Category Archives: Strategy

Maritime Order and America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

America as a Seapower

The United States is a “seapower” in all senses of the word. Its history, prosperity, and security are inseparable from the oceans. Even U.S. states without coastlines depend on global supply chains and markets that move primarily through the oceans.

The United States neglects its Navy at its peril. But military power must be accompanied by other types of power, both hard and soft. In his analysis of five maritime great powers, Professor Andrew Lambert explains how might and identity derive not exclusively from naval power, but also from the aptitude for using the seas cooperatively.1 The crucial distinction between seapowers and more insular continental powers is the art of perpetuating profitable economic and political ties with others. “A seapower, the ancient Greek thalassokratia,” writes Lambert, “was a state that consciously chose to create and sustain a fundamental engagement between nation and ocean, from political inclusion to the rule of law, across the entire spectrum of national life, in order to achieve great power status.”2

The oceans are not just the cradle of life, but vital arteries to tomorrow’s world centers of power. The continuous body of water that facilitates 90 percent of global trade and comprises about 72 percent of the Earth’s surface joins the United States with two major oceans and connects it to the dynamic Indo-Pacific region where the majority of twenty-first century wealth, trade, and population are concentrated.3

Because America’s peace and well-being depend on unhampered access and use of the oceans, order at sea is indispensable for U.S. global strategy and its vision of preserving and adapting a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Trump administration’s vision for an expanded regional policy announced during the president’s first trip to Asia.4

The post-World War II international system enshrined the idea of “freedom of the high seas” in the 1945 United Nations Charter.5 Postwar challenges to commercial and military freedom of navigation, however, demanded further protection.6

In the midst of the Cold War, both Western and Eastern blocs along with nonaligned nations came together to support the multilateral negotiations that resulted in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea does not conform with the revisionist notion that the United States imposed its rules on others.7 Instead, as Singapore Ambassador Tommy Koh, who later served as president of the conference, put it, “You will find countries allied here that you will not find working together in any other international forum, such as Mongolia and Swaziland, or Jamaica and Iraq.”8 As U.S. Ambassador John Norton Moore said, freedom of navigation is the original “common heritage” of all humankind.9 

From the signing of UNCLOS, the United States accepted all of its provisions as customary international law. The sole exception was Part XI regarding seabed exploration and mining in international waters, outside countries’ territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).10 In short, the United States helped to establish international law of the sea, and despite not ratifying UNCLOS, seeks to ensure its relevance, survival, and enforcement.

So, freedom of seas has been and remains essential for all Americans. However, maritime order is increasingly at risk and from both traditional and nontraditional threats. A critical question is whether we can sustain freedom of the seas into the future.

Rising Challenges for Maritime Order

Maritime order is a larger concept than maritime security. The maritime domain is defined as “all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.”11 Although security is the sine qua non for order, there is a symbiotic relationship between freedom of navigation on the oceans, for instance, and sustainable coastal communities where almost two-thirds of the world’s mega-cities are situated.12

There are at least four significant challenges to maritime order broadly conceived: over the international rules governing maritime behavior; from pirates, terrorists, traffickers, and other non-state actors and transnational criminal organizations; from mounting human exploitation of ocean resources; and from natural disasters and climate change. This essay focuses on the first but touches on all four risks, as a comprehensive policy for maritime order requires addressing the full panoply of challenges.

First, the seas are at risk from a growing competition over international rules and rule-making.

Revisionist major powers like Russia and China, but also regional states such as Iran and North Korea, increasingly pose challenges to traditional maritime security. Iran’s shootdown of a U.S. surveillance drone in international airspace constitutes a direct threat to freedom of navigation and overflight around the globe and could lead other aggressors to miscalculate by challenging the U.S. interpretation of international law.13 

In the Indo-Pacific, the most pressing challenge to existing maritime rules and norms is being posed by China.14 For example, China’s willful disregard of the 2016 international arbitral tribunal judgment regarding the South China Sea is a direct assault on the postwar system and UNCLOS, the so-called constitution of the oceans.15

But brushing aside awards handed down from The Hague is not the only challenge to postwar maritime order. Revisionist powers are challenging accepted rules and norms in various ways. Reckless behavior at sea that endangers other ships is a direct violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs).16 Yet in early June 2019, a Russian destroyer deliberately endangered a U.S. guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville, an incident that occurred on the heels of an unsafe air maneuver by a Russian fighter jet against a U.S. patrol aircraft.17 Chinese ships and aircraft have periodically conducted similar dangerous maneuvers to prevent lawful U.S. freedom of navigation and overflight in maritime Asia.18

As with North Korea prior to the signing of UNCLOS, China wants to ignore the right of military freedom of navigation and overflight, as suggested by Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior toward U.S. and other naval vessels operating peacefully within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The EEZ was designed by UNCLOS negotiators to grant coastal states control over resources adjacent to their coasts; it was not designed to grant sovereignty, which extends only in the 12-nautical mile territorial sea.19 Yet China has repeatedly violated this broadly accepted interpretation of UNCLOS.

From the 2001 incident in which a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 aircraft 80 miles south of Hainan Island to the more recent unlawful seizure of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) 50 miles from Subic Bay in the South China Sea, to repeated harassment of Navy Military Sealift Command oceanographic and hydrographic survey vessels, China seeks to alter the rules through provocative actions.20 Admittedly, the issues involving certain types of Marine Scientific Research activities are more complicated (and UNCLOS interpretations have generally become more restrictive of some activities within a coastal nation’s EEZ). China wants it both ways: to preclude any military activities by claiming more limited rights of “peaceful navigation” not derived from UNCLOS within its EEZ, while conducting its own military maneuvers in the EEZs of other countries.21 In addition, while Beijing condemns every U.S. transit with warships, it lavishes praise on its proprietary and state-run mapping and measuring of the South China Sea and world oceans.22 

While states seeking to revise international rules at sea constitute a severe and growing threat to maritime order, there are other acute and chronic challenges.

A second source concerns non-traditional security threats from piracy, terrorism, and illegal trafficking by non-state actors, including transnational criminal syndicates.23  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing alone “results in global losses in the tens of billions of dollars each year.”24 The cost and irreparable human and environmental damage of illicit trafficking in people, drugs, wildlife, and other commodities is enormous.

But there is an area where traditional and non-traditional threats such as transnational crime converge: lethal technology. Non-state actors are gaining access to more disruptive and deadly technologies. Acting either alone or as proxies of states, they are likely to pose increased risks to maritime shipping, navigation and overflight. The Houthi rebels who allegedly shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over Yemen and the plausible deniability about attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in June 2019 suggest how non-state actors could significantly disrupt maritime order in years to come.25   

Thirdly, maritime order in the oceans is at severe risk from a growing global population’s use of the oceans, as we face problems such as massive overfishing. The oceans face multiple stressors, including increased human use of maritime resources as global population approaches an anticipated 9.8 billion people by 2050. As Greg Poling observes, in the South China Sea alone there is “a series of catastrophes piling on top of one another.”26 China’s island-building reclamation was enormously destructive to coral reefs, and a resurgence in giant clam digging is causing additional damage.27 This environmental damage comes on top of overfishing.

Finally, humanity is at greater risk from the seas themselves, including the impact of natural disasters on built-up coastal areas and the effects of climate change.

Littoral regions, where roughly 40 percent of the world’s population lives, are especially vulnerable to tsunamis and rising sea levels. But the entire world is dependent on the oceans in many ways: for instance, 25 percent of all species on the planet are thought to live in the biodiverse tropical coral reefs, even though these reefs comprise less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface. Sadly, warming oceans resulting from periodic El Niño heat waves are leading to large-scale bleaching and destruction of many coral reefs. Climate change projections suggest most coral reefs may cease to exist by the middle of the century, although some will be able to adapt because of local conditions such as internal waves.28

Faced with all of these risks, we must do more to find ways of cooperating on our maritime commons, while not flinching from protecting both freedom of the seas and the survival of our shared marine environment.

Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific

Maritime order is indispensable for preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The United States is approaching these issues within the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, as most recently described in the June Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.29 Although released by the Department of Defense, the report adopts a comprehensive approach.

The report’s introduction underscores the Indo-Pacific region’s economic centrality for the world and the United States: “The Indo-Pacific contributes two-thirds of global growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 60% of global GDP.”30  Moreover, “nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports are in the region, and 60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Asia, with roughly one-third of global shipping passing through the South China Sea alone.”31 Moreover, with five Pacific states and Pacific territories on both sides of the International Date Line, “America’s annual two-way trade with the region is $2.3 trillion, with U.S. foreign direct investment of $1.3 trillion in the region—more than China’s, Japan’s, and South Korea’s combined.”32 

Despite its significant economic holdings, the United States is worried by powers seeking to unilaterally revise agreed-upon rules and norms, especially in the maritime domain. The U.S. strategic vision sets forth principles congruent with ASEAN centrality and norms, including seeking the peaceful resolution of disputes, supporting a rules-based approach, and expanding cooperation. The goal of the United States is to help independent actors protect their interests while not allowing any one nation to dominate the Indo-Pacific.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, concern over the consequential U.S.-China relationship took center stage. Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the United States cannot stand aside when smaller actors face pressure and coercion (and that includes the Cross-Strait issue, too), nor can the U.S. fail to respond when revisionist powers seek to unilaterally change a rules-based system. The Law of the Sea and marine policy are caught up in the larger global resurgence of major power rivalry in which the basic contest centers on rules and rule-making.

However, big powers can pursue what Joseph Nye has called “cooperative rivalry” at sea—a reason why Acting Secretary Shanahan used his one-on-one discussion with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, to advance ideas for cracking down on North Korea’s illicit trading and strengthening mechanisms for avoiding unintended catalytic war.33   

The United States can also benefit from fashioning a larger bipartisan majority around halting IUU fishing—something the Obama administration elevated and which the Trump administration has recently shown stronger support for in the Pacific Islands and in its work with ASEAN. The same goes for the global challenge of slowing climate change and building resilient coastlines and islands.

In thinking about a more integrated approach, the United States should take note of what Taiwan has created. In 2018, Taiwan established a single cabinet-level agency, the Ocean Affairs Council, headquartered in the southern city of Kaohsiung, to help coordinate all policies affecting the oceans, sea-based resources, and the maritime environment.34 To mark this concerted effort to step up its oceans policy, Taiwan hosted a small, international group of scholars to visit Dongsha Island, the northernmost part of the South China Sea which is only an 80-minute plane ride from Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung. The inaugural Dongsha International Conference followed, and this author was one of two American participants. In his opening remarks, Ocean Affairs Council Minister Chung-Wei Lee noted that the United Nations has proclaimed the decade beginning in 2021 a “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.”35 By hosting the 2019 Dongsha International Conference, Taiwan demonstrated that it, too, is a seapower in its own right, and it should be fully permitted to join in efforts to protect our global maritime commons.36

The United States should also prepare to harness and enhance existing contributions for maritime order—an appropriate priority for a major seapower state like the United States. As the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report makes clear, the United States is in the fourth year of an Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) designed to bolster the security of littoral states in Southeast and South Asia, especially near the South China Sea.37 The MSI represents only a portion of the activities the United States is undertaking to ensure that the oceans continue to support prosperity and peace. Existing investments in building a common operating picture, as well as plans to create interoperability and strengthen maritime capacity of regional partners, might be augmented with new public-private partnerships designed to foster the marine science and culture of the oceans which will be required to withstand the myriad challenges to maritime order now and in the future. These extant and new investments in time and money can ensure that future generations enjoy freedom of the seas and a sustainable ocean environment.

The bottom line is that security and maritime order are intertwined, rather than in opposition to one another.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Fellow and Chair for Asia-Pacific Security at Hudson Institute and is available at


[1] Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] Ibid., p. 323.

[3] “Factsheet: People and Oceans,” The United Nations Oceans Conference, June 5-9, 2017,

[4] “Remarks by President Trump on His Trip to Asia,”, November 15, 2017,

[5] James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, The Free Sea: The American Fight for Freedom of Navigation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Few revisionists surpass the successful polemics of Noam Chomsky, who sees the United States as the root of all the world’s ills. For instance, see Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016); and for an informed critique of this book, see Adam Lebor, “US vs Them: A One-Sided Attempt to Blame the United States for Everything,” Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2016,

[8] “’Common Heritage of Mankind’—Interview: Tommy Koh,” Newsweek, September 25, 1978, p. 64, quoted in Vivek Viswanathan, “Crafting the Law of the Sea: Elliot Richardson and the Search for Order on the Oceans (1977-1980),” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College 2009), p. 30,

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 6.

[11] This definition is used in the U.S. National Security Presidential Directive-41 (NSPD-41)/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-13 (HSPD-13) (Maritime Security Policy, December 21, 2004), quoted in National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness for the National Security for Maritime Security (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, October 2005), p. i.,

[12] “Factsheet: Climate Change,” The United Nations Oceans Conference, June 5-9, 2017,

[13] Some saw the precedent as so dangerous that they advocated proportionate military strikes; see Michael G. Vickers, “To Avoid a Wider War, Iran Must be Deterred with Limited U.S, Military Strikes,” Washington Post, June 21, 2019,

[14] For instance, see James R. Holmes, “When China Rules the Sea,” Foreign Policy, September 23, 2015,; more authoritatively and recently, see Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, May 2019), p. 7-8, passim.

[15] See “In the Matter of the South China Sea Arbitration before An Arbitral Tribunal Constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China,” July 12, 2016,

[16] “Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGS),” International Maritime Organization, October 20, 1972,

[17] See Mark D. Faram, “Both Russia and the United States Point the Fingers After Warships Almost Collide,” Navy Times, June 7, 2019,

[18] For instance, see Brad Lendon, “Photos Show How Close Chinese Warship Came to Colliding with US Destroyer,” CNN, October 4, 2018,

[19] James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, The Free Sea: The American Fight for Freedom of Navigation, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 248-249.

[20] Ibid., p. 248-260.

[21] Ibid., p. 261.

[22] China’s propaganda is pervasive on this issue. For instance, see “Chinese Research Vessel Departs for Seamounts in Mariana Trench,” Global Times, May 15, 2019,; and more generally, “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xinhua, June 20, 2017, Meanwhile, China’s surveys of the oceans have specific military implications; see Steven Stashwick, “New Chinese Ocean Network Collecting Data to Target Submarines, The Diplomat, January 2, 2018,; and Andrew Greene, “China Increases Surveillance Near PNG Expanding as Australia and US Begin Manus Island Naval Upgrades,” ABC, April 20, 2019,

[23] For instance, see Joshua Tallis, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers and Maritime Insecurity (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019).

[24] “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,” U.S. Department of State, Office of Marine Conservation,

[25] David S. Cloud and Laura King, “Pentagon Accuses Iran of Shooting Missiles at U.S. Drones,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2019,

[26]  “South China Sea Threatened by ‘a Series of Catastrophes’,”PBS Newshour, May 18, 2019,

[27] See Viola Zhou, “China Puts a Stop to Commercial Land Reclamation After Damning Environment Reports: But Key Defence and Infrastructure Projects Likely to Get Green Light,” South China Morning Post, January 2, 2018,; and John W. McManus, “Massively Destructive Coral Reef Damage from Giant Clam Shell Digging in the South China Sea: Birth, Death and Rebirth,” Webinar published on, June 13, 2019,

[28] Dr. Anne Cohen, Associate Scientist with Tenure, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has brought attention to “Super Reefs” that appear poised to be better able to withstand temperature changes than most coral reefs. For an overview of her recent research, see “Super Reefs” on the Woods Hole website:

[29] The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (Washington, D.C.: DoD, June 1, 2019),

[30] Ibid., p. 2.

[31] Ibid., p. 1.

[32] Ibid., p. 2.

[33] Speaking to the press after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned of a possible “accidental conflict” breaking out from rising tensions, mutual suspicions, miscalculation, and the possible role of third parties, including non-state actors. See Amir Vahdat, Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell, “Japan Premier Warns US, Iran ‘Accidental Conflict’ Possible,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2019,

[34] See Duncan DeAeth, “Taiwan’s New ‘Ocean Affairs Council’ to be Headquartered in Kaohsiung,” Taiwan News, April 26, 2018,

[35] “United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030),” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2018,

[36] See Lin Chia-nan, “Dongsha Meeting Urges Conservation, Cooperation,” Taipei Times, June 15, 2019,

[37] The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Security, p. 49.

Featured Image: SANTA RITA, Guam (May 24, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) departs Guam for exercise Pacific Vanguard (PACVAN). PACVAN is the first of its kind quadrilateral exercise between Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and U.S. naval forces. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Emily Bull)

The Case for Maritime Security in an Era of Great Power Competition

By Joshua Tallis

“Maritime security.” The phrase, and the nebulous set of missions that loosely fall underneath it, came into expanded use in the decades after September 11, including in U.S. strategic documents. Even during the height of interest in maritime security, however—say, around 2007 and the publication of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower—it was not clear how those missions could or should be prioritized with respect to other strategic challenges. As the Department of Defense, and the Navy with it, reorients to great power competition, it will only become easier for those questions to slide into the background. And yet, as we will see below, historical trends and emerging patterns will conspire to keep the littorals at the forefront of policymaker’s minds. Alongside the renewed focus on traditional adversaries, therefore, operations in green and brown waters driven by unconventional threats will likely play an enduring role in U.S. foreign policy.

In his book Out of the Mountains, counterinsurgency strategist David Kilcullen sets out a compelling argument for taking the littorals seriously. Kilcullen’s argument is focused on events ashore, but his articulation of the global drivers shaping the littorals can be made equally valuable for the seaward end of the domain. The premise underlying these drivers is based on one simple principle: conflict happens where people are.1 So, where are the people?

In response, Kilcullen identifies four “megatrends” of demography and economic geography that suggest where we will find most of the world’s population in the coming decades. “Rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, littoralization (the tendency for things to cluster on the coastlines), and increasing connectedness” all suggest that populations are concentrating in networked, urban, dense, littoral communities.2 UN estimates project that by 2050 at least two-thirds of the global population (which is projected to reach 9.8 billion) will likely live in cities, a great many of whom will end up in slums (where about a billion people already call home). Moreover, much of this urban expansion—most of which will be coastal—will take place across the global South, often where governments are least prepared to receive it. The populations of the Caribbean and Latin America could grow by more than 130 million people; Africa may see its population expand by more than a billion; and Asia will see a growth of at least 800 million according to mean estimates from the United Nations.

To give an indication of scale, consider the following. In one generation, the world’s poorest cities will absorb most of a population increase equal to all the population growth ever recorded in human history through the year 1960.3 That is sure to produce astounding institutional strains, ones that will inevitably stress already fragile municipal governments. And we need not wait for 2050 to see these statistics in action. Today, half of the world’s population lives within about thirty miles of a coast, and three-quarters of large cities are on the water. To those and other cities, nearly 1.5 million people migrate to every week, which explains why urban areas are soon expected to absorb almost all new population growth.4

But how is demography dangerous? The answer comes from how urban communities respond to the pressures of these trends. Research suggests that when a city doubles in size, it produces, on average, “fifteen percent higher wages, fifteen percent more fancy restaurants, but also fifteen percent more [HIV/AIDS] cases, and fifteen percent more violent crime. Everything scales up by fifteen percent when you double the size.”5 In cities already straining their respective systems, cities like Lagos or Mumbai or San Pedro Sula, the consequences of a 15 percent spike in crime or HIV/AIDS rates act on preexisting stressors like poverty, climate change, and political violence, which can precipitate disorder. In the most extreme cases, the impact of these magnified stressors might even cause a metropolis to turn “feral.” In the Naval War College Review, Richard Norton defines a feral city as “a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.”6 John Sullivan and Adam Elkus describe the feral city as a place without any meaningful presence of legitimate authority, where “the architecture consists entirely of slums, and power is a complex process negotiated through violence by differing factions.”7 Norton noted at the time that only Mogadishu truly exemplified his criteria of a feral city. Yet, several cities then contained feral pockets characteristic of Norton’s theory. In such pockets, segments of an urban sprawl may exist outside the reach of the government. A Proceedings article by Matthew Frick as well as a New York Times piece both cite São Paulo, Mexico City, and Johannesburg (the Times also adds Karachi) as examples of modern cities with components that could be described as feral.Frick even explicitly links these feral cities to maritime security by arguing that they are echoes of the pirate havens of the 18th century, when raiders similarly leverage ungoverned spaces as bases of operation. In feral cities or pockets, the legitimate governing fabric of the urban area erodes as the stress of an oversized population pushes it past the ability to cope with the pressures of crime, poverty, and health. Such violence perpetuates the cycle of urban exclusion that created it, precipitating yet more political, social, economic, and infrastructure neglect.9

The collapse or erosion of local governance creates a power and services vacuum. That power vacuum creates disorder from which people naturally crave a reprieve. In turn, the local actor that can produce a sense of order and stability is frequently adopted as a surrogate government. Inevitably, these surrogates are not peaceful neighborhood watch groups. Kilcullen’s concept of “competitive control” posits that the surrogates most likely to survive in these environments are those that can act across a spectrum of power ranging from soft to coercive.10 Without soft power, the allure of an institutionalized set of normative community rules, the population is denied the sense of order it demands. Under such a rules-based system, a neighborhood is likely to tolerate a measure of violence because it can be predicted and avoided. Without violence, a competitor will find it easy to supplant the surrogate. What we are left with is a void filled by organized gangs, terrorists, militias, or criminal networks that manipulate a feral city’s disorder to establish fortifications within neighborhoods that often come to depend on them. In Kingston, Jamaica, garrison neighborhoods offer one such example where these districts are made loyal to gang leaders because of their dominant role in the local informal justice system and economy.11 We are left facing an amorphous hybrid threat, what John Sullivan calls “criminal insurgents,” or the melding of criminal syndicates with the direct political control of territory.12 When such groups offer residents enough of a sense of fair and predictable order, many are willing to tolerate their presence.

So far, however, violent nonstate groups and feral cities would appear a danger largely within their own neighborhoods, far from concerning the United States, and certainly not U.S. maritime services. What brings these groups and populations into the international maritime orbit is Kilcullen’s final megatrend—connectedness. Crowded, poor, coastal zones may turn feral, but feral regions do not implode. Instead, they remain connected with the world around them through the Internet, ports, airports, diaspora communities, and other connective tissues. Thus, with all the implications of such connectedness, even a feral region remains a dynamic, strategic, and significant actor in the international arena. This connectedness allows the feral elements of a community to interact with licit and illicit trade and information flows, offering local actors the capacity to directly impact events across the country and, potentially, the globe.13 The same pathways that facilitate normal trade and migration likewise enable illicit transfers such as the smuggling of narcotics, people, and weapons; human trafficking; terrorism; and piracy. This connectedness is what gives rise to the potential for actions a world away, events like protests or acts of political violence, to have a rapid and meaningful consequence across domains, from cyberspace to the sea. September 11 was a dramatic example of the extreme consequences of this networked, globalized connectivity of local violence to the international system. What we have increasingly seen in the intervening two decades, thanks in part to the explosive growth in technologies that connect all of us, is that this ladder between local and international is only strengthening. As a result, in the sphere of nonstate threats, “the distinction between war and crime, between domestic and international affairs” almost disappears.14

As the line blurs between war and crime, the capacity for the return to great power competition to focus minds on a singular, important challenge may simultaneously make it more attractive for strategists to circumvent planning for these opaque, nontraditional challenges. History, however, suggests that would be a mistake. What is remarkable about the pattern of unconventional conflict is its irreverence for the preferences of policymakers.15 Lyndon Johnson was eventually subsumed by a troop escalation in Vietnam despite his clear domestic policy agenda. Bill Clinton, after reluctance to act in the Balkans and Rwanda, ultimately sent troops to Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Haiti, and Liberia. While candidate George W. Bush dismissed interest in stability operations, President Bush launched two prolonged, large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns and led NATO into its largest stabilization mission ever.16 As President Obama initiated his pivot to Asia, he was still negotiating the drawdown of two land wars while conflicts simmered (and flared), inter alia, in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and the Congo. Now President Trump, despite obvious isolationist impulses, has struggled to extricate U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Syria in practice. “American policy makers clearly don’t like irregular operations, and the U.S. military isn’t much interested in them, either,” but as the demographic and economic geographic trends discussed above suggest, they will likely continue to present policymakers with difficult choices.17

Any attempt to predict the exact nature of a future threat or conflict is a fool’s errand. To borrow a metaphor from Kilcullen, much like how climate modeling cannot say whether it will rain or snow next week, the projections above say little about the near-term conflict forecast. Yet, just as with climate models, such forecasts “do suggest a range of conditions—a set of system parameters, or a ‘conflict climate’—within which [future] wars will arise.”18

These projections illustrate trends. And while those trends do not say much about what happens tomorrow or the day after, they speak volumes about the forces steadily reshaping our world. These forecasts are unequivocally telling us that dense, networked, and littoral communities are an emerging global force. How maritime forces meet (or fail to meet) the challenges associated with that rise will be dictated by their attentiveness to the unique constraints of securing muddy waters.

Joshua Tallis is the author of The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity, from which the above passage is adapted. He is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and holds a PhD in international relations from the University of St Andrews.


[1] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: Hurst, 2013), 239.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 247.

[6] Richard Norton, “Feral Cities,” Naval War College Review 56, no. 4 (2003): 98.

[7] John Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege,” Small Wars Journal, February 16, 2009, 8.

[9] Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, 40.

[10] Ibid., 114.

[11] Ibid., 89, 93.

[12] Sullivan and Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai.”

[13] Kilcullen, 45.

[14] Ibid., 99.

[15] Ibid., 24.

[16] Ibid., 24.

[17] Ibid., 24.

[18] Ibid., 27.

Featured Image: A Republic of Singapore Navy Littoral Mission Vessel (background, far left), and the Police Coast Guard’s patrol interdiction boat (at right) intercepting a mock terrorists’ speedboat in Singapore waters off Changi Coast Road during a demonstration for Exercise Highcrest. (PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO)

Then What? Wargaming the Interface Between Strategy and Operations, Pt. 3

Read Part One. Read Part Two

By Robert C. Rubel

Filling the Gap

It might seem, from the discussion so far in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, that effective gaming of the operational/strategy interface is infeasible. It is certainly the case that if the matter was approached using regular gaming methods, it may very well be. However, the importance of the issue in the real world demands an attempt be made to incorporate it into the overall gaming posture of the military as a whole, not to mention games run by the State Department and other national security organizations. To understand the prospects for incorporating the interface of levels, we must examine how something, whether a phenomenon, factor, issue, etc., can be addressed in a game. There are three ways: simulation, representation, and discussion.

Simulation and Representation

Simulation involves an attempt to recreate some aspect of reality as an aspect of the game. Certain things are understood well enough to be accurately modeled mathematically and simulated in computer programs. But the simulation approach can also be used when computer modeling is not possible or appropriate. A frequent instance in gaming is command and control. Where multiple command echelons are involved, human players act as commanders and staffs. The game designer attempts to create the essential elements of a C2 environment, including organization of player cells and communications equipment, such that in the course of a game the process of C2 unfolds in a manner sufficiently like it would in the real world to allow lessons to be learned that are applicable outside of the game. Such simulations can be very instructive, especially when new communications concepts or technologies are involved.

The problem that commonly arises in games of this design is that such simulation occurs only on the Blue side. Red consists of a relatively small team of players that sit in a single seminar style cell, so C2 issues are obviated – not simulated. This introduces a profound asymmetry to the game irrespective of whether Red gets to engage in free play. Red can easily amalgamate strategy and operations in a way that is impossible for Blue. Creating a symmetrical C2 structure runs up against a number of feasibility issues. First is finding a sufficient number of Red players with the requisite knowledge of Red capabilities and doctrine. Second, simulating the cultural dynamics involved in foreign, multi-echelon interactions is normally beyond our intelligence capabilities. The third problem involves the inherent imponderables of free play at the strategic level. Even the real Red likely does not know what it would do in a crisis situation, and gaming experience has shown a reluctance of strategic level players to initiate hostilities on their own in a rational actor environment – with Red being played by U.S. personnel. All of this leads to the conclusion that the interface between the operational and strategic levels of war cannot be gamed via the simulation approach.

Those things that are well understood or whose effects are relatively simple and straightforward are susceptible to being represented by a rule. An easy example from board gaming is a rule that reduces a unit’s (say an Army armored regiment) movement factor if it enters hexes (six-sided cells that overlay the game board’s map) that depict forests. This represents the difficulties that real world units experience moving through such terrain. Some phenomena are more difficult to represent by rules. An example is command and control (C2). For a board game the author had used to support his wargaming theory and practice class, C2 was represented by a budget metaphor. Players had fixed numbers of C2 points that had to be spent in order for their pieces to move or fight.1 Players did not have unlimited numbers so they had to make decisions on where to spend them. This simulated the pressures on a commander’s ability to focus. In other cases, again commonly in board games, a unit’s combat strength factor might be reduced to reflect deficient training or morale. In some cases, such representations can be useful, but the problem is that they are at best impressionistic – like the simple brush strokes an artist might use to represent foliage – and unable to capture what might be qualitatively different effects in different situations.

A notable example of a game using a set of rules to represent political dynamics is Persian Incursion, a commercial board game that explores the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. In it a series of cards and look up tables produce a way to integrate operational actions and political effects. Its goal is not to determine whether Israel should attack Iran, it “… is an exploration of the consequences. What are the odds of it working? And what are the costs – to the attackers, the defenders, and everyone on the sidelines?”2 The game’s focus is limited, but the notion of superimposing a set of rules that provide a defined set of political inputs or outputs (rigidly assessed, in Francis McHugh’s terminology3) on an otherwise free-assessed operational game merits some consideration.

If such an approach is to have either analytic or educational value, it seems to require iterative gaming. The outcomes of a single game cannot be used as reliable indicators of future reactions. However, multiple games employing the same rules might produce insights into how various factors relate to one another. The challenge lies in mounting multiple games, especially large, detailed operational games that often characterize service gaming. On the other hand, some useful insights might be gained if the same rule set were to be used by all the services and its effects on each game were well documented.4


The final approach to incorporating something into a game is simply talking about it. While this may not appear at first to be a gaming technique at all, there is ample precedent for doing so. A good example involves cyber warfare. There are any number of obstacles to subjecting it to either of the first two approaches, including it being highly complex, new, and not well-understood. However, in a series of deterrence games, the Naval War College brought in cyber experts to advise umpires on how cyber might be manifested in the assessment of player moves. Nuanced, qualitative judgments replaced rules and simulation as the mechanism by which the effects of cyber were inserted into the game. This seems to be a useful way that the complex, cybernetic interactions that characterize the interface of the strategic and operational levels of war can be incorporated into games.

To understand and appreciate the utility of “talking about” the strategy/operations interface we can use a concentric ring framework similar to that adopted by Clausewitz for the purposes of what he called kritik, the historical analysis of battles and campaigns to arrive at a judgment of the relative merit of command decisions.5 We will proceed from an inside-out orientation.

The beginning and most narrow focus is that of the individual game. We have already established the difficulty of trying to address, via representation or simulation, the interplay of the strategic and operational levels. To assess the worth of talking about the interface, we must first break down the potential purposes of games. Broadly speaking, they can be categorized as research, education, training, and influence, admitting nonetheless that any game can have multiple purposes and effects. Research games are conducted to learn something about a potential military situation that cannot be learned any other way.6 Educational games support teaching of some sort, most often the curricula of the military war and staff colleges. In the training realm, games tend to be substrates for the principal teaching objectives including weapons systems operations, staff procedures, tactics, etc. Influence games are conducted to create consensus on an issue, build teamwork, or convince external parties of the position the game sponsor holds on a matter.

In training and influence games, any inclusion of the strategy/operations interface would likely constitute a distraction and serve to undermine game objectives. The role of the game as a substrate in training makes any auxiliary discussion of the interface irrelevant and superfluous. In influence games, unless the interface is central to game objectives, it would constitute a distraction and possibly interfere with the achievement of game objectives.

The situation is fundamentally different for research and educational games. Research games, especially those that focus on the operational level of war, require a degree of plausibility to stimulate player buy-in and realism sufficient to establish an intellectual link with the real world. This is sometimes termed validity. Both of these attributes could be enhanced by the inclusion of the strategy/operations interface via discussion in all phases of game design, execution, and analysis. The interface should permeate the game as both enhanced context and direct influence on player decision-making. Sufficient attention to developing a “road-to-war” scenario, including discussions between scenario writers and political scientists, would tee up more nuanced play, including move assessments. A dedicated “interface” control cell could inject political considerations into the game as both guidance to umpires and injects to players, keeping the “whys” of the conflict as visible as the “hows” as the game unfolds. This cell would be well-placed to conduct an end-of-game session on the direction of the conflict beyond where the game ended, otherwise described as the “then what?” question. The research insights and lessons learned would be colored and enhanced by doing this, and its demands on time and manpower would be manageable. The main ingredient would be an organizational commitment to the idea that the interface matters. The inclusion of the interface in educational gaming would use a similar approach, to include a more completely thought-out road-to-war scenario, an interface-oriented control cell, and a “then what” session included in the hot wash.

The discussion approach might also benefit from iterative gaming. Using the methods just discussed, a series of games featuring the same general scenario but with different “strategies” adopted by control would allow analysts to see how different sets of presumed political conditions and dynamics could affect approaches to military operations. However, due caution must be exercised if different players and methods are used in each game. Nonetheless, patterns may emerge that could provide valuable insight into the potential dynamics of the strategy/operations interface.


There are a number of reasons that the exploration, via gaming, of the strategy/operations interface may not yield directly actionable insights. Any game conducted in peacetime can only speculate on why a war would start, thus making gaming of the interface across the span of that conflict equally speculative. Moreover, the intellectual complications Clausewitz discussed are always present, further clouding any predictive value the game might have. However, well-run games can have indicative value; that is, they can reveal possibilities. But even in this realm, the narratives that emerge from gaming the interface cannot be directly distilled for principles. If this is the case, what value is obtained from the cost and effort of including the strategy/operations interface in gaming?

The value of gaming the interface is admittedly indirect, but nonetheless real. It would be manifested in the minds of game participants and eventually in the corporate reflexes of the national security enterprise. If the interface was routinely incorporated into the appropriate games, over time, individuals would start to reflexively consider it in their real-world tasks, whether developing plans, policy, or making real-time decisions. In the best case, experience in such gaming would inoculate practitioners and policymakers against mystical, “sure fire” concepts of wa and perhaps keep them from yielding to emotion in the heat of conflict. In this sense, it is like superimposing an influence game on a research or educational game.

Military officers and civilian national security professionals who experience the competitive narrative of a wargame are likely to be more aware of the strategy/operations interface, and adopt more nuanced approaches to their various national security tasks. In other words, just talking about something in the context of a wargame can have widespread and important effects, not the least of which is developing a reflex of asking the important question, “then what?”

Professor Emeritus Rubel is retired but serves as an advisor to the CNO on fleet design and architecture. He spent thirty years on active duty as a light attack and strike fighter aviator. After leaving active duty he joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. In 2006 he designed and led the War College project to develop the concepts that resulted in the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. He has published over thirty articles and book chapters dealing with maritime strategy, operational art and naval aviation.


[1] Peter Perla and Michael Markowitz, Wargame Construction Kit, a one-off game produced at the author’s request.

[2] Larry Bond, Chris Carlson, Larry Dougherty, Persian Incursion, Rule Book, (Sassamansville, PA: Clash of Arms Games, 2010) p. 4.

[3] Francis J. McHugh, The Fundamentals of War Gaming, Third Edition, originally published 1966,(Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office), p.14.

[4] Robert Rubel, “Connecting the Dots: Learning from Multiple Wargames,” Phalanx, December 2016, (Arlington, VA: Military Operations Research Society).

[5] Clausewitz, Book Two, Chapter Five, p. 156 for a general explanation and pp. 159-161 for an example of his widening circle analysis concerning his moves in the 1797 campaign leading to the peace of Campo Formio.

[6] Robert C. Rubel, “The Epistemology of Wargaming,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2006, (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), p. 111.

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

Then What? Wargaming the Interface Between Strategy and Operations, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

By Robert C. Rubel

Gaming and the Levels of War

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that war is a continuation of politics by other means, an aphorism that is universally taught at the nation’s war and staff colleges. It implies that there is an intimate relationship between what happens on the battlefield and what happens in the capitals of the warring states, as well as those of neutrals and allies. In later chapters he expands on the idea, laying out various situations of relative strength and motivation among combatants and the way that the policy/strategy interface is affected.1 Given the prominence of this idea in his book, Clausewitz admits the difficulty of grasping the logic of how policy and warfare interact with one another, stating that in strategy “…what is more difficult to grasp are the intellectual factors involved. Even so, it is only in the highest levels of strategy [presumably where military strategy meets policy] that intellectual complications and extreme diversity of factors and relationships occur.”2 Having made that admission he goes on to simplify the matter by making an assumption about the coherency of the political level: “Once it has been determined what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course.”3 If only things were that straightforward.

Clausewitz thought that a good way for military operations to be harmonized with national strategy and political imperatives was for the strategist to lead the forces in the field, ala Frederick the Great.4 Abraham Lincoln actually dabbled with the idea when he took a trip down to the James River to check up on McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign.5 However, since that brief excursion, American practice has been for the president to stay close to the political front, even though being Commander-in-Chief, and choosing to delegate field command to a senior military officer. Depending on the president’s approach, factors such as policy, politics, and military strategy could be coordinated in Washington or perhaps, as in World War II, at allied conferences such as Arcadia, Casablanca, and Tehran. In theory, as Clausewitz presumes, the purpose and objectives of the war are outcomes of the political process and military strategy that are concocted, ideally, in consultation with senior military leadership. The resulting strategy would be converted into orders which the fighting forces would carry out.

However, history teaches us that coherency in the relationship between policy and the military instrument (which is somewhat simplistically termed here as the strategy/operations interface) is both an aspiration and an assumption on the part of most governments. The intellectual complications and diversity of factors Clausewitz mentions often put such coherency beyond reach. This represents a serious challenge to historians seeking to document causes and effects, but even more so it is an obstacle to game designers seeking to incorporate the interplay of both levels of war.

In order to prepare the way for a discussion of potential game methods to explore the interface, we will work our way through the levels of war in a temporal manner, proceeding from the beginning of war, through its execution, and then to the endgame. The relationships of the levels (the people and organizations responsible at each) and the challenges to gaming them change a bit at each stage.

Combining Strategy and Operations in Wargames

It is often the case that scenarios for operational-level wargames include a “road-to-war” section that offers a plausible narrative of how the crisis or an attack that starts the game came about. As routinely as such narratives are produced, their influence on the game tends to wane as the game proceeds. Players and umpires become immersed in operational moves and counter-moves. Moreover, the road-to-war narrative may lack sufficient discussion of factors that would be needed to power analyses or move assessments farther downstream in the game. The bottom line is that unless a game is designed such that it includes specific measures to examine the matter, the strategy/operations interface gets short shrift in current gaming practice.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, so inevitably, once a war starts, a strategy/operations feedback loop of some sort must be established. Such loops automatically raise the issue of the degree to which operations are subject to detailed management from Washington. In some cases, such as Vietnam, operations such as air strikes into North Vietnam were micromanaged from the White House. In others, such as Desert Storm, General Schwarzkopf went into cease fire negotiations with little in the way of guidance from the president. In between those extremes are any number of cases, such as Lincoln and Grant, in which we find a good balance of delegation and oversight.

At this point it should be mentioned that each level of war contains its own logic and its own set of imperatives. The fundamental purpose of each higher command echelon is to coordinate and support the staffs and units that report to it. However, there is also the inherent requirement for higher echelons to override or sub-optimize the logic of lower echelon operations. If tactical victory was all that mattered, operational-level staffs would not have to worry about harmonizing strategy and tactics and could only focus on coordinating the tactical units below them. Similarly, if operational logic governed things once war broke out – a view that was widely held in earlier times – then political oversight would be unnecessary and likely counter-productive. The point is that there frequently arises occasions in which higher commands must impose guidance on lower level forces that exposes them to higher risk or reins them in somehow in order to protect or achieve higher level objectives.

In current operational-level gaming practice across the Department of Defense (DoD), Blue (U.S.) players generally have a free hand once they are given the starting scenario and perhaps a campaign plan. Any guidance from either the game control cell or a “council of elders,” while frequently advertised as guidance from higher authority, is almost always based on regulating the progress of the game rather than an attempt to explore the strategy/operations interface. The net effect of this “strategic vacuum” is the tendency for players to focus at the tactical level, which is what most Blue players, regardless of service, are most comfortable with. Control tries to keep them oriented on the operational level by various means, including by providing broad move feedback vice detailed battle reports.

On the other hand, for any number of reasons it is common for Red (the enemy, whoever that might be for the particular game), especially free-play Red, to pitch their moves at the strategic level. One reason is that Red is frequently weaker in conventional military power than Blue and so seeks asymmetric avenues of advantage. Red also tends to be represented by fewer players who are organized into a single cell, thus facilitating multi-level thinking. This creates a problem for game umpires who must reconcile asymmetric move inputs: operational from Blue, and strategic/tactical from Red. The frequent response is to factor out Red’s stratagems, perhaps informing Blue of them, and concocting operational-level assessments based on presumed Red moves at that level. If Blue’s political-level responses and resulting guidance to operational-level players is not provided in the feedback, an opportunity to incorporate the strategy/operations interface is lost.

Regardless of how the strategy/operations gap takes form in operational-level games, perhaps the biggest vacuum is in addressing the endgame – how the war ends, a major gap in the planning for OIF. True also for strategy games, the arena of what might be termed “Phase IV”6 is surrounded by a moat of technical and intellectual difficulties that all but isolates it from routine incorporation into gaming. Regardless of how and why a war starts, actions by both sides might serve to transform the nature of the conflict, thereby confounding any pre-war calculations of how it might end. Among the difficulties is how long the war lasts. Desert Storm terminated in roughly the time a week-long wargame would run. Seventeen years after its onset, Afghanistan still simmers. Wars are propelled by disputes, the nature of which heavily influences how long hostilities drag on. Successful military operations, in and of themselves, are not always a sufficient cause for war termination. This therefore presents procedural difficulties for gaming. Even if a game is played out until one side achieves some kind of military checkmate, the matter is not necessarily settled.

Recreational wargames, especially the game board style, can be played out to a decision. In fact, that is the whole idea behind them. However, the decision is usually a function of victory points accrued via operational success, thus the operations/strategy interface is hardwired into the experience.7 In free-assessed games, typical of most large military professional games, it is rare for a game to arrive at a strategic decision. One of the reasons is mechanical, in that the game is arbitrarily limited in moves by the amount of time players have, usually several days to a week. Moreover, game objectives normally focus on specific operational-level issues, obviating any motivation to press for strategic closure. Then too, the technique of free assessment, the use of human umpires to assess moves based on their judgment, makes “who won” either moot, or at least a subjective matter.

Professor Emeritus Rubel is retired but serves as an advisor to the CNO on fleet design and architecture. He spent thirty years on active duty as a light attack and strike fighter aviator. After leaving active duty he joined the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. In 2006 he designed and led the War College project to develop the concepts that resulted in the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. He has published over thirty articles and book chapters dealing with maritime strategy, operational art and naval aviation.


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press, 1976), Book Eight, Chapters 5-8, pp. 601-616.

[2] Ibid, Book Three, Chapter 1, p 178

[3] Ibid, p. 178.

[4] Ibid, p. 177.

[5] Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 145-153.

[6] Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operations Planning, 11 August 2011, p. III-41.

[7] There are some games that do address the operations/policy interface, an example being Persian Incursion, a board game designed by Larry Bond, that employs cards depicting various political conditions attendant to Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. See for a description of game mechanics.

Featured Image: NEWPORT, R.I. (June 28, 2018) Military officers from various countries participate in the first international wargaming course held at U.S. Naval War College (NWC). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jess Lewis/released)