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With the German Navy celebrating its 175th anniversary on 14 June 2023, it is worth taking the opportunity to reflect on the Navy’s continuing role in Germany’s security and prosperity. In this vein, Irina Haesler of the German Shipowner’s Association (VDR) examines the relationship between Germany’s Navy and its merchant shipping, making the case for increased cooperation between the two.

A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guarantee of peace.” These famous words spoken by US President Theodore Roosevelt to the US Congress on 2 December 1902 could not be more relevant today. Peace is the basic prerequisite for our present and future prosperity. Guaranteeing this permanently and sustainably requires freedom and security. When it comes to the maritime dimension of German security, there is no way around the German Navy. For it is the German Navy that secures sea routes and literally ‘clears the way’ for the German merchant fleet so that it can fulfil its obligations, and reliably bring goods or raw materials to their destinations.

The Emden (F266) during her commissioning ceremony on 4 May 2023. The Emden is the second vessel of the second construction batch of the Braunschweig class (Type 130) corvettes. (Credit: Bundeswehr/Nico Theska)

After all, shipping dominates global trade flows, accounting for 90% of all goods transported with an annual volume of 11 billion tonnes of goods, worth USD 15 Tn. Germany is one of the most important shipping nations in the world. It is from here that the world’s largest container ship fleet and the seventh-largest merchant fleet in the world are currently operated. In terms of the container ship fleet, Germany ranks ahead of China in terms of the number of container ships operated. German merchant shipping is urgently dependent on a strong navy. Only with a sufficient presence and sufficient resources is it possible for the navy to be active worldwide in order to protect the sea routes essential for merchant shipping. A strong navy is therefore in the best interests of German shipowners.

In Germany, shipping has a relatively unique character – more than three quarters of the resident shipping companies own only 10 or fewer ships. Many of these companies are family-run and deeply rooted in the location. These companies were the backbone of the sector during the shipping crisis that lasted more than 10 years. A sector that had previously been significantly weakened has fortunately been able to regain stability in the last two years and align itself to face the future. As the world’s third-largest import and export country, the merchant fleet plays a key role in supplying the population with imports and in Germany’s economic success through exports by sea. This leading role must now be further expanded. The German navy and merchant fleet are thus undoubtedly closely related. Together they play a decisive role in shaping the maritime dimension that is so important for Germany.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 violated international law, and has confronted us all with a new reality, disrupting the geopolitical order and leading to a re-examination of security issues. Threat scenarios that were thought to be over since the end of the Cold War must now be reassessed and Germany must develop its new leadership role in Europe and the world. Maritime sovereignty is the core of a new national resilience strategy. The goal of maritime sovereignty is to ensure that Germany is supplied and secured with goods and energy as sustainably as possible, even in the event of a crisis.

Maritime sovereignty must therefore not be reactive – structures and processes must be created proactively and for the long term. For Germany, the best preparation for changing supply needs and future crises is to further strengthen its merchant fleet and its leading role as a maritime nation. This requires strengthening both the navy and merchant shipping. Together, these not only provide Germany with access to secure sea routes and thus a reliable connection to international trade, but the transition to clean energy also depends significantly on functioning global supply chains in the procurement of raw materials needed for the energy transition, such as nickel, aluminium, palladium or rare earths. In order to avoid dependency on certain countries and regions, diversification of supply chains is necessary. Due to their international orientation, German shipping companies can serve these at any time. Maritime resilience undoubtedly requires transformative approaches in a constantly changing environment in the future. However, this also requires shipping companies to have a reliable shipping policy which factors in their location to deal with these challenges accordingly.

Climate change also entails changes in the security sector for Germany. The shift in agricultural patterns and migratory movements due to rising temperatures will also shift logistics chains and thus shipping routes globally in the long term. International trade routes are and always have been seismographs for disturbances. This applies to criminal activities at sea, wars, but also in future will apply especially to natural disasters. This makes it all the more important for the German government further intensify its efforts to combat climate change at the international level within the framework of the International Maritime Organisation. Maritime shipping is already the most efficient means of transporting goods internationally, and the industry has also set itself the declared goal of operating its ships in a climate-neutral manner by 2050 at the latest.

CG render of Germany’s F126 future frigate class, set to replace the Brandenburg class in German Navy service. (Credit: Damen)

There is no doubt that strengthening the maritime dimension is a necessary condition for Germany’s strategic autonomy. In this context, it is important that merchant shipping is recognised and involved at the national level as an important partner within the framework of a national security strategy – we are dependent on the support of the German Navy in this regard. The creation of a forum for exchange between the navy, merchant shipping and the federal government on maritime security issues would be an important step.

Addressing maritime issues appropriately is not only in Germany’s security policy and economic interest, but also in its ecological interest. Overall, the German government needs to make a clear commitment to the political and strategic importance of merchant shipping and the navy for Germany.

“When you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em: ‘Certainly I can!’” These words of Roosevelt should also be a challenge and an incentive for us. The German Shipowners’ Association congratulates the German Navy on its 175th anniversary and looks forward to further cooperation.

Irina Haesler