Forward…from the Seabed?

Seabed Warfare Week

By David R. Strachan

Events of the past decade have forced the United States Navy to re-imagine undersea warfare in light of two emerging and interrelated trends: the rise of sophisticated unmanned undersea systems, and a dramatic increase in geopolitical tensions suggesting the return to an era of near-peer competition and great power conflict. Russian activities in the Crimea, Middle East, and the Arctic, as well as China’s growing regional influence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are prompting the Navy to shift its priorities from confronting lesser threats such as rogue states and nonstate actors, and being a “global force for good,” to planning and preparing for the possibility of large-scale warfare against a well-equipped, modern navy. As such, warfighting concepts and operations mothballed after the Cold War are now in need of urgent re-tooling for the current era.1

One such operation experiencing a kind of renaissance is mine warfare which, when combined with unmanned technologies and key infrastructure based on the ocean floor, transforms into the more potent strategic tool of seabed warfare. But even the concept of seabed warfare is itself in transition, and is on track to be fully subsumed by the broader paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare. Mines and associated sensors, as currently employed, will be a thing of the past as their functionality is absorbed by fleets of smart, mobile, autonomous vehicles. More profound still will be the range of new threats unleashed by autonomous undersea warfare. The U.S. Navy must anticipate these threats and recognize that its continued dominance of the undersea domain will rest on its ability to prepare for the kind of combat the coming era of unmanned undersea conflict will entail.

Not Your Father’s Seabed

Warfare conducted on and from the ocean floor is nothing new. For the better part of a century, ships, aircraft, and submarines laid mines and encapsulated torpedos fitted with an array of magnetic, acoustic, and pressure sensors. SOSUS provided valuable intelligence on Soviet naval activities, and during the 1970s, U.S. spy submarines successfully tapped Soviet undersea cables, resulting in what is arguably one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War. But while conceptually seabed warfare may not be new, it is evolving, and is poised to be more fully developed and integrated into the wider grid of unmanned maritime operations.

The U.S. Navy and DARPA have anticipated this evolution, and have proposed a variety of operating concepts to prepare for it, namely:

  • Advanced Undersea Warfare System (AUWS) – A distributed network of remotely controlled unmanned systems that can be rapidly deployed and custom configured for battlespace shaping and A2/AD. 2
  • Forward Deployed Energy and Communications Outpost (FDECO) – An array of fixed undersea docking stations providing recharging, communications, and data transfer to extend UUV reach and endurance.
  • Modular Undersea Effectors System (MUSE) – A system of fixed, encapsulated payloads capable of deploying weapons, decoys, communications nodes, and other such “effectors.”3
  • Hydra – A DARPA-led initiative that calls for a distributed undersea network of unmanned payloads and platforms “trucked in” and deployed from large UUVs.
  • Upward Falling Payloads (UFP) – Similar to MUSE, this DARPA initiative proposes fixed, self-contained payloads on the seabed for remote activation and deployment.

The future state of seabed warfare lies somewhere in the integration of these five operational concepts. Appropriately, each one showcases the dominant role of unmanned, autonomous or semi-autonomous systems that are tightly networked to both manned and unmanned assets operating above, on, and below the sea. But they also rely heavily on the deployment of fixed seabed infrastructure, specialized hardware that may be required in the near-term, but will present logistical challenges and also leave critical systems vulnerable to attack. We should expect that in the opening days, if not hours, of a war with Russia or China, seabed systems will be at the top of the target list. Therefore, while this configuration may work for coastal defense of the United States and our allies, its cumbersome and resource intensive nature will only add a layer of operational complexity that could compromise readiness in a forward deployed environment.

Nipping at Our Heels

Our adversaries are not standing still, and are inching ever closer to technological parity with the United States in both unmanned undersea systems and seabed warfare. Both Russia and China maintain robust search and development programs that have resulted in impressive gains over the past few years alone.

Since 2007, Russia has made great strides in undersea warfare, deploying several new classes of submarines, and conducting deep sea operations on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, and has made no secret of its intention to build a robust undersea capability to offset the asymmetric advantage of the United States. Among some of Russia’s more impressive initiatives include:

  • Project 09852 Belgorod – At 600 feet, this modified Oscar II-class is the largest nuclear submarine ever built. It is designed to operate on or near the Arctic seabed, and deploy an array of unmanned vehicles, manned submersibles, and other systems, “including ones that do not yet exist.”4
  • Oceanic Multipurpose System Status-6 – An intercontinental nuclear powered autonomous torpedo, purportedly capable of speeds of up to 100 knots and a running depth of 1000 meters, this doomsday weapon is armed with a 100 megaton “salted cobalt” warhead capable of destroying ports and naval installations and rendering the area uninhabitable for decades.
  • Harmony – A SOSUS-style network of bottom sensors placed on the floor Arctic Ocean and powered by small nuclear reactors.5
  • Project 09851 Khabarovsk – A submarine designed ostensibly as a deployment platform for Status-6.6

Russian submarines have also been observed near undersea cables in the North Atlantic, prompting speculation that Moscow is either exploiting or interfering with global information flows, or preparing for the possibility of severing critical information infrastructure in the event of war.

Diagram of Russian Project 09852 Belgorod. (via

China, on the other hand, seems content, at least publicly, to assume a more defensive posture and focus on establishing a wide network of fixed and mobile sensors in the South China Sea. Chinese vessels have been aggressively mapping the seabed and gathering oceanographic data for scientific and military applications. Last summer, a dozen Haiyi undersea gliders were released into the South China Sea, reaching record depths while transmitting data in real-time to land-based laboratories, suggesting a breakthrough in undersea communications.7 And China State Shipbuilding Corporation has put forth a concept it calls the “Great Undersea Wall,” a distributed network of air, surface, and subsurface sensors to identify and track submarines in the South China Sea.8 A three dimensional model of the project featured an array of sensors, UUV docking stations, and undersea cables, very similar to FDECO.9  While publicly China’s seabed warfare efforts appear to be mirroring those of the United States, given the breathtaking extent of China’s activities in the Spratly Islands, we can only speculate as to what may be occurring on the ocean floor, and whether it moves beyond benign surveillance to something more lethal.

What do these developments by our potential adversaries mean for the United States Navy? Clearly both Russia and China are achieving significant technological milestones that should concern if not alarm Navy leaders. As such, we are reaching a point where it may not be enough to deploy passive, defensive systems that do little more than blunt offensive capabilities. The Navy is, at the end of the day, a fighting force, and it should be prepared to fight, and the fight may be soon happening on or near the seabed.

Preparing for a New Kind Of Conflict

Numerous seabed and UUV programs are currently under development or deployed to the Fleet. Given that we are still very much in the infancy of unmanned undersea warfare, this should be expected and encouraged. The Navy should indeed cast a wide net in an effort to understand the potential and the limits of unmanned systems. However, while “letting all the flowers grow” has its merits, the time for greater clarity in roles and expectations for these systems is here, particularly as advancements in adversary programs continue unabated.10

While any AUV program should integrate a full spectrum of effectors, it is critical that it also be capable of intercepting enemy unmanned vehicles and striking enemy seabed infrastructure. To date, however, the development of unmanned undersea craft has been driven by non-combat requirements – oceanographic research, intelligence gathering, mine countermeasures and other roles deemed too dangerous or tedious for human involvement. Other than passing references to anti-UUV operations, little has been written regarding the potential for equipping unmanned undersea vehicles for combat or strike operations. This may be due to the infancy of the technology, or ethical considerations surrounding autonomy, or that it smacks too much of science fiction, but it may also be due to the fact that actual undersea combat (i.e. submersible vs. submersible, submersible vs. seabed target) has been largely nonexistent, and in fact has only resulted in one kill in the history of submarine warfare.11 Since World War II, undersea warfare has been more a high-stakes game of cat and mouse, to deliver cruise missile attacks, gather intelligence, and maintain a viable nuclear deterrent.

But whereas in peacetime there is every reason to avoid confrontations between manned platforms, such reasoning may not necessarily hold in the case of unmanned systems. Unencumbered by this imperative, and with the cover of the opaque undersea environment, as well as plausible deniability to cloak them, fleets of unmanned vehicles will be free to disrupt, degrade, and destroy seabed infrastructure – and one another – at will.

As such, the Navy should move to develop a single, highly modular class of autonomous undersea vehicle that operates in “Strikepods,” adaptive, autonomous undersea strike groups comprised of any number of vehicles, and designed to execute missions of varying scale and complexity, such as ASW, ISR, MCM, and EMW, but also, importantly, counter-AUV and time-critical strike. Deployed from shore, surface ships, aerial assets, or submarines, and operating either within the water column or on the seabed, they would effectively eliminate the need for cumbersome, costly, and vulnerable fixed infrastructure on the sea floor.

Given its highly modular design, each vehicle would be capable of performing the role of any effector, from sensor to communications node to weapon, whether mobile, hovering, or fixed on the seabed, and ideally would be capable of dynamically reconfiguring at a moment’s notice to compensate for losses or malfunctions and ensure mission success. Strikepods could clandestinely penetrate the A2/AD defenses of an adversary and then deploy to the seabed as fixed bottom sensors, or EMW nodes, or could await further orders and dynamically activate as a bottom mines, or CAPTOR-style mines to attack enemy submarines or surface ships. In a combat role, Strikepods could be programmed to swarm and attack enemy submarines or surface ships, seek and destroy enemy unmanned vehicles, or attack enemy seabed infrastructure.

Autonomous undersea combat vehicles represent a logical progression in the emerging era of undersea warfare, a fact that will not be lost on our adversaries. They too will one day be capable of deploying AUVs in a covert, standoff manner, and operating within our territorial waters and inland waterways with impunity. Moreover, their low cost and eventual proliferation could enable rogue states and nonstate actors to acquire their own “poor man’s navy” and threaten U.S. forces at home or abroad. Thus, the need for a coastal undersea defense network will be vital to counter this threat. For example, an “Atlantic Undersea Defense Network” (AUDEN) would be a regional tactical grid comprised of numerous Strikepods deployed along the coast near ports, chokepoints, naval installations, and critical infrastructure. AUDEN Strikepods would operate both within the water column and on the seabed to deter incursions of adversary AUVs, and, if necessary, detect and engage them.


As the world undergoes a shift toward near-peer competition, the U.S. Navy must reexamine its role as a fighting force in light of unmanned undersea systems, and the aspirations of ever more technologically sophisticated adversaries. Seabed warfare in particular, understood as a combination of “old school” mine warfare with advanced technologies, is evolving rapidly, and is poised to be more fully developed and integrated into the new paradigm of autonomous undersea warfare. The Navy’s continued undersea dominance will rest on its ability to master seabed warfare, and to anticipate and prepare for the kind of challenges, threats, and opportunities autonomous undersea conflict will present. It will no longer be enough for the Navy to simply out-fight its adversaries. In the era of autonomous conflict, it will have to out-innovate them.

David R. Strachan is a naval analyst and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. His website, Strikepod Systems (, explores the emergence of unmanned undersea warfare via real-time speculative fiction. He can be reached at


[1] Dmitry Filipoff, “The Navy’s New Fleet Problem Experiments and Stunning Revelations of Military Failure,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), March 5, 2018.

[2] See: Dave Everhart, “MINWARA Technical Session I, Advanced Undersea Weapons System (AUWS) [PowerPoint presentation], May 8, 2012., Scott D. Burleson, David E. Everhart, Ronald E. Swart, and Scott C. Truver, “The Advanced Undersea Weapon System: On the Cusp of a Naval Warfare Transformation,” Naval Engineers Journal, March 2012.;jsessionid=76tt4k2q2j7d9.x-ic-live-02, Joshua J. Edwards and Captain Dennis M. Gallagher, USN, “Mine and Undersea Warfare for the Future,” Proceedings Magazine, August, 2014.

[3] Scott Truver, “Naval Mines and Mining: Innovating in the Face of Benign Neglect,” Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), December 20, 2016.

[4] David Hambling, “Why Russia is sending robotic submarines to the Arctic,” BBC, November 21, 2017.

[5] HI Sutton, “’Harmony’ submarine detection network, Covert Shores, November 12, 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephen Chen, “Why Beijing is Speeding Up Underwater Drone Tests in the South China Sea”, South China Morning Post, July 26, 2017.

[8] Catherine Wong, “’Underwater Great Wall:’ Chinese firm proposes building network of submarine detectors to boost nations defence,” South China Morning Post, May 19, 2016.

[9] Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, “The Great Underwater Wall of Robots: Chinese Exhibit Shows Off Sea Drones,” Popular Science, June 22, 2016.

[10] Testimony of Bryan Clark, House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, Game Changers – Undersea Warfare, 114th Cong., 1st Sess., p. 7, October 27, 2015.

[11] Sebastien Roblin, “The True Story of the Only Underwater Submarine Battle Ever,” The National Interest, November 18, 2017.

Featured Image: Russian Harpsichord-2P-PM (via

Fighting for the Seafloor: From Lawfare to Warfare

Seabed Warfare Week

By LTJG Kyle Cregge

As the United States Navy looks to space and cyber as new domains for warfare, it also ought to look deeper: to the seafloor. Increased competition for vital resources and the intent to control critical sea lines of communication will drive nations and their navies to the seabed. There are three serious operational challenges ahead for the U.S. Navy that will require both technical and intellectual investment to properly establish security on the seafloor.

In the context of seabed warfare the three challenges align with the first three operational phases of war as part of U.S. doctrine: 0, Shape the Environment; 1, Deter Aggression; and 2, Seize the Initiative. In Phase 0, the U.S. will have to grapple with the difficulty of shaping an environment governed by an international legal structure which the U.S. is not party to. In Phase 1, the U.S. will be challenged to deter potential seabed exploitation by submarines and unmanned or automated underwater vehicles (UUVs or AUVs) in the vast depths of the oceans. Such platforms will be limited in their communication with other vehicles or fleet command centers due to their distributed use and the inability to communicate quickly, reliably, and secretly at great water depths. When the Navy is required to seize the initiative in Phase 2, open warfare, the seabed will serve to expand the enemy threat area beyond the first thousand meters of the water column thereby increasing risk for forces entering and exiting critical straits, bays, and other waterways, which will require the greater allocation of assets down into the depths.

The South China Sea and the Seabed: A Blueprint for Future Lawfare

Lawfare, as defined by Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap (Ret.) of Duke University, is “the use or misuse of law as a substitute for traditional military means to accomplish an operational objective.” The U.S. Navy is continuously involved in combating lawfare, such as the recent  freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) conducted by USS Hopper (DDG 70) in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (SCS). While China claims these and similar operations are violations of territorial sovereignty, the U.S. executes the FONOPs in order to repudiate the excessive Chinese island claims, which, if otherwise accepted by international norms, would come with associated economic rights within the SCS.

The basis for the legal battle comes from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that the United States has not ratified, but recognizes as customary international law. Despite the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China, island building in the SCS continues. Chinese lawfare for islands and their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) is a blueprint that many nations could use to exploit the seabed, specifically because the primary reason the U.S. did not ratify UNCLOS was disagreement with Part XI of the Convention which deals with, “[the] area of the seabed and ocean floor and the subsoil… beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as its resources.” The United Nations “Reaffirm[ed] that the seabed… as well as the resource[s]… are the common heritage of mankind,” and that developed nations capable of seabed mining should share both profits of mining and the technology to do so. Though there were limited discussions at the U.N. in the early 1990s to assuage U.S. concerns, UNCLOS remains unratified by the U.S. Senate.

Under the current UNCLOS legal structure nations may extend their EEZ based on scientific study and submission approved by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. As the U.S. is not party to UNCLOS, there are no U.S. members on the Commission, nor are there currently U.S. civilian contracts for seabed exploitation through the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA regulates the nearly 50 percent of the Earth which is outside the jurisdiction of national territories, and has contracts to explore for and potentially mine various lucrative metals with Russia, Japan, China, India, the UK, France, Germany, South Korea, Brazil, and other smaller nations. Without a cohesive national strategy or participation in an international legal framework, the United States government has left the shaping of the environment and the execution of national maritime strategy up to the otherwise apolitical Navy at the fleet operational level. Not only is there risk to U.S. forces failing to communicate intent clearly, but other near-peer nations will continue to use political lawfare to shape international norms to their preferences as the Chinese have in the South China Sea.

Seabed Deterrence: Limited Communications, Command and Control

As the Navy will shape and potentially deter actions at the seafloor, the assets called on to execute that mission will include surface ships, submarines, and AUV/UUVs. UUVs will be the only asset able to operate at the seabed, due to their ability to survive and work at depths beyond the first thousand feet of water, where submarines normally operate. Depending on the particular type of seabed exploitation, AUVs and commercial mining vehicles could be operating anywhere from 2,500 – 20,000 feet, with the support of surface vessels recovering both the vehicles themselves and the resources being mined. Yet while the depth of the water will be an issue for the Navy, the breadth of possible areas of operation is also staggering. The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), which contains numerous polymetallic lodes ripe for mining, is a great deep-water plain as wide as the continental United States in the eastern Pacific Ocean. And while  there  will  be  competition  in  and  around  the  Pacific  Rim,  global  warming  and further  development  of  seabed  mining  technology  has  unearthed the  Arctic  Circle’s available  resources  to be mined which  includes  coal, diamonds,  uranium,  phosphate,  nickel,  platinum,  and  other  precious  minerals  and hydrocarbons. As nations including the United States seek to establish firm economic claims on the seabed, there is the potential for a massive area for coverage, defense, and support of the U.S. flagged seabed mining expeditions (as the U.S. Navy has supported oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf before) by a Navy already strapped for forces required in other areas around the world.

Each colored area on this map represents a different country’s mining claim in the Clario-Clipperton zone. (Map courtesy International Seabed Authority.)

Yet even if industry is able to rapidly develop a low priced AUV or UUV the Navy could serially buy, the UUVs will still be bound by the restrictions of massive water depths. Communication to a UUV at hundreds of meters below the water will at best be limited to the ELF spectrum, requiring massive antenna to transmit short messages, or using acoustic transmissions that would give away the position of a UUV to any enemy UUV’s passive sonar system. Other options include having the UUV surface for radio or satellite communications, or using a buoy to do the same while the UUV remains below the surface. Artificial intelligence may help in such a communications restricted environment by giving some level of control to a UUV with expected return and update patterns, but at the operational level UUVs will be not be a perfect solution in Phase 1, where potential escalation could happen rapidly due to a miscalculation. What might a near peer nation do if it was found that an AUV had sunk another AUV at the seabed? Or more critically, what if the AUV sunk a submarine or surface ship?

The U.S. Navy must think through all these potential ROE considerations before allowing lethal capability on an AUV, so that a computer’s miscalculation resulting in a seabed skirmish would not grow into an undesired broader conflict. Regardless of lethal autonomy, the U.S. Navy will continue to struggle to integrate unmanned systems in all domains. But deep-water seabed presence will remain especially difficult to properly resource for patrolling, as well as maintaining control of those assets, and communicating commander’s intent while deterring diverse enemies over massive areas.

Seizing the Initiative: Keeping the SLOCs Open

In a proposed Phase 2 environment, the seabed will be a fertile ground for exploitation by military assets, primarily as an extension of mine and anti-submarine warfare. While it is possible to imagine a strike warfare or air warfare capability, it would be incredibly difficult technologically to maintain assets such as missiles at the seabed in a ready configuration for extended periods to then be launched either at land targets without a ready communication system to initiate the launch, or at air threats when the system would lack an indigenous radar or missile guidance system. It is far easier for less complicated mines, torpedoes, or UUVs to be moved slowly along the seabed or deployed in waiting for a worthwhile target such as a ship or submarine. And much like in land warfare where terrain is critical, the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and the seafloor in the vicinity will be critical to control. SLOCs and other strategic maritime chokepoints have always been important, but much as the use of the seabed extends the water column for submariners, it will also expand the threat area posed by seabed mines and torpedo-capable UUVs. The U.S. Navy is already struggling to develop replacements for its aging Mine Counter Measures (MCM) fleet and an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team would be unable to access deeper seabed mines, given the incredible depths. The Navy would have to rely on other UUVs or Remotely Operated Vehicles to clear an area with limited certainty due to both the massive space required to clear, and the ability for more threats to be moved in via the seabed after time.

One can imagine the threat this poses either offensively or defensively to the Navy’s fleet. Commercial traffic for a large portion of the East Coast could be hampered if a vessel was sunk in the Chesapeake Bay by a seabed AUV during a broader conflict with a near-peer competitor. A UUV capable of traveling via the seabed could cross large portions of the oceans slowly, then maintain a position in a critical strait, bay, or harbor, unbeknownst to an enemy: waiting on a cue to activate and target enemy shipping or military vessels. Beyond homeports and harbors, seabed mines and UUVs could drastically change both the logistics and employment of forces for the U.S. Navy if  critical waterways were infested with numerous AUVs hunting specific acoustic signatures. The Navy’s ability to deploy warships to key maritime regions, such as the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal or Bab el-Mandeb Strait, could be completely denied by seabed-based platforms. Similarly, the thought process that the Navy used historically with the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom) Gap is instructive. There, a listening network provided cues to friendly submarines to get underway and track Soviet submarines when they entered critical waterways. In the future, seabed listening stations could cue AUVs to track, report, and kill enemy UUVs, ships, and submarines.

Conclusion: An Arms Race

While the U.S. Navy will be tested to operate at or near the seafloor in the future, there is reason for hope. First, while the U.S. Navy will have difficulties reliably communicating with seafloor assets due to the environment, so too will its rivals. Second, all nations are vulnerable to seafloor-based attacks, which means the U.S. Navy could just as easily go on the offensive if attacked. Third, the costs associated with developing a sustainable deep water seabed military asset will remain expensive for all nations, and prohibitive for most, as no nation currently has UUVs able to withstand the pressure at depths of thousands of feet. Nevertheless, the United States will have to determine how it will shape its own law-based national security strategy considering America’s failure to ratify UNCLOS. At the operational  level, seabed UUVs will likely lead to an arms race given all of the discrete tactical opportunities they offer. In an inversion of land warfare, control of the low ground will grant victory on the high seas.

Lieutenant (junior grade) Kyle Cregge is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He served on a destroyer and is a prospective Cruiser Division Officer. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Photo via actor212 from Flickr.

Seabed Warfare Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC is publishing a series of articles focusing on the seabed as a domain of maritime conflict and competition. This topic week is launched in partnership with the U.S. Naval War College’s Institute for Future Warfare Studies who drafted the Call for Articles. Below is a list of articles featuring during the topic week that may be updated as prospective authors finalize additional publications.

Fighting for the Seafloor: From Lawfare to Warfare by LTJG Kyle Cregge
Forward…from the Seafloor? by David Strachan
Establish a Seabed Command by Joseph LaFave
Undersea Cables and the Challenges of Protecting Seabed Lines of Communication by Pete Barker

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

Featured Image: An ROV imaging a hydrothermal vent. (NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2016 Deepwater Exploration of the Marianas)

Sea Control 147 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 2

By Cris Lee

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.), former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff, about the challenges of defining and conceptualizing maritime security. 

Download Sea Control 147 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 2

A transcript of the interview between Admiral Lutz Feldt (LF) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

RH: Admiral Feldt, in addition to the previous discussion, you have said to enhance maritime awareness it is essential to return to the basics of geography. According to renowned geopolitical author Robert Kaplan, a map is a spatial representation of humanity’s division, by which he means not just physical territory but topography. Let me ask: with so much advanced technology providing satellite imagery and real time data, why should we consider the influence of geography?

LF: To answer with a question, are we overestimating all of our technical development? Are we really reliant only on technical information, the internet, etc.? Are we able to take into consideration other important criteria as well? Geography is a big criteria, even today. If you look into geography, you are looking at the people living in that geography, to the culture which is their culture, the weather conditions, the climate, and how people live. This has great importance and great influence on everything which we have to decide in the maritime domain. Therefore I think if you are working together with people from the Southern parts of Europe region, or German authorities to ones in Spain, Italy, South France, Greece, or Turkey, or whatever country you may name, of course the way they are solving problems is different. And this has something to do with the areas in which they live, and the living conditions.

The living conditions are formed and created by geography, and directly and indirectly by the climate conditions in which they live. So I think it is important to look into the geography as well. As a seafarer, even if you believe in civilized navigation, even if you think a satellite is covering the whole globe, you must still learn that that is not the case. It will not happen in the next decade as well. So there will always be areas which are not covered. There will always be areas which are up to today, which have not a reliable a sea map, a sea shot. If you go into the big regions, the only thing you can rely on is the GPS. This makes it very clear that geography and the conditions created by geography are very important. Weather affects all operations. You can have a wonderful operation plan think you have thought through, if you have forgotten the geography of the weather, it is a risk you should not accept.

RH: Admiral Feldt, now that we have looked at a catalogue of issues that have impacted sea awareness, it is critical for our listeners to place these subjects in the role of global stakeholders. Obviously the headlines on this ticket are the NATO and the EU. You distinguish in your piece the remarkably different approaches to issues. Consequently, can you provide a quick snapshot of activities of global stakeholders in the maritime space?

LF: I think we have to talk about the international maritime organizations as well. I always think and call them the guardians of the sea, and they have developed a lot of very helpful legislation for the sea. They are responsible for all the agreements and they have developed a code of conduct for a limited number of countries. So I think yes it is a lot of administrations, a lot of paperwork. On the other hand you need these basic documentation, you need this framework in which you are doing your business as a commercial in which you have to follow the sovereign estate as well.

I think the International Maritime Organization is an important player. The weakness of the IMO that they cannot enforce their own laws. They have no enforcement capabilities and the only nation who is able to enforce the IMO’s laws and other laws is the United States and it will remain to be the United States. Maybe in competition with some other nations, China is trying very hard to become a very important global player in the maritime domain as well as the Russian Federation. I understand very well why they are doing that. I wouldn’t blame them about that, but we have to take into consideration they will in any case be in some sort of competition with the U.S. The U.S. needs a global strategy, maritime strategy, and a naval strategy, this is a comprehensive approach that works very fine.

And then of course we have the European Union. NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was focused on the North Atlantic. During the last years, NATO was much more involved in army and air force business than in the naval business. This is something that I do not appreciate because now we have a lack of maritime expertise which we have to overcome quite soon. The EU is becoming a much more important player, not just in civilian issues, but also in the economic side, from a common defense and security policy side as well. I think the EU will increase its military experience, and NATO will be much more open, civilian-military operations as well. The African Union has developed an all-maritime strategy for the African continent. They are a regional initiative. They have the potential to become a very important player as well. I think they should be interested in taking responsibility for their own territorial waters and increase their independence from others.

And then we have what we did call the BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. China will be a big player, and already is a big player, and will become an even bigger player in the maritime domain. Brazil has for the first time taken on international responsibility in supporting the European navies in the Mediterranean several times for example. Russia is looking for naval bases outsides its territories. Now they are in Syria, it has the occupation of Crimea, not only because they love the people there, but because of a very strategic impact in now having an important naval base in the black sea. So they are all playing to their national interests. The only ones who are trying to improve not only its own capabilities but of its neighbors as well is South Africa. They have a good navy as well. They can support the navies in developing their own coast guards and to a certain degree their naval functions as well.

RH: Anyone listening will get a perspective on how crowded the maritime domain is and how competitive it potentially is both from a bloc perspective or from an individual country perspective. Returning to the EU, its early security ambitions were defined by 2003 European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World by the EU’s common representative for the common foreign and security policy, Mr. Javier Solana. It was more recently amended in 2008 and paid scant attention to the maritime situational awareness. This is particularly frustrating since this piece establishes how crisis can develop far from Europe and still affect continuity on the continent. Moving forward, has the EU addressed this phenomenon?

LF: Yes, it has. I think in 2003, the world, not just the maritime domain, looked very different from nowadays. Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World, updated in 2008, has been overtaken by events. The EU has developed a newer strategy in a very good way. Everyone was involved in that. It took us only three-quarters of a year. We have a new strategy which is a very good build up, taking an important part of security and defense issues in the strategy, which was not the case in the first.

Now I think it is a comprehensive approach. To deliver something of a comprehensive approach, where all the actors know their responsibilities, and knowing that they don’t have to do this on their own in one pillar, in isolation from the other, they are doing this together. Strategy is encouraging them to do that. Perhaps encouraging is not strong enough; it is forcing them to do that. And therefore I really appreciate this approach. You know, in the maritime world, 2014, the European Maritime Security Strategy has been published as well. We have now, not only a global strategy from the European Union side, but maritime strategy as well. We are now working on the implementation of the different subjects. I think that in a good way, a lot of things have been moved in the right direction and I am optimistic that they will carry on. And if I may say so, the commission, the parliament, and the council, they are doing very well. They are doing this in one line.

RH: Any conversation about EU maritime policy or maritime policy will be incomplete without mentioning Turkey and its role in facilitating EU’s maritime sphere. Recently president Erdogan called for a border review of the 1923 treaty of Rozanne in Athens in early December. What do you make of this comment, and how do you think Turkey and the EU can continue to work together on maritime domain issues?

LF: It’s a critical situation. Turkey is a member of NATO, and wants or once at least wanted to become a member of the European Union as well. Greece is a member of NATO and the EU. All these years, all these decades, there has been tension between both countries about sea borders and how the treaty is working. Even in the treaty there are disputes over islands and sea borders. This is a fact. I do not think that in the actual situation the border review will take place. I do not think so. The last signals were bit different. There is another convention we have to consider. This is the Montreux convention which is giving Turkey the responsibility to supervise or monitor the Montreux Strait. You have to look into this as well. Both are very close together.

The EU and Turkey are well-advised if they are accepting of the status quo, or improve the situation. To talk about improving, there is an ongoing operation between NATO and Turkey, as a NATO member, and Greece on the other hand, in the East part of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The part of the maritime civil operations where everyone is looking for migrants, not only to rescue them, but to prevent them from going illegally from one country to another. And the cooperation of the partners in these technical operations level is very good. I have heard from colleagues in this operation, the cooperation with the Turkish coast guard is good. They are doing their jobs professionally and well, and the same with Greece. It is good practical example of good practical cooperation. As often you can find on the practical, pragmatic level, you can find solutions for almost all problems.

RH: Hopefully based on all the encouraging news you’ve provided with us cooler heads will continue to prevail as there are a plethora of issues that the EU and Turkey need to work together on to solve in the future. Finally Admiral Feldt, for the foreseeable future, you reiterate, the complex picture of today’s maritime security issues, is a consequence of three factors: the transition from industrial to the information age, globalization, and climate change. And that the urgent need for maritime domain and situational awareness is a precondition to achieve good governance at sea. Having spoken about sea blindness already, would you count on those leading to take these issues into effect in policy?

LF: I think the first point, the transition from industrial to information age, I think this is a big challenge. This is nothing you can just do automatically. Switching from the industrial to the information age takes time. This issue is not just for the younger generation, it is an issue for my generation and even for those who are little bit younger than I am. A lot of people are still making the assessments and adjustments based on the procedures and experiences that were right and good in the industrial age but which is now overtaken in the information age. And the information age is more than the internet. The social networks are a very important part. The fact that in the information age a hack can be done by a hacker where nobody knows where he’s from, whether it’s his boss telling him now you have to hack the German parliament, or now you have to hack a big company in France or whatever, no one really knows that in the very beginning.

It’s not just the use of the internet and all the advantages which you can take out from networking. This is the second point. Networking is becoming more important. Networking happens all the time. But it’s not only the internet. It’s also the information age as a whole new environment. Think about new technologies and the impact of the industry, all that development and our naval units where you are reliant on the computer system. These all need new thinking. A new mindset. This is very difficult to achieve. It takes time to be aware that not everybody is able or willing to follow you, but this is the real thing. So it’s a big challenge. The challenge is not the technology, the challenge is to understand and to use the new technology to your advantage.

Globalization is an effect, it’s now under pressure again. I always think that there are no ideas without bad sides, and there are bad sides to globalization as well. Maybe the government has to look into that more carefully, but if we go back to nationalist thinking, then we of course are doing the wrong thing, a very dangerous thing. The clear historical experience that nationalism is in the direction of something we do not want. Certain kinds of own interests is always not only acceptable but necessary, and the real impact is that you have to look for your national interest on one hand, but on the other hand balance them with the international interests as well. If you are not able or willing to do that then you are a danger.

Climate change is something very much related to globalization and the change of information age as well. We do not know the final impact of climate change. We only can think about they will change the maritime domain. This will have an impact on everything. The issues and the outcome of climate change, there is only one solution, and this is to prioritize the protection of our maritime domains. Protection of the oceans and the protection of the maritime domain in relation to climate and everything belonging to that, from biodiversity to clean oceans and whatever you may name it, this has a high priority. And it is not a task done by the civilian authorities, the navy must be included as well. They have a responsibility to report and monitor climate protection as well. This is very new to the navy, other things as well, but there is an urgent need to do that. Climate change and the negative sides of climate change are a real challenge. They are a threat.

RH: Admiral Feldt, I want to thank you on behalf of the listeners for such a comprehensive analysis and sobering judgment of the current state of affairs. As we dawn on another sea control podcast, Admiral, do you have any quick operational takeaways for the listeners, or issues related to maritime domain we should keep tabs on?

LF: If you are interested, take some keywords and go into the internet, or even look into the publications. It’s not just Robert Kaplan who publishes a lot of things. There are a lot of authors and scientists who are publishing a lot about the maritime domain and the complexity and they are not only good for students, but for normal people as well. There are sometimes scientists who are able to write in a way everyone can understand it. The awareness is the first method for my side. The second side is that the cooperation and trust and confidence between the different maritime services must be supported as a citizen of my country. I cannot understand that for example how customs is not able to communicate with the navy without taking some risks due to data protection. Data protection is very important, but if data protection is hindering us in providing safety and security, than it has to be questioned.

A lot of people are talking about legal obstacles, who are talking about what we want to do but the law is against us, this is eight out of ten times not the case. They often use the law as shelter not to do something. This is something where citizens must be able to carefully be able to increase security internal and external security in a much more professional way; we are open to information exchange. The internal and external security issue is something which is very crucial thing as well, we have not touched upon that, but it is a very important. You cannot separate internal and external security any longer. And if you do so, you must accept the risk, and you must explain to your citizens why you are doing this, with all the consequences.

My third point is if you love the sea, if you are in favor of the sea, if you are really knowing about the sea, not only from the coast but from the ocean as well, it is much more easier to understand the complexity as well as overcome the challenges. It was a great pleasure for me, thank you very much.

RH: Admiral Feldt, I would say in conclusion, if our listeners want to follow up on the European or international maritime domain, the Routledge Handbook of Naval strategy and Security, edited by Sebastian Bruns and Joachim Krause and published in 2016 is an indispensable resource to have. In addition, please visit for more info on the book and other podcasts derived from the book.

With no shortage of maritime issues in the greater geopolitical landscape, I will be back to keep CIMSEC listeners informed and up to date. From the Institute of Security Policy and its adjunct center for strategy and security, I am Roger Hilton saying farewell and auf wiedersehen.

Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.) served in the German Navy for 38 years and served as Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Since retiring in 2006, Vice Admiral Feldt has taken over several different posts of honor: he was the President of the German Maritime Institute, Bonn, from 2007 to 2012 and is now a member of the Board of the German Maritime Institute, a member of the “Bonner Forum”of the German Atlantic Association; from 2005 until March 2010 he was a member of the advisary board of the “Evangelische  ilitärseelsorge”(evangelical miltary religious welfare) and he is still a member of the advisary board of the publication “Schiff und Hafen”, an International Publication for Shipping and Marine Technology. He is director of WEISS Penns International.

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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