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Royal Navy ship HMS Defender and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship RFA Cardigan Bay anchor a formation of US Navy, USCG, and coalition mine countermeasures ships. 2016 photo courtesy of Royal Navy

EU Shipping And US Naval Leaders Are Estranged Despite NATO Budget Boost

John Konrad
Total Views: 4103
December 16, 2023

by Captain John Konrad (gCaptain Editorial) Amid escalating tensions in the Red Sea, marked by attacks on Israeli and European-owned vessels, and ongoing war in the Black Sea, NATO has responded with a notable escalation in its budgetary commitments for 2024. The military budget is slated for a 12% increase, reaching 2.03 billion euros, and the civil budget is set to witness an 18.2% rise, amounting to 438.1 million euros. Concurrently, European maritime leaders have been vocal in their demands for increased naval protection for shipping routes. But who will pay for this protection and how will it be organized?

This issue is of substantial importance due to the pronounced divide between European shipowners (and key shipping influencers), and the mainly American-led think tanks and communities that exert considerable influence over naval policy and strategies dedicated to ship protection. This disconnect poses alarming challenges in aligning interests and approaches for maritime security.

Will NATO Prioritize Naval Funding?

This expansion in funding reflects NATO’s commitment to enhancing its capacity to effectively tackle shared security concerns. The organization emphasized in a statement this week the importance of this increase for collective defense efforts. The distribution of the budget is twofold. The civil budget is allocated to cover the personnel costs, operational expenses, and program funding for NATO’s headquarters and its international staff. Meanwhile, the military budget is dedicated to the operational costs associated with NATO Command Structure headquarters and supports NATO’s various missions and operations across the globe.

One important question remains. What percentage of this money be spent on Army and Air Force versus Naval funding? The full extent of the additional investment in constructing warships and amassing naval weaponry and capabilities remains undisclosed. This information is critical, considering shifts in the nature of geopolitical hostilities. Recent incidents, ranging from pipeline sabotage in the Baltic Sea to aggressive actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, highlight a significant transition. Conflicts near Europe are increasingly spilling over from traditional land-based war zones into crucial maritime channels. These waterways are vital arteries for commerce and trade, not only for Europe but also for the global economy. Understanding the scale of investment in naval defense by NATO nations is essential in assessing preparedness for these evolving threats.

Who pays for the protection of shipping?

In a recent editorial published by Lloyds List two stalwarts of the European shipping community, the International Chamber of Shipping and BIMCO, have called for “Western Navies” to protect shipping. The article fails to mention two vital points. First, The People’s Liberation Army Navy warships in the region have failed to respond to distress calls from ships under attack. Second, despite the potential for Europe to contribute additional warships, their effectiveness is significantly constrained. This limitation is due to Europe’s deep reliance on the logistical support of US Navy Military Sealift Command supply ships, the strategic use of American military bases, and the overarching guidance and security provided by the US Central Command, especially in scenarios where there might be an escalatory response from Iran.

“Throughout the 1990s, the focus was low-end missions: counter-piracy, counterterrorism, migration, search and rescue. And they did so with the legacy platforms of the 1980s and 1990s. You know, sending an ASW frigate to fight piracy, well that’s not a lot of bang for your buck,” said Sebastian Bruns, head of the Keil Germany’s Center for Maritime Strategy and Security in a 2020 Defense News article. “But an unfortunate side effect of the long-lead times involved in force design — sometimes a decade or more — is that pre-2014 ship designs that are coming into service now are ill-suited for the high-end fight.”

In this context, it’s crucial to understand that the US Navy’s obligations primarily extend to protecting US-flagged cargo ships. This fleet, albeit inclusive of vessels owned by European entities such as Maersk and Stena, constitutes less than 100 ships. This number is minuscule compared to the global merchant fleet, which comprises approximately 50,000 ships the US Navy is not legally obligated to protect. While European shipowners have the option to register ships (even foreign-built ones) under the American flag to ensure US Naval protection, all continue to favor the tax savings and legal benefits offered by flags of convenience such as Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands. However, it’s important to note that these jurisdictions lack naval forces capable of safeguarding their registered ships, presenting a significant security gap in maritime operations.

Related book: Sovereignty for sale: The Origins and Evolution of the Panamanian and Liberian flags of Convenience by Rodney P. Carlisle

UK’s Special Relationship With Shipping and the US Navy

Undoubtedly, London occupies a pivotal position at the intersection of European-centric shipping circles and the US-dominated naval community, bridging a crucial gap between Europe and the United States. This strategic position raises the question: can London enhance its role to facilitate better collaboration and connection between these two influential spheres?

This is a great opportunity for the UK but it must first address emerging concerns regarding the political will to increase naval cooperation and spending. These concerns were highlighted in a recent editorial in War On The Rocks by Dr. Alessio Patalano, a distinguished naval strategist and Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, raises an alarm about the growing political resistance within the United States’ most formidable naval ally, the Royal Navy. This opposition specifically targets the spending on naval expeditionary capabilities, which are crucial for maintaining control and security in global maritime chokepoints. The editorial underscores the potential implications of such political challenges on future collaborative defense efforts.

“The British media has heavily criticized recent Royal Navy deployments. The Observer categorically judged that “sailing into imperial delusions is no way to run foreign policy.” The Financial Times went to great lengths to present remarks by U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin to suggest that Britain would be “more helpful” closer to home — presumably in Europe — only to subsequently update the story to better reflect his rather positive remarks,” writes Patalano. “This comes as no surprise. Since its first appearance in a speech Theresa May delivered in 2016, the idea of a “Global Britain” has often attracted criticism from… pundits who have regarded the recalibration, or “tilt,” toward the Indo-Pacific — and the carrier deployment — as a post-Brexit theatrical exercise.”

Dr. Patalano makes the strong case that the “Global Britain” concept of seapower is a genuine reset of British grand strategy, focusing on state competition, a strategic maritime shift, and proactive security far from home waters. This approach involves new deployments and capabilities, emphasizing a nimble, network-enabled posture for engagement and presence missions. The strategy aims for interoperability with key regional partners and represents a significant evolution in British military and foreign policy.

The UK faces a pivotal moment: can it successfully bridge the Atlantic divide between shipping and naval sectors, or will its ambitious plans succumb to the tides of populist politics?

EU Shipping’s Ingratitude Towards US Naval Assistance

The critical issue at hand is whether the United Kingdom will maintain its investment in naval capabilities and special relationship with the Pentagon to leverage its prominent role as a hub of maritime diplomacy and insurance. If they do can they encourage the European shipping community to engage with naval strategy and further invest in the protection of shipping to everyone’s benefit? This strategic position places the UK at the crossroads of two significant spheres: the European-centric international shipping community and the American-led naval security domain. The UK’s decision could play a pivotal role in forging stronger connections between these two realms, enhancing global maritime cooperation and security.

While the UK plays a leading role in shipping and naval security the two communities are not well connected. This disconnect is best exemplified by a highly troubling oversight in Lloyds List’s annual report “The One Hundred Most Influential People In Shipping” which was published this month. The list is dominated by powerful European shipping names but does not include a single navy leader from either side of the Atlantic.

This incredible, glaring, and most troubling oversight by the editorial team at Lloyd’s List occurs at a crucial juncture after a year when the US Navy has notably intensified its efforts to bolster its protection of European shipping interests. The US Navy’s significant involvement in shipping this year includes the reactivation of CF153, strategic overflights across the Black Sea, and the deployment of multiple carrier groups to safeguard shipping routes to Israel. Additionally, there’s been a considerable sealift operation to deliver supplies to Ukraine and direct support to the Philippines in their efforts to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the Secretary of the Navy’s groundbreaking speech at Harvard, aimed at strengthening ties with the shipping industry, marks a pivotal moment in naval diplomacy. Lastly, the USS Carney has played a crucial role in thwarting attacks against international shipping, showcasing the Navy’s robust capability in protecting maritime interests.

Also read: Navy Secretary Del Toro Calls for New ‘Maritime Statecraft’ Strategy

The US Navy’s Shipping Disconnect

This disconnect is not a one-way problem. Until recently, the US Navy itself has been reluctant to engage with shipping interests, even within the United States. Not a single US Merchant Marine captain works in the Pentagon, at the Naval War College, or any of the powerful national security think tanks. In attending shipping conferences I always find a US Coast Guard officer but very rarely is there a uniformed US Navy officer in attendance. Naval conferences often include American ship owners but the European shipping community is almost always absent. The US Maritime Administration (MARAD), which traditionally served as a bridge between the international Naval and Shipping communities, is run by a ghost admiral who has failed to develop a comprehensive strategy for connecting both communities, resulting in Congress forcing its hand.

Also Read: US Navy Shipbuilding Is Failing Because Admirals Avoid Wall Street

Conclusion

In an era marked by escalating maritime tensions and evolving geopolitical challenges, the critical role of naval forces in ensuring the safety and security of global shipping cannot be overstated. As NATO increases its budget to address these threats, a collaborative approach between European shipping leaders and American naval strategy becomes more vital than ever. The UK, with its unique position bridging these two worlds, must not only continue to invest in its naval capabilities but also strive to foster a deeper understanding and cooperation between the shipping industry and naval powers. The alignment of interests, policies, and actions between these entities is paramount to safeguarding the arteries of global trade and maintaining stability in key maritime regions. In doing so, the UK can set a precedent for a more integrated, responsive, and effective maritime security framework that benefits all stakeholders in this dynamic and interconnected global landscape.

The next step is that EU shipping executives must stop calling for “Western Naval Action” and acknowledge that only one Navy currently has the resources to protect shipping globally. They must get off their high horses, travel to Washington, and meet with US Navy leaders like Admiral Foggo, Dean of Center for Maritime Strategy, US Naval thought leaders like Admiral Stavridis, and hire naval shipping consultants like Sal Mercogliano, Brent Sadler, Jerry Hendrix, Craig Hooper and Ross Kennedy, as well as engage with the US Maritime Administration directly.

They must also acknowledge the current limitations of the US Navy, which is increasingly stretched thin due to its strategic pivot to the Pacific. This recognition should spur their own nations to advocate for a greater allocation of NATO funding specifically for the naval protection of shipping routes.

The safeguarding of shipping lanes will not be achieved merely through editorials from Lloyd’s List, ICS, and Bimco calling for “western naval action” with zero acknowledgment of the herculean efforts the US Navy has made this year to protect European-owned ships at American taxpayer expense. Real protection will come from tangible increases in defense spending and enhanced cooperation between key maritime players.

Final Thought

Shipowners who choose to avoid engaging with policymakers in Washington or investing time in discussions with top naval strategists risk compromising their own interests and the safety of their seafarers. Alternatively, they have the option to reflag their fleets under the American flag, which the US Navy – and US taxpayer – is obligated to defend.

Cargo owners, who are alarmed by shipping companies’ lack of naval security focus and want to expedite transit through the Red Sea, face a similar choice. They can either hope for a spontaneous resolution of these issues or proactively seek the services of US-flagged shipping companies like Matson, Maersk, and Overseas Shipping Group. Opting to put cargo aboard US-flagged ships offers the advantage of guaranteed naval protection during uncertain times regarding how NATO decides to allocate its new budget.

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