Category Archives: Current Operations

On-going Naval Ops or Maritime Current Events

NAFAC Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC will publish essays selected from the 16 round tables from the 57th Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC) held last week that focused on great power competition. Read the list of the round tables’ topics here. Below is a list of the publications as they will feature. We appreciate NAFAC’s partnership in helping us publish these excellent student essays.

Science Diplomacy in the Arctic by Jackie Faselt
The Threat, Defense and Control of Cyber Warfare by Lin Yang Kang
Understanding Systems of International Order by Kimmie Ross
Saving the Lives of Maritime Passageways: The Coast Guard and Maritime Chokepoints by Victoria Castleberry

India’s Bid for Global Power in a Multi-Polar System During Development by Corey Bolyard
Great Power Cooperation and the Role of International Organizations by Emil Krauch
Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Proxy War in Yemen by Rose Cote
Multinational Corporations in the Oil Industry by Monica Sullivan
A Balancing Act: U.S. and the Cross-Strait Relation by Jenny Chau Vuong

The Middle Way: A Balanced Approach to Growing America’s Navy by Riley Jones
The Reawakening of the Russian Bear by Jared Russel
The Beijing Consensus: A Threat of our own Creation by Jhana Gottlieb
The Unfriendly Scramble for Everywhere: Investment’s Role in Foreign Policy by Phillip Bass
Assessing the United States’ Bioterrorism Preparation by Samuel Klein
The Next Great Space Race: From a Sprint to a Marathon by Madison Fox
Understanding the Role of Hybrid Warfare and U.S. Strategy for Future Conflicts by Rebecca Farrar

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

Featured Image: U.S. Naval Academy (Wikimedia Commons)

NAFAC: The “Now What?” Era of American Foreign Policy and Perspectives of Great Powers

By Sally DeBoer

For the past fifty-six years, the United States Naval Academy has hosted the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). NAFAC, planned and executed by the midshipmen themselves, brings together outstanding undergraduate delegates as well as notable speakers, scholars, and subject matter experts from around the nation and the world to discuss a current and relevant international relations issue. The theme for this year’s conference,  A New Era of Great Power Competition?, seeks to explore the shifting dynamics of the international system, challenges to a U.S. – led world order, the nature of potential future conflicts, the challenge of proto-peer competitors and rising  as well as what steps the U.S. might take to remain the primary arbiter of the international system at large. As this topic is of great interest to CIMSEC’s readership, we are proud to partner with NAFAC in this, their 57th year, to bring you a series of real-time posts from the day’s events in Annapolis, MD. CIMSEC would like to recognize MIDN 1/C Charlotte Asdal, NAFAC Director, and her staff for allowing us to participate in this year’s events and for inviting our readership to virtually share in the week’s rich academic environment.

The “Now What?” Era of Foreign Policy: The Honorable Stanley Legro Address

Day two of the conference kicked off with an address from Dr. Kathleen Hicks, Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director, International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

A Turbulent Period

While traditional nation-state actors continue to challenge U.S. interests, Dr. Hicks pointed out that threats extend beyond this framework to include international and domestic trends. Europe, for instance, grapples with the rise of nationalism, direct attacks on the population, the challenge of migration, and Russian aggression and overt/covert attacks on democracy and the liberal world order, while Asia contends with China’s militarization and flaunting of international law with regard to land reclamation, while Kim Jong Un continues to pursue his nuclear ambition. No region is in greater tumult, Hicks explained, than the Middle East: the effects of the nuclear deal still remain to be assessed, while ongoing governance and security struggles continue to vex states in the region. In addition, Dr. Hicks estimated that the displaced persons crisis alone will take “at least a decade” to resolve. Further, trends at home in the United States – political polarization, distrust in established international institutions, and fractionalizations – complicate the application of cohesive and cogent foreign policy.

Now What?

The focus for contemporary and future foreign policy analysts and decision makers, Dr. Hicks suggests, is how should we answer the “Now What?” question of international relations. No modern historian, analyst, or politician, she explained, has been able to adequately grasp or explain the modern evolution of the international system. This is a challenge – after all, how can we predict, analyze, and apply policy to what we cannot name? Further, the Trump Administration’s “unpredictable” foreign policy further complicates this already opaque issue. For the international system, Dr. Hicks opined, unpredictability makes it difficult to think of remedies. For the bulk of her remarks, Hicks addressed this central “Now What?” question by first outlining environmental variables and their implications, and then recommending a course correction and future policies.

Environmental Variables and Policy Implications

First, Dr. Hicks introduced the paradox of the United States’ enduring superpower status combined with its lessening influence and ability to affect change in the international system in its interest. Dr. Hicks conceded outright that the U.S. will likely remain the world’s sole superpower for at least the next fifteen years – in terms of the discussion of “rising powers,” she suggested that this is a convenient way for the U.S. to discuss China without having to say China directly. Other states frequently gathered under the “great power” umbrella are not great powers at all – Russia is (however turbulently) declining, North Korea, though problematic, is neither rising nor great, and Iran, while rising, is unlikely to wield the military might to be considered a proto-peer competitor.

Challenges from non-state actors, Hicks explained, are particularly difficult for the U.S. to address given this paradox – they do not lend themselves to the United States traditional foreign policy strengths and test the United States in areas in which it is weak. Such problems require patience, multilateral action, and a holistic, generational approach that the United States has not, to this point, proven adept in applying.

Dr. Hicks addresses the audience at USNA’s Mahan Hall Wednesday morning.

Second, Dr. Hicks addressed the “threat of the constancy of American support for leadership in international engagement.” For the past seventy years explained American foreign policy instruments and institutions have enjoyed general support for the values and vision of American engagement abroad. While each successive administration has framed and prioritized this issue differently, in general, “the value of alliance, [support for] the liberal economic order, and the prevalence of the rule of law” have enjoyed consistent support. This support, which has traditionally lent predictability and stability to the nature of American engagement, is waning, exemplified by the isolationist and unpredictable sentiment the current administration espoused both during the election and during the first hundred days of their tenure. Though she conceded that not all engagement has value and deservedly bears scrutiny – choices must be made – but the current environment makes these choices more difficult.

Dr. Hicks emphasized that budgetary constraints further complicate this issue. When it comes to the use of force, she concluded, “we should be prepared to surprise ourselves; democracies can be unpredictable, and policymakers must understand this reality, but can and should work to reduce the risks of miscalculation.”

Prescriptions for Policy Analysts

With all this said, what can policy analysts do to manage these variables going forward? Dr. Hicks provided cogent prescriptions for policy analysts. Initially, they must “avoid the hazards of political polarization.” Despite dysfunction in the political sphere, foreign policy analysts can, as a community, consistently and clearly warn about the strategic weakness caused by such dysfunction – it sows “unease among allies who feel they cannot depend on American outcomes, polarization hampers our core cultural appeal and makes alternative political models gain resonance, allowing foreign powers to undermine the United States.” Hicks expressed concern over the recent trend toward turning toward those in uniform in our government to address this weakness – a tragedy, she said, for a democracy, and an indication of the growing civil and military divide in our population.

Next, policy analysts can practice problem prevention, recognizing that the “cornerstone of a cohesive foreign policy is consensus. Military force, Dr. Hicks warned, is frequently not the most appropriate tool for problem prevention; non-military tools of statecraft must be emphasized, wielded, and their results carefully measured and shared. Efforts should seek to promote both state and private efforts (the Gates Foundation, for instance). Dr. Hicks expressed concern over recent disparaging statements by some politicians regarding our allies and the value of alliance. The alliance system constitutes a powerful asymmetric advantage for the United States – and though it can be “expensive and unsatisfying,” the value of alliances remains. The erosion of goodwill brought about by comments and doubts among traditional and would-be allies must be arrested – and these relationships must be stabilized.

Finally, Dr. Hicks emphasized the importance of “improving the toolkit for managing provocations that fall short of traditional war.” In general, she explained, the United States has been able to effectively deter existential threats, but potential adversaries are increasingly generating threats below this threshold. Dr. Hicks warned that this area is ripe for miscalculation and misinterpretation – in space and cyber, there are no established norms, while norms in the maritime domain are being tested with regularity. She explained that while “[you] may not want a war, war may occur anyway.” Such is the risk of misinterpretation. Building a security consensus, along with early preventative work to effectively signal intentions, is crucial, she concluded.

To this end, Dr. Hicks shared conclusions from a recently published CSIS report on strategy toward Russia. The report endorsed a three-pillar strategy for policymakers: [we] must strengthen Western institutions, contest Russia where it seeks to challenge us, and offer avenues for cooperation and engagement where appropriate and feasible. The time for the “Now What?” era of American foreign policy is upon us.

Panel Discussion – Other “Great Powers” Perspectives on this Rivalry

Note: The following information is paraphrased from the panelists’ remarks – their thoughts, remarks, and research are their own and are reproduced here for the information of our audience only.

In keeping with the international tone and broad perspective of the conference, the second day’s panel looked to describe the nature of near-peer competitors on the great power rivalry that currently defines our international system. Panelists included Mr. Jeffrey Rathke, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Michael Swaine, Senior Fellow of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Moderated by MIDN 1/C Charlotte Asdal, NAFAC Director, the “Perspectives from Around the Panel” addressed diverse viewpoints on the evolution of great power competition and rivalry. Specifically, the panelists looked to define the differing strategic perspectives of other world powers. The panelists began with introductory remarks.

“Cheap Influence vs. Expensive Control”

Jefferey Rathke of CSIS addresses the audience in Mahan Hall

Rathke co-authored a CSIS report regarding recalibration of the United States’ relationship with Russia, the aim of which was to provide a clear understanding of Russia and their objectives. For his opening remarks, MIDN Asdal asked him to elaborate on this point. He explained that rival powers think carefully, sometimes much more carefully than the United States does, about great power politics due to resource and strategic constraints the U.S. may not have to consider. To grasp a Russian perspective, it is crucial to understand their foundational documents. Though the U.S. and the West at large tend to look at our adversaries as a “conundrum,” much can be gleaned from their publications, specifically Russia’s National Security Strategy and Russia’s Military Doctrine. These documents show that Russia, more than anything, desires status as a great power and that Russia feels threatened, insecure, and disadvantaged. Russian military growth and adventurism has also led to greater confidence.

For Russia, Rathke explained, the future of competition looks like the past – influence, therefore, is derived from military might. Rathke shared that it was important to note that Russian “soft power” is declining in most places where Russia may have wielded it previously, which may lead it to use force as an alternative in areas where it feels its interests are threatened. Russia, he concluded, will likely continue to focus on asymmetric match ups, favoring “cheap influence over expensive control.”

Shared Interests in a Multi-Polar World

Asked to elaborate on China’s strategic view and how that view informs Chinese perception of their role in the world, Dr. Swaine explained that to comprehend China’s world view, one must appreciate that PRC general policies are driven by the reform era, a time in which the PRC rejected the ideological, repressive control of Mao and toward open door, market led reform. This policy, he explained, has led China to prioritize emphasis on growth and pragmatism in the pursuit of wealth and power.

In terms of working with other powers, China desires cooperation, so called “win-win” policies, with nations to the maximum possible extent. President Xi has placed additional emphasis on rights, or Chinese interests, not just regionally but globally, implying the protection of expanding interests overseas. China further wishes to advance its own view of international relations and norms – some of which overlap with Western norms – including the economic order and certain international regimes.

However, Dr. Swaine went on, China differs markedly in how they view and interpret sovereignty, and the role of developing states in international order. China believes the international order is moving toward multi-polarity. Gloablization, which comes with this multipolarity, leads China to see the global economy as increasingly integrated. China also sees value in high levels of technology to maintain necessary growth.

From a Chinese perspective, Dr. Swaine concluded, a major world war is unlikely, though they collectively conceded the possibility of local wars as a result of ethnic disputes or “hegemonism.” China espouses non-intervention and resists unilateral action in sovereign states affairs. China – U.S. relations are still defined, from the PRC perspective, by the U.S. as the major power, Dr. Swain went on, and China sees and values shared U.S. – PRC interests, though they caution the need for mutual respect of “core interests.”

Obstacles to China’s desired role in the international order include declining economic growth rates, threats to domestic order, and ensuing social dislocations. Growing military power may also lead to hubris, Dr. Swaine cautioned, which may lead the PRC to overestimate their power, particularly in the Western Pacific, leading to U.S. overreaction. In Dr. Swain’s estimation, this dynamic could lead to confrontation.

New India – “A Star on the Rise?”

Asked about India’s perception of the current world system, Dr. Ayers explained that many Americans are not aware of the dramatic changes over the last several decades that have come about in India and the ways in which these changes affect how Indians see themselves and their role in the world. India, she explains, sees itself as a global power, at long last getting its due, in a newly multi-polar world. Indians believe they have a unique and special role in the world, and have focused on increased and sustained rates of economic growth to power their domestic transformation and military modernization. The Indian economy is the world’s 7th largest, Ayers pointed out, larger than both Brazil and Russia. Though they still struggle with poverty on a large scale, India is undeniably an engine of global economic growth.

Prime Minister Modi, Dr. Ayers went on, is building on the stepping stones of previous governments and a long-held belief in Indian leadership by crafting a strategy of India’s movement from “a leading versus a balancing power.” The effects of this dynamic have led India to a more active pursuit of its interests and an increased role in international relations.

India seeks primacy in the Indian Ocean, Dr. Ayers concluded, and their new maritime security doctrine expresses this. In the Indian Ocean, India has gone from a “country that used the seas to a country that plays a role in securing the seas.” This shift from a passive to an active role is exemplified, she said, by the establishment of an overseas base in the Seychelles and a stated change and expansion of Indian naval requirements by 2027, requiring some 61 billion dollars in investment. India, Dr. Ayers conceded, is behind on their procurement schedule, but the ambition remains and is telling.

The Indian people participate actively in their democracy, Dr. Ayers explained, quoting Pew Global Attitude Survey 2016 data showing PM Modi at an 81 percet favorability rating, 80 percent of respondents expressing satisfaction with the economy, and 65 percent said expressing satisfaction with India’s direction. Indians “see their nation’s star on the rise.”

The panelists then participated in an informal question and answer period.

CA: Do the populations of Russia and China embrace the burdens of becoming a true great power?

R: Public opinion data shows a slight majority [in Russia] believe the country is on the right track, with high levels of popularity for Putin. Russia’s national ideology depends on delivering results – economic, status – to the Russian people. Public opinion is fickle, leading to what the West perceives as “paranoia” among Russian domestic leadership. Public support as a source of legitimacy is extremely important and will remain this way to Russia – hence the push to consolidate control over media, opinions, and information sources. Great power status matters a great deal to Russians, who deeply remember several decades of humiliation at the end of the Cold War.

S: The Chinese are very proud of their accomplishments and want China to be a major power – in this, we mean a power that is first and foremost a respected power after the “century of humiliation.” The Chinese also don’t think of great power status in a classical post-WWII sense, in that they resist the need for a far flung military presence and interests – they are self-oriented, in their own estimation, and believe China to be a country that both minds and values its own business. Chinese interests are primarily status and economy based – they wish to be treated as equals, and protocol, face, and national pride are a central issue.

CA: What do you see as the biggest challenge to Russian and Indian strategic goals?

R: Russia has two primary challenges: the first is economic decline, which affects the ability of the state to devote resources to modernization, leading to inevitable gradual declines in levels of spending as a result of Russia’s petro-driven economy and reliance on natural resources. Second, Russia’s ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and beyond – though limited in footprint- are also a drain and a limitation on Russia’s strategic goals.

A: India is similarly limited by economic growth in achieving their desired domestic transformation – they have to maintain and sustain high levels of economic growth, at least 8 percent per year, to create enough jobs for young people in their population (10-12 million jobs a year). This is far and away the most important constraint, but less-critical strategic constraints also exist, including regional rivalry with China and the continued challenge and preoccupation with conflict with Pakistan.

CA: How do conditions in Russia, China, and India make today’s situation different from historical precedents, such as the Cold War or the run up to WWII?

R: Russia doesn’t have the ambition for global empire or domination any longer – more modest ambitions prevail, chief among them, to be a great power in a multipolar world. Russia seeks to challenge the U.S. only where they have core interests; Russia has a less expansive definition of those interests than in previous decades. Russia also maintains a desire to cooperate with the United States if it is in their interest and respect can be guaranteed.

S: There are three basic differences between now and the Cold War with respect to China. First, there is no zero-sum ideological rivalry between U.S. and China; China is communist, but does not wish to transmit its worldview as it did under Mao. Second, we are interacting in a more integrated world than during the Cold War, in both social and economic terms, and populations are sensitive to this dynamic, which makes states more vulnerable and exposed, but also allows them to reap the benefits of a global economy. Lastly, transnational, common threats are more comprehensive and threaten all countries simultaneously. These factors make the situation quite different.

A: India, being under colonial rule for much of the early 20th century, is different today due to their autonomy. During the Cold War, India was a leader in the non-aligned movement. Indian strategic thinkers see the current environment as a more favorable environment for their autonomy.


The keynote address and panel were both a credit to the academic gravitas and true international nature of this year’s conference. Dr. Hicks’ unambiguous and frank assessment of the international order as it stands today, as well as direct policy prescriptions for tomorrow’s military and diplomatic leaders, left delegates and midshipmen with much to consider. The assessments of the afternoon’s panel lent themselves to a deeper understanding of other great powers’ perspectives on the dynamic global order.

Sally DeBoer is serving as the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Special thanks to MIDN Danny Vegel and his midshipmen PAO staff for the photos used in this post.

Featured Image: L to R: Panelists Jeffery Rathke, Michael Swaine, Alyssa Ayers, and moderator MIDN Charlotte Asdal on stage in Mahan Hall. 

NAFAC: The 4th Battle for the Atlantic and Technology’s Impact on Warfighting

By Sally DeBoer

For the past fifty-six years, the United States Naval Academy has hosted the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). NAFAC, planned and executed by the midshipmen themselves, brings together outstanding undergraduate delegates as well as notable speakers, scholars, and subject matter experts from around the nation and the world to discuss a current and relevant international relations issue. The theme for this year’s conference, A New Era of Great Power Competition?, seeks to explore the shifting dynamics of the international system, challenges to a U.S. – led world order, the nature of potential future conflicts, the challenge of proto-peer competitors and rising  as well as what steps the U.S. might take to remain the primary arbiter of the international system at large. As this topic is of great interest to CIMSEC’s readership, we are proud to partner with NAFAC in this, their 57th year, to bring you a series of real-time posts from the day’s events in Annapolis, MD. CIMSEC would like to recognize MIDN 1/C Charlotte Asdal, NAFAC Director, and her staff for allowing us to participate in this year’s events and for inviting our readership to virtually share in the week’s rich academic environment.

Robert H. McKinney Address – Vice Admiral James Foggo, III, Director, Navy Staff and Former Commander 6th Fleet

“The greatest leaders must be educated broadly.” – Gen. George Olmstead

Vice Admiral James Foggo III addressed midshipmen and delegates Thursday morning, the last day of the NAFAC conference. The address, bolstered by personal anecdotes, videos, and photographs from the Navy Staff Director and former 6th Fleet Commander, largely addressed the question of great power competition from the perspective of the United States’ relationship with the Russian Federation. The admiral’s address familiarized the audience with recent history and current operations within the Mediterranean, Arctic, Baltic and beyond, informing the day’s discussion on the evolution of great power competition in the coming decades.

What Makes a Great Power?

To begin, VADM Foggo was careful to define the terms used in answering the question: Are we in a new era of great power competition? The admiral expressed confidence that the United States remains the greatest nation in the world, providing exposition on what makes the United States a great power.  Great powers, he explained, go beyond the sum of their people, economic, or military strength to offer ideas, opportunity, and leadership, using their power to affect change for the world’s weakest and most vulnerable populations. Russia, he went on to conclude, is not by this definition a great power – their “sum” qualifies the Federation as a major power, but their actions, primarily enacted in self-interest, disqualify them from great power status.  Understanding this distinction is crucial.

The 4th Battle for the Atlantic

VADM Foggo provided helpful historical context for the historical relationship between the Soviet Union/Russian Federation and the United States. The First Battle for the Atlantic, he explained, occurred during the course of World War One, while the Second, where the United States and her allies defeated axis powers relentless undersea tactics with “grit, resolution, the submarine detection system, and the lend-lease program to Britain.” The third battle, he explained, occurred during the course of the Cold War. An unclassified report based on the 3rd Battle Innovation Project commissioned by the United States Submarine Force on the contribution of U.S. undersea assets to U.S. victory in the Cold War concluded with the following sentiment: “someday, we may face a 4th Battle of the Atlantic.” VADM Foggo asserted that we are, indeed, in the midst of this battle now. The admiral and his co-author Alarik Fritz of the Center for Naval Analysis, collected their thoughts in an article published by the United States Naval Institute,  “The 4th Battle for the Atlantic.”

Rising Tensions 

VADM Foggo characterized the aforementioned 4th Battle for the Atlantic though a series of examples and anecdotes. Beginning with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the United States exercised its responsibility as a great power to seek to deescalate tensions and compromise where possible by pursuing the Reset policy with the Russian Federation. This policy, he explained, did not work as intended. In 2014, the U.S. was once again surprised by Russia’s aggressive and illegal actions in Ukraine. This unjustified action, he went on, is an example of why Russia is not a great power, but rather only a major power. This action partially inspired the “back to basics” policy for U.S. defense thinkers and policymakers called for by ADM Greenert.

Admiral Foggo recommended several books to the audience, including ONI’s Russian Navy report, which he emphasized was a “must read” for tomorrow’s defense and foreign policy leaders.

Continued Vigilance

VADM Foggo explored a few key areas where Russia is challenging U.S. and allied interests, providing tangible examples. In the Arctic, he explained, Russians currently operate seven former Cold War bases at company- and battalion- strength units with an endurance of a year or more. Russia has militarized the Arctic, which concerns the U.S. and our allies, particularly the Norwegians, regarding restricted access to international waters. To drive this point home, the admiral displayed a photograph of the Russian flag planted at the geographical North Pole, moved there by a Russian submersible.

U.S. Navy ship encounters aggressive Russian aircraft in Baltic Sea, April 12, 2016. (U.S. European Command)

Given the venue of the conference, VADM Foggo appropriately addressed his professional experience with aggressive actions by the Russian Federation at sea. Beginning with the Su-24 flyby of the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Black Sea, during which, he emphasized, the wingtip of the Russian aircraft was no more than 30 feet from the deck of the destroyer, the Russian Naval forces escalated tensions in response to U.S. presence in Russia’s adjacent international waters and beyond. The admiral explained the import of strategic communication to gain the moral high ground, which the U.S. achieved by declassifying and releasing an image of the Su-24 narrowly off the bridge wing of the Donald Cook, along with diplomatic protest and meaningful presence in the form of BALTOPS 2016.

“49 Ships Became 52”

BALTOPS is a NATO exercise to improve and display the interoperability of allied forces. The 2016 exercise communicated a clear strategic message; the exercise boasted three amphibious landing operations (versus the previous year’s two), extensive anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations with three allied submarines and maritime patrol and reconnaissance (MPRA) aircraft, and more. In an effective anecdote that illustrated the Russian response to the exercise, the admiral shared that when reviewing photos from the PHOTOEX conducted during BALTOPS, 52 ships appeared in the photograph – 49 allied vessels, two Russian destroyers, and a Russian AGI. “49 ships, he recalled, became 52.” Tellingly, the Russian response to the success of the strategic messaging of the exercise included “a Stalin-like purge of Russian commanders in the Baltic Fleet,” due to their unwillingness to challenge western ships. Further reinforcing the point, VADM Foggo shared moreexamples of his interactions with Russian counterparts in multilateral and bilateral discussions.

Looking Forward – “The Surest Guarantee of Peace”

The tone of VADM Foggo’s remarks was one of stark realism, but also optimism as well. The admiral expressed confidence in the forces that were under his command, but reiterated to the audience of future diplomatic and military leaders the crucial nature of continued vigilance and continued action in support of the United States’ responsibilities as a great power. He included a timely example – the recent strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. “Great powers react, but they react proportionally,” the VADM concluded, expressing belief in the possibility that such actions can bring compromise – a concept, he said, a great power should pursue and prioritize.

Technology and Cyber-Competition Panel

Note: The following information is paraphrased from the panelists’ remarks – their thoughts, remarks, and research are their own and are reproduced here for the information of our audience only.

Panelists Brigadier General Greg Touhill, USAF (ret.), the First Federal Chief of Information Security Officer, Mr. August Cole, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-author of Ghost Fleet, and Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Fellow at the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institution, were given the opportunity to provide open-ended remarks before the question and answer portion of the panel.

A Strategic Framework for Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is a provocative issue, and General Touhill used his opening remarks to dispel some common rumors about the cyber realm. This is not a technology issue, he went on, but a risk management issue; it is an instrinsic facet of [the United States’] national economy and security to be sensitive to the protection of our technology, information, and competitive advantage. Cybersecurity, he explained, is not all about the tech, but rather about the information. When considering cyber strategy, the General contended that a direct, simple strategy is best and most likely to be effectively executed. To this end, he outlined five lines of effort:

  • Harden the workforce: risk exposure is tremendous, as our culture, norms, and economy rely on automated information systems – this includes home, federal, and corporate entities
  • You can’t defend what you don’t know you have. Information is an asset, and should be treated as such.
  • Within five years, every business will be conducting asset inventory and valuation of its information as any other asset – some entities within the Federal Government, he explained, may not appreciate the value of their information and may not even realize they have it.
  • Do the right things, the right way, at the right time: Cyber hygiene is great, but has to be applied smartly – 85 percent of breaches, he explained, are due to improper patching of common vulnerabilities. The basics come first – stakeholders should update apps, OS, and apply other simple fixes. Care and due diligence is required.
  • Investment. The General introduced “Touhill’s Law,” which contends that one human years accounts for twenty five “computer” years – by this math, some machines in the federal government architecture are several thousand years old. Depreciation and recapitalization are key; from a strategic standpoint, neglecting this reality is a failure.
  • It’s all about the risk. In a contemporary sense, much of the risk is deferred to server management teams and IT, and decisions on that risk are not being made at the right levels.

The general indicated a desperate need for a cogent strategic cyber framework on which to operate and that these five lines of effort are a good foundation for such a framework.

Fiction’s Role in Challenging Assumptions

August Cole, a noted analyst and fiction author, began by recounting the impact that Tom Clancy’s 1986 thriller Red Storm Rising had on his life. As a fiction author, he went on the explain, his job is to think the unthinkable, devoting intellectual energy and professional attention to considering tomorrow’s conflict from a multitude of perspectives. Fiction, Cole explained, allows us to consider an adversaries perspective and confront our own biases to present a bigger truth.

Cole and his co-author Peter Signer’s novel Ghost Fleet addresses the rise of China – the book starts a conversation in an engaging way that captured the authors’ imagination. The writing process caused the authors to confront some uncomfortable truths. The American way of war, he said, is predicated on technical superiority that isn’t necessarily in line with our evolving reality. The reliance on tech creates a vulnerability, and through the lens of great power competition, we should be thinking about the difference between our assumptions about conflict and how conflict will actually be. One must challenge their assumptions, and resist the urge to fall in love with their own investments.

Information as a Commodity and Vulnerability

As a policy analyst and social scientist, Dr. Turner-Lee looks to understand behaviors that are overlaid with technology – she has focused on what we need to do to create equitable access to technology. Tech, she explained, is changing the nature of human behavior and increasing vulnerabilities. We must consider, she said, how we are contributing to the evolution of the tech ecosystem from the realm of consumption to an entity that effects the fabric of national security. What we understand as being “simple” actually isn’t, and what started as a privacy discussion has evolved into a security issue. When considering social media, Dr. Turner-Lee went on, it is interesting to see how 140 characters can become the catalyst for campaigns that threaten national security.

Dr. Turner-Lee  mentioned the concept of pushback from technology companies against government requests for information and policies that need to be engaged to address this. There is a role, she explained, for the military to identifies vulnerabilities, while companies are appointing chief privacy officers and innovation officers, while lastly, the research community needs people to understand how information has become a commodity. As researchers, she explained, she and her colleagues are trying to find vulnerability and understand the impact on our national economy by looking at the nature of human behavior prescribing the right policies to ensure threats are minimized.

Given the current security landscape for cyber, what do you see as the greatest cyber threats facing the U.S.?

Brig. Get Touhill explained that at the Department of Homeland Security, they binned threats into 6 groups:

  • Vandals – frequent and common
  • Burglars – financially motivated and prevalent 
  • Muggers – this includes hacks like SONY as well as cyber-bullies
  • Spies – can be either insiders or traditional political-military threat looking to gain a competitive edge by stealing intellectual property.
  • Sabatuers – pernicious, difficult to find, and could be, for example, an individual who is fired but retains access to a system.
  • Negligent Users – This group constitutes the greatest threat. This group includes the careless, negligent, and indifferent in our own ranks.

China has been evidently and aggressively pursuing AI, hypersonic, quantum computing, and other next-generation technology – what does this mean for our assumption about the American way of war over the next several decades?

August Cole explained that the U.S. must directly confront the assumption that we will always have the edge of technical superiority – this may very well remain true, he said, but we cannot count on it. From a PRC military point of view, they look to not only acquire capabilities but further their knowledge on how best to employ them. We must, he went on, work to connect information and technology that we would not instinctively put in the same basket by considering, for instance, the battlefield implications of a hack on a healthcare provider who serviced military personnel. Technology, he explained, will alter the relationship between power and people, and understanding this connection is complex and difficult. Fiction allows us to synthesize these realms in a way that may be difficult otherwise – and appreciate the operational implications.

How has social media impacted our ability to monitor and address national security threats?

Dr. Turner-Lee began by exploring the implication of emerging social media tools that do not curate data (think Snapchat), explaining that as encryption technology has become more sophisticated, it has further complicated the national security problem. Nicole referred to “permission-less innovation,” meaning that the tech community continues to innovate in ways that cannot be controlled and this innovation is sometimes disruptive. Social media, she went on, is not always designed with privacy in mind, and enacting privacy policies has been reactionary for many companies.

Turner-Lee addressed the general hesitation of users to hand over or allow the collection of their information – personal data, she said, is seen as just that – personal – and companies promote this quality in their tech. For instance, she alluded to the current lawsuit between Twitter and the federal government over the identities of disruptive Twitter accounts. The disconnect between privacy and security, she concluded, can sometimes constitute a weakness.

The moderator pointed out that while tech has developed, policy has lagged. Mr. Cole added that the “internet of things” provides a corollary to this. Further development of wearable or say-to-day tech that generates and collects data automatically has national security implications. He provided an example in the domain of land warfare, suggesting that operators could notionally create a digital map based on device feedback. The data and processing power to make these analytics will exist, he affirmed, but we haven’t considered it.

Dr. Turner-Lee further elaborated that machine-to-machine interactions, which are based on algorithms that predict what you will or will not do, sustain a threat to national security when those algorithms are incorrect or tampered with. For instance, autonomous vehicles could be hacked and directed in a way that makes them a vehicular bomb. Overcoming machine-to-machine bias is very difficult and constitutes a security risk proportional to our dependence on machine-to-machine tech. This is a space, she said, with many vulnerabilities, driving itself in ways we are unaware of.


The final day of NAFAC 2017 proved a fitting end to three days of intense discussion and consideration on the topic of a new era of great power competition. VADM Foggo’s address brought a much needed operational perspective to the delegates and attendees, relaying the seriousness and immediate applicability of the question at hand, particularly for those midshipmen who will be serving aboard operational vessels in just a few short months. Further, the Technology and Cyber-Competition panel provided much needed context for the changing nature of tomorrow’s conflicts, challenging many long-held assumptions about the way of war.

Our representatives were impressed with the diligence, research, and creative thought participants brought to the round table panels. Readers can look for select publications from the Round Tables next week, when CIMSEC will share outstanding research essays from delegates. CIMSEC is extremely grateful to the United States Naval Academy, MIDN Charlotte Asdal and her NAFAC staff, and senior advisors and moderators for allowing us to participate in this year’s conference and share the great value of this discussion with our readership.

Until next year!

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Featured Image: A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter flies ahead of the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA-5) after conducting helocast operations at Pyramid Rock Beach, Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The helocast was part of a final amphibious assault during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan/Released)

Gulf of Guinea Maritime Security in 2016

By Dirk Steffen

2016 witnessed a marked increase in maritime security incidents over the previous year, irrespective of the counting standards. Denmark-based Risk Intelligence counted 119 verified attacks by criminals on all kinds of vessels in West Africa (Senegal to Angola) – compared with 82 in 2015. The vast majority of attacks in 2016 were perpetrated by Nigerian criminals, including all of the 84 that were concentrated in and around Nigerian waters.

However, as alarming as such figures may seem, 2016 was neither unusually busy nor were there any significant changes to the patterns of maritime crime in West Africa, specifically the Gulf of Guinea, when assessed in the long term. Over a 9-year period (since 2007), the average number of maritime security incidents for West Africa is 122 – typically ranging between 80 and 140 per year. Of this figure, Nigerian waters alone account for an average of 87 attacks per year.

Annual pirate and piracy-related attacks against shipping in West Africa (Senegal to Angola) 2007-2016. (MaRisk by Risk Intelligence)

Throughout this period, maritime kidnappings steadily increased and focused almost exclusively on Nigerian waters. Since 2013, maritime kidnappings have accounted for around 30 percent of all attacks (including failed attacks) off Nigeria. In 2016, most successful kidnappings were concentrated in two cycles of attacks: the first in January to mid-May 2016 (mirroring almost exactly the development of 2013), the second in the last two months of the year. Hijackings, a common feature during the MEND insurgency in the Niger Delta between 2006-2009, and again during the period of tanker hijackings between late 2010 and 2013, have all but stopped, following the successful intervention of the Nigerian Navy against the hijackers of the tanker MAXIMUS in February 2016.

The real strategic concern for the Nigerian government in 2016 was the resurgent Niger Delta insurgency. It was spearheaded by a group called the “Niger Delta Avengers,” whose campaign of oil and gas infrastructure disruption reduced the Nigerian oil output to a historic low of 1.1m barrels per day (bpd) (vis-à-vis the projected 2.2-2.4m bbpd and the average 1.75m bbpd on average in 2015) during the summer of 2016. One impact on maritime security was the disruption of crude oil loading and an increased demand for petroleum products (due to Nigerian refineries being cut off from their crude oil supplies), thus creating, at least in theory, a more target-rich environment. However, the dynamics of maritime insecurity in Nigeria are historically driven by other factors. As the insurgency went through its customary cycles of issuing threats, militant action, and “cease-fires” to regroup and reiterate demands, the maritime security situation displayed an inverse correlation: the spate of attacks reminiscent of the first 4 months of 2013 swept across the seas off the Niger Delta between March and mid-May 2016, followed by a lull as militant groups were actively engaged in onshore violence throughout the summer. Offshore attacks returned to the waters outside the Niger Delta in November and December 2016 because of calmer weather, cyclical pre-Christmas criminal activity, and lower onshore militancy. This pattern suggests that at the tactical level, the “attackers” ,when not employed in militancy, oil theft, illegal bunkering or gang warfare, engage in piracy to cover some of their funding needs.

The wider Gulf of Guinea was less affected by these developments than it was when the tanker hijackings originating from Nigeria peaked in 2011-12. While the capability to enforce security even in very limited parts of their territorial waters remains constrained for some nations, like Congo, Sao Tome and Principe, Liberia or Sierra Leone, organized piracy has not really taken hold in any of those places. In Guinea-Conakry, however, members of the armed forces are engaged in armed robbery at sea and extortion of foreign fishing vessels, even in neighboring Sierra Leone. Ghana experienced a spate of petty thefts at Takoradi anchorage, which gave it some bad press, but no violence against crews was reported. By and large, when speaking of “Gulf of Guinea piracy” as a problem for international shipping, it is Nigerian piracy that we mean. Other forms of maritime crime, on the other hand, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), smuggling of oil, drugs, agricultural products and other goods were – and are – the more pressing day-to-day challenges for coastal nations in the region.

Piracy and maritime security incidents in the Gulf of Guinea (Ivory Coast to Gabon) in 2016. (MaRisk by Risk Intelligence)

It is important to understand that many acts of Nigerian “piracy” also have a hidden context that the uncritical reporting in the international press is unaware of. Locally trading product tankers are often attacked, and crew members kidnapped or cargo stolen, as a part of criminal “turf” wars or other disputes between criminal parties. The kidnapping of crew members from fishing (and refrigerated cargo) vessels is often related to extortion within the criminal business of illegal fishing and transhipment of catch. This may, for example, have been the case on 27 November 2016, when the SARONIC BREEZE was attacked 80 nm off Cotonou. The Panama-flagged vessel, according to the Benin Navy, was in a different place than where it should have been (at the anchorage) when it was attacked and three crew members kidnapped.

Regional Cooperation

Against this slightly disconcerting backdrop, there is the gradual increase of political will and ability by some West African nations to take ownership of maritime security. Following the successful rescue of the MAXIMUS, the Nigerian Navy launched Operation ‘Tsare Teku’ in the face of intense pirate activity, and prolonged the operation throughout summer, while being engaged in counterinsurgency operations at the same time. While the impact of the operation was assessed as modest even by Nigerian planners, it demonstrated that the Nigerians were, for the first time, publicly owning up to the problem of maritime piracy emanating from their country. More recently, the flag officer commanding the Eastern Naval Command, Rear Adm. James Oluwole, quite rightly pointed out that the lack of prosecution reduced any effectiveness the Navy might have in the battle against maritime criminals.

Naval police stand guard as suspected pirates are paraded aboard a naval ship after their arrest by the Nigerian Navy at a defense jetty in Lagos, August 20, 2013. (Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)

The lack of prosecution, and in many cases the lack of legislation that permits prosecution of pirates, is still one of the shortfalls of the implementation of the Yaoundé Code of Conduct as it came under review in mid-2016, when its initial three-year trial period ended. Information sharing, maritime domain awareness, and maritime law enforcement capacities and capabilities vary sharply throughout the region, and are by and large wholly insufficient, although measurable progress has been made in all fields. Nigeria, as the main country of origin for serious criminals in maritime piracy, is in the process of passing a law that will allow it to prosecute pirates who had hitherto gone unpunished or were indicted for lesser crimes.

The Role of Private Maritime Security

Gulf of Guinea states remain wary of private security solutions, yet various models of private-public security partnerships exist in the region. In Benin and Togo, both navies operate “secured anchorages,” in addition to providing embarked teams of navy troops through agents and local security companies. In Ghana and Cameroon, naval or, in the case of Cameroon’s Battalion d’Intervention Rapide (BIR), army protection can be obtained through direct liaison with those nations’ militaries.

The most unusual arrangement though has evolved in Nigeria. Although various models have been employed by security companies and shipping companies, not always with authorization by the Nigerian government, the pre-eminent security solution is the security vessel or patrol boat. Security vessels have a long history that date back to the early 2000s, when the first armed unrest spread onto the creeks and off the Niger Delta. Typically, the security vessels of that era were ordinary offshore support vessels with four to six embarked soldiers. These vessels were (and still are) predictably ineffective against groups of heavily armed attackers, who engage with two to three large speedboats, often with one or two general purpose machine guns between them.

Converted offshore service vessels with improvised firing positions, like these two fast crew and supply boats at Borokiri (Port Harcourt), form the bulk of Nigeria’s privately contracted “auxiliary” navy. (Dirk Steffen)

The model of choice though, originally conceived at the height of the Niger Delta insurgency between 2006 and 2009, was for private companies to supply and maintain patrol boats, which would be put at the disposal of the then dysfunctional Nigerian Navy. When not on military business, those vessels and their Nigerian Navy gun crews with mounted weapons and ammunition would be available for protection missions for commercial clients. Sixteen Nigerian companies entered such an agreement with the Nigerian Navy in 2016 under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), effectively providing the bulk of offshore oil field security, and increasing the amount of merchant vessel protection in- and outbound from Nigerian ports. A privately operated joint venture also manages the secure anchorage off Lagos, the only such dedicated area in the region officially promulgated on admiralty charts.

More than 100 such privately contracted security vessels are in operation in Nigerian waters. No one knows the exact number – not even the Nigerian Navy. The quality of these vessels varies – ranging from purpose-built law-enforcement and patrol boats to hastily converted offshore support vessels (or vessels with embarked troops only.) While this contractor fleet provides a welcome relief for the Nigerian Navy, which has only a few assets capable of patrolling the exclusive economic zone, it also presents a major headache for the Nigerian Navy’s operations department to monitor the activities of these contracted patrol boats and supply men, weapons, and ammunition to them and ensure compliance with the terms of the MoU.

NNS GBEDE, a privately contracted patrol boat, returns to Port Harcourt from sea trials on the Bonny River (Nigeria). These boats are examples of the type of vessels envisaged by the Nigerian Navy’s Memorandum of Understanding with private maritime security companies. (Dirk Steffen)

The document envisages a partnership between the Nigerian Navy and the private companies for maintenance, training, welfare, and information sharing, thus leveraging the Navy’s “investment” in terms of hard-to-get trained personnel and weapons into the public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, most companies appear to consider the partnership as an “optional” element of their relationship with the Navy. This is compounded by commercial and contractual pressures that preclude many security vessels from rendering assistance to attacks or incidents other than those involving their clients. Unless the MoU is enforced more rigorously, it is therefore unlikely that anyone except for a handful of commercial clients with sufficiently deep pockets will benefit from this arrangement.


Despite the brief surges of offshore piracy in 2016, the Gulf of Guinea remains “business as usual” in terms of maritime security, with incidents in Nigerian waters or emanating from Nigeria accounting for the lion’s share of incidents. For the other West African countries, with a few exceptions, piracy is persistent, but one of the lesser problems in a region characterized by weak maritime governance.

For Nigeria, 2016 was one of the hardest years since the county’s return to democracy in 1999, politically and economically. While the “Niger Delta Avengers” failed to incite a broad-based insurgency in the Niger Delta, their pinpoint targeting of critical oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta was more effective than MEND ever was in that respect; even the temporary loss of control of considerable territory in the northeast to Boko Haram in 2013-14 was strategically less significant.

The onshore security situation in the Niger Delta had a direct impact on the maritime security situation in Nigerian waters and the wider Gulf of Guinea. The seesaw between onshore violence and surges of offshore piracy underlines that while Buhari and his government have made some inroads against the “godfather” system, the latter is far from defeated. It continues to bind criminal, economic, and political interests in Nigeria together. Nigeria will thus remain the nexus for organized crime in western Africa and any regional efforts can only contain the maritime element of this threat until the problem is solved in Nigeria.

Private maritime security will likely remain the (expensive) sticking plaster to fix the situation for commercial ship operators in the short term. However, few of the models in use, short of purpose-built and suitably armed patrol boats, are likely to provide any meaningful deterrent against Nigerian pirates in particular, who are both capable and willing to overcome armed resistance. Except for Ghana and Cameroon (where the use of naval/army assets for commercial purposes is severely circumscribed), none of the “private” or public-private maritime security solutions is likely to enhance the scarce maritime security assets and capabilities of the West African nations.

Dirk Steffen is a Commander (senior grade) in the German Naval Reserve with 12 years of active service between 1988 and 2000. He took part in the African Partnership Station exercises OBANGAME EXPRESS 2014, 2015 and 2016 at sea and ashore for the boarding-team training and as a Liaison Naval Officer on the exercise staff. He is normally Director Maritime Security at Risk Intelligence (Denmark) when not on loan to the German Navy. He has been covering the Gulf of Guinea as a consultant and analyst since 2004. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any German military or governmental institutions.

Featured Image: A Nigerian Marine Police checkpoint on the Bonny River designed to intercept illegally refined petroleum products from being marketed in Port Harcourt. Endemic corruption in Nigeria’s police force casts some doubt on the effectiveness of such measures. Photo: Dirk Steffen.