The Militarization of the North Sea

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - Alongside the militarization of the Baltic Sea region, NATO is beginning to reestablish military structures around the English Channel and the North Sea. At the annual meeting within the framework of the NATO Channel Committee (CHANCOM) recently held in Hamburg, the five riparian states signed a declaration on the further enhancement of their naval cooperation. According to the German Navy, which participated at the meeting, the establishment of a regional NATO command for the North Sea region, analogous to the war alliance's Baltic Maritime Component Command (BMCC) in Rostock, was also in discussion. The maritime route from the Atlantic through the English Channel to the Baltic Sea, via the North Sea is the main route for US troops coming to Europe. This is why the region has regained strategic importance, since NATO has intensified its confrontation against Russia. Civilian ports along the transatlantic route are also to be integrated, including Hamburg and Bremerhaven.

Origin in the Cold War

CHANCOM (Channel Committee) is a left-over of the Allied Command Channel, one of the three major NATO Commands during the Cold War. Created in 1952 and in 1966 headquartered in Northwood (Great Britain), it bore responsibility for the English Channel and the North Sea. The maritime route through the English Channel, then on to Antwerp (Belgium), Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Bremerhaven (FRG) had been a major supply route for the USA and Great Britain in a possible war with the Warsaw Treaty countries. During the block confrontation period, this region was therefore of strategic importance to NATO. With maritime patrol aircraft, combat aircraft and mine countermeasures vessels, the "Standing Naval Force Channel" was subordinate to the Allied Command Channel. At the time, the navy of the Federal Republic of Germany had furnished one of the mine hunters.

Transformation Following 1990

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region temporarily lost its strategic importance and, in 1994, NATO dissolved the Allied Command Channel, downgrading it to CHANCOM, an advisory body of admirals from Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, in this framework, the annual meetings offered the allied naval forces the possibility of maintaining contact and exchanging information. In the meantime, Italy, Portugal and Spain have been given observer status at CHANCOM. In addition to these regular meetings, joint military training programs, with German troops participating, are being organized, as well as bilateral cooperation such as the development of a Franco-German maritime patrol aircraft.[1]

Choke Point on the Atlantic Bridge

As previously with the Baltic Sea region, NATO has also restored the old Cold War significance to the area of the North Sea and the English Channel through its continued escalation of the conflict with Russia, which, since 2014, has become blatant after decades of eastward expansion. In this conflict, both regions - the Baltic Sea, as well as the area around the Channel and the North Sea - have geostrategic significance to NATO. The Channel is considered a "critical choke point" on the way from the USA to Europe. This is decisive, because in the event of a NATO military conflict with Russia, US troops would be brought across the Atlantic to Europe. To push further eastward, they must either pass through the English Channel or through the so-called GIUK Gap (between Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom). Thereafter, the troops must cross the North Sea, to either land in a Central European port and continue eastward overland, or sail directly to Poland or to the Baltic to land at the Russian border. The entire region is a dangerous choke point for NATO's supply troops, where they would be vulnerable to submarines and naval mines. It has become even more dangerous since the cold war, given the fact that entire divisions can be accommodated on a single ship. A well-placed shot from the Russian side could put tens of thousands of NATO soldiers out of commission before they ever even reach Europe.[2] Next year, NATO will exercise precisely this transit of supplies to Europe with its gigantic Defender 2020 maneuver. ( reported.[3])

In Peace and in War

The region, however, is not only relevant to NATO for direct military strategic reasons. Particularly its European members are highly dependent economically on these "immensely important" regional maritime routes, according to the Navy.[4] Military vessels are not the only ships that must transit through the choke point between Great Britain and France on their way to Europe. The European merchant marines' ships also transit on a daily basis "the pulsating artery of Europe's trade with the world," according to the German Navy.[5] With Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and Bremerhaven, the four largest European ports are situated within CHANCOM's area of responsibility. These ports are of prime strategic significance in times of peace - but also "in times of crisis and war."[6] In times of peace, containers are being transshipped and in times of war, soldiers and combat machinery.

"Intensify Military Cooperation"

The recent CHANCOM meeting on November 7/8 in Hamburg was anything but the usual annual routine. The commanders of the five naval forces signed a declaration "on the further enhancement of CHANCOM relations in the area of naval cooperation."[7] They seek to "intensify" their military cooperation "at all levels." The existing cooperation should be enhanced and consolidated, exchange and training programs for soldiers should be expanded and knowledge and information more widely shared. The Admirals also demand to "better harmonize" capability building to facilitate the future implementation of common procurement and joint military action. Changes in Europe's strategic situation are the vague justification for expanding military cooperation: "State and non-state actors are increasingly challenging" European democracies. According to the German Navy, the admirals also discussed to what extent the "Baltic Sea initiative" could be repeated in the North Sea region.[8] They are referring to the continued militarization process in the Baltic Sea region since 2014, which has currently culminated in the establishment of a NATO naval command for the Baltic Sea region in Rostock.[9]

A Signal in the Direction of Russia

By signing the Hamburg declaration, NATO gave the go-ahead for the North Sea region's militarization. It is a clear signal in the direction of Moscow. NATO and Germany are pursuing the collision course. With the establishment of the Baltic Maritime Component Command in Rostock, Germany has become a driving force in the Baltic Sea's militarization process. Berlin has thus succeeded in expanding its strategic position as a "hub" in the conflict with Russia and in strengthening its standing in the global power constellation. It remains to be seen, whether Germany will be able to stage a repeat performance in a "North Sea initiative."


[1] CHANCOM 2019: Admiralsgremium setzt auf Neustart. 07.11.2019.

[2] Rowan Allport: Fire and Ice. A New Maritime Strategy for NATO's Northern Flank. Human Security Centre. London, December 2018.

[3] See also Testing the Mobilization against the East (I).

[4], [5], [6] CHANCOM 2019 - Frischer Wind für ein strategisches Seegebiet. Presse- und Informationszentrum Marine 28.10.2019. Vgl. auch: Wachsamkeit im Kanal. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 07.11.2019.

[7], [8] Erklärung über die Erweiterung der CHANCOM-Beziehungen im Bereich der maritimen Kooperation. 07.11.2019.

[9] Merle Weber: Die Militarisierung der Ostsee. Die NATO und das Marinekommando in Rostock. 18.10.2019. See also Die Schaltzentrale für Ostseekriege and Leadership Claims at the "Wet Flank".