NATO Goes to Sea to Save the Refugees

But there’s much more that the alliance can do.

Refugees arrive on the shore of Sykamias beach, west of the port city of Mytilini, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on September 20, 2015 in Lesvos Island, Greece. At least 13 migrants -- six of them children -- drowned off Turkey Sunday after the inflatable dinghy carrying them to Greece was hit in the dark by a Turkish-flagged ship, Turkish media reported. AFP PHOTO / IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU        (Photo credit should read IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees arrive on the shore of Sykamias beach, west of the port city of Mytilini, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on September 20, 2015 in Lesvos Island, Greece. At least 13 migrants -- six of them children -- drowned off Turkey Sunday after the inflatable dinghy carrying them to Greece was hit in the dark by a Turkish-flagged ship, Turkish media reported. AFP PHOTO / IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU (Photo credit should read IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees arrive on the shore of Sykamias beach, west of the port city of Mytilini, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on September 20, 2015 in Lesvos Island, Greece. At least 13 migrants -- six of them children -- drowned off Turkey Sunday after the inflatable dinghy carrying them to Greece was hit in the dark by a Turkish-flagged ship, Turkish media reported. AFP PHOTO / IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU (Photo credit should read IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images)

In a fairly surprising but highly laudatory move, the NATO defense ministers have approved a naval operation in support of the refugee crisis. This makes good sense, as it puts into play the enormous military muscle of the alliance in dealing with Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. With 3 million men and women under arms (almost all of them volunteers), 24,000 military aircraft, 800-plus ocean-going ships, and a budget of nearly a trillion dollars, NATO has enormous resources.

This relatively small step will take the Standing NATO Maritime Group , normally four to five destroyers or frigates under a one-star admiral, and assign them to the Aegean Sea to assist in managing the flow of refugees. Given that the ships are assigned -- under the operational command of the supreme allied commander, Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Phil Breedlove -- this can begin immediately. Hopefully it is a harbinger of more assets to come in time.

The Maritime Group will put real resources into the struggle, but will not be a game-changer in any sense. The operation will probably be placed under the overall command of one of the Joint Force Commands (probably the four-star Adm. Mark Ferguson, whose headquarters is in Naples, Italy). It will likely be a “named operation” (the Libyan operation, for example, was called Operation Unified Protector), and may have an alliance commander placed in charge under Adm. Ferguson.

In a fairly surprising but highly laudatory move, the NATO defense ministers have approved a naval operation in support of the refugee crisis. This makes good sense, as it puts into play the enormous military muscle of the alliance in dealing with Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. With 3 million men and women under arms (almost all of them volunteers), 24,000 military aircraft, 800-plus ocean-going ships, and a budget of nearly a trillion dollars, NATO has enormous resources.

This relatively small step will take the Standing NATO Maritime Group , normally four to five destroyers or frigates under a one-star admiral, and assign them to the Aegean Sea to assist in managing the flow of refugees. Given that the ships are assigned — under the operational command of the supreme allied commander, Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Phil Breedlove — this can begin immediately. Hopefully it is a harbinger of more assets to come in time.

The Maritime Group will put real resources into the struggle, but will not be a game-changer in any sense. The operation will probably be placed under the overall command of one of the Joint Force Commands (probably the four-star Adm. Mark Ferguson, whose headquarters is in Naples, Italy). It will likely be a “named operation” (the Libyan operation, for example, was called Operation Unified Protector), and may have an alliance commander placed in charge under Adm. Ferguson.

The ships will use radar sensors and helicopters to patrol the high-traffic areas of the Aegean between Turkey and Greece. Their mission will be largely surveillance, monitoring, and reconnaissance, with the responsibility to provide a command-and-control picture back to the Greek coast guard and the so-called “hot spots” (refugee camps and processing centers) on the land. If there are four or five ships in the group, they will be able to cover hundreds of miles of sea, a real increase in surveillance and early warning of refugee flows.

Naturally, they would also be available for search and rescue in the case of disaster at sea, including the sinking of refugee boats. This raises an interesting point, by the way: In the course of migrant and refugee operations elsewhere, refugees have been known to deliberately sink their own boats when in sight of military vessels, with the knowledge that the ships are required to rescue them and bring them to safety. NATO will probably be returning any refugees in such circumstances to their nation of departure (presumably Turkey, although this will have to be negotiated); when this becomes known, the refugees will probably not pursue that course of action. Thus the presence of the NATO ships would eventually have a deterrent effect on these dangerous transits.

NATO has many further options to assist in the refugee crisis. It should explore using troops to operate and support the processing, care, and maintenance of the refugee populations. Nations like Greece and Italy are likely to be overwhelmed this summer when numbers can be expected to rise rapidly again. After seeing more than 1 million refugees last year, the numbers and trends all look to be on the upward slope, and civilian agencies will be hard-pressed to keep up.

NATO should also consider adding air patrols by long-range tactical aircraft (both manned and unmanned airborne vehicles operating out of Sicily) and the highly capable over both the Aegean and the stretch of Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy, which will see increased refugee flows this summer as well. Having a coherent surface picture provided by the high-flying, long-range aircraft will help authorities ashore be ready.

Above all, the alliance must assist in tackling the root of the problem: the war in Syria and the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Dealing with the refugees is like treating the symptoms of a very serious illness; it is helpful but not a cure. This means engaging with the Iraqi Security Forces to help train, equip, and mentor them (many individual alliance members are doing so, led by the United States). It also means considering operations in Libya (if authorized by the United Nations) to try and stabilize that war-torn nation, a mission left unsettled following the intervention in 2011.

The addition of the Standing NATO Maritime Group is a good first step for NATO. But there is so much more to be done.

Photo credit: IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj

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