Category Archives: Current Operations

On-going Naval Ops or Maritime Current Events

Contested Seas: Maritime Security in Libya

By James Pothecary

Introduction

On 20 February, the Bahamas-flagged car carrier Morning Compass was seized by militants purporting to represent the Libyan Navy. The ship, which was carrying around 5,000 cars to South Korea, was interdicted by a heavily armed skiff and forced to divert to Misrata port, which is located on the western tip of the Gulf of Sirte. The following day the ship was released and resumed its planned course.

The skiff belonged to fighters loyal to the Tobruk-based administration, an unrecognized government that operates in Libya’s east and which has de facto control over broad swathes of the country. The internationally recognized, United Nations-backed unity government, situated in the capital Tripoli, has its own naval force. Therefore, the Tobruk-based vessel had no authority to detain Morning Compass under international law.

This is the latest in a series of incidents between foreign vessels and armed Libyan craft belonging to both the unity government and non-state armed groups (NSAGs). On 17 August 2016, Libyan naval assets loyal to the unity government attacked the Luxembourg-flagged Bourbon Argos, which had been chartered by the international aid organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), to assist refugee rescue efforts in the Mediterranean. The incident occurred in international waters, outside Libya’s territorial claims, and involved Libyan naval forces opening fire on the Bourbon Argos. Accounts vary, with the Libyan Navy claiming the shots were fired in warning, while MSF says that naval forces fired at the bridge.

With refugees and economic migrants using Libya as a springboard to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, there are also suspicions that the Tripoli government is implicated in human trafficking. A 13 December 2016 report by the U.N. Support Mission in Libya reported claims that Libyan Coast Guard forces were participating in migrant smuggling networks, rather than attempting to curtail refugee flows to European shores.

While the report did not detail specific incidents, the lack of regulatory oversight, as well as documented examples of sexual abuse, extortion, and similar activities by Libyan coastguard and naval personnel, means Allan & Associates (A2) assesses these claims as credible.

These two incidents are risk-negative indicators of the security environment in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean links eastern and western markets via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, North Africa to Europe, and south-western Russia to the rest of the world via the Black Sea. The sea has 22 littoral states, ranging from countries with little to no functional maritime trade, such as Syria, to major trading nations, such as France and Italy. The World Shipping Council’s latest statistics, from 2013, show the Asia-Mediterranean route shipping 6.7 million TEU, and the North Europe-Mediterranean-South America route 1.68 million TEU. Short sea shipping from Spain and Italy alone, according to a 2015 report from the E.U. statistics office, amounted to GWT468.8 million. Therefore, the significance of the Mediterranean to maritime shipping cannot be overstated.

Security Risks

A2 assesses that there is a credible threat of armed vessels, either operating under the auspices of the Libyan military or as NSAGs, interdicting civilian vessels within 50km of the Libyan coastline. This poses a major risk to shipping. Unlike pirate activity elsewhere, such as off the Yemeni coast, it is likely that NSAGs will purport to belong to the Libyan government, either in Tripoli or Tobruk. This complicates any attempt at deploying countermeasures, as it could be unclear whether interdicting vessels are genuine naval or coast guard assets.

In particular, aid organizations using ships to support rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, such as MSF, are at risk of a kinetic incident. This is because such vessels are more likely to be regarded by Libyan armed maritime fighters as interfering in their country’s sovereign affairs. Furthermore, aid ships are constantly present in and around Libyan territorial waters, making it more likely they will be detected by hostile armed maritime forces. Although the 17 August attack against an MSF vessel did not result in casualties, further incidents could have fatal consequences.

The risk is heightened by the lack of professionalism of Libyan maritime forces. Although international actors, including the E.U., are providing some levels of training, this is primarily focused on basic seamanship skills and military capability. Libyan military personnel, therefore, are more likely to overreact when interdicting shipping, and will likely lack the ability to carry out lawful searches without escalation.

Insecure ports

As at sea, so in port. Ports outside of the capital Tripoli have little to no functional governance, and multiple criminal, tribal and political armed groups operate in these areas. Such groups have unilaterally seized several merchant ships. For example, in February 2017, the Turkish-flagged oil tanker Hacı Telli was seized by armed militants in the north-western city of Zuwarah. The militia claimed that the vessel’s owner owed around USD $4,000 to a local company. Eleven crew members are currently being detained on the ship more than a year later.

The Libyan coast and the Gulf of Sirte. (NASA)

Moreover, there is a risk that ships entering ports outside the control of the unity government will be engaged by Libyan military forces. On 5 January 2015, a Libyan fighter aircraft launched an airstrike on the Liberian-flagged oil tanker Araevo, killing two crewmen. The ship, which was carrying crude oil, had been warned by military units not to attempt to enter Derna port, which was under the control of the Tobruk administration. Logistics operators should regularly update bridge officers on which faction controls intended ports of call, and masters should have discretionary authority to alter travel plans, should they believe there is a kinetic risk from Libyan military forces.

These incidents demonstrate that both the Libyan government and NSAGs pose a direct kinetic security risk to shipping calling at Libyan ports, and A2 stresses that maritime operators should carefully consider the feasibility of docking at ports in-country until the security situation markedly improves.

This includes oil terminal installations such as Ras Lanuf and Zuwetina, which are located on the Gulf of Sirte and are beginning to ramp up oil exportation operations. There is ongoing fighting in these areas, and control over the ports is fluid and liable to change with little to no warning.  

Regulatory Attention

Libyan ports are designated by the U.S. Coast Guard as lacking anti-terrorism measures, under the International Port Security Program. Merchant shipping which has previously called at Libyan ports will, therefore, be subjected to increased attention from the U.S. Coast Guard and port authorities.

This will likely include delayed travel times due to additional security checks being conducted on said vessels. A2 notes that merchant vessels can minimize disruption when visiting U.S. ports if masters enact heightened security procedures when in Libyan ports. These measures should include minimizing time spent in port, the deployment of guards at ship entry points, and briefing all hands to observe personal security procedures when ashore.

Ships calling at European ports could also face increased attention from national security forces, due to the poor security environment in Libyan and other North African ports. Masters can minimize the risk of being targeted for inspection by naval or coast guard units by ensuring location transmission devices are kept on at all times, avoiding diverting from pre-established routes and not using flags of convenience.

Supply Chain Integrity

The lawlessness of Libyan ports also poses a secondary risk: illicit cargo will infiltrate legitimate supply routes. Logistics operators should take steps to implement strict chain-of-custody and supply chain integrity rules and procedures for all cargo loaded in Libyan or other North African ports, to mitigate the risk of illicit shipments infiltrating commercial shipping.

Bridge officers should be trained on how to detect suspicious cargo, and all hands should be regularly briefed on their responsibilities under corporate ethics policies and the law. Operators should not rely entirely on customs authorities for supply chain integrity, as it is practically impossible to comprehensively search all ships, and the effectiveness of customs regimes differs markedly between countries.

Search & Rescue

There is an ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, as refugees from the Middle East and Africa seek to flee by ship to Europe. Libya and other North African countries are a primary staging ground before refugees attempt maritime crossings. The quality of the vessels used is extremely poor, and sinkings are common. Often, this leads to considerable loss of life. Article 98 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea obligates masters to render all assistance to individuals ‘in danger of being lost’ at sea. Diversions in the Mediterranean to assist rescue operations could delay scheduled freight shipments. However, A2 reminds maritime operators of their legal obligations in such circumstances.

Forecast

A2 assesses that the security environment around the Libyan coast will continue to decline as multiple NSAGs as well as the Libyan Navy skirmish for maritime supremacy. In particular, as oil exportation resumes in the Gulf of Sirte, maritime forces will attempt to gain control of the surrounding ports and waters, due to their increasing strategic importance.

Further kinetic incidents against civilian shipping are likely within the one-year outlook, and masters should continue to regard Libyan territorial waters as a high-risk environment until the security situation stabilizes. This will be contingent on a political agreement being reached by the various factions, an achievement which currently seems a remote possibility.

James Pothecary is a Political Risk Analyst specializing in the Middle East with Allan & Associates, an international security consultancy which provides a range of protective services including political and security risk assessments, security policy design and crisis management response.

Featured Image: Smoke rises from the oil tanker Anwar Afriqya after a Libyan warplane attacked the tanker in Sirte, Libya, Sunday. (Reuters0

Interwar-Period Gaming Today for Conflicts Tomorrow: Press ‘Start’ to Play, Pt. 3

By Major Jeff Wong, USMC

Interwar-Period Gaming  Insights and Recommendations for the Future

The militaries of Germany, Japan, and the United States utilized gaming between the First and Second World Wars to help them overcome challenges relating to doctrine, organization, training and education, and capabilities development. The Versailles Treaty prohibitions prompted Germany to use means other than live-force exercises to study and mature its combined arms concept, test naval and air doctrine, and drive planning for the invasions of Poland, France, and the Low Countries in the European theater. Japan effectively used wargames to inform doctrine and war planning, but biases affected game outcomes and subsequent planning of future campaigns, particularly the Battle of Midway. Japan gamed both strategic and tactical elements of its ambitious Pacific campaign, studying in detail essential tasks as part of its Pearl Harbor and Midway operations plans. Game insights prompted planners to change parts of its Pearl Harbor attack, but failed to sway leaders to examine more closely a critical element of the Midway campaign. The United States, particularly the Navy, combined wargaming with analyses and live-force exercises to study upcoming likely threats and advance naval concepts and capabilities such as carrier aviation. In the United States, Naval War College games of different variations of Plan Orange exposed officers to the theater, operational, and tactical challenges of a conflict against Japan. Many games played over the years between the world wars created a baseline of understanding about how naval officers would fight when war broke out. Now, nearly a century later, today’s U.S. military should apply best practices from those interwar years to spur innovation and overcome the kinds of strategic, operational, and institutional challenges that plagued these adversaries before the Second World War.

This is the final part of a three-part series examining interwar-period gaming. The first part defined wargaming, discussed its potential utility and pitfalls, and differentiated it from other military analytic tools. Part two discussed how the militaries of Germany, Japan, and the United States employed wargames to train and educate their officers, plan and execute major campaigns, and inform the development of new concepts and capabilities for the Second World War. This final part offers recommendations, taken from effective practices of this period, to leverage wargames as a tool today to provide a strategic edge for the U.S. joint force tomorrow.

Wargaming for Today

First, the U.S. military must expand and deepen the use of wargaming at PME institutions as a training and educational tool. Similar to the interwar period, wargames should be used to train officers to make decisions from a commander’s perspective, gain insights into likely adversaries, and learn about the war plans to counter or defeat them. Wargaming design should be part of the regular curriculum to reinvigorate this technique within the uniformed military, since PME institutions are intended to broaden officers’ professional horizons and allow them to explore new ideas. 

At the interwar-period Kriegsakademie, some students had never experienced the brutal combat of World War I and never faced decision-making under fire. Wargaming woven throughout the curriculum gave these future leaders an opportunity to practice “commandership” from the commander’s perspective. Thus, students playing in wargames estimated situations based on given scenarios, outlined courses of action after assessing situations, executed plans, and then absorbed honest critiques of their decisions. In the 1920s and 1930s at the Naval War College, students also received a primer in commandership against the backdrop of a Pacific naval campaign. The students who played the games, as well as the faculty members who designed and umpired these events, shaped and fed a shared mental model about the strategic, operational, and tactical challenges of fighting the Japanese in the coming war. Officers returning to Newport as faculty members brought with them recent operational experiences, including fleet experiments that shaped carrier aviation and informed the requirements of new capabilities.  

Beyond the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, current U.S. PME students are not taught how to plan and develop wargames as part of their regular course work. At U.S. Marine Corps University, for instance, wargaming is taught during a six-week elective at Command and Staff College (if enough students express interest in the elective), but the course fails to relate how games are relevant to real-world war planning and critical U.S. defense processes such as capabilities development.

At the next-level PME institution, students of the Marine Corps War College (lieutenant colonels and commanders) participate in a wargame as part of the curriculum’s Joint Professional Military Education II (JPME II) requirement, but they are never taught how to plan, execute, and analyze a game themselves. Within the Air Force, the Air Force Materiel Command offers three-day introductory courses with curricula tailored to the needs of a client command or organization, but these courses fall short of the integral nature that wargaming fulfilled for the German Army, Japanese Navy, and U.S. Navy during the interwar years.

The Board of Strategy plots moves during a Naval War College wargaming session in the cabin of the USS Wyoming (BB-32). Such rigorous preparatory training during the interwar years. (U.S. Naval Institute Archive photo)

To yield substantive benefits, wargaming must be integrated into service PME starting with captain-level career courses. The first exposure should be at the rank of captain in order to give young leaders intensive, virtual decision-making experience before they assume company command. Company command is the appropriate time to introduce gaming to an officer’s development because his unit gets four times larger (a Marine rifle company has 182 personnel by table of organization, compared to 43 personnel in a Marine rifle platoon) and he must have the mental acuity and confidence to operate without constant supervision from superiors. Gaming gives leaders this experience.  

As an officer’s career progresses, the wargaming curriculum should teach students how to develop, plan, and execute wargames on a larger scale. At top-level schools, an officer should be expert at applying game insights into the vast U.S. military bureaucracy, feeding future-leaning commands and organizations within the supporting establishment that play a key role in developing future strategies, concepts, capabilities, and resource allocations. With its emphasis on decision-making and reflection on the implications of those decisions, wargaming provides a tool to foster imagination and intellectual growth inside and outside a formal schoolhouse setting. Teaching wargaming design to uniformed military members empowers them to create the intellectual venues themselves when they return to the fleet, flight line, or field – much like the officers of the German Army, Japanese Navy, and American Navy did during the interwar period.

Second, the U.S. military should more closely bind service-level wargaming, analysis, and live-force exercises to provide the intellectual and practical test beds to explore and develop new concepts, capabilities, and technologies to overcome unforeseen warfighting challenges. The games and exercises should be conducted as distinct events that are separated by weeks or months, unlike the infamous Millennium Challenge 2002 event, which attempted to synchronize a wargame, experiments, and exercises involving live forces around the world. 

Wargames, analysis, and exercises are complementary elements of a cycle of research that offered fresh approaches and shaped new capabilities during the interwar period. Wargaming provides an environment for players to make decisions and understand their implications without expending blood or treasure. Insights derived from games are generally qualitative in nature. Analysis uses mathematical tools – primarily computer-generated models in today’s military – in an attempt to duplicate the physical processes of combat. Insights derived from analysis are usually quantitative in Both wargames and analysis, however, are only abstractions of reality. Together, they can inform exercises that give real forces the opportunity to implement in the physical domain the new approaches and ideas suggested by wargames and analysis. (See Table 1, Comparison of Campaign Analyses and Wargames.)

Table 1. Attributes of campaign analyses and wargames.

U.S. Navy Commander Phillip Pournelle writes that each of the tools “suffer from their own biases, simplifications, and cognitive and epistemological shortcomings. When integrated judiciously, however, the cycle of research gives leaders at all levels critical facts, synthetic experiences, and opportunities to rehearse a range of events in their minds and in the Fleet or the field.” (See Table 2, Comparison of Exercises and Wargames.)

Table 2. Attributes of exercises and wargames.

The cycle of research has increased momentum at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory’s (MCWL) Ellis Group, which hosts weekly wargames to examine emergent Marine warfighting challenges. The games serve as an incubator for concepts and capabilities under development. During a game in 2015, dozens of uniformed officers and civilian experts gathered around a large sandtable separated by a barrier. A young Marine infantry captain explained how he planned to land his company.  On the other side of the barrier, red cell members – retired field-grade officers and staff noncommissioned officers – determined how they would oppose the landing. On the group’s periphery, analysts recorded observations made by the participants. Scribes filled whiteboards with insights from the game, which they matched against the command’s prioritized list of warfighting challenges. U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General Dale Alford, MCWL’s commanding general, adopted the weekly games after observing the Naval War College’s Halsey Groups use operations analysis and wargaming to examine naval warfighting challenges. “It was mostly about getting the right people involved and in the same room,” he said.

Third, wargaming leaders must ensure an accurate and intellectually honest representation of the enemy. Most games played by the Germans, Japanese, and Americans during the interwar period featured two sides: friendlies and adversaries playing against one another. Some of today’s large service-level games are one-sided, with friendly “blue” actions being played against pre-scripted enemy reactions or a control group attention divided between representing “red” and running the overall event. However, if war is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” as Carl von Clausewitz suggested in On War, these games must adequately portray the adversary’s will.  One-sided wargames lose the essence of the opposing will when the enemy’s actions are not represented by another human being seeking to win. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, who previously served as director of Command and Staff College, required all Command and Staff College games to be two-sided affairs. “You need two free-thinking wills … within the bounds of the problem,” said Van Riper, who has consulted on many joint and service games since his retirement from active duty in 1997 and served as the red cell commander during the Millennium Challenge event.

This honest portrayal goes beyond using an expert versed on enemy (e.g., “red cell”) capabilities, limitations, and doctrine. During the Wehrmacht wargames before the invasion of France and the Low Countries, the red cell correctly suggested that French-led Allied Forces would be slow to respond to a German main effort thrust through the Ardennes – prompting planners to shift resources to the army group approaching from the forest. The red cell did not portray an idealized version of the French doctrinal response, which would likely have prompted German planners to shift resources to a different army group and resulted in a different course of action. From the Japanese wargames before the Battle of Midway, historians and professional gamers often cite the sinking – and revival – of two Japanese carriers as an admonition against biases, poor assumptions, and predetermined outcomes.

Fourth, future wargaming efforts should use different types of games for different purposes and desired outcomes. A greater variety of games can attack a problem from different perspectives. A larger number of games provides more opportunities to create fresh solutions. For a new, evolving subject, a wargame with more seminar discussion, less action-counteraction play, and fewer rules might be more appropriate in order to generate player insights and spur creativity. On a topic for which much is already known, a wargame with less seminar discussion, more action-counteraction play, and more rules based on hard data might be more suitable to refine players’ understanding of capabilities.

Back to the Future

The German Army, Japanese Navy, and U.S. Navy used wargaming to shed light on strategic, operational, and tactical uncertainty during the interwar period. In the German Army, wargaming formed the bedrock for the education of officers and provided opportunities for commanders and staffs to rehearse complicated operations such as the offensive against France and the Low Countries in 1940. For the Japanese Navy, planners utilized wargames to examine different ways to employ the Combined Fleet in the opening salvo of the Pacific campaign. The Germans successfully used red cells during their wargames to accurately and honestly portray French forces’ actions during the 1940 campaign, while the Japanese demonstrated the dangers of predetermined notions during wargames before the Battle of Midway. The U.S. Navy found wargaming to be an effective tool for educating officers as well, inculcating the practice among generations of officers who attended the Naval War College and fostering a shared mental model through hundreds of wargames that focused on a potential future war with Japan. Likewise, American naval officers also wargamed carrier aviation, discovering optimal ways to employ forces that massed firepower and extended the reach of the Pacific Fleet. These insights fed the cycle of research that allowed American naval officers to study, experiment, and develop new concepts and capabilities leading up to the Second World War.  

Interwar-period wargaming provided users with a chance to shed light on an opaque future. Although the threats are different, senior U.S. defense leaders face similar ambiguity now. The reassertion of Russia in world affairs, a militarily stronger China, and a multitude of powerful non-state actors have dramatically changed the strategic landscape. Fast-developing capabilities, nascent technologies, unmanned weapons platforms, 3D printing, and human-machine interfacing are among the potential factors of the next great conflict. With no cost in blood and minimal in treasure, wargames can empower U.S. military leaders to exert intellectual leadership and innovate to be better prepared for the future.

Major Jeff Wong, USMCR, is a Plans Officer at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Plans, Policies and Operations Department.  This series is adapted from his USMC Command and Staff College thesis, which finished second place in the 2016 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategic Research Paper Competition.  The views expressed in this series are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  

1.  Commander Phillip Pournelle, USN (analyst at the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the Secretary of Defense), interview by Jeff Wong, September 24, 2015.

2.  As discussed previously, wargaming is different from COA Wargaming, which is a phase of the joint and services’ planning processes, e.g., the Military Decision-Making Process and Marine Corps Planning Process.

3. Colonel Matthew Caffrey, USAF (Retired) (wargame instructor at the Air Force Materiel Command), interview by Jeff Wong, October 15, 2015.

4. Gary Anderson and Dave Dilegge, “Six Rules for Wargaming: The Lessons of Millennium Challenge ’02,” War on the Rocks, November 11, 2015 (accessed April 1, 2016): http://warontherocks.com/2015/11/six-rules-for-wargaming-the-lessons-of-millennium-challenge-02/.

5. Philip Pournelle, “Preparing for War, Keeping the Peace,” Proceedings 140, no. 9 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval Institute, September 2014), accessed October 15, 2015: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2014-09/preparing-war-keeping-peace.

6. Peter Perla, The Art of Wargaming, 287.

7. Brigadier General Dale Alford, USMC (commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory), interview by Jeff Wong, November 23, 2015.

8. Carl von Clausewitz, On War ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 75.

9. Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC (Retired) (faculty member at Marine Corps University), interview by Jeff Wong, February 2, 2016.

10. Pournelle, interview by Jeff Wong, September 24, 2015.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (May 5, 2017) U.S. Naval War College (NWC) Naval Staff College students participate in a capstone wargame. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)

Announcing Winners of the Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship

By Roger Misso

It has been an exciting scholarship judging season at CIMSEC! We were lucky to have a slew of essay submissions and a great panel of judges for our Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest. Alas, we had to narrow down our choices…

…and the winners are:
FIRST PLACE: Patrick C. Lanham, Senior, Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High School (Florida)
SECOND PLACE: Christopher L. Rielage, Senior, Percival Blakeney Academy (Hawaii)
THIRD PLACE: Matthew Lidz, Senior, Bernards Township School District (New Jersey)
Congratulations to the winners! In the coming days and weeks, we will publish their essays and honorable mentions here at CIMSEC.

We are exceptionally proud to have had such a geographically diverse pool of submissions. The commitment to and knowledge of the great maritime issues among our nation’s high schoolers is strong, and bodes well for both the United States and the world in the future. 

We invite all authors—of any age or grade level—to submit their best content on maritime security issues to CIMSEC. We look forward to reading!

Roger Misso is the Vice President of CIMSEC.

Featured Image: Pen and paper (A. Birkan ÇAĞHAN/Flickr)

Russian Warships in Latvian Exclusive Economic Zone: Confrontational, not Unlawful

By Sean Fahey

The past months have seen a significant increase in Russian military activity across Europe, including the Baltic Sea. Last month, Admiral Michelle Howard, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, and commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, described the scope of Russian military activity in Europe as “precedential,” exceeding even Cold War era levels.1 The Baltic Sea, in particular, has become increasingly congested with Russian military forces operating in the region, leading to tense encounters in the air and on the water. Most notably, last April, two Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft made repeated low-altitude passes over the USS Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer operating in international waters in the Baltic, with several of the passes resembling “simulated attack” runs.2 Russia also recently deployed Iskander missiles, a “nuclear-capable” system with a range of over 400 miles, to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave situated between Poland and Lithuania,3 and, last month, conducted cruise missile drills in the Baltic Sea.4 This summer, Russia is expected to conduct its “Zapad” (or “West”) Exercise in Kaliningrad and Belarus, with estimated Russian participation numbering between 70,000 and 100,000 troops.5 Some of these incidents are alarming in and of themselves; others, though seemingly routine, may be cause for concern when viewed in light of other regional Russian military activity. Context matters.

The most recent Russian military activity to draw attention in the region was the transit of three Russian warships through the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Latvia, a NATO member state.6 The three warships—the  corvettes Liven 551, Serpukhov 603 and Morshansk 824—were sighted four miles outside Latvia’s territorial sea, or sixteen miles from the Latvian coast. The warships were scheduled to participate in a naval parade to commemorate “Victory Day,” celebrating the end of World War II, but were redeployed prior to the parade, quite possibly in response to the destroyer USS Carney’s arrival into the Baltic Sea.7 

In isolation, the transit of the Russian vessels through the Latvian exclusive economic zone is relatively benign. In the context of Russia’s military activity in the Baltic over the past year, however, the transit can appropriately be described as “aggressive,” even “confrontational.” That said, the transit was not unlawful under international law, and this point cannot be lost in the discussion. The United States and its allies rely on the navigational freedoms protected under international law as much as the Russians, arguably more so. Promoting these freedoms is essential to ensure U.S. maritime mobility.

Under international law, coastal state sovereignty ends at the outer limit of the territorial sea and the airspace above it,8 and even this sovereignty is subject to certain navigational rights, such as the rights of “innocent passage” and “transit passage.”9 Vessels and aircraft, to include military vessels and aircraft, operating seaward of a state’s territorial sea enjoy the freedoms of navigation and overflight and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to those freedoms.10 The U.S. position is that for military vessels, this freedom of navigation includes being able to conduct certain military activities in a state’s EEZ, such as military maneuvers, flight operations, military exercises, surveillance and intelligence gathering, and weapons testing and firing.11 

Not all nations share the U.S. view on the scope of permissible military activities in the EEZ, and instead advocate a legally and practicably untenable interpretation. This interpretation is based, in part, on an incorrect reading of Article 88 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which applies in the EEZ through Article 58(2).  This Article states that the high seas shall be reserved “for peaceful purposes.”12 The “peaceful purposes” language in UNCLOS, however, does not prohibit military activities in the EEZ, only those activities inconsistent with Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.13 Nevertheless, even under a restrictive interpretation, warships transiting through a coastal state’s EEZ—even with the intent to locate and surveil a foreign warship on the high seas—would still be permissible under international law. In fact, had the three Russian warships been transiting through the Latvian territorial sea (within twelve nautical miles of the coast), and even done so unannounced, this too would have been permissible under international law, so long as the vessels were properly exercising their navigational right of “innocent passage.”14

Military activities, both planned and unplanned, will continue to be conducted in the Baltic, by both Russia and NATO and its allies, for the foreseeable future. That is not a criticism; it is a statement of fact. While it is certainly appropriate—strategically critical even—to criticize and protest unwelcome, aggressive and confrontational military acts, care must be taken not to mischaracterize the lawfulness of the acts under international law, either directly or by implication. To be optimally effective in the Baltic region, NATO forces, to include those of the United States, will rely on the freedoms of navigation and overflight preserved under the law of the sea. The lawful exercise of those freedoms, particularly as it relates to military activities, must be preserved, even when their application is unpopular.

Commander Sean Fahey, United States Coast Guard, is currently assigned as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies. He can be reached at Sean.Fahey@usnwc.edu

The views and opinions expressed here are presented in a personal and unofficial capacity. They are not to be construed as official policy or reflecting the views of the United States Coast Guard or any other U.S. government agency. 

Footnotes

1. Andrea Shalal, Russian Naval Activity in Europe Exceeds Cold War Levels: U.S. Admiral, Reuters (Apr. 9, 2017, 11:09 AM), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-military-idUSKBN17B0O8.

2. U.S. Department of Defense, Navy Ship Encounters Aggressive Russian Aircraft in Baltic Sea, Apr. 13, 2016, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/720536/navy-ship-encounters-aggressive-russian-aircraft-in-baltic-sea/

3. Russia Deploys Nuclear-Capable missiles in Kaliningrad, BBC News (Oct. 9, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37597075.

4. Damien Sharkov, Russia Begins Submarine Cruise Missile Drills in Baltic Sea, Newsweek (Apr. 10, 2017, 10:30 AM), http://www.newsweek.com/russian-baltic-sea-fleet-practices-submarine-cruise-missile-fire-581524

5. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, U.S. Shifting Forces to Monitor Large Russian Military Exercises, Officials Say, Washington Post (May 10, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2017/05/10/u-s-shifting-forces-to-monitor-large-russian-military-exercises-officials-say/?utm_term=.580e19108096.

6. Caroline Mortimer, Russian Warships Spotted Just Outside Latvia’s Territorial Waters in Latest Show of Strength, Independent (May 9, 2017), http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-baltic-agression-navy-latvia-warships-victory-day-a7725261.html;Damien Sharkov, Latvia Spots Three Russian Warships off Sea Border, Newsweek (May 8, 2017, 12:18 PM), http://www.newsweek.com/latvia-spots-three-russian-ships-sea-border-596219; Will Stewart, Putin Sends Three Warships to Latvian Waters in the Baltic Sea in Latest challenge to NATO, Daily Mail (May 8, 2017), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4485604/Putin-sends-ships-Latvian-waters-challenge-NATO.html; Doug G. Ware, Russian Warships Spotted in Baltic NATO Waters, Latvia Says, UPI (May 8, 2017, 7:53 PM), http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/05/08/Russian-warships-spotted-in-Baltic-NATO-waters-Latvia-says/9341494285894/

7. Damien Sharkov, Latvia Spots Three Russian Warships off Sea Border, Newsweek (May 8, 2017, 12:18 PM).

8. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397, arts. 2-5. (Article 2(1) reads: “The sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters…to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea.” Article 2(1) reads: “This sovereignty extends to the air space above the territorial sea as well as to its bed and subsoil.”) Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to twelve nautical miles from its baseline, normally the low-water line along its coast. (arts. 3-5).

9. Id., arts. 17-19, 37, 38 and 45.

10. United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, supra note 8, arts. 58 and 87. Though the United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States considers those provisions relating to the freedoms of navigation and overflight as memorializing long-standing customary international law. United States Oceans Policy, Statement by the President, March 10, 1983 (“…the United States is prepared to accept and act in accordance with the balance of interests relating to traditional uses of the oceans—such as navigation and overflight. In this respect, the United States will recognize the rights of other states in the waters off their coasts, as reflected in the Convention, so long as the rights and freedoms of the United States and others under international law are recognized by such coastal states.”) https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/143224.pdf.

11. U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps & U.S. Coast Guard, NWP 1-14M/MCWP 5-12/COMDTPUB P5800.7A, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations ¶ 2.6.3 (2007).

12. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, supra note 8, Articles 58 and 88; See James Kraska, Military Operations, in The Oxford handbook of the Law of the Sea884-85 (Donald R. Rothwell, Alex G. Oude Elferink, Karen N. Scott and Tim Stephens, eds., 2015).

13. Kraska, supra note 12, at 884-85. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter reads: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-i/ .

14. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, supra note 8, arts. 17-19.

Featured Image: Russian Navy corvettes (East2West news)