Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security, Balancing Traditional Roles and Emergent Threats in the 21st Century

Robert McCabe, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller

The majority of navies are small. Given that this is the case, why is so little written about their strategies, roles and capabilities in the twenty first century? Academic research has tended instead to focus on blue water navies. Where small navies are considered at all, this tends to be in terms of how they might support or oppose larger naval forces. Our book Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security addresses this gap in the academic literature. In doing so it sets out to demonstrate the importance of this topic and to encourage further debate on the important role that small navies play as security providers.

This book has its origins in a conference held at King’s College London in January 2018, run in collaboration with the Centre for Military History and Strategic Studies at Maynooth University and the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University, in which we brought together academics, policy makers, and military officers to explore gaps in the field of maritime security. As a result of this exchange of ideas, we were able to develop a better and more holistic understanding of the strategic utility and operational effectiveness of smaller navies in addressing European maritime security threats. The fruits of this analysis are contained within our book. Published by Routledge in October 2019 Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security serves two key purposes. First, it explores the role of small navies within the European Security architecture and, by extension, sheds new light on European security matters in an environment that is often neglected. Second, it addresses wider points of importance regarding smaller navies themselves; issues relating to governance, information sharing, capacity building and their role in, and contribution to, maritime security operations. At the core of this book is the idea that, despite their size, small navies fulfil a variety of critical roles and that it is not possible to understand naval strategy, maritime security or European security as a whole unless we understand the role played by them.

In order to achieve these aims and objectives our book explores two themes. The first focuses on thinking about the idea of small navies, seeking to establish defining characteristics, common features and shared experiences as well as exploring the extent to which such navies should be thought of as different from larger navies. Following the lead of Mulqueen et al in 2014, our book does not attempt to define what a small navy is. Instead we take a more inclusive approach accepting Till’s suggestion that a small navy is simply one that has ‘limited means and aspirations’. Adopting this broader definition allows us to explore a wider range of different European navies, none of which is large, without being hamstrung by narrow or vague definitions that would limit and stifle our analysis. So, for instance, we consider some states whose aspirations are very constrained by limited means, including the Croatian and Irish navies, as well as such states as the Netherlands and Norway that have some large and powerful naval assets and the capacity to project these a long way from home. The second part of the book explores a variety of significant case studies, exploring European navies of differing size, outlook and capability; and considers the diversity of threat perceptions within the European context and the effect these have on maritime security and naval policy and practice.

Our book demonstrates that small navies, which represent the majority of European navies, have a vital role to play in support of national and international policy. These include deterrence and self-defence, protection of resources, the maintenance of good order at sea and support for national foreign policy and diplomacy. Small navies can also make an important contribution to EU or NATO collective defence, multi-national operations aimed at protecting the global commons and in capacity building of other smaller navies and maritime security sectors. As our book shows, size clearly does not matter. For instance, the tiny Slovenian Navy which is formally a branch of the Ground Forces and has only two ships, has been able to maximise its influence by embracing expeditionary maritime security operations. Slovenia deployed a number of personnel to the Djibouti-based operational command of EUNAFOR Operation Atalanta in 2009; and is credited with rescuing over 400 migrants and the removal of nine people-smuggling vessels from circulation in support of the Italian government’s Mare Nostrum operation in 2013 and 2014.

Our book also challenges the assumption dominant within the existing literature that small navies tend to be limited in terms of the range at which they operate and their ability to project power. Our case studies demonstrate that even small navies project power, influence and operational effect well beyond their EEZ in maritime security operations, particularly when cooperating within the framework or European security architecture. Of special note here is the discussion of the Irish Naval Service’s deployment of a series of vessels to the Mediterranean to participate in EUNAVOR MED Operation Sophia, as well the participation of the Croatian navy in multinational counter-piracy operations in the west Indian Ocean.

Lastly, this book also highlights key challenges facing small navies operating in more contested European maritime domains. In both the Baltic and Black Sea, we have seen a return of Russian maritime power projection which poses a series of challenges for small navies. In this vein our book explores the rebuilding of the Ukrainian navy as a case study of two more general problems. First, it examines the challenges facing small navies in simultaneously trying to address very traditional security challenges posed by established conventional naval threats, whilst simultaneously attempting to meet what might be termed ‘new’ maritime security threats such as pollution, drug and nuclear trafficking and illegal good smuggling. A second challenge facing all navies, but one that is particularly hard felt by smaller navies, is also how to balance commitments versus resources in an age of austerity. One response to this problem, as our book shows, have been particular forms of innovation and adaption.

In summary, what this book does is to put small navies firmly on the map in security and maritime studies. It demonstrates that size is not everything and that smaller navies can perform very important roles as key security providers in the twenty first century.

Image – LÉ Róisín, Irish Defence Forces

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