In search of the pioneer spirit and a Compact of Free Association

Why the U.S. Should Embrace Seasteading

In search of the pioneer spirit and a Compact of Free Association

Sea-based Nations (SBNs) are only a small manifestation of much larger trends in the post-Westphalian world.  Libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and panarchists have long discussed different options – from colonizing the sea or space to simply creating non-territorial nations – as alternatives to the current nation-state system.

 

These aspirations found a home amongst Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires, with Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of Paypal, at the forefront.  Peter initially built Paypal to be a new, international currency similar to Bitcoin, but was hindered by legislation.  Nonetheless, the aspiration to create non-state options remains – and more importantly, those pursuing such this vision seem to have both the brainpower and the money to bring it to fruition.

 

Hence, operating on the assumption that new states will at some point appear in one shape or another, it’s in the interests of the U.S. to embrace them rather than alienate them.  And, we have a golden opportunity to do so through the seasteading movement.  Even though Peter Thiel & Co are libertarians seeking to escape the grips of the government, they’re also U.S. citizens and affluent, having contributed a great deal to the U.S. economy and its corporate leverage around the world.  As Ian Sundstrom pointed out in his post on the subject, “Who would benefit most from Seasteading?” every ocean-going vessel must fly the flag of an existing nation.  It would be tempting for libertarians to choose a country with basically no law – let’s say Somalia – but if the U.S. Government offers some degree of legislative autonomy in combination with a security pact, that’s likely to be a more tempting option.

 

Experiments of this sort have been continuing in the U.S. for hundreds of years, the best-known example being the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous Native Tribal territory occupying parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.  The Navajo Nation has its own constitution and laws, but the United States still asserts plenary power.  Likewise the U.S. and many small Pacific maritime entities have entered into various forms of Compacts of Free Association, providing near-autonomy and legal and foreign defense in exchange for relatively small set of prescribed laws and limitations on their actions.  Somaliland is another interesting experiment of semi-autonomous semi-anarchism that works, in the regional context, surprisingly well.  To be sure, there are plenty of areas of potential conflict between the U.S. Government and new SBNs in addition to the host of other problems previous CIMSEC bloggers duly pointed out – including security, international competition etc.  However, there are also many benefits.  It’s easy to see the pragmatic possibilities of expansion in the seas for overcrowded nations or those threatened by rising sea levels, as well as the worth of strategic outposts for others.  But the core benefit for America is vastly different in my opinion…

 

Corporations are people…and nation-states too?

America is a pioneering nation, which was built on the virtue of individual entrepreneurs innovating and exploring.  Now these individual have taken that spirit of innovation and seek to apply it to new forms of governance.  As Randy Hencken, the Director of the Seasteading Institute, mentioned in his CIMSEC interview earlier this week, seasteads might provide the ideal opportunity to test new governance models.  The traditional form of the nation-state is slowly losing its momentum due to globalization, which helps humans bypass the controls of and necessities for states, we want to be on the leading edge of what comes next – however the post-Westphalian transition happens.  It may be seasteading, or it may be other forms of governments – and in whatever shape or color they come, they’ll still need to work with, and to a degree rely on, current nation states.  The seasteading movement is in its very early, shaky phase, and now is the ideal time for the U.S. Government to lend it a hand, work to form coherent legislation, and help the movement to influence international conventions.  Just like the pioneers once discovered America, it’s now time to discover other forms of governance.

 

Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof (CEO, Shabakat Corporation and President, SIC Group) is a Swedish research and communications entrepreneur.  She began a strategic communication company carrying out campaigns for the U.S. Military in Afghanistan, Wise Strategic Communication (WSC), and started a second company in Libya and Egypt, Shabakat Corporation, during the Arab Spring. 

SeaUnsteady: Personal Sovereignty?

First they stopped painting everything grey, then they stopped safety checking their cell-phone chargers… eventually, it all went to hell.

Serious SeaSteading has primarily been the vestige of free market pioneers, entrepreneurs looking for a freer, more open space to conduct business. An important part of that ideal is personal sovereignty: life, liberty, and property. For a giant sea-going vessel, property will be a huge issue.

Can seasteaders truly own their state-rooms, their offices, or their facilities? Those familiar with ship-board life realize the amount of maintenance that often needs to be done in order to keep a ship sound. A normal suburban neighborhood doesn’t need to manage the distribution of weight amongst the properties to ensure landworthiness and structural integrity. Obviously, heavy weight and modification restrictions will apply to property. In this light, how would a seastead be governed? It is easier to leave your neighbors to their own devices when what they own and where won’t cause you to heel or when their home modifications won’t cause your deck to buckle. A homeowners’ association is bad enough when your poorly cut lawn won’t potentially undermine the integrity of the neighborhood’s fire-fighting systems or the water-tight integrity of hull frames.

Can a seastead ever be the libertarian paradise their conceivers wish it to be? Taxes alone may be excessive due to the the constant maintenance necessary for a huge metal hull in which a whole community is living day-to-day. The wear-and-tear would be greater than on any cruise ship. Additionally, along the line of thinking about national sovereignty brought up by CDR Hodges, what happens to the citizens of a seastead during periods of necessary hull repair? Ship’s return to dry-dock in order to have critical maintenance accomplished. How would nations grant access rights to seasteaders in a maintenance period? How do the sovereignties of two nations accomodate each other when one is dry-docked in another? If certain seasteaders are not allowed off the ship while in certain ports, would they essentially become accidental prisoners? Who would accept a refugee nation if their vessel were damaged beyond repair?

The problems with seasteading reach far beyond the black-box problems of how the ship-as-whole exerts influence over it’s surroundings legally, politically, and kinetically. When one transplants a community of free-thinking individuals onto a ship for more than the temporary joys of a pleasure cruise, the constraining dictats and harrowing risks of a life at sea must set the conditions for its survival. The challenge will be building a nation that cruises without treating the community like a crew.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, although he wishes they did.

Battlegrounds of the future?

Sea-Based Nations and Sovereignty: What Makes a Nation-state?

Not your typical pirate mothership

To me, one of the more interesting assertions made by Randy Henrickson in his CIMSEC interview was this: “To avoid legally being a pirate, seasteads will have to flag themselves with the flag of an existing nation and partner up. As seasteading matures and grows, we foresee seasteads eventually breaking off when they have enough of their own economic power and population to no longer need to be binded to existing governments, when they’re at a point where they can be recognized by others as a micro-nation.”

 

There are a couple of interesting elements here: first, the notion that activities which are legal and even encouraged when done under the aegis of a flag might be considered illegal if done without such protection (although, depending on the specific activities Henrickson contemplates, piracy might not be the specific crime); second why would a nation be willing to “spin-off” an economically fruitful “micro-nation” whether at sea or on land?

 

This second question underscores the ambition of the seasteading project.  Up to this point in human history, every time a new nation-state has emerged, it has been tied with a specific piece of territory.  And, unfortunately, most newly sovereign states have experienced some degree of violence in achieving their independence.  Whether independence was achieved by revolution, decolonization, or partition, a greater or lesser degree of political violence has frequently accompanied it, either before or shortly after independence.  Partly, this stems from the physical, historical, and emotional attachment that human beings have to territory.  Partly it stems from the challenges of identity in forming both a nation and a state.[1]  But it also stems from the economic benefit that the larger nation derives from activity within the smaller territory.   To suppose that a flag state would willingly give up the economic benefit they derive from a productive seastead may be a bit optimistic.

 

Of course, the flag nation willingly letting go is only half the problem facing a seastead as it tries to make the transition to micro-nation.  If the emerging nation is not recognized by the international community, either broadly, or at least by a champion powerful enough to coerce non-interference, the seastead is left for all practical purposes as a ship without a flag (which may be what Mr. Hencken meant by a pirate vessel).  Established U.S. statutory and case law, as well as some international law, suggests that such a vessel enjoys no protection against any state which seeks to exercise jurisdiction over it.  A flagged vessel enjoys the sovereign protection of the flag state; an unflagged vessel or a vessel flagged to a nation not recognized as sovereign has no such protection.

 

That sovereignty is really the heart of the question.  A seastead seeking to transition to a sea-based nation is trying to manufacture sovereignty where there previously was none.  On the day before transition, the seastead is effectively a ship—a little shard of another nation’s sovereignty acting on a global commons.  On the day after, the ship has ceased to be a shard of another nation and has become a nation in its own right—a small one, to be sure—but a nation with all the same rights, responsibilities, and sovereignty of any other nation.

 

Michael Walzer, an influential thinker on just war theory and international relations, offers a view on morality in the international system, centered on the concept of sovereignty.  Drastically simplified, Walzer offers the view that the only crime in the international system that justifies the use of force is aggression, which he defines as the violation of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  While some aspects Walzer’s theory are not universally accepted, he neatly encapsulate a powerful school of thinking which highlights a couple of challenges that the aspiring seasteader, especially of the mobile variety, must overcome.

 

First, sovereignty has traditionally been closely aligned with territorial integrity.  Inherent in the notion of territorial integrity is, well, territory.  How do you define sovereignty and territorial integrity in the case of a platform that is inherently mobile and not tied to any territory at all?  Whatever other challenges may attend the new nation of South Sudan, no one in the international community is worried that the nation will decide to pick up the country and move because they like the climate, resources, or economic opportunities better in Morocco.  If a seastead were to maneuver into the EEZ of a coastal nation, whose sovereignty would have precedence?  Outside of an EEZ, why should other sea-faring nations accede to a new entity exerting sovereignty over a portion of the sea that was previously open to everyone?  If the sea based nation wanted to move elsewhere on the high seas, would they exert sovereignty over that new location, too?

 

In search of a better deal

The Second—and by my view the more difficult challenge—is explaining the incentive for the international community to accept the sovereignty of a newly formed sea-based nation at all.  While the threat may be small, the aspiring nation offers a potential challenger for resources, ranging from seabed minerals to the tax revenues brought in by businesses.  With sovereignty comes the right to defend that sovereignty—what incentive does a coastal state have to welcome the introduction of another armed power into their region?  It would also be surprising if Palestinians, Kurds, or others national groups who lack both territory and sovereignty do not raise some objection to the justice of granting sovereignty to a seastead with little of the cultural, political, and social identity that marks a nation, while they themselves remain disenfranchised.   If a seastead wants admission to the club of nation-states, they will likely need to explain how the club will benefit by their membership.  While not insuperable, this will be a high bar to reach.

 

CDR Doyle Hodges is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. He has commanded a rescue and salvage ship in the Pacific and a destroyer in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Middle East.  He is the Chairman of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Seamanship and Navigation Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Naval Academy.


[1] For a good discussion of the challenges of statehood without nationhood, see Lemay-Hébert, N., 2009, ‘Statebuilding without Nation-building? Legitimacy, State Failure and the Limits of the Institutionalist Approach’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding’, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 21-45.  For a good discussion of the necessary components of nationhood see Anderson, Benedict Imagined Communities.  New York: Verso. 2006.

Home, sweet light crude home.

Sea-based Nation Security

 

“I’m going to work and live on THAT?”

This was my initial response when arriving  (via helicopter) 1000m away from Iraq’s Al Basrah Oil Terminal (ABOT).  As part of a coalition maritime security group, security forces have been protecting Iraq’s economic gem for over a decade, and over the course of that time many security lessons have been identified.  So naturally, I can’t help but relate these issues to the concept of Seasteading and my corresponding thoughts on security, which will be the focus of this post.

 

Home, sweet light crude home.

 

Point or Area Defense?  

One of the first questions to settle is whether the infrastructure be treated as a single point in the ocean, designed to be defended in 360 degrees.  It is possible that to have full coverage, the seastead will require roving patrols.  Non-Lethal technology (such as the LRAD), although only somewhat effective at distracting incoming small boats, must be employed in various positions for overlapping coverage.  In point defense, this will therefore require dedicated security personnel, on watch 24-hours a day, to field effective coverage.     If a seastead could utilize multiple supporting infrastructures in the near vicinity, or was a considered part of a country’s territorial archipelago, tactical considerations might alternately suggest an area defense approach to defend the seastead. This would entail routine patrols of the area and require more centralized security programs.  If the seastead decided to employ maritime patrols as a means to interdict unknown approaching vessels, the employment of patrol craft would be determined by the size of the area and amount of working security boats.

 

Buffer Zone

Another important question to consider is the distance from the seastead that will be considered a warning zone.  Implementing current anti-piracy measures may defend against approaching vessels through deterrents and security systems, but the infrastructure must also consider the terrorist/extremist threat of waterborne attacks.  Anecdotally it seemed to me that infrastructures often attract the best fish, so these platforms may also attract fishermen.  Considerations must be made to keeping unauthorized fishermen away from the platform, as the possibility of a water-borne improvised explosive device (WBIED) attack increases with added fishing traffic.  In addition to local fishing, the potential of large, commercial traffic – e.g. supertankers, liquid natural gas (LNG) ships – poses a kinetic threat to a seastead.  This threat must be gamed as both a non-malicious (navigational safety hazard) and malicious (terrorist hijack).  After determining the distance for the buffer zone, the seastead must also include a means to thwart approaching ships that look likely to violate it.  Patrolling security vessels capable of providing shouldering and defensive capability must be considered, yet their implementation weighed against the complex operational control required of maintaining security zones for a large infrastructure.

 

Personnel Control

The issue of entry/exit point control is a great point raised by Mr. Harmon in the video linked above.  This is an important aspect of security on a maritime platform, yet the seastead must weigh the thoroughness of processing against the costs of excessive time requirements.  A detailed inspection of incoming personnel may require the halting of offload or possibly return of vessels.  If a suspicious individual or group is identified, what detention facilities will the infrastructure maintain until further transfer is warranted?  At-sea vessel inspections from boarding teams, prior to their arrival at the seastead can be an effective means of providing entry control, yet this requires a dedicated boarding team with transportation.

 

Piracy 

As a final question to consider, is the seastead prepared to be boarded by pirates or other criminals and held for ransom?  While in his interview earlier this week Randy Hencken prevents compelling arguments against the threat of piracy afflicting seasteads, history has shown that human ingenuity – evil as well as good – often find a way to capitalize on societies in flux.  Therefore seasteads need to be prepared.  What security controls will be in place to prevent, thwart, and recover from piracy?  Is the platform capable of receiving airborne inserted counter-piracy forces?  Are the personnel living/working onboard the seastead well-versed in piracy scenarios and prepared to respond accordingly?  If pirated, “who ya gonna call”?

 

Seasteading is a great concept for advancing maritime occupancy and development, yet just as the concept is entering our collective discussion, so must the security challenges.

 

A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has deployed on patrol boats, destroyers, and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and aboard Iraqi oil terminals. He is currently a student at an advanced military planner course. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.  

Would you trade this...

Who Would Benefit Most from Seasteading?

 

Would you trade this…

At its core, seasteading is designed as an alternative to existing nation-states. Its proponents understand, however, that for the foreseeable future seasteading must operate within existing legal and political structures.[1]  Early seasteads are likely to be simply converted ships, and a 2012 report by The Seasteading Institute (TSI) notes that under international law every ocean-going vessel must fly the flag of an existing state in order to operate legally and without undue interference.[2] Given concerns about avoiding external intrusion in the affairs of seasteads, this generates an inevitable connection between seasteads and the state system they are meant to escape as seasteads are flagged. Because of this connection, it is possible that states themselves might stand to benefit from exploiting the idea.

 

Seasteading could offer several benefits to states. Much as oil platforms allow the exploitation of undersea resources, seasteading could be used as a platform for aquaculture or fishing. This might be attractive to land-locked countries like Afghanistan or Switzerland, or to countries with poor agricultural productivity. Seasteads could also be used to address overcrowding in the likes of Singapore, Macau, or Hong Kong. These may be productive roles for seasteading, but the most compelling case for their use comes from the effects of climate change.

 

Estimates for the potential rise in sea level as a result of climate change vary widely, from a low of perhaps 13cm by 2100 to a high of 95cm.[3] Kiribati, the Maldives, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands all consist entirely of atoll islands, averaging a mere two meters above sea level.[4] If rising sea levels approach the higher estimates, all of these island states could be inundated or uninhabitable.[5] This would effectively end their national existence. The technology used for seasteading could offer a way for these states to escape their destruction.

 

…for this?

There are problems, however. First, there are legal issues. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not recognize man-made ocean structures or extensions of islands as having territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zones. This prohibits states from using offshore platforms to game the system to their advantage. It would also prevent seasteads from having any legal control over sea resources or the waters surrounding them. Additionally, UNCLOS does not acknowledge uninhabitable islands as exercising any control over the surrounding sea. This is especially concerning from the perspective of island states attempting circumvent their destruction through seasteading. If, for example, the islands of Kiribati ceased to become inhabitable, its territorial waters and EEZ would disappear, even if Kiribati continued to exist as a state contained within a seastead. It is not at all clear that UNCLOS would protect the rights of formerly habitable or completely submerged islands.[6]

 

On top of the legal problems, there are cost concerns. Seasteading promises to be very expensive. TSI estimates that an average platform will run $300-400 per square foot of usable space. Annual maintenance costs are anticipated to be between five and 25% of capital value.[7] While this is not inordinately expensive when compared to property values in the affluent cities of developed countries, it is well out of reach for the island states which could most directly benefit from seasteading. Kiribati had a GDP of approximately $600 million and a population of 103,500 in 2011. At the estimated prices, Kiribati could build a maximum of between 1,475,000 and 1,996,666 square feet of seastead. This is, unfortunately, nowhere near enough space to house its population, much less host productive industry. Even if built, maintenance costs could run between $30 million and $150 million per year. On top of this, electricity is expected to be approximately two and a half times as expensive as on land.[8] Furthermore, the costs of keeping a seastead on a fixed station are difficult to determine. Possibilities range from about $20 per household per month to $1600 per person per month.[9]

 

While seasteading offers a way for island states to escape the consequences of rising sea levels, it is too expensive for these states to exploit it. Seasteading may prove beneficial for states which can use it on a smaller scale – such as for establishing fishing or aquaculture communities – but as a means for counteracting the destruction of existing island states it is not feasible.

Ian Sundstrom is an MA student in War Studies at King’s College London.


[1] Philip Steinberg, Elizabeth Nyman, and Mauro Caraccioli (2012), ‘Atlas Swam: Freedom, Capital, and Floating Sovereignties in the Seasteading Vision’, Antipode, Vol. 44, No. 4, p. 1544.

[2] Sean Hickman (2012), Flagging Options for Seasteading Projects, (The Seasteading Institute), p. 3.

[3] Michael Edwards (1999), ‘The Security Implications of a Worst-Case Scenario of Climate Change in the Southwest Pacific’, Australian Geographer, Vol. 30, No. 3, p. 313.

[4] Joe Barnett and Neil Alger (2003), ‘Climate Dangers and Atoll Countries’, Climate Change, No. 61, p. 322.

[5] Edwards (1999), p. 313.

[6] Edwards (1999), p. 315.

[7] Brad Taylor (2010), Governing Seasteads: An Outline of the Options (The Seasteading Institute).

[8] Eelco Hoogendoorn (2012), Seasteading Engineering Report, Part I (The Seasteading Institute).

[9] Hoogendoorn (2012), pp. 22-23.

Bridging the Moat

Professor Mearsheimer as a Cadet at West Point. As a work of the US Government, this image is not subject to copyright.

Late summer has arrived in Annapolis, bringing the Brigade of Midshipmen back with it to the Naval Academy. The halls echo anew with the footsteps of midshipmen and I hear the muffled, disembodied voices of my colleagues delivering lectures through the walls. As I begin the teaching/learning cycle anew, first principles have often been on my mind. Today, I want to look at Seasteading through one of the first principles of the realist school of international relations theory. A major tenant of security studies supported by many realists is the so-called “Stopping Power of Water,” a term taken from Prof. John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. As part of our continuing focus on Seasteading and Sea-Based Nations (SBNs), I’m going to examine possible effects that SBNs may have on the stopping power of water and on the stability of the current international order.

In Prof. Mearsheimer’s opus outlining offensive realism, he describes “the stopping power of water” primarily as a barrier to power projection (particularly an amphibious assault):

Water is usually not a serious obstacle for a navy that is transporting ground forces across an ocean and landing them in a friendly state. But water is a forbidding barrier when a navy attempts to deliver an army onto territory controlled and well-defended by a rival great power. Navies are therefore at a significant disadvantage when attempting amphibious operations against powerful land-based forces (Page 114).

The policy aim of war (to paraphrase Clausewitz: “imposing one’s will on an enemy”) is very difficult to achieve – under Mearsheimer’s reasoning – without the use of land power. In other words, Mearsheimer believes that political change rarely occurs through the use of sea power alone (i.e. though blockades or other similar measures), and that states separated from others by large bodies of water can easily resist most ground assaults. Therefore, the greatest security threats arise from territorially connected states (think Germany and France in the 20th Century), or from states who can transport ground troops to a territorially connected ally (think Kuwait and the United States versus Iraq in the Gulf War).

How could SBNs affect the stopping power of water? Could they bridge the protective moat of the world’s oceans? Let’s imagine the full realization of seasteaders’ dreams: a world with thousands or tens of thousands of SBNs, all innovating different forms of government while sustaining a steady populations of hundreds of thousands or millions of seasteaders in locations both near the coast and far out on the open ocean. Would the world’s seas hold more, less, or the same amount of stopping power as before?

Sea-Based Nations wouldn’t change the objective difficulty of assaulting the beaches of great powers like China or the United States. However, if states could use SBNs located near an adversary through either diplomacy or conquest, then that SBN could serve as a staging base for the invading country’s forces. Think how difficult it would have been for the Allies to invade Europe without the United Kingdom nearby. As noted earlier this week, a SBN could serve in the same manner, but with some key differences I’ll discuss later. Island bases affect something I’ve talked about before called the “Loss of Strength Gradient,” yielding significant advantages to the owner. Looked at another way, SBNs represent larger, more capable Afloat Forward Staging Bases. Since they would be sustained by citizens and their economic activities, they might become the “poor nation’s aircraft carrier,” particularly if they are engineered to have some kind of propulsion.

While the stopping power of water itself seems like it would remain intact, the proliferation of SBNs could start a new Great Game among world powers as they vie for influence or control with/over new maritime city-states in order to gain an advantage over other potential opponents. The existence of many SBNs that are – to some degree – mobile in their physical location and political alliances and vulnerable to even second- or third-rate navies could damage that portion of global stability that comes from the vastness of the world’s oceans. Paradoxically, this means that instead of obtaining greater freedom from established governments, SBNs might invite more attention from great powers who seek to gain an advantage over a potential adversary. I don’t pretend to know what effects this attention and interest might have on the domestic politics of SBNs, but they strike me as both potentially significant and damaging to the stated goal of seasteaders to break from established forms of government.

SBNs do differ in many important ways from Great Britain in World War II. For one, they can be sunk: even the most solidly build floating platforms would be vulnerable to attack, particularly from torpedoes. For another, they need to be flagged by an existing country, at least under my limited knowledge of current admiralty law. These facts could influence their foreign policies in important ways.

Given the potential instability SBNs could introduce to the balance of power, it’s also interesting to consider whether great powers would seriously allow their formation.

It seems easy to conceive of SBNs as communities allowed to evolve in isolation, but their very existence will affect the strategic calculus of the world’s great powers. As a result, they may not even be allowed to evolve as they may wish. Conversely, the growth of a diverse array of SBNs would challenge some of the key principles of realism. Regardless, SBNs promise to drastically alter the way we think about international relations.

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

When a city can cut ties there may be danger if it does.

From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett

When a city can cut ties, there may be danger on the seas if it does – no matter how nice the upholstery.

The concept of Sea-based Nations, which won a recent CIMSEC poll directing our coverage for this week, is an idea with a significant potential to impact human societies. The extent of the changes depends on how far into the utopian imagination this idea is realized. In its simplest form, Sea-based nations could describe the venture of existing states into the open oceans. If so, tensions could rise significantly as the scramble for maritime territory takes on new dimensions, but there would be little new in terms of basic rules of naval strategy. Alternately, there could be a revival of ancient Greece-like city-states, as the name “Sea-based Nations” suggests. In this case the changes to the world and its citizens would be substantial, but even here we would still operating with known concepts. The most dramatic impacts would arise from the realization of the idea of Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In his 19th-century story, Captain Nemo and his crew of the Nautilus wanted to isolate themselves from the existing world. They cut all links and created a self-sufficient small community.

The latter two propositions could not be achieved without influencing existing maritime, and more narrowly, naval matters. The constabulary, diplomatic, and military functions of the world’s navies will be affected. And, in the most radical version - the Captain Nemo scenario – Sea-based Nations could undermine world order not by hostile actions or intentions, but simply by their existence. The bitterness in the words of Captain Nemo towards a frigate sailor in the U.S. Navy (who thought he’d been chasing a sea monster) reveal the challenges of renegade, roving, and unlocated Sea-bases facing humanity:

“M. Aronnax,” he replied, “dare you affirm that your frigate would not as soon pursued and cannonaded a submarine boat as a monster?”

From a professional standpoint, looking at the pictures of huge semi-floating structures, it is easy to imagine that military tactics will be affected as well. Let us think for a while about naval assault on such structure. Here naval warfare meets urban warfare. This raises questions not only about technology, but also about naval theory and its divergence or convergence with land warfare. Sir Julian Corbett believed that there are three principles of land warfare and that naval warfare significantly differs from them. The first principle is concentration of force and overthrowing the enemy, which is exemplified in maxim “The primary object of our battle-fleet is to seek out and destroy that of the enemy.” Here, naval warfare diverges with its concept of “fleet-in-being”:

In naval warfare we have a far-reaching fact which is entirely unknown on land. It is simply this–that it is possible for your enemy to remove his fleet from the board altogether.

The second principle is the definite lines of operation and of communications often determined by road and obstacles:

But afloat neither roads nor obstacles exist. There is nothing of the kind on the face of the sea to assist us in locating him and determining his movements.

The last principle is the concentration of efforts, which means a focus on an enemy’s force “without regard to ulterior objects.” In the case of naval warfare there is an ever-present question of lines of communication, independent from the focus on enemy forces, formulated in a simple and elegant way by Sir Julian:

Now, if we exclude fishery rights, which are irrelevant to the present matter, the only right we or our enemy can have on the sea is the right of passage;

 

Depending on whether the Sea-based Nation is more like Sparta than Athens, the above differences might be modified, if not eliminated. The “Fleet-in-being” strategy works only because the fleet removed from the board represents a reserve potential of action. The way of dealing with it is blockade. But what happens if a blockade is perfect?

 

Fighting for control of a Sea-based Nation could blend maritime and urban warfare.

On the other hand, as anti-access (A2) technologies matured throughout history, the close blockade became more and more costly. It was also exhausting and turned into the distant blockade. If a Sea-based Nation is a Sparta, self-sufficient in the long-term and powerful enough to push out its blockade through A2 technology, then a “fleet-in-being” would lose its importance and the difference between naval and land warfare starts to pale. Similarly, even tens or more floating Spartas will not change the sheer size of the ocean, but if located in one specific region, then they could act to increase or decrease the probable usage of particular sea routes.

The last difference would be least affected. However, some convergence comes from developments in land warfare as well. Looking at Afghanistan war, I suppose that Army generals would support Sir Julian Corbett’s focus on keeping safe lines of communications, regardless of the goal of overthrowing enemy forces.

In the end, what is the difference between armed floating cities and warships that justifies the digressions from known theories? Sustainment and self-sufficiency. If technology allows these structures enough of the two, we could face a hybrid of warships crossed with the type of well-defended islands seen in the Pacific campaign during WWII. The convergence between naval and land warfare would then accelerate.

 

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country