Sea Control 140 – The U.S. Coast Guard with Admiral Charles Michel

By Matthew Merighi 

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for an interview with Admiral Charles Michel, the Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, for a discussion about his service’s unique role in ensuring international maritime security. From his vantage point at the intersection of military force and law enforcement agency, he discusses some of the emerging threats in the maritime domain, how cyber challenges affect the Coast Guard’s mission, and the enduring importance of protecting global supply chains.

Download Sea Control 140 – The Coast Guard with Admiral Charles Michel

A transcript of the interview between Admiral Michel (CM) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below.

MM: We’re here with Admiral Michel, the Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Admiral Michel, thank you for joining us on Sea Control today.

CM: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

MM: As is Sea Control tradition, please introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your background, how you came to be where you are now, and what were the main events that happened along the way.

CM: Sure I’m the Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, so I’m the number two person at the Coast Guard. I assist the Commandant. We’re in this great organization called the U.S. Coast Guard which has about 40,000 active duty members, plus reserve, plus a cadre of auxiliaries which help us out. Really, we are an agency with global responsibilities so the Commandant needs somebody like me to run this entire enterprise.

I’m the chief operations officer and also the chief acquisitions officer, and a bunch of other things that make this the world’s best Coast Guard. I think I’ve got an interesting background, and I know you have a naval officer audience, but the Coast Guard is kind of unique in that we can become specialized officers but also retain our line credentials at the same time. So I’m a lawyer for the Coast Guard as well as an operator. I spent about half of my pre-flag officer career afloat and the other half as a lawyer which is kind of unusual now. I’ve been able to work all the way up the organization. According to my bio I’m the only 4-star officer in all the armed forces who’s also a career Judge Advocate (JAG) which is kind of an unusual thing, just a consequence of what I do. So I’ve got kind of a unique background with operations afloat and legal, and I’ve done some other things for the Coast Guard.

MM: So let’s talk for a minute about your role since you mentioned you’re the only four star JAG who has managed to make it to that level. But you’re also the first 4-star Coast Guard officer who is not the Commandant. So in terms of your day to day role, in doing acquisitions and operations, how have you transitioned the role of the Vice Commandant to being a 4-star? Have you noticed it being different or how has that gone?

CM: It’s different and in a good way. I think Congress chose to elevate this position from what has traditionally been a 3-star to a 4-star in recognition of the Coast Guard’s prominence and the need for another senior officer for all the diplomatic and representational duties we share. I know you mentioned the COO and the acquisition officer which have external aspects, but our work with all the elements of the defense establishment, the 4-star elevation gets you into different levels of engagements than as a 3-star. Same on the international scene. Bringing a 4-star on the table has a different flavor. I know to junior officers there doesn’t seem to be a difference between a 1-star and a 2-star, but there’s a big difference between a 3-star and a 4-star in a lot of events and I think it’s a reflection of the prominence and the credibility of the Coast Guard within the congressional leadership.

MM: So let’s talk then about your work with the other services. What is the Coast Guard’s role in the maritime security space, particularly how it organizes and how it works with the other services? Also how does the Coast Guard pursue its unique mission set of being a military service and law enforcement agency?

CM: For your listeners who aren’t familiar with the Coast Guard we are a member of the armed forces at all times but at the exact same time we have the responsibilities of a law enforcement, regulatory, humanitarian, environmental protection, navigation, and communication agency and much more. These are all things we bring to the fight at the same times. So when you are talking about the world of threats we have an oar in the water on the symmetric threats such as nation state actors and on any given day a number of our ships are chopped to combatant commanders.

Today, without giving the numbers, we have a number of ships with U.S. Southern Command in a detection/monitoring mission. We have six patrol boats in the Persian Gulf who are chopped to CENTCOM. A lot of times we have an icebreaker chopped to PACOM for deep freeze missions. We participate in RIMPAC and other exercises with DoD. We’ve got responsibilities on the symmetric side and on any given day there are Coast Guard people on every continent. Some small boat units and some major units. We are required by statute to operate as a specialized service in the Navy during time of war when the president directs. So our equipment is interoperable with DoD partners. Many aspects of our operations are woven together.

At the same time the Coast Guard has the job of law enforcement agency, regulatory and many other things. A lot of our effort is engaged in that, regulation of shipping, making sure cargo entering the nation’s ports is secure, making sure inland waterways, which is a whole highway vital for economies to operate, works together. We deal with the navigation on the Great Lakes, we conduct polar operations, protect fisheries, you’ll probably see us on the Weather Channel rescuing people in storms and other things. And we’re a unique agency that operates in the whole threat spectrum from symmetric actors, to terrorists, to criminals, to regulator violations to mom-and-pop boaters getting in trouble, to natural disasters, hurricanes, earthquakes, and oil spills. All with 40,000 people, smaller than the New York Police Department.

MM: That’s obviously hard to accomplish with 40,000 people and a very broad mission set. One that many of our listeners know some of the aspects but not all. So from your position looking at those different challenges in maritime security and Coast Guard missions, which of those threats are the ones that interest you the most, that you think are going to be the most potent or the potential to evolve to be pressing to our national security? Is it terrorism, criminal elements, migration, what are sort of the things you’re keeping an eye on?

CM: On the symmetric side of the house, not counting DPRK, let’s take a look at the threats to freedom of navigation that are being asserted by nation states right now, whether its Russian navigation restrictions in the Northern Sea Route or things going on in the South China Sea. That increasing world of these unlawful navigation restrictions concern me quite a bit. I think freedom of the seas for national security and movement of commerce is absolutely critical. The Coast Guard plays a role in all those freedom of navigation assertions whether being the lead role of the international maritime organization where we champion these rights or others. Those concern me a lot on the symmetric side.

On the asymmetric side, we have a lot of terrorists out there doing a lot of bad things. Some of them have shown the ability to operate in maritime spaces. Maritime is also a logical route for moving goods or terrorists themselves, we monitor that extremely carefully. Post September 11th, we have established a layered security regime that involves ports, ships, and a whole network of connections as we deal with those asymmetric threats that may harm this nation. Then we have a bunch of other challenges such as competition for resources whether it’s unlawful claims to hydrocarbon jurisdiction, fisheries poaching, or a whole other world to work with. I get concerned with transnational criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere due to their increasing sophistication. They put out semi-submersible vessels with over 3000 mile ranges. That means they can carry 7-10 metric tons of any product from South America to Africa almost undetected. Their ability to impact the lives of people in the Western Hemisphere, they create a large homicide rates, instability which is driving migration which is driving instability. I worry about that whole problem set.

Then when is the next black swan event such as an oil spill or a major hurricane or earthquake which we have responsibilities for. It really is a world of threats and it requires a very agile agency to have the capabilities and capacities and authorities to deal with this range of threats. Whether symmetric nations, law enforcement challenges, terrorists, and then the big one in my wheelhouse that surprised me the most is cybersecurity. You wouldn’t think the Coast Guard wouldn’t be that involved but we are. We are a member of DoD Information Network, so we have own cyber defense challenges. We also explore how to use cyber to better enable our mission sets. And lastly, we are the agency charged with the regulatory responsibility for an increasingly automated port and shipping industry.

You may have seen that we had a major attack on Maersk shipping and ports that shut them down for a while. The entire delivery chain was subject to a cyber attack and that concerns us because that industry is a model of efficiency; because it is reliant on the internet and all the goodness of that. And every time you bring in a new navigation, communication system, etc. that replaces a human which you plug into the internet, it creates vulnerabilities. That is probably my most challenging task to create an agency that can operate in that space while that space is an active operational battlespace.

MM: Let’s dive deeper into the cyber issue. When I was doing some research before coming here, I saw you had given some talks on cyber and it surprised me just as much as it did about how crucial that realm is to the Coast Guard. Can you walk us through what happened to Maersk, it was Petya right?

CM: Yes, it was a Petya variant.

MM: So walk us through what happened, not just the basics but how the Coast Guard got involved and what you learned about how the Coast Guard needs to prepare for and how you’re going to get in front of it.

CM: First of all, we’ve got a good partner in Maersk. We do have authority to mandate reporting from certain partners, but they are a responsible party who brought this to our attention. They actually sit on a lot of our Area Maritime Security Committees (AMSCs). The Coast Guard Captain of the Port for each of the nation’s 361 major ports is designated as a Federal Maritime Security Coordinator. He chairs a committee that brings together all federal, state, local and private entities to deal with maritime security because ports are very integrated. If you deal with one portion of the port it will impact another. So getting a holistic approach to this problem set is critical. Most AMSC’s perform that function.

So this report was brought through the AMSCs. We took a look at it from a security perspective with Maersk. This was not a government-owned system. It was privately owned. The Coast Guard has mandatory security regulations on the physical security side, such as access control. On the cyber side we have some voluntary guidance but we have no imposed standards for shipping or port facilities. So we are operating against that kind of legal backdrop. But we reached out to help Maersk as much as we could, to try and get their arms around what kind of attack they were dealing with, what kinds of systems, business, or industrial control systems. Without going into great detail, a large portion of their remediation was done by their business people.These were their business systems by and large. But that split between what is the responsibility to a nation from cyber attack is really complicated.

For example, for a Maersk port facility, they have certain requirements for access controls. And typically those are to keep trespassers off their property or maybe a terrorist or a criminal or something like that. But it’s typically not to keep out nation states. If a nation state wanted access to that port facility, we do not require them to hold off nation states. But think about this from a cyber perspective. That exact same security posture for that Maersk port facility. If a nation actually attacks their cyber infrastructure, who has the responsibility to defend against that? A private citizen, the government, an insurance or regulatory problem? There’s a bunch of ways to skin that cat, we’re gonna have to get our arms around this, where on the physical security side we have that pretty much covered.  We know what territoriality is, we know what a nation state attack is, we know what international law is on that. It has a physicality aspect that were comfortable with and cyber is a different animal.

Every time you turn on your cellphone it’s not just your friends and family; it’s hacktivists, criminals, nation states, all types of different actors, and what is your level of responsibility for that access system. It’s much broader, but as a lawyer I can tell you what I think will make a difference is creating common definitions and defining terms in this space then we can develop the norms we have in the physical world and get those into the cyber side. But we’re building this plane as it’s flying, there are real operations occurring in this space, good and bad.

The Coast Guard is kind of unique on this side, I think we talk from a position of not a large organization but authority-rich and when the Coast Guard was created it was not only for symmetric threats, i.e. nation states; the Coast Guard has been in every single war in the U.S., since the founding of the country, that has had a maritime component. But we also have this basket of other authorities that deal with law enforcement and regulatory and insurance challenges and all these other things. And you’re going to want to convert that same type of flexible nimble organization to cyber because when you get a cyber attack, where is it coming from? In the past if we knew it was from a nation state you know what the authorities were, if it was a criminal you know what the authority was. But now many times you get ambiguous threats. So when you need to align your authorities or responsibilities, you need a nimble agency like the Coast Guard, or the National Guard who also has nimble authority to deal with these types of threats. I know that Alexander Hamilton founded the Coast Guard in 1790, but in many ways he was very cyber aware because he founded an organization that was very nimble with all these authorities.

MM: So a parallel challenge to that that you alluded to in the cyber domain which is the Coast Guard has a role in is protecting supply chains. There’s the cyber dimension but there are also similar challenges to physical aspects too. Tell us a little bit about what the Coast Guard’s role is now and will be in the future for U.S. supply chain security

CM: So it’s related to what I said before. We built this wondrous supply chain that is the marvel of the world, and it gets better every day, with the just-in-time delivery of products, all overseen by this integrated IT that makes all this stuff happen. Monitoring containers from the time it’s loaded, where it gets on, where it’s trans-shipped, all the way here. Its sequenced to get on the automated truck that carries it to the rail yard. The Coast Guard doesn’t own that entire supply chain. We basically own the part where it gets loaded and where it gets off and we have responsibilities for a certain amount reaching the port.

When you look at negotiation in international ship port facility security code at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), it was revolutionary for the IMO to reach off of the ship onto the port. Bringing that port infrastructure into the security realm and our domestic legislation does the same thing. But other agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with their lading rules and their electronic manifesting, cargo tracking, container security initiative, CTPAT, basically a partnership against terrorism that is voluntary and allows shippers to become trusted shippers. It’s a combination of things that’s going to protect this security chain. A lot of it resides on the side of the shippers but part of it is the government too. Where they are ladened on the ships, what the security arrangement at the port, on the ship and on the other end, how it reaches its intermode of transportation, all of which has a cyber element because it is all on network IT. So it’s a combination of both physical and cyber security.

I deal with issues like, should all containers be physically opened? I think if anyone who has asked that question has never been to the port of L.A.-Long Beach (LALB) and seen the vastness of the operation, and the majority of it brings goodness and essential economic strength, and what I will say is  reduction techniques can be used to decrease the amount of physically going in and opening containers. But you can smartly address risk in that system through some more sophisticated methods.

MM: One of the most unique things I’m seeing about the Coast Guard is that you are referencing actions from private organizations and international partners which are done seamlessly with your own work. So what does the Coast Guard do that makes it able to effectively operationalize these public-private partnerships and international cooperation?

CM: First of all, the Coast Guard from its design in the very beginning, was made to operate with others. It started out as an anti-smuggling organization, but even then it was reaching to people on shore and to international components, so we have a great organizational reputation. Each one of our Coast Guard folks here has as part of their organizational DNA a natural bent to work with partners. We want to leverage our partners and I think it comes down to us being such a small organization with a lot of responsibilities. Authority rich with great people but not a lot of Coast Guard to go around. So we aren’t afraid to get our hands into cooperation at all.

Rarely do we reach for a fully organic Coast Guard solution which I think is rarity in government. Most government organizations say how are we going to build this, how much is it going to cost, etc. The Coast Guard mentality is: who can we work with to fulfill our goals? We’re more than comfortable with working with people. We have Coast Guard people in small numbers scatter around the government and around the world and they bring that organizational DNA of connecting with others. They bring that basket of authorities and they bring that organizational reputation of being a good organization and partner.

Private industry loves it. Many times they don’t want regulations; they want assistance and they want a level playing field so that they can remain competitive. Many times they want to shoulder that responsibility themselves. In cyber, I think many of the solutions are going to come from private industry with government guidance. And I think that softer approach is how the CG solves problems and thats the way we’ve been from the very beginning. We’re a natural integrator and typically our first grab is not to build our own organization, which is unusual for a regulatory organization.

MM: One of the challenges I’ve seen personally, one which Admiral Stavridis at the Fletcher school has talked about and the Stimson Center has been doing some work on, is the role of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing as an economic and national security threat. Walk us through what you see the future of fishing enforcement will look like and what the Coast Guard’s role will be.

CM: For many people, protein from the ocean is their main source of food. And I can tell you when people can’t eat then bad things happen. For a lot of countries it is an existential threat, especially these small Pacific island nations that rely on fishing for sustenance. This is a huge challenge and I can tell you there is a huge competition for resources.

Fisheries is just one example. Fishing technology has advanced so fast that boats can clean out all the protein they need and then get out of dodge and sell their products with no eye on sustainable fisheries, which really is a tragedy of the commons. Part of the reason they can do this is that there is no eye in the sky on oceans with maritime awareness. So it is a governance challenge too, the legal regimes. And legal regimes have been put into place. In fact, Congress recently took some action. One of the unique challenges of IUU fishing that makes it particularly difficult to deal with is you have to have a viable at-sea enforcement regime. You can’t deal with it through ports. A fisherman can choose where to put his catch or where he wants to trans-ship it, so by the time it gets to a port official, it is hard to be able to take action. I’m not saying port enforcement officials don’t have that in place; but if you don’t have that enforcement presence at sea to catch them in the act, take their boat, take their catch, you’re just not going to get there. There’s not enough law enforcement assets, so it’s a awareness challenges. I think that is where you’re going to see some of the most innovative things done will be in maritime domain awareness.

So the use of commercial overhead is something we’ve talked about before with sophisticated sensors to alert law enforcement regarding closed areas. To provide countries with some ability, even if it’s a shared ability, to do at-sea law enforcement. Some will get together to share an asset or maybe use a ship-rider program which we’ve done before to spread their authorities. I think that in combination with a smart look of the space itself is going to be a major way forward. I think transponders offer a lot too; to use transponders to sort out legitimate fishers from illegitimate fishers, deal with dark vessels and non-emitters, which we’re getting better at every day with sensors becoming cheaper. That is something else that we can do.

I’m of two minds of this thing. There are lots of countries where their fishers are doing illegal activities and I’m not convinced that all of them are doing everything they can to police their fishing fleet. At the same time, I’m optimistic about technology, more sophisticated law enforcement regimes that may balance this. And I think there is a place for port enforcement on this, although as I said you really can’t completely deal with it without at-sea enforcement.

MM: Since we’re reaching the end of our interview, we will conclude with the same conclusion with most of our episodes. Tell us about what you have been reading recently, what are the main articles and books that have caught your eye.

CM: This is going to sound pretty boring, but I’ve been reading a lot of energy-related publications because I believe the world is undergoing a geostrategic shift in the balance of power in energy and related products. Although it wasn’t covered very well in the press, President Trump mentioned not only energy independence for this country but also energy dominance. I would encourage people to examine that topic because that is super important.

This country has been energy dependent, in varying degrees, on lots of different players in the past, but it may not be in the future. We have liquefied natural gases leaving this country in export quantities both through the expanded Panama Canal to Asian nations which are consuming that. President Trump in his speech to Poland highlighted that a cargo of U.S. liquefied natural gas was delivered to Poland for the first time, which has huge geopolitical ramifications in regards to Russia. The combination of two simple technologies, horizontal drilling and fracking, has the potential of becoming a major energy supplier which will impact the world geopolitical climate. Whether it’s countries in the Middle East or South America who’ve relied on their own version of energy dominance, I see that being chipped away.

As a Coast Guardsman this is hugely relevant, because if energy is being exported by any means other than pipelines, it is moving by water and through the sophisticated shipping industry that moves products around in a global market. Once again, a just-in-time market, and we get movement of energy products in this country on inland waterways, offshore, arctic, you name it. These energy trends have the potential of reshaping the geopolitical globe that I grew up with. And I’m watching it very carefully and the Coast Guard is right in the middle of it because a lot of these products, unless they go by pipeline, move by water. And when you talk about products moving by water, you have the Coast Guard right in the middle of all that stuff.

MM: Thank you so much for your time, Admiral Michel. Best of luck with all of those diverse security challenges you have to deal with, and we’re all rooting for you.

CM: Great, proud to serve. Semper paratus.

Admiral Charles Michel is the 30th Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer of Sea Control.

In the Warlords’ Shadow: SOF, the Afghans, and Their Fight Against the Taliban

Daniel R. Green, In the Warlords’ Shadow: Special Operations Forces, the Afghans, and Their Fight Against the TalibanNaval Institute Press, 15 July 2017, $29.65, pp. 304

By Patrick Hughes

Introduction

Since the U.S. entered Afghanistan, the question on the minds of civilians, soldiers and commanders alike has been when and how do we leave? A narrative quickly came out of the conventional warfare strategy that boiled down to “shape, clear, hold, build and transition.” Although simple in nature, it was a narrative born out of political necessity and lacked a fundamental understanding of the people that U.S. troops would be fighting and defending. Through In the Warlord’s Shadow, Daniel Green uses experience gained from multiple tours, staggered throughout a decade of conflict, to highlight how this narrative had developed by 2009 when he deployed for the third time. He fades out the major action typically told in conventional war literature and brings out the personal stories of involvement with local leaders. In doing so, Green endorses a balanced war-fighting program that synchronizes development initiatives and tribal outreach with a less kinetic strategy.

Grassroots Counterinsurgency in Action

Although not explicitly mentioned in the book, Green’s candid account stresses several critical flaws in the current thinking behind U.S. counterinsurgency operations. Foremost among these is a misunderstanding of the centers of gravity in insurgency groups. The U.S. military’s understanding of centers of gravity is derived from Carl Clausewitz who defined it as a military’s source of strength. Once these sources are destroyed, the enemy would either be unable or unwilling to effectively sustain combat. However, Green notes that even after “defeating” the Taliban, fighting would recommence shortly after departure. How do you fight an enemy that continues to fight after traditional sources of strength have been depleted? By Green’s account, you sap the strength that they want, but have yet to obtain completely. In the Taliban’s case, this is the will of the Afghan people.

While the reaction to quickly invade Afghanistan was widely considered both moral and justified, the commanders faced a difficult dilemma that more time to plan might have remedied; we knew almost nothing about the political and cultural roots of the conflict. Instead the U.S. entered the conflict viewing the path to victory, and what that would look like, though, as Green calls it, a “prism of their own institutional lens.” We viewed an unconventional conflict as having a conventional end. However, early claims of victory would have to account for a resurgent enemy, continuing U.S. casualties and loss of territory previously thought secure. Deeper understanding of the nature of the conflict would have allowed a strategic narrative to develop along the Afghan cultural mores that the Taliban was exploiting: justice, micropolitics, reconciliation, laissez-faire and village empowerment.

Recounting his experience during a third tour with special operations, Green details how a new strategy, developed along the same mores the Taliban was exploiting, was beginning to work in Afghanistan. He states, “this mission was not exclusively about combat and that one yardstick of [the mission’s] success was getting the Afghans to step up to be part of the solution.” In the original strategy of clear, build and transition, security improved causing local economics to improve, but the community was still not enlisted in its own defense. Although the central government maintained input, the strategy implemented by Green’s unit allowed local tribes to man and manage their defense. This also allowed for economic rebuilding in areas where aid often did not trickle down from the central government. By integrating the locals into improving their own security, Green’s unit effectively turned the Taliban’s “people’s war” against them. Additionally, it contributed to a potential U.S. exit strategy.

Although implemented at the beginning of the 2009 surge, the bottom-up strategy implemented by Green’s unit was noted as having more progress than previous approaches. Perhaps it was only an illusion. Maybe the initial strategies laid key groundwork that allowed for this approach to be effective. However, it logically makes sense that leveraging the Afghan peoples’ will against the Taliban could both simultaneously remove a critical center of gravity and develop an infrastructure that could prevent a resurgence following U.S. withdrawal.

Conclusion

In the Warlord’s Shadow is forthright in its critique of U.S. strategy and highlights areas that we as a U.S. military have room to grow. The most significant lesson from the Afghanistan War is that in fighting insurgency our exit strategy does not stand separate from our entrance strategy, our mid-course operations, or the tactics on the ground. Rather, how we enter and conduct ourselves will dictate how we leave, not the other way around.

In his final redux, Green cautions that the U.S. will only repeat this mistake in the next small war unless we develop an organization willing to challenge the status quo of fighting warfare. We have to develop a bureaucratic culture that has an incentive to use cultural intelligence, diplomacy, and development to create dynamic combat plans. It must retain lessons learned and synchronize approaches between the military and other areas of government influence. Finally, our measures of success cannot come from solely what is done to a local community (i.e. Number of combatants killed), but what comes from it.

ENS Patrick Hughes  graduated Summa Cum Laude from Kennesaw State University (KSU) with a BA in International Relations and a BBA in International Business in 2015. Upon acceptance into Navy OCS, ENS Hughes reported to Officer Training Command in Newport, RI November 2015, commissioning early 2016. After commissioning, ENS Hughes reported to Information Warfare Training Command May 2016 where he attended DIVOLC, IWBC and NIOBC. An academic interest in China drew ENS Hughes to select FIAF DT Pearl Harbor as his first duty station where he currently serves at COMPACFLT headquarters.

Featured Image: Members of coalition special operations forces meet with Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Army to discuss village stability in the Khakrez district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, April 19. The ALP, ANA and coalition forces work together to routinely monitor local villages for insurgent activity, ensuring the safety of the local Afghan population. (DoD photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Gregory N. Juday)

Is Collective Southeast Asian Security Only Achievable in Malacca?

By Matt McLaughlin

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level of Effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level of Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caveats

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

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

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

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

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

Courses of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Endnotes

1. Catherine Zara Raymond, “Piracy and Armed Robbery in the Malacca Strait: A Problem Solved?”, Naval War College Review, Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 3. https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/7835607e-388c-4e70-baf1-b00e9fb443f1/Piracy-and-Armed-Robbery-in-the-Malacca-Strait–A-.aspx.

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

3. “Malacca Strait Patrols,” Oceans Beyond Piracy. http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/matrix/malacca-strait-patrols.

4. Benjamin Kang Lim, “China, Philippines to start South China Sea talks: ambassador”, Reuters, 14 May 2017, accessed 8 Jun 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-silkroad-southchinasea-idUSKBN18A07P.

5. Laura Southgate, “Piracy in the Malacca Strait: Can ASEAN Respond?”, The Diplomat, 8 July 2015, accessed 17 May 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/piracy-in-the-malacca-strait-can-asean-respond/.

6. “Malacca Straits Patrol: Member States Commemorate 10 Years of Cooperation,” Singapore Ministry of Defense, 21 April 2016, accessed 17 May 2016, http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/press_room/official_releases/nr/2016/apr/21apr16_nr.html#.V3lCerh97IV.

7. Manuel Mogato, “Exclusive: Philippines reinforces rusting ship on Spratly reef outpost – sources,” Reuters wire service, 13 July 2015, accessed 3 July 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-philippines-shoal-exclu-idUSKCN0PN2HN20150714.

8. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN Patrols in the South China Sea?”, The Diplomat, 19 March 2015, accessed 17 May 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/asean-patrols-in-the-south-china-sea/.

9. Malcolm Davis, “China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and the Future of the PLA,” China Policy Institute Blog, The University of Nottingham, 21 November 2014, accessed 25 June 2016, https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/chinapolicyinstitute/2014/11/21/chinas-malacca-dilemma-and-the-future-of-the-pla/.

10. Shannon Tiezzi, “China Promotes Trade, Maritime Silk Road in Malaysia”, The Diplomat, 24 November 2015, accessed 18 June 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/11/china-promotes-trade-maritime-silk-road-in-malaysia/.

11. Prashanth Parameswaran, “Over Half of World Piracy Attacks Now in ASEAN,” The Diplomat, 25 April 2016, accessed 17 May 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/over-half-of-world-piracy-attacks-now-in-asean/.

12. Live Piracy & Armed Robbery Report 2017, International Maritime Bureau, accessed 8 June 2016, https://www.icc-ccs.org/piracy-reporting-centre/live-piracy-report.

13. Laura Southgate, “Piracy in the Malacca Strait: Can ASEAN Respond?”, The Diplomat, 8 July 2015, accessed 17 May 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/piracy-in-the-malacca-strait-can-asean-respond/.

14. Prashanth Parameswaran, “ASEAN Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?”, The Diplomat, 12 May 2015, accessed 17 May 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2015/05/asean-joint-patrols-in-the-south-china-sea/.

15. Ibid.

16. Robert Held, “South China Sea Clashes Fracturing ASEAN,” The National Interest, 24 June 2016, accessed 25 June 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/south-china-sea-clashes-are-fracturing-asean-16699.

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

Lessons from Crimea: The Way Forward for NATO

This analysis was produced as part of the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, held in April of 2017. Since that time, Montenegro has officially joined NATO.

By Kirk Wolff

Introduction

There is no sugarcoating it: Russia’s continued aggression in Eastern Europe is not only reckless and a violation of international norms, but is illegal. In the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea, Russia showed complete disregard for the sovereignty of its neighbors and violated multiple treaties to which Russia is a party, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Under the Budapest Memorandum, Russia agreed to never use force against or in any way threaten the territorial integrity of Ukraine.1 It is clear Russia is no longer following international laws, even those it helped establish. Vladimir Putin’s desire to reclaim the perceived glory of the Soviet Union has manifested itself in illegal invasions of weaker neighbors. These actions have been met with responses from much of Europe and the United States that were, at best, toothless. The Russian Federation’s aspiration to expand its borders and sphere of influence into former Soviet states and satellites poses a great threat to the stability of Europe and has already caused instability and military buildup in Eastern Europe. Putin has never hidden his desire to restore the USSR, the dissolution of which he referred to as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.”2

NATO and Russian Pressures

Consequently, the international system is now witnessing the single most important moment in NATO’s history since the collective response to the 9/11 attacks. It is clear that continued sanctions in the vein of visa bans and asset freezes are no longer adequate responses to Putin’s actions. In order to stave off further illegal expansion by an emboldened Russia, NATO must swiftly expand to include Finland and Sweden. Deciding not to expand NATO to include these Nordic States would represent a complete failure to learn the lessons of the last decade, which occurred as a result of the rejection of Ukraine and Georgia’s attempts to join NATO. This proposed 7th expansion of NATO would include Montenegró, which has recently earned acceptance from Alliance member states.3 There is no better way to contain Russia than through expanding the alliance, the most effective collective defense organization in history and the historical counterbalance to Russo-Soviet expansionism.

Russian troops ride atop armoured vehicles and trucks near the village of Khurcha in Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia. (Associated Press)

Prior to and throughout the invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), Russia telegraphed its intention to regain its former status as a great power. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian military fell from around 5 million troops to roughly 1 million in 19944 and the capacity of those 1 million troops to exert Russian influence was questionable. Since that time, Russia’s military strength has experienced a revitalization, bringing the current number to over 3 million troops.5 The Russian military budget has increased by a factor of 5 since 1994, with a 91 percent boost in spending from 2006 to 2016.6 This boost in military spending and size transformed the Russian Armed Forces from a fledgling that could only muster around 60,000 troops to put down a Chechen rebellion in 19947 to its current status as a resurgent world superpower that successfully used covert military forces to annex an entire region of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine in 2014. Through his reforms following the 2008 invasion of Georgia, Vladimir Putin has orchestrated a spectacular comeback for Russia in a region where the nation lost almost all of its influence a quarter century ago.

The question of why Georgia and Ukraine were targeted specifically is answered by the failure of NATO to offer either nation a Membership Action Plan following the April 2008 Bucharest Summit despite the pursuit of admission to the Alliance by both states.8 It is likely that Putin was greatly relieved by this shortsighted decision by NATO, as his plans for Russian expansion were no longer threatened by NATO’s collective defense pledge. It only took four months for Russia to invade the former NATO-hopeful Georgia, in what is referred to as the first European war of the 21st Century.9 There is a reason the invocation of NATO’s collective defense measure, otherwise known as Article 5, has only occurred once in history, and that it was prompted by the actions of rogue non-state actors on 9/11. The full backing of NATO’s member states maintains peace at a level unseen in history by guaranteeing a costly counterattack to actions like the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. It is critical for NATO to learn from the mistakes of the Bucharest Summit and prevent further destabilization of Europe by accepting both Finland and Sweden into the Alliance posthaste.

The Grand Strategy of Russian Resurgence

The United States and NATO have been operating without a grand strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union, and consequently, Russia has implemented its own grand strategy that takes advantage of this stunning lack of action by the West. Russia is clearly, though not officially, following the grand strategy laid out in the Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexandre Dugin. The book has had a considerable impact on Russian foreign policy and was adopted as an official textbook at the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Naval War College, where senior officers and government officials receive graduate degrees related to policy.10 Major points of the work include (among other goals) separating England from Europe, dismantling Georgia, and annexing Crimea,11 all of which have been at least partially accomplished through Russian pressure, overt or otherwise. Not only have the arguments laid out in Dugin’s work been mirrored by Russian policy, but Dugin has even been made a major foreign policy advisor to the Putin regime12 and enjoys considerable influence and contact with the parliament and military.13 One major goal listed in the plan that has yet to be accomplished is the annexation of Finland. This, along with continued aggressive actions against Finland, shows that there is an imminent threat to Finland from Russia. If Finland fails to act quickly to join NATO, it is likely to be next in line for Russian expansion, in partial fulfillment of Dugin’s grand strategy for resurgent Russia.

Russian T-26 light tanks and T-20 Komsomolets armored tractors advancing into Finland during the Winter War, 2 Dec 1939. 

In both Finland and Sweden, support for accession to NATO has been growing due to the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. Russia has significantly ramped up operations and drills in the vicinity of Finland to such a degree that both Finland and Sweden are actively seeking new defensive agreements with western nations including the U.K. and U.S.14 Multiple Russian jets have violated Finnish airspace, further showing Russia’s disregard for the sovereignty of any of its neighbors.15 Additionally, Russia has been working to increase Finland’s dependency in order to further pull it into Russia’s economic and political sphere of influence. One such attempt involves energy, where Russia is attempting to undermine the Finnish energy sector and even create an artificial energy crisis which would drive Finland to rely heavily on Russian government and energy firms.16 Like Georgia and Ukraine, Finland was once part of Russia, and such historical ties were used as justification for both of Putin’s illegal invasions.17 18 In fact, the Winter War of 1939 was started by Russia in an attempt to reabsorb Finland; it resulted in Russian territorial gains from Eastern Finland.19 Based on the recent Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine, it is not outside of the realm of possibility for Russia to make another attempt to regain Finland. Sweden has felt the increased pressure from Russia as well, as evidenced by the extreme step the Civil Contingency Agency of Sweden took in December 2016 of telling towns to reinitiate Cold War era counter-invasion measures, including bunker systems and military drills.20 All of this represents a return to the great power conflict of the Cold War. Additionally, this demonstrates the clear and present threat to both Finland and Sweden from Russia that NATO would best solve.

The Current State of Partnership

Convincing the people of Finland of the necessity of NATO membership appears to be reliant on Sweden agreeing to join simultaneously. Support for a military alliance with Sweden is high, with 54 percent of Finns supporting such an alliance in 2014 while only 36 percent oppose21, so the people of Finland could be persuaded to support NATO if their friend Sweden agrees to join as well. That same year, Gallup found that 53 percent of Finnish citizens would support joining NATO if the government of Finland recommended the move.22 Since Finland already recognizes the importance of a military alliance with Sweden, it clearly can be convinced of the necessity of NATO as well. In Sweden, support of NATO membership has been on the rise. For instance, in 2015 the Centre Right Party joined two other major Swedish political parties to support NATO membership after having previously opposed the measure,23 which further indicates the political tides of the nation are turning in support of NATO. Not only is the move towards membership a necessity for these two nations, but it is also entirely within the realm of possibility in the near future.

Both Finland and Sweden have been longtime members of the Partnership for Peace (PfP)24, a NATO program which aims to build stronger relationships with non-Alliance members.25 Participation in the PfP is often seen as a pathway to membership since so many current NATO members were originally part of the PfP. This is crucial, because under Article 10 of the treaty all members must be unanimously confirmed; the fact that Finland and Sweden are already contributing to the collective defense of NATO shows that they would be valuable assets to the Alliance. Both Finland and Sweden sent troops to support NATO actions in Afghanistan, and Sweden was part of NATO’s 2011 mission in Libya.26 Due to their willingness to participate in operations, Finland and Sweden are clearly military assets to NATO, thus clearing the collective defense hurdle of NATO.

Despite this, neither nation could take on Russia alone. Swedish military experts found that if attacked by Russia, the nation could only hold out for one week27, further highlighting the need for NATO to step in and prevent another Crimean crisis. Opponents of NATO enlargement may argue that Sweden and Finland fail to meet the requisite military spending requirement of the Alliance, which is 2 percent of GDP. This is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it is far more important to keep Russia in check and have nations remain in America/NATO’s sphere of influence than to worry about the arbitrary 2 percent requirement. Demanding Sweden and Finland to increase their spending before joining will not create any measurable increase in NATO’s military effectiveness, as the U.S. spends around $650 billion dollars on defense.28 The next closest Alliance member spends a mere 60 billion dollars.29 It could be reasonable to require that both nations set a goal of reaching the 2 percent threshold within a decade, but the situation in Europe is too precarious to hesitate on such a minor issue. The true goal of NATO is maintaining the post-Soviet world order through the maintenance of the current spheres of influence.

The second reason the 2 percent requirement is irrelevant is the fact that only 5 of the 28 members currently meet the requirement. Based on publicly available military budget information, of the 28 NATO members, Finland outspends 14 before even joining and Sweden outspends Finland as well. Allowing Russia to continue to destabilize all of Europe because Finland and Sweden fail to meet a standard that over 80 percent of current NATO members also fail to meet is shortsighted.

Conclusion

For Finland, Russia’s western neighbor, the stakes are quite high. Putin has made multiple threatening statements in opposition to NATO enlarging to include Finland. These statements should be disregarded, as an identical scenario played out almost a decade ago in Georgia and recently in Ukraine. As mentioned earlier, Putin publicly opposed Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, and shortly after NATO decided not to include the two nations, both were invaded by Russia’s military. The only way to secure the stability of Northern Europe is through the accession of Finland and Sweden into NATO, since this provides the closest thing to a guarantee against Russian intrusion, as admitted by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov who said in 2016 that Russia “will never attack a member state of NATO.”30

There is a choice for NATO currently: either allow Russia to expand its sphere of influence even beyond the bounds of the former USSR into the Nordic States, or learn from the examples of Georgia and Ukraine by blocking expansionism through a 7th enlargement of the Alliance. We are clearly in a new era of great power conflict, and for their own safety Sweden and Finland must join their Nordic neighbors under the collective defense shield of NATO. NATO must recognize the dawn of this new era and learn the lessons of Crimea. The move to add Finland and Sweden to NATO is not only plausible, but entirely necessary to safeguard the stability and peace that Europe has enjoyed since the fall of the USSR.

Midshipman Kirk Wolff is from Morristown, Tennessee and is studying political science as a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2018. He can be contacted at wkirkwolff@gmail.com.

The author would like to thank Dr. Gale Mattox at USNA for her help.

References

[1] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances. 1994.

[2] Ellen Barry and Steven Myers. “Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West.” New York Times, March 18, 2014.

[3] Edward Joseph and Siniša Vuković. “Montenegro’s NATO Bid.” Foreign Affairs, December 22, 2016.

[4] Dmtri Trenin,. “The Revival of the Russian Bear.” Foreign Affairs, May & June 2016.

[5] “Russian Military Strength.” Global Firepower. 2016.

[6] Sam Perlo-Freeman, Aude Fleurant, Pieter Wezeman, and Siemon Wezeman. “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2015.” SIPRI Fact Sheet- Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2016, 4.

[7] Trenin, The Revival of the Russian Bear

[8] Adam Taylor. “That time Ukraine tried to join NATO — and NATO said no.” Washington Post, September 4, 2014.

[9] “Post-Mortem on Europe’s First War of the 21st Century.” Centre for European Policy Studies Policy Brief, no. 167

[10] John Dunlop. “Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics.” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of       Post-Soviet Democratization, no. 41 (January 31, 2004): 1.

[11] Ibid., 2-8.

[12] Henry Meyer and Onur Ant. “The One Russian Linking Putin, Erdogan and Trump.” Bloomberg,        February 2, 2017.

[13] Dunlop. Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics. 12.

[14] Julian Borger. “Finland says it is nearing security deal with US amid concerns over Russia.” The         Guardian, August 22, 2016.

[15] Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl. “Estonia, Finland say Russia entered airspace before U.S. defense pact.” Reuters. October 7, 2016.

[16] Rebecca Flood. “Finland warns Russia is becoming ‘more aggressive’ with nuclear power threat.” The Express UK, September 1, 2016.

[17] “Russia moves toward open annexation of Abkhazi, South Ossetia.” Eurasia Daily Monitor 5, no. 74. April 18, 2008.

[18] Barry. “Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West.”

[19]“The Soviet-Finnish War, 1939-1940.” Military Review, July 1941, 1-16.

[20] “Swedish towns told to ‘make preparations regarding the threat of war and conflict’ with Russia.” The Telegraph, December 15, 2016.

[21] “Majority of Finns back Swedish military union.” The Local. March 24, 2014.

[22] Verkkouutiset explained: The people willing to join NATO, if the state leadership so wishes.” Verkkouutiset. March 25, 2014.

[23] “Swedish centre right in favour of NATO membership.” Reuters. October 9, 2015.

[24] “Signatures of Partnership for Peace Framework Document.” NATO. January 10, 2012.

[25] “Partnership for Peace programme.” NATO. April 7, 2016.

[26] Gabriela Baczynska. “Wary of Russia, Sweden and Finland sit at NATO top table.” Reuters. July 8, 2016.

[27] Suvi Turtiainen. “Sweden and Finland Face Their Russian Fears.” Die Welt (The World, German). April 9, 2014.

[28] Ivanna Kottasova. “These NATO countries are not spending their fair share on defense.” CNN.com. July 8, 2016.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “Just Visiting: Russian aggression is pushing Finland and Sweden towards NATO.” The Economist, July 7, 2016.

Featured Image: Soldiers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the U.K. and the U.S. conduct a convoy June 10 into the field-training portion of Exercise Saber Strike. (Latvian MoD/Gatis Diezins)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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