Naval Warfare 2010-2020: A Comparative Analysis

By Jimmy Drennan


An analysis of warfighting trends over a decade could be performed by considering the major crises, conflicts, and tensions that took place, or by tracking the evolving force structure and operating concepts of global competitors. Alternatively, one could compare foundational documents issued over that same timespan. In April of this year, the U.S. Navy, U.S Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard (collectively, the U.S. Naval Service) jointly published the latest version of Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare, superseding the previous version released in 2010. The difference between the two documents is stark, and indicates a change over the last ten years in the way the United States views naval warfare – simultaneously reaching back to its historical roots, while also looking over the horizon to future conflicts.

This analysis compares NDP-1 (2010) and NDP-1 (2020) to reveal the major differences in content, style, and tone, and what those difference might imply for the U.S. Naval Service’s strategic direction. In addition to a clear focus on American naval history, readers will notice a shift from contributing to the joint force of all military branches to emphasizing the singular importance of American seapower. In fact, NDP-1 (2020) replaces the Naval Service’s six core capabilities with five enduring functions, elevating the role of sea control and sealift, while diminishing the importance of forward presence and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR).

Quality of Writing

First and foremost, NDP-1 (2020) is eminently more readable than its predecessor. Both documents are intended to be read by every Sailor, Marine, Coast Guardsman and woman, and civilian in the U.S. Naval Service. However, NDP-1 (2020) seems to recognize that a large portion of that audience is not a regular consumer of military doctrine. NDP-1 (2010) is written in language that nests well with the doctrine of any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces (more on this later), but not in language that would help a novice understand why the U.S. Naval Service is important and unique, and how it should be employed. In fact, the language of the sea (nautical lexicon, not necessarily jargon) is noticeably absent from NDP-1 (2010), the doctrinal foundation of a seagoing service whose traditions and culture pre-date the U.S. Armed Forces. For example, the phrase “command of the seas” does not appear in NDP-1 (2010), while it is introduced up front in NDP-1 (2020) as “a fundamental strategic pillar of our nation, necessary for the security and prosperity of our citizens.”

NDP-1 (2020) makes a concerted effort to plainly demonstrate the value of American seapower. Whereas NDP-1 (2010) liberally uses military doctrine buzzwords and acronyms, NDP-1 (2020) instead describes similar concepts in plain language that helps the reader understand the nature and character of the U.S. Naval Service. NDP-1 (2010) is littered with joint terms like DIME, DOTPLMF, ROMO, PMESII, and JIPOE. In parts, it could be easy to forget which service the document was written for.1 NDP-1 (2020) dispenses with such language, and other doctrinal hallmarks like pages labeled “INTENTIONALLY BLANK,” instead utilizing an almost narrative prose, making good use of illustrations, quotations, and vignettes without distracting the reader. NDP-1 (2010) is focused on describing the current manifestation of naval operations, which in 2010 were largely in support of joint campaigns on land, or otherwise concerned with the lower end of the warfighting spectrum. NDP-1 (2020), however, focuses on the theory and principles of naval warfare and their potential future application, irrespective of current operations, adroitly observing “the interlude from great power competition is over.”2

Aside from commending the authors for distilling such a broad and complex topic for a large audience, there is another important reason why the quality of writing in NDP-1 (2020) is worth mentioning. Since the U.S. Naval Service is entering an era in which high-end combat at sea is entirely imaginable (something that could not be said in 2010), it seems plausible the document was written with another audience in mind: Congress. One reason for writing doctrine that can be easily digested is to craft a story that helps non-navalists understand the logic behind budget requests. If NDP-1 can show those outside maritime circles why American seapower is necessary, and how the naval service is unique, it can serve as a foundation not just to operational doctrine, but also to programming and budgeting. If the Naval Service’s future success depends upon arguing for a larger portion of defense budgets, the integration of force generation and force employment strategies based on a single conceptual foundation is paramount.

Historical Perspective

Out of the gates, NDP-1 (2020) clearly establishes a connection to American naval history. Before reaching “page 1,” the reader finds quotations from Raymond Spruance, John Adams, and Harry E. Yarnell, and a vignette from James D. Hornfischer’s The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.3

Continuing the historical theme, NDP-1 (2020) includes quotations from prominent American naval leaders, strategists, and theorists, with a particular emphasis on Alfred Thayer Mahan. In fact, Mahanian influence in the document is evident not just in quotations, but also in its central premise that the ultimate purpose of the U.S. Naval Service is to achieve command of the seas. NDP-1 (2020) echoes Mahan’s notion that America is inherently a maritime republic, and its prosperity depends upon achieving command of the seas through seapower. Similarly, NDP-1 (2020) bluntly states that sea control (a localized, temporary version of command of the seas) “enables all other naval functions.” In contrast to their predecessors, the authors of NDP-1 (2020) were clearly writing doctrine for a Naval Service prepared for the full range combat operations at sea. And if the authors truly did intend to speak to Congress, it is not surprising they chose to highlight Mahan who was, besides being widely considered one of America’s greatest strategists, a vocal advocate for large fleets and vibrant shipping and shipbuilding industries.

Next to Mahan, the other most noticeable historical emphasis in NDP-1 (2020) is on World War II. Starting with Hornfischer’s vignette on Taffy Three’s heroics at Leyte Gulf, it draws upon the legacy of the last war that saw major, sustained naval combat, with quotes from icons like Nimitz, King, Burke, and Spruance. There is even an entire section dedicated to the lessons on fleet operations offered by the campaigns in the Atlantic and Pacific, the former being cumulative and in support of a land campaign, and the latter being sequential in nature in a principally maritime theater. On this last point, one hopes the Naval Service does not lean too heavily on historical precedent. While the geography of the next major war in the Pacific could closely resemble the last, its character and conduct will likely not.

NDP-1 (2020) includes dozens of quotations from prominent figures in American naval and national history like George Washington, John Paul Jones, John Lejeune, Samuel P. Huntington, and Wayne Hughes. In fact, of all the quotations in the document, the only non-Americans quoted are Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Horatio Nelson, Julian Corbett, and Winston Churchill – all of whom have had a significant influence in shaping American naval warfare. Conversely, of the only four people quoted in NDP-1 (2010), one was an ancient Greek general and one was a currently-serving U.S. general. Even considering the undeniable popularity of then-General Mattis and his knack for memorable one-liners, in retrospect this seems like a poor choice.

Joint Force versus Seapower

“The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard team is relevant today and in the future because of its ability to contribute to the joint force in achieving [strategic] objectives. –NDP-1 (2010)

While the theme of NDP-1 (2020) is the importance of American seapower, the theme of NDP-1 (2010) was more focused on how the Naval Service fits into the larger Joint Force. As mentioned earlier, NDP-1 (2010) was written with an emphasis on the version of naval warfare being exercised at the time, which in 2010 was predominantly aircraft carrier-based power projection in support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterpiracy operations in the Somali Basin, and responding to natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations are at the low end of the range of military operations and are almost exclusively the purview of the Naval Service. They also did not contribute directly to the U.S. military’s main effort in the first decade of the 21st century: the defeat of violent extremism in the Middle East. Accordingly, there was a significant push within the Navy and Marine Corps to contribute to joint, land-based operations. The Marine Corps reformed itself to help the Army seize and occupy territory in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy sent thousands of “individual augmentee” Sailors to support the Army, and restructured its force employment models to provide U.S. Central Command with continuous presence of at least one, sometimes two, Carrier Strike Groups. The Navy even created blue camouflage uniforms for a more modern, tactical appearance to align with Army and Air Force fatigues. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard shifted wholesale from the Department of Transportation to the new Department of Homeland Security, established in 2002 in the wake of 9/11.

The importance of “jointness” in the early 2000s is evident in NDP-1 (2010). Aside from the liberal use of joint military doctrine buzzwords and acronyms, it takes great pains to describe how the Naval Service nests within joint doctrine and policy, beginning in the first paragraph of the introduction. NDP-1 (2010) carefully defines each key term by its joint definition, citing the appropriate joint publication. Even inherent naval terms, such as “maritime domain” and “maritime power projection,” are referenced to joint publications, almost as though it would not have been appropriate for NDP-1 to be the authoritative document for such terms. On the contrary, NDP-1 (2020) relegates the references to joint publications to footnotes and the glossary, indicating an apparent willingness by the authors to offer the document as a primary source which joint doctrine can draw upon for naval warfare concepts.

The reduced emphasis of “jointness” in the Naval Service from 2010 to 2020 is highlighted by two notable examples in NDP-1. First, NDP-1 (2020) lists the nine principles of war as opposed to the 12 principles of joint operations, as in NDP-1 (2010). The difference between the two sets of principles is the inclusion of restraint, perseverance, and legitimacy in the principles of joint operations, which were added as a result of costly lessons the U.S. military learned in the early 2000s. NDP-1 (2020) certainly does not exercise the authority to suggest that the Joint Force abandoned these three modern principles. Rather, NDP-1 (2020) simply indicates it was more valuable to include the principles of war vice the principles of joint operations. The reason for the change is not given, but it does fit with the trend of de-emphasizing “jointness” and refocusing on the enduring nature of naval warfare.

The second key example of NDP-1 (2020) moving away from a focus on joint operations is the absence of any discussion on the six phases of a joint campaign. On the other hand, NDP-1 (2010) devotes the last seven pages to describing the six phases (Shape, Deter, Seize the Initiative, Dominate, Stabilize, Enable Civil Authority). Within each phase, there is a description of how naval activities and operations can be incorporated into the larger joint effort. Over the past two decades, the joint phasing construct became so central and ubiquitous in military planning that it can be difficult to conceive an operation without phases. NDP-1 (2020) instead describes “operations along the competition continuum.” The competition (or competition-conflict) continuum does not necessarily appear intended to replace the joint phasing construct. Rather, the continuum is used to conceptually bridge steady-state, daily operations with the highest imaginable end of naval combat. Conversely, the use of campaign phases can inadvertently cause military leaders, strategists, and planners to falsely envision operations as discrete, isolated events with clearly delineated beginnings and endings. As NDP-1 states, “Our ability to maintain and execute naval functions throughout the competition continuum generates the ability to influence world events. Fundamentally, our ability to influence depends upon our ability to prevail in armed conflict.” Here again, no explanation is given in NDP-1 (2020) for excluding campaign phases, nor does it indicate the Joint Force has abandoned the phasing construct. However, the use of the competition continuum indicates strong influence from the concept of “gray zone” warfare and the prevailing focus on “great power competition,” in which military confrontation can be ambiguous and fluid.

A final note on “jointness:” for all the momentum evident in NDP-1 (2020) toward establishing the independent importance of American seapower, the U.S. military still fights as an integrated joint force. Global operations are commanded by combatant commanders, who wield functional components from all military services in a variety of ways to accomplish their mission. Rarely does the Naval Service secure national interests on its own. Even U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, a distinctly maritime theater typically commanded by an admiral, cannot neglect the contributions of the Army and Air Force in preserving the international rules-based order. Perhaps this is why NDP-1 (2020) distills the entire discussion on maritime strategy down to a single sentence: “Thus, maritime strategy boils down to this: What can the Naval Service do to best help our nation achieve what it needs across this [competition] continuum?”4 This indicates a solid recognition that naval operations support national strategy, and could even imply that single-domain strategies are unnecessary in a military that fights as an integrated joint force.

On the same token, it is unfortunate that NDP-1 (2020) does not mention the new joint concept of Dynamic Force Employment (DFE), a model for employing the joint force with agility and unpredictability. DFE could significantly impact how the Naval Service is used as an instrument of national power, as deployments will see much less geographic and temporal regularity. Even though it is a joint concept, one would think a Naval Service looking to recoup strategic readiness – and apparently de-emphasizing “forward presence” (more on that next) – would embrace DFE, yet the Naval Service continues to ignore the concept in its own doctrine, missing the opportunity to shape the concept in its favor.

From Core Capabilities to Enduring Functions

The most consequential difference between the 2010 and 2020 versions of NDP-1 lies in the way the two documents outline how the Naval Service secures U.S. national interests. NDP-1 (2010) defines six core capabilities, whereas NDP-1 (2020) defines five enduring functions.

While the two lists are similar, the obvious difference is that HA/DR and forward presence are not listed as enduring functions, whereas sealift is. The shift from core capabilities to enduring functions actually began with the revision of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower in 2015. In 2007, the original strategy expanded the traditional four core capabilities to include HA/DR and maritime security. In 2015, the revised strategy replaced the core capabilities with five essential functions, which closely resemble the enduring functions in NDP-1 (2020), including “all domain access” instead of sealift. This was likely in response to China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy and in recognition of the need for freedom of action in the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum.

The choice to establish five enduring functions in NDP-1 (2020) is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, the removal of HA/DR implies that it is no longer viewed as important as sea control, power projection, deterrence, and maritime security. This aligns with the trend of moving away from missions that do not directly support command of the seas. Second, the addition of sealift implies a renewed appreciation of the importance of maritime logistics in naval warfare (all warfare overseas, in fact). It is no secret that the Naval Service neglected its merchant marine fleet over the past decade. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby recently noted the U.S. would need about 50 more merchant vessels and about 1800 Merchant Mariners to sustain sealift operations in a Pacific conflict. Meanwhile, the ships in the fleet average 45 years-old. In a short notice exercise last year, only 40 percent of the Maritime Ready Reserve Fleet was able to sail within 48 hours. In crafting a coherent story to convey the importance of American seapower to Congress and the American public, sealift should be a central theme and is appropriately included as an enduring function of the Naval Service.

Finally, maritime security (another 2007 addition alongside HA/DR) was retained, while forward presence was removed. The implication is that achieving maritime security is more important than maintaining forward presence. This is peculiar, particularly since NDP-1 (2020) concludes with the phrase “Always forward. Always faithful. Always ready. Always.” Instead of being listed as an enduring function, forward presence is described as supporting deterrence, naval diplomacy, and maritime domain awareness. It is possible this is a tacit recognition that forward presence remains important, but the Naval Service cannot sustain routine force deployments as an intrinsic measure of effectiveness. If so, the authors of NDP-1 (2020) missed a key opportunity to embrace Dynamic Force Employment as a viable way to secure national interests while also generating readiness for future conflicts.


Ultimately, the value in comparing NDP-1 (2020) with NDP-1 (2010) lies in identifying trends in how the Naval Service wages war, so those who implement strategy can adapt accordingly, and in highlighting possible issues, those who craft strategy can also adjust course as needed.

The first noteworthy trend is the overall improvement of the document itself. The quality and style of writing in NDP-1 (2020) is apparent, and bodes well for reaching a broader audience, beyond those who read doctrine as part of their occupation. NDP-1 (2020) goes a long way toward telling a story of the importance of American seapower. A compelling story, or logical narrative, is crucial for making convincing budgetary arguments to non-navalists in the Pentagon and in Congress.

The second trend is the renewed emphasis on the history of American seapower. Whereas NDP-1 (2010) was focused on seapower as it was being applied at the time, NDP-1 (2020) firmly establishes the Naval Service’s historical roots, and demonstrates how the lessons of the past could be applied today and in the future. The caution for strategists is not to draw too heavily on the lessons of the last major naval conflict in the Pacific. One of the only certainties in warfare is that it tends to unfold in unexpected and surprising ways. As the prospect of high-end naval warfare in the Pacific is once again visible on the horizon, it is entirely possible the list of similarities with World War II may end with geography.

The third trend is the shift from describing the Naval Service as part of a larger joint force, to focusing on how the Naval Service itself secures national interests. NDP-1 (2020) does not abandon the idea of the Naval Service supporting the joint force, but it certainly focuses more on naval warfare and less on joint operations. On the other hand, NDP-1 (2010) was written with such an emphasis on “jointness” that it might have been more appropriately titled Naval Contributions to Joint Operations instead of Naval Warfare. The caution for strategists here is, with the renewed emphasis on communicating the importance of American seapower, not to become too myopic and forget the critical contributions and interrelationships of all military branches.

Finally, the most consequential trend is the change from six core capabilities to five enduring functions (seapower, power projection, deterrence, maritime security, and sealift). The removal of HA/DR and forward presence signals that the Naval Service no longer views these functions as central to accomplishing its mission, whereas the inclusion of sealift signals a recognition of the criticality of maritime logistics. As opposed to the Principles of Joint Operations, NDP-1 (2020) does have the authority to officially redefine the Naval Service’s core capabilities into enduring functions, so this particular change merits more discussion and explanation.

Specifically, leaders should explain the logic behind not including forward presence as an enduring function. It could be that the Naval Service no longer views forward presence as a function at all, but rather as a characteristic that supports other functions. As the Naval Service struggles to build an integrated force structure that can keep up with global commitments and threats, forward presence as it was previously understood may have been unsustainable to include as an enduring function. If so, the Naval Service would do well to incorporate the joint concept of Dynamic Force Employment into its evolving narrative on the importance of American seapower in securing national interests.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the Center for International Maritime Security. His views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. NDP-1 (2010) uses the phrase “political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, and information” but thankfully refrains from using the actual acronym.

2. Some use of the buzz phrase “great power competition” is unavoidable and forgivable. NDP-1 (2020) manages to successfully ponder naval warfare in this future geopolitical schema without overusing the term to the point of cliché.

3. Admiral Yarnell demonstrated the vulnerability of Hawaii to Japanese air attacks via fleet exercises conducted as part of joint Army/Navy war games in 1932, a decade before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

4. For comparison, NDP-1 (2010) devotes three full pages to an explanation of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the unified maritime strategy of the Naval Service.

5. Capabilities and functions are listed as ordered in each version of NDP-1.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (June 1, 2020) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) transits the Philippine Sea, June 1, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Julian Davis/Released)

Bilge Pumps 9 – The Future of Amphibious Warfare with Commodore Michael Clapp, RN (Ret.)

By Alex Clarke

Wowzer, it is not just another historically informed maritime current events podcast from the Bilge Pumps crew, it is a bumper double feature with the one, the only, Commodore Michael Clapp, RN (Ret.), commander of the 1982 Falklands War Amphibious Task Group, joining your regular Bilge Pumps crew for a discussion on the future of amphibious shipping. So this time instead of it just being your regular three naval geeks of yore – we are four!

So what is episode nine all about? Well, primarily, it is the future of amphibious warfare, but not as it is often told. This time, it is from the perspective of the ships, and the reality of experience and historical precedent as a guide for them. They can be guided not necessarily on how they will do it, but what they will need to do.

#Bilgepumps can still call itself a new series and new avenue, yet this is even newer, because this is our first guest episode. We hope you like it, we hope you find it useful and, more than ever, we would love any comments, topic suggestions or ideas for artwork to be tweeted to us, the Bilgepump crew (with #Bilgepump) at Alex (@AC_NavalHistory), Drach (@Drachinifel), and Jamie (@Armouredcarrier). Or you can comment on our Youtube channels (listed down below). 

Download Bilge Pumps 9, Part One

Download Bilge Pumps 9, Part Two


3. Jamie’s Youtube Channel Armoured Carriers
4. U.S: Paul Fraioli, “The Future of Amphibious Operations,” IISS, January 2020.
5. U.K.: Future Navy Vision: The Royal Navy Today, Tomorrow, and Towards 2025 , Royal Navy,  2020.
6. China: Minnie Chang, “China Building Navy’s Biggest Amphibious Assault Vessel, Sources Say, South China Morning Post, March 29, 2017.
7. Russia: “Russian MoD Signs Contract for Two Project 23900 Helicopter Carriers LHD,” Navy Recognition, May 27, 2020.
8. Australia: Parliament of Australia, Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Defence Annual Report 2003 .
9. Future of Amphibious Warfare in General: Michael O’Hanlon, “The Questionable Future of Amphibious Warfare,” Brookings Institution, June 23, 2020 . 

Alex Clarke is the producer of The Bilge Pumps podcast.

Contact the CIMSEC podcast team at

Ocean Governance Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

From July 20 to August 3, 2020, CIMSEC featured a wide array of publications on the future of ocean governance, submitted in response to our call for articles issued in partnership with the Stable Seas program of One Earth Future. This turned out to be one of the most viewed CIMSEC topic weeks, and which featured insights from a wide range of authors.

Ocean governance is in a state of flux. Legal regimes are being revised, and maritime powers are employing hybrid tactics that seek to exploit the seams of legal frameworks and norms that constitute ocean governance. Non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and others are constantly innovating to further nefarious activity. The rules and standards that underpin good order on the high seas must keep pace with those who are keen to exploit them.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is emerging as a significant issue. These natural resources require careful tending if they are to be sustainable, but aggressive fishing fleets, especially China’s, are depleting a resource that has long provided for millions. If revised regimes and norms cannot restore the world’s fisheries, they may become a major driver of competition and conflict in regions already suffering from tension. As the Cod Wars between allied Iceland and the United Kingdom revealed, fisheries can be, in the eyes of some, worthy of threatening broader conflict.

Ocean governance is explicitly tied toward the ability to effectively monitor and respond to crimes. But the vast expanse of the world’s oceans allows many criminals and nefarious actors to operate openly and in plain sight, unless someone has the means to both watch and react. Ocean governance is inseparable from maritime domain awareness, and developing greater awareness is often the first step toward establishing responses and distributing resources. Those who are tasked with enforcing good order on the seas will almost always suffer a dearth of monitoring and response capability, but ingenuity in the application of both will reap rewards.

Ocean governance is more than just combatting pirates or smugglers, illegal fishers or non-state actors. Ocean governance encompasses efforts that seek to prevent North Korean container ships and their partners in violating sanctions, or in understanding which hybrid warfare methods are more a legal matter than a military one. Ocean governance is center-stage in matters of great power competition, whether it be China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea, or Russia’s maritime activities around the Crimean peninsula.

What is clear is that ocean governance deserves greater attention from policymakers, and the foresight to recognize that if many issues are not settled through enhanced ocean governance today, then later they may become far more expansive problems in the future.

Below are the articles that featured during the extended topic week, with excerpts. We thank these authors for their excellent contributions.

Unauthorized Flags: A Threat to the Global Maritime Regime,” by Cameron Trainer and Paulina Izewicz

Fraudulent and false flagging is a complex issue requiring action from multilateral organizations like the IMO, national authorities, and the private sector. Each of these actors has a different set of incentives. Much is at stake for the private sector…The temptation to pass responsibility for combatting unauthorized flag use to others is immense. But it is only through steps taken collectively by all relevant stakeholders that this problem can be addressed.

Stand Up A Joint Interagency Task Force To Fight Illegal Fishing,” by Claude Berube

Between NGOs, elements of U.S. government agencies, and Congressional legislation, there are positive moves toward addressing IUU fishing. Given the rapid depletion rates of fish stock, China’s growing global presence, and the impact of IUU fishing on economies, more action must be taken. Part of that action requires a reassessment of real innovative and adaptive measures that NGOs have used in partnership with host nations to counter what may be the greatest challenge in the twenty-first century.

Reflecting the Law of the Sea: In Defense of the Bay of Bengal’s Grey Area,” by Cornell Overfield

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), more than any other implement of international law, has underpinned the orderly delimitation and governance of the world’s oceans. Despite its status as an unparalleled accomplishment of diplomacy and international law, the treaty is not exhaustive or without ambiguities. One outstanding issue in delimitation arbitration is the relationship between the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf – specifically whether one state’s EEZ rights can overlap with another state’s continental shelf rights. What deserves greater attention is how recent court maritime boundary delimitations derided by some observers as legislation from the bench in fact follow the black letter of the law more closely than state practice or previous court decisions.

Make Maritime Stability Operations a Core U.S. Coast Guard Mission Focus,” by Dan Owen

Fortunately for the U.S. and the larger international development community, a basic framework or mechanism to address maritime instability already exists, called Maritime Stability Operations (MSO). Additionally, one U.S. government agency in particular is especially qualified and well-suited for this mission, the U.S. Coast Guard.

Stop Seabed Mining Now,” by Drake Long

Seabed governance is going to be one of the thornier issues for a humankind more dependent on the oceans and coasts in the future, and the foundation needs to be laid now for an approach that does not imperil the seabed’s ecosystem for a very dubious profit. National governments may be too indecisive to come to consensus, and international organizations like the ISA are ill-equipped to enforce anything even if they do have a change of heart or code. The process of better seabed governance begins with increased scrutiny, and will largely depend upon an alliance of marine environmentalist non-governmental organizations and the scientific research community.

Regional Maritime Security Governance and the Challenges of State Cooperation on Piracy,” by Dr. Anja Menzel

Threats to maritime security cannot be understood in isolation, as they are deeply interrelated. Going forward, maritime security governance will therefore need a more integrated understanding of the hazards posed by maritime crimes as well as the potential of coordinated efforts to combat these crimes. Specifically, it is necessary to strengthen maritime domain awareness by emphasizing potential synergies between combatting maritime crimes with the blue economy and the safety of the marine environment. 

Fight Illegal Fishing for Great Power Advantage,” by Matthew Ader

IUU fishing is an ongoing humanitarian, economic, and environmental disaster. Working to stop it will be relatively affordable and advantageous for the U.S. if it leverages regional partnerships and interagency assets. More work should be done to explore the possibilities it offers as a matter of urgency.

The Cod Wars and Today: Lessons from an Almost War,” by Walker Mills

Not once, but three times in the 20th Century, cod was almost the causus belli between Iceland and the United Kingdom in a string of events referred to collectively as the “Cod Wars.”1 The Cod Wars, taken together, make clear that issues of maritime governance and access to maritime resources can spark inter-state conflict even among allied nations. Fishing rights can be core issues that maritime states will vigorously defend.

Arctic Governance: Keeping the Arctic Council on Target,” by Ian Birdwell

This June has been unsettling for the Arctic. Russia experienced three events the Arctic Council has been dreading for years: an oil spill, an outbreak of wildfires, and the hottest Arctic temperature record being set with a 100-degree Fahrenheit day in Siberia. However, Russia is not alone in addressing these events. The Arctic Council, the Arctic’s premier multilateral organization, has sought to prepare the region and the globe for the eventuality of a warmer Arctic.

Maritime Crime During the Pandemic: Unmasking Trends in The Caribbean,” by Dr. Ian Ralby, Lt. Col. Michael Jones, and Capt. (N) Errington Shurland (ret.)

To keep pace with and ultimately get ahead of the criminals, CARICOM member states will need to explore a range of tools for addressing the full spectrum of illicit maritime activities. This includes using new technology such as maritime domain awareness platforms, enhancing operational cooperation through CARICOM IMPACS and the RSS, and both adopting and implementing legal instruments such as the Treaty of San José. While the pandemic has curtailed and thwarted many good things around the world, it somewhat ironically has helped catalyze this process in the Caribbean.

Ocean Governance and Maritime Security in The Gulf of Guinea,” by Bem Ibrahim Garba

Much can be achieved through the collective efforts of these coastal communities when they come together as progressive stakeholders for the governance of the Gulf of Guinea. Effective ocean governance within the Gulf of Guinea will require their collective identification of common goals and the implementation of collectively agreed upon effective strategies for managing the region. These must all be built on enduring institutional structures.

Using Geospatial Data to Improve Maritime Domain Awareness in the Sulu and Celebes Seas,” by Michael van Ginkel

Sprawling archipelagos and limited government resources make comprehensive maritime domain awareness (MDA) challenging in the Sulu and Celebes Seas. To improve their information gathering capabilities, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have invested in advanced geospatial data acquisition technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and satellites. 

In the Deep End: How Seafarers Are Redirecting Security Consciousness,” by Jessica K. Simonds

Seafarers engage in various security practices while transiting the Straits of Hormuz, Bab Al-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, and the broader Indian Ocean. How have these practices developed to identify and communicate emerging maritime threats based on how seafarer feedback has been incorporated within strategies that counter piracy?

Implications of Hybrid Warfare for the Order of the Oceans,” by Alexander Lott

Since Frank Hoffman coined the term “hybrid warfare” in 2007, numerous articles and books have been written on this theme from the perspective of military studies and international relations. Yet the existing legal literature has not so far focused on the challenges that hybrid warfare poses for the order of the oceans. One of the main current research gaps lies in the lack of clear understanding on how the law of the sea operates in hybrid warfare.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: An overhead view of a container ship (Getty)

Implications of Hybrid Warfare for the Order of the Oceans

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Alexander Lott


Since Frank Hoffman coined the term “hybrid warfare” in 2007,1 numerous articles and books have been written on this theme from the perspective of military studies and international relations.2 Yet the existing legal literature has not so far focused on the challenges that hybrid warfare poses for the order of the oceans. One of the main current research gaps lies in the lack of clear understanding on how the law of the sea operates in hybrid warfare.3

The principal question is how can the law of the sea contribute to ensuring the rule of law in major shipping routes impacted by hybrid warfare? Another fundamental research problem lies in the ambiguities of how hybrid naval warfare or conflict differs – if at all – from traditional concepts of naval warfare or law enforcement operations. The implications of hybrid warfare for ocean governance deserves to be examined, as well as the usefulness of the concept of hybrid warfare for assessing the (il)legality of an aggressor’s actions in the maritime domain.

Hybrid Warfare as a Challenge to the Rights of Navigation

The means of hybrid naval warfare include the use of firearms and explosives, arrests of ships, cyberattacks, threats of force, economic coercion, and grey maritime networks, to name a few.4 Its scope may also include industrial projects that cause ecological destruction and pose security threats in the maritime domain. Notable examples include the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge in the Black Sea, subsurface Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, and artificial islands in the South China Sea that are allegedly detrimental to the marine environment and are protested against by the coastal states that are impacted by these construction activities.

Coastal states may perceive such industrial projects in their adjacent waters as a threat to their national security. For example, Finland’s defense minister has referred to concerns that are largely shared with the neighboring Baltic States that Russia could use its armed forces during a conflict situation to control the Nord Stream pipelines that cross Finnish, Swedish, and Danish maritime zones.5 Ukraine has similar concerns in respect of the Kerch Strait Bridge and much of the international community in relation to the artificial islands in the South China Sea. These projects have also created new challenges for the rights of navigation in the relevant maritime areas and thus for the stability of the law of the sea.

In 2018, the volume of seaborne trade reached over 11 billion tons which accounts for approximately 90 percent of global trade.6 Hybrid warfare is a hindrance to navigation in important maritime routes and has a negative impact on the stability of global commerce. In particular, such challenges to the rights of navigation go against the strategic maritime security interests of the European Union (EU) and its member states, which are “[t]he preservation of freedom of navigation, the protection of the global EU supply chain and of maritime trade, the right of innocent and transit passage of ships and the security of their crew and passengers.”7 The United States shares these interests and, in pursuance of these aims, operates the freedom of navigation program for the protection of navigation rights. In the example of freedom of navigation operations carried out in the South China Sea this has primarily caused tensions with China. Similarly, United States warships have repeatedly encountered dangerous approaches from the Iranian navy vessels in the Persian Gulf and Russian warships and aircraft in the Baltic Sea.

Russia, China, and Iran are three states which are primarily associated with the adoption of techniques of hybrid conflict.8 They are also important law of the sea actors, whose maritime areas include or are proximate to strategic waterways.

It is estimated that the rate of crossings in the South China Sea amounts to more than half of the world’s merchant fleet capacity,9 and the Baltic Sea is an area where approximately 15 percent of global cargo is trafficked.10 The Baltic Sea, the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Black Sea are also strategically important routes for oil and gas shipments.11 The Baltic Sea, which is already heavily used for the export of Russian oil, is also destined to become the biggest route for the transportation of Russian natural gas to Europe, overshadowing the main alternative transit route in Ukraine.12 The Black Sea, which holds itself as much natural gas reserves as the North Sea, is used by Russia as one of its main routes for oil shipments and is also destined to become crossed by many subsurface pipelines.13 Furthermore, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the main global chokepoints for the transportation of oil. Approximately a fifth of global oil exports are shipped via the Strait of Hormuz.14

The strategic importance of these maritime regions shows how significant it is to uphold the rule of law and safeguard the passage rights therein. However, these maritime regions are also areas where the stability of navigation is currently under pressure due to the coastal states’ shifting security considerations and methods of hybrid conflict. Foreign ships that were navigating through important chokepoints of maritime commerce have recently repeatedly been subjected to the use of force or coercion by some coastal states. Notable examples include the Kerch Strait incident of November 25, 2018, and the Strait of Hormuz incidents in the summer of 2019. 

Regional Examples of Grey Zones in Maritime Hybrid Conflict

The grey zone in hybrid warfare can be understood as a space short of clear-cut military action wherein the aggressor creates enough ambiguity to reach its strategic objectives without engaging in an open offensive.15 In the Kerch Strait incident of November 2018, Russia arguably made use of legal uncertainty by operating in a grey zone for complicating decision-making for other states. It seized three Ukrainian naval ships, including two warships, and arrested their crew as they were entering the Kerch Strait under freedom of navigation. In the context of the annexation of Crimea and armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, this incident has raised the question of whether Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait should be considered as being undertaken in the legal framework of international humanitarian law.16 In other words, it is not entirely clear to what extent the law of the sea applies in hybrid warfare or conflict. This is intertwined with the question of whether the law of naval warfare or the legal framework on law enforcement should be applied in so-called grey areas to assess the legality of the coastal State’s use of force or direct coercion on the sea.

In the Kerch Strait incident Russia acted openly by using its Coast Guard vessels. By contrast, in the attacks against two oil tankers at the approaches to the Strait of Hormuz in the summer of 2019, the aggressor used a covert operation. In the context of the South China Sea, China’s activities in a grey zone allegedly include both elements, such as the use of law enforcement and a maritime militia in an escalatory manner to deter the use of natural resources by other states.17

As widely acknowledged, the passage rights of foreign ships and aircraft are at the center of tensions between China and the user states of navigation routes in the South China Sea.18 By contrast, Russia’s practice in relation to the passage rights of ships and aircraft in, above and near its maritime areas in the Baltic Sea (such as the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland and adjacent to the Kaliningrad enclave) has largely remained unnoticed in legal research. The repeated unsafe actions of Russian fighter jets against U.S. warships that have entered the Baltic Sea, the incursions of suspected Russian submarines into the territorial seas of Sweden and Finland, as well as the multiple violations of Estonia’s airspace by Russia’s aircraft are all instances that merit further attention in the context of hybrid conflict in the Baltic Sea region.19

In other occasions, tensions between the coastal states of the Gulf of Finland have had a direct adverse impact on the passage rights of ships. For example, in the aftermath of the 2007 riots which were sparked in the Russian-speaking minority in Tallinn due to the relocation of the Soviet Bronze Soldier monument, Russia declined to give its authorization for crossing its territorial sea under the right of innocent passage to the commercial ship Vironia. She transported goods and passengers in the eastern Gulf of Finland between the Estonian Sillamäe Port and the Finnish Kotka Port. Russia effectively caused the closure of the ferry line.

In practice, the Nordic States acknowledge the threats of hybrid warfare and actively prepare to counter such challenges in the northern Baltic region.20 For example, the first large-scale training exercise of the United Kingdom-led Joint Expeditionary Force was aimed at countering threats emanating from a hypothetical hybrid warfare in Estonia, including its maritime domain.21 Likewise, the Finnish defence minister has cautioned against the possibility that the demilitarized Åland Islands are turned into a theater of war by so-called little green men in case a foreign state is willing to breach the rules of international law.22

Legal Implications of Grey Zone in the Maritime Domain

The aggressor usually uses grey areas to complicate decision-making on the (il)legality of its actions in conflict situations and, from other states’ perspective, make it more difficult to take resolute steps in response. This is partly because it remains unclear what is the threshold for the applicability of the law of naval warfare in situations of hybrid conflict. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean that hybrid conflict should be subjected to a new set of rules. Usually, incidents that have occurred in grey areas in the context of hybrid conflict (e.g. the examples provided above) can be subjected to the legal framework of humanitarian law or peacetime law enforcement based on which it is possible to assess their legality.

Historians have pointed out that hybrid warfare is not a distinctly new phenomenon and, instead, simply constitutes a new term for a centuries-old concept.23 In the negotiations, drafting, and discussions during the process of creating the relevant treaties on the law of the sea and armed conflict, states did not consider it necessary to establish a separate legal framework for hybrid warfare. When drafting the relevant treaties, they instead proceeded from traditional concepts of laws of peace and war. Although rapid developments in technology have made it now possible to adopt more sophisticated means of hybrid warfare, including cyber warfare, states should still principally be able to classify any incidents of hybrid warfare under either the ramifications of armed conflict or peacetime law enforcement operations.

Any new legal framework for hybrid naval warfare that falls between the laws of peace and war would risk creating additional ambiguities in assessing the legality of the aggressor’s actions in the so-called grey area. Generally, where disputes arise over the interpretation of the applicable laws in situations concerning grey areas in whatever field of law, recourse is made to courts for justice and legal certainty. Similarly, one may expect that the current ambiguities regarding the classification of incidents which have occurred in grey areas in a hybrid conflict will gradually dissolve in the proceedings before international judicial bodies on a case-by-case basis.

In this context, the ongoing arbitral proceedings between Ukraine and Russia over the Kerch Strait incident of November 2018 are particularly promising. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has found that “the distinction between military and law enforcement activities must be based primarily on an objective evaluation of the nature of the activities in question, taking into account the relevant circumstances in each case.”24 This question will likely be addressed in greater detail during the arbitral proceedings as instituted by Ukraine on April 1, 2019 under Annex VII to the Law of the Sea Convention25 on the Kerch Strait incident.26

Thus, instead of drafting new international rules on the so-called grey area in hybrid warfare or conflict, it might be feasible to first wait for international judicial bodies to develop their case law which would clarify the criteria for distinguishing between law enforcement operations in the maritime domain from naval warfare operations.

At the same time, states could modify their current domestic legal acts on national defense, law enforcement, and state of emergency in order to ensure that the key provisions on declaring a state of emergency or war and maintaining order in the maritime domain are sufficiently flexible for responding to the dynamic challenges of hybrid warfare. This may require amendments to domestic definitions such as those pertaining to a state of emergency or defense readiness. For example, maintaining in a domestic legal act a closed list of instances that constitute a threat to constitutional order (e.g. terrorist activity, forceful isolation of an area), and offer a prerequisite for a state to declare a state of emergency, might not enable it to proportionately tackle the irregular tactics and formations of hybrid warfare. This is especially the case where a state has defined the state of emergency via an outdated closed list of activities that are deemed to pose threat to its constitutional order. States that are located at the front line of hybrid warfare should consider making the threshold for declaring a state of emergency rather flexible.


Based on the incidents in the Black Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Baltic Sea, and the South China Sea in the past decade, one may reasonably argue that state practice demonstrates the increasing use of hybrid naval warfare techniques. Yet the acceptance of a new legal concept of hybrid conflict that falls between the fields of naval warfare and peacetime law enforcement could further complicate the already difficult assessment of the legality of the aggressor’s actions in the so-called grey area. A distinct legal framework for hybrid naval warfare would arguably create further legal ambiguity, rather than help solving current problems in distinguishing the law of peace from the laws of naval warfare. Hence, it might contribute to the aims of states that employ practices of maritime hybrid warfare.

States may wait for international judicial bodies to establish solid case law on differences between military and law enforcement operations in the context of hybrid conflict, including in the current proceedings on the Kerch Strait incident of November 2018. At the same time, states should revise their domestic legal acts where necessary for ensuring that the key provisions on declaring a state of emergency or war and maintaining order in the maritime domain are sufficiently flexible for responding to the dynamic challenges of hybrid warfare.

Dr. Alexander Lott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea at the University of Tromsø, the Arctic University of Norway. He is also a Lecturer of Administrative Law at the University of Tartu, Estonia.


1. F. G. Hoffman. Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars. Arlington 2007, p. 29.

2. C. Kremidas-Courtney. Countering Hybrid Threats in the Maritime Environment. – Center for International Military Security, 11.06.2018.

3. See also S. Haines. War at sea: Nineteenth-century laws for twenty-first century wars? – 98 International Review of the Red Cross 2016(2), pp. 419, 443-444.

4. C. Callaghan, R. Schroeder, W. Porter. Mapping Gray Maritime Networks for Hybrid Warfare. Center for International Maritime Security, 01.07.2020.

5. J. Niinistö. Itämeren geostrateginen merkitys kasvussa. Centrum Balticum, 02.03.2017.

6. UN Conference on Trade and Development. 2019 e-Handbook of Statistics. United Nations 2019.

7. Council of the European Union. European Union Maritime Security Strategy. Brussels 2014, pp. 6-7.

8. See, e.g. J. Stavridis. Maritime Hybrid Warfare is Coming. – 142 US Naval Institute Proceedings 2016(12).

9. Z. Keyuan. Navigation in the South China Sea: Why Still an Issue? – 32 The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law 2017(2), p. 244.

10. HELCOM. Ensuring safe shipping in the Baltic. Helsinki 2009, p. 2.

11. Ministry of Defence. Future Security Challenges in the Baltic Sea Region: A study for the Swedish Armed Forces by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre. Shrivenham 2015, p. 4.

12. G. Kuczyński. Nord Stream 2: A Trap for Ukraine. The Warsaw Institute Review, 10.02.2019.

13. M. Papatulica. Black Sea area at the crossroad of the biggest global energy players’ interests. The impact on Romania. – 22 Procedia Economics and Finance 2015, pp. 475, 478.

14. P. Nobakht. Why Does the Strait of Hormuz Matter? BBC News, 11.06.2019.

15. See Stavridis, supra n 8.

16. See J. Kraska. The Kerch Strait Incident: Law of the Sea or Law of Naval Warfare? EJIL: Talk!, 03.12.2018.

17. L. J. Morris et al. Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression below the Threshold of Major War. The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica 2019, p. 92.

18. Keyuan, supra n 9, p. 245.

19. See further A. Lott. Le régime légal de la partie septentrionale de la mer Baltique dans le contexte des récents développements de sécurité. – Stratégique 2019(1-2), pp. 255-272.

20. C. S. Chivvis. Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What Can be Done About It. The RAND Corporation, Santa Monica 2017, p. 7.

21. See V. Lauri. Salmistul toimub brittide meredessant. ERR Uudised, 29.06.2019. See also D. Cavegn. UK planning landing operations exercise in Estonia in summer 2019. ERR News, 09.12.2018.

22. Niinistö, supra n 5. R. Uosokainen. Puolustusministeri Niinistö: Demilitarisoituna Ahvenanmaa muodostaa sotilaallisen tyhjiön. Yle Uutiset, 17.10.2016.

23. P. R. Mansoor. Introduction: Hybrid Warfare in History, in W. Murray, P. R. Mansoor (eds.). Hybrid Warfare: Fighting Complex Opponents from the Ancient World to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press 2012, p. 1.

24. International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Order: Case concerning the detention of three Ukrainian naval vessels (Ukraine v. Russian Federation), 25.05.2019, para. 66.

25. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Montego Bay 10.12.1982, e.i.f. 16.11.1994.

26. Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal. Dispute Concerning the Detention of Ukrainian Naval Vessels and Servicemen (Ukraine v. Russia). Case No. 2019-28.

Featured Image: Kerch Strait Bridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.