CIMSEC And The Atlantic Council Launch Fiction Contest On Autonomy And Future War

Contest Publication Dates: October 31 – November 4
Submissions Due: October 21
Winners Announced: November 7

Article Length: 2,000 – 5,000 words
Submit to:
Prizes: $500 Grand Prize, $250 Runner-Up

By Sally DeBoer and August Cole

CIMSEC and The Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project are teaming to host a Fiction Contest on Autonomy and Future War. This contest will explore the nuances of unmanned naval systems employed in combat or crisis through creative fiction. Final Judges August Cole, Larry Bond, and Peter Singer will select one Grand Prize winner and one Runner-Up Prize winner. The Grand Prize winner will receive a cash prize of $500, while the Runner-Up will be awarded a cash prize of $250. A selection of outstanding entries will publish on CIMSEC beginning the week of October 31 with the winners announced on Monday, November 7. 

Autonomy and unmanned systems are increasingly present in today’s Navies – from assets acting in a surveillance, monitoring, or intelligence collection capacity like Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton and Hydroid’s REMUS, to low-crew combatants like the Zumwalt-class destroyer which operates with 147 sailors. The rapid pace and development of technologies such as machine learning algorithms indicates that unmanned systems will be able to take on an increasingly decisive role in future conflicts. How will more advanced autonomous and unmanned systems shape the future of naval forces – and what unique challenges will autonomous systems present for future Navy leaders?

Possible topics include (but are by no means limited to) the nature of military leadership in an age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the ethical challenges of incorporating increasingly capable and automated systems, unique strategic or operational options, challenges, and scenarios afforded to warfighters by unmanned systems, limits or adjustments to Rules of Engagement, and the benefits and challenges associated with delegating authority to unmanned systems across varying degrees of autonomy. In addition, authors may wish to explore how unmanned systems will change shipboard life. 

While the topic of unmanned systems in combat is truly broad, entries should focus on human dynamics such as interactions between warfighters and autonomous systems whether in terms of leadership, shipboard life, decisionmaking, and imposed limits on unmanned systems.

Authors should feel free to be creative in their submission. Formats such as traditional narrative fiction, Captain’s logs, after action reports, and visual art/media are acceptable. 

Interested authors can find creative cues from the Defense Science Board’s recently released report on autonomy, Guru Banavar’s address from the 2015 Nobel Week Dialogue, or from the following quote from Patrick O’Brien’s The Ionian Mission:

“It is only that I dislike the whole notion of subordination. The corporal lurks in almost every bosom, and each man tends to use authority when he has it, thus destroying his natural relationship with his fellows, a disastrous state of affairs for both sides. Do away with subordination and you do away with tyranny: without subordination we should have no Neros, no Tamerlanes, no Buonapartes.’ ‘Stuff,’ said Jack. ‘Subordination is the natural order: there is subordination in Heaven – Thrones and Dominions take precedence over Powers and Principalities, Archangels and ordinary foremast angels; and so it is in the Navy. You have come to the wrong shop for anarchy, brother.”

Submissions should be no less than 2,000 words and no more than 5,000 words. Authors should submit their work via e-mail to and must be received no later than October 21. Submissions must be final drafts and will not receive editorial support from CIMSEC or the Atlantic Council other than basic formatting for finalist submissions publishing during the week of October 31. The Fiction Contest will feature in place of a monthly CIMSEC topic week for the month of October. Questions and concerns can be directed to Sally DeBoer at

Sally DeBoer is currently serving as the 2016-2017 President of CIMSEC. She can be reached at

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 13, 2012) An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator aircraft is transported on an aircraft elevator aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki)

The Military Mind in the Age of Innovation

This article originally featured at The Strategy Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Brad DeWeesb

Is the “military mind” compatible with the values that make innovation possible?

In 1957 Samuel Huntington defined the “military mind,” or how the military sees the world and interacts with it. His definition of the military mind formed the cornerstone of his broader work on civil-military relations—The Soldier and the State. In that work Huntington claimed the ideal soldier is conservative in the classical sense. That is, the military mind emphasizes the “permanence, irrationality, weakness, and evil in human nature.”[1] More focused on vice than virtue, the military mind is suspect of human cooperation and skeptical of change. For the soldier time is the primary measure of value; the military mind favors the status quo. It is “pessimistic” and “historically inclined…It is, in brief, realistic, and conservative.”[2]

Huntington’s ideal military mind was reverse-engineered; he asked what kind of mind was necessary to defend the country, and concluded that a skeptical worldview was the best insurance in a risky and uncertain world. The military mind had to be skeptical of human nature and progress in order for the military to serve its function effectively. Sixty years after describing the military mind, Huntington’s argument has been deeply woven into the American military culture. And thus Huntington has met his own criteria for value—he withstood the test of time. The Soldier and the State, as part of the military canon, frames the ideal image of ourselves and guides our actions as we seek to maintain that image.[3]

Radical Change Is The Norm In The Age of Innovation.

When Huntington wrote The Soldier and The State, the military mind was meant to balance the mind of a liberal democratic citizen. The civilian mind, in Huntington’s argument, could afford to view the world as cooperative as long as the military mind retained its conservative view. The two minds would coexist but leave each other to their own space. Since then a new variant of the civilian mind has developed—the “innovative mind” is the civilian mind that Huntington envisioned, only adapted for the age of innovation. The age of innovation is the period of hyper-connectivity and information sharing created by the information technology revolution of the 1990s, and it is still unfolding today.  

Radical change is the norm in the age of innovation. The most powerful companies of this generation work with collaborative technology that was largely unheard of one generation ago, and the same will likely be true one generation from now. Today’s Google is built on an internet search algorithm that would have been difficult to imagine just 30 years ago; tomorrow’s Google may well be built on technology that seems like science-fiction today. The companies that succeed tomorrow will rely on experimentation with new ideas, rather than gradual improvement, to build new business. Their experimentation will be fueled by the pace and quality of their collaboration, and by their ability to weave knowledge together from a wide range of sources.  

Warfare in this age of innovation has become increasingly reliant on information technology—the common operating pictures of network-centric warfare is an example. The military mind, then, must increasingly collaborate with the developers of information technology. The question today is whether the military mind can work with a mind characterized by experimentation and collaboration. And, if so, how?

Huntington’s Paradox in the Age of Innovation

Huntington’s military mind is not necessarily opposed to all forms of change. As military affairs became perceptively more complex, Huntington argued that officers should spend much of their time learning: “The intellectual content of the military profession requires the modern officer to devote about one-third of his professional life to formal schooling, probably a higher ratio of educational time to practice than in any other profession.”[4] What Huntington opposed, however, was the transmission of values that undermined the conservative worldview.[5] In his view the military mind could advance technologically as long as its view of human nature remained conservative, as long as it did not view human nature as inherently cooperative.

A military-industrial complex in which the military was the primary buyer allowed for such technological advancement. The military-industrial complex, to name three examples, developed battleships and aircraft carriers for the Navy, fighting vehicles for the Army, and cruise missiles for the Air Force.[6] While private enterprise may have developed key technologies that enabled these innovations—power plants for the Navy’s ships is an example—the military-industrial complex adapted those technologies for operational use, and they did so on a timeline fitted to the military’s capacity for adopting change.

Military changes in the age of innovation will likely happen at a faster pace. In the fields of cyber security, biotechnology, neural analytics, and networked robotics, the military is just one buyer among many. The net effect of being one among many is that innovative minds dictate the pace of change to military minds rather than the reverse.[7, 8] The pace of change, already faster than the military mind is accustomed to, will likely only increase—methods such as machine learning presage a new level of speed in the development of ideas. Putting those ideas to operational use will require the military mind to adopt the values of experimentation and cooperation. The military mind and innovative mind will meet in the rapid and frequent implementation of new technology.[9]

The modern military mind is left with a paradox. On one hand Huntington’s ideal military mind is still necessary. Because of its role in protecting society, the military mind has no choice but to assume the worst: human nature is unchanging and a conservative outlook is the best last resort for defending the country. Yet, if the military mind is to fulfill its function in the innovation age, it has no choice but to rapidly adapt. The military has adapted before, especially in times of acute threat—the military embraced air and tank warfare in World War II, for example.  The difference in the age of innovation is that adaptation will be the norm rather than the result of extreme circumstances. The military mind will be asked to regularly operationalize new technology in an uncertain world. In short, the military mind must be both conservative and open.

Building Common Ground

Managing this paradox is a challenge for the military as a whole, not necessarily individual minds within the military. Some aspects of the military bureaucracy can be wired for adaptability and cooperation, while others can be wired to maintain a conservative outlook. In a broad sense, the employment of force will require a conservative outlook, while the development of force capabilities will require an innovative outlook. The organizational challenge for the military is ensuring that these two minds collaborate without degenerating into acrimonious tribes.  

Collaboration between the two minds can be helped by reform in two general areas. The first area is near-term and tangible, composed of reforms that make it easier for the military mind to do business with the innovation economy. This would include initiatives such as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) in Silicon Valley and Boston.[10] Fostering direct interaction between end-users and technology developers would be another, as would streamlining the acquisition process to closer approximate the timeline of a start-up.[11]

These solutions, though, can only be partial without a more fundamental change. The second general area of reform would run deeper, to the intellectual roots of the divide between military and innovative minds. The two minds should study the other enough to forge shared meaning. With shared meaning comes a greater possibility for shared motivations. And if not shared motivations, then at least motivations that are mutually understood. Motivations that are mutually understood are less likely to be perceived as threatening. Ironically enough, perhaps the best advice for building this mutual understanding comes from Huntington himself through his emphasis on education.

A Liberal Education Can Endure Technological Change.

Huntington argued that the military profession should begin with a liberal education; his prescription should apply to innovators as well. A liberal education, which is an education in all sides of human nature, can create philosophical common ground between the conservative and cooperative outlook. The exposure of the military and innovation minds to the full range of human nature should be the foundation of a mutual understanding between them. Machiavelli’s The Prince, for example, is an education in the corruptible side of human nature, while Shakespeare’s King Henry IV and King Henry V are a testament to human adaptability.[12]

These are but two examples of how a holistic view of human nature—a liberal, classical education—can build common ground between military and innovative minds. And a liberal education is only one aid to making the military more adaptable for the innovation age. Many other implements will be possible, as long as they fit the general criterion of building common ground between military and innovative minds. A liberal education is a fundamental solution, though, in that it can endure this generation of technological change and the many others that will follow. In a world where change will only come faster, building common ground between military and innovative minds is a national security imperative.

Brad DeWees is a PhD candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a former instructor of political science at the United States Air Force Academy, where he taught courses on American government and Innovation in Government.  His primary career field is as a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) officer. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Huntington, S.P. (1957). The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Harvard University Press, page 79.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Soldier and The State is regarded as a classic in civil-military relations, something that all subsequent works on civil-military relations must address. For an example of this argument, see here.

[4] Huntington. The Soldier and the State, page 13.

[5] Huntington’s discusses the relation of the military professional ethic to the four major political ideologies of his time: liberalism, fascism, Marxism, and conservatism (pages 89-94). His discussion of liberalism is closest to what is described here as the “innovative mind.” Throughout the discussion Huntington paints liberalism as at odds with the military ethic: liberalism “opposes political, economic, and social restraints upon individual liberty. In contrast, the military ethic holds that man is evil, weak, and irrational and that he must be subordinated to the group” (90).

[6] Previous major military innovations have included changes such as the adoption of battleships from sailing ships, the adoption of carrier warfare, mechanized infantry, nuclear weapons, maneuver warfare, and precision guided munitions.  For a review, see Michael Horowitz, The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics, Chapter 2.

[7] Lamothe, D. (2016, May 11). “Pentagon Chief Overhauls Silicon Valley Office, Will Open Similar Unit in Boston.”  The Washington Post.

[8] Markoff, J. (2016, May 11). “Pentagon Turns to Silicon Valley for Edge in Artificial Intelligence.” The New York Times.

[9] The DoD has so far struggled to find common ground with Silicon Valley, with Secretary Carter saying that the DoD is “frequently not rapid and agile enough.”

[10] The Boston office of DIUx was opened in July 2016:

[11] For a review of other issues affecting technology procurement from the innovation economy, see Tucker, P: (2016, April 22). “As Pentagon Dawdles, Silicon Valley Sells Its Newest Tech Abroad.”  Defense One.

[12] King Henry IV comes in two parts; together with Richard II and King Henry V they constitute a tetralogy of history plays, recently referred to as the “Hollow Crown Series”:

Featured Image: Atlantic Ocean (Apr. 15, 2005) – Air Traffic Controller 3rd Class Jeoffrey Keever writes the status of each aircraft on the status board in Carrier Air Traffic Controller Center (CATCC) aboard USS John F Kennedy (CV 67) during flight operations. The Mayport, Fla., based conventionally powered aircraft carrier Kennedy is currently conducting scheduled carrier qualification in the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Apprentice Antonia Ramos (RELEASED)

Reinforcing China’s Malacca Dilemma

The Red Queen’s Navy

Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the The Red Queeninfluence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

China has been pressing to complete the Gwadar port in Pakistan and build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), allowing it to be connected over land to an Indian Ocean port. Gwadar and CPEC allow China to circumvent the Strait of Malacca which can be blockaded by rival navies in the event of  conflict, termed as “Malacca Dilemma.” However, the rising activism of Balochistan independence parties could complicate these projects, compelling China to continue to depend on this Strait. This situation certainly bodes well for maintaining regional stability.

As China’s economic power burgeoned, its political class sought to transform the country into a major power by building comprehensive national power, which also requires investing in a sophisticated military. Political narratives were developed citing “historical” facts and figures to re-establish China’s position in the world order. However, China’s attitude towards its neighborhood has become increasingly assertive in  recent years, signaling the rise of a potential regional hegemon. Those countries with stakes in maintaining the peace dividend responded by building alliances and partnerships to counter this security threat.

By signaling the intent to blockade the Strait of Malacca, these regional countries seek to deter China from military adventurism in the region. China’s economic growth is dependent on the seas, both for receiving energy and other raw materials required for low cost manufacturing, as well as the shipping of finished goods to markets in the U.S., Europe, etc. These ships have to pass through the Strait of Malacca situated between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Therefore a blockade of this Strait will impose energy and trade crises in China that can trickle down to hurt society, and in turn lead to pressure on the political class. Losing the people’s support will undermine the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China and could lead to an internal political transition. In fact, China’s history shows such transitions occurring after wars.

India has established credible naval presence in the Andaman Sea adjacent to the Strait of Malacca and is partnering with the U.S. and other countries in safeguarding it. Such presence can be translated into a formidable blockade. On the other hand, China has yet to showcase its capabilities and willingness to fight to keep this Strait open for its ships. Citing these developments, Hu Jintao termed this situation “Malacca Dilemma.”

His successor Xi Jinping resolved to overcome this dilemma by investing in the One Belt, One Road initiative. China moved determinedly to build ports in the Indian Ocean countries Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been transformed into a blue water navy and is routinely deployed in the Indian Ocean. The docking of PLAN ships and submarines in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the region signals China’s intent to safeguard its energy and trade shipments in the Indian Ocean.

A map depicting China’s sea lines of communication through the Malacca Strait as well as the land route of the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. (SCMP)

The ports in Myanmar and Pakistan have the added advantage of being connected to China via overland routes. This sea/land interspersed connectivity allows China to minimize maritime threats by rerouting its energy and trade over the land. During a conflict, China can focus its forward deployed naval assets f in the Indian Ocean on safeguarding the sea lines of communication connected to its ports in Pakistan and Myanmar instead of stretching those assets across the Ocean. The development of overland routes also serves Beijing’s intention to develop poorer western regions of the country.

China’s projects in Myanmar are proceeding with difficulties, with some of them cancelled due to opposition from local communities and environmental groups. Furthermore, China’s ships have to navigate the Bay of Bengal to reach Myanmar’s port which gives opportunity for rival navies to interdict. More significantly, Myanmar has recently undergone political transition from military rule to a democratically elected government. This transition signaled the country’s willingness to break through international isolation and normalize diplomatic relations with the outside world. As a result, China lost Myanmar as a client state and can expect a review of its projects as the new government balances between competing political and economic narratives in the region.    

The trump card for China remains to be Pakistan. Despite international condemnation and American displeasure for its unwillingness to cease state sponsored terrorism, Pakistan continues to enjoy diplomatic leverage with the U.S., and despite the show of political clout in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Maldives, India is still lacking a credible strategy to curtail Pakistan’s destabilizing behavior in the region.

China has adopted the earlier U.S. policy of hyphenating India with Pakistan and is willing to safeguard its client state’s interests across international forums. It has promised to invest $46 billion in Pakistan to complete the CPEC project. In addition, China is building nuclear plants, co-producing military jets, and will sell eight submarines; all incentives for Pakistan to align its interests with China’s.

In return, China will gain access to the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean, which is connected to the Persian Gulf, through the Gwadar port. The CPEC envisions building the requisite land route from Gwadar to China via the sensitive Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Karakoram mountains, ignoring India’s apprehensions regarding building infrastructure in the disputed territories without consultations.

However, Pakistan itself is not without problems. The Balochistan province where Gwadar is located forms a major part of Pakistan’s territory and is highly rich in natural resources. However, its development needs have long been ignored by Islamabad. The Baloch people argue that neither the Gwadar port will benefit them but can instead lead to further exploitation of the province’s natural resources and affect their livelihoods.

A graphic depicting the various forms of investment, their estimated costs, and proposed infrastructure linkages. (Wall Street Journal)

India is convinced that the Gwadar port and the CPEC projects have underlying strategic intentions while the Baloch people question the veracity of economic benefits that can be derived from these projects to their province. Both parties are concerned about infrastructure build up in those areas considered sensitive for historical or strategic reasons. In this situation, Modi’s reference to Balochistan in his recent Independence Day speech signals India’s willingness to work with the Baloch people to confront the common problem and fulfil mutual interests.

While more details are pending, China is apparently concerned with these developments as its options to connect to the Indian Ocean via land routes fall into jeopardy, forcing continued reliance on the Strait of Malacca. This could be a welcomed development for upholding regional stability as it offers concerned countries an opportunity to maintain strategic deterrence and escalation dominance against China by controlling access to the Strait of Malacca.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Featured Image: Crew members work on the Chinese Navy ship Wei Fang as it docks in Myanmar on the outskirts of Yangon on May 23, 2014 (AFP 2016/ SOE THAN WIN)

Is Sea Shepherd a Navy? A CIMSEC Debate

A lively Twitter conversation between CIMSEC members Chris Rawley, Claude Berube, and Ryan Mewett regarding the nature of a Navy, specifically whether or not the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s (SSCS) fleet constitutes such a force, inspired the following debate. Mr. Rawley and Mr. Berube have taken the affirmative position while Mr. Mewett has taken the negative position.

Affirmative: Neptune’s Navy: A Navy by any Other Name…

By Chris Rawley and Claude Berube

A rarely asked but fundamental question is: how do we define a navy? The answer might appear to be self-evident. Merriam-Webster defines a navy as: the part of a country’s military forces that fights at sea; a group of ships; a nation’s ships of war and logistic support; and the complete naval establishment of a nation including yards, stations, ships, and personnel. But are these criteria accurate or sufficient in the twentieth century? The authors assert that under a more appropriate definition, the maritime arm of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) is a navy. How does Sea Shepherd meet those criteria?

  1. “…a group of ships…” Certainly Sea Shepherd meets this first criteria. It operates a fleet of ships that include former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, a former weather survey ship, a former fisheries protection ship, and others. But a “group of ships” could also allude to a commercial shipping fleet or even a cruise line.
  2. “…yards, stations, ships and personnel…” Sea Shepherd has paid staff as well as thousands of volunteers operating globally.
  3. “…forces that fight at sea…” Although its ships have operated for forty years, the organization gained notoriety with its operations in the Southern Ocean, chronicled on cable television’s “Whale Wars.” Sea Shepherd ships searched for, located, pursued, and challenged Japanese whaling ships. Elsewhere, Sea Shepherd has worked with countries and even Interpol. During Operation Thunder, SSCS vessels chased an illegal fishing trawler 10,000 nautical miles, until the ship was scuttled off the west coast of Africa and the violators were brought to justice.

A Post-Westphalian Model

Taken collectively, the above three criteria suggest that Sea Shepherd has a navy, but perhaps the most important traditional component of the above definitions is that a navy must be an arm of a nation. State recognition may not be a necessary criteria in the 21st century. For example, Israel and Taiwan both maintain navies. But 31 United Nations member states do not recognize Israel as a nation, and only 21 UN member states recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan.)  Does this mean Taiwan’s 116 ships do not constitute a navy to countries that do not recognize it? Does this mean Israel’s eleven corvettes and missile boats, five submarines and forty-five patrol boats do not constitute a navy in the eyes of countries that do not recognize it?

Indeed, the United States’ own history suggests that one need not be a recognized national entity to maintain a navy. No country immediately recognized the legitimacy of the thirteen colonies. Though there was a Continental sea-shepherd-logoNavy, the Continental Congress as well as states authorized letters of marque to privateers and several states created their own navies. At first, the navy relied on converted merchant ships until warships could be built from the keel up. The same has been true for Sea Shepherd which had – until this summer – relied on purchasing former commercial or governmental ships. This has changed with the M/Y OCEAN WARRIOR, their first purpose-built ship built from the keel up at Damen Shipyard.


The fundamental issue of a national navy in the twenty-first century may not exclusively be a nation of borders which often contains conflicting political views, but might also include an international organization of like-minded individuals who seek policy changes that are effectively executed through its maritime branch. What is more important than borders, the traditional definition of a nation, is that an organization have legitimacy. Sea Shepherd is a non-profit organization with offices in numerous countries and authorization to operate out of a number of foreign ports, such as those in Australia. Sea Shepherd derives its legitimacy from the countries that support or condone it. It has now operated with several countries (Ecuador, Sao Tome and Principe, Gabon and others) to serve as a maritime law enforcement agency. And, as noted earlier, it has worked with Interpol on at least one major operation. SSCS has also been subject to litigation for their actions, but so have more traditional navies and their representatives. To fund the OCEAN WARRIOR, Sea Shepherd received money through the Dutch Postcode Lottery, after competing with other organizations.

Several of Sea Shepherd’s ships. (Sea Shepherd photo)

Sea Shepherd isn’t alone in this new breed of non-state Navies. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, stood up in 2014 to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, the organization’s professional and volunteer crews, along with their two ocean going vessels, Schiebel S-100 camcopters drones, and small boats have rescued more than 24,000 people in the central Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Earthrace Conservation, founded by former Sea Shepherd member Pete Bethune and staffed by former special operators, has also conducted wildlife protection missions in conjunction with a number of foreign militaries and maritime law enforcement agencies. Earthrace is currently crowd-funding the construction of a new sea-going fast patrol trimaran.

More than a Fleet in Being

One of the distinguishing characteristics of navies from coast guards is that navies perform missions in support of global interests. Many navies do not or rarely conduct blue water operations and have more regional interests – or simply do not have the political will or financial ability to operate globally. Ships are certainly the core of a navy, but without the funding, logistical support, and perhaps most importantly, trained professionals, they are dead in the water. Sea Shepherd refers to their missions as “direct action,” which is not analogous to combat, as their objective is to protect wildlife rather than pursue violent clashes with other naval forces. However, SSCS tactics – which include disrupting other vessels and boardings (sometimes with host nation military riders embarked) – are analogous to maritime security and presence missions common to many navies in peacetime.

Sea Shepherd operates its ships in the Southern Ocean, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. Sea Shepherd has an order of battle – an ocean going fleet – of at least eight vessels. Its volunteer crews often make several multi-month voyages, giving them more at-sea experience than many navies whose sailors may make one or two deployments before returning to civilian life. Only the largest of the world’s navies routinely operate aircraft off their ships. SSCS’ small naval aviation arm consists of a variety of unmanned air systems and helicopters and is vital for over-the-horizon scouting during open ocean pursuit missions.


While the definition of a navy may be debated, the fact that Sea Shepherd has a fleet that conducts global operations to promote or enforce policies and has gained legitimacy from nations suggests that it qualifies as a navy. Moreover, as Sea Shepherd and other like-minded organizations continue to expand and professionalize, the likelihood that they will engage – either positively or negatively – with traditional nation-state navies will increase.

Negative: Sea Shepherd’s Fleet is not a Navy

By Ryan Mewett

The trawler Thunder, sinking in seemingly calm waters after being pursued by the SSCS. (AFP/Getty)

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an organized, committed activist group and a noteworthy non-state actor with coherent political objectives and worldwide reach. It operates a fleet of nine vessels with varying operational capabilities on missions around the globe. Best known for its depiction in the reality television series Whale Wars, SSCS conducts operations ranging from cooperation with coast guards and constabulary navies in fisheries enforcement to harassment and attempted interdiction of whaling vessels. Last year, two SSCS vessels pursued a trawler with a history of illegal fishing for over three months, covering more than 10,000 nautical miles of ocean before the trawler sank, likely scuttled by its crew. During the chase, the SSCS crews demanded the suspect vessel stop fishing, threatened law enforcement action, and ultimately prevented it from fishing by cutting its nets. The recently launched MV Ocean Warrior, the organization’s first purpose-built vessel, is reportedly capable of speeds of up to 30 knots, may support helicopter operations, and is scheduled for its first anti-whaling operation to begin later this month. For all this, Sea Shepherd’s fleet is not a navy.

Sea Shepherd's Ocean Warrior (Sea Shepherd photo)
Sea Shepherd’s Ocean Warrior (Sea Shepherd photo)

It is deceptively difficult to define just what exactly a navy is, though any definition is bound to be descriptive in nature. Is a navy defined by its mission? In the most general sense, we might say that navies pursue political ends through the use of force at sea – but the same is true of maritime terrorists. Is a navy defined by a set of attributes? We might say a navy is a fleet of ships that is organized, centrally and hierarchically controlled, with a clear mission, that takes purposeful action to achieve its objectives. Alas, for any set of attributes, we can cite examples that are clearly not navies (in this case, say, Carnival Cruise Line or Maersk Lines, each of which check all of these boxes). Even prominent naval theorists are silent on the point: neither Mahan nor Corbett offers a definition, though Mahan tellingly notes in The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 that “[t]he necessity of a navy … springs therefore from the existence of peaceful shipping, and disappears with it…,” seemingly suggests that a navy’s fundamental role is ensuring the safe conduct of commercial traffic on the sea. The naval historian N.A.M. Rodger posits a definition based on common usage: “The common sense of the word [navy] as we use it today refers in this context to a permanent fighting service made up of ships designed for war, manned by professionals and supported by an administrative and technical infrastructure.”

I propose that each of these attempts at definition contain necessary attributes of a navy, but only Rodger’s includes the crucial point: a navy fights. Any plausible definition of a navy will include a variety of descriptions on the nature of the organization and its objectives, but I challenge the reader to define it in a way that both includes organizations that obviously are navies and excludes organizations that clearly are not without reference to this fundamental – and the burden of a positive definition must lay with those who would class Sea Shepherd’s fleet as a navy.

We can find a productive comparison with the example of organized violent actors on land. Clearly, there is a wide range of organized groups that use force to achieve their objectives: armies, police forces, terrorists, gangs, and some criminal enterprises, to name a few. Armies, police, and terrorists all pursue political objectives. What then separates armies from police and terrorists? It is not enough to say that they act on behalf of a state, because we can think of groups we would have no trouble referring to as “armies” who are non-state actors, including insurgent groups like the Viet Cong or guerrilla armies like Hezbollah’s. There is, however, a fundamental capability difference between armies on the one hand, and other groups like police or terrorists on the other. The non-army groups are limited in their ability to use force; they are capable of using violence for political ends against unorganized or unarmed opposition, but cannot stand and fight against an equivalent group. (As this capability approaches the margins of the scale, the group becomes more like an army; a SWAT team is more a unit of a paramilitary army than a police squad, and terrorists who attack hard targets are more accurately guerrillas.)

In the same vein, a seagoing organization– in addition to being organized, having hierarchical command and control, pursuing political objectives, as well as perhaps having other characteristics not discussed – must have the capability to fight to be truly classed as a navy. That fighting capability is what permits the navy to exercise the core function from which other roles stem: to exert some level of sea control, on a scale from outright command to simple denial, in pursuit of political objectives against a competitive, capable opponent. An actor whose ultimate recourse is to another legitimate authority that truly will use force cannot credibly be said to exercise sea control. The Tamil Tigers had a navy. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society does not.

Continue the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #whatisanavy.

Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy. He has published three non-fiction books and two novels. Follow him on Twitter @cgberube.  

Captain Chris Rawley is a surface warfare officer and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @navaldrones.

Ryan Mewett is an active duty submarine officer in the United States Navy. Follow him on Twitter @REMewett.

The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private opinions of the authors and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Department of Defense, the United States Government, the U.S. Naval Academy, or the United States Navy.

Featured image: SSCS’s Bob Barker alongside an iceberg. (Jim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia Ltd)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.