Mare Nostrum Revisited: Maritime Competition in the Mediterranean

Med Map

Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a short series examining maritime geography and strategic challenges in specific bodies of water, ranging from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Guinea and the South China Sea.

The Mediterranean’s Latin name, Mare Nostrum, means “our sea.” To casual observers, this might suggest an image of maritime space of peace and cooperation. Indeed, for decades, U.S. and NATO maritime preponderance has prevented foreign powers and regional actors from using naval force to settle their disputes at sea. This relative tranquility carried over into the post-Cold War era. This was a period marked by sweeping defense cuts, the decline of Western seapower, and a shift away from competitive naval missions towards more collaborative efforts in low-threat environments like the Mediterranean.

Today, however, with the return of great-power competition and the corresponding activities of revisionist actors in the wider Mediterranean region, the Mediterranean has come roaring back as a contested body of water. Following Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and the war in Gaza, this sea is once again what it has been for millennia: a zone of competition.

Against this backdrop, Western decision-makers should revisit their approaches to the use of naval power in the region. They should again refocus on the upper end of the intensity spectrum of conflict. Beyond simply plugging existing holes, they should work to develop deterring and disruptive strategies, doctrines, and technologies. NATO navies, large and small, need to regenerate. As current trends indicate, this requires a critical mass of platforms and fires to deter and, if that fails, win prolonged armed conflicts against increasingly capable adversaries in the region.

Critically, the Mediterranean no longer stands alone as a singular body of water in the strategic calculations of decision-makers. It ought to be considered in relation to other maritime theaters. So, while there is considerable discussion about whether the accession of Finland and Sweden to the alliance has turned the Baltic into a “NATO lake,” strategists ought to also take a fresh look at the original Mare Nostrum.



The Rise of a New Naval Paradigm

For large parts of the post-Cold War period, defense planning and security considerations in and beyond the Mediterranean region were shaped by perceived threats and challenges that emanated from across the so-called “arc of instability.” This was a region that stretched from Northern Africa all the way to Afghanistan and Pakistan region and encompassed the entirety of the Mediterranean Sea. In the absence of an existential threat to counter, dealing with the many conflicts and their spillover effects, including mass migrations and international terrorism, became a top priority for Western states. The United States, for its part, began to use the Mediterranean as a transit hub to shuttle its forces to and from new theaters of conflict like Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

Importantly, the evolving security environment gave rise to a new naval paradigm. Rather than focusing on national and collective defense or attaining sea control against powerful competitors, globalization in and of itself became a central strategic consideration. As Adm. John Morgan noted at the time, globalization had ostensibly “linked nations together in a de facto security arrangement” and “resulted in increased interdependence and reliance on international cooperation as a prerequisite for national prosperity.” Because the integrated global market rested on the unimpeded flow of maritime trade, the defense of sea-based trading systems became an integral part of Western security policies. From this followed a novel focus on maritime security operations, capacity building efforts, and other collaborative missions for navies to perform.

In the absence of a peer competitor and any serious challenge to the control of the sea space and choke points, Western states enjoyed the rise in wealth that this maritime expansion offered. Even adverse developments like Greece’s financial and debt crisis in 2008 — which led to the sale of critical port infrastructure to an aspiring China — created little in the way of maritime competition. Across the board, Western military and political leaders eagerly bought into the new paradigm of economic integration and collaborative naval efforts. It gave national governments the opportunity to be more visible on the international stage while offering maritime forces in particular some respite from the draconian budget cuts of the time.

Obviously, collaborative naval missions, such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief or upholding good order at sea by combatting Somali pirates, differed greatly from hunting submarines and conducting the anti-surface warfare of the past. This prompted states to design, build, and tailor their fleets for lower-end operations. Meanwhile, an entire generation of sailors and marines became accustomed to largely unchallenged naval preponderance while operating in mostly permissive environments like the Mediterranean. Despite critical voices warning about a more assertive Russia and China, most Western states, including several along NATO’s southern flank, embraced the collaborative and system-centric approach, all the while cashing in on the peace dividend.

Toward a Competitive Maritime Future

Russia’s war against Ukraine, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior (especially attempts at territorializing the South China and East China Seas), and an ever-escalating crisis across the Middle East have brought this period in international relations to a screeching halt. With the re-emergence of great-power competition and a multipolar world order, maritime aspects of international security have re-entered the strategic discussion. From punitive strikes courtesy of American aircraft carriers to humanitarian assistance support activities in Gaza, from drones sinking Russian warships in Black Sea to drones sinking merchant vessels off the coast of Yemen, the wider Mediterranean again has become an area of regional and international competition. Perhaps more importantly, the region is shaping up to be a petri dish for the challenges and opportunities of naval power in our time.

Given finite resources, states face a range of difficult choices how to best balance their capabilities to address the challenges and threats across the intensity spectrum of maritime conflict. Day to day, low-end maritime operations have to be harmonized with the need for robust high-end capabilities. These developments have not only informed the naval strategy of the Mediterranean states proper, but also other powers. These include Russia, which has established a foothold in Syria and using port facilities in Port Sudan, and the People’s Republic of China, which has a basing arrangement in Djibouti and has possibly secured dual-use port facilities in Algeria.

In most parts of the Mediterranean, Western sea control is not challenged to the same degree as in others areas of the world. Still, the dramatic decline in Western naval power relative to rising Asian powers coupled with a focus on lower-end operations have left NATO and partner navies unprepared and stretched thin. Meanwhile regional actors and middle powers, including several states across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, have gained greater maritime agency with militaries and navies that show significant sign of improvement. Notable investments include advanced diesel-electric submarines, capable surface combatants, and even amphibious assault ships.

The fleets of Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco are all considerably larger and more capable today than only a decade ago. Recent procurements, such as heavily armed MEKO-200AN and FREMM-class frigates, have provided them with significant naval clout. A steady pace of joint exercises, including those with international partners, signal a growing maritime awareness. Meanwhile, operational patterns suggest these North African states increasingly appreciate naval power as a means to further their respective national interests and to hedge against potential competitors in the region.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, maritime competition has reached the boiling point on several occasions over the past years. Here, too, the contest over influence and resources has informed maritime strategies and spurred naval investments. As a historical middle power, Turkey is pursuing a blue-water maritime strategy that includes new maritime claims as well as the ability to project naval power in and beyond the region. Despite economic challenges and soaring inflation, a burgeoning domestic defense industry is now able to provide the navy with everything from sensors, combat systems, and advanced missiles to a broad range of uncrewed platforms and modern warships.

Ankara’s maritime activism, in turn, continues to dictate Greece’s defense policies and naval posture. After several years of financial difficulties, Greece is once again investing heavily in high-end capabilities. These are intended to buttress its territorial defense and secure vital sea lines of communication across the Aegean archipelago and Mediterranean vis-à-vis its more powerful and potentially threatening neighbor. These tensions between the two NATO members are likely to continue indefinitely and carry a grave risk for misunderstanding, mishaps, and escalation.

The current conflict in Gaza has also widened existing rifts in the relation between Turkey and Israel. Since the so-called Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, in which Israel stopped and raided a flotilla of civilian vessels heading towards the naval blockade of Gaza and killed several Turkish nationals, the two regional military powers have rarely seen eye to eye. In line with recent trends, the Israeli navy has grown in size and sophistication. The naval branch of the Israel Defense Forces is largely designed for the defense of national territory and the resources within its exclusive economic zone. Its aim is to deter potential peer adversaries while mitigating the maritime threat that Hamas, Hizballah, and other non-state actors pose. This force also plays a more strategic role by providing the small, beleaguered state with strategic depth and by deploying its purported submarine-based nuclear deterrent.

Finally, several Arab states as well as Iran have expanded their political and economic influence from the Arabian Gulf, up the Red Sea, and into the Mediterranean. While their naval footprint remains relatively small, newly developed capabilities for sea control, expeditionary operations, and grey zone warfare add further complexity to the Mediterranean maritime equation.

On an operational and tactical level, it appears that land-sea interdiction is much easier now, including for countries or actors like Ukraine and the Houthi rebels that do not maintain a navy. The proliferation of cutting-edge defense technology in the region, particularly drones and advanced missiles, pose an increasing threat to warships and naval platforms. Indeed, war at sea is back.

In sum, the conflicts raging across the Black Sea and Levant, as well as along the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf, have all impacted security and defense planning. Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine and the Houthis deadly attacks off the coast of Yemen have effectively turned parts of the wider Mediterranean region from a Mare Nostrum to a Mare Clausum — a “closed sea.” The Mediterranean is no longer a simple thoroughfare for the U.S. Navy to sail through to get to somewhere more important. Rather, the future of the U.S. naval presence in the Mediterranean is increasingly uncertain. In short, the past decade shows a marked shift back from the collaborative and system-centric naval paradigm to a more competitive vision of a maritime future. For the foreseeable future, the Mediterranean will be a zone of hybrid conflict between great powers as well as, increasingly, between regional powers — as well as up-and-coming actors wrestling for limited control and influence.

Revisit, Refocus, Regenerate

Relative to other regions like the Baltic, the High North, or the Southern Atlantic, the Mediterranean’s security considerations are less straightforward. Where Western powers can quickly identify their primary rivals in these other areas, in the Mediterranean they face a host of threats and challenges, ranging from addressing environmental hazards to potential military operations. When he was commander of NATO’s Maritime Command, the late Vice Adm. Clive Johnstone succinctly summarized this myriad of seaborne threats as the three Rs: Russia, Radicals, and Refugees. As most recent events have shown, his dictum will ring true across the Mediterranean for some time.

The question now is how should Western and particularly European governments react to this increasingly competitive and complex environment? To successfully navigate the Middle Sea’s future, Western states should follow an additional set of Rs.

The first R is “revisiting.” This involves revisiting regional dynamics to gain a better appreciation of them. Both America’s and Europe’s inconsistent responses to the war in Ukraine, the conflict in Gaza, and the corresponding escalation off the Horn of Africa show that many Western policymakers and military leaders remain ill-prepared for the competitive era we have entered. The trans-Atlantic allies and partners enjoyed ample time after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s full-scale offensive in 2022 to address and remediate its policies and deterrent posture towards Moscow, Tehran, and their proxies.

And yet, two years after the beginning of the war against Ukraine, many governments remain unwilling to increase their defense spending (more than half of the NATO members remain below the 2 percent threshold agreed in 2014), provide more substantial military support to Kyiv, or put their industrial base on a war footing. The collective West’s inability to anticipate and effectively deal with the Houthi threat — beyond the current whack-a-mole (U.S. and U.K.) and point-defense (E.U.) operations — illustrates the lack of understanding, intent, and foresight among decision-makers. The situation will only get more challenging, not least should China and India — with its India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor — increase their presence in the greater Mediterranean.

The second R is for “refocusing.” There is hardly a single Western navy that has not emphasized warfighting over the past years. In fact, since 2014, NATO members have pledged to invest more in national and collective defense, placing a premium on readiness and credible deterrence. The invasion of Ukraine added further urgency to the matter. While there is evidence of a greater focus in developing and adding warfighting capabilities to the truncated forces, there is no guarantee that these investments will continue indefinitely. The latest trends in Western naval modernization indicate that additional funding is frequently used to plug glaring holes in personnel, maintenance, and readiness, rather than to comprehensively reshape the fleet or develop new, disruptive approaches to naval power.

With the exception of Ukraine, which is in a fight for its national survival, none of the regional actors has sought naval strategies and doctrines that deviate significantly from the past. In other words, none are pursuing a Jeune École-like approach to their force structure and doctrine, and too few are introducing a vast numbers of uncrewed systems or offensive and defensive fires. This would be particularly useful for small and financially constrained maritime forces. A refocusing on the sharp end of the conflict will require an “all-hands-on-deck effort.” This is necessary to (re)accustom both politicians and the general public to the concept of deterrence and convince them that maintaining sea control while denying it to Russia, Iran, and other malign actors is in their own interest.

The final R stands for a long-term “regeneration” of naval capabilities and corresponding posture in the region. This throws Western navies onto the horns of a dilemma. Unlike in the past, small and medium-sized European navies will need to plan for the high-end fight and the ability to entertain the critical mass of platforms and joint fires to sustain a military campaign over months rather than days. This is something they have proven to be unable to do without U.S. support.

Furthermore, northern European navies will be less inclined to deploy to warmer waters and in the process sap their strained fleets. Consequently, the larger European littoral states, such as France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey, will be called upon to do even more, both in terms of maritime security and maintaining a potent naval posture. They will have to do so while being called upon to deploy further afield to show the flag in other regions of potential tension. Since reaching their collective nadir in the mid-2010s, the three largest continental European navies, the French Marine National, the Italian Marina Militare, and the Spanish Armada Espanola, have added new pieces to their comparatively well-balanced fleets. Moreover, they benefit from rich maritime tradition, naval acumen, and close security ties through NATO, the European Union, and other bi- and multinational forums.

While in and of themselves each of these NATO navies can comfortably cover everyday duties, gain a degree of sea control, and conduct small expeditionary operations, they would be hard pressed to deal with major crisis or conflict. Recent exercises have highlighted the ferocity of modern-day war at sea and the vulnerability of naval forces. The situation for these come-as-you-are navies would be significantly exacerbated in the Mediterranean in the case of a military conflict with Russia along Europe’s northern shores, or if the United States were tied down in the Asia-Pacific region, unable or unwilling to bring to bear its military and naval might in the European theater. Beyond these theoretical scenarios, addressing personnel and materiel shortages, including a lack of shipbuilding capacity and vulnerability of supply chains, will take time and there are currently no easy fixes to Europe’s compounding strategic challenges. The dilemma of acting in the short term while maintaining a strategic medium- and long-term perspective, especially for navalists, remains.

By all accounts, the 21st century is and continues to be a maritime century. And while the Mediterranean will likely not be the scene of cataclysmic clashes between great powers at sea, it will remain a region of key interest to a host of different actors. In a period of renewed competition, Western states are well advised to make provisions and take concerted action to ensure that the wider Mediterranean Sea again becomes “our sea.”



Dr. Jeremy Stöhs is an Austrian-American security and defense analyst. He co-heads the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda & Security Studies at the University of Graz and is a senior fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University. His publications include The Decline of European Naval Forces: Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty (Naval Institute Press, 2018) and newly published European Naval Power: From Cold War to Hybrid Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2024).

Dr. Sebastian Bruns is a naval strategist and seapower expert based in Kiel, Germany, where he is senior researcher at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University. He is also a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, he was the inaugural McCain-Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and a defense policy staffer in the 112th U.S. Congress, serving then-Rep. Todd Young from Indiana.

Image: Rumsey Map Collection