Tag Archives: Maritime Security

Aiki in the South China Sea: Fresh Asymmetric Approaches and Sea Lane Vulnerabilities

By Christopher Bassler and Matthew McCarton

The Challenge: Growing Uncertainty and Tensions in the South China Sea

Over the last decade, stability in the South China Sea (SCS) has progressively deteriorated because of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actions. China’s leadership has followed a long-term, multi-pronged strategy. On the military front they have constructed a “Great Wall of Sand”1 through island building, deployed an underwater “Great Wall of Sensors;”2 and completed detailed planning and preparations to establish air defense identification zones3(ADIZ) in the SCS. Despite assurances from the highest levels of the CCP leadership, they have militarized islands in the SCS,4 deployed bombers to the Paracels5 and built up military forces in the region.6 Diplomatically, the CCP has ignored international legal rulings, continued to assert sovereignty over disputed territories,7 and sought to dissuade, protest, and prevent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).8 On the commercial front, the CCP has encouraged its large fishing fleet to overfish within other states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs).9 When confronted, they have often harassed local fisherman and even purposely collided with them, leading to sinking vessels.10

A key feature of the CCP’s approach has been an attempt to calibrate individual disruptive and provocative actions in the SCS (and elsewhere) below the international threshold for armed conflict. As a result, responses from individual states, or coordinated action from nations with common interests, have been limited. The U.S. and other nations have requested clarity from the CCP or simply disregarded China’s unlawful and unfounded maritime claims. The only other notable responses have been the establishment of a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a series of FONOPS, and the use of limited but targeted sanctions.11 A recent indicator of the state of increasing tensions in the region is the establishment of a new “crisis communications” mechanism between the U.S. and China,12 as well as reportedly strict orders from CCP leadership to avoid initiating fire,13 in an attempt to avoid sudden armed escalation in the SCS.

With hindsight, it is unmistakably clear that the CCP’s collective actions have been in support of a long-term strategy. It is equally apparent that traditional instruments of diplomacy and military power have had limited practical effect against incremental sub-threshold actions. Because no nation has a desire for escalation, the CCP’s strategy must be countered with sub-threshold asymmetric actions by the U.S. and allies. These actions must capture the CCP leadership’s attention, help them to understand that their provocations are taken seriously, and that there are corresponding negative consequences.

Aiki is a fundamental principle in Japanese martial arts philosophy that encapsulates the idea of using minimal exertion and control to negate or redirect an adversary’s strength to achieve advantage. The legitimacy of the CCP’s leadership rests on a core foundation of economic strength and growth, as well as prestige. Due to China’s geography, the principal artery of this economic growth is through the maritime approaches of the SCS. The most direct way to affect CCP behavior is to consider how the free flow of goods and energy at sea through the maritime approaches of the SCS may be altered. And by alternating these maritime flows, further impacts and restructuring of trade-flows and global supply chains may also occur.

No Good Options: Considering Maritime Asymmetric Strategies

Since the end of World War II, the overwhelming might of the U.S. Navy has guaranteed freedom of the oceans and ever-increasing maritime commercial activity that has lifted countless people out of poverty around the world. However, there are many indications of the American public’s growing desire for a retreat from the forms of global engagement that have been the norm since the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed 75 years ago on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.14 Over the last two decades, the ship inventory and material readiness of the U.S. Navy have noticeably declined, while the PLAN has emerged as a regional naval power with increasing capabilities. Future American naval recapitalization efforts are likely to face the twin headwinds of a lack of political will and increasing pressure on defense budgets. Efforts to encourage allies to increase defense spending and concentrate on effective capabilities will continue, while suggestions to “lead from behind” will likely increase. 

The core of American naval strategy will continue to be to fight an “away game” when required. The U.S. Navy will still be the world-leading force with its substantial naval power and effectiveness, even if no longer in quantity, and will contribute massively to global security, despite the growing pressures. However, in the next decade, the U.S. is likely to find it increasingly difficult to project power whenever and wherever it wants, as it had grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War.

For these reasons asymmetric strategies must be developed by the U.S. and key allies, both as a hedge against decline and to act as force multipliers. The imperative is not new. When the U.S. Navy’s inventory began to first noticeably decline during the 2000s, the idea of a 1,000-ship navy gained prominence.15 This was more of a conceptual framework and a call for expanding cooperation, than a significant change in activities or force structure. The U.S. Navy has for decades used multinational task group exercises and interoperability training with allied navies to increase capability. Concepts have also been developed to use conventional weapons in asymmetric “hedgehog” strategies, particularly by key allies and partners, but these are mainly meant to be used if, and when, a conflict arises. What is needed is for the U.S. to help its allies and key partners to cooperatively develop comprehensive maritime-based asymmetric sub-threshold strategies to respond to the CCP’s activities and incursions.

Since antiquity, the oceans have been a venue for naval powers, big and small, to clash in pursuit of their respective national interests.16 If American maritime power recedes, local power vacuums will eventually be filled. The chances for naval conflict will increase between regional hegemons, like China, and smaller states, especially those with predominantly coastal navies. For the broader Indo-Pacific region, and especially in the SCS, several key factors further increase the odds of conflict. The number of small surface combatants in the Indo-Pacific has greatly increased (Figure 1) as well as the number of nations acquiring and operating them (Figure 2). This growth in small surface combatants is in direct response to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that gave each nation an incentive to protect its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). All navies have the following basic options at their disposal: fleet engagement, blockade, raids on commerce (guerre de course), and raiding (guerre d’razzia).  

Figure 1. Number of Small Naval Surface Combatants (50-4,000 tons displacement), 1980-2014, by Region, with China featured. (Click to expand)17

Most small navies have neither the means nor the strategic interests to seek out a climactic fleet engagement. Traditional sea control is beyond the means of smaller coastally oriented navies. Instead, they seek to defend the sovereignty of their EEZ and maintain a force that is credible enough to deter aggression by being capable of exacting a heavy price from their adversary, even if they have no chance of defeating a larger foe.18 Sea denial approaches typically focus on the use of shore-based missiles and aircraft, sea mines, torpedoes, submarines, and fast attack surface combatants. Technological advances have allowed for increasingly more capable missiles to be effectively deployed on smaller combatants, as well as from land. But these are less useful against sub-threshold actions. Likewise, blockades are difficult to implement effectively and have a high probability of leading to escalation, especially over time.19  

Effective asymmetric strategies are needed. There are options beyond sea control and sea denial, primarily sea disruption or harassment: raids on commerce (guerre de course) and raiding (guerre d’razzia).20

Figure 2: Small Naval Surface Combatants (50-4,000 tons displacement) of Asia, 1980-2014.(Click to expand)21

Commerce raiding is resource-intensive and typically best employed during a protracted war. Historically, it has been carried out by a near-peer navy, or at minimum, a navy that enjoys a specific technological or geographic advantage. The U-boat enabled Germany to use this approach against Great Britain and the U.S during both World Wars. This was also part of the U.S. Navy’s strategy against Japan from 1942-45. The nascent American Navy in both the American Revolution and War of 1812 was no match for a direct confrontation with the Royal Navy, but successfully conducted limited commerce raiding against Great Britain because of favorable geography and the technical superiority of its frigates over their Royal Navy counterparts. Guerre de course does not seek to achieve a direct naval result, but to diminish the national will of an adversary through protracted economic pain. Ultimately, guerre de course is not a good option for a small coastal navy because the convoy is an effective counter-strategy, as has been demonstrated from antiquity, through the Anglo-Dutch Wars, to the Napoleonic Era and 20th Century wars.

Generalized raiding has a long historical tradition as an asymmetric approach to maritime strategy. This was especially prevalent before the modern era, when weaker central governments did not have the resources to maintain highly trained standing navies. With the advent of strong central governments and professional navies, guerre d’razzia fell out of favor with major powers because it was ultimately counterproductive to their respective hegemony. Since the age of steam and steel, the disparity in capabilities between major navies and all others has grown so large that guerre d’razzia became rare and highly localized. Its use dwindled to specific regions where a major power could use a smaller ally as a skirmisher against a major power adversary.

Coupled with longer-term efforts for economic sanctions, increased patrols, direct support, capacity building and collective statements,22 such a guerre d’razzia strategy could be revived in the SCS. A robust asymmetric strategy of guerre d’razzia could include maritime irregulars, privateers/raiders, and proxy forces employed in hit-and-run raids on commercial ships. Maritime raiding requires speed, deniability, non-uniform assets, and the ability to blend back into the local surroundings. Coastal navies could employ these sub-threshold/gray zone tactics to minimize a regional great power’s conventional military response to their provocations. Of course, there would be a certain irony of nations employing maritime “guerrilla tactics” against the CCP. Guerre d’razzia may be enticing to some states, because the economic dimension of Chinese power remains at the forefront of the CCP leadership’s thinking, especially with the continued slowing of the Chinese economy.

However, this would be antithetical and illiberal to the predominant view of an international rules-based order. By upholding a rules-based order in the SCS, the U.S. has been a key enabler of ensuring the conditions for Chinese economic growth and power, as well as gray zone methods of coercion. Until recently, the U.S. has accepted the role as the world’s security guarantor, especially in critically important maritime zones. As a result, the U.S. and key allies have continued to ensure the free flow of commerce across the entirety of the SCS, while the PRC has simultaneously been free-riding and increasingly provocative. But what else can be done?

The Least Bad Option: Rerouting the Sea Lanes

Some have rationalized their acceptance of the militarization of the islands in the SCS on the basis that it was unlikely to affect commercial shipping directly.23 However, the steady deterioration of the situation in the SCS should encourage skepticism of those assumptions. The CCP’s continued provocative actions in the SCS have negatively affected the long-guaranteed security in the region for all. The dependability and predictability of shipping transits through the SCS sea lanes have become increasingly uncertain.

The U.S. and its regional allies and partners should recognize the reality of this major shift and adapt accordingly to establish a new major maritime trade route. This would re-route the preponderance of maritime traffic not destined for China from the Strait of Malacca through the Java Sea and the Makassar Strait, then the Celebes Sea, and north along the east side of the Philippines (Figure 3), instead of around the Spratly Islands. This approach would only increase shipping times by a few days and ensure maritime trade flows to key allies such as Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. By rerouting shipping around the South China Sea, the volume of maritime traffic that China could threaten or coerce would decrease and correspondingly diminish its leverage.

Figure 3. Shipping Routes Through the South China Sea (CSBA Graphic). Shipping Flows (various cargo types) in the Indo-Pacific (top left ); simplified primary shipping routes used today in the South China Sea (bottom left); proposed alternative primary shipping routes (right).[Click to expand]24
The U.S. should declare that until further notice, it will only ensure the security of shipping trade flows in the southern half of the SCS. Even without immediate crisis or war, the U.S. administration could announce that due to CCP actions, including illegal island building and militarization, the U.S. can no longer guarantee the security of shipping in the specific region of the northern half of SCS (above the Spratly Islands). It should urge China to return to recognizing and adhering to long-standing international norms, or the effect will be a permanent re-routing of key global shipping. The U.S. should be clear that shipping will still be protected for all ASEAN states bordering the SCS (e.g. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and Cambodia), all of which can be accessed via the southern half, and with transits closely following the coastline, particularly in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines. Shipping flows to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan will continue to be protected, and it will continue to be in their mutual interest to support the establishment and patrols of this alternative route that avoids the most contested parts of the SCS. A corresponding presidential direction to INDOPACOM would ensure that FONOPS would still be conducted throughout the entirety of the SCS, but that protection of shipping is no longer “guaranteed” in the northern half.

By focusing on the southern half of the SCS, potential vulnerabilities from China’s militarization of the Spratly Islands would be minimized, while still ensuring critical shipping flows to regional states. This would prioritize the scope of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard activities,25 while still conducting FONOPS in the northern half of the SCS, as desired. The U.S. must emphasize to Indo-Pacific nations that this is not ceding the SCS to become effectively a Chinese “lake,” but instead reassure them that the objective is to re-route global shipping traffic to a more free, open, predictable, and stable alternative.

Understandably, the main consideration for global shipping is security and stability to enable predictable schedules. The U.S. and like-minded countries should encourage this alternative routing, for stability and predictability, and so maritime forces can be better used to collectively ensure shipping in a much safer and less contentious new route. Inevitable outrage or backlash from the CCP will only help to re-enforce the urgent need for implementing this approach.

By shifting the preponderance of maritime traffic out of the northern half of the SCS, especially those sailing to non-Chinese destinations, this would also make the task of target deconfliction easier in the undesirable event of future hostilities. This is especially important within close proximity to the sophisticated surveillance and weapons capabilities China has deployed on many of the artificial islands.26 Vessels remaining in the northern half of the SCS would likely be destined for Chinese ports, or be military vessels, which would enable other strategies, such as sea denial or blockades to be much easier to execute when necessary. Attempts to disrupt or attack vessels following the alternative shipping route outside of the SCS would be more difficult due to its proximity to allied territory where combined sea, air, and land would be available to provide substantial and effective support and safety.

Some piracy already occurs in the SCS.27 However, without the express guarantee of securing the shipping lanes in the northern half of the SCS, a corresponding increase in piracy and raiding-like activity may follow, concentrating to this geography. An uptick in this activity may be a result of the obvious pursuit of plunder, or potentially some states opportunistically enacting a limited guerre d’razzia strategy. Commerce raiding in the northern SCS would be unlikely to affect the Chinese economy directly, given its massive size. However, the unfortunate occurrence of commerce raiding would likely require the PLAN to become encumbered with dealing with local problems, chasing asymmetric ghosts at sea.


If select states were to employ maritime guerilla warfare in a limited and targeted way in the northern half of the SCS, China would have a clear glimpse of the implications of a world without the U.S. Navy and allies and partners guaranteeing the free flow of shipping. This would be a stark reminder of the key differences between a regional great power and the constructive and rules-based role of a global hegemon. This continued activity would further incentivize the restructure of trade flows and global supply chains, particularly away from the instability associated with transiting to Chinese ports, and instead to ASEAN countries. Key Indo-Pacific nations could more effectively employ their fleets of coast guard vessels and small combatants to support limited-range convoy escorts along the new routes, as well as fisheries patrols, enabling them to contribute more to their own security and the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, while avoiding a hyper-localized region of instability.

It is time for the U.S. and key allies to refocus their efforts and enact an effective response in the South China Sea by re-routing the sea lanes for peace, stability, and freedom for all nations of the Indo-Pacific that adhere to international law and rules-based order.

Christopher Bassler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Matthew McCarton is a Senior Strategist at Alion Science and Technology Corporation.


1. https://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2020/08/05/china-builds-surveillance-network-in-international-waters-of-south-china-sea/#7ad20aef74f3

3. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3086679/beijings-plans-south-china-sea-air-defence-identification-zone

4. https://thediplomat.com/2016/12/its-official-xi-jinping-breaks-his-non-militarization-pledge-in-the-spratlys/; and https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-completes-runway-on-artificial-island-in-south-china-sea-1443184818

5. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/south-china-sea-as-china-deploys-bomber-vietnam-briefs-india-about-deteriorating-situation/articleshow/77682032.cms

6. https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2020-07-20/china-us-escalate-forces-threats-in-south-china-sea

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html

8. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/world/asia/missiles-south-china-sea.html/

9. https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/china-illegal-fishing-fleet/; and https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3097929/chinese-fishing-boats-near-galapagos-have-cut-satellite

10. https://csis-ilab.github.io/cpower-viz/csis-china-sea/; and https://maritime-executive.com/article/report-chinese-vessel-rams-vietnamese-fishing-boat-in-s-china-sea

11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/27/south-china-sea-us-unveils-first-sanctions-linked-to-militarisation

12. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1321525/South-China-Sea-US-china-Beijing-maritime-conflict-Mark-Esper-Defense-Minister-Wei-Fenghe

13. https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/chinese-military-told-to-prevent-escalation-in-interactions-with-us/

14. Zeihan, Peter, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, Harper Business, 2020.

15. McGrath, Bryan G. “1,000-Ship Navy and Maritime Strategy,” Proceedings, January 2007.

16. Rodgers, William L., Admiral (USN), Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) Naval Institute Press, 1937; Rodgers, William L., Vice Admiral, USN (Ret.), Naval Warfare Under Oars; 4th to 16th Centuries, Naval Institute Press, 1940.

17. McCarton, Matthew, A Brief History of Small Combatants- Their Evolution and Divergence in the Modern Era, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) – Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) report, September 2014.

18. Borresen, Jacob, “The Seapower of the Coastal State,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 17, 1994 -Issue 1: SEAPOWER: Theory and Practice

19. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-massive-naval-blockade-could-bring-china-its-knees-war-50957?page=0%2C1

20. Armstrong, B.J. Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.

21. McCarton, Matthew, A Brief History of Small Combatants- Their Evolution and Divergence in the Modern Era, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) – Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) report, September 2014.

22. https://warontherocks.com/2020/07/what-options-are-on-the-table-in-the-south-china-sea/

23. https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/4-reasons-why-china-is-no-threat-to-south-china-sea-commerce/

24. Top left in Babbage, Ross (ed.), “Which Way the Dragon? Sharpening Allied Perceptions of China’s Strategic Trajectory” CSBA Report, 2020; with data from Kiln and University College London, “Visualization of Global Cargo Ships,” (available at: https://www.shipmap.org/). The passage frequency and routing of different types of ships is indicated by the colored lines. Yellow = container ships, Mid-blue = dry bulk carriers, Red = tankers, Light blue= bulk gas carriers, Pink = vehicle carriers

25. https://news.usni.org/2019/08/27/pacific-deputy-coast-guard-a-continuing-force-multiplier-with-navy-in-global-missions

26. https://www.andrewerickson.com/2020/08/south-china-sea-military-capabilities-series-unique-penetrating-insights-from-capt-j-michael-dahm-usn-ret-former-assistant-u-s-naval-attache-in-beijing/

27. http://cimsec.org/marines-and-mercenaries-beware-the-irregular-threat-in-the-littoral/45409

Featured Image: China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017, less than a week after a high-profile visit by president Xi Jinping. (Photo via AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Sweden and the Blue Society: New Challenges for a Small Navy

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Lars Wedin

The Royal Swedish Academy of War Science is presently undertaking a study of strategic and operational requirements for the Swedish Armed Forces in the 2030 timeframe. Its naval section has recently published its findings in a book, Vår marin för ett tryggt Sverige och ett starkt Europa. Marin strategi 2030 (Our Navy for a Secure Sweden and a Strong Europe. Naval Strategy 2030).1 This article discusses some of our findings.

Classic naval strategists – Mahan, Corbett, and Castex – basically saw naval strategy as consisting of three major alternative offensive strategies: attack on land from the sea, blockade, and commerce raiding, as well as the corresponding defensive strategies. Sea control (command of the sea is an older term) and its opposite, sea denial are key. French Admiral Raoul Castex summed it up nicely: “Depending on whether one has command of the sea or not, one may or may not:

  • be in an offensive mode, intercept the communications at sea of the enemy and attack his territory from the sea;
  • be in a defensive mode, guarantee one’s own communications and prevent the enemy from attacking one’s territory from the sea.”2

Today, the spectrum of maritime warfare is much broader and fluid. Some parts of this spectrum, such as nuclear deterrence, are only relevant to the navies of larger powers, but many are highly relevant also to coastal navies.

Geographically, Sweden is a maritime country dependent on sea lines of communications (SLOCs) for its international trade but also, increasingly, for domestic transportation. Its biggest port is Gothenburg, but there are important ports along all its 2,700 kilometers of coastline. The sea around Sweden is divided into three operational areas by the straits of Öresund and the Åland archipelago. Strategically, Sweden borders the Arctic in the north, Russia in the east, the EU in the south and the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The country is not a member of NATO but enjoys a close partnership with the alliance. It is a member of the EU, and has close military relationships with other Nordic countries, especially Finland. The Swedish navy is modern and capable, but much too small for the tasks expected of it.

Map of Sweden (via Britannica.com)

The Blue Society

The future of humankind lies at sea, which is demonstrated by the 70-80-90-99 rule: the sea covers 70 percent of the surface of the globe, 80 percent of its population lives near the sea, 90 percent of goods are transported on ships, and 99 percent of world’s digital information is carried by submarine cables.3 Two thirds of the world’s wealth is also produced at, or in, the sea. One could talk about a littorialization of the world’s population and thus of its economy.4 In sum these trends form what one could call a blue society – a society turned toward and dependent on the sea, its possibilities, and challenges.

Several important factors drive this development. It is well-known that the globe’s major reserves of oil and gas lie beneath the sea; there are tens of thousands of platforms of different kinds and more than 100,000 people serve on them. Climate change drives the construction of an ever-increasing number of wind farms and other forms of at-sea power generation. Climate change also drives moving traffic of goods from roads to ships (and railways). Mineral resources at sea are increasingly important as well as resources for the biochemical and pharmacological industry. Fishing – catch of wild fish as well as fish farms – is of vital importance for a large part of the world’s population. Shipping and related activities are vital for the economy. Just in the EU, some 574,000 people work in ports, a sector worth a collective €89 billion.5, 6

To conclude, the old adage of Corbett that “Command of the sea, therefore, means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes” is no longer sufficient. The sea itself is now intrinsically important. He is still correct, however, when he stated that naval warfare is not about “the conquest of territory.”7

Littoralization in Scandinavia

Two extreme cases of littoralization are the interlinked mega-regions known as Western Scandinavia and Greater Copenhagen. The former includes southwestern Sweden and southern Norway while the latter covers the Danish and Swedish parts of the Öresund. 30 percent of Norway’s and 33 percent of Sweden’s populations live in Western Scandinavia which is responsible for the major part of Norway’s and half of Sweden’s GDP.8 A driving factor is the area’s largest ports, Gothenburg and Helsingborg, which link the region with the global market. Greater Copenhagen is, from an economic point of view, an integrated area on each side of one of the world’s most busy waterways, where around five million people live.

Even minor disturbances may create great economic danger to the countries in the region. Hybrid warfare could be a very effective mode of attack due to the dependence on vital infrastructure. For instance, just a suspicion of mines in the waterways would cause disruption; such a suspicion is relatively easy to spread through a disinformation campaign. Their actual use would cause great harm. Due to the archipelago covering the port of Gothenburg, preventive mine-hunting would require significant resources.

The defense of such a littoral area with its thousands of islands, broad countryside, as well as modern cities, as well as extensive transport networks would be very complex. One might add the great sensitiveness of modern ports as well as infrastructure in general to attacks in cyberspace.

Infrastructure – Changing the Geography of the Littoral 

Trends in building new infrastructure on the sea – the construction of wind farms and diverse platforms for oil and gas including the deployment of Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLNG) and Floating (production) Storage and Offload (F(P)SO) – change the operational seascape.9 These facilities are a sort of hybrid infrastructure, where they retain the permanence of land-based facilities but are located out at sea. In the Swedish context, only wind farms are relevant.

Windfarms may cover large areas and they produce noise that may conceal the presence of submarines. It is believed that a wind turbine has a radar cross section of around 10,000 meters squared. The movements of the blades affect a doppler radar, which is in current use in modern aircraft. Wind farms, covering large areas, constitute a new tactical environment. Submarines, especially midget submarines, and fast attack craft (FAC) may conceal themselves in such areas and would be very difficult to detect. In fact, during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran used its oil platforms as bases for their fast attack craft – the famous Boghammar.10 Sweden also has a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Wind farms at sea are bound to play an important part in this program.11 Consequently, such wind farms become strategically important and, hence, a target for warfare.

Another aspect of infrastructure is constituted of cables. Cables may be damaged accidentally or intentionally, but their information could also be intercepted by specialized submarines. It is believed that the Russians are very capable in this area. Stopping information through cable-cutting is a measure already used  since the Spanish–American War of 1898. Electrical power is also transmitted through cables on the seabed. The strategically important Swedish island of Gotland is highly dependent on electricity from the mainland. Sweden is also connected to the EU internal energy market through a network of such cables.13, 14

A final type of growing infrastructure is the bridges that connect Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. They are of clear strategic importance but vulnerable. They also constitute physical obstacles – modern aircraft carriers may not enter the Baltic Sea because the bridges are too low. The Great Belt and the Öresund have, historically, had great strategic importance. They still have as they link, or separate, the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic area.

In sum, infrastructure at sea is strategically important, but vulnerable. A complete command of the sea would constitute an efficient defense but such a command is likely impossible. Consequently, this is an area in need of tactical development.

Technology – A Force Multiplier

Naval officers tend to equate military capacity with the number of keels or missile tubes available. These metrics are important of course, but technology creates new possibilities. A primary observation is that distances, expressed as range, depend on technology: “The physical arena is as big as before when considered in linear dimensions, in kilometers. However, when expressed in passage time, it is much reduced.”15 Until now, range has been dependent on a ship’s organic sensors and weapons. Now, the use of drones changes this.

Drones will have an increasing role to play in surveillance, as decoys, and as weapon platforms over, on, and under the surface. Drones for undersea, surface and air use will be networked together. The future naval force will probably have a number of such drones for communications, targeting purposes, and as weapon delivery platforms. With the development of standard interfaces, drones will be able to communicate among themselves. This also means that one ship may use another’s drone. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make it possible for drones to cooperate actively and independently to a great extent.

For the Swedish Navy, there are a number of possible tactical uses. A critical one is the surveillance of the undersea domain in ports and important parts of archipelagos in search of mines and minisubs. Another is increasing the sensor range for ships on surveillance missions. Sweden could perceive cargo ships loaded with military units that “suddenly” steer toward Swedish ports as an important threat.16 AI will help in detecting such moves early on.

Swedish corvettes will (finally) be equipped with medium-range anti-air missiles. This will give these ships quite a new role as part of the Swedish air defense, which has mainly depended on the Air Force. Sweden has bought the Patriot system, but the number of systems and missiles is not known and probably small. The contribution of the Navy, with its staying power at sea, could be significant. New ships may be constructed with built-in sensors in the hull, in engines, and weapon systems. This may make planned maintenance less important as the sensors will be able to report continuously on the condition of the material. The aspect of cybersecurity will, obviously, be very important in this context. These are just some examples of what new technology may have to offer a small navy.

Naval Diplomacy

Aircraft carriers are sometimes called “100,000 tons of diplomacy.” But even smaller navies and ships can be applied toward naval diplomacy. The general objective is to shape the strategic environment to one’s advantage, to reassure friends, and earn the respect of potential enemies. Naval presence is the basic action in the context of naval diplomacy; without presence, there is no diplomatic effect. Naval diplomacy and presence can cover a range of actions that are not clearly defined from one another, and may be engaged in simultaneously. Naval presence may produce a number of strategic effects (interdiction, coercion, creation of friendship and confidence) depending on the actions of the deployed naval force. But the result also depends on posture and credibility. This can be illustrated by the following formula: Diplomatic result = (action plus posture) times credibility. Naval diplomacy and presence can cover a range of actions that are not clearly defined from one another. Naval diplomacy also influences one’s own perceptions of others, and can help mitigate the assumptions that come with mirror imaging.

Even a small navy like the Swedish Navy can engage in a range of naval diplomatic activities. To be present at sea with capable naval ships with well-trained crews is a priority in peacetime. It is also necessary in order to keep track of developments in the busy seas surrounding Sweden. Exercises with friends (the U.S., NATO, Finland, and others) create the necessary interoperability and mutual trust needed in crisis and war. It also has a deterring effect showing that they are able to fight together even though Sweden is not a formal member of NATO. Naval visits are a classic and effective way of creating mutual friendships.

More controversial would be efforts to approach the Russian Navy. Russian presence in the Baltic and adjacent seas is a fact and perfectly legal according to the UNCLOS.18 All states in the area share an interest in the keeping of good order and safety at sea. The problem with Russia is, of course, its rather aggressive posture and its actions against Ukraine. However, simple exercises at sea could be a way of creating some degree of mutual trust. As the sea is free, such endeavors would be less controversial than activities on land.


A small navy like the Swedish Navy does not seek to be able to project power on a global scale – not even on a regional one. It cannot protect SLOCs in contested areas far away. But it can, and must, promote and defend its interests at sea in its own area of interest. It can also be a small but important player in larger contexts as shown, for instance, by the Swedish participation in Operation Atalanta off the coast of Somalia.19

In fact, even small navies will see enlarged requirements as a result of the increased importance of the sea in the context of the blue society – a society dependent on the sea and its use. This will include traditional missions like defense of territory against amphibious operations and protection of shipping. But it will also include new missions in the context of the increased importance of infrastructure at sea. Technology will create new possibilities also relevant for small navies, such as through drones, AI, and new missiles.

Representatives of major navies often tend to see smaller navies – without the whole panoply of naval might – as less relevant. But a small navy may be as relevant as a large one in the context of its own strategic environment, and where larger allies may depend on their success.

Lars Wedin is a retired Captain R Sw N. He is the editor of Tidskrift i Sjöväsendet which, since 1835, is the journal of the Royal Society of Naval Sciences founded in 1771. He is also a member of the Royal Academy of War Sciences.


  1. Odd Werin, Lars Wedin: Vår marin för ett tryggt Sverige och ett starkt Europa. Marin strategi 2030, Kungl. Krigsvetenskapsakademien, Stockholm, 2020.
  2. Raoul Castex: Théories stratégiques, Institut de Stratégie Comparée et Economica, Paris 1997, vol V, p. 87.
  3. Slightly adapted from Remarks by the Honorable Ray Mabus Secretary of the Navy 27th Annual Emerging Issues Forum: Investing in Generation Z Raleigh, NC Tuesday, 7 February 2012. https://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/secnav/Mabus/Speech/emergingissuesfinal.pdf
  4. République Française : Stratégie nationale de sûreté des espaces maritimes, Paris, 2015. p. 5.
  5. Before Brexit and the Coronavirus Pandemic
  6. The EU blue economy report 2019, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg 2019.
  7. Julian S Corbett: Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Conway Maritime Press, London 1972 [1911], p. 90
  8. OECD: OECD Territorial Reviews: The Megaregion of Western Scandinavia, OECD Publishing, Paris 2018, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/urban-rural-and-regional-development/oecd-territorial-reviews-the-megaregion-of-western-scandinavia_9789264290679-en#page15. www.greatercph.com/about
  9. See Lars Wedin: Maritime Strategies for the 21st Century. The Contribution of Admiral Castex, Paris, Nuvis, 2016, p. 164 – 165.
  10. http://www.navalhistory.org/2013/04/18/operation-praying-mantis-18-april-1988. Accessed March 10, 2014.
  11. https://www.regeringen.se/debattartiklar/2017/12/vi-vill-gynna-vindkraften-till-havs/
  12. See https://www.submarinecablemap.com/
  13. Lars Wedin: “L’île De Gotland. Clé De La Mer Baltique, Stratégique 2019/1-2 (N° 121-122), p. 103-115.
  14. Hållbar och säker elförsörjning, Svenska kraftnät, 2020, https://www.svk.se/sakerhet-och-hallbarhet/hallbarhet/hallbar-och-saker-elforsorjning.
  15. Castex: Théories stratégiques, vol III, p. 153.
  16. The realism of this perception is open to some doubt but it is regarded as a fact in Swedish defense policy circles.
  17. Martin Motte: “Splendor Rei Navalis”, Stratégique, no. 118, 2018, p. 81
  18. UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
  19. See Robert McCabe, Deborah Sanders and Ian Speller (eds): Europe, Small Navies and Maritime Security. Balancing Traditional Roles and Emergent Threats in the 21st Century, Routledge, 2019.

Featured Image:  TRONDHEIM FJORD, Norway (Oct. 30, 2018) The Swedish navy corvette HSwMS Nyköping (K34) transits Trondheim Fjord in Norway, Oct. 30, 2018, as part of NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Pedro Miguel Ribeiro Pinhei/Released)

Boats, Budget, and Boots: The Colombian Navy’s Challenges in International Cooperation

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Rafael Uribe Neira


In recent years the Colombian Navy has undergone a well-planned but less-than-well executed modernization to exert sea control and counter regional threats in both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. After significant changes in doctrine and procurement, the institution still struggles to contribute to regional security despite being a key U.S. partner in the region. More than a decade of doctrinal transformations and a more determined role in international cooperation and defense diplomacy runs the risk of losing momentum and clarity. At least three issues speak of the encroaching challenges the navy must face in order to consolidate itself into what it calls a “medium regional force projection navy.” Serious problems in the procurement of new frigates, budgetary issues, and an oversized force structure are working against the navy’s ambitions. Because of the Colombian security forces’ resilience, and particularly the navy’s institutional capabilities, the country’s military has the potential to creatively adapt its scarce resources to provide security against common threats, but it is facing a string of obstacles along the way.

Colombia’s Success Story and the Role of the Navy 

The Colombian Navy has engaged in maritime security cooperation since the early 1990s through the signing of understanding agreements with the U.S. and regional navies to fight drug trafficking. By the mid-2000s, the value of international cooperation was institutionally acknowledged in the Naval Strategic Plans, but second to the need to counter domestic insurgencies and their sources of income. As with the other branches of the Colombian military, the actual value of international cooperation was mainly seen in the reception of security assistance rather than providing security in the international arena.

This trend, however, changed in 2008 with successes the security forces achieved against the insurgencies within the country. By 2009, the Ministry of Defense (MinDefensa) acknowledged the increasing value of the capabilities Colombian security forces gained in the fight against drug traffickers and guerrillas and its potential to offer solutions to similarly crisis-ridden countries worldwide. This has led to the acknowledgement that the Colombian Navy is not only a recipient of military aid, but also a net security provider and exporter. This has spurred its maritime ambitions. Through the Plan Estratégico Naval 2015-2018 (Naval Strategic Plan 2015-2018) and the Plan Naval de Desarrollo 2030 (Naval Development Plan 2030 or NDP 2030), the navy articulated for the first time the purpose of consolidating itself as a “medium regional force projection navy.” This plan, among other changes, devised a vision of the navy able to exert defense diplomacy, to take part in peacekeeping missions, and to export security in the form of training courses utilizing experience earned in longstanding internal conflicts against insurgencies.

Along with the continuing formulation of security and foreign policy, the Colombian Navy takes part in international naval exercises to signal its willingness to interact in multilateral security fora. Colombia has participated in in multinational exercises such as SIFOREX, UNITAS, RIMPAC, TRADEWINDS, and PANAMAX for years. The deployment of the offshore patrol vessel 7 de Agosto to the Horn of Africa to support the multinational force Atalanta and NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield between 2015 and 2016 (although not officially part of it) marked a turning point. These deployments constituted a robust step to qualify Colombia as a NATO “Global Partner” in 2018 and establish the country as a reliable partner capable of providing counterterrorism and maritime security support.

Sailors from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam handle mooring lines from the Colombian navy corvette ARC Narino (CM-55) during its arrival for a scheduled port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tiarra Fulgham/Released)

Many of these transformations can also be understood as the result of sustained investment of U.S. security and economic aid. Since the late 1990s, plans such as Plan Colombia, now renamed Paz Colombia (Colombia Peace) and most recently Colombia Crece, (U.S.-Colombia Growth Initiative) this year have helped to train and modernize the military forces to the point of being considered a success story, whose results should and can be replicated in other parts of the region and the world. In this sense, Colombia stands as a reliable regional actor for U.S. foreign policy to provide security solutions in both the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. However, such trends are not exempt from challenges and strategic uncertainty in the short and medium term.

Between Big Ambitions and Serious Drawbacks: Major Combat Vessels  

Colombia’s expansive ambition to assert itself as a capable regional security actor also meant a reevaluation of current and future naval assets. Since 2015, the Plan Orion, Plan Puente, and Plan Faro (Plans Orion, Bridge and Lighthouse) intended to replace Colombia’s aging major ships. As a result, the navy acquired two second-hand German Type 206A submarines from the German Navy in 2012 to replace the old, Italian SX-506 submarines, and modernized the two existent Type 209/1200 submarines. Additionally, it built three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) in Colombia with a license provided by the German shipyard Fassmer. Plan Faro also initiated what many consider the “crown jewel” of the Colombian Navy: the PES program.

The PES program stands for Plataforma Estratégica de Superficie (Strategic Surface Platform). It calls for the construction of up to eight frigates displacing 5,000 tons to replace the four German-made frigates of the Almirante Padilla class (FS 1500 – Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, Kiel) currently in service.

However, some of these plans have suffered increasing delays. Only three out of four OPVs have been built and the PES project has reduced its scope and suffered delays despite only having reached the design phase. As a consequence, the new frigates projected will be limited to about 3,500 tons and their number will be reduced to only five vessels. They are no longer going to be built by 2027 or 2028 and no new date has been set. By 2019, there was no progress in the development of the PES project, as stated in COTECMAR’s 2019 report. So far the navy has put into service a donated South Korean corvette and declared the need to buy two second-hand frigates to fill the created gap. Among the possible candidates are Australian, Spanish, British Type 23, and German Bremen-Class (F-122) frigates. Any decision concerning the future selected vessels should take place next year, according to informed voices in Colombia close to the procurement process.

As stated in the Plan de Desarollo Naval 2042 (Naval Development Plan 2042 or NDP 2042) released earlier this year, the navy placed the PES program under the so-called PROCYON program. PROCYON (Fleet Building and Optimization Plan) also includes the PLOTEOS program which calls for the replacement of the four submarines in the silent fleet, the building of a logistics support ship, four additional patrol vessels, two amphibious transport docks, and at least one new maritime patrol airplane.

Vital to the success of these platforms is the growing shipyard industry and particularly COTECMAR (Science and Technology Corporation for the Development of Naval, Maritime and Riverine Industry), the state-owned shipyard company. The experience collected by the local maritime industry in the building of locally-designed riverine and seaworthy vessels contributes to work on the planned frigates and other major combatants. In Colombia, COTECMAR built Patrulleras de Apoyo Fluvial (Riverine Support Patrol Ships or PAF) type ships. The PAFs are domestically designed and used by the Colombian Marines for inshore security on the rivers and inland waters of Colombia, providing a cost-efficient solution for marines in domestic security operations.

The positive experiences earned at home with the PAFs helped raise the ambitions and scale of naval shipbuilding. In this sense, COTECMAR continued through the construction of coastal patrol vessels (CPV), three already-in-duty offshore patrol vessels (OPV) built between 2008 and 2017, and more recently an oceanographic vessel with Antarctic seagoing capabilities, as well as five Golfo de Tribugá class amphibious landing crafts (680 tons each). The Golfo de Tribugá class is particularly relevant, as it constitutes an international success for the Colombian shipyard industry. As important as the domestic market is, COTECMAR actively seeks to create new sources of revenue by selling crafts for dual-use, i.e. for civil and military purposes. Strategic partners such as Central American states procured amphibious landing crafts, which can be used for military operations or humanitarian aid relief operations. In 2019 and 2017, COTECMAR delivered two intercepting speed boats (Multi-Mission Interceptor 35 or MMI 35) used to fight drug trafficking and a logistics support vessel to the Honduran Naval Force for $13.5 million, as already discussed by Alejandro Wilder Sánchez on CIMSEC. A similar support vessel was sold to the Guatemalan Navy (Armada de Guatemala) for $11.7 million in 2019.

Despite these modest achievements, it remains to be seen whether the national industry will take root and be competitive in the coming years against well-established international shipyards. Additionally, and as Sánchez also pointed out, the low volume of orders from international markets puts Latin-American shipyards in dire need of establishing a brand. For the Colombian case this means that there is still a long way to go before COTECMAR and Colombian maritime ambitions can be credible actors in the region capable of building frigates. In consonance with the imperatives of such long-termed planning, the National Development Plan uses a timeframe of 20 years or five presidential administrations to replace its main surface and submarine vessels.

Budgetary Issues, Navy Size, and Security Cooperation

A more pressing difficulty in putting into motion the plans of constructing new platforms lies in the growing budgetary issues MinDefensa has faced in the last years. Although the Colombian budget for security and defense is the second largest in Latin America after Brazil’s at $10.8 billion (2019), military spending for procurement is dwindling. In fact, $466 million or about 4.3 percent of the defense budget was allocated for acquiring military hardware in 2019. In comparison, MinDefensa still allocated 9.1 percent to procurement in 2011, a number that diminished to 5 percent by 2017, according to a report on defense and security spending by the National Office of the Inspector General. For 2020, the budget for procurement further shrank to 2.9 percent.

The navy naturally does not escape this trend. While its budget has been relatively stable at between 6 percent and 7 percent of defense spending in Colombia, the share of procurement has steadily decreased as well. According to the NDP 2042, the navy invested 19 percent in the acquisition and replacement of new material in 2011. By 2019, that number had decreased to 10 percent. The bulk of navy spending is for personnel. During the same timeframe it grew from 57 percent to 69 percent. For the Armada Nacional, increased spending on personnel means fewer resources for procurement and other vital investments, which enable the projection of capabilities in the region.

Most worrisome is the fact that the navy does not seem to seriously tackle this issue in the NDP 2042. The institution puts its hopes in a budget it anticipates will increase in the future and which will result in a more competitive maritime market than the navy is currently boosting. The navy defines itself as a force, which will reduce its personnel spending by about 50 percent by 2042 without detailing how it plans to cut back and prioritize other items in the coming years. In practical terms, the navy expects the political leadership to increase its budget to put in motion the needed investments at some point in the future. Nevertheless, an economy hit with a worldwide pandemic and a resulting 15.7 percent loss in GDP makes that less than likely in the coming years.

Instead of pressing for a larger budget, it would make sense to reconsider the size and purpose of the Colombian Marine Corps, which makes up the bulk of the Colombian Navy. Traditionally used to combat insurgents, criminal organizations, and employed to extend the state’s reach in the most remote areas, the Colombian Marines do not possess relevant coastal defense capabilities or the required capabilities for amphibious power projection. When compared to similar forces in the region the Colombian Marine Corps is clearly oversized. According to a recent chapter in The Military Balance journal, the navy relies on a force of 56,400 men and women, while the Colombian Marines amount to almost half of that number: 22,250, which is larger than equivalent units such as the Brazilian (16,000) or the Mexican Marines (21,500). Offsetting this large size however is the fact that that the Colombian Navy does not use junior enlisted personnel and relies on marine conscripts for those jobs, inflating the size of the marine corps relative to the navy.

Although Colombian Marines also have the responsibility for securing all of Colombia’s considerable river system, which has over 18,000 kilometers of navigable waterways, many of their responsibilities overlap with those of the Colombian National Police and face the need to change with a transformation in domestic security. This naturally belongs to a larger discussion about the roles of the security forces after the 2016 peace agreement. Despite its disproportionate size, there is no plan to downsize the amphibious branches in the coming 20 years. The NDP 2042 mentions no restructuring other than increasing urgent capabilities.

Reducing the size of the naval infantry has the potential to free up valuable resources, which could be used to equip the force with specialized capabilities and deploy it to peacekeeping missions. Strengthening projects such as the building of two amphibious ships (LPDs) and the navy’s CENCOPAZ (Training Center for Peacekeeping) is a clear step in the right direction. CENCOPAZ co-leads the training of peacekeepers in Colombia and constitutes one of those national centers in which the Colombian security forces train to share their know-how in riverine operations, humanitarian de-mining, and anti-kidnapping.

Despite the progress in adapting the navy for more intense international cooperation, there are concerning trends it should seriously address. The projected LPDs are still in their conceptual stage and do not have the priority the PES program enjoys. Even with Colombia cooperating with NATO as a “Global Partner” as military-political enticement for international cooperation, plans to send navy peacekeepers as part of UN or NATO missions have seen little progress. Between 2014 and December 2019, MinDefensa reports 858 “certified soldiers” for peacekeeping operations out of 5,000 it originally planned to put through the training. The navy offers a slightly different number: in its 2015-2018 management report it states that CENCOPAZ trained 909 military, police, and civilian members in different courses for UN peacekeeping missions between 2015 and 2018, and points out that 687 (76 percent) come from the navy.

A Sober Look at the Future

The development of the Colombian Navy in the last decade has revealed an assertive regional naval force with the potential to evolve into a provider of regional security. This vision has materialized under the purpose of becoming a “medium regional force projection navy” with the right tools to exert sea control and cooperate with others to share what the Colombian military has learned during its historical fight against insurgencies and criminals.

All of this, however, seems to be at risk. There are at least three caveats to Colombian ambitions for international cooperation that are manifesting themselves in the navy. First, a well-structured procurement program intended to replace key combatants like frigates, has lost momentum. Second, naval defense spending leaves little leeway for the navy since manpower costs are hampering the ability to acquire the right tools to fulfill institutional missions. This, thirdly, intimately relates to the disproportionate size of the Colombian Marine Corps. They also have the potential to project the security solutions against terrorism and drug trafficking the national military is proud of, but can only be effective if they decrease in size.

In this context, the Armada Nacional should start thinking more about creating a slimmer and more effective navy in the face of political uncertainty, low budgets, and probably a long-lasting pandemic in Latin America. Otherwise, it may compromise its future of securing peace through international cooperation. 

Rafael Uribe Neira graduated in Juny 2020 with distinction from M.A. Peace and Conflict Studies at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. He focuses his research on civil-military relations, narratives in security aid, and lots of pop culture. Since his time as a research assistant at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK) in the fall of 2018 and as an intern at the UN in Colombia in Winter 2018/2019, he developed a keen interest in the Caribbean and its global ties. Follow him on Twitter @RafaelUribeN.

Featured Image: Colombian Marines board an amphibious assault vehicle at the beach in Ancon, Peru, July 16, 2010. (Wikimedia Commons)

Togetherness At Sea: Promoting 21st Century Naval Norms of Cooperation

Maritime Strategy for Great Power Competition Week

By Commodore Olutunde Oladimeji, NN (ret.)

Anytime we see photos of international naval exercises, involving many warships, large and small, what comes to mind is what we can call an ensemble of naval forces at sea. Such an ensemble often looks like a task force from what Admiral Mike Mullen, in 2005, then U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, called a global 1000-ship Navy. Admiral Mullen’s concept is a fleet that would comprise of “all freedom-loving nations, standing watch over the seas, standing watch over each other.” In spite of renewed great power competition, multilateral cooperation between the world’s navies must grow to deal with common threats and forge constructive bonds between nations.

Classical naval battles were not always fought for portions of seawater but to ultimately influence events on land for economic benefits of the naval powers. Although usually configured as instruments of war, navies also deter war, promote peace, and in doing that, promote commerce, protect trade routes, ensure safety of people and goods on the high seas. Although navies all over the world are established to fight if it comes to that, navies are more than fighting instruments. Navies are also the most potent maritime security agency to prevent numerous illegalities capable of hampering the economic well-being and prosperity of their people. But within each maritime nation no navy or any other maritime security agency can do it alone. It is unfortunate that, for political, legal, and bureaucratic reasons, maritime security roles are fragmented among many agencies.

For many reasons, international maritime security deserves some form of a global togetherness arrangement. A standing ensemble at sea is desirable and all littorals should be encouraged to join. After all the sea is one, by and large. It is interconnected and it is a universal habitat where Sailors and merchant ships carry out their duties. Naval customs and ceremonies in this habitat are similar where the conviviality of when navies make port calls is usually memorable in spite of the differing political positions of littoral nations.

It is true that coastal nations have enormous potential benefits for having the fortune of facing the ocean, but there are some costs to bear and some investments to make to actualize their objectives. Many successful maritime nations have done that and are reaping huge benefits from their efforts.

It is significant to look at a list of the largest economies in the world. They are invariably nations with a coast along a great body of water, and many can be considered maritime nations. Their maritime and naval investment efforts are bringing them wealth. They include the United States, Japan, Germany, China, United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada. Others are Spain, Brazil, Russia, India, South Korea, Mexico, Australia, and the Netherlands. The other members of this exclusive club that Nigeria aspires to join are Turkey, Belgium, Sweden and Switzerland.

It is not by accident that these international economic giants are industrial or industrializing nations. In addition they are vibrant maritime nations, trading nations, shipping nations, and nations with coherent national maritime strategy and appropriate naval forces to protect what they have.

Even the land-locked Switzerland is no exception to this general maritime rule and route to economic greatness. Switzerland has a long tradition of civilian navigation, both on its lakes, rivers, and on the high seas. It has a civilian high seas fleet of merchant vessels, whose home port is Basel from where the country connects to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and thus to the sea trade network. Swiss industry and commerce rely on this connection, exploited for centuries by Swiss Rhine barges, for a substantial part of their imports and exports.

All these maritime economies and others that are striving to make it to the list of the top 20 have one thing in common. They have an enlightened appreciation of the importance of the sea, have developed coherent national maritime strategy and have considerable investment in merchant shipping and naval forces.

From time immemorial navies have always been closely associated with the economic prosperity of their nations. This is so because navies that guarantee benefits to littoral states in terms of maritime trade and enjoyment of sea-based resources such as fish, shrimps, and oil are not hindered or stolen by other, more determined and better armed people. Navies, whatever names they are called, are also instruments of law enforcement at sea. Navies usually have robust, multi-capable platforms with mobility, flexibility and endurance. They have well-trained officers and personnel, and they carry lethal war-fighting capabilities which are adaptable to deterrence and to fighting determined and well-equipped pirates and terrorists at sea.

Security of the seas is important and impacts us all. Today the enemies for which navies prepare are not only state actors. Given its open access to all comers, the sea has become a home of very many illegalities, a den of pirates, illegal bunkerers, crude oil thieves, smugglers, poachers, polluters, drug traffickers arms dealers, terrorists and other economic saboteurs. In view of the huge number and sophistication of these misusers of the sea, globally, navies are teaming up for maritime security protection, given their inbuilt scalable capabilities to deal with all eventualities. Therefore, opportunities are available for maritime forces to operate together regularly, and stamp out criminals and illegalities at sea. When this happens, the vision of the sea becoming a totally peaceful commune for humanity and for economic prosperity can become a reality. However, all this will happen only if the different political and economic systems allow naval operational harmony to prevail and if solutions can include poor littoral nations. In technological terms, these underdeveloped states are the weakest links in the chain of expected togetherness.

For decades, the United States Navy has actively taken up the mantle of global leadership by promoting maritime security partnerships globally through sea power symposia and conferences, joint operational training and equipment transfer using under the auspices of the NIPO (Navy International Programs Office). The growth of multilateral cooperation among African navies with each other and the U.S. Navy is an excellent example of this principle in practice.

African Partnerships and Security

Nations that understand this central purpose of navies equip them to optimize the naval strategy and thereby maximize returns of their investments. Those nations that ignore building and maintaining effective navies because they lack the vision, resources, the will, or are distracted by other political or security challenges on land, like Nigeria now bogged down by many political disorder and insurgencies, often become victims of national and international economic disillusionment.

The realities in the world today suggest that no one nation can do it alone in maritime security. Admiral Harry Ulrich III, a former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa, once declared that “maritime security is a team sport.” No navy can do it alone whether at the global, regional, sub-regional and at the national level. At the African regional level many calls have been made by successive Nigerian Chiefs of the Naval Staff, for African navies to cooperate to curb the activities of sea pirates in the continent’s coastal waters.

The African continent especially needs to learn the hard lessons about the power of sea power. As a South African Minister for Intelligence Services, Ronnie Kasrils, reminded African leaders at a Symposium on Sea Power for Africa in 2005:

“The destiny of this continent has for centuries been determined by the sea powers of the world, not by the people of the continent. That has been the case because they had the ability, the sea power, to voyage to Africa and to impose their will…Since the seventh Century, every invasion, every colonization, and every attack has come by sea.”

For several decades, the American global naval system has been unrelenting in driving global, regional, sub-regional and national naval partnerships, especially in the West and Central Africa. What started as an annual Training Cruise in the 1970s has metamorphosed into a U.S. African Command, coordinating an annual multi-national maritime exercise appropriately named Obangame Express. It brings together African, European, South American, and U.S. forces to enhance cooperation and expertise in maritime security operations.

Incidentally, “Obangame” which means “togetherness” comes from the Fang language of northern Gabon, Southern Cameroon and other parts of Central Africa. Obangame Express gives the partner nations the opportunity to work together, share information, and refine tactics, techniques, and procedures in order to assist the Gulf of Guinea maritime nations to build capacity to monitor and enforce their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The United States has not attained the commanding height of coordinating the international maritime security cooperation out of the blue. This status has come out of the many decades of persistent pursuit of sea power advocacy, of which African people and governments should buy into and support. The South African Navy, Nigerian Navy, Senegalese Navy, Ghana Navy, and other active navies in Africa should come together and learn to interoperate for the security and economic benefits of the region. But habits of togetherness, led by navies, should start within the maritime communities of each nation. This is the foundation on which international togetherness in maritime security can be built.

How Maritime Nations Task and Empower their Navies

European Union Navies: Multinational European Union Naval Forces (EU NAVFOR) are engaged in a multi-tasking deployment to counter piracy in the Horn of Africa, protect the World Food Program to Somalia, and give logistic support to the African Union troops on peacekeeping operations in Somalia.

India: In 2009, against the backdrop of the Mumbai terrorist attack, the Union Government of India designated the Indian Navy as the authority responsible for overall maritime security, which includes coastal and off-shore security. The Navy will be assisted by the Coast Guard, state maritime police, and other central and state agencies. When the Minister of Defence announced the decision, he explained that the government decided to set up joint operation centers in Mumbai, Visakhapatanam, Kochi, and Port Blair. A national command, control, communication and intelligence network for real time maritime domain awareness would also be set up.

Brazil: Under the National Defense Strategy unveiled in 2008, the Brazilian Navy is tasked with developing a force to protect the country’s huge “sub-salt” oil reserves, the Amazon river basin and its 7,491 kilometers (4,655 miles) of coastline. The oil fields, located off Brazil’s southeast Atlantic coast beneath kilometers of ocean and bedrock, could contain more than 100 billion barrels of high-quality recoverable oil, according to official estimates. In a speech to the Navy’s top brass in June,  then-President Dilma Rousseff stressed that the buildup, including the acquisition of the country’s first nuclear-powered submarine, was a key “instrument of deterrence.”

Pakistan: Apart from a role in Cooperative Maritime Security, the Pakistani Navy is also undertaking independent operations to protect its flag carriers in the Indian Ocean and effectively counter threats posed to Pakistani economy due to rise in piracy incidents at sea.

Canada:  The Canadian Navy projects and protects Canada’s interests ashore and in distant places, it protects the passage of trade upon the seas, it participates in the monitoring of Canada’s ocean areas, and assists other government departments in the enforcement of Canadian maritime laws.

United States of America: When the American Revolution came to an end, George Washington was sworn in on 30 April 1789 as the first President of the United States. His first priority was to establish economic stability in the wake of $70 million debt accumulated during the war. To lead the task of economic reform, George Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton, his former aide-de-camp, as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Among the initiatives in Alexander Hamilton’s economic reform plan was the formation of a strong, seagoing military force then known as “Revenue Marine.”

For over two centuries the U.S. Coast Guard has safeguarded United States’ maritime interests in the heartland, in the ports, at sea, and around the globe. What is in a name? It may be called a coast guard, but it is reckoned to be the sixth largest navy in the world.  It was configured from the very beginning as an “economic force,” so to say, with military readiness embedded. That makes the USCG a model navy for many third world countries. It is not surprising that it is the service of choice by the United States’ to woo coastal nations in Africa and other parts to the world to be maritime security partners.

By law, the Coast Guard has 11 missions:

  • Ports, waterways, and coastal security
  • Drug interdiction
  • Aids to navigation
  • Search and rescue
  • Living marine resources
  • Marine safety
  • Defence readiness
  • Migrant interdiction
  • Marine environmental protection
  • Ice operation
  • Other law enforcement

China: China has come out boldly to proclaim that it needs “a strong navy to protects interests.” And that China needs a strong navy to protect its interests on the high seas, too. This is against the backdrop of what China sees as unnecessary apprehension in the West about the on-going revival of the Chinese Navy.

The Chinese aircraft carrier and its trial runs reflect the Chinese Navy’s growing competence in defending the country’s sovereignty and maritime interests. With a coastline of 18,000 kilometers, more than 6,500 islands, and about 3 million square kilometers of maritime area, China needs a strong and modern navy to prevent any violation of its territory, sovereignty over the islands and maritime interests in its waters.

The country became the world’s largest exporter in 2009 and imported 63 percent of its iron ore and 55 percent of its crude oil needs in 2010. The safety of China’s personnel, assets and shipping lanes is very important for its economy.

Gulf of Guinea Navies: In consonance with global developments and best practices, the Gulf of Guinea navies which were before isolated, are now teaming up to fight the menace of sea piracy in the sub-region. The current global concern about the Gulf of Guinea also has to do with the area’s growing importance as an oil producing region, leading the U.S. to increase its military presence in the area.

The need to enhance maritime security in the Gulf of Guinea was one the reasons behind the conduct of the joint sea exercise Obangame Express 2011. It was coordinated by the U.S. Coast Guard in concert with Navy units from Nigeria, Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe

Nigeria: Nigeria is a nation with the good fortune to have a considerable coastline sea and an economy critically dependent on the ocean resources and marine transportation.

By law the Nigerian Navy is specifically tasked with:

  • Defence of Nigeria by sea;
  • Enforcement and assisting in coordinating the enforcement of all customs laws, including anti-illegal-bunkering;
  • Fishery and immigration laws of Nigeria;
  • Enforcement and assisting in coordinating the enforcement of all national and international maritime laws ascribed or acceded to by Nigeria;
  • Making of charts and coordinating of all national hydrographic surveys;
  • Promoting, coordinating and enforcing safety regulations in the territorial waters and the EEZ of Nigeria.

Add to all these, sea piracy, human trafficking, narcotic smuggling, marine safety, search and rescue, and pollution control are also a part of the Nigerian Navy’s missions. Expectations by Nigerians for their Navy are very high. But few are aware of two decades of decline of the Navy’s fleet.

In addition many people are not aware that coastal security is a complex issue which requires seamless coordination across numerous government departments and agencies such as NIMASA, NPA, Customs, Immigration, Marine Police, and Inland Waterways. It also requires the setting up of technological expensive infrastructure. All that will cost a lot of financial resources.

But there are arguments in maritime security quarters that the required money can be made available if policy makers focus on costs and benefit thinking. That means they should fund the Nigerian Navy appropriately as a leading African nation in the world.


Economic gains are behind the building of all navies. Remove the veil from all strategic postulation and posturing, especially from the large and medium sea power nations, and one will discover that the whole purpose of navies is to further the economic interests of their states. But then, any nation that wants its navy to discharge its roles credibly must provide for that navy so that it can join the ensemble of navies working together. Vice Admiral Patrick Sebo Koshoni, a former Nigerian Chief of the Naval Staff once said:

“If you do not fund your Navy adequately, you will not get your Navy to discharge its roles optimally. If we don’t discharge our roles optimally, we are hazarding, willy-nilly, the economic lifelines of this country, which are predominantly offshore based.”

The international environment is one of violent peace, occasioned by sea piracy and many other illegalities at sea. This is stimulating the teaming up of global, regional, and coastal navies for collective maritime security. Also within coastal nations are a cornucopia of threats to peaceful resource enjoyment – from militants, pirates, illegal bunkerers, drugs, traffickers, and terrorists.

The bottom line is that across the globe navies are being charged with the leadership of the maritime security of their nations. But no navy can perform without significant legislative and financial support from national leaders. You can’t be an effective team player if you can’t get on the field.

Olutunde Oladimeji is a retired commodore of the Nigerian Navy. He is a 1972 graduate of Mass Communication, University of Lagos and earned a Master’s degree in International Relations from OAU University, Ile-Ife. He served in the Nigerian Navy for 22 years and finished as Director of Naval Information and Plans before retiring in 1994. He has written many books and articles for defense and naval magazines, including the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings and has participated in many maritime security-related conferences in Nigeria and abroad.

Featured Image: The former Coast Guard cutter Gallatin was transferred to the Nigerian navy Wednesday at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in North Charleston in May 2014. (FLETC)