shoulder the burden of the standing forces alone. Yet more relevant to the U.S. Navy’s disposition today, it also should not neglect its own creation. If the latest interval of U.S. presence is any indication, the Navy contributes to one of the two major groups once every three years. (It is in command of Group Two now and last commanded Group One in 2019.) These contributions to alternating groups mean that it could be six years before the United States participates in the same group twice. If the standing naval forces matter, the United States should set an example and show up regularly — not only when in command.

As with the original founding of the standing force, how NATO chooses to regionalize and specialize future versions of the force would have the added benefit of advancing debate on whether historic visions of the alliance’s maritime geography remain relevant to the bloc’s defense today. The room for deliberation is vast: from the durability of the idea of northern and southern seas as striking flanks, to the prospect of a Fourth Battle of the Atlantic in defense of sea lines of communication, to surging reinforcements from North America to a northern NATO geography newly inclusive of Sweden and Finland. Any number of missions and task forces could come out of a reassessment of the groups’ relation to NATO strategy.

NATO may consider a force dedicated to exercise participation, harkening back to its origins in Matchmaker steaming around the theater to infuse national and multilateral exercises with a NATO maritime element. Such a force could alternatively be devoted to doctrine development, experimentation, and equipment standardization, driving the Alliance deeper from interoperability to interchangeability in service of more sophisticated combined operations. Standing NATO Maritime Groups One and Two might be re-designated Northern and Southern groups and focus more explicitly on their roles operating on Europe’s flanks — as envisioned by Eisenhower — aligned with the air and land campaigns of Joint Forces Commands Brunssum and Naples. Perhaps a Mediterranean task force might seek a particular specialization in defending high-value units like U.S., French, Italian, and Spanish aircraft carriers. NATO’s smaller navies could also pursue niche contributions. Standing mine countermeasure forces already exist in the Black and Baltic Seas, but perhaps the northern group would be best dedicated to maritime critical infrastructure defense in the Baltic or North and Norwegian Seas in light of the Nord Stream explosion. 


Naval historian John Hattendorf wrote that Adm. Colbert, father of the standing naval force, saw that force as low-cost (both financially and politically), sidestepping the sensitivities inherent in a large U.S. footprint while providing political (and thus operational) credibility to NATO’s maritime presence. Those remain salient rationales — NATO, with U.S. support, should continue its long legacy of maintaining a standing naval force. Yet the constitution of such a force, in conversation with its areas of operation, is ripe for reevaluation after a half-century of maritime evolution in the alliance. The sluggish participation rates today are just further evidence that it is time for a rethink.

As seen here, NATO’s Cold War maritime force structure offers a way forward, with its favor toward geographically bounded, mission-focused commands. Iterating on that approach could, perhaps counterintuitively, boost national contributions to the naval groups by reducing the political uncertainty that comes with attaching combatants to standing forces, expand the groups’ operational utility by tailoring units to identified functions, and improve force readiness through more targeted unit-level, pre-deployment training and armament. The point is not that NATO must proliferate a thousand maritime commands but rather that the forcing function of scoping can breed excellence through concision. In a world of hard choices pulling U.S. attention toward a rising China, regionalization and specialization may be the next best step in NATO’s storied maritime history.

Dr. Joshua Tallis is a naval analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he is a senior research scientist in the Operations Evaluation Group. He has twice served as an embedded analytic advisor to U.S. Navy commands: first during the 2018 deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman strike group to the European Arctic, and second with the U.S. Sixth Fleet. He is the author of the 2019 book The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity. The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or the U.S. Navy.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cameron Stone