Category Archives: Capability Analysis

Analyzing Specific Naval and Maritime Platforms

Get Ready For The Spectrum Melee

By Douglas Wahl and Tim McGeehan

A New Era

In 1903, Guglielmo Marconi, the father of modern radio, was demonstrating an improved version of his device for wireless telegraphy at the Royal Institution in London. He had planned to transmit a message in Morse code from 300 miles away in Cornwall to the lecture hall in London, where it would be received and deciphered by an associate in front of the waiting audience. As the demonstration commenced the machine began receiving a signal. It repeatedly spelled the word “rats” before beginning a message that scandalously mocked Marconi: “there was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily…”1 The press soon reported that someone had made a “deliberate and cowardly attempt to wreck the experiment.”2

This event was sensational because this version of Marconi’s wireless had been advertised as being specially tuned and therefore secure from outside interception or interference. The ‘scientific hooligan’ behind the interference was Nevil Maskelyne, a local magician and wireless competitor, who sought to demonstrate that the radio signals were neither as private nor as secure as Marconi had claimed.3

Although technology has progressed significantly over the last 100-plus years, this episode still has serious ramifications today, as it could be considered the first episode of communications electronic attack (EA) or spoofing. Maskelyne, who had set up his own transmitter nearby, seized control of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and disrupted Marconi’s communications signal by overpowering it and injecting his own signal in its place, thereby delivering the new message to the intended receiver. Maskelyne’s 1903 stunt had also heralded a new era in warfare, where the EMS itself could and would be a contested battleground. Today, both non-state actors and adversary nations seek to use EA to deny the use of the EMS, which has become critical to both our daily lives and military operations. Fortunately, disruptive technologies are emerging to fill the urgent need to sense, characterize, and exploit the EMS, while at the same time deny it to our adversaries.

Our Reliance

As U.S. forces continue to become more technologically advanced, we continue to become more reliant on access to the EMS. Communications, sensor feeds, and command, control, and intelligence data all flow through the EMS and we have become increasingly addicted to the bandwidth available in permissive environments, with applications ranging from routine radio traffic to fire control radars. This demand will only increase.

Now, momentum is building in the drive to decouple sensors from shooters, further increasing reliance and demand on assured access to the EMS. The Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability distributes the AEGIS shipboard fire control data across diverse networks of remote sensors. This provides the AEGIS combat system the means to achieve independent engagement of over-the-horizon (OTH) targets with the Standard Missile (SM-6).4 In the future, engagement information will be passively provided to AEGIS from other platforms networked into NIFA-CA. Surface picket ships, aircraft like the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and future Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will all be threads in the Navy’s kill web. The first generation of NIFC-CA is already here; the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT Carrier Strike Group completed its deployment as the first NIFC-CA enabled strike group in 2015.5

Net-Enabled Weapons (NEW), like the Tactical Tomahawk that can be launched at a target and then directed inflight to a new, different target, are likewise EMS dependent.6 Future NEW weapons systems will no longer be confined to a set system of dedicated sensors, but will instead draw on the many sensors available in kill webs. These weapons will include swarms of unmanned platforms and loitering munitions that can circle overhead until being directed into a target. Similarly, our existing Tactical Data Links (Link 4A, Link 11, and Link 16) and NIFC-CA are spectrum dependent; they must be able to network, communicate, and exchange data. Our adversaries know this too and are investing in capabilities that which specifically target our access to the EMS itself as part of their Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies.

In general, the A2/AD model is based on the tenants of both Clausewitz and Mahan in that it is focused on controlling the battlespace and attrition of the adversary’s forces. To counter this the surface Navy continues to develop its “distributed lethality” concept. Distributed lethality explores how dispersing forces could enhance warfighting by “countering A2/AD’s attrition model through maneuver warfare’s intent to probe for weakness” and once found, exploit it, and disable or destroy the adversary’s forces.7 Dispersion creates more room to maneuver, and “strains the anti-access mission and forces the adversary into executing area denial simultaneously.”8 However, distributed lethality will exacerbate the burden on the EMS as the distributed forces must be able to communicate and coordinate in order to mass effects when and where required.

That said, distributed lethality has a role to play in denying the EMS to our adversaries. Sun Tzu placed high value on spies and defeating adversaries before the battle. Distributed forces can test and stimulate adversary intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to determine their scope and breadth in preparation for follow-on operations. Mapping the spectral dependencies of adversary systems before conflict is key to configuring our kill web, disrupting our adversary’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, and breaking their kill chains before weapons are launched.

Spectrum control is not a “future” issue; it is an urgent issue that has been long neglected and must be addressed now – as observed in Russia’s operations in Ukraine. In 2015, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work recently summarized the situation stating “Ukrainian commanders reported to us that, within minutes of coming up on the radio net, they were targeted by concentrated artillery strikes…  They [Russian backed separatists] jam GPS signals, causing Ukrainian UAVs to drop out of the sky. And they jam proximity fuses on artillery shells, turning them into duds.”9  Likewise in the recent past, Iran claimed to have hacked into the mission-control system of a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 SENTINEL UAV flying near their Afghan border, taken control of it, and successfully landed it in Iran.10 Tehran claimed that they jammed the UAV’s communications and when it switched to autopilot they spoofed its GPS system with false coordinates, fooling it into thinking it was close to home and landing in Iran.11 Regardless of the veracity of Iran’s version of this story, it illustrates the mindset of our adversaries. We need to ensure that the multiple entry points and data links required to fully realize concepts like “distributed lethality” don’t turn them instead into “distributed vulnerability.” Ukraine is a cautionary tale of real-world vulnerability and the A2/AD investments of potential adversaries signal intent for more of the same. As part of its mandate to ensure All Domain Access, the U.S. Navy must be able to sense, characterize, and exploit a contested EMS, while at the same time deny it to our adversaries – we need to own the spectrum.12

The Technology

Real-Time Spectrum Operations (RTSO) is a new and highly automated capability theorized to provide warfighters the ability to understand and drive their forces’ use of EMS resources. RTSO predictions are based on three mainstays: physics algorithms, sensor characteristics, and numerical weather predictions (NWP). All three must work together for RTSO to transition from theory to reality:

Sense. We need sensors distributed throughout the battlespace to constantly measure the environment and accordingly adjust our weapon systems, continuously tailoring their settings to optimize performance. The “environment” includes both the ambient EM signals and the physical environment through which they propagate. As a forward deployed service, the Navy often operates in data-sparse regions, thus every platform, manned and unmanned, must be a sensor. We need environmental and ES sensors on all of our ships and aircraft from autonomous surface vehicles to UAVs and from logistics ships to strike fighters. All this data has to be collected, processed, and most importantly sent back to our modeling and fusion centers to provide information for optimizing future operations.

Massive amounts of environmental data can also be gathered “through the sensor,” in addition to the actual desired signal.13 This is analogous to the “by-catch” of commercial fishing, where additional marine species are caught in addition to the type of fish targeted by the fisherman. The bycatch is often discarded at sea, resulting in a wasted resource. The same happens during the processing of sensor data, where the extraneous signals are removed. However, this resource can be not only salvaged but used to provide a new capability. For example, Doppler radar weather data can be extracted from SPS-48 air search radars of our big-deck aviation platforms as well as from the SPY-1 radar of the AEGIS weapon system. With the multitude of sensors available there are many untapped sources of environmental data.

We also need to take advantage of commercial off the shelf (COTS) data collection systems, such as the Aircraft Meteorological Data Relay (AMDAR) program that has been adopted by over 40 commercial airlines.14 AMDAR uses existing aircraft sensors, processing systems, and communication networks to collect, process, format, and transmit meteorological data to ground stations where it is relayed to National Meteorological and Hydrological Services to be processed, quality controlled, and transmitted on the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Telecommunications System. The Navy could incorporate a similar system into its platforms to collect and transmit data on both the EMS and physical environment.

Characterize. Once we have the environmental data in hand, we can use it to characterize the environment. In the EMS this includes mapping the frequencies in use by all actors and inferring their operations and intent. For the physical environment it includes incorporating collected data into our NWPs to forecast the future physical environment itself, which can then be fed into the EMS analysis to predict how sensors and receivers will respond to new conditions. To do this effectively we must invest in supercomputing and shared processing. In the future, an advanced version of Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services (CANES) and the Navy’s Tactical Cloud may provide the ability to have a supercomputer on each of our large deck surface platforms, enabling this capability even when reach back data-links are degraded or denied.15

SAN DIEGO (Nov. 19, 2013) Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Anthony Pisciotto, right, familiarizes Information Systems Technician Seaman Cameron Treanor with the Consolidated Afloat Ships Network Enterprise Services (CANES) system in the Local Area Network (LAN) Equipment Room aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69).  (U.S. Navy photo by Rick Naystatt)

Exploit. Once we understand the environment, we must exploit it by adapting our tactics. We need to “seize spectral high ground” and apply maneuver warfare principles to the spectrum to assure our bandwidth. Understanding the environment better than our adversaries will allow us to evaluate trade-offs and turn Battlespace Awareness into Information Warfare. Only this will allow our forces to have the operational advantage and overmatch our adversaries by fully integrating the Navy’s information functions, capabilities, and resources to optimize decision-making and maximize warfighting effects.

Deny. Finally, we need to deny the spectrum to our adversaries by further developing systems such as the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) and delivering the Next Generation Jammer. We must expand the HAVE QUICK radio system with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC)16 to provide anti-jam, frequency hopping secure communications that use ultra-high frequency (UHF) and require smaller antennas.

We must also deny our spectral emissions to our adversaries. A good rule of thumb is that if your radar can range 100 nautical miles, the adversary can detect it at least to 200 nautical miles. With an eye toward preventing unwanted detection, we need to revisit how we communicate. With the widespread use of direction finding in World War II, radio silence was a normal operating procedure and information was passed between ships using semaphore. Today, Laser Communication Relay Systems exist that are both extremely secure and have high data rates. As a bonus, these systems use less energy and when paired with satellites, these line-of-sight systems have unlimited potential.

Risks, Barriers, and Integration

There are multiple risks and barriers to integrating these technologies. From the operational aspect, these technologies have to interface with currently fielded systems. Spectrum management and deconfliction are already ostensibly done through Operational Tasking Communications (OPTASK COMMS) and the Afloat Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Program (AESOP), but we still routinely have electromagnetic interference (EMI) between our systems. The commander of the Air Force’s Space Command said that in the first 11 months of 2015 there were over 261 cases of satellite downlink jamming. When asked how many of these incidents were caused by actual adversaries, he responded “I really don’t know. My guess is zero,” and that the real cause was “almost always self-jamming.”17 In a way, this suggests that the problem might be as much cultural as it is technical. A military workforce that has grown up in the age of unlimited and uncontested bandwidth is less aware of their EMS operations, filling (and over-filling) all available bandwidth with little discipline. This nonchalance will be difficult to overcome, but the fielding of new high-end capabilities must be accompanied by a change in mindset in order to realize maximum benefit.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Aug. 19, 2015) The U.S. Navy’s fourth Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite, encapsulated in a 5-meter payload fairing, is mated to an Atlas V booster inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex-41. (Photo courtesy United Launch Alliance/Released)

EMI is not confined to just our own systems. Used indiscriminately, military radar systems may be strong enough to interfere with wireless systems, air traffic control radars, and cellphone systems. In the late 1980s, a Dutch naval radar caused the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system of a natural gas pipeline near the naval port of Den Helder to open and close a valve, ultimately leading to an explosion.18 Despite a crowded spectrum at home, the U.S. government continues to sell off bandwidth and civil users continue to encroach upon what remains. The net effect is an increasing limitation on the military’s ability to effectively train stateside.

Another barrier to progress in the acquisition and integration of new systems is the U.S. military’s acquisition system itself. It is too slow and vulnerable to espionage and theft. In military acquisitions the mantra is that “we don’t fight the enemy, we fight the budget,” which is often shaped more by political considerations than by the needs of the services. In 2016, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition Sean Stackley testified that Navy needs more authority to spend on experimentation and prototyping (not necessarily programs of record), because “the pace of technology is outpacing” the services’ ability to work their way through the “long and lengthy process” of fielding weapons systems.19

In terms of security, plans to assure access to the EMS should begin before these systems are even fielded. Espionage and theft are rampant from cleared defense contractors, evidenced by the striking similarity of ‘new’ adversary platforms to our own. However, the threat even extends to university and research labs. Today’s high-tech research becomes tomorrow’s classified projects and programs; we need to ensure these capabilities are protected throughout their entire development as an early compromise of one of these technologies gives our adversaries years to either improve upon it or develop a counter.


As we wage the battle of Washington, we need to prioritize investment in the capabilities described above. Roadmaps and plans are aspirational without resources and in this constrained fiscal environment there are many promising programs that will fall “below the cut line” and not be funded. However, capabilities that will enable us to own the spectrum when and where required are just as important, if not more important, than any particular ship or handful of strike fighters. At the cost of $100-plus million dollars per unit, would one F-35 Joint Strike Fighter be missed if the Navy was to reallocate this funding towards a RTSO program? If we lose the battle for the spectrum, many platforms like these will be seriously impaired and vulnerable, if not completely blind, deaf, and dumb and thus defenseless.

Luckily, there have been recent admissions from senior Department of Defense leadership that these types of capabilities are critical as we move forward. This support may help identify funding for rapid transition or similar acquisition “fast track” opportunities to get these technologies to the Fleet quickly. However, the true level of commitment will be clear in the budget.


The spectrum is a battleground whose control is absolutely fundamental to warfare in the information age. The U.S. military must seize upon emerging technologies that will enable it to maintain superiority in this congested and contested environment. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, “Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the electromagnetic terrain, know the weather; your victory will then be total.”  The spectrum is no longer an “enabler” to military operations; it is the battlefield.

Douglas T. Wahl is the METOC Pillar Lead and a Systems Engineer at Science Applications International Corporation.

Tim McGeehan is a U.S. Navy Officer currently serving in Washington.  

The ideas presented are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.


1. Lulz, Dot-dash-diss: The gentleman hacker’s 1903, New Scientist,

2. Staff Writer, Further Developments in Wireless Telegraphy, The Evening Telegram, June 29, 1903,,6605289&hl=en

3. Staff Writer, Interesting Marconigrams, Evening Post, August 15, 1903,

4. Jeffrey H. McConnell, (14 NOV 2013) Naval Integrated Fire Control–Counter Air Capability‐Based System of Systems Engineering, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division,

5. Sam LaGrone, (5 March 2015), “Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group to Depart for Middle East on Monday in First NIFC-CA Deployment”, ; Final Ship of Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group Returns Home, 14 December 2015,

6. Managing the Net-Enabled Weapons Kill Chain Testing in a Live-Virtual-Constructive Environment, Joint Command and Control for Net-Enabled Weapons (JC2NEW), Joint Test, Alexandria, VA, 22311.

7. Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016

8. Dmitry Filipoff, Distributed Lethality and Concepts of Future War, CIMSEC, January 4, 2016

9. Bob Work,  Deputy Secretary of Defense Speech at CNAS Defense Forum, December 14, 2015

10. David Axe, Nah, Iran Probably Didn’t Hack the CIA;s Stealth Drone, Wired,

11. Adam Rawnsley, Iran’s Alleged Drone Hack: Tough but Possible, Wired,

12. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower:  Forward, Engaged, Ready, March 2015.

13. Tim Gallaudet, Charting the ‘Invisible Terrain’ Proceedings, July 2015.


15. The Navy Wants a Tactical Cloud,

16. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “This new DARPA chip could give U.S. a leg up in electronic warfare”, 12 January 2016, The Washington Post.

17. Syndey Freedberg, U.S. Jammed Own Satellites 261 Times; What if Enemy Did?, Breaking Defense, December 02, 2015,

18. IBID Zetter

19. John Grady, Sean Stackley Asks Congress for More Department of Navy Flexibility in Acquisition, 7 January 2016, USNI News,

Featured Image: ARABIAN SEA (June 11, 2011) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Stephen Sittner, from Denver, identifies and tracks air contacts in the Combat Direction Center of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd/Released)

Leveraging Identity Activities in the Maritime Domain

By Pete Spahn and Matt McLaughlin

The CNO’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” rightly highlights a return to great power competition on the seas and the need for blue water combat power. While this assessment is accurate, it is also a fact that Phase Zero operations continue unabated, as the United States Navy and its partners shape the environment for whatever comes next. The international community continues to create and enforce economic sanctions on rogue states; U.S. and coalition partners continue to patrol for pirates and smugglers in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden; NATO continues to deter and repatriate Mediterranean migrants.

It is in this context that Identity Activities are an important advantage in the maritime domain. The CNO’s design notes the influence of pervasive connectivity to information – this allows our asymmetric adversaries to coordinate despite loose, diffuse networks. But we can turn such connectivity to our own asymmetric advantage as well, thanks largely to biometrics, data analysis, and global networks. The result: If we find you, we will know who you are.

Understanding identity is a decision-support tool. Since decisions must be made across the Range of Military Operations, from Phase 0 to Phase 3 and beyond, identity is applicable anywhere. In security cooperation missions, for example, identity tools may help the host nation maintain rule of law by identifying criminals. Those same tools may help with identifying insurgents or unmarked troops during hostilities. And during reconstruction and stability operations, Identity Activities can help to establish proper governance and a safe and secure environment with minimal fraud or crime.


According to Joint Doctrine Note 2-16, Identity Activities are “a collection of functions and actions that appropriately recognize and differentiate one entity from another to support decision making.” They may accurately deconflict, link, or consolidate identities; detect shared characteristics of a group; characterize identities to assess levels of threat or trust; or develop or manage identity information.

Identity is derived from a variety of sources: biometric, biographic, documentation, and others. Much of the work is done unseen by the Intelligence Community. At the tactical level, what Sailors and Marines see most directly is an individual’s physical characteristics and, often, documents. Biometrics can help to determine if documents are genuine or fraudulent. When converted to digital files via electronic enrollment, biometrics can also be compared with U.S. watchlists and databases. This will show if the individual has been previously encountered by the armed forces or law enforcement of the U.S. or certain partners. The context of those past encounters will help determine the next course of action.


In the maritime environment, three main areas of employment present themselves – migrant interdiction, maritime security, and possibly countering state-sponsored “hybrid war” at sea.

Migrant interdiction is unfortunately a growth industry, with instability on the Mediterranean’s southern coast, both sides of the Gulf of Aden, and parts of the Caribbean, just to name a few. Tracking the identities of such migrants serves two main purposes: following the flow of displaced persons, and screening displaced populations for known and suspected terrorists and criminals. With some regularity, the U.S. Coast Guard, operating in the Caribbean, biometrically identifies individuals at sea with outstanding warrants in the United States. The Coast Guard can refer them to the proper authorities before these suspects reach U.S. shores on their own. The potential for European navies and coast guards to do the same in the Med – but with potentially far more threatening subjects in the post-ISIS diaspora – is clear.

Maritime security is a longstanding mission that will continue as long as the sea is a pathway for illicit activity. Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East and the U.S. Coast Guard in the Western Hemisphere both frequently seize large quantities of drugs and – especially near Yemen in recent years – weapons. Ascertaining the identities of the individuals aboard helps crack open the shadowy networks operating and funding their operations. At the same time, it also helps differentiate between guilty ringleaders and plausibly innocent crewmembers that have no knowledge of their cargo. But if the same supposedly ignorant mariner keeps appearing on unsavory vessels again and again, knowledge of his past activities would permit a reevaluation of that benign assessment.

A Coast Guard boarding officer captures a fingerprint with biometric technology. (Coast Guard photo)

Looking ahead, applying identity to maritime hybrid actors puts it in the service of the great power competition described by the CNO without actually coming to blows at sea. While terrorists and criminals try to remain anonymous as a means of self-protection, hybrid actors use anonymity to provide their state sponsor with deniability. While open source information on ship registration and vessel movements can often poke holes in states’ denials, knowing individual identity – of ship captains, for instance – adds another arrow to our intelligence quiver. The DoD’s 2017 report to Congress on Chinese military power specifically called out the role of the China’s Maritime Militia (CMM), which is vigorously expanding its operations in the South China Sea. Ostensibly fishing boats, these blue-hulled vessels  have habits of finding their way to contested locations. They are the linchpin of a Chinese hybrid strategy of asserting dominance in Southeast Asian waters. Identity Activities can help us know the provenance of these militia vessels, and perhaps offer a tool in the U.S. strategy to counter their influence.

Libya presents another opportunity for Identity Activities to prove useful in the maritime sphere. Libya has two governments, only one of which is internationally recognized – but both are attempting to assert control over Libyan waters (neither very professionally). Just like in the South China Sea, using all-source intelligence to track both vessels and the personnel operating them will help operators sort through which vessels belong to which rival, or are simply third-party pirates taking advantage of disorder.

The Future

The Navy and Intelligence Community are already very good at tracking suspicious vessels and monitoring traffic. Gathering information on individuals, biometrics in particular, is a less certain proposition. Warships’ commanding officers are reluctant to have their boarding parties spend time conducting interviews and biometric enrollments aboard overcrowded refugee boats which already have water up to the gunwales before their Sailors even step aboard. The vessel’s master, and perhaps a few others may be enrolled, but likely not an entire boatload of dozens of people. The strategic reward – an expanded database and analytical opportunities – is not typically perceived as worth the tactical risks.

The technology exists to change this. There is no single best solution, but it is easy to imagine an aircraft – as small as a hand-launched quadcopter or as large as a P-8 – passing over an open-topped boat with a high-resolution camera that takes images of its occupants’ faces. A nearby ship, acting as data node, could then interface with the global data architecture that already exists for U.S. biometrics and look for face matches. Before even putting its boat in the water, the ship’s boarding party would know if any persons of interest were sighted aboard the vessel. The boarding party would still be necessary to review identity documents or perform other biometric enrollments, such as fingerprint, but some of the initial trepidation before visiting a vessel of unknowns would be dispelled.


The future of maritime operations is not an “either/or” scenario – peer competition or constabulary maritime security – but a “both/and” situation requiring investment and training at both ends. Identity Activities offer a means of enhancing our effectiveness at the low end and perhaps reducing tensions as we approach the high end. Although the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and partners can fully implement it today, it will be made more effective through the fusion of multiple sensing and data transmission technologies. The end result will be greater confidence in the identities of those we encounter at sea, more assured decision making, and enhanced security on the global commons.

Pete Spahn is an Intelligence Analyst at the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency, an Army field operating agency, and a retired Chief Cryptologist with experience in collections and analysis around the globe.

Matt McLaughlin, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, provides strategic communications support to the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency and is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve.

Their opinions are their own and do not represent the Departments of the Army, Navy, or Defense.

Featured Image: Between Cuba and the Florida Keys (Sept. 19, 1994)– Coast Guardsman, BM2 John Greenwell, from LEDET 8I (Law Enforcement Detachment) transport cuban migrants to a navy ship during Operation Able Vigil. Operation Able Vigil got underway in mid-August when the number of Cuban rafters rescued in the Florida straits skyrocketed above the month of June record of 1,173 to 2,607 in a single week of August. (USCG photo by PA1 Don Wagner)

A Thoroughly Efficient Navy for the 21st Century, Pt.1

By David Tier

America has grown weary of the post-9/11 wars. Long, drawn-out conflicts have worn down American resolve and left many defense officials nostalgic for “the good-old days” when adversaries were easier to describe and devoted military efforts toward preparing for conventional warfare. Seizing an opportunity, the U.S. Navy has capitalized on growing disillusionment and sought to exaggerate the military challenges posed by an ascendant China for parochial benefit in terms of gaining larger budgets and greater quantities of more expensive ships. The Navy should consider an external strategy review that accounts for efficiency as an aspect of its operating concept. This article reviews America’s current naval strategy and is divided into two parts. Part 1, below, analyzes U.S. naval defense strategy in light of 21st Century national defense threats. Part 2 will recommend changes to the Navy’s force structure to gain significant cost savings while still satisfying America’s naval defense requirements. 


In 1987, William W. Kaufmann analyzed U.S. Navy force requirements and determined that the Navy sought to procure a force much larger than necessary to meet realistic Cold War-era force projection demands.His review dissected the Navy’s threat assessments and his work was used as a successful tool to stunt the Navy’s attempts at inducing greater budgets. Today, in much the same way as then, we see the Navy favor approaches like AirSea Battle and “sea-basing” that counter anti-access/area-denial strategies but are anchored in conventional warfare concepts that discount the less-sophisticated threats more likely to challenge our nation. The attention and resources diverted from chasing terrorists on land will almost surely have negative consequences for the U.S., while the challenge of using naval power to forcefully gain access into contested regions will likely not be necessary, or perhaps even suicidal if tried. Despite implications to the contrary of the Navy’s parochial interests, naval officers should advise America’s leaders that the danger of being denied military access to a theater of operation is manageable and that the threat of terrorism is the greater national security problem. To do otherwise puts American interests at greater risk. This article explores the Navy’s missions in the context of the current strategic environment, proposes adjustments to its missions to align with its national defense role, analyzes the number of platforms and capabilities required to counter projected threats, and recommends reallocating budget to reduce excessive capacity in the Navy’s force projection mission in favor of sustaining the Army and Marines’ counterinsurgency capability.

The Navy’s Missions

Throughout its nearly 70-year history, the Department of Defense has struggled to build a joint force portfolio that distributed resources in proportion to priorities established in the national defense strategy. However, intra-service politics often hampered efforts to cross-level in line with the strategy and each Service wound-up with nearly equal budgets instead. There have been a couple of noteworthy exceptions to this strategy-to-resources mismatch, however. The Eisenhower Administration’s policy of “massive retaliation” emphasized the role of nuclear forces over conventional, whereby the Air Force and Navy benefitted from budget increases at the expense of the Army. The Kennedy Administration reversed Eisenhower’s course with its “flexible response” policy, which sought to improve the Army’s ability to withstand a conventional attack in Europe as well as to develop counterinsurgency forces.

The military strategies that followed these policy changes gave birth to a principle that the U.S. should maintain capability to simultaneously fight at least two major regional wars. The U.S. maintained this defense strategy for decades and only recently sought to scale back. Still, not all was smooth sailing in the Defense Department, as defense analysts noted the need to curb budget waste that resulted from factors ranging from Congressional pork barrel projects to misplaced Service priorities. Kaufmann observed that the Navy had drifted off course in his 1987 analysis titled, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy.

At the time the Navy sought a 622-ship fleet cruising with 15 aircraft carriers, and submitted budget requests based on a vision articulated in 1986’s The Maritime Strategy. Overseen by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins, the document went so far as to envision decisive warfare against the Soviet Navy called “Carrying the Fight to the Enemy,” which advocated using naval power to attack the flanks of the Soviet Union during the course of a potential war.2 The Maritime Strategy persuaded defense planners of the need for a large Navy to accomplish this end.3 Although the Navy advertised its conclusions to justify necessary means to accomplish assigned missions, outsiders viewed it as a parochial argument intended to gain force structure.

Kaufmann deconstructed the Navy’s approach and determined that a naval attack against the Soviet Union would incur losses that outweighed the value of the strikes, or might even be suicidal.4 In his analysis of the maritime threats, he observed an overstated stated need for aircraft carriers, and proposed force reductions that would have substantially curbed Navy carrier-building. 

Like The Maritime Strategy, the Navy’s 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower is similarly off course. Section III of the document, titled “Seapower in Support of National Security,” overstates the need to achieve “all domain access” and to project power. It conditions the reader to expect that inflated anti-access threats imply that the most prudent solution is to apply brute force of naval power. One must examine the Navy’s purpose and missions within the context of today’s strategic security environment to establish a baseline for more reasonable Navy force requirements.

Notwithstanding the national defense strategy’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the Navy’s enduring missions in priority sequence are:

1. Protect the U.S. and deter enemy attack, particularly from seaborne threats
2. Secure economic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to support national livelihood
3. Deny an adversary the use of the sea for military advantage
4. Secure military SLOCs to ensure access to distant theaters of operation, and enable military transport vessels safe transit to discharge their matériel in support of joint operations inland from the sea
5. Project forces that can attack adversary interests on land in support of other combat operations

Some may argue that these missions omit important tasks that the Navy is required to perform and others may argue that they are incorrectly prioritized. However, these arguments do not hold water. Although there is no mission listed above to provide “presence,” humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or establish maritime superiority, these missions can be accomplished with the same assets needed for the other missions described, or otherwise derived from a combination of them. Forces conducting the first mission could assist humanitarian relief efforts and, in effect, the second, third, and fourth missions combine to describe graduating levels of sea superiority. No further forces would be necessary to accomplish these other missions. A close examination of the five listed missions can help identify and determine the capabilities required of America’s Navy.

Reconsidering Threats and Missions

First, protecting the nation from attack is the purview of all armed forces. Military threats to the U.S. are the primary reason America should procure military capability. Naturally, the Navy’s portion of this mission should focus on seaborne threats and, to an extent overlapping with the Air Force, threats overflying the sea. The primary maritime military threat to the United States today is the threat of ballistic missile submarines operating within firing range of American shores. There is no real threat of an amphibious attack against the U.S. There is also no serious threat of any enemy carrier or surface strike group threatening American territory, nor will there be any in the foreseeable future. The threat of submarine-launched missiles however, particularly nuclear ballistic missiles, should be the number one priority for the Navy to defeat. Therefore, the capability to detect, track, and destroy “boomers,” and even intercepting their missiles, should be the Navy’s primary focus. This places a premium on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms such as long-range patrol aircraft, attack submarines, ASW helicopter-equipped surface action groups, and ballistic missile defense systems such as Aegis-equipped ships. Although fixed-wing ASW aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier also perform well in this role, aircraft carriers are not optimally employed in ASW and are an inefficient means to address this threat. Likewise, nuclear deterrence through deployment of U.S. ballistic missile submarines is an important capability for the Navy to maintain as part of the strategic deterrence triad. In conjunction with the other legs, it helps discourage enemy attacks against the U.S. by providing a credible second-strike threat.

Second, securing SLOCs to enable global maritime traffic and foiling an enemy’s attempt to blockade the U.S. is a vital maritime mission that ensures the nation’s way of life can continue despite attempts to wage war against it. This mission does not include protecting traffic in or through an active theater of war, but requires a capability for the Navy to establish safe lanes of transit from the territorial waters of the U.S. to the territorial waters of major international shipping ports around the globe. The primary military threat that sea-going commercial traffic might encounter would be attack submarines, although land-based long-range attack aircraft, and, to a lesser extent, surface groups or small water craft, could pose a threat. Accordingly, these threats require the Navy to maintain a transoceanic ASW capability, defensive anti-air warfare (AAW) capability, and the capability to defend against smaller surface threats. These are largely the same capabilities required in the first mission above, and greater numbers of the same types of assets can effectively be used for this second purpose. 

The third mission for the Navy is to deny, or at least inhibit, enemy use of the sea for military advantage. An enemy must not be able to outflank land forces using maritime maneuver. This is where the need for sea-based fixed-wing attack and air-intercept aircraft makes their first appearance, as the Navy needs a limited strike and air combat capability to prevent an enemy from gaining localized sea control. America’s potential adversaries, however, do not furnish a strong blue-water capability that threatens to overturn the Navy’s long-established control of the sea. Even the most vaunted projected maritime threat, the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China (PLAN), will possibly field three aircraft carriers in the coming years, 85 ocean-going surface combatants, and nine nuclear-powered attack submarines.Although this may sound like a substantial challenge at first glance, a closer look assuages concern about blue water contests with the Navy. In a potential war against the U.S., the PLAN would not survive beyond the reach of land-based air cover since the Navy’s attack submarines would almost assuredly destroy their task forces on the open seas, and even be a significant threat for PLAN forces in their home waters. Furthermore, the Air Force’s long-range bombers would severely hamper Chinese maritime freedom of maneuver outside of the East and South China Seas. Therefore, only a few cruise missile-equipped ships, and possibly a single aircraft carrier with multi-role fixed-wing aircraft would be necessary to accomplish this third mission per theater of war. Even the amphibious assault ship-based U.S. Marine Corps attack aircraft may sufficiently address this role. A joint task force of attack submarines, amphibious assault ships, and Air Force strike aircraft could fulfill this task, thus lessening the demand for supercarriers. 

The fourth mission for the Navy is to secure SLOCs into a theater of war, which necessitates a stronger offensive capability. This mission includes the possibility of forcefully gaining access to contested theaters and, combined with the second and third, accounts for the Navy’s desired capability of sea control as articulated in the Navy’s vision statement, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.6 The AirSea Battle concept envisions the most challenging aspect of this fourth mission. AirSea Battle considers a worst-case scenario where the Navy must escort military transports into the full weight of sophisticated enemy defenses—within ample range of the enemy’s inventory of attack aircraft, cruise missiles, attack submarines, and mines. However, there are only a few locations in the world where Navy forces would have to confront this most challenging task by themselves, and only one current location where this is even conceivable: the South China Sea. Regardless, even the worst-case scenario there would probably require no more naval forces than required during Operation Desert Storm or in the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the Navy deployed six aircraft carriers in each instance.7 Although this may seemingly vindicate the Navy’s need to maintain a double-digit number of carriers, we must be realistic about the threat faced. Admittedly, the challenge to escort convoys would substantially increase as task forces approached theaters of war but the chance that regional partners would not allow greater basing access assumed in some studies is overly pessimistic. This, combined with the low likelihood that a severe South China Sea problem would actually occur, reduces the challenges posed.

From a different perspective, consider more pessimistic accounts such that there were no bases in the region from which American forces could launch attacks, no allies contributing meaningful forces to assist the cause, and an enemy force that actually developed into the great adversary it is predicted to become. Were six carriers required in both wars against Iraq that sought to eject entrenched forces from an occupied country or force regime change as the 1991 and 2003 military missions respectively, or was that overkill? Couldn’t four carriers have accomplished the more limited objective of simply “gaining access” to that theater?  Self-serving parochial aspects aside, the Navy should recognize that overselling the capability to execute a highly-contested South China Sea mission under the worst circumstances promises to divert resources that could be employed against other, more likely threats, such as transnational terrorism.

The Navy has encountered difficulties persuading defense planners of the full narrative for its fifth mission—power projection—since the end of the Cold War. The Navy should indeed maintain a capability to project power into distant theaters of operation since there is great value in an ability to assail an enemy in as many ways as possible. The main problem with the Navy’s approach, however, is that it single-mindedly envisions large carrier strike groups for this role. Carrier strike groups should, at best, only be one part of a comprehensive package that could be accomplished by guided missile-capable attack submarines alone or with surface combatants, and possibly to a greater degree, by long-range bombers and tactical aircraft controlled by the Air Force. This is a joint, overlapping mission set. Because the power projection argument has lost favor in recent years, the Navy has sought a different narrative to justify its service size. Hence, the AirSea Battle concept was born.


This examination has identified, prioritized, and placed limiting stipulations on five core missions the Navy must accomplish. Next, an examination of the Navy’s present forces it has to carry out these missions, particularly its aircraft carriers, will help determine if there is excess capability it could reduce in favor of other national defense interests. 

David Tier is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and serves as a strategic plans and policy officer. He holds a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, has served three combat tours of duty in Iraq, served a tour of duty in the Pentagon, and has authored several articles. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or any of their components.


1. William W. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987), 123.

2. Admiral James D. Watkins, The Maritime Strategy, (Annapolis, MD.: US Naval Institute Proceedings Supplement, January 1986), 9-13; John B. Hattendorf, Ph.D., Peter M. Swartz and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, (Newport, R.I.:  Naval War College Press, 2008), 221.

3. Hattendorf, Swartz, and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, 204.

4. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy, 102-104.

5. Kenji, Minemura, “China to start construction of 1st aircraft carriers next year,” The Asahi Shimbun, December 31, 2008, available online at, accessed on October 16, 2014.

6. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, March 2015, 22.

7. U.S. Navy Captain (Ret.) Marty Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?”, available online at, accessed on October 16, 2014.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 3, 2017) Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) observe the guided-missile destroyers USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Halsey (DDG 97), USS Preble (DDG 86) and guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) during a Group Sail training unit exercise with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Spencer Roberts/Released)

Is Collective Southeast Asian Security Only Achievable in Malacca?

By Matt McLaughlin

In the opening years of the century, fear of piracy permeated the Strait of Malacca. Every few days, it seemed, there was another boarding, another theft, another hijacking. Merchant sailors, already leery of the narrow sea lanes, were doubly anxious over the identity of the brigands’ next target – could they be next? And, most remarkably, this was not the Eighteenth Century, but the Twenty-First.

It was for the purpose of alleviating this unprofitable tension that the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP) was established in 2004. Four neighboring states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and, in 2008, Thailand – pooled their resources to combat illicit activity in the critical chokepoint on which they all shared coastlines. By 2009, piracy in the area had been so effectively curtailed that the Naval War College Review could justifiably ask if the problem had been solved.1

An observer 600 miles northeast of Malacca would have seen a less harmonious scenario play out, though. In the South China Sea, a different sort of maritime threat challenges the sovereignty of various Southeast Asian states – territorial claims by China. Since as far back as the 1970s,2 various appendages of the People’s Republic of China have been using force, finesse, and everything in between to stake claims to islands (and potential islands) through a wide swath of the South China Sea, in direct opposition to four Southeast Asian claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. This behavior continues today.

How were four neighbors able to cooperate concerning one problem but not the other? Is such a cooperative solution unique or is it transferable to other situations?

Three categories of factors generally account for the difference in scenarios: the legal environment, level of effort, and level of risk. This paper will address elements within all three categories, with some that fall under more than one being discussed multiple times.

Legal Environment

It is a time-honored truth that, Jack Sparrow aside, no one likes pirates. They have no constituency, no patron. Stamping out brigandage in its waters is almost by definition a precondition for a state to be considered legitimate. Minimal tears will be spilled if a state apprehends pirates on the high seas.

As a direct result of civilization’s antipathy toward piracy, it is a recognized precept of international law that pirates are stateless. Any state patrolling for pirates is well within its rights to deal with them, via arrest or other means, in accordance with its own law. Counterpiracy operations, in the Strait of Malacca or anywhere else, are on solid legal ground at the broadest level (allowing for some restrictions, perhaps, at the tactical level).

The legal and moral backing described above ensure that international kudos or, at least, an absence of complaints can be expected by MSP participants. Surely it was widely appreciated when Lloyd’s of London ceased listing the Strait of Malacca as a “war risk area” in 2006 as a result of MSP’s actions.3 Recognition such as this is not, strictly speaking, a legal matter. However, in the realm of international law, where precedent and custom are just as important as written treaties, support from peers is critical in ensuring the legitimacy of an action.

Contrast this with the South China Sea. The Southeast Asian nations whose shores it laps are uniformly exasperated, no doubt, with Chinese fishing, island-building, and other nationalist actions in waters well outside China’s own Exclusive Economic Zone. But what to do? Unlike pirates, China has a cheering section. There will be more on this in the Risk section, but suffice it to say, China’s market is big enough (or potentially big enough) that no nation, not even its rivals in the South China Sea, wants to risk losing access to it. As a result, someone can always be found to support the Chinese position, even if holding their nose while doing so.

Legal understandings concerning pirates are more or less universal; not so with territorial disputes, though. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) are generally recognized as legitimate authorities worldwide – but for China, they only apply when they’re convenient. If Chinese interests contrast with international agreement, it will choose to only recognize its own law, whose interpretation of the status of the South China Sea is markedly different from those of its neighbors. Having a conversation among the claimants is most difficult when their points of reference are completely opposed. It is complicated even further when one notes that Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have their own claims competing against each other – China can say it is simply one more player in an existing dispute. Even fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) found it too costly to support the Philippines in its successful case against Chinese territorial claims at the PCA; the Philippines solicited ASEAN for co-litigants but found none. Despite emerging from arbitration victorious, the Philippines is left to negotiate the way forward on a bilateral basis in an undeniable position of weakness.4

Because concurrence on the end state in the South China Sea is fleeting, international backing for any party to the dispute is lacking. Nations like Japan and the United States can agree that China shouldn’t do what it’s doing – but at the same time, they take no position on how the Sea’s territorial lines should actually look, which is a matter for the four Southeast Asian claimants to determine among themselves. It is hard to oppose one course of action (the Chinese one) without proposing a credible alternative, but that is the only option available to the international community.

Level of Effort

Legal issues aside, very different resources and activities are required for patrolling the Strait of Malacca as opposed to contesting the South China Sea, and those required for counterpiracy lend themselves to international cooperation.

First, counterpiracy is virtually a completely maritime affair. The ships and aircraft of the MSP can patrol international waters, and, occasionally, fly over territorial waters with proper permission, but no one has to set foot on the land of another country. The lack of “boots on ground” makes such cooperation a much simpler affair; it is out of sight and out of mind for most people ashore. It is expensive to maintain and crew equipment that floats and flies, but it is politically palatable in a way that a troop garrison may not be.

The second point is a corollary to the first – while maintaining naval and air forces may not be cheap, neither do they need to be top-of-the-line warfighters, either. The biggest capability such a counterpiracy force offers is simple presence. By being visible in the commons, they can deter piracy without firing a shot or boarding a single vessel. Such a force is achievable even for a middle-income nation like Indonesia. The country may have more-capable forces available (as Singapore certainly does), but they can be sent elsewhere while the low-end constabulary forces monitor the sea lanes.

Outside support is also minimized in conducting the MSP. Members can conduct the mission themselves, as long as their governments provide the proper equipment through international arms sales (such as for P-3 patrol aircraft). The MSP has no involvement from ASEAN, nor is there an ASEAN role in counterpiracy operations anyplace else.5 Strait security does impact all ASEAN members, if for no other reason than to keep maritime insurance premiums down, but it was urgent enough to MSP members in 2004 that they acted on their own accord without waiting for ASEAN to offer collective support through a process that would have undoubtedly taken years. The mission is focused enough that MSP members correctly judged that participation by ASEAN or extra-regional partners was unnecessary.

Lastly, with a non-controversial mission being conducted offshore, direct military-to-military coordination is suitable for the MSP. A headquarters and operations center was built in Singapore6 but, other than that, no new structure or apparatus needed to be created. Simple cooperation among preexisting military organizations was sufficient. Best of all, it is non-provocative – there is no rival state getting perturbed at the sight of its neighbors performing joint military operations. Pirates may have been surprised to see it when the MSP began, but aren’t really in a position to complain.

The South China Sea, however, presents a great many obstacles to cooperation in contrast to the items described above that facilitate the MSP. For example, while it is mostly a maritime affair, it isn’t entirely – there are actual land masses in play, many of which are large enough to be inhabited. Even rocks and shoals matter, as the long-suffering Philippine LST executing a claim to Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands can attest.7 So while the typical citizen of an ASEAN state will consider this to be offshore just as the MSP is, the fact is there is still ground to be defended, and China cannot be successfully deterred solely with naval operations. This is a dicey matter since many islands have multiple ASEAN claimants – so who has the responsibility to defend them? Drawing up plans to defend these points from outside aggression will provide frequent flashpoints for internal conflict. It can only be done jointly, or not at all.

Back at sea, naval operations need to be of a higher level than picking up unsophisticated pirates. China must be made to think that, if it comes to war, the costs will outweigh the anticipated gains. Such a credible deterrent requires wholly different equipment and doctrine than that used in the Strait of Malacca. This is expensive and time-consuming. Capabilities vary by country, and in no case do assets come in great numbers. Thus, in contrast with the MSP, outside military assistance is a vital component of Southeast Asian efforts to resist Chinese aggression. Any credible strategy must rely on forces from the United States, at minimum, and probably also Japan, Australia, and perhaps others from outside the immediate region, like India.

Level of Risk

The factors described all figure in to calculations of risk. The bottom line is that counterpiracy is considered to be low-risk; confrontation with China is a dicier proposition. Largely this is because pirates are simply out to make a living, however illicitly; China, on the other hand, appears to be spoiling for a fight.

The People’s Republic of China acts provocatively because it wishes to be provoked. Even if it chooses not to use an incident as a casus belli, it can still use perceived affronts as sanctimonious diplomatic cudgels against their neighbors and rivals. Over time, other countries may subtly shift their behavior to avoid such Chinese outbursts, even if war never actually comes. This means that even quite legitimate expressions of national sovereignty, like the Philippines patrolling its own internationally-recognized waters, might be done infrequently or not at all in order to avoid antagonizing the PRC. A 2015 statement by the U.S. Seventh Fleet commander about the potential about ASEAN counterpiracy patrols in the South China Sea – where, recently, piracy has also been picking up – earned the observation by The Diplomat that “these ASEAN states deal with the South China Sea issue quite differently, and the idea itself may seem too controversial for some for fear of angering Beijing.”8 There is no such restraint in patrolling the Strait of Malacca.

Besides threatening war with the largest military in the region, the PRC can also make economic threats against countries that annoy it. Its market is huge; no country with hopes of growing its economy can afford to ignore it. Thus, a Chinese threat to shut out a certain country or trade bloc carries a certain weight, and gives the PRC substantial leverage in its international dealings. A rival state would have to be pushed thoroughly to the edge by Chinese behavior before it would allow a bellicose response to threaten its access to the Chinese market. This sets a high bar for even one country to oppose Chinese maritime activity in the South China Sea, let alone several of them. Proactive measures against Malacca piracy, though, carries no such risk – as noted earlier, the pirates have no constituency whom rivals must flatter. Individual situations may be difficult (such as those involving hostages) but the impetus to suppress piracy in the first place is unobjectionable as it carries very low risk of blowback.

In fact, counterpiracy has the active encouragement of China and every other maritime nation. The Strait of Malacca is a globally-important chokepoint of trade – disruption there raises the cost of virtually everything, as maritime insurance rates rise and ships are rerouted on longer voyages. China well recognizes its “Malacca Dilemma”9 and pays close diplomatic attention to the area. In fall of 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Malaysia and specifically the port of Malacca, giving speeches and offering infrastructure loans along the way. Unlike in the South China Sea, Chinese and Southeast Asian goals are decidedly aligned in the counterpiracy mission and overall security of the Strait.10

Lastly, there is a level of military risk involved, especially as we recall that China is actively looking for grievances. As noted earlier, habitable and buildable islands (and reefs that could become islands) are at issue in the South China Sea – this is not the case in counterpiracy operations. With actual ground on which boots can be disembarked, the stakes are higher than simple maritime cat-and-mouse at sea and in the air. Claiming and holding land by force brings a sort of primacy to a claim that just isn’t achievable by coast guard patrols of open water. Thus ground troops’ use by Southeast Asian states is even more of an incitement to China than maritime operations, and, although it is the only way they can truly enforce their claims, there will be great reluctance to employ such forces. But that leaves the land open for Chinese claims. And the ratchet again clicks ahead one notch.

Additionally, the military-to-military cooperation so prevalent in the MSP would be called out as warmongering if practiced in the South China Sea. Mil-to-mil liaison and cooperation is the order of the day in Malacca; however, if practiced similarly in the South China Sea, a diplomatic row will surely ensue in which China accuses its southern neighbors of ganging up against it (there is a grain of truth to this, of course, even if it’s a defensive arrangement at heart). So, left to their own devices, Southeast Asian states will minimize even simple coordination among their units in the South China Sea in order to avoid rocking the boat and implicitly threatening their economic interests.


Discussion of the Malacca Strait Patrol is not meant to sell it is a model example of effective cooperation – simply an example of existing and enduring cooperation. The very fact the MSP was organized and is still extant when so few such international efforts exist in the ASEAN region is, by itself, remarkable. However, questioning its mission effectiveness is perfectly valid. While it did have great success reducing piracy in its earliest years, illicit activity is again on the rise. Southeast Asia was the world’s number-one region for piracy as of 2015, accounting for 55 percent of all cases tracked by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), with much of it occurring in the Strait of Malacca.11 A check of the IMB’s website12 at any given time will likely show a recent case in the Malacca area (as of this writing, case 071-17, an armed robbery, fits this description).

Military officers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore at the inaugural Malacca Strait Patrols Information System exercise held at Tuas Naval Base in March 2008. The system allows information about an incident to be passed on quickly to agencies in the three littoral states and Thailand. (Liane He Zaobao/Straits Times)

Contributing to piracy’s resurgence is poor resourcing and rules for cross-border pursuit. Surface ships are not permitted to enter other countries’ territorial waters. Patrol aircraft may make limited incursions of up to three nautical miles; however, they have been “criticized for the low number of flights actually taking place, and the limited resources available to respond to incidents spotted during aerial patrols.”13

It is reasonable to conclude that the great drop in piracy in the first few years of the Malacca Strait Patrol was due to the shock effect among pirates who had to contend with organized resistance for the first time. MSP was able to tackle the “low-hanging fruit” through simple deterrence, and made a big difference. Those who remained in the business were more resilient and innovative in achieving their illegal ends, allowing them to exploit holes in MSP coverage and eventually expand their activities. That, combined with MSP’s inevitable bureaucratic sclerosis and loss of urgency after more than a decade on the same mission contributed to a long-term loss of effectiveness for the counterpiracy effort.

Nevertheless, MSP’s mere existence and the very real success it has had in the past compel its use as an example for other security initiatives – no better ones exist. This has been noted by such figures as the chief of Singapore’s Navy, who in 2015 suggested adapting the MSP model to patrol the recent pirate hotspot in the south end of the South China Sea.14 This specific initiative may be a non-starter for diplomatic reasons described above, but not because the organizational model wouldn’t work.

Courses of Action

MSP states act in the Strait of Malacca because they have undisputed legal authority, only need to expend a moderate amount of funds and manpower, and assess there is low risk of unintended effects. In contrast, China seems to hold all the cards in the South China Sea. Is there anything that neighboring states, or ASEAN as whole, can do to mitigate this?

There may be a way to thread this needle. First, a coalition, optimally but not necessarily ASEAN-based, must be formed to act in the South China Sea. Second, the emerging pirate threat in the South China Sea must clearly and repeatedly be emphasized as the object of efforts in the area. Third, Southeast Asian coalition members must take a page from the Chinese playbook and simply be present there, conducting their counterpiracy mission, to be sure, but also pointedly making their existence a well-known fact. Chinese island-building and occupation must be dealt with diplomatically, as forcibly removing them is a bridge too far, but Southeast Asian presence in the waters concerned will increase Southeast Asian leverage in such discussions.

It is natural to question whether ASEAN has a role in this initiative that affects all of Southeast Asia. Ideally, perhaps it would, and there has certainly been talk of finding ways to accomplish this.15 However, the fact that ASEAN has had no role in the Malacca patrol and has made little substantive contribution to other security matters indicates that this may be an unrealistic expectation. Because of possible diplomatic repercussions from China, it is nearly impossible to even get a joint ASEAN statement concerning the South China Sea, as witnessed in June 2016 with the released-then-retracted statement about Chinese claims.16 Thus, a solution with a better chance of coming to fruition would involve just the directly-involved states, likely Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam (perhaps with Singapore, too). It is unlikely ASEAN would give its blessing, but nor would it get in the way.

When this coalition does kick off its activities, it needs to show in word and action that counterpiracy really is its mission. This is as much a matter of strategic communication as it is maritime tactics, techniques, and procedures. Broadcasting far and wide the news of every apprehended pirate will serve to deter further piracy and also make the point to China that this is, indeed, how the patrols are spending their time. Over time, joint Southeast Asian/ASEAN patrols will become routine and part of the accepted pattern of life in the area.

China will not passively accept this, though. If it does nothing, that would equate to tacit acknowledgment that the affected areas of the South China Sea are either international waters or subject to the claims of nations other than itself, so action is more likely. The Chinese Coast Guard could attempt to keep Southeast Asian patrols out of the area by maneuvers, both diplomatic and naval. But this would beg the question, why is China enabling pirates? It is then possible that China would establish its own counterpiracy operation in order to be seen as doing a service for the region. Piracy, at least, would be mitigated. It would still leave open the thorny issue of the illegitimacy of Chinese actions in ASEAN countries’ claimed seas. Southeast Asian coalition patrols would have to continue, sharing the waters with Chinese ones, in order to show, at the very least, the international nature of the South China Sea.

And, in a roundabout way, we have arrived at the limit of what ASEAN or its member states can expect to accomplish in the South China Sea. They will never resolve their internal claims and counterclaims – but they will never forcibly disabuse China of its claims, either. However, it is just possible they may be able to create conditions in which all sides can agree to disagree. Just as in the Strait of Malacca, the solution is not perfect – as rising rates of piracy show, there are still gaps and the problem is not in any way “solved” – but it is achievable, and the hypothetical outcome is better than it would be otherwise. Let the perfect not be the enemy of the good, and the “good” in this case is a state of tolerable ambiguity.


The mere existence of the Malacca Straits Patrol is remarkable for a region notably protective of sovereignty and averse to interstate cooperation in the wake of colonial rule, and this will be hard to replicate in the South China Sea or elsewhere. The MSP has succeeded because it has a narrowly-defined mission fitted within that paradigm of state sovereignty. It may not have stamped out all piracy, but it’s eliminated quite a bit. Any organization designed to supporting Southeast Asian claims in the South China Sea will need to have a similarly focused mission and expectations to match. No combination of ASEAN member states will be able to in any way “solve” the problem of Chinese maritime claims on their own. But they can act to create the facts necessary to facilitate other efforts, diplomatic and otherwise. The fact that it is the Malaysian or Philippine governments, and not the Chinese government, arresting pirates or helping stranded fishermen could go a long way. But expectations must be limited; any such organization can and should do no more than this.

MSP succeeded by virtue of focusing on goals achievable within the political and resource constraints it faced. In a sense, adapting the MSP organizational model to another mission is easy. MSP’s far bigger lesson is the value of achievable objectives. Setting those objectives requires not money, nor ships, nor men, but rather the most precious resource of all: plentiful reservoirs of discipline.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander, strategic communications consultant, and Naval War College student whose opinions do not represent the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or his employer. This post is based on a Naval War College paper submitted in summer of 2016 and is republished with his permission.


1. Catherine Zara Raymond, “Piracy and Armed Robbery in the Malacca Strait: A Problem Solved?”, Naval War College Review, Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 3.–A-.aspx.

2. Donald E. Weatherbee, Southeast Asia: The Struggle for Autonomy (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

3. “Malacca Strait Patrols,” Oceans Beyond Piracy.

4. Benjamin Kang Lim, “China, Philippines to start South China Sea talks: ambassador”, Reuters, 14 May 2017, accessed 8 Jun 2017,

5. Laura Southgate, “Piracy in the Malacca Strait: Can ASEAN Respond?”, The Diplomat, 8 July 2015, accessed 17 May 2016,

6. “Malacca Straits Patrol: Member States Commemorate 10 Years of Cooperation,” Singapore Ministry of Defense, 21 April 2016, accessed 17 May 2016,

7. Manuel Mogato, “Exclusive: Philippines reinforces rusting ship on Spratly reef outpost – sources,” Reuters wire service, 13 July 2015, accessed 3 July 2016,

8. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN Patrols in the South China Sea?”, The Diplomat, 19 March 2015, accessed 17 May 2016,

9. Malcolm Davis, “China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and the Future of the PLA,” China Policy Institute Blog, The University of Nottingham, 21 November 2014, accessed 25 June 2016,

10. Shannon Tiezzi, “China Promotes Trade, Maritime Silk Road in Malaysia”, The Diplomat, 24 November 2015, accessed 18 June 2016,

11. Prashanth Parameswaran, “Over Half of World Piracy Attacks Now in ASEAN,” The Diplomat, 25 April 2016, accessed 17 May 2016,

12. Live Piracy & Armed Robbery Report 2017, International Maritime Bureau, accessed 8 June 2016,

13. Laura Southgate, “Piracy in the Malacca Strait: Can ASEAN Respond?”, The Diplomat, 8 July 2015, accessed 17 May 2016,

14. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?”, The Diplomat, 12 May 2015, accessed 17 May 2016,

15. Ibid.

16. Robert Held, “South China Sea Clashes Fracturing ASEAN,” The National Interest, 24 June 2016, accessed 25 June 2016,

Featured Image: Naval ships on the Strait of Malacca. (Xinhua)