Mediterranean Security: Operations Irini, Sea Guardian and Mediterraneo Sicuro

  • Dr. Maurizio Geri
    Freelance researcher, former NATO analyst, EU Marie Curie Fellow 2024-2026, Brussels, Belgium
Foreign Policy & International Relations

Mediterranean Security: Operations Irini, Sea Guardian and Mediterraneo Sicuro


Geographically, the Mediterranean is a crucial sea, as it is not only a “sea among lands” but a “sea among oceans”. It is at the center of a relatively volatile regional context, but at the same time, it is a crucial passage of goods and people. If we consider that the Suez Canal and Gibraltar Strait connect the Indo-Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean through the Mediterranean Sea, we can see the strategic importance of this Sea for global trade and international commerce. The Mediterranean Sea also has a crucial role at the geopolitical and global security level, with its connection to the Red Sea – an area of conflict and instability – and especially given that it connects with the Black Sea through the Bosporus Strait; with the current Russian aggression in Ukraine, there is a risk of escalation at the regional level. Politically speaking, the great power competition and regional rivalries can potentially lead to instability in the Mediterranean Sea region, which could extend to the global level.

Russia’s presence with its military base in Tartus (Syria), the reignition of its role in the war in Syria[1] supported by Iran,[2] and the increasing presence of the Wagner group in Libya,[3] is giving rise to the expansion of Russian military power in the region. Furthermore, Russia’s meddling in Africa is exacerbating conflicts – as we have recently seen in Sudan – and its weaponization of migration from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is a deliberate attempt to overwhelm and destabilize Europe.[4] At the same time, China’s increased presence in the area,[5] with infrastructure diplomacy on both shores of the Mediterranean, makes the region a hotspot of great power competition. The regional powers – in particular Turkey, Israel and Egypt – have been balancing between competition and cooperation in the areas of energy, development and security. Depending on their grand and regional strategies, these powers may make the Mediterranean region an area for potential agreements and grand bargains[6] or may engage in major conflict to protect or advance their national interests. One recent example of conflict among regional powers is the East Med Pipeline deal, in which Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus excluded Turkey, and which led to Turkey and Libya signing a pact on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea.[7]

Economically, the Mediterranean has significant volumes of oil and gas passing through its waters and the region is fundamental for global trade, as trade flows within the region account for 25% of all international seaborne trade.[8] Economic-related activities in the Mediterranean generate around US$450 billion every year, representing approximately 20% of the global annual Gross Marine Product (GMP), in an area which makes up only 1% of the world’s ocean.[9] These activities are constantly expanding and so it is becoming increasingly crucial to ensure the security of all trade exchanges and also of the underwater energy pipelines (in particular the Green Stream and Trans-Mediterranean pipelines between Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Italy, as well as the EastMed pipeline – currently under construction) and all the internet cables in the Mediterranean seabed.

Furthermore, climate change, coupled with resource scarcity and the demographic explosion in Africa, will potentially create a lot of instability in the area, with the prospect of mass migrations across Mediterranean shores, radicalization of young people in underdeveloped areas by terrorist groups, emergence of new water conflicts, and disruptions to food supply chains. Thus, the security of this area is becoming critical. At the security level, the most urgent challenges are the rampant criminal activities taking place in the Mediterranean, from drugs and weapons smuggling to human trafficking.

Over the past few years, there have been efforts by both the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to ensure maritime security and safety in the Mediterranean. Europe has the second largest costal territory in the world, with seaborne trade and maritime dependent industries being a major source of its economic development.[10] In 2014, the EU adopted the European Union Maritime Security Strategy (EUMSS) to ensure free, safe and open seas in the Mediterranean,[11] which the EU updated in March 2023 to safeguard the maritime domain against new threats, particularly geopolitical competition as well as hybrid and cyber-attacks.[12] The updated EUMSS also calls for deepening EU-NATO cooperation and stepping up cooperation with all relevant international partners to uphold the rules-based order at sea, notably the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). At the operational level, through increased Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) operations, and European Defence Agency (EDA) capability development projects and programs, the EU has developed over the last years the operational expertise and technical capability to deal with maritime security issues.

On the other front, in 2011, NATO adopted the Alliance Maritime Strategy, which identifies four maritime roles for the Alliance: deterrence and collective defence, crisis management, cooperative security, and maritime security.[13] NATO also has Standing Naval Forces, which provide the Alliance with a maritime capability that can be rapidly deployed in times of crisis. Furthermore, NATO’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities increase situational awareness in the air, on land and at sea, in particular in the Mediterranean region.[14]

Currently, there are two operations that are active in the Mediterranean, namely the EU Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) Irini and NATO Sea Guardian. In addition to these, the Italian Mediterraneo Sicuro (Safe Mediterranean) is also considered an important operation – given Italy’s location in the center of the Mediterranean Sea – and is gaining increasing significance with the expansion of its mission.


EUNAVFOR MED IRINI was launched in March 2020 (recently extended by the EU Council to March 2025[15]) to support the implementation of the United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Libya, under the umbrella of the EU’s CSDP.[16] Operation IRINI succeeded Operation Sophia, which was established in an effort to crackdown on migrant smugglers and traffickers, following the 2015 migrant crisis.[17] The operation  also has secondary tasks, which include preventing the smuggling of fuel from Libya through monitoring and surveillance; disrupting the network of human smugglers and traffickers; and providing capacity building and training support to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy (though this has yet to start due to a political deadlock).[18] It employs different military assets to include frigates, submarines, long-range surveillance aircraft, small patrol vessels and light aircraft, manned by 23 member states, with Italy and Greece sending the biggest contingency.

Operation IRINI has performed almost 9,000 hailings (investigations of merchant vessels through requests of information via radio calls), over 400 friendly approaches (consensual visits to obtain more information), and 25 unopposed boardings (which include military procedures to inspect a vessel’s cargos).[19] IRINI has also submitted 41 impartial reports on the Libyan conflict to the UN Panels of Experts and flagged until now 16 ports and oil facilities, 25 airports and landing strips, and more than 1000 flights suspected of transporting military cargos to and from Libya.[20]

It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of these actions in reducing arms smuggling, as instability in Libya continues, with criminal activities and human trafficking still a problem in the Mediterranean. Providing support for the Libyan Coast Guard, unlike in Operation Sophia,[21] has proved impossible until now due to lack of agreement with the Libyan government,[22] despite the 2013 EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM) agreement that was aimed at supporting the Libyan authorities in developing border management and security at the country’s land, sea and air borders.[23]

Nevertheless, as Commander Cathal Power, Deputy Chief of Staff Operations, pointed out: “IRINI is one essential component of an all-encompassing process to support the EU’s and the international community’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to seek a permanent political solution to the Libyan crisis.”[24] Another problem is that questions have been raised as to the aims of Operation IRINI and the extent to which they are achievable.[25] One main feature of military operations is that the military follow the “Command and Control” structure, which is the exercise of authority and direction over assigned resources in the accomplishment of a common goal. Based on the military strategy of Ends–Ways–Means,[26] if ends (goals) are vague and ways (directions and actions) are unclear, the means (resources) cannot be fully and effectively used. Therefore, one important step could be for the ministries of defense of the participating countries to ask the EU for a more defined mission, which could ensure more concrete results, but maybe with lower expectations, given that it is difficult to fulfill at the same time all the primary (arms embargo) and secondary goals of the mission (preventing the smuggling of fuel from Libya, disrupting the network of human smugglers and traffickers, and providing capacity building and training support to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy).

On the other side, EU agencies have been expanding collaboration with IRINI. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex, for example, decided in 2021 to expand its cooperation with IRINI to address security issues in the Central Mediterranean region, by providing information gathered through the agency’s risk analysis activities as well as data from its aerial surveillance in the region.[27] Other partners, mostly for information sharing, include the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (EUROPOL), European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (EUROJUST), European Union Satellite Center (EU SatCen), International Criminal Court (ICC), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), and United States Africa Command (AFRICOM). However, cooperation between IRINI and NATO – which is currently heading the Sea Guardian operation in the Mediterranean – has been limited.[28] This is largely due to the absence of an agreement between the two sides at the outset, unlike Operation Sophia to which the Alliance had committed its support. Although cooperation has improved over the last two years, more can be done. In brief, IRINI can be considered an important and moderately successful EU operation, though the EU and NATO should cooperate more closely if they are to support the stabilization of Libya.

NATO Sea Guardian

Sea Guardian is a NATO mission in the Mediterranean, which was launched in November 2016 with the goal of supporting maritime situational awareness, countering maritime terrorism, and contributing to capacity-building missions.[29] Operation Sea Guardian, which succeeded Operation Active Endeavour launched in 2001, also includes other tasks such as enabling freedom of navigation, conducting maritime interdiction operations, countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and protecting critical infrastructure. It is led by the NATO Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM) in Northwood, United Kingdom.

Again, as with the EU’s Operation IRINI, the goals are big, many, and difficult to evaluate. However, a crucial role of Operation Sea Guardian is Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). In 2022, for example, the Task Group of the operation concluded six maritime security patrols in Central Mediterranean, which were supported by NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance (NAGS). Recently, the second maritime focus patrol of 2023, gathered pattern of life information and developed Maritime Situational Awareness (MSA) in the Adriatic and Central Mediterranean Sea, with Maritime Patrol Aircraft and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft from Greece, Italy and Turkey supporting both the Croatian Navy, who led the Task Group, and the Albanian navy ship, which joined Operation Sea Guardian for the first time.[30] However, it is difficult to evaluate, for example, the effectiveness of capacity building missions – given the current situation in the Mediterranean – despite the number of important exercises carried out at sea, such as that with the Egyptian navy, which concluded the Sea Guardian Task Group’s sixth focused maritime security patrol at the end of 2022.[31]

Furthermore, as mentioned above, Operation Sea Guardian has additional tasks such as countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and protecting critical energy infrastructures. The latter is of great significance given that the Mediterranean is home to a number of energy pipelines that could easily come under threat in the event of hybrid warfare – especially with the war in Ukraine, which exposes the Mediterranean to more threats than before. In fact, the maritime dimension of the Ukrainian crisis stretches from the Baltic Sea and the North Sea to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Thus, the EU and NATO should be on alert and be quick to reassess their operations and escalate the level of action, in case of a spillover in the Mediterranean area.

Italian Mediterraneo Sicuro

In August 2022, Italy changed the name of its maritime surveillance operation Mare Sicuro (Safe Sea) – launched in March 2015 – to Mediterraneo Sicuro (Safe Mediterranean),[32] in line with the country’s 2022 Security and Defense Strategy for the Mediterranean,[33] thus expanding its surveillance operations on a strategic, operative and tactical level. This saw the enlargement of its area of operation from 160,000 square kilometers to 2,000,000 square kilometers, to include most of the international waters of the Mediterranean Sea, allowing the operation to deploy up to six ships and submarines, with the support of Navy and Air Force aircrafts.[34]

The goals of the Mediterraneo Sicuro mission are the protection of transportation and trade lines; protection of national ships; collection of information related to terrorism and illicit trafficking; surveillance and protection of oil platforms and Italian fishing fleets; and control of underwater space. Since 2018, the mission has expanded to include support to the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy in countering illegal immigration and human trafficking. Mediterraneo Sicuro reflects the importance of the Mediterranean region to Italy – which considers itself a medium-sized power with strong maritime links – and its commitment to maritime security, thus the country’s call for more synergy with allied navies operating in the Mediterranean region, particularly those of NATO and the EU.

NATO already has a presence in Italy with its Allied Joint Force Command Naples (JFCNP), within which “the Southern Hub was established to boost vigilance and coordinate Allied maritime operations in the region.”[35] The JFCNP also works to increase NATO’s understanding of the regional dynamics in the MENA region as well as other southern areas, such as the Sahel and Africa in general. This illustrates NATO’s interest in Mediterranean security and the importance of strengthening cooperation and coordination between Italy, NATO and other EU operations in the region.

At the SHADE MED 2022 Conference held in Rome, head of the Maritime Planning and Policy of the General Staff of the Italian Navy, Admiral Maximilian Lauretti, pointed out that Mediterraneo Sicuro was a “security provider” not only for the Mediterranean region, but also for world trade routes, and that it was “working together with other agencies and organizations” to combat illicit activities in the region.[36] However, Italy could strengthen collaboration further and also involve other NATO allies and regional powers of the Mediterranean, such as Turkey, which could prove crucial not only in the fight against terrorism and human trafficking, but also for the current situation in Ukraine.


The EU attaches great importance to the security of the Mediterranean Sea, as the stability of the continent depends on the stability of that Sea. NATO’s choice of the southern Italian city of Taranto as its headquarters for the Alliance’s Multinational Maritime Command for the South, which will oversee the Mediterranean region,[37] also illustrates the importance the Alliance gives to the security of this crucial “sea among lands” and “sea among oceans.” However, to ensure a more secure Mediterranean, the EU needs to further strengthen its collaboration with NATO and work more synergistically with other operations, as the security challenges are complex and interrelated. This is particularly important given the increasing threat posed by Russian vessels navigating in the Mediterranean waters.

Recently, Rear Admiral Frumento, the commander of Operation Mediterraneo Sicuro, highlighted that the Italian Navy is moving “in a fully synergistic context with the other Allied Navies operating in the Mediterranean and with all the other operations,” namely IRINI, Sea Guardian, and an even more important one by the name of Nobel Shield, which has a US aircraft carrier, the Bush, permanently stationed in the Mediterranean.[38]

Operations IRINI, Sea Guardian, and Mediterraneo Sicuro have been instrumental, to some extent, in deterring illicit activities and ensuring safe passage to vessels. However, although the EU, NATO, and Italy are very much interested in the security of the Mediterranean region, their actions might fall short of what is needed for the stabilization of the area, thus more concerted efforts are required as well as a new regional security architecture for the long term.


[1] Stefan Wolff, “The Forgotten War: What Russia Could Win from the Reignited Conflict in Syria,” The Conversation, December 7, 2022,

[2] Abdolrasool Divsallar, “Rising Interdependency: How Russo-Iranian Relations Have Evolved with the War in Ukraine,” Trends Research and Advisory, December 12, 2022,

[3] Mohamed Rafei, “Russian Mercenaries Enter Libya via Isolated Base in Egypt, Evidence Suggests,” Al-Mashreq, October 31, 2022,

[4] Andreas Kluth, “How Russia and Belarus Are Weaponizing Migration,” Bloomberg, October 27, 2021,

[5] Emilie Tran and Yahia H. Zoubir, “China in the Mediterranean: An Arena of Strategic Competition?” Mediterranean Politics (2022),

[6] Maurizio Geri, “Triangulating Peace in the MENA/WANA Region,” Trends Research and Advisory, March 2, 2022,

[7] Leela Jacinto, “Between Ankara and Athens, the Eastern Mediterranean Is Simmering with Tensions,” France 24, January 2, 2020,

[8] Kristian Petrick, Jérémie Fosse, Heloïse Lammens, and Fabio Fiorucci, Blue Economy in the Mediterranean (Barcelona: Union for the Mediterranean, 2017),

[9] Mauro Randone, Giuseppe Di Carlo, and Marco Costantini, Reviving the Economy of the Mediterranean Sea: Actions for a Sustainable Future, WWF Report (Rome: World Wide Fund for Nature, 2017),

[10] European Union, “Maritime Security,” August 10, 2021,

[11] Council of the European Union, European Union Maritime Security Strategy,  General Secretariat of the Council, June 24, 2014,; European Union, “Maritime Security,” European Union External Action, August 10, 2021,

[12] European Commission, “Maritime Security: EU Updates Strategy to Safeguard Maritime Domain Against New Threats,” March 10, 2023,

[13] NATO, “NATO’s Maritime Activities,” January 11, 2023,

[14] Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance,main NATO website, ,

[15] European Union, “Council Decision (CFSP) 2023/653 of 20 March 2023: Amending Decision (CFSP) 2020/472 on the European Union Military Operation in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED IRINI),” March 21, 2023,

[16] Josep Borrell, “A New EU Military Operation in the Mediterranean: Irini Is Born to Enforce Libya Arms Embargo,” European Union External Action, April 1, 2020,

[17] European Union, “European Union Naval Force – Mediterranean Operation Sophia,” European Union External Action, September 30, 2016,

[18] Josep Borrell, “EU Common Security and Defence Policy: Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI,” European Union,

[19] European Union, “EUNAVFORMED OPERATION IRINI – An Exemplary EU Maritime Security Provider in the Southern Central Mediterranean,” European Union External Action, February 2, 2023,


[21] “Agostini (Irini): Europe Is Ready to Resume the Training of the Libyan Coast Guard," Agenzia Nova, July 5, 2021,

[22] “IRINI: Training Plan for Libyan Coast Guard Awaiting Green Light from EU, “The Libya Observer, March 31, 2022,

[23] European Union, “About the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM),” EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya, September 15, 2021,

[24] European Union, “The Immediate Priority Is to Consolidate Peace and Stability in Libya. IRINI’s Work Is Indispensable for That,” European External Action Service, April 25, 2022,

[25] “IRINI: Peace Guarantor in the Mediterranean Sea,” Maritimes Crimes, May 13, 2022,

[26] Arthur F. Lykke Jr., “Defining Military Strategy,” Military Review 69, no. 5 (1989).

[27] Frontex, “Frontex to Expand Cooperation with Operation IRINI,” January 18, 2021,

[28] Maurizio Geri, “IRINI: Why an EU-NATO Cooperation Is Urgent for Libyan Peace and Why Turkey Should Accept It,” Euro-Gulf Information Center, August 5, 2020,

[29] NATO, “NATO Launches New Operation Sea Guardian,” November 9, 2016,

[30] NATO, “NATO's Operation Sea Guardian Supported by Albania for the First Time,” April 6, 2023,

[31] NATO, “NATO Maritime Task Group Exercises at Sea with Egyptian Navy,” NATO MARCOM, December 14, 2022,

[32] Italian Ministry of Defense, “Difesa: l'Operazione Mare Sicuro cambia nome e diventa Mediterraneo Sicuro ” [Defence: Operation Safe Sea Changes Its Name to Safe Mediterranean], August 19, 2022,

[33] Italian Ministry of Defense, Strategia di difesa e sicurezza per il Mediterraneo [Strategy of Security and Defense for the Mediterranean], 2022 Edition,

[34] Italian Ministry of Defense, “Difesa: l'Operazione Mare Sicuro cambia nome e diventa Mediterraneo Sicuro ” [Defence: Operation Safe Sea Changes Its Name to Safe Mediterranean], August 19, 2022,

[35] Sonia Krimi, NATO and the Mediterranean Security Agenda, NATO Parliamentary Assembly – Political Committee, October 9, 2021,

[36] “The Shade Med 2022 Conference for a Safer Mediterranean Ended in Rome,” Agenzia Nova, November 16, 2022,

[37] “NATO to Choose Taranto for Its Southern Maritime Command,” Decode 39, December 9, 2022,

[38] “Italy, NATO Are Closely Watching Russian Ships, Assures Italian Admiral,” Decode 39, December 28, 2022,

: 10-May-2023

Reviews (0)


Related Research

©2023 Trends Research & Advisory, All Rights Reserved.