Europe Wants to Be a Naval Power

The continent has global maritime interests, but can it build a military to defend them?

By , a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
Flight deck personel stand near a French Navy Rafale jet early in the morning on the deck of the the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on May 12, 2018 in the Atlantic Ocean.
Flight deck personel stand near a French Navy Rafale jet early in the morning on the deck of the the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on May 12, 2018 in the Atlantic Ocean.
Flight deck personel stand near a French Navy Rafale jet early in the morning on the deck of the the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier on May 12, 2018 in the Atlantic Ocean. ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

ROTA, Spain—On Spain’s southern coast, situated between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Portuguese border, lies the town of Rota. A quiet fishing village for much of its history, Rota became home in the 1950s to a sprawling Spanish naval base with a large U.S. military presence. The Eisenhower administration saw Rota as a valuable perch on the open Atlantic, near the critical strait, with easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. With the Cold War dominating the agenda, Washington was more than willing to link arms with Francisco Franco’s staunchly anti-communist dictatorship.

Almost 70 years after it began operating—and through Spain’s transformation into a modern democracy—Rota has endured as the cornerstone of Spanish-U.S. military cooperation. Spanish vessels are docked not far from four U.S. destroyers. Spanish and American navy personnel mingle amicably in the towns and beaches near Rota. The longtime allies have even divided up guard duty at the base: the Spanish military check visitors in, but it is Americans who wave them out.

In many respects, Rota is a physical manifestation of Europe’s still-heavy reliance on the U.S. military for protection. Once world-straddling, Spain’s navy is now modest in size and capability. Like most European navies, it tends to operate close to home and away from controversy. Even as maritime frictions mount in the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the South China Sea, Europe leans on the U.S. Navy to protect international shipping lanes and to counter adversaries such as China and Russia. Rota itself is a key part of the U.S. security umbrella; the four U.S. destroyers stationed there have anti-ballistic missile systems to help shield Europe from strikes.

ROTA, Spain—On Spain’s southern coast, situated between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Portuguese border, lies the town of Rota. A quiet fishing village for much of its history, Rota became home in the 1950s to a sprawling Spanish naval base with a large U.S. military presence. The Eisenhower administration saw Rota as a valuable perch on the open Atlantic, near the critical strait, with easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. With the Cold War dominating the agenda, Washington was more than willing to link arms with Francisco Franco’s staunchly anti-communist dictatorship.

Almost 70 years after it began operating—and through Spain’s transformation into a modern democracy—Rota has endured as the cornerstone of Spanish-U.S. military cooperation. Spanish vessels are docked not far from four U.S. destroyers. Spanish and American navy personnel mingle amicably in the towns and beaches near Rota. The longtime allies have even divided up guard duty at the base: the Spanish military check visitors in, but it is Americans who wave them out.

In many respects, Rota is a physical manifestation of Europe’s still-heavy reliance on the U.S. military for protection. Once world-straddling, Spain’s navy is now modest in size and capability. Like most European navies, it tends to operate close to home and away from controversy. Even as maritime frictions mount in the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the South China Sea, Europe leans on the U.S. Navy to protect international shipping lanes and to counter adversaries such as China and Russia. Rota itself is a key part of the U.S. security umbrella; the four U.S. destroyers stationed there have anti-ballistic missile systems to help shield Europe from strikes.

But there are stirrings of a different European approach, and Rota itself is the focal point for a maritime initiative that does not depend on the United States. Brussels does not yet have a navy, but it is increasingly aware that it has distinct maritime interests—and EU members are building the habit of working together at sea.


On the Spanish side of the base, in a nondescript office building, is a joint maritime operation under European command with European naval assets. Operation Atalanta began in 2008 as one of several multilateral initiatives to combat rampant piracy off the coast of Somalia. Protecting vessels carrying supplies to Somalia for the World Food Programme has been a key task since its inception, and Atalanta boasts a perfect record in that regard. In all, Atalanta warships have shepherded more than 3 million tons of food and aid to Somalia and been involved in apprehending more than 150 pirates.

Led by a Spanish admiral, Atalanta normally has under its command two or three warships as well as patrol aircraft based in Djibouti. France, Italy, and Spain usually provide the operation’s warships, but other European countries occasionally participate. Originally based in Northwood, England, the operation relocated to Rota in 2019, in response to the United Kingdom’s planned departure from the European Union. Most EU members have sent officers to work in the Rota headquarters at one time or another, and the current staff comprises officers and civilians from 16 EU countries. A few officers from outside the bloc, including from Colombia and South Korea, have also lent a hand. The working language in the operations center is English.

In the operations center, officers and analysts monitor the flow of vessels, mostly moving to and from the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. A bank of oversized screens show each ship’s position, speed, and heading, and an algorithm assigns each vessel a color-coded risk level based on factors including its cargo and on-board security measures. The operations center also keeps an eye on the position of other warships (including several Chinese vessels that are regularly stationed in the area).

If piracy is the metric, Atalanta can claim to be a resounding success. The number of pirate attacks in the region has declined precipitously, from more than 200 in 2011 to only a handful in recent years. NATO wrapped up its own counterpiracy mission in 2016, but Atalanta has endured and taken on a range of additional tasks.

The EU now touts its successes not only in suppressing piracy but also in combating the flow of narcotics across parts of the Indian Ocean. In April, a French frigate operating under Atalanta command intercepted almost six tons of hashish traversing the western Indian Ocean. Illegal fishing has also attracted the operation’s attention, and its staff helps regional fishing organizations to identify scofflaw vessels. Atalanta ships and officers in recent months have engaged in naval diplomacy, forging relationships with partners throughout the Indian Ocean including India, the Seychelles, Indonesia, and Madagascar.

Atalanta is not the only all-European naval operation. In the Mediterranean, the EU runs a maritime awareness program designed to prevent weapons from reaching Libya in violation of United Nations resolutions. The EU has also inaugurated several “coordinated maritime presences” to ensure that some European vessels (albeit under national command) are always present in designated areas of concern. One of those areas is the Gulf of Guinea, a focal point for piracy in recent years.


All these initiatives are part of a broader EU effort to develop a “common security and defense policy.” The maritime aspects of that undertaking have become increasingly salient in recent years. In 2014, Brussels produced its first Maritime Security Strategy, which noted that the EU has “strategic interests, across the global maritime domain, in identifying and addressing security challenges linked to the sea.” Last year, the EU produced a strategy paper for the Indo-Pacific and updated its strategy for the Arctic. A brand-new version of the maritime security strategy is expected soon.

Verbiage is one thing; capable tonnage at sea is another. Taken as a group, the 27 EU countries would appear to have the wherewithal for regular global operations. France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain have capable navies and proud maritime traditions. France boasts a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and it recently unveiled plans for a high-tech replacement. Italy has two conventional carriers, and Spain itself fields the Juan Carlos I, an amphibious assault ship commissioned in 2010 and based at Rota. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark have smaller but still-capable naval forces.

Given this raw material, some of the EU’s traditional maritime powers can imagine European task forces operating regularly in the Indian Ocean, the Arctic, and even in the South China Sea. Just as Atalanta helps guard commerce to and from the Indian Ocean, some future EU flotilla could take on maritime security tasks in other regions. France, with its numerous Pacific possessions, is the most eager for the EU to operate in distant waters.

But European naval capabilities are, for the most part, not designed to complement each other. There are multiple redundancies and critical capability gaps. Relatively few European navies have vessels capable of operating far from home for long periods. For all its energy, Operation Atalanta itself remains a modest undertaking, and it may soon grow even more limited. Germany backed out of the operation earlier this year, citing the decline in piracy off the coast of Somalia. “The last pirate attack was in 2019, the last successful one in 2017,” a German navy spokesperson told me. “The goal of the mission has been reached.”

That decision suggests that Berlin is lukewarm about using Atalanta as a leaping-off point for a more ambitious EU maritime project. Some EU members think there is more than enough work to do in home waters. The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage raised unsettling questions about whether Europe’s maritime capabilities match even the local threats it may face. According to analyst Christian Bueger, “Europe has no policy in place that would provide for the surveillance and protection of this underwater infrastructure.”

Working individually, some European navies are willing to venture farther afield. France’s warships are regulars in the Pacific, and one of its nuclear submarines transited the South China Sea last year. Paris has sought to boost its profile in the Arctic as well. A Dutch frigate joined several other Western vessels operating near the South China Sea. Last December, even Germany dispatched a frigate to the region, the first such voyage in several decades.

For the foreseeable future, however, missions like those will be episodic and under national flags rather than the EU banner. Europe has recognized that its future safety and prosperity depends in large part on the oceans, but it remains far from being a maritime power.

David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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