This article argues that the European Union’s capacity to use an operational instrument for the purpose of an articulated objective constitutes an important, but conceptually neglected and empirically underexplored, element of its actorness. In order to fill this gap, the article introduces the concept of strategic capacity and develops an analytical framework for systematic empirical assessments thereof. Drawing on 22 qualitative expert interviews, the framework is applied to the EU’s maritime operation against human smugglers in the Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia). The article finds that the EU so far has displayed a fairly low degree of strategic capacity in its fight against human smugglers. The article argues that this fairly low degree of strategic capacity is not to be ascribed to an institutional apparatus that is unfit for strategic action, but a decision on the part of political decision-makers to give weight to symbolic, as opposed to strategic, action. As a result, the operation has contributed little to the formal objective of disrupting and dismantling human smuggling networks in the Central Mediterranean. In some areas, it has even had an adverse effect on this objective.