Sea-based Nation Security


“I’m going to work and live on THAT?”

This was my initial response when arriving  (via helicopter) 1000m away from Iraq’s Al Basrah Oil Terminal (ABOT).  As part of a coalition maritime security group, security forces have been protecting Iraq’s economic gem for over a decade, and over the course of that time many security lessons have been identified.  So naturally, I can’t help but relate these issues to the concept of Seasteading and my corresponding thoughts on security, which will be the focus of this post.


Home, sweet light crude home.


Point or Area Defense?  

One of the first questions to settle is whether the infrastructure be treated as a single point in the ocean, designed to be defended in 360 degrees.  It is possible that to have full coverage, the seastead will require roving patrols.  Non-Lethal technology (such as the LRAD), although only somewhat effective at distracting incoming small boats, must be employed in various positions for overlapping coverage.  In point defense, this will therefore require dedicated security personnel, on watch 24-hours a day, to field effective coverage.     If a seastead could utilize multiple supporting infrastructures in the near vicinity, or was a considered part of a country’s territorial archipelago, tactical considerations might alternately suggest an area defense approach to defend the seastead. This would entail routine patrols of the area and require more centralized security programs.  If the seastead decided to employ maritime patrols as a means to interdict unknown approaching vessels, the employment of patrol craft would be determined by the size of the area and amount of working security boats.


Buffer Zone

Another important question to consider is the distance from the seastead that will be considered a warning zone.  Implementing current anti-piracy measures may defend against approaching vessels through deterrents and security systems, but the infrastructure must also consider the terrorist/extremist threat of waterborne attacks.  Anecdotally it seemed to me that infrastructures often attract the best fish, so these platforms may also attract fishermen.  Considerations must be made to keeping unauthorized fishermen away from the platform, as the possibility of a water-borne improvised explosive device (WBIED) attack increases with added fishing traffic.  In addition to local fishing, the potential of large, commercial traffic – e.g. supertankers, liquid natural gas (LNG) ships – poses a kinetic threat to a seastead.  This threat must be gamed as both a non-malicious (navigational safety hazard) and malicious (terrorist hijack).  After determining the distance for the buffer zone, the seastead must also include a means to thwart approaching ships that look likely to violate it.  Patrolling security vessels capable of providing shouldering and defensive capability must be considered, yet their implementation weighed against the complex operational control required of maintaining security zones for a large infrastructure.


Personnel Control

The issue of entry/exit point control is a great point raised by Mr. Harmon in the video linked above.  This is an important aspect of security on a maritime platform, yet the seastead must weigh the thoroughness of processing against the costs of excessive time requirements.  A detailed inspection of incoming personnel may require the halting of offload or possibly return of vessels.  If a suspicious individual or group is identified, what detention facilities will the infrastructure maintain until further transfer is warranted?  At-sea vessel inspections from boarding teams, prior to their arrival at the seastead can be an effective means of providing entry control, yet this requires a dedicated boarding team with transportation.



As a final question to consider, is the seastead prepared to be boarded by pirates or other criminals and held for ransom?  While in his interview earlier this week Randy Hencken prevents compelling arguments against the threat of piracy afflicting seasteads, history has shown that human ingenuity – evil as well as good – often find a way to capitalize on societies in flux.  Therefore seasteads need to be prepared.  What security controls will be in place to prevent, thwart, and recover from piracy?  Is the platform capable of receiving airborne inserted counter-piracy forces?  Are the personnel living/working onboard the seastead well-versed in piracy scenarios and prepared to respond accordingly?  If pirated, “who ya gonna call”?


Seasteading is a great concept for advancing maritime occupancy and development, yet just as the concept is entering our collective discussion, so must the security challenges.


A.J. “Squared-Away” is a husband, father, and U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He has deployed on patrol boats, destroyers, and aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and aboard Iraqi oil terminals. He is currently a student at an advanced military planner course. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.  

Who Would Benefit Most from Seasteading?


Would you trade this…

At its core, seasteading is designed as an alternative to existing nation-states. Its proponents understand, however, that for the foreseeable future seasteading must operate within existing legal and political structures.[1]  Early seasteads are likely to be simply converted ships, and a 2012 report by The Seasteading Institute (TSI) notes that under international law every ocean-going vessel must fly the flag of an existing state in order to operate legally and without undue interference.[2] Given concerns about avoiding external intrusion in the affairs of seasteads, this generates an inevitable connection between seasteads and the state system they are meant to escape as seasteads are flagged. Because of this connection, it is possible that states themselves might stand to benefit from exploiting the idea.


Seasteading could offer several benefits to states. Much as oil platforms allow the exploitation of undersea resources, seasteading could be used as a platform for aquaculture or fishing. This might be attractive to land-locked countries like Afghanistan or Switzerland, or to countries with poor agricultural productivity. Seasteads could also be used to address overcrowding in the likes of Singapore, Macau, or Hong Kong. These may be productive roles for seasteading, but the most compelling case for their use comes from the effects of climate change.


Estimates for the potential rise in sea level as a result of climate change vary widely, from a low of perhaps 13cm by 2100 to a high of 95cm.[3] Kiribati, the Maldives, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands all consist entirely of atoll islands, averaging a mere two meters above sea level.[4] If rising sea levels approach the higher estimates, all of these island states could be inundated or uninhabitable.[5] This would effectively end their national existence. The technology used for seasteading could offer a way for these states to escape their destruction.


…for this?

There are problems, however. First, there are legal issues. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not recognize man-made ocean structures or extensions of islands as having territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zones. This prohibits states from using offshore platforms to game the system to their advantage. It would also prevent seasteads from having any legal control over sea resources or the waters surrounding them. Additionally, UNCLOS does not acknowledge uninhabitable islands as exercising any control over the surrounding sea. This is especially concerning from the perspective of island states attempting circumvent their destruction through seasteading. If, for example, the islands of Kiribati ceased to become inhabitable, its territorial waters and EEZ would disappear, even if Kiribati continued to exist as a state contained within a seastead. It is not at all clear that UNCLOS would protect the rights of formerly habitable or completely submerged islands.[6]


On top of the legal problems, there are cost concerns. Seasteading promises to be very expensive. TSI estimates that an average platform will run $300-400 per square foot of usable space. Annual maintenance costs are anticipated to be between five and 25% of capital value.[7] While this is not inordinately expensive when compared to property values in the affluent cities of developed countries, it is well out of reach for the island states which could most directly benefit from seasteading. Kiribati had a GDP of approximately $600 million and a population of 103,500 in 2011. At the estimated prices, Kiribati could build a maximum of between 1,475,000 and 1,996,666 square feet of seastead. This is, unfortunately, nowhere near enough space to house its population, much less host productive industry. Even if built, maintenance costs could run between $30 million and $150 million per year. On top of this, electricity is expected to be approximately two and a half times as expensive as on land.[8] Furthermore, the costs of keeping a seastead on a fixed station are difficult to determine. Possibilities range from about $20 per household per month to $1600 per person per month.[9]


While seasteading offers a way for island states to escape the consequences of rising sea levels, it is too expensive for these states to exploit it. Seasteading may prove beneficial for states which can use it on a smaller scale – such as for establishing fishing or aquaculture communities – but as a means for counteracting the destruction of existing island states it is not feasible.

Ian Sundstrom is an MA student in War Studies at King’s College London.

[1] Philip Steinberg, Elizabeth Nyman, and Mauro Caraccioli (2012), ‘Atlas Swam: Freedom, Capital, and Floating Sovereignties in the Seasteading Vision’, Antipode, Vol. 44, No. 4, p. 1544.

[2] Sean Hickman (2012), Flagging Options for Seasteading Projects, (The Seasteading Institute), p. 3.

[3] Michael Edwards (1999), ‘The Security Implications of a Worst-Case Scenario of Climate Change in the Southwest Pacific’, Australian Geographer, Vol. 30, No. 3, p. 313.

[4] Joe Barnett and Neil Alger (2003), ‘Climate Dangers and Atoll Countries’, Climate Change, No. 61, p. 322.

[5] Edwards (1999), p. 313.

[6] Edwards (1999), p. 315.

[7] Brad Taylor (2010), Governing Seasteads: An Outline of the Options (The Seasteading Institute).

[8] Eelco Hoogendoorn (2012), Seasteading Engineering Report, Part I (The Seasteading Institute).

[9] Hoogendoorn (2012), pp. 22-23.

Bridging the Moat

Professor Mearsheimer as a Cadet at West Point. As a work of the US Government, this image is not subject to copyright.

Late summer has arrived in Annapolis, bringing the Brigade of Midshipmen back with it to the Naval Academy. The halls echo anew with the footsteps of midshipmen and I hear the muffled, disembodied voices of my colleagues delivering lectures through the walls. As I begin the teaching/learning cycle anew, first principles have often been on my mind. Today, I want to look at Seasteading through one of the first principles of the realist school of international relations theory. A major tenant of security studies supported by many realists is the so-called “Stopping Power of Water,” a term taken from Prof. John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. As part of our continuing focus on Seasteading and Sea-Based Nations (SBNs), I’m going to examine possible effects that SBNs may have on the stopping power of water and on the stability of the current international order.

In Prof. Mearsheimer’s opus outlining offensive realism, he describes “the stopping power of water” primarily as a barrier to power projection (particularly an amphibious assault):

Water is usually not a serious obstacle for a navy that is transporting ground forces across an ocean and landing them in a friendly state. But water is a forbidding barrier when a navy attempts to deliver an army onto territory controlled and well-defended by a rival great power. Navies are therefore at a significant disadvantage when attempting amphibious operations against powerful land-based forces (Page 114).

The policy aim of war (to paraphrase Clausewitz: “imposing one’s will on an enemy”) is very difficult to achieve – under Mearsheimer’s reasoning – without the use of land power. In other words, Mearsheimer believes that political change rarely occurs through the use of sea power alone (i.e. though blockades or other similar measures), and that states separated from others by large bodies of water can easily resist most ground assaults. Therefore, the greatest security threats arise from territorially connected states (think Germany and France in the 20th Century), or from states who can transport ground troops to a territorially connected ally (think Kuwait and the United States versus Iraq in the Gulf War).

How could SBNs affect the stopping power of water? Could they bridge the protective moat of the world’s oceans? Let’s imagine the full realization of seasteaders’ dreams: a world with thousands or tens of thousands of SBNs, all innovating different forms of government while sustaining a steady populations of hundreds of thousands or millions of seasteaders in locations both near the coast and far out on the open ocean. Would the world’s seas hold more, less, or the same amount of stopping power as before?

Sea-Based Nations wouldn’t change the objective difficulty of assaulting the beaches of great powers like China or the United States. However, if states could use SBNs located near an adversary through either diplomacy or conquest, then that SBN could serve as a staging base for the invading country’s forces. Think how difficult it would have been for the Allies to invade Europe without the United Kingdom nearby. As noted earlier this week, a SBN could serve in the same manner, but with some key differences I’ll discuss later. Island bases affect something I’ve talked about before called the “Loss of Strength Gradient,” yielding significant advantages to the owner. Looked at another way, SBNs represent larger, more capable Afloat Forward Staging Bases. Since they would be sustained by citizens and their economic activities, they might become the “poor nation’s aircraft carrier,” particularly if they are engineered to have some kind of propulsion.

While the stopping power of water itself seems like it would remain intact, the proliferation of SBNs could start a new Great Game among world powers as they vie for influence or control with/over new maritime city-states in order to gain an advantage over other potential opponents. The existence of many SBNs that are – to some degree – mobile in their physical location and political alliances and vulnerable to even second- or third-rate navies could damage that portion of global stability that comes from the vastness of the world’s oceans. Paradoxically, this means that instead of obtaining greater freedom from established governments, SBNs might invite more attention from great powers who seek to gain an advantage over a potential adversary. I don’t pretend to know what effects this attention and interest might have on the domestic politics of SBNs, but they strike me as both potentially significant and damaging to the stated goal of seasteaders to break from established forms of government.

SBNs do differ in many important ways from Great Britain in World War II. For one, they can be sunk: even the most solidly build floating platforms would be vulnerable to attack, particularly from torpedoes. For another, they need to be flagged by an existing country, at least under my limited knowledge of current admiralty law. These facts could influence their foreign policies in important ways.

Given the potential instability SBNs could introduce to the balance of power, it’s also interesting to consider whether great powers would seriously allow their formation.

It seems easy to conceive of SBNs as communities allowed to evolve in isolation, but their very existence will affect the strategic calculus of the world’s great powers. As a result, they may not even be allowed to evolve as they may wish. Conversely, the growth of a diverse array of SBNs would challenge some of the key principles of realism. Regardless, SBNs promise to drastically alter the way we think about international relations.

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett

When a city can cut ties, there may be danger on the seas if it does – no matter how nice the upholstery.

The concept of Sea-based Nations, which won a recent CIMSEC poll directing our coverage for this week, is an idea with a significant potential to impact human societies. The extent of the changes depends on how far into the utopian imagination this idea is realized. In its simplest form, Sea-based nations could describe the venture of existing states into the open oceans. If so, tensions could rise significantly as the scramble for maritime territory takes on new dimensions, but there would be little new in terms of basic rules of naval strategy. Alternately, there could be a revival of ancient Greece-like city-states, as the name “Sea-based Nations” suggests. In this case the changes to the world and its citizens would be substantial, but even here we would still operating with known concepts. The most dramatic impacts would arise from the realization of the idea of Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In his 19th-century story, Captain Nemo and his crew of the Nautilus wanted to isolate themselves from the existing world. They cut all links and created a self-sufficient small community.

The latter two propositions could not be achieved without influencing existing maritime, and more narrowly, naval matters. The constabulary, diplomatic, and military functions of the world’s navies will be affected. And, in the most radical version – the Captain Nemo scenario – Sea-based Nations could undermine world order not by hostile actions or intentions, but simply by their existence. The bitterness in the words of Captain Nemo towards a frigate sailor in the U.S. Navy (who thought he’d been chasing a sea monster) reveal the challenges of renegade, roving, and unlocated Sea-bases facing humanity:

“M. Aronnax,” he replied, “dare you affirm that your frigate would not as soon pursued and cannonaded a submarine boat as a monster?”

From a professional standpoint, looking at the pictures of huge semi-floating structures, it is easy to imagine that military tactics will be affected as well. Let us think for a while about naval assault on such structure. Here naval warfare meets urban warfare. This raises questions not only about technology, but also about naval theory and its divergence or convergence with land warfare. Sir Julian Corbett believed that there are three principles of land warfare and that naval warfare significantly differs from them. The first principle is concentration of force and overthrowing the enemy, which is exemplified in maxim “The primary object of our battle-fleet is to seek out and destroy that of the enemy.” Here, naval warfare diverges with its concept of “fleet-in-being”:

In naval warfare we have a far-reaching fact which is entirely unknown on land. It is simply this–that it is possible for your enemy to remove his fleet from the board altogether.

The second principle is the definite lines of operation and of communications often determined by road and obstacles:

But afloat neither roads nor obstacles exist. There is nothing of the kind on the face of the sea to assist us in locating him and determining his movements.

The last principle is the concentration of efforts, which means a focus on an enemy’s force “without regard to ulterior objects.” In the case of naval warfare there is an ever-present question of lines of communication, independent from the focus on enemy forces, formulated in a simple and elegant way by Sir Julian:

Now, if we exclude fishery rights, which are irrelevant to the present matter, the only right we or our enemy can have on the sea is the right of passage;


Depending on whether the Sea-based Nation is more like Sparta than Athens, the above differences might be modified, if not eliminated. The “Fleet-in-being” strategy works only because the fleet removed from the board represents a reserve potential of action. The way of dealing with it is blockade. But what happens if a blockade is perfect?


Fighting for control of a Sea-based Nation could blend maritime and urban warfare.

On the other hand, as anti-access (A2) technologies matured throughout history, the close blockade became more and more costly. It was also exhausting and turned into the distant blockade. If a Sea-based Nation is a Sparta, self-sufficient in the long-term and powerful enough to push out its blockade through A2 technology, then a “fleet-in-being” would lose its importance and the difference between naval and land warfare starts to pale. Similarly, even tens or more floating Spartas will not change the sheer size of the ocean, but if located in one specific region, then they could act to increase or decrease the probable usage of particular sea routes.

The last difference would be least affected. However, some convergence comes from developments in land warfare as well. Looking at Afghanistan war, I suppose that Army generals would support Sir Julian Corbett’s focus on keeping safe lines of communications, regardless of the goal of overthrowing enemy forces.

In the end, what is the difference between armed floating cities and warships that justifies the digressions from known theories? Sustainment and self-sufficiency. If technology allows these structures enough of the two, we could face a hybrid of warships crossed with the type of well-defended islands seen in the Pacific campaign during WWII. The convergence between naval and land warfare would then accelerate.


Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.