NATO SNFs conduct combined Mediterranean training, reflecting alliance focus on FONOPS

The Italian Navy
The Italian Navy auxiliary vessel ITS Stromboli, pictured in the Gulf of Taranto off southern Italy in 2022, has been part of a NATO group conducting combined training in the Mediterranean Sea. (Credit: US Navy)

NATO’s two Mediterranean-focused standing naval forces (SNFs) have conducted combined training in the region, with such training demonstrating the groups’ collective roles in supporting freedom of navigation in the region, one of the groups reported on X (formerly Twitter) on 23 November.

Freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) can involve various activities, including sailing through disputed waters or clearing mines to enable shipping to use a route.

NATO’s two Mediterranean-focused SNFs are the destroyer-/frigate-centred Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) and Standing NATO Mine Counter Measures Group 2 (SNMCMG2). SNMG2 and SNMCMG2 operate largely in the Mediterranean and Black Sea region. SNMG1 and SNMCMG1 are focused on the North Atlantic, including the North, Baltic, and Norwegian seas and the High North.

In its post on X, SNMCMG2 – currently commanded by the Italian Navy (ITN), with the auxiliary ship ITS Stromboli as flagship – stated that the two groups “actively co-operate to ensure freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean Sea”. SNMG2 is currently commanded by the UK Royal Navy (RN), with the Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan as flagship.

The ships involved in the combined training were Stromboli and the Spanish Navy minehunter ESPS Tambre from SNMCMG2, and the auxiliary ship ESPS Patiño from SNMG2.

The intense – and currently intensifying – nature of naval operational presence in the Eastern Mediterranean has underlined the importance to NATO, its SNFs, and its member state navies of maintaining freedom of navigation and secure sea lines of communication. For several years, maritime security focus on the region has been increasing, due for example to the need to influence events ashore and to maintain access to the Suez Canal. However, as naval rivalry has returned as the at-sea manifestation of state-based competition, Russian and NATO naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and through into the Black Sea has increased. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war in February 2022, Turkey implemented the 1936 Montreux Convention to limit Bosporus/Dardanelles maritime choke point access to the Black Sea solely to naval platforms homeported there.

Consequently, the Eastern Mediterranean has increased in operational and strategic significance as NATO and Russian naval forces have squeezed into the region in an effort to maintain influence over events in and around the Black Sea. The resultant competition at sea, especially NATO’s need to counter any Russian efforts to inflate anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubbles’ around the Eastern Mediterranean, has underlined to NATO the operational and strategic importance of FONOPS.

The fact that FONOP activity can be conducted by different elements of the two SNFs underscored NATO’s developing operational principle of conducting disaggregated operations and command. Splitting – or dispersing – the groups allows the SNF to be in two places at once and to conduct different tasks suited to the assets in question. For example, while Patino was working with SNMCMG2, the destroyers and frigates from SNMG2 were integrating with the US Navy’s USS Gerald R Ford carrier strike group.

by Dr. Lee Willett