COLOGNE, Germany – Senior navy leaders from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands signed a pact on Thursday placing a renewed focus on the English Channel as a key strategic region for NATO.
The agreement effectively re-awakens the dormant “Channel Committee” of the Cold War, which formed the alliance's braintrust for defending the sea lane connecting the North Sea to the Atlantic. The move follows a pattern of recent naval strategizing by European nations to fortify their territorial waters against a hypothetical incursion by Russia.
Channel Committee member nations pledge to “harmonize” their naval acquisition plans, possibly to the point of common procurement, the declaration text reads. Countries also want to ramp up the level of their personnel exchanges and joint training, and move toward honoring service members' professional qualifications across the group.
“The Channel area is the front door to Central Europe and an important gate to the Baltic Sea,” the text states. “It is the critical choke point for the maritime traffic between the United Kingdom and continental Europe.”
The German navy has previously set its sights on the Baltic Sea as a potential theater of operations that warrants greater emphasis. Membership in the Channel Committee essentially ensures that both bodies of water that touch Germany, east and west of Denmark, come with some type of naval advocacy.
“For Germany, it's important to not just be associated with the Baltic Sea,” said Sebastian Bruns, who heads the Center for Maritime Strategy and Security at the University of Kiel in northern Germany.
What is yet to come, he said, is formulating naval aspirations that go beyond the country’s immediate neighborhood, namely the Indo-Pacific.
But first, officials here should work to explain their CHANCOM vision and fill out the largely symbolic declaration with a more concrete work program, Bruns said. That goes especially for NATO, where leaders may need help understanding the utility of the patchwork approach to naval theaters.
Almost as a side effect, having the U.K.’s Royal Navy onboard means maintaining another military link to London in a post-Brexit future, an objective that German officials have been pushing hard publicly and behind the scenes.