NATO’s fight against Somali pirates: the end of an unsung success story

Christian Bueger, Cardiff University

Last week operation ‘Ocean Shield’ terminated ending NATO’s six year mission to protect the sea lanes of Western Indian Ocean. Will the world miss the operation? Most likely not. Ocean Shields was one of the so-called “big three” missions fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia. Working hand in hand with the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces and the European Union’s EUNAVFOR Atalanta, the operation was a vital part of the fight against Somali piracy, with more than successful results. Since 2012 no ships or hostages were taken by the Somali pirates and no major incident has been reported. With more than four years without a major piracy incident, it is logical to wrap up.

But this unique and very successful experiment should teach us a lesson. Operation Ocean Shields stands for nothing less than a revolution in how NATO carries out operations in collaboration with others. The alliance worked, for the first time, closely not only with the European Union and the navies of Russia, China and Japan, but also the private sector. Substantial synergies were reached through this collaboration. Moreover, Ocean Shields, reminds us that NATO is in its essence a maritime organization. It is an invaluable mechanism ready to respond to any crises at sea. As NATO leaves the Western Indian Ocean theatre, and becomes more active in tackling the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, it is important to capture the core lessons of Ocean Shields. How did it succeed?

The Piracy Mission

NATO was ready when others were not. In 2008 the international community faced an escalation of attacks off the coast of Somalia. The UN Security Council declared piracy to be a threat to international peace and security. Resolution 1816 called upon states to protect international shipping from piracy. Very soon after NATO rolled out its first operation ‘Allied Provider’. The operation was meant to be temporary. The European Union announced its willingness to organize a naval operation to replace the force. Soon, it became clear that it took the European longer to become operational. In consequence, NATO launched its second mission, ‘Allied Protector’. Once EUNAVFOR was in place NATO decided to continue its work in counter-piracy. Operation Ocean Shields was born because it became obvious that EUNAVFOR forces were insufficient to deal with the ongoing crisis. Piracy attacks continued to escalate and hundreds of seafarers were held hostage. The alliance is an invaluable crisis response force at sea. Maintaining this capacity will continue to be vital.

Cooperation in fighting pirates

NATO achieved synergies by working with others. The big three naval operations started to work on common operational plans to maximize the effect of each operations. Ocean Shields was crucial in introducing a series of coordination mechanisms. Those were informal and did not imply a common command structure. The first one was the so-called Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) meetings held in Bahrain. SHADE offered a mechanism not only to deconflict, but also to improve and share tactics. It was the key catalyst for introducing a transit corridor for shipping in the Gulf of Aden and minimizing the response time to incident reports. Through the informality of SHADE common operational planning across organizations and mandates became possible. Soon after, other states operating independently, such as China, Indian, Japan, Russia, India and South Korea, joined SHADE and cooperated closely with NATO. SHADE was also the basis for launching an electronic information sharing platform. The so-called Mercury system –known as the “Facebook of counter-piracy” – allowed the real-time exchange of the positions of assets and the speedy dissemination of incident reports. Informality and new information sharing technology provided the basis for achieving synergies across mandates and organizations.

Working with the Private Sector

NATO also learns how to work with private actors. A close everyday coordination of navies was one of the core success factors in containing piracy. The story would be incomplete without considering the role of the private sector. For the first time in history, the alliance cooperated closely with industry actors and the core vehicle was NATO’s Shipping Centre. The centre was vital in informing the shipping industry about the evolving nature of the piracy threat and the consequences for business. It was also instrumental in working towards a common set of measures known as the best management practices to deter Somali piracy. That allowed reducing the response time to piracy attacks, but also improving the monitoring of piracy activity. Seeing the private sector as a partner and communicating closely was vital factor of success.

NATO’s Maritime Future

If some risk of piracy off the coast of Somalia will remain, pirate gangs unlikely go back to big business. Ocean Shields is not needed any more. NATO will not send out a counter-piracy operation in the near future. The 2014 Wales Summit declaration clearly emphasized that efforts should focus at the high end spectrum of tasks. The ongoing discussion how the alliance will support the fight against human trafficking in the Mediterranean however signals the opposite: NATO will continue to contribute to the fight against organized crime at sea. In the Mediterranean we see an evolving architecture that takes core lessons from counter-piracy on board. Recently a mechanism similar to SHADE was created for the region. NATO has also announced that it will continue some of the counter-piracy activities. The Shipping Centre will continue its vital work in institutionalizing the dialogue with the shipping community and the organization will continue to participate in counter-piracy meetings such as SHADE.

The lessons from Ocean Shields, however, go well beyond maritime operations. They concern how the alliance can contribute to an international coalition, how it can advance its goals through informal mechanisms, and how it can collaborate better with the industry. These lessons will not only be important in emerging areas of security, such as cyber security, but also in more conventional operations that require military collaboration beyond immediate alliance members. The success in beating piracy moreover sends us an optimistic reminder that the alliance is not only a deterrent, but one of the cornerstones of the global common security architecture.

References and Further Reading

Bueger, Christian. 2015. Learning from Piracy: Future Challenges of Maritime Security Governance, Global Affairs 1(1), 33-42, 2015, doi: 10.1080/23340460.2015.960170,

Gebhard, Carmen, and Simon J Smith. 2015. “The Two Faces of EU-NATO Cooperation: Counter-Piracy Operations off the Somali Coast.” Cooperation and Conflict 50(1): 107–27.

Gebhard, Carmen, And Simon J. Smith. 2014. Beyond Rivalry: EU-NATO Cooperation in Counter-Piracy Operations,

Houben, Marcus. 2014. Operational coordination of naval operations and capacity building, in “The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS). A Lessons Learnt Compendium”, edited by Thierry Tardy, Paris: EU Institute for Security Studies.

Percy, Sarah. 2016. Counter-Piracy in the Indian Ocean: A New Form of Military Cooperation, Journal of Global Security Studies,

Riddervold, Marianne. 2014. Who needs NATO to fight Pirates? Why Europe launched EU Counter-Piracy Mission Atalanta,