On Sunday, Yemeni separatists known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized 64 billion riyals ($260M USD) from a convoy belonging to the Central Bank of Yemen. This follows their withdrawal in April from a fragile treaty and declaration of autonomy in the southern port city of Aden. The STC’s proclamation threatens to throw Yemen into a fresh phase of bloody turmoil, even as the unmitigated spread of COVID-19 could devolve the world’s worst humanitarian crisis into catastrophe. Meanwhile, talks to end the war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels of northwestern Yemen drag on, with the Houthis indicatingthey may attempt to take pivotal territory in the oil-rich city of Marib. Why does any of this matter?
The stability of Yemen is not, in and of itself, one of our core national interests. Yet we continue to aidthe Saudis in their war against the Houthis. Supported by international navies, we continue to patrol international waters in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. We are still pursuing Al Qaeda and ISIS throughout poorly governed regions in Yemen. Why? The answer is pragmatism.
While it is not practical, nor advisable, for the United States to commit blood and treasure to unilaterally resolve Yemen’s civil war, the instability that spills over Yemen’s borders threatens American interests. Now, with the STC potentially pitting its Emirati backers against the Saudis, who recognize the Republic of Yemen Government led by exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the risk of Yemen’s festering instability igniting a larger regional conflict is greater than ever.
A Proxy Conflict Turns Central
Although a proxy war between Arab states, both of whom the United States relies on for critical military and economic access, would implicitly run counter to American interests, a hypothetical regional conflict still doesn’t explain why Yemen matters today. Even now, instability overflows from Yemen in the form of ballistic missiles, suicide drones, unmanned explosive speedboats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and sea mines. These attacks by the Houthis are generally aimed at the Saudi-led coalition (which does not include the United States), but the use of these weapons near international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea threaten core national interests in maintaining the free flow of global commerce. The Houthis have credibly threatened to contest the Strait of Bab al Mandebby attacking international shipping in recent years, including American warships in 2016 – which prompted swift retaliatory action against the launch sites. The strait is the sole southern gateway to the Suez Canal and therefore a strategic chokepoint for maritime trade between Europe and Asia, obviating the need to make the costly and time-consuming trip around the Cape of Good Hope.
Houthi ballistic missile and drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE threaten critical energy infrastructure, not to mention American citizens and military forces throughout the region. When considering the risk of regional Arab-on-Arab conflict, threats to freedom of navigation, and attacks on Arab energy infrastructure, another question harkens back to Ancient Rome with the Latin “cui bono?” Who benefits? In every case, the answer is Iran.
Iran publicly supports the Houthi effort to overthrow Yemen’s Hadi-led government. Having a proxy on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, or at least a like-minded partner with whom it can supply advanced conventional weapons, is of obvious benefit to Tehran. Arming the Houthis with anti-shipping weaponry allows Iran to threaten a second global maritime chokepoint, a crucial economic “ace in the hole” in its existential fight against the administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The United States, its international partners, and the United Nations have repeatedly exposedIran’s illicit arms shipments to the Houthis; however, international sentiment is so heavily slanted against the Saudis (due largely to the early conduct of their air campaign) that Iran can quietly refute the allegations while the anti-Saudi narrative continues to resonate on Capitol Hill and social media. Meanwhile, the Houthis block humanitarian aid shipmentsand hold them for ransom as millions of Yemenis starve, and the world barely notices.
Iran has also learned valuable lessons on how to employ its growing arsenal in the event of a direct conflict with Saudi Arabia or the United States. In 2019, the British Government warned that Iran was using Yemen as a missile testing ground. “We’ve seen the UN panel of experts talk about the new Kamikaze drones that are coming out of Iran, we’ve had the Badr-1, which is the missile system that looks like a V2, being launched into Saudi Arabia and we have seen from technical reports that the enhancements that are being applied to that war by Iran are considerable,” Labour MP Graham Jones said.
In Yemen, Iran has deftly exerted influence below the threshold that would trigger direct U.S. retaliation, just as it has done in the Arabian Gulf over the last three decades since the Tanker War. The United States may lack the incentive to retaliate or intervene in Yemen, but ignores the failed state at its own peril. The most pragmatic approach is to help the Saudis focus on the primary source of instability in Yemen. Iran threatens Saudi Arabia from the east, north, and south, and now, with the STC’s declaration of autonomy, Tehran has the opportunity to further spread instability and division throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which will only be exacerbated by global economic strain. Iran employed a similar tactic with Qatar in 2017, and now Turkey (whose relationship with Iran is ambiguous at best) appears to be joining with Qatar to finance the Muslim Brotherhood in southen Yemen.
A strategy explicitly focused on isolating the Houthis from Iranian support – militarily, diplomatically, and economically – would dramatically alter the Houthi and Iranian strategic calculus. The U.S. could organize an international effort to interdict illicit arms shipments through the Gulf of Aden (irrespective of origin). It must continue to expose Iranian malign influence in western Yemen, and work to disrupt and eventually quell Houthi revenue streams coming from Iran. Even with these efforts stability may still not “break out” in Yemen, and the Houthis are not likely to surrender the political and territorial gains they’ve earned over the last five years.
However, as Saudi efforts shift upstream to stem the flow of Iranian aid at its source, the Houthis’ ability, and intent, to threaten American interests in partner nations and the international commons would significantly diminish. Supporting the Saudis in isolating the Houthis from Iran is pragmatic because it balances necessity with available resources and political will. Political support from Congress will be more forthcoming by shifting the focus away from western Yemen itself toward stabilizing the international commons, and broadening the scope to an international effort to eliminate illicit arms shipments and destabilizing influence.
Yemen and Saudi Arabia may be toxic topics in Washington, but ignoring them could be disastrous. If COVID-19 is the domino that turns a humanitarian crisis into widespread fatalities, the United States may be compelled to intervene at great cost and risk. In the event of armed conflict with Iran, western Yemen would be a second front and a second contested maritime chokepoint. Not only would ignoring Yemen allow threats to American interests to grow, it would jeopardize U.S. influence over a key partner in the global energy market. The Saudis demonstrated their clout in April by flooding the market with oil to punish Russia for refusing earlier cuts, with analysts predicting they will win the price war. On Easter, President Trump negotiated a deal for the Saudis to cut production, and while COVID-19 impacts continue to dominate the market, American influence on Saudi Arabia proved critical in softening the blow. Despite our progress toward energy independence, our relationship with the Saudis is still a major factor in our economic health.
Ultimately, the Holy Grail for securing American interests in the Middle East is for partner nations to provide for their own defense. Saudi Arabia is already a cultural and economic heavyweight, and its Vision 2030 has the potential to gradually bring it more in line with western Democratic ideals, and to improve its security and defense institutions. A functional Arab regional security architecture is among the greatest of Iranian fears. In Yemen, the United States can send a strong message to Iran and invest in Saudi Arabia’s future as a regional security leader and sustainably secure American interests more broadly. By doing more now the U.S. can do less in the Middle East in the future.
Iran certainly sees opportunity to sow further instability in the wake of the STC’s separatist declaration in Aden. Tehran will gauge Washington’s reaction closely, and the penalty for inaction on our part could be severe. It is time to decide whether Yemen matters more to us, or more to Tehran.
Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. Contact him at President@cimsec.org. These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.
Featured Image: South-southwest-looking, high-oblique photograph taken during the Hubble Space telescope’s STS-61 servicing mission shows the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea. (NASA photo)
On April 1, President Trump announced that the United States is doubling its counternarcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere. The administration is concerned that illicit actors in Venezuela will exploit the focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to smuggle narcotics undetected. It deployed Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guard cutters, and air force surveillance aircraft to suppress drug trafficking coming toward the U.S. The move includes forces in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, but the Trump administration appears particularly concerned with Venezuela.
The country lacks maritime intelligence and enforcement capacity. Corruption, poverty, and food insecurity are leading to increased crime on land and at sea. Drug trafficking in Venezuela does appear to have increased and the U.S. has the tools to fill this gap, with the strongest and largest navy in the region.
However, while this increased presence is likely to result in more seizures over the short-term, it cannot change the root drivers of illicit maritime activity. A more sustainable solution requires more than increased assets on the water for search and seizure. Furthermore, without supporting local organizations and addressing the conditions driving so many Venezuelans to illicit activities, the impacts of the effort will not be sustainable. The following enhancements could improve the U.S. effort to reduce drug trafficking and help ensure a lasting solution.
Measures For Enhancing Effectiveness
Illicit actors can conceal drug trafficking. A robust maritime security approach requires a holistic perspective on maritime crime. Illicit actors around the world display a great deal of agility and ability to conceal their activities. In 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard confiscated $466 million worth of cocaine concealed on fishing vessels along the Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico. Because illegal fishing often goes unnoticed and generates lower penalties, it is a convenient cover for more high-penalty crimes like drug trafficking. Drugs are even smuggled inside fish.
Venezuelan criminals have also turned to the maritime space, stealing boat engines, conducting robberies, and even conducting kidnap-for-ransom operations. Low-priced fuel is being smuggled through Venezuela and traded to neighboring countries. This displays the array of options from which illicit actors in Venezuela can generate funds. Funds from these activities will help illicit actors sustain their funding and networks, and ease their return to narco-trafficking once the U.S. redeploys its assets.
The U.S. must balance its efforts with a geographic focus on the Pacific. The United States may not effectively combat drug trafficking with its focus on the Atlantic. Illicit actors are also geographically flexible. Due to a strong focus on anti-narcotics enforcement in the Caribbean, much of the cocaine traffic has shifted to the Pacific coast. 84 percent of confiscated South American cocaine is routed through the Pacific. In fact, more cocaine appears to be traveling through the Galapagosthan the Caribbean, where illicit actors can travel undetected or disguise themselves as fishers.
Some of the U.S. naval forces are being directed at the eastern Pacific, with a recent seizure of 1,700 pounds of cocaine off the Pacific coast of Central America, but this illustrates the geographic agility of narco-traffickers and the need for maintaining sufficient resources so that investment in one domain does not come at the expense of the other.
The U.S. must empower regional organizations. While the U.S. has engaged 22 partner nations on this effort, it is still dominating the Venezuelan counter-narcotics operation. In order to improve maritime security long-term, it is important to support and empower regional organizations. This increases the operation’s legitimacy as well as regional capacity.
The Caribbean includes several international organizations. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), composed of 15 Caribbean countries, aims to improve regional cooperation on economic issues and foreign policy. CARICOM includes a branch called the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS). CARICOM IMPACS promotes information exchange, regional capacity building, and collaboration to improve regional security. The Regional Security System (RSS), a separate sub-regional body focused on collective security among seven of the CARICOM member states, analyzes criminal activity in the region and conducts air, land, and sea patrols. However, it has had to reduce its maritime patrols in recent years, despite maintaining two regularly operating maritime patrol aircraft.
In order for the U.S. operation to be perceived as legitimate as possible and be able to counter illicit maritime operations in the long-term, the U.S. should support capacity building for regional organizations like CARICOM-IMPACS and RSS to more effectively fulfill their mandates. This will also enable the U.S. to ultimately spend fewer resources in the region.
The U.S. must be mindful of threats to conflict and coastal welfare. One of the most important root causes of illicit trafficking is poverty and insecurity on land. In Venezuela, food insecurity and a lack of viable livelihood opportunities are turning citizens to illicit crime. In 2017, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds, and 90 percent of the country is now living in poverty. Food and economic insecurity and violence in Venezuela has catalyzed four million migrants and refugees to leave the country. These conditions are causing many Venezuelans to turn to illicit crime for survival. With more pressure against Venezuela, the United States may only push more Venezuelans into desperation. If it wants to develop a long-term solution to illicit trafficking in the region, it is vital for the United States to consider the impacts of its decisions on coastal welfare.
The United States has the largest and most advanced navy in the world, and is an important actor in the Caribbean region and the Western Hemisphere as a whole. Increased maritime enforcement is vital, especially to combat drug trafficking in the region. However, aiming to control drug trafficking will not make these criminal groups disappear. They will take alternate routes and capitalize on trading other illicit goods. In order to establish a sustainable and peaceful approach to the region’s maritime security challenges, the U.S. must take a holistic approach to maritime security threats and empower local organizations to solve regional security challenges at their source. The U.S. will be spending a great deal of time and resources in this effort. It is important to generate a long-term solution to the problem, lest the U.S. find itself in an expensive, endless battle against drug trafficking.
Laura Burroughs has served for five years at the NGO One Earth Future (OEF) that works closely with the UN, navies, and the private sector. She has experience in maritime security, facilitating sessions, and developing reports for the Caught Red-Handed project – a series of workshops hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) to promote interagency coordination to improve maritime security.
Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard members sit atop a seized semi-submersible suspected smuggling vessel in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean as the cutter Harriet Lane maneuvers nearby Oct. 24, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Patrick Kelley)
Since the Cold War, the U.S. has maintained a steady presence in the Arctic—specifically the European Arctic, or High North—primarily through nuclear submarine deployments while relying on NATO allies in the region for logistical support. However, melting ice caps, an increase in commercial maritime activity, and ongoing territorial disputes necessitate stronger NATO cooperation in the region to achieve a deterrence posture against Russia and safeguard maritime security. Deterring Russian aggression is important in all European bodies of water, and the Arctic will increasingly face the same maritime security issues as other parts of the world, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by China and the movement of migrants and refugees by sea.
Checking a Growing Russian Sphere of Influence
The Arctic has reemerged as a front for NATO in recent years, as Russia has ignored European policiesnot to militarize the region. Since at least 2010, Russia has been reopening and rearming much of the Arctic infrastructure used at the height of the Soviet Union. In 2012, Russia resumed its patrol of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a commercial shipping lane running along Russia’s northern coastline from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. In 2014, Russia established a new joint strategic command in Severomorsk to oversee its Northern Fleet with renewed focus on the Arctic. And in 2019, following the first successful navigation of the NSR without icebreakers two years prior, Russia implementedmandatory pilotage for foreign vessels and demonstratedits maritime interdiction capabilities.
Similar to Russia, NATO needs to improve its capability and capacity to operate on the Arctic front. In order to deter the Russian threat and safeguard maritime security, sustained presence in the region is needed. To this end, NATO should create a new standing maritime group dedicated to the Arctic and separate from the maritime groups focused elsewhere. While likely to be hotly debated, a new standing maritime group should gain traction among many of the Arctic states, especially Iceland, Norway, and Denmark, who have long recognized the growing Russian threat in the region. With sustained presence, so too will come sustained situational awareness, which is fundamental for conducting successful operations.
Currently, NATO’s maritime component commander, HQ Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM), maintains operational control of NATO’s four standing maritime groups: two destroyer/frigate groups and two mine countermeasures groups. These groups are already overtasked, posturing against a resurgent Russian Navy across the North Atlantic, Baltic, and Black Seas, and lending support to NATO’s maritime security operation in the Mediterranean, Operation Sea Guardian, as well as the EU refugee and migrant crisis. Regardless of these ongoing tasks, these groups are not tailored for Arctic naval operations. For this reason, a new group needs to be formed.
Instead of relying exclusively on frigates and destroyers from NATO navies to form the new group, NATO should look to its coast guards as well, recognizing that many of these forces field ships that are optimized for Arctic operations. The U.S., Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Iceland, and Norway all have Arctic maritime borders, and most have ice-class ships. Denmark has Thetis-class and Knud Rasmussen-class patrol vessels, the latter of which double as icebreakers. Norway has the patrol vessel Svalbard, which also doubles as an icebreaker and recently completed the first Norwegian voyage to the North Pole. Three new patrol vessels will soon join her. Iceland, too, can lend support with their aging but capable Ægir-class or newer Thor-class patrol vessels. Thor is not capable of icebreaking, but it can still operate in the Arctic.
Of course, these examples are just from the smaller NATO navies and coast guards of the Arctic; the U.S. and Canada would have a responsibility to support the group as well. U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers can operate in the Arctic, as recently demonstrated, and where capabilities are lacking, the NATO Defense Planning Processshould abide. NATO partners Sweden and Finland have land borders in the Arctic region and would likely contribute to the group, if not with tangible patrol and surveillance assets, then with information exchange. Beyond historical cooperation with NATO states through agreements such as NORDEFCO, Sweden and Finland have increased cooperation with NATO in recent years, joining the UK’s Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), improving on existing agreements with the U.S., and participating in NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea.
One potential, but not required, outcome of establishing a standing maritime group for the Arctic is the feasibility for NATO to conduct freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, against Russia’s excessive maritime claims in the region. For years, the world has read stories of FONOPS in the South China Sea to challenge China’s excessive claims. According to the Department of Defense (DoD), FONOPS are conducted to “consistently challenge excessive maritime claims made by a variety of coastal States, including allies, partners, and competitors.” However, despite excessive maritime claims made the world over, high-profile FONOPS are rarely conducted outside of the South China Sea, including against Russia.
Concernsover whether or not FONOPS in the Arctic would do more harm than good are valid, but these concerns are mostly due to the U.S. Navy’s current lack of capability and capacity in the region, which the new standing maritime group would help address. Nevertheless, objections to FONOPS in the Arctic, especially NATO-led, are still likely to be made for fear of escalation with Russia. However, even if Russia were to cite a NATO FONOP, it does not require one to justify its continued aggression, nor did it require one in Georgia in 2009 or in Ukraine in 2014 and 2018. Russia justifies its aggression because of NATO’s continued expansion into once Soviet territory, something which George Kennan, the architect of the Cold War containment strategy, predicted. Russia is going to act regardless of NATO conducting FONOPS.
With this tension between NATO and Russia in mind, some believe a military “code of conduct” is needed for the Arctic. While the recommendation for the deployment of a standing maritime group to the region may appear hardline in contrast, such a group would operate professionally alongside Russian units, as is already done by the other maritime groups. Moreover, such a group would be part of NATO’s increasing role in Arctic maritime security. From assisting with search and rescue operations to helping deter illegal/illicit activity ranging from IUU fishing to trafficking in persons or goods, NATO’s role in the region would be two-fold: deter Russia while safeguarding maritime security. Neither role precludes a code of conduct for the region, and the latter presents an opportunity for de-escalation and possibly even a measure of cooperation with Russia.
The China Angle
Another potential outcome of NATO’s sustained presence and situational awareness in the Arctic is a better deterrence posture against China. China, declaring itself a “near-Arctic” state and achieving observer status on the Arctic Council, is increasingly becoming a player in the region. While for now most of the play has been economic, investinglarge sums in Arctic states—including NATO allies—and adding the Arctic to its Belt and Road Initiative (Polar Silk Road), it can be assumed that its economic investment in the region will eventually be followed by militarization.
How China might move to militarize the Arctic is anyone’s guess, but its 2018 white paper on the Arctic, as summarizedby Lieutenant Commander Rachel Gosnell, USN, clearly states China’s interests in the region, and it has plans to protect them. While much of the paper touts adherence to international law, the world has very little reason to believe China will do so. One example of how China could move to militarize the Arctic is on the back of its seemingly benign fishing fleet. China has stated it has inherent rights to the fish migrating to the Arctic because of its large population. And where China’s fishing fleet goes, militarization will soon follow, as has been demonstrated already by Chinese fishing “militias.”
NATO’s sustained presence and situational awareness are needed to achieve deterrence against both Russia and China while safeguarding maritime security in the Arctic. The first step toward achieving this goal is to increase NATO capability and capacity to operate in the region, centered on a new standing maritime group that is dedicated to the Arctic and separate from NATO’s maritime groups operating elsewhere. This group should be formed by NATO states with Arctic maritime borders and ice-class ships. As NATO becomes the recognized authority for maritime security in the region, de-escalation and even cooperation with Russia could be possible. It is time for NATO to invest in this future, starting with a standing maritime group for the Arctic.
Lieutenant Barnard is serving as a staff operations and plans officer at NATO Maritime Command in Northwood, U.K. He was previously gunnery officer onboard USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) and weapons officer onboard USS Firebolt (PC-10), and was recently selected to be a foreign area officer in Europe. He graduated from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland with a master’s in terrorism studies and holds a bachelor’s in political science from Abilene Christian University in Texas. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or NATO.
Featured Image: NoCGV Svalbard (W303), an icebreaker and offshore patrol vessel of the Norwegian Coast Guard (Kystvakten).
This article originally appeared in edition 2/2020 of the German-language publication SIRIUS: The Journal for Strategic Analyses and is republished with permission. SIRIUS is edited by the foundation Stiftung Wissenschaft und Demoktrie based in Kiel, Germany. The article will be available online in its original German in the May-June timeframe. You can follow SIRIUS on Twitter (@JE_SIRIUS) and Facebook. You can find the most recent issues of SIRIUS online here: https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/sirius/sirius-overview.xml.
By Captain Sascha H. Rackwitz, German Navy
Whether we like it or not, we live in an era of a fundamental reorientation of the international system. It doesn’t matter if you follow the American paradigm of “Great Power Competition”1 or the Chinese2 and Russian3 interpretation of a “multipolar world order.” Global stability is being threatened by hegemonic tendencies of power. The perceptions of the United States, China, and Russia are principally the same, but are viewed from very different vantage points. After the bipolar confrontation of the Cold War and a short time of American unipolarity, the international system has entered a new phase that will be defined by the inter-relations of these three actors.
In public discussions in Germany, and even amongst German “defense professionals,” this understanding does not seem to have been established very well. Russian aggression against Ukraine, and particularly the annexation of Crimea in 2014, was a watershed moment in German security and defense politics. However, Russia’s confrontational politics toward the West is still seen as a specific transatlantic and isolated phenomenon that can be reduced to questions of defense and deterrence at the northeastern borders of the NATO alliance, the “Northflank.”
No one in Germany will deny that China is posing a strategic challenge. This, however, is perceived to have above all economical relevance for Germany. And it is mostly seen as something totally unrelated to security issues on this side of the globe and more as an intensifying bilateral American-Chinese tussle. Illegal Chinese claims in the South China Sea will be met with open critique by German officials and diplomatic demarches. But China’s behavior is predominantly perceived as an economic threat to the freedom of navigation the German trade-oriented economy is dependent upon.
However, a self-centered perspective will not answer the challenges Germany is facing. For Germany, unlike most other countries, strengthening a rules-based order and the international organizations and structures that support it is not only – in the “end, ways, means” understanding of strategy – a way to achieve national interests. Derived from its geographic location, painful history, and ethical conviction, it is an end in itself. To safeguard this interest, political decision-makers rely on a military-strategic analysis that takes in the intensifying global rivalry in its entirety. Otherwise, Germany – and with it Europe – will face the Melian’s fate that Thucydides described over 2000 years ago, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”4 The lines of conflict of this great power struggle run, with little to no exception, through the maritime domain, including the Indo-Pacific, the North Atlantic, and the Mediterranean Sea. It is therefore particularly important for maritime professionals to take an active part in this strategy discussion and provide a maritime perspective. The following theses are intended to contribute to this debate and attempt to sketch practical conclusions from maritime strategic analysis.
Thesis 1: Nuclear Weapons Continue to determine Military and Naval Strategy
Nuclear strategy issues have increasingly become a matter of and for specialists, far removed from the political sphere, and this seems even more dangerous in military strategic thinking.5 In Germany it is conventional wisdom that there is nothing to be won by discussing nuclear strategy, not for politicians, not for journalists, not even for political scientists. Even within the German armed forces, the discussion of the subject is often subsumed exclusively under Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements, as if military thinking is suspended with the threat of using nuclear weapons. However, nuclear weapons remain a necessary starting point for a strategic analysis. They set the framework for the use of conventional military means in a confrontation between the great powers and, not only for their own (maritime) strategic derivations. The roles prescribed for nuclear weapons by the United States, Russia, and China are all the more relevant since their declaratory policies differ substantially.
The Chinese no-first-use policy, usually a position repeatedly demanded by anti-nuclear activists and, for western nuclear weapon states as well, particularly by German anti-nuclear weapons activists, is no reason for consolation. In the context of escalating antagonism with the United States, it has a rather destabilizing effect, since the declared waiver of initial use or use against a non-nuclear weapon state feeds the illusion that a major military conflict can be limited. Read this way, the effect of the Chinese nuclear weapons policy is not to prevent any armed conflict through deterrence; to the contrary, it instead is making a conventionalarmed conflict more possible.
China presents the U.S. with a dilemma. On one hand, the onus of exceeding the nuclear threshold is assigned solely to the U.S., while at the same time the prospective costs for conventional intervention are increased to forbidding levels. As a consequence, China presents the United States with a stark choice: admit that your reassurances to allies and partners in the western Pacific are worthless; accept that you will suffer a prohibitively high price in blood and treasure trying to meet your obligations conventionally; or risk an all-out nuclear war as a nuclear aggressor. The South China Sea is the cordon sanitaire prerequisite for this narrative. Only by attaining indisputable influence over the East and South China Seas can China hope to create the strategic depth necessary to prevent the United States from defending its own possessions or allies in the Western Pacific. As a result, the Western Pacific is strategically isolated, the U.S. loses its escalation dominance, and military conflict becomes an option for China to resolve disputes in its near-abroad without fear of American interference.
Russia’s “de-escalating nuclear strike” strategy pursues the same purpose on the opposite tack.6 It is based on the assumption that even though Russian conventional forces cannot match NATO’s military potential, Russia can achieve a locally and timely limited conventional superiority sufficient to create a fait accompli. This superior position is then protected by threatening the use of small yield, short-range nuclear weapons. The first-use of nuclear weapons is, therefore, not excluded. On the contrary, the first use policy is openly announced and, as part of major Russian exercises, is also regularly emphasized to the West as the potential opponent. The purpose of threatening to use nuclear weapons in this limited fashion is to strategically separate the east of the alliance area, especially the Baltic States, from the rest of the alliance. A strategic dilemma is presented to the nuclear weapon states of the west, in particular the United States, of either giving in to Russian aggression and consequently allowing the collapse of the alliance or, conversely, to risk an uncontrollable nuclear escalation. The strategic value of the medium-range weapons stationed by Russia in violation of the INF Treaty is precisely that these weapons can reach Poland and possibly Germany, but not the Alliance’s nuclear weapon states. Whether Russia would consider such a nuclear strike only if defeat in a conventional war loomed or early on in a conflict to pre-empt a conventional NATO reaction is beside the point. The strategic isolation of the eastern alliance area by limited nuclear strikes is the basis to shield a war with “limited object”7 and thus to use military force below the threshold of a global nuclear war.
The fact that both China and Russia, while confronted with comparable problems, assign such different roles to their nuclear arsenal is also due to the fact that China acts confidently from a position of strength. Russia, on the other hand, from the assumption that it was only possible to gain conventional superiority vis-à-vis NATO locally, and for a short period of time, plays a weaker hand.
Both approaches share the aim to gain freedom of action in the near-abroad, to be able to use conventional military means to pursue limited purposes, if necessary, and to reduce the risk of an escalation to an unlimited nuclear war. The control of maritime areas is of central importance for both China and Russia in these respects.
Thesis 2: “Anti-Access/Area Denial” has little to do with “Sea Denial” and a lot to do with “Sea Control”8
Undisputed sea control, or maritime supremacy as the U.S. Navy would call it, in the South and East China Seas is what China needs to keep conventional American armed forces at a distance from mainland China, to gain the freedom of movement for its own forces to threaten American forces in the Pacific, and eventually the continental United States with escalation. As a result, the United States will face the dilemma of either accepting high losses, nuclear escalation, or moral defeat – and all this for what amounts to an American perspective as only “limited political aims” – the commitments made to partners in the Western Pacific. China’s illegal land reclamation in the South China Sea9 has less to do with access to marine resources, but much more to do with the development of the military infrastructure to push its own sensor and weapons range so far into the Pacific that it becomes impossible for American forces to touch Chinese positions without risk to its fleet. Having gained freedom of action in order to build a credible military position to assert its own interests in its immediate neighborhood, particularly against Taiwan, China could theoretically reign supreme in the Western Pacific. The only contingency would then be a “distant blockade,”10 which China could attempt to counter by increasing self-reliance or the careful establishment of a string of strategic positions in peacetime. Both are already core elements of current Chinese policy, namely “China 2049” and the “Belt and Road Initiative.”
Compared to China, Russia has a similarly complex strategic position on its doorsteps. This position is aggravated by the fact that American partnerships in Europe are institutionalized in NATO. Particularly interesting is the situation in the Baltic Sea with respect to the Kaliningrad exclave. On one hand, Kaliningrad offers a strategic maritime position from which large parts of the eastern and central Baltic Sea can be affected. At the same time, Kaliningrad threatens the land lines of communication from Poland to the Baltic States through the so-called Suwalki Gap. However, Kaliningrad is dependent on supplies from the sea, and a possible Baltic area of operations is entirely within the range of regional allied naval forces. Moreover, maintaining superiority long enough for Russia to secure territorial gains depends on neutralizing the only two ways by which NATO could reinforce its members in the east in a timely fashion – by air or by sea.
In case of conflict, simply preventing western naval forces’ access to the central and eastern Baltic Sea would not meet Russian requirements. Russia must be able to positively control this sea area. In short, Russia must exercise sea control in order to obtain freedom of action to contribute to joint operations in the Baltic States, protect sea lines of communication to defend the Kaliningrad exclave, and cut off the Baltic States from their western allies. Even if the term “Anti-Access/Area Denial” (A2/AD) at first glance suggests otherwise, A2/AD is not just a question of denying the use of a maritime area. Rather, A2/AD is a concept for obtaining sea control in coastal and confined waters, which is primarily characterized by the use of land-based capabilities.
The U.S. Marine Corps has taken this understanding as their point of departure for the most fundamental realignment of the force since World War II. The Corps no longer sees its primary warfighting role in the Western Pacific as operating from the sea under the conditions of sea control won by the U.S. Navy. Rather, the Corps sees itself as an integral part of the naval force contributing to the fight for sea control with its specific capabilities, and thus to maintain escalation dominance.11 The Marine Corps no longer desires a dependence on Navy-won access for amphibious operations, but seeks to use its forward amphibious abilities to open access for the navy to project power. It is all about “contested sea control.”
Of course, all of these considerations are solely derived from the declaratory policies of China and Russia, a cursory analysis of the maritime areas in question, and the respective maritime military potentials fielded. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that Russia, for example, will raid one of the Baltic States as long as the Putin system remains stable. Indeed, the intensity of the actors’ motivation is a key factor in assessing the threat and, in turn, the required deterrent.12
The insinuated Russian stratagem is based on two assumptions. First, Russia gains conventional superiority for a short time. Second, and more importantly, that the motivation of western allies, and particularly the United States, does not suffice to risk a nuclear escalation in defense of their eastern allies. But Russian motivation to seek a systemic change in Europe by armed confrontation is perceived to be low, and justifies merely a “tripwire force” in Poland and the Baltic States – NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP).13 Their multinational composition addresses the danger of a split of the alliance and the force creates a limited position of deterrence by denial.14 The small motivation of Russia is thus met by a small but sufficient tripwire, and is thus deterred. The message to Moscow is that invading the Baltic States would mean not only meeting with the Balts, but all major allies, and though NATO could be easily outnumbered, it would not be a walk in the park – so think twice.
What is the maritime dimension of this tripwire? Which specific opportunities does the maritime domain offer to strengthen and enhance the credibility of NATO’s deterrent position?
Thesis 3: Our most pressing operational problem in the Baltic Sea is not maintaining the sea lines of communication to Baltic States for reinforcing and supplying NATO forces
Following Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, NATO and Germany refocused on the ability to conduct a symmetrical war in Europe. By regaining and strengthening NATO’s ability to wage a symmetrical war on Europe’s eastern border, the conventional complement to nuclear deterrence is strengthened. For the German Army, this means above all returning to maneuver warfare and combined arms operations, strengthening armored units, and empowering them to quickly deploy heavy formations to the alliance’s eastern border. For the Navy, this means maintaining the sea lines of communication between the east coast of the United States to ports in Germany, Poland, and the Baltic States.
Of course, conflict between NATO and Russia would not happen out of thin air. There would most probably be times of heightening tensions and grey zone or hybrid activities. Arguably, Russia has for some time tested NATO’s preparedness and resolve, not only in the cyber domain,15 but also by incursions into the Baltic States.16 However, should tensions escalate to a level that would call for a decision of the North Atlantic Council to move larger formations from North America to Europe, deterrence would have already failed. Arguably, in such a situation, Russia would have stopped perceiving the price for taking on NATO in the east as still too high compared with the possible gains. To put it bluntly, if we are compelled to organize convoy operations across the Atlantic and through the Baltic Sea, NATO has already failed with its most important task – to send a message to Russia that the potential costs of aggression are always greater than the prospects of success.
A deterrence posture that basically rests on a tripwire activating over-the-horizon forces is opening a gap to an opposing strategy that is based on quick results and strategic isolation of the theatre of operations. Naval forces, however, in the Baltic Sea could provide an additional deterrent element that counteracts the Russian stratagem at a stage before a distant deployment of NATO formations to the Baltic States becomes necessary and must be protected on its journey. The double exclaves of Kaliningrad and the Baltic States provide the key to do just this. Understandably, due to the exposed location of the Baltic States, western observers perceive the theatre geometry in the Baltic Sea first and foremost as a vulnerability. However, Kaliningrad is even more exposed, lacking even the narrow and hard-to-defend land corridor that the Suwalki Gap is providing between Poland and Lithuania. The Russian position in the Baltic Sea is nowhere near as advantageous as the skillful Russian propaganda makes us believe. Kaliningrad’s geographical position is more tenuous given several considerations. Kaliningrad is essential for the enforcement of Russian sea control in the middle to eastern Baltic Sea and all of Kaliningrad is within weapon range from the sea. Access to Baltysk can easily be blocked, and sea lines of communication from Kaliningrad through the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburg can easily be disrupted.
While the “Tripwire Forces” of the Enhanced Forward Presence represent an element of “Deterrence by Denial,” the maritime domain offers the possibility of adding an element of “Deterrence by Punishment” without the risk of escalation. As an aggressor, Russia would also have to lose something immediately before the NATO machinery starts up properly, adding a critical psychological effect.17 In the Baltic Sea, the role of naval forces is not merely the defensive protection of sea lines of communication to the Baltic States. In Corbett’s18 terms, already in peacetime and in order to contribute to a balanced deterrent posture and prevent a “limited war,” the role of naval forces in the Baltic Sea can be the “tactical offensive” as part of an overall “defensive strategy.”19 Like the Enhanced Forward Presence, this deterrence posture does not necessarily require great numbers of maritime forces. Those deployed, however, must be able to question the Russian claim to sea control and the sanctuary of the Kaliningrad exclave through land-attack and anti-ship-cruise missiles launched from small surface combatants, corvettes, submarines, and aircraft, as well as through mine-laying capabilities. Not all these forces have to be provided by one nation alone. In parallel to the Enhanced Forward Presence, multi-nationality would be an essential factor in preventing the strategic isolation of the eastern flank. And this is the second major advantage of the maritime domain – only at sea can Sweden and Finland be included in a credible deterrent posture without upsetting the complex balance of power by a motion for formal integration into NATO.
Russian appetite for serious mischief-making in the north is, thankfully, considered to be low. But it should prompt us to widen our peripheral vision – to the Mediterranean, the near east, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific, where we do in fact see a lot more maritime activity. Maritime forces deployed to the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean in constabulary force missions might actually be just as close to the mission set of “deterrence and defense” as those forces up in the north. Parallels and deviations in the approaches of Russia and China point to the fact that in a struggle involving nuclear-armed great powers there are no easily defined geographic limitations – and in fact, it is in our better interest as the Melians in the room not to allow any power to willfully separate strategic spaces. After all, we have to realize that the autocratic players in “Great Power Competition” try to widen and exploit geographic and political fault lines in the west. Let us not widen them intellectually ourselves.
Captain Sascha H. Rackwitz joined the German Navy in 1991. A submariner by background, he was captain of a submarine and commanding officer of the German Navy’s submarine squadron. After tours in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he until recently taught naval strategy and operational art at the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College before assuming his current responsibilities as deputy commander and chief of staff of Flotilla 1 of the German Navy, home to the German Navy’s corvettes, submarines, mine countermeasure forces, special operations, and naval infantry forces. The views expressed here are presented in a personal capacity. and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government or agency.
1. United States of America (2017): National Security Strategy of the United States of America.
2. Peoples Republic of China, State Council Information Office (2019): China’s Defence in the New Era.
3. Russian Federation (2015): National Security Strategy.
4. Thucydides, History of the Peleponnesian War, Chapter XVII, Melian Dialogue.
5. Gray, Colin S. (2018): Theory of Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 121f.
6. Gray, Colin S. (2018): Theory of Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 98.
7. Clausewitz, Carl (1832): On War, Berlin, Book VIII, Chapter V.
8. “Sea Control” is more of a process than a condition in which by constant effort freedom of action in a maritime area is obtained. Sea Control is regularly understood to be a prerequisite for protecting sea lines of communication and projecting power from the sea. „Sea Denial” on the other hand is the denial of the unhindered operational use of a maritime area to an opponent. Both sea control and sea denial have to be fought for, are therefore principally only applicable in times of conflict. They will only be achieved temporarily and locally to a certain extent depending on the effort invested – uncontested sea control is only theoretically possible.
9. Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippines vs. China, 2016.
10. Corbett, Julian (1911): Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, p. 97.
11. United States Marine Corps (2019): Commandant’s Planning Guidance.
12. Morgan, Patrick (1983): Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, p. 164f.
13. NATO Factsheet on eFP, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2019_04/20190402_1904-factsheet_efp_en.pdf
14. Mazarr, Michael J./Chan, Arthur et al. (2018): What Deters and Why. Exploring Requirements for Effective Deterrence of Interstate Aggression, Santa Monica: RAND, p. 17ff.
15. Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (2019) International Security and Estonia.
16. Republic of Estonia, Ministry of the Interior, Press about the kidnapping of an Estonian Internal Security Service officer, last updated 28 September 2015: https://www.siseministeerium.ee/en/eston-kohver
17. Snyder, Glen (1961): Deterrence and Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security. Westport: Greenwood Press.
18. Sir Julian Corbett, 1854-1922, British naval historian and strategic theorist is considered to be one of the most influential theorists of naval power next to the American Alfred Thayer Mahan.
19. Corbett, Julian (1911): Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, London, p. 73.
Featured Image: Russian Navy Baltic Fleet ships on parade. (ITAR-TASS/ Elena Nagornykh)