PARIS – Of Europe’s 23 naval forces, only France’s possesses a fully operational aircraft carrier, the 40,000-ton flagship Charles de Gaulle. Although the United Kingdom is currently building two carriers of its own, the Royal Navy is years away from the capability to deliver instant airpower from the sea. Nevertheless, Europe is reasonably equipped to defend itself against external threats. It is less able, however, to withstand looming budget cuts.
Europe’s maritime-security strategy has long been founded on two key tenets. First, sea-borne trade routes, which account for nearly 85% of the European Union’s total exports and imports, must be kept free and safe. And, second, European countries must maintain the capacity to deal with any major security crisis.
International events highlight these priorities’ relevance. For example, rising tensions with Iran could compel Europe to deploy its navies to form a blockade around the Persian Gulf, in order to ensure the transit of oil. Similarly, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the Indian Ocean, particularly along the coast of Somalia, threatens Europe’s maritime activities, including its extensive sea-borne commerce.
Indeed, growing concerns over piracy led to the launch in 2008 of the EU’s first naval response within the framework of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) – Operation Atalanta. The operation, held annually and comprising 5-10 combat vessels, 1-2 auxiliary ships, and 2-4 maritime-patrol aircraft, includes forces from 26 European navies, and has undoubtedly helped to discourage, if not end, pirate attacks.