European naval capabilities: strengths and weaknesses on show

As recent NATO exercises show, Europe’s collective naval capability remains impressive, although continued integration of maritime forces on a more routine basis remains a challenge, says Nick Childs.

Brilliant Mariner vessels in Toulon

By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security, IISS

A coincidence of major NATO naval exercises recently in southern and northern European waters has highlighted some of the continuing strengths of European naval capabilities. But, as well as underscoring the opportunities to make more of recent European naval investments, there have been reminders of some of the challenges and shortcomings as well.

The recent image of almost exclusively European naval units assembled in the French naval port of Toulon for this year’s exercise Brilliant Mariner was a striking reminder that, amid much anguish over the relative health of European navies in global terms, Europe has invested in significant capabilities. Fleet numbers have certainly suffered in national terms, but collectively the capability is still impressive.

Brilliant Mariner was an overture to France taking command of the maritime component of the NATO Response Force at the beginning of 2018. A total of 27 naval units were taking part, including high-end air-defence ships and two large aviation platforms, the French ship Mistral and Spanish vessel Juan Carlos I with AV-8B jets embarked. But almost concurrently, off Scotland, the United Kingdom was also hosting the latest Joint Warrior exercise and the related naval integrated air- and missile-defence exercise Formidable Shield 2017. Here, in contrast, the US Navy was a significant core contributor, but there were notable European assets present as well.

With so much attention lately in the European theatre on the recent Russia–Belarus Zapad 2017 manoeuvres, these exercises might even be interpreted as something of a NATO naval riposte. In the context of the anti-access/area-denial challenge from Russia that is becoming an ever-greater NATO preoccupation, Formidable Shield was due to test integrated defences not only against anti-ship cruise missiles, but also a tactical ballistic-missile threat.

So far, so good. But these are flagship exercises, and hence the buy-in from participants was always likely to be impressive. Continuing to integrate European maritime capabilities on a more routine basis, including commitments to NATO’s standing maritime forces, remains more challenging. The frictions between national and multinational commitments and tasks has become so much more acute with the reduction in overall hull numbers, and that tension is unlikely to diminish.

There is a focus on task-force anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as a revived priority. In terms of renewed investments, the UK has finally begun construction of its new-generation Type-26 ASW frigates; the focus of Germany’s next major surface-combatant programme, the MKS180/F126, will be ASW; that is also likely to be the case for the new Dutch–Belgian frigate requirement; and France is upgrading the ASW capability of its Lafayette class. But numbers will remain relatively small.

Europe’s investment in high-end air-defence ships has perhaps been most striking. But leveraging that to provide a ballistic-missile-defence capability remains a painfully slow process. The US Navy still has the only actual shoot-down capability in NATO. And some of the ships in the European inventory, notably the Dutch and Spanish, are now approaching 15 years of service. Others, like the Franco-Italian Horizon programme ships and the UK’s Type 45s, are more recent. But soon thinking will have to turn to new-generation capabilities, or at least significant mid-life upgrades.

Making the most of what naval capabilities Europe already possesses, particularly its potential to field task-group-centred forces, remains challenging. But the opportunity that greater coherence and integration offers is also growing and becoming more critical as European navies weigh key capability choices – not least the UK Royal Navy (RN) as it prepares to accept its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, potentially a very significant capability in a European as well as a national or global context, but against the backdrop of extreme strains on the rest of the RN fleet.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

Back to content list