Tag Archives: Indo-Pacific

Event Invite: DC Chapter Evening with India’s National Maritime Foundation

By Scott Cheney-Peters

Join CIMSEC’s DC chapter as it hosts India’s National Maritime Foundation (NMF) for its June meet-up and a lively informal exchange on maritime security in the Indo-Pacific over drinks.  Questions are welcome in advance to director@cimsec.org. 

Time: Tuesday, 13 June, 5:30-7:30pm

Place: OZ Restaurant and Bar, 2950 Clarendon Blvd, Arlington, VA (Clarendon Metro)

RSVP at http://evite.me/XpAMg4TWAs

The US-India Logistics Agreement and its Implications for Asia’s Strategic Balance

The following article was originally featured by the Pacific Forum-CSIS’s PacNet series and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.           

By Abhijit Singh 

Recently, editorial columns in Indian newspapers have become a battleground for strategic commentators to debate the merits of India’s defense logistics pact with the United States. Despite a public declaration by the Indian government regarding the “non-military” nature of the Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement (LEMOA), the pact hasn’t resonated favorably with a section of India’s strategic elite, who reject the idea of providing the US military with operational access to Indian facilities. New Delhi might have much to gain from the LEMOA, which could be critical in establishing a favorable balance of power in Asia.

The critics argue that the arrangement does not benefit India in the same way that it advantages the US military. As a leading Indian defense analyst put it, “the government seems to have been guided more by the fear of being accused of succumbing to pressure from Washington and less by an evaluation of whether this might benefit India’s military.” As a result, Indian defense ministry officials find themselves under pressure to explain why they believe an agreement with the US on military logistics is in India’s best interests.

New Delhi’s stock response has been that the pact is strictly “conditional,” and allows access to supplies and services to the military forces of both countries only when engaged in a specific set of predetermined activities. At a press conference in Washington after the signing of the agreement, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar was at pains to explain that the agreement has nothing to do with the setting up of a military base. “It’s only about logistics support to each other’s fleet” he averred, “like supply of fuel, supply of many other things which are required for joint operations, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.”

And yet there is little denying that in today’s maritime environment, every ‘place’ that provides logistics support essentially performs the role of a peacetime military base, albeit in limited ways. This is because operational logistics is the life-blood of contemporary maritime missions. Any ocean-going navy that can secure logistical pit-stops can guarantee itself a wider operational footprint in distant littorals. In fact, leading maritime powers, including the United States, Russia and China, are reluctant to set up permanent bases in distant lands because what they aim to achieve in terms of strategic presence is made possible through low-level repair and replenishment ‘places.’  To be sure, with over 800 foreign military installations, the US still has a globe-girdling presence, but few of its existing overseas facilities are permanent military bases.

To better appreciate why foreign military bases do not enjoy the same appeal as in earlier times, one must study the history of their evolution. The permanent naval base was a product of 19th-century politics when Britain, the leading maritime power, set up a network of military bases around the world to sustain its global supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, Britain was replaced by the United States, which soon came to dominate the world’s economic and strategic landscape. The US system of military bases consisted of several thousand installations at hundreds of basing sites in over 100 countries. The logic of the military basing system was intimately related to the dynamics of conflict. A military base was seen as a forward deployment position to enforce a denial regime on the enemy. It was a useful way of keeping the pressure on adversaries, and it allowed the US military to dominate the international system and prevent the rise of another hegemon.

But the logic of overseas bases has eroded. The absence of a real war in the intervening years has seen the law of diminishing returns kick in vis-à-vis foreign military bases, and an attenuation of their animating rationale. After struggling with rising domestic opposition to its military presence in Asia, the United States has been looking for more pragmatic options.

Since prolonged military presence on a foreign land isn’t a practical solution to any of its strategic problems, the US has been prioritizing logistics pacts that involve continuing support of rotational troops but no permanent deployments. These are variants of the “Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreements” (ACSAs) – or logistical arrangements for military support, supplies, and services (food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment) – that the United States shares with many of its NATO partners. And yet, despite being avowedly in support of peacetime operations and regional humanitarian contingencies, these pacts have not changed the public perception that US military presence overseas advance America’s imperialist ambitions.

A case in point is the recent Extended Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Manila, which provides the US military access to five military bases in Philippines. Even though the agreement was signed in 2014, strong domestic opposition within Philippines from civil rights groups resulted in a legal stalemate at the country’s Supreme Court. In January this year, when the court finally ruled in the pact’s favor, its decision seemed motivated mainly by the China-factor – the increased threat posed by China in the Philippines’ near-seas.

While the defense pact has a limited objective – enabling US troops to rotate through the Philippines, ensuring a persistent but intermittent presence – the new military facilities in Philippines aren’t expected to be any less potent than the United States’ erstwhile permanent bases in the country. The infrastructure will facilitate a spectrum of peacetime missions in the South China Sea, including training and capacity building, area patrols, aerial surveys, and fleet exercises. It will also enable the Philippines to call upon the US for critical military assistance in the event of a crisis.

The United States isn’t the only country to depend on military logistics pacts to achieve broader strategic objectives. Increasingly, China is resorting to the same means. The PLA’s logistical base at Djibouti doesn’t just provide support for China’s anti-piracy missions, but also enables a round-the-year naval presence in the Indian Ocean. What is more, China’s recent commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean Region seem more in the nature of dual-use bases, which can quickly be upgraded to medium-grade military facilities in a crisis.

New Delhi must come to terms with the fact that LEMOA’s utility lies in facilitating greater US-India operational coordination in Asia. Notwithstanding Parrikar’s assurances to the contrary, closer maritime interaction between India and the US will increasingly involve operational access to each other’s bases for strategic purposes. Even if the necessary cooperation is cleared on a case-by-case basis and driven mainly by regional capacity building and HADR needs, the Indian Navy and the US Navy might find themselves acting increasingly in concert to achieve common strategic objectives in the regional commons.

This does not mean LEMOA promotes US geopolitical interests at India’s expense. If anything, the pact empowers the Indian Navy to expand its own operations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an aspiration that the Navy professed to recently when it released a map for public viewing that showed Indian naval deployments over the past 12 months, spread across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region.

Given the fraught nature of security in the Asian commons, India has been looking for ways to emphasize a rules-based order in the region. To consolidate its status as a crucial security provider, the Indian Navy will need to act in close coordination with the US Navy, the leading maritime power in Indo-Pacific, to ensure a fair, open, and balanced regional security architecture.

Abhijit Singh (abhijit.singh27@gmail.com), a former Indian naval officer, is Senior Fellow and Head, Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter at @abhijit227.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks with Indian Naval Officers as he tours Indian Naval Station Karwar as part of a visit to the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, April 11, 2016. Carter is visiting India to solidify the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.(Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz)(Released)

America’s Expectation versus India’s Expediency: India as a Regional Net Security Provider

This article was originally posted at India’s National Maritime Foundation. It is republished on CIMSEC with the author’s permission. Read the piece in its original form here.

By Gurpreet S. Khurana

During the ‘Raisina Dialogue’ held in March 2016 at New Delhi, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of United States (US) Pacific Command (USPACOM) referred to the first ever tri-lateral (Australia, Japan and India) [i] ministerial discussions held in September 2015. ADM Harris’ comments addressed “maritime security – including freedom of navigation patrols,” and proposed “expanding this tri-lateral to a quadrilateral venue” by involving the US.[ii] Later, while addressing questions, the crux of his message was that the high level of ‘inter-operability’ achieved during complex India-US Malabar exercises should not be an end into itself, but translated into “coordinated operations.”[iii] Admiral Harris’ answers suggested– albeit implicitly –that India undertake ‘coordinated freedom of navigation patrols’ in the South China Sea (SCS). Evidently, such patrols could be used to restrain China’s growing military assertiveness in the SCS, and its process of legal “norm-building” in the maritime-territorial disputes with the other littoral countries of the SCS.

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PACOM Chief ADM. Harry Harris gives a speech at the Raisina Dialogue on March 2, 2016, in New Delhi, India. Read the Admiral’s speech here.

India has consistently upheld the US position in terms of being a non-party to the SCS disputes by supporting dispute-resolution through well-established norms of international law and freedom of navigation in international waters, including the SCS. Nonetheless, Indian Defence Minister Mr. Manohar Parrikar lost little time in clarifying India’s position, saying that “As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; we only do joint exercises. The question of joint patrol does not arise.”[iv]

The case indicates an ‘apparent’ mismatch between US expectations for India, and what New Delhi is willing to deliver to its ‘strategic partner.’ This can be contextualized and explained through analytical insight into the salient policy pronouncements from either side. The most instructive among these are those articulating India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ in Asia. This essay aims to analyse such a role to understand the ‘aberration’ in the otherwise healthy trajectory of India and the United State’s contemporary strategic relationship and in doing so, enable a better comprehension of the India’s perspective on its compelling strategic and foreign policy considerations.

America’s Articulation

The ‘net security provider’ concept emerged during the 2009 ‘Shangri La Dialogue.’ when then-US Secretary of Defence Mr. Robert Gates stated,

When it comes to India, we have seen a watershed in our relations – cooperation that would have been unthinkable in the recent past… In coming years, we look to India to be a partner and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.”[v]

This sentiment of the USA was thereafter reiterated on various occasions – both formally and otherwise – including in the 2010 US ‘Quadrennial Defense Review’ (QDR). The statement in QDR-10 predicted,

India’s military capabilities are rapidly improving through increased defense acquisitions, and they now include long-range maritime surveillance, maritime interdiction and patrolling, air interdiction, and strategic airlift. India has already established its worldwide military influence through counterpiracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief efforts. As its military capabilities grow, India will contribute to Asia as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.[vi]

India’s Articulation

India’s political leadership and policymakers clearly supported the proposed role for India in principle. Addressing the top brass of the Indian Navy and Defence Ministry in 2011, then-Indian Defence Minster Mr. AK Antony emphatically assured India’s maritime neighbours of “unstinted support for their security and economic prosperity.” He continued to say that the Indian Navy has been:

mandated to be a net security provider to island nations in the Indian Ocean Region… most of the major international shipping lanes are located along our island territories. This bestows on us the ability to be a potent and stabilising force in the region.”[vii]

More recently, in 2013, the then-Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh said,

We have…sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well positioned… to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond.”[viii]

These seminal articulations represent a valuable starting point in analyzing India’s projected role as a ‘Net Security Provider.’ This is divided into three parts for the sake of objectivity, with each one analyzing a specific facet of India’s broader national-strategic imperative to fulfill such a role. These aspects are Geographical Area, Capacity and Capability, and Cultural Ethos.

Geographical Area

Primary Area of Interest

By virtue of its geographic location and peninsular disposition, India’s most critical national interests are closely connected with events in the Indian Ocean. This is broadly so for the northern Indian Ocean, and more specifically for regions categorized as ‘primary areas of maritime interest’ in the Indian Maritime-Security Strategy, 2015 (IMSS-15). [ix]

In nearly all articulations of India’s role as a ‘net security provider’ – both Indian and American – the ‘Indian Ocean” is a ‘common thread’ while the phrase “…and beyond” has never been specifically defined. Arguably, the latter phrase would refer more accurately to the Persian Gulf or Red Sea as India’s ‘primary areas of maritime interest,’ rather than the SCS that – notwithstanding India’s increasing economic and strategic stakes there – is a ‘secondary area of maritime interest.’ (Such classification does not, however, undermine the criticality of the SCS to India’s vital interests). In this context, India’s Professor Mahapatra aptly inquires:

If India and the U.S. have not contemplated similar kinds of patrol in Indian Ocean, what could justify India and U.S. patrolling waters of South China Sea?[x]

Geo-Strategic Frontiers

A related, though distinct, definition of ‘Geo-Strategic Frontiers’ is also relevant here. As part of a country’s military-strategic calculus, this phrase refers to geographical boundaries necessary for that country to achieve ‘strategic depth’ against a potential State adversary. Recent American analyses, such as the one by Professor James Holmes on ‘Get Ready, India: China’s Navy is Pushing West[xi] (towards the Indian Ocean), are indeed instructive for India, and add to trends that were noted in India nearly a decade ago.[xii] However, it is unlikely that India would need to extend its strategic depth vis-à-vis China eastwards beyond the Southeast Asian straits. Notably, these maritime choke-points constitute a major strategic challenge for the PLA Navy itself.

The ‘Geo-Strategic Frontiers’ of a country are also contingent upon the ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’ of its own and friendly military forces to influence events in the area within the said frontiers. This aspect is addressed below.

Capacity and Capability[xiii]

In 2012, the IDSA undertook a study on Out of Area Contingency (OOAC) missions by Indian armed forces. The study deduced that:

the reach of current air and sealift capabilities means that, realistically speaking, India can conduct OOAC operations only within the Indian Ocean region (IOR).”[xiv]

Even while India’s strategic sealift and airlift capacities are being augmented, the finding of the aforesaid study is likely to remain valid for the foreseeable future. The same is true for India’s capability in other forms of maritime power projection.

The new Indian Maritime Security Strategy (IMSS-15) aptly emphasizes the term ‘net security’, rather than ‘net provider [of security].’ Further, it pegs India’s role as a ‘net security’ provider to the question of ‘capability.’ Accordingly, it defines the term ‘net security’ as:

a state of actual security available in an area, upon balancing prevailing threats, inherent risks and rising challenges in a maritime environment, against the ability to monitor, contain and counter all of these.”[xv]

The analysis of IMMS-15 clearly indicates that the Indian Navy seeks to contribute to maritime security and stability in its primary and secondary areas of interest, broadly constituting the entire swath of the Indo-Pacific region. To do so, India is not only developing its own capabilities for distant operations, but also providing ‘capacity building’ and ‘capability enhancement’ assistance to friendly countries in the region. However, since the November 2008 seaborne terrorist attacks against Mumbai, the sub-conventional threats to India’s coastal and offshore security will continue to pose major challenges for the Navy. These challenges will require it to deftly balance its force expansion and modernization between the two competing imperatives of ‘blue water’ and ‘brown water’ operations.[xvi] 

Cultural Ethos

As stated above, IMSS-15 dwells upon India’s regional role as a “provider of net security” rather than a ‘net provider of security.’ Ostensibly, an additional aim is to dispel any notion that India seeks to act as a hegemonic power or a ‘policeman’ in the region. Such intent flows from India’s cultural ethos and is closely linked to its evolution as a modern nation-state.

IMSS-15
IMSS-15. Click to read. 

Another facet of cultural ethos is the pride with which Indians identify themselves based on their civilizational genesis, something more profound and deep-seated than the concept of ‘nationalism’. Together with the aforementioned non-hegemonic stance, this facet manifests in India’s long-standing policy of not involving itself in coalition military operations, except those mandated by the United Nations. This policy also manifests in the operational domain. Unless operating under the UN flag, Indian military forces are averse to undertaking ‘joint’ (or “combined”) operations, like joint patrols, since such operations would involve placing Indian forces under foreign Command and Control (C2). The Indian Defence Minister’s negation of the possibility of ‘joint (naval) patrols’ may be seen in this context.

Other conditions notwithstanding, the statement by ADM Harris at the Raisina Dialogue deserves more attention than it has received. He proposed turning India-US “joint (naval) exercises” into “coordinated (naval) operations.” His preference for the term ‘coordinated’ rather than ‘joint’ is noteworthy. While in common English parlance, the two terms may be considered synonymous, the difference is significant in ‘operational’ terms. Whereas a ‘joint’ operation involves a unified C2 of military forces, a ‘coordinated’ operation permits the forces to maintain their respective national C2 structures. In the past, the Indian Navy has indeed undertaken ‘coordinated’ operations with the US Navy on various occasions. The examples include the 2002 escort missions for US high-value ships in the Malacca Straits and the 2004-05 Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) mission in the aftermath the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Even during more recent anti-piracy missions to escort merchant vessels in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Navy coordinated its operations with the US-led coalition naval forces, as well as other navies deployed for the same mission. The notable commonality among these operations, however, was that these were all conducted in the Indian Ocean or its contiguous straits.

Concluding Remarks

The subtext of the US-India Joint Statement of January 2015 on “our diversified bilateral strategic partnership”[xvii] clearly indicates our broader strategic convergence, and the fact that India needs the strategic partnership of America as much as the other way around. However, occasional dissonance in the bilateral relationship cannot be ignored. Notwithstanding the diplomatic ‘refrain’ as a natural occurrence between two major democracies, the dissonance cannot be slighted, particularly in the light of the emerging regional security environment. Also, the discord may not lie in Indian’s longstanding foreign policy tenet of ‘Strategic Autonomy’ (or ‘Non-Alignment 2.0’), as is usually touted. As with other facets of the bilateral relationship, the occasional discord mostly manifests at the functional level. In context of India-US military strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, the aberrations at this level could be addressed by bridging national policymaking with strategy formulation of the military forces.

Given America’s ‘overstretched’ maritime-military resources and its increasing contribution to capability and capacity in the Indian Navy over the years, a US expectation for India to provide for regional security and stability in the maritime-centric Indo-Pacific region is not misplaced. At the operational level too, the US expectation for India to convert ‘joint’ naval exercises into ‘coordinated’ operations may be justifiable. However, it seems that India’s broader strategic imperatives in terms of the three key facets of Geographical Area, Capacity and Capability, and Cultural Ethos are not in consonance with such expectations, at least not yet.

Captain (IN) Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD is Executive Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

[i] ‘US, India, Japan Hold First Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue, Call for Freedom of Navigation’, NDTV, 30 September 2015, at
http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/us-india-japan-hold-first-trilateral-ministerial-dialogue-call-for-freedom-of-navigation-1224830

[ii] “Let’s Be Ambitious Together”, Remarks by Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, The Raisina Dialogue, New Delhi, India, 2 March 2016, at
http://www.pacom.mil/Media/SpeechesTestimony/tabid/6706/Article/683842/raisina-dialogue-remarks-lets-be-ambitious-together.aspx

[iii] Dinkar Pheri, ‘U.S. push for joint patrols in Indo-Pacific region’, The Hindu, 3 March 2016, at
http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/us-push-for-joint-patrols-in-indopacific-region/article8306481.ece

[iv] Sushant Singh and Pranav Kulkarni, ‘Question of joint patrolling with the US does not arise: Parrikar’, The Indian Express, 5 March 2016, at
http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/question-of-joint-patrolling-with-the-us-does-not-arise-need-to-cut-the-flab-from-the-military-parrikar/

[v] ‘America’s security role in the Asia-Pacific’, Address by Dr Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defence, Shangri-La Dialogue, 30 May 2009, at
http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2009-99ea/first-plenary-session-5080/dr-robert-gates-6609

[vi] Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) Report, US Department of Defense, February 2010, p. 60 at
http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/QDR/QDR_as_of_29JAN10_1600.pdf

[vii] ‘Indian Navy-Net Security Provider to Island Nations in IOR: Antony’, Press Information Bureau, Government of India (Ministry of Defence), 12 October 2011, at
http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=76590

[viii] PM’s speech at the Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony for the Indian National Defence University at Gurgaon, Press Information Bureau, Government of India (Prime Minister’s Office), 23 May 2013, at
http://pib.nic.in/newsite/mbErel.aspx?relid=96146

[ix] ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015, p.31-32, at http://indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf

[x] Professor Chintamani Mahapatra, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, cited in Anjana Pasricha, ‘India Rejects Joint Naval Patrols with US in South China Sea’, Voice of America (VOA), 11 March 2016, at http://www.voanews.com/content/india-rejects-joint-naval-patrols-with-us-in-south-china-sea/3231567.html

[xi] James Holmes, ‘Get Ready, India: China’s Navy is Pushing West’, The National Interest, 8 March 2016, at http://www.nationalinterest.org/feature/look-out-india-chinas-navy-pushing-west-15426

[xii] See for instance, Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘China’s ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean and Its Security Implications’, Strategic Analysis (IDSA), 32:1, p.1-39, at https://www.academia.edu/7727023/Chinas_String_of_Pearls_in_the_Indian_Ocean_and_Its_Security_Implications

[xiii] The ‘capacity’ of a military force refers to its wherewithal in the limited context of its hardware. ‘Capability’ refers to the ability of the force in a more comprehensive sense encompassing not only its physical capacity, but also the conceptual and human components. For details, see Gurpreet S Khurana. Porthole: Geopolitical, Strategic and Maritime Terms and Concepts (Pentagon, New Delhi: 2016), pp.30-31

[xiv] Net Security Provider: India’s Out-of-Area Contingency Operations (IDSA/ Magnum Books, October 2012), p.53

[xv] ‘Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy’, Integrated Headquarters, Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015, p.80, at
http://indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf

[xvi] Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘‘Net Security Provider’ Defined: An Analysis of India’s New Maritime Strategy-2015’, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) View Point, 23 November 2015, at
http://www.maritimeindia.org/View%20Profile/635838396645834619.pdf

[xvii] ‘U.S.-India Joint Statement’, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, 25 January 2015, at
https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/25/us-india-joint-statement-shared-effort-progress-all

Featured Image: ADM. Harris speaking at the Raisina Dialogue in March, 2016.  Photo courtesy of Embassy of the United States of America-New Delhi/Released.

The Geographic Limits of National Power

It is surprising that in the fine group of “personal theory of power” essays CIMSEC ran jointly with The Bridge May-June, no author selected strategic geography as a subject source. Despite advances from steam power to cyber communications that have reduced the relative size of the world, large geographic obstacles like the Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan and vast empty space of the Indian Ocean continue to cause trouble for even the most powerful states.

Geopolitical theorists from Sir Halford Mackinder to journalist Robert Kaplan have warned  of the pitfalls of ignoring geography in strategic calculations and estimates of national power. Successful great powers always included strategic geography in their deliberations up through and including the period of the Second World War.   The advent of a muscular and well resourced Cold War, buttressed by an arsenal of advanced nuclear and conventional weapons convinced many U.S. decision-makers  that strategic geography was a concept of the 19th rather than the 20th century. The Kennedy administration completed this break with the past in its implementation of the doctrine of “Flexible Response” as the cornerstone of U.S. strategic thought. As stated in Kennedy’s inaugural speech, the United States would employ its vast technological and financial resources to “support any friend” and “oppose any foe” regardless of geographic relationship to U.S. strategic interests. Despite the debacle of the Vietnam War, the U.S. was largely able to continue this policy until the very recent past.

Afghanistan_18Now, a combination of decreasing military budgets, a smaller armed force,  and public disinterest in supporting causes not directly tied to U.S. interests demands that the U.S. return to a rigorous practice of geopolitical calculation. It must exercise discipline in determining how, where and when to commit military forces in defense of national interest. The examples of Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean demonstrate the fundamental limits geography can impose on national power. They also illustrate an important law in geostrategic analysis. A nation may overcome geographic barriers like the Hindu Kush or the Indian Ocean, but such an achievement requires technological and financial commitment. If such effort is not sustained, geographic limitations will again impose their effects.

The cases of conflicts in Afghanistan and control of the Indian Ocean over history illustrate the limits geography exposes on national power. Isolated by a series of geographic barriers including the Hindu Kush mountain range, Afghanistan remains a remote location. Its unique series of mountain passes in key locations has drawn Eurasian conquerers from the dawn of history. These men and their armies came not so much to capture Afghanistan, but rather to control these mountain passes that form a virtual “roundabout” for transiting in and around Central Asia. Control of Afghanistan throughout history has meant easy access to Iran, the Indian subcontinent and northern Central Asia.

Afghanistan’s false reputation as a “graveyard of empire” comes not so much from it’s inhabitants who seem to habitually resist any attempts at outside control, but rather the problem of maintaining a large force in such a remote region. Western armies from Alexander the Great to the present U.S. and NATO force in the country have had to create a long, tortuous, and expensive supply line into or though Afghanistan in order to sustain their military operations there  or in adjacent lands. Alexander, British imperial forces in three wars, and now American and NATO forces have always crushed Afghan resistance and have been able to maintain a reasonable amount of control within the region. They have departed only when deprived of the economic support that provides the technological edge to their warfighting and logistics capabilities. A nation can maintain an army of many thousands in Afghanistan, provided that power or group of powers is willing to fly in supplies or negotiate their delivery through unfriendly states over long and difficult overland routes. Now that financial support for the technological effort necessary to sustain a large Western force in Afghanistan is failing, the limits of geography are again re-imposing themselves on the remote Central Asian region.

The Indian Ocean has equally proved itself a vast and relatively remote space from the early 1400’s when Chinese Admiral Zheng He sailed its waters seeking trade and building Chinese influence to recent, frustrating efforts to located missing Malaysian Air Flight 370. When the Chinese Ming dynasty decided to forgo further Zheng He voyages in 1424, either for economic reasons, an intensified Mongol threat, or just superstition (the accounts vary), geographic limits returned with later, deadly results for the Chinese empire. Nascent European powers like Portugal, the Netherlands, and the British were able to penetrate and control the Indian Ocean and its key chokepoint connections to the Pacific. In just 200 years, the once omnipotent Chinese Empire found its coastline controlled by powerful European naval forces.  The Chinese failure to appreciate the geographic limits of seapower caused the near-dismemberment and wreck of the Chinese state.

The British Empire also lost control of the Indian Ocean when it failed to either fully fund its naval presence there or fully implement a technological solution to mitigate funding shortfalls. A series of Royal Air Force (RAF) facilities, originally conceived to support air policing of imperial holdings became a crucial element of British efforts to control the Indian Ocean in spite of reduced naval expenditures. This network of RAF installations became even more important after the Second World War as the strength of the Royal Navy (RN) plummeted and newer, longer-ranged aircraft could patrol wider areas of ocean, especially when equipped with radar. The British finally abandoned this network of installations in the 1970’s as their naval presence in Singapore came to an end. When this happened, the limits of geography were re-imposed and the Indian Ocean again became a relatively un-patrolled open space. This vacuum of power allowed the Soviet Navy to enter the Indian Ocean with nuclear cruise missile submarines and threaten U.S. forces in transit, as well as Australian interests.

The United States would do well to respect these examples of geographic limits, as significant financial restraints limit future U.S. military efforts. Extreme geographic disadvantage can be overcome by a combination of financial and technological solutions.  In the absence of such effort however, geographic limitations again impose effects and limit the exercise of national power. With a shift in U.S. attention to the large Indo-Pacific region, geographic obstacles to the exercise of U.S. power will require innovative, well funded technological solutions. The U.S. must fund these efforts, such as improved unmanned platforms, better offensive and defensive capabilities for naval units and improved space-based surveillance of the region. Neglecting such actions will create significant geographic barriers to the exercise of U.S. national power in the Indo-Pacific region.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus”.