European Union's First Naval Mission: Gulf of Aden

When six warships flying the European Union flag began their mission in the Gulf of Aden last week, it marked the first naval operation in EU history—and for good reason: this year Somali pirates have hijacked 40 ships in this key shipping lane, taking 806 hostages. Given the region's size, EU officials know that the other foreign navies there need all the help they can get.

The operation will mark a sharp departure for EU defense, which has historically meant boots-on-the-ground peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Africa, European trouble spots like the Balkans and elsewhere. Typically, these missions involve French military forces, while Britain has generally favored working within a NATO coalition. Naval missions, meanwhile, have been carried out by individual EU states, or with NATO, rather than through Brussels.

But the Somali operation makes sense. With dwindling financial resources, and a low appetite for risk, EU foreign ministers are split over the United Nations' request to send an EU force into bloodstained eastern Congo—the kind of mission the EU is known for. Yet there was little squabbling over the naval operation. It will be run by a British admiral—of symbolic if not also military significance—and puts Europe toward the center of an ongoing challenge: securing sea lanes. But most important, perhaps, it gives the EU a chance to show a new kind of military muscle—with relatively little cost or risk.