Today, 95% of global tradable goods by volume and about 80% of global hydrocarbons are transported by sea. In addition, as the cyber domain of economic trade and especially the so-called internet of things keeps on growing in our lives, 95% of internet traffic and communications move through submarine cables. Finally, a full 80% of marine traffic passes through eight critical choke points, three of which are critical to NATO, the European Union and Italy: the Bosphorus Strait, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.

In the next decades, global population will be urban, littoral, and connected – already approximately 80% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coastline, and a full 75% of the world’s major cities are littoral.[1] For the near future these numbers are expected to double. The evolving characteristics of the globalization process has created a number of asymmetric and hybrid challenges also for the Mediterranean basin. As a result of these trends, the Mediterranean Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), ports and other critical infrastructure, located in constrained environment, will increasingly be exposed to illegal actors like terrorists, pirates, or organized criminals.[2] Nowadays, the old concept of “good order at sea,” which was limited to the conventional perception of threats and security in the maritime domain, has evolved into the broader acceptation of “maritime security”.[3]

The Mediterranean basin is a geographic area that encompasses more than 22 maritime States. Defined as intercontinental sea, the Mediterranean is located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, and covers an area of approximately 2.5 million square kilometres. Around 480 million people inhabit the States bordering these important waters.[4] Over the centuries, its geographical position has progressively turned the Mediterranean into a real way of communication, as well as an essential element in exchanging goods and services. With the delocalization of productive centres in Asia and the Pacific region, the Mediterranean has become a crucial node, linking the commercial routes from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. In fact about 19 to 20% percent of the World Maritime traffic of goods and passengers transit in the Mediterranean basin. Moreover 30% of world oil and about 2/3 of other energy resources allocated to Italy and to European countries transit in this sea. The so-called Mare Nostrum came to be an important point for long-range intermodal transportation, which resulted in stealing big market shares from the Northern European historical ports.[5] Thanks to the economic progress made by the littoral states, especially those of Maghreb area, the number of containers handled in the Mediterranean area is expected to rise in the near future. As an example, 17 million TEU are estimated to be in transit in the various ports of the Mediterranean in 2017.[6] Among the historical and extremely important ports are Port Said (Egypt), Gioia Tauro (Italy), Tangiers (Morocco) and Algeciras (Spain).[7]

In particular, the maritime trade has always been strategic for Italy. In fact the lack of raw materials has always pushed Italy to look for trading partners, wherever those may be. The imported raw materials are first consumed inside the country and the remaining part is sold again in the international market. As a result, the free movement of goods by sea is a strategic component for  Italian economic and national security. This is true not only for Italy but for most of other European countries.

States have always invested significant political, diplomatic and military resources to ensure the flow of commerce; operational strategies are primed to ensure the trade flows and the protection of the sea lines of communication. Likewise, given the global importance of maritime trade, countries pay great attention to both understanding maritime security and responding to its emerging challenges and threats.[8]

But what is maritime security or, to better say, what kind of threats are comprised and included inside the notion of maritime security? This is a hard question to be answered due to the fact that there is no clear and broader accepted definition of the concept and as a result, every agency or actor identify its “own” threats related to the maritime environment.

In 2008 the UN Secretary General’s Report on Oceans and the law of the Seas indicated the threats commonly included in most of maritime security strategies. Those threats are: piracy and armed robbery, terrorist acts, the illicit trafficking in arms and weapons of mass destruction, the illicit trafficking in narcotics, smuggling and trafficking of persons by the sea, illegal unreported and unregulated fishing and international and unlawful damage to the maritime environment.[9]

In Italy, the first line of defence over the seas is guaranteed by the Italian Navy, the Marina Militare Italiana. The primary duties of the navy are military and they are:

  • the defence of Italian national waters and the related safeguard of national interests beyond the territorial waters;
  • the maritime defence of EU and NATO territories;
  • the participation in crisis management, national and multinational operations abroad;
  • the contrast to illegal trafficking and
  • the clearance of sea bottoms from dangerous devices.

Alongside those “classic” duties, due to the change of the maritime security scenario over the past years, the Italian Navy has been progressively tasked with new missions. In particular, the inherent flexibility of naval platforms has demonstrated its importance during the “migrants emergency”,stressing the European and the NATO capability of  protecting human lives at sea.[10] But one word has definitely became a must in the new platforms that are entering in service: dual-use. It means that technologies and units of the Italian Navy can be deployed for military uses as well as civil ones. Indeed most units of the Italian Navy are designed to be “dual use,” as result ships can perform different types of duties, such as medical assistance in case of natural disasters, humanitarian aid, exit strategies from areas at risk (NEO operations) or in general to become a flexible rescue and help hub able to work and perform its task far away from grounded infrastructures[11], as it is for example for the biggest naval platforms, such as ITS Cavour, or the future LHD project and the future PPA vessels. Furthermore, the Marina Militare is deeply involved in the fight against asymmetric threats, like international terrorism,  within the NATO mission named Active Endeavour, part of  a broader maritime security operation called Operation Sea Guardian and the national one named Mare Sicuro, patrolling the central Mediterranean sea. Highly specialized and trained sailors of COMSUBIN and Brigata Marina San Marco are able to conduct the anti-IED, anti and counter-terrorism missions in the maritime environment.

The security of the Mediterranean is not only important for Italy but also for the other States that look out to this important sea. One of the main reasons is that all the events that take place in the maritime domain are interdependent, interrelated and crossed-border by nature and most important is to note that what happens in the maritime domain influence, most of time, events on the land and vice versa.[12] Thus enhancing and cooperating with the other navies of the Mediterranean States is the key to improve the security of the entire geopolitical region. The Marina Militare often participates and promotes multilateral exercises and events aimed to improve the maritime security; moreover the Navy is a prime actor in transferring the know-how in its possess to the other States, in order to improve their patrolling and surveillance capabilities paying a special attention on Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO) and counter-terrorism (CT) activities.

In order to fulfil all of these tasks the Navy has begun an important modernizing and reforming process characterized by the introduction of new and more capable vessels (thanks to a special law named “Legge Navale”). A military assisted approach is a key enabler that has to be further developed and expanded, due to the fact that it’s able to share the best practice at the international level and to let the less performing States with only a few and old patrol vessels and poorly trained personnel to acquire and enrich their military skills especially in a difficult scenario such as the maritime one.

An enrichment of military and security capabilities that also goes through a better share of intelligence information, and the Italian Navy will be in the future an even more important milestone of the security of the Mediterranean with its new naval platforms, able to significantly improve the overall situational awareness over and also under the sea of the Mare Nostrum.

Michele Taufer

Military Analist


[1] Madeleine Moon, NATO AND THE FUTURE ROLE OF NAVAL POWER DRAFT REPORT, Rapporteur Sub-Committee on Future Security and Defence Capabilities, NATO, April 2016.

[2] NATO, Prospective Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters, Centre of Excellence For Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters, 2015

[3] Michele Taufer, The evolution of Maritime Security in the Mediterranean Sea: Past, Present and Future Perspectives, Quarterly Journal of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, Winter 2015.

[4] www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/countries/mediterranean

[5] An example of this is the fact that the maritime component of the new “Silk Road”, proposed by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, will have as its final landing in the port of Venice (Italy) and one of its key junctions is the port of Piraeus, in Greece.

[6] Today, much of the intercontinental sea cargo travels in containers. This has eased handling whilst increasing intermodal operations. TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit) is the unit for measuring the capacity of a container, container ship, a container terminal and the statistics of the container transit in a port. A forty-foot container is regarded as two twenty-foot containers or 2 TEUs.

[7] Michele Taufer, The evolution of Maritime Security in the Mediterranean Sea: Past, Present and Future Perspectives, Quarterly Journal of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, Winter 2015.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N08/266/26/PDF/N0826626.pdf?OpenElement

[10] Good examples are both OPERATION SOPHIA and the NATO deployment of SNMG2 in the Aegean Sea started with the goal to efforts to cut the lines of human trafficking and illegal migration.

[11] Italian Navy website www.marina.difesa.it/EN/facts/dual_use/Pagine/default.aspx

[12] Venice Regional Seapower Symposium, Final Recommendations, 2012.