Operation Ocean Shield was a counter-piracy effort by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden. Since 2008, NATO aircraft and ships have protected waters notorious for piracy. What was once a massive piracy problem has become a controlled situation after years of concerted NATO involvement.
From May 2012 to March 2017, there were zero commercial ships hijacked by pirates. At the height of piracy, dozens of commercial ships were being captured each year. Crew members of captured ships were likely to be taken hostage for months, if not years. In this article, we will cover what exactly NATO is and how it deployed Operation Ocean Shield against Somali pirates.
What Is NATO?
NATO is an international organization made up of 30 different countries. The first peacetime military alliance outside of the Western Hemisphere, NATO was originally organized in 1949 in conjunction with the start of the Cold War. The United States, Canada, and many rebuilding European countries created NATO to ally against the Soviet Union. As a pro-democracy organization, NATO was formed in opposition to communist efforts across the globe. NATO is still in opposition to communist regimes but is not an antagonist in that regard.
NATO is a political and military alliance that allows a collective defense of each allied member country. One of the goals of NATO is to promote democratic values and encourage all members to cooperate on security and defense-related conflict. Politically, the ultimate goal of NATO is to build legitimate trust across a large collection of countries to ensure long-lasting peace.
Despite its military presence and capacity, NATO is committed to peacefully resolving all disputes. But if diplomatic actions fail, NATO has the military power to take on a variety of operations. Every day, members of NATO consider decisions on security concerns at all levels.
Here are the 30 members of NATO along with the year they joined:
- Albania (2009)
- Belgium (1949)
- Bulgaria (2004)
- Canada (1949)
- Croatia (2009)
- Czech Republic (1999)
- Denmark (1949)
- Estonia (2004)
- France (1949)
- Germany (1955)
- Greece (1952)
- Hungary (1999)
- Iceland (1949)
- Italy (1949)
- Latvia (2004)
- Lithuania (2004)
- Luxembourg (1949)
- Montenegro (2017)
- Netherlands (1949)
- North Macedonia (2020)
- Norway (1949)
- Poland (1999)
- Portugal (1949)
- Romania (2004)
- Slovakia (2004)
- Slovenia (2004)
- Spain (1982)
- Turkey (1952)
- The United Kingdom (1949)
- The United States (1949)
Any European state that wishes to join NATO can do so, as long as they are in agreement and have the capacity “to further the principles” of its treaty.
What Was Operation Ocean Shield?
Operation Ocean Shield was NATO’s commitment to ending piracy around the West Indian Ocean. In 2016, eight years after being established, NATO declared that the operation had achieved success. At the end of 2016, Operation Ocean Shield was terminated.
Mission and Mandate
From the official NATO website, here is the mission Operation Ocean Shield set out to achieve:
“Operation Ocean Shield is NATO’s counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa. NATO has helped to deter and disrupt pirate attacks, while protecting vessels and increasing the general level of security, in the region since 2008.”
Here is the mandate NATO feels compelled by:
“NATO’s role is to provide naval escorts and deterrence while increasing cooperation with other counter-piracy operations in the area in order to optimize efforts and tackle the evolving pirate trends and tactics. In June 2014, the North Atlantic Council extended this operation until the end of 2016. NATO is conducting counter-piracy activities in full complementarity with the relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions.”
The Suez Canal
Reaching its height in 2008, piracy in the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, and off the Horn of Africa threatened to undermine one of the busiest maritime routes in the world: the Suez Canal. As early as 2000 B.C., a series of canals were pieced together in an attempt to connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. But the thought that the two seas could be completely connected as one continuous body of water forever seemed impossible given the disparity in the levels of altitude the two sat at.
It wasn’t until the 1830s that Linant de Bellefonds, a French explorer and engineer, discovered that the two bodies of water were actually at the same level of altitude. This discovery made the construction of a canal much easier than previously anticipated.
Two decades later, the Ottoman Empire saw an opportunity for Egypt, which it governed at the time. The leader of the country, Khedive Said Pasha, gave a French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps permission to form a company that would construct the canal. The Suez Canal Company was formed and was granted a 99-year lease of the waterway.
Construction began in 1859. Ten years and $100 million later, the Suez Canal officially opened on November 17, 1869. Eventually, the British bought all shares of stock in the canal from the owners of the canal, although France remained the majority shareholder. The British famously defended the canal from the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
But in 1956, after several rounds of negotiations, the British agreed to withdraw troops from the canal, effectively handing it over to Egypt and their leader, President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser immediately transferred ownership of the canal to the Suez Canal Authority, a quasi-government entity. This move angered the British and the Americans, but not nearly as much as the Nasser’s support of the Soviet Union.
In response, Israel, France, and Britain threatened to invade Egypt, leading to the Suez Crisis. The Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, feared an escalation of the conflict and suggested establishing a peacekeeping force of the United Nations to keep the canal safe and enable access to everyone. The U.N., which was officially established in 1945, ratified the proposal in 1956. The Suez Canal Company maintained control of operations but the United Nations
Six Days War of 1967
As the dawn of the Six Days War approached, Nasser declared that all U.N. peacekeeping forces must leave the Sinai Peninsula. Israelian troops immediately stormed into the region and established control of the east bank of the canal. To keep Israeli ships out, Nasser declared a blockade on all traffic through the canal. This decision led to 15 different cargo ships that had already come into the canal trapped for years.
Suez Canal Today
On average, 50 ships sail through the canal every day, hauling over 300 million tons of goods each year.
NATO vs. Somali Pirates
The first salvo NATO launched against piracy off the coast of Somalia was Operation Allied Provider. Initially, Operation Allied Provider was only meant to be temporary, as the European Union Naval Force Operation Atalanta (EUNAVFOR) was underway to similarly fight piracy in the region. It soon became clear, though, that EUNAVFOR did not have the capacity to combat piracy on its own. Instead of leaving the area, NATO continued its anti-piracy efforts, and Operation Ocean Shield was formed.
One of the first signs that pirates were increasing their activity was on May 1, 2019. Somali pirates hijacked a Ukrainian and Greek ship. Meanwhile, NATO had foiled an attack on a third ship, a Norweigan tanker, in the Gulf of Aden. NATO detained 19 pirates equipped with high explosives.
The Ukrainian ship was heading to a coastal town in Somalia to deliver supplies. On the phone to Reuters, a pirate claimed that “We have hijacked a ship carrying industrial equipment including white cars with the U.N. logo, our friends are on board it.” The Greek ship was a bulk carrier and was taken down by a 24-man crew of Ukrainians.
Operation Ocean Shield was critical in coordinating many different moving parts to achieve its ultimate success. They began by organizing the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE), a series of meetings in Bahrain. SHADE gave various factions of NATO a chance to share tactics and confer about any conflicts. Due to the SHADE meetings, a key transit corridor was created in the Gulf of Aden that helped to lessen response time to incidents.
One of the largest successes to come from SHADE, apart from the cooperation from Russia and China, was the Mercury system. Mercury was known as the “Facebook of counter-piracy” and was an electronic information-sharing program that was used across NATO, as well as in cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and India.
The Future of NATO Fighting Piracy
NATO considers Operation Ocean Shield a success and will no longer be patrolling the waters with as much fervor as before. While a small risk of piracy does remain, Operation Ocean Shield has served as a deterrent from large scale piracy operations.
There had been no commercial ships hijacked since May 2012. However, in 2017, Somali pirates successfully hijacked a fishing ship. The ship required Somali security forces to free it, leading Somalia to request more assistance from NATO. Somalia believed that the attacks were in response to illegal fishing, as pirates have been known to attack illegal and foreign ships. However, NATO replied that illegal fishing was not in their mission.
If piracy were ever to return to the region, NATO would undoubtedly become involved to a higher degree. But for now, Operation Ocean Shield has successfully ended widespread piracy in the area.