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Interview by H Uwe Mergener
With his experience as Deputy Commander of NATO’s Maritime Command Northwood, Admiral Bléjean has a thorough view on Europe’s maritime capabilities. For MSD he provides an honest and in-depth assessment of EU’s military endeavours. Eying the bloc’s military operations, he considers, that member states are to take the force generation process more seriously. In terms of capability shortfalls for the EU, Admiral Bléjean stresses the need for Maritime C2, maritime interdiction operations assets, harbour protection modules and specialised diver teams. Beyond 2032, his focus is on strategic sea transport, but also on Ballistic Missile Defence, amphibious capabilities, and aircraft carriers.

He assesses the withdrawal of the UK from the EU exacerbated existing shortfalls but did not create no ones. However, EU will have to work on high readiness capabilities after Brexit.

MSD: In a recent interview, you emphasise that the EU is a maritime organisation. Which basic considerations are behind this conclusion?
Adm Bléjean: The EU has a number of strategic maritime interests related to the military aspect, which include the overall security and peace, the rule of law and freedom of navigation, the external border control and the protection of maritime infrastructures: ports and harbours, coastal protection, commercial facilities, underwater pipes and cables, offshore platforms and scientific equipment. The EU’s identity is also greatly defined by its connection to the sea. Twenty out of the 27 member states are coastal states and they rely heavily on the maritime sector both economic prosperity and for their national security.

The facts underline that (the) EU has both a very open and a very maritime economy and society.
Maritime security is a shared need for the welfare and prosperity of the EU. The seas nurture growth and render key environmental services. Their security is part of the foundation on which our society is built.
Maritime security links internal security matters to external ones. Threats are transnational and interconnected by nature and require smart solutions: no single actor can guarantee maritime security on their own.
Maritime security must be streamlined into all strategic policy areas. An integrated approach and joint response are ideal: they generate a better environment for stability and development, improving both effectiveness and efficiency.
It is then apparent to everybody that it is realistic to call EU a “maritime union”.
MSD: How can you as DGEUMS and Director MPCC contribute to strengthen this role?
Adm Bléjean: The EUMS contributes to secure the maritime security interests of the EU and its Member States against the risks and threats presented in the global maritime domain. It cooperates with civilian authorities and actors active in the domain in a cross-sectoral way; it also acts to allow for joint security contingency planning, risk management, conflict prevention and crisis response and management.
There are two active maritime operations (IRINI and ATALANTA) that bring tangible results and there are also other initiatives to which EUMS participates, as the Coordinated Maritime Presences Concept (CMP), which project the EU’s interests in important regions.
We see the need for EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to evolve from initial mandates that centred on a specific and exclusive maritime security issue (such as piracy, arms embargo or human trafficking) to a wider inclusive ‘Maritime Security Operations’ approach.

Photo 2: Operation IRINI, inspection crew preparing to board a ship as part of a routine patrol. (Photo Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, Public Information Office)

With this regards, also both IRINI and ATALANTA tasks has being adapted, to reflect the EU engagement in making the maritime environment safer.
Just recently two executive secondary tasks and four non-executive tasks have been added to Operation ATALANTA, in particular respectively counter weapons and narcotics trafficking and monitoring of illegal fishing, charcoal smuggling, weapons and narcotics trafficking, making the operation widen its scope (without diverting from the primary one, which remains still counter-piracy).
Similarly, IRINI is developing instruments to increase its cooperation with the merchant shipping community in the Central Mediterranean Sea, starting with replicating the already implemented and well-functioning Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), which helps protecting merchant shipping in the region by sharing information with registered vessels through a web based application.
EUMS is also reinforcing its technical capabilities in relation to the maritime domain and maritime information sharing. We are closely monitoring the development of Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE) and Maritime Surveillance (MARSUR).
During last year, MARSUR – a technical solution that allows dialog between European maritime information systems that aims to improve a common “Recognised Maritime Picture” by facilitating exchange of maritime information and services such as ship positions, tracks, identification data, chat or images – has been installed in EUMS, initially on lease but soon permanently. This will allow our team to have a clearer picture of the strategic maritime environment and be sure that EU policy adapt promptly and adequately to answer the stakeholders’ (our maritime communities’) needs.
Lastly, under the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) implementation plan, Council can establish a ‘Maritime Area of Interest’ (MAI) in which the EU wants to protect its maritime interests and partner with regional states as well as coordinate individual Member States’ maritime activities. To this effect, a “Maritime Area of Interest Coordination Center” (MAICC) is established within EUMS. It is centred on an EUMS Experts Cell and includes the MARSUR community active for this plan and directed by the Director of Operations in the EUMS. It has strategic oversight by a multidisciplinary ‘CMP Task Force’ with participation of different EU entities. At this moment the MAICC is conducting a pilot case, focused on coordinating the activities of EU- Member States’ military ships deployed under national flag in the Gulf of Guinea, in order to pursue EU strategic interests in the area.
Regarding MPCC’s contribution, the Council in its conclusions of 6 March 2017, agreed to establish, as a short term objective, a Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), which would be responsible at the strategic level for the operational planning and conduct of non-executive military missions, working under the political control and strategic direction of the Political and Security Committee (PSC). In the same Council Conclusions, it was decided that the Director General of the EUMS will be the Director of the MPCC and, in that capacity, will assume the functions of missions’ commander for non-executive military missions, including the three EU training missions (EUTMs) deployed in Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic, in line with the Terms of Reference for the Director of the MPCC. The current capability within the MPCC to contribute to planning and conducting maritime operations is limited due to insufficiency of expert personnel, connectivity and infrastructure. Based on the future MPCC’ review, the maritime dimension could be more efficiently included.
MSD: In your eyes, what is to be done in order to promote Europe’s maritime responsibilities?
Adm Bléjean: There are a number of issues that have to be addressed to achieve a desirable end state.
Dialogue with the stakeholders is of utmost importance as is the sharing of information. One of the latest initiatives that we promote I can mention is the “Shared Awareness and Deconfliction Mediterranean” (SHADE MED) conference, an event organised by IRINI Operational Headquarters (OHQ). It took place just few weeks ago and collected more than 250 experts and representatives from an incredibly wide spectrum of maritime domain stakeholder, from the armed forces to the coast guards of the States bordering the Mediterranean, from international institutions such as United Nations and NATO, passing through NGOs and representatives of the governments that are most interested in the Mediterranean questions. SHADE MED is a ‘spinoff’ of the SHADE series of meetings held in the Indo-Pacific, coordinating between all partners present in different maritime security operations (counter piracy, counter terrorism, counter drugs trafficking, etc…) in which Operation ATALANTA plays an important leading role.
But to be perceived as a credible security provider, the strengthening of capabilities in planning and conducting operations is fundamental.
Expand CMP across other areas of interest. In due time, after a review of the Pilot Case in the Gulf of Guinea, the CMP Concept could be implemented in other areas with EU interest (i.e. Eastern Mediterranean, Baltic, Indo-Pacific, Arctic). Prerequisite for this is the declaration of Maritime Areas of Interest, by the Council, which is anticipated to be a potentially complicated issue at the political level.
The deepening of the collaboration with the civilian missions and other actors in an integrated approach is also a need.

DGEUMS at the office, meeting with partners

Another move that can be made is the development of an EU Command and Control system oriented to the maritime domain that will incorporate all the levels of command, from the tactical to the military strategic.
Lastly, member states are to put more effort in the force generation process of the naval and maritime missions and operations and commit the necessary assets for the achievement of their mandate.
MSD: Given that NATO is also a maritime organization, how do you see the work-share once the EU would engage more in its maritime responsibilities?
Adm Bléjean: When it comes to collaboration with NATO, we have to take into account the availability of member states capabilities. Any action will be undertaken having in mind that member states have finite resources to contribute; often this is referred to as ‘a single set of forces’ for serving both organizations. Moreover, the tasks of the two organizations are different in their nature and we have to keep in mind that not all EU member states are NATO allies, and vice versa.
In any case, cooperation with NATO is fundamental, and it is covered by the EU Maritime Security Strategy principle of maritime multilateralism.
We already have frequent meetings, discussions and exchanges at staff level with our NATO counterparts (between the two Military Committees as well as from the two Directors General down to Action Officers in both Military Staffs), but there is still the need to enhance the information sharing mechanism especially in Operations. To this end, we need to find ways to overcome the obstacles which exclude specific MS from NATO intelligence. Establishing a new administrative arrangement between EU operation IRINI and NATO operation Sea Guardian in order to share information would also be for the benefit of both parts.
MSD: What kind of operations could one envisage for the EU?
Adm Bléjean: First, to continue, according to their mandate, with the current CSDP missions and operations in three continents, which are aiming at a more stable world and contributing to a safer Europe.
Second, to utilise the experience gained so far to establish new executive or non-executive CSDP operations and missions in other areas of EU interest. The transition from Operation SOPHIA to Operation IRINI was successful due to the lessons learned drawn from previous naval operations.
Third, to promote MS initiatives, under EU overarching coordination, like the recent Pilot Case of the Coordinated Maritime Presences Concept in the Gulf of Guinea. In the same spirit, in January 2020, eight EU Member States decided to give their political support to the creation of a naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz called European Maritime Surveillance Mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH). The objective is to ensure a safe navigational environment through this strategic strait by providing maritime situational awareness, coordination, and information sharing among all stakeholders. Another objective is to serve as a de-confliction mechanism to help defuse tensions in the area.
MSD: Brexit leaves the EU with a lack of maritime capabilities. How would you see the link to the United Kingdom in order to compensate raising warfighting deficits?
Adm Bléjean: It is safe to say that the void left by the United Kingdom particularly vis-à-vis the OHQ Northwood was grand, however the operation was efficiently and smoothly taken over by other contributing nations such as Spain and France with the OHQ and “Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa” (MSCHOA) respectively, and quite a while back.

With regards to assets, Spanish, Italian and French naval assets and Spanish and German maritime patrol reconnaissance aircrafts (MPRAs) where ever-present. In addition, all the participating member states and partners have kept up their commitment to keep the high and successful nature of the operation.

The above does not mean that the operation continued and will continue to operate successfully, by mitigating any lack of resources with negotiation, coordination and cooperation with the key stakeholders operating in and around the HOA.

This is a decidedly political issue in which we follow our political leadership. But we see it as essential for Europe’s (maritime) security that a close working relationship between EU’s and UK’s maritime communities continues to exist. Our Maritime economies as well as our maritime safety and security are intertwined to the point where they depend on each other. A comprehensive trade agreement between both the Union and the UK is of course of utmost importance.
MSD: Coming back to the envisaged operations for the EU, do you think, the EU could cope with these challenges?
Adm Bléjean: Yes, because…
Each EU mission works in the framework of an Integrated Approach across all relevant EU institutions, with a coherent use of all available EU instruments to enable an effective EU response. The operations and missions work in agreement and coordination with the EU Delegations in the same area and in the framework of EU regional policies, in close cooperation with EEAS and the EU Special Representative (EUSR) for that particular region.
And last but not least, we address these challenges in close cooperation with our regional and international partners. For the CMP Gulf of Guinea, for example, this is done in cooperation with the coastal states of the Gulf, within the ‘Yaoundé Code of Conduct’ Maritime Security Architecture and in close cooperation with regional organisations such as the “Economic Community of Central African States” (ECCAS) and the “Economic Community of West African States” (ECOWAS), while linking up with the US as well as the international maritime community and industry.
Over the years we have proven our capability to provide flexible instruments supporting partners in addressing security challenges, adapting to the specificities of each country/case.
We use top-down (advising, mentoring, monitoring) and bottom-up (capacity building) approaches, depending on the needs and the degree of evolvement of the supported local institution/agency.
MSD: Given PESCO and CARD, what are your expectations to enhance the EU’s maritime capabilities?
Adm Bléjean: PESCO and CARD are flipsides of the coin. They are expected to provide further understanding of the situation while identifying cooperation opportunities, with PESCO specifically aiming at the creation of a Full Spectrum Force Package.
CARD is both, an information exchange and effective decision-making platform. When it comes to Capability development, CARD identified six focus areas for which member states plans could benefit from increased cooperation. Two of them are linked, directly or indirectly, to maritime capabilities. First, European Patrol Class Surface Ship that aims at providing modular naval platforms. Enhanced Military mobility also addresses the strategic sea transport issue which is essential for future CSDP missions and operations. We know that in these fields Member states already have plans to develop their capabilities but increased cooperation in these efforts would facilitate future cooperation on the field.

Operation Irini – Joint Operational Headquarters Centocelle, Rome

On the other hand, our capability planning process, the Headline Goal Process, provided us with clear indications regarding the needs and the shortfalls faced by the EU CSDP. This is how EUMS identifies the main shortfall areas; we call them High Impact Capability Goals (HICGs). CARD allowed us to assess which of these HICGs were not sufficiently addressed by member states. CARD identified three priority areas in which there are not enough plans to acquire capabilities Power Projection, Non-kinetic Capabilities and Force Protection. Two of these are linked to maritime capabilities. Regarding Force Protection, Ballistic Missile defence and its maritime platforms will be needed to fulfil the EU CSDP Military level of Ambition. The field of Power projection includes amphibious capabilities which need further cooperation among member states but also aircraft carriers for which EU has very limited capabilities.
Then, considering PESCO, it is aiming at increasing operational involvement and capability development. The last PESCO Strategic Review repeated the need to increase contributions to current operations and to address the HICGs paving the path to a Full Spectrum Force Package.
PESCO will also bring more and more attention to contributions to current operations. When it comes to the enhancement of maritime capabilities, we must consider the current PESCO projects. These projects may facilitate training such as the EU Network of diving centres or provide new platforms like the European Patrol Corvette or new capabilities like the Maritime Unmanned Antisubmarine System which will bring new C3 systems to underwater systems.
A number of other projects are addressing maritime capabilities we could also mention the maritime semi-autonomous Systems for Mine Counter Measures, Harbour & Maritime Surveillance and Protection, the upgrade of maritime surveillance, or the Deployable Modular Underwater Intervention Capability. Other projects will support or increase the maritime domain by providing joint intelligence or bringing new C2 systems like the EU collaborative warfare project.
Many of these projects will bring new capabilities before the end of the next PESCO phase in 2025.
But in the end, examining our opportunities and challenges together through CARD developing new capabilities thanks to PESCO projects will not only facilitate cooperation in the future but also contributes to further EU own strategic and military culture.
Lastly, PESCO is an increased cooperation on Operations. In particular, the German led project “Crisis Response Operations Core” (CROC) aiming to better align our approach to and standards in Crisis Management Operations, could develop a maritime focused pillar as well.
MSD: Where would you put the priorities – in terms of operational capabilities and in terms of armament or procurement?
Adm Bléjean: Within the EUMS, we focus on operational capabilities. Armament or procurement only makes sense if they are creating operational capabilities. When we are trying to fulfil the EU Military Level of Ambition, there is no value in equipment if it is not supported by a strong organisation, served by trained personnel and ready to be deployed overseas.
When considering the military point of view, the priorities among operational capabilities are one of the main outcomes of the Headline Goal Process.
EUMS has reshaped the military capability planning process (the Head Line Goal Process) and coherently adapting it to the new EU defence initiatives as well as the corresponding NATO process (the NATO Defence Planning Process – NDPP).
As a result of these efforts, the EU is able to plan now its military capabilities with a perfectly aligned with NATO cycle in terms of time and taxonomy and has a new powerful instrument to ensure the fulfilment of its military level of ambition: The High Impact Capability Goals.
These goals define a precise path to address, in the short and medium term, the strategic gaps that the EU still has in terms of military capabilities, they inform the Capability Development Plan, their implementation is timely assessed and discussed with MS through CARD and they serve as a main benchmark for EU cooperation under the PESCO umbrella.
The 2020 Progress Catalogue (PC) provided some new insights on the most pressing capability shortfalls, the High Impact Capability Goals.
EUMS provides, through the PC, an analysis on the potential implementation of the HICG, connecting them with three main capability development courses of action “Commitment”, “Procurement” and “R&D”, being considered as a key guidance for short and medium term future MS’ capability development efforts.
In the short term, focusing on the maritime capabilities addressing the goals set by the Council for 2026, we could stress the need for maritime C2, maritime interdiction operations assets, harbour protection modules and some specialised diver teams.
In the longer term, 2032, the focus would be on strategic sea transport, naval ISR, maritime patrol but, specifically, on Ballistic missile defence, amphibious capabilities and aircraft carriers. Those last three capabilities are included in the priority areas defined by CARD evoked before: Force Protection and Power Projection.
Aircraft carriers are ambitious capabilities as they rely not only on very large and expensive ships but this capability also require large fleet of specialised airplanes, pilots, sailors and other escorting ships.
Speaking of which, the last Progress Catalogue also demonstrated that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU did not create new shortfalls but exacerbated existing ones. UK withdrew before their new aircraft carriers were commissioned, thus, not changing the number of available assets. Nonetheless, the high level of readiness shown by British Forces also increased our needs for high readiness capabilities after Brexit.
MSD: Please share with us some insights into the assessment on the document which was issued in October 2020: EU Maritime Security Strategy Action Plan?
Adm Bléjean: The main remark that I like to note is the significance the member states that contributed to the report and EU institutions, put on maritime security.
Moreover, the efforts to promote linkages between maritime security and development policy are noted as also the activities to prevent and disrupt maritime illicit activities, where military naval operations had a key role.

Adm Bléjean arriving on the deck of a Spanish ship

Interoperability was promoted by cooperating with non-EU countries and with NATO entities.
Naval operations in place took advantage of developments as the “Geospatial Information to Support decision-Making in Operations” project (“GISMO GeoHub”), implemented by EDA.
I also have to note that the implementation of the action plan has started to benefit from several EU defence initiatives, notably the coordinated annual review on defence (CARD); the permanent structured cooperation (PESCO); the European Defence Fund (and its precursor programs).
The current report gives a more complete picture of the efforts made across the EU to consolidate maritime security.
The international cooperation chapter of the action plan benefited from the sustained and complementary commitments of EU institutions, EU agencies, and MS on global maritime security. CSDP naval missions and operations have continued to play an essential role in the EU’s external action on maritime security.
In the area of maritime awareness, the report reflected efforts made by MS authorities to complement their maritime-surveillance picture by accessing information already existing in other national and European surveillance systems. Among the ongoing activities aiming to improve maritime awareness, the CISE transitional phase is considered as having a suitable approach to guarantee complementarity of information exchange between different EU and MS maritime-surveillance systems.
The report shows that competent EU and MS maritime authorities are determined to increase their risk assessment and management capacity, seeking to ensure the resilience of critical maritime infrastructure, the security of the supply chain and the protection of external maritime borders. To this end, efforts have focused on consolidating the capacity to address cyber/hybrid threats, climate challenges and maritime environmental disasters.
Finally, this report contains also a new dedicated section that details substantive achievements in civil-military cooperation across sectors and borders.
Admiral, merci beaucoup.