Traditional Responses to Contemporary Challenges

Author: Dr Ioannis Chapsos, Research Fellow in Maritime Security


In mid-June 2016, the House of Lords in the UK debated the EU Committee’s report on ‘Operation Sophia’, the naval operation launched by the EU in June 2015 to “…contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean..”. One year later, the operation is assessed as ‘mission impossible’: as the report concludes, the mission significantly contributes in ‘Search and Rescue’, but it is equally inefficient and unsuccessful in performing its primary tasks and to deter the flow of migrants, disrupt the smugglers’ networks, or impede the business of people smuggling. The report, after stressing the failure of the naval operation to address these challenges urges the EU to develop a wider strategy, aiming to build resilience and capacities in the countries of origin and both better inform the public on the risks the illegal movements entail, but also target the smuggling networks’ modus operandi and ‘business’ model.


Putting aside the increasing securitisation of migration, several points of concern stem from this report’s findings. The first is the persistence of the international community in general -and in this case the EU in particular- to approach contemporary maritime security challenges through the traditional deployment of military means and naval assets in the open seas. Even from the conception stage of this ‘sophisticated’ plan, our research indicated that this approach is very unlikely to succeed, since the deployed ships will need to operate in international waters, and the task to destroy smugglers’ vessels in the middle of the Mediterranean could hardly be seen as a game changer: many vessels are already of poor quality and have even been abandoned by smugglers at sea. A similar approach has been adopted by NATO, to disrupt the migration flows from Turkey to Greece in the Aegean Sea, and the assessment of the efficiency of this operation is very likely to come up with similar findings.


Furthermore, naval assets are increasingly asked to perform constabulary roles, which are not so much aligned with their traditional and primary tasks, such as projection of naval power at sea, enforcement of blockades in the framework of enforcing UN mandates and sanctions, etc. Combating piracyIUU fishing, smuggling and trafficking of drugs and humans, tend to appear on the top of the long list of all navies’ contemporary tasks, which inevitably leads to further questions: Is this a cost efficient use of naval assets? Do contemporary states need multimillion worth vessels with sophisticated combat control systems and super smart missiles to successfully address these challenges? Crews are definitely well trained to conduct naval battle and multi-threat warfare operations, but can we assume that they are equally well trained to conduct operations other than war?


Last but by no means least, adopting traditional responses to address contemporary maritime insecurities demonstrate the limited understanding of the inseparable land-sea nexus. More efforts have to be put towards addressing those insecurities ashore, before they expand at sea. Not only due to the distinctiveness of the maritime space and the undoubted difficulties that operations have to overcome at sea – such as weather conditions, the ‘tyranny of distance’, and governance of international waters – but mainly because we need to address the root causes on land rather than the symptoms at sea. This can be only be achieved through a comprehensive approach to contemporary challenges through the lens of human security.


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