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Sea Control 141 – The Law of the Sea with John Burgess

By Matthew Merighi 

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Professor John Burgess of the Fletcher School about the Law of the Sea and its enduring effects on maritime security. This interview was conducted as part of the roll-out of the Fletcher School’s recently released primer on the Law of the Sea.

Download Sea Control 141 – Law of the Sea with John Burgess

A transcript of the interview between Professor Burgess (JB) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below.

MM: And we’re back as I mentioned at the top I’m here with professor John Burgess of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Professor Burgess thank you very much for being with us on Sea Control today.

JB: It’s my pleasure.

MM: As is Sea Control tradition, please tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell us about what are the main formative experiences you’ve had that brought you from where you were to where you are today.

JB: Well, I’m a Professor of Practice at the Fletcher School and that’s after having worked in law firms for about 35 years. But I did always have an interest in national and maritime security. I took a sabbatical and worked for the U.S. State Department in the area and I’d say the majority of my published articles were in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, so moving towards maritime security and Law of the Sea as part of the courses I taught here was a pretty natural progression for me.

MM: I guess I’ll probably start the podcast off by mentioning the fact that you have a very robust library of maritime books. I’m curious, you’ve done maritime work but what got you interested in maritime law in the first place? Was it a personal experience or was it kind of discovering it by happenstance through your legal work or what brought you into maritime law?

JB: Well, of course a place like Fletcher been interested in international law and it’s interesting the way fashion works sometimes. The Law of the Sea, as we’ll talk later about the principal Convention, was adopted back in 1994. The course at Fletcher was taught for a while but then dropped out of the curriculum and the more I looked at the issues the more odd that seemed because the Law of the Sea, as embodied in the Law of the Sea Convention, is one of the most comprehensive pieces in international law that exists. And it covers obviously 90 percent of the planet and it raises all the classic issues of international law: how nations work together, how disputes are settled, how resources and rights are allocated, and it crystallizes all of those issues and we face the questions and disputes and developments every day. And so that led me to really want to focus on it in a systematic way. And, of course, here at the school of the international relations, it was a great venue to be able to apply the law to a very rapidly developing set of global situations.

MM: Let’s talk then about the historical underpinnings that have led us to where we are now before we get too far into the current issues. So, the Law of the Sea: tell us a little bit about it. What is it? You talked a little bit about its effects but what is it functionally at its core, why does it exist, what’s the history behind it, and how did it come to be?

JB: To summarize concisely, for the Law of the Sea, one of the reasons that it’s so interesting is that it’s both very old and it’s newest today. When nations began trading, gradually maritime custom and maritime law developed governing those relationships and by the 17th century, international legal thinkers were beginning to think about the ocean as a separate legal space that was not owned by any nation or controlled by any nation, but was a common; shared for commerce and navigation among the world’s nations. And that concept has evolved as part of customary international law for centuries.

After the second World War, in a more complicated world in some ways, with increasing numbers of nation states and  technology permitting greater exploitation of oceanic resources, nations began to focus on that system of customary law and whether it should be embodied in a treaty or treaties. And back in 1958, under UN auspices, preliminary group of treaties was adopted, but the scope was limited. And that led to a desire to address, on a comprehensive basis, the issues of Law of the Sea.

Over 10 years, dozens of nations in a conference of Law of the Sea worked to evolve what has become today, the Law of the Sea Convention: a treaty regarding the Law of the Sea, which became effective in 1994. And it is very, very detailed and very broad in its scope. It did several revolutionary things. It defined on a systematic basis a series of maritime zones; parts of the ocean over which states had different rights. And particularly, introduced the concept that we can spend a few more minutes on later, of an Exclusive Economic Zone, the right of coastal states to exploit the living and nonliving resources of the adjacent waters out to 200 nautical miles. It also crystallized in a written form the rights of maritime nations to freely navigate.

That idea that there is an element of the commons that is available for free navigation, the conduct of trade, the conduct of naval operations and at one level, the 1994 treaty of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a great compromise that assures developed nations and maritime nations the traditional rights and access of navigation. And developing nations and others have the right to exploit neighboring living and nonliving resources in the sea. Of course, for some countries it’s both; the United States draws great value from its economic zones off its oceans in terms of fishing, mineral, petroleum, other resources and as the world’s leading naval power, it’s critical to the United States to be able to exercise the rights of navigation that are embodied in that treaty.

MM: Before we go into some of those areas and get into the specifics, I was wondering if you could tell us since many of us already know customary international laws but I’m sure there are some people out there that haven’t worked in international relations in the legal space, but walk us through what is customary international law and if that is a form of law, why then would there need to be a treaty and then a Convention to institutionalize that in paper?

JB: Customary international law is sets of practice that are adhered to by the international community as evidenced by state practice, what nations do, as evidenced by the supporting actions of international courts, the adjudication by these commentators, that isn’t written down in a law book, but which by reason of practice over the course of time and the acquiescence of the international community, takes on the nature of law and that is an historic element of international law and is relevant to the Law of the Sea to this day.

The issue with customary international law however is it’s neither comprehensive, things can develop technological enabling or security issues that the law hasn’t addressed before, and you can’t rely on the accumulation of custom to address. And its interpretation is limited in scope but comes up as academic commentators write articles, as courts interpret decisions and with somethings as complicated as the governance of the world seas, something more comprehensive, something that was more up to date in many respects was critical.

I’ll just throw one example and that relates to environmental issues. For protection of the oceanic environment for a variety of reasons, there was no substantial body of customary international law on that topic, and it could’ve taken decades or longer for it to evolve. And by then environmental issues in the 20th century to respect to the world’s oceans could be critical. So, one of the thing that treaty does is systematically set up a regime for addressing those questions. You can’t do that customary international law, you need a treaty.

MM: Let’s start going through the treaty then. You mentioned there’s a number of different areas, but you mentioned first and foremost the fact that the ocean is divided into different zones.

JB: Yes, that is correct.

MM: So, walk us through those zones, what are they, how are they determined, and what can states do in those different zones?

JB: I’m going to walk through it beginning close to land and heading out to sea. And in principal, the rights of a coastal state are highest, this makes sense, closest to land, and are more limited as you go out to sea. Internal waters which are the waters on the landward side of the low tide line are, sovereign territory; those waters are fully subject to the laws of the state, and if you’re on the Connecticut river, you’re under U.S. and Connecticut law as an internal water. But then, on the other side of that baseline, that’s created to determine the outer limit of internal waters, you’re in what’s called the territorial sea, the territorial sea has a breadth of up to 12 miles. States can define it, and most do, out to 12 miles and states, in essence, are sovereign over the territorial waters along their coast as well. They have the full ability to legislate and enforce their laws in those waters. Subject to one very important right that we can talk about later which is a right of innocent passage by third party states to traverse the waters, subject to limitation, but that’s it.

That’s really the only exception or limitation on the coastal states sovereignty. The next key zone is the one I described to you, the one that really was created under the Convention of the Law of the Sea and that is an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That goes out all the way to 200 miles and it says that the coastal states have the exclusive right in that zone to exploit the living and nonliving resources. The seabed, what’s under the seabed, petroleum, fish, mineral rights, but those otherwise are part of the high seas, they can’t restrict navigation in the way they can in territorial waters, and their rights are therefore limited as opposed to territorial waters.

Once you get beyond 200 miles, it is the high seas, a commons that the world continues to have rights to navigate in. Below the surface, after 200 miles, there may continue to be rights to exploit minerals, under the extended continental shelf. That continental shelf set of rights can extend depending on the geology, it’s a complicated equation of a coastal state, out beyond 200 miles but typically not beyond 350 miles as an outer limit. And beyond that the seabed again becomes part of the common. It’s open to exploitation by all nations, whether they have access to the coast, whether they are landlocked or not, under the separate regime established under the treaty.

MM: So, it’s pretty intuitive then in terms of the rights of different zones and how they’re allocated for large bodies of land, so say for example knowing how far the end of California is from 200 miles, that’s pretty easy.

JB: It is, yeah.

MM: But they’re also notions of a place where there’s a lot of other features, I guess is the technical terminology from there and I think one of my favorites from the Law of the Sea Convention is the difference between islands and rocks. So, I was wondering if you could walk us through the differences between those two features are and how they play into the Law of the Sea?

JB: Yeah, I’m always reminded of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a rock; I am an island,” but it’s actually a legal concept here, not a musical one, and the key point is that, as you described, if you’re along a continental coastline, it’s pretty intuitive, you get 12 miles and then you get 200 miles. It’s a small percentage relative to the size of the continent, but how do you treat an island? And an island is defined under the Convention as a body of land surrounded by water that’s above sea level at high tide, and it actually creates a territorial sea and an EEZ as well, so if you’re looking at the Florida Keys individual islands that remain above high tide, they have the potential to create, a territorial sea and an EEZ all on their own.

So, I’m going to indulge for a second if it’s okay in a little geometry, let’s say you’re in the middle of the Pacific and you’ve got an island that is a mile wide. Well, it can create a territorial sea and an exclusive economic zone. I’m not great at geometry but I think the area of the circle is πr squared. So, 200 miles and square it: 40,000 miles, multiplied by pi; a one-mile island can create a tens of thousands of square miles of exclusive economic rights. Interestingly enough, that would mean that the nation that has the largest EEZs is the United States because of the range of the islands principally that are United States territory in the Pacific. Surprisingly enough, the next one is France.

MM: France?

JB: To understand that, you need to go look at a map and go “oh yeah French Polynesia or the islands that France controls in the Indian sea, Indian Ocean rather.” And how did they get so big? Because of this leverage and the drafters of the Law of the Sea Convention, they kind of knew that, they said we have to safeguard the abuse of that status so only one kind of island gets those rights. There’s a subset of islands that we’re going to call rocks. And those are islands that can’t sustain human habitation or economic activity. They don’t have to be literally rocks; they could be a sand spit, they could be a coral reef, but if they lack the capacity to support human habitation in a meaningful way or meaningful economic activity, then they do not generate an EEZ. And it eliminates that ability to leverage, so dramatically, the territory of an island to an essence to create very, very significant and valuable oceanic zones. So, they thought of it, but it’s still an issue in today’s law.

MM: So, let’s talk about that a little bit, because obviously the incentive for a country that owns a rock, you know, if it’s not the size of Oahu which has Honolulu on it, but is kind of the cartoon depiction of sort of a person on a tiny deserted island with a palm tree on it.

JB: Yeah with the palm tree on it (laughs).

MM: But the incentive I’m sure for a country with that in order to gain those exclusive economic rights is to say, “oh well, that can sustain human habitation.” So, I was wondering how then is it determined whether a piece of land in the water is an island or a rock? You have this sort of the definitions, but how do you define then human habitation, well, human habitation is pretty easy, but economic activity seems to be kind of fuzzy?

JB: Well, actually both of them are a bit tricky and as typically happens, the treaty doesn’t give you a lengthy piece of guidance on how to do that. And many nations including the United States have, I’ll use the phrase, been liberal in their interpretation whether a feature is an island, for the reasons you described. But in the last year, last summer, an international tribunal on the South Seas, which adds South China Sea in particular, which we’ll talk about, looked at that question and provided some more detailed interpretation and it said a few things.

First of all, when we evaluate whether an island can sustain human habitation or economic life, we’re going to look at the island in its natural state, so for starters, if the Chinese or somebody else build a huge structure or transform the island, you can’t look at that, you have to go back historically, see what it looked like before human intervention transformed it. Secondly, you’re going to look at the ability to sustain human life without massive outside intervention. If you fly in lots of people, you fly in water, fly in food, it’s clear that those external interventions again aren’t the test, you have to look at what is there on the island. And interestingly enough, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a human population. The question is “is there water, are there resources to supply food whether its vegetation or animal or fish that could or does sustain a human population?” And not on a transitory basis, people coming through for two months a year to fish doesn’t count.

Secondly, in the tribunal they also took a hard look at what economic activity or life would mean, and underscored that it couldn’t be merely extractive. You know there are islands that were made of bird dung, guano, and in the 19th century, people would go and mine these islands, well that’s just extractive, that’s not economic life, there has to be some set of resources that would permit economic activity on an island, and that could be mining, it could be fishing, but it can’t simply be mining that cannot sustain and does not sustain a local population. That still raises lots of factual questions in every case, but it does make clear that an island has to be something more than just a palm tree and someone waiting for the ship to come, to qualify. And that’s going to have implications for nations like the U.S. and France and others who have significant island claims.

MM: So, we understand a bit about the zones, how they’re built, how they’re projected out, and some of the controversies surrounding this which we’ll get into the specifics in a bit, but to set up the ground work for everyone out there in our audience, tell us a little bit about what you alluded to earlier, about innocent passage and freedom of navigation. What is it, how does it function, and how does the Law of the Sea Convention define those different kinds of activities? What are the rules of the road?

JB: And those are critical elements because really the Law of the Sea is a balancing of interests of states, the coastal states want to control as much as possible, as far as possible and obviously maritime and commercial states wish to be able to conduct trade and activities without interference by coastal states, and those compromises are reflected in a couple of different concepts.

The first is the concept of innocent passage. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, the sovereign coastal state has a lot of power and authority in the territorial sea, subject to one exception and that is the vessels of third parties can traverse the territorial sea to make a transit or to enter into the ports of the coastal state under the doctrine of innocent passage. The coastal state cannot forbid that kind of transit or activity, and when you think about it that’s pretty critical to commerce, a cargo ship proceeding along the U.S. coast in order to trade in order to access U.S. ports in order to efficiently transit is going to enter territorial waters, and this right of innocent passage allows it to do so, but it’s a very limited right. The passage has to be continuous, it has to be expeditious, you can’t anchor off a coast for a week, absent an emergency set of circumstances, so it’s got that test, and it has a variety of other tests that are designed to assure that innocent passage isn’t exploited to take advantage of the coastal states’ resources or military security.

For example, you can’t fish on innocent passage, because that is in conflict with the rights of the coastal state. You can’t operate military systems, you can’t take on or land aircraft or launch aircraft. Submarines have to proceed on the surface which kind of spoils the whole purpose of being a submarine precisely to avoid provocative threats to the security and safety of the coastal state. So that’s the balance its achieved.

Transit rights relate to a very specific kind of territorial water, and that’s international straits. Straits of water that connect bodies of the high seas or economic zones and you could think of lots of examples: the Straits of Gibraltar, the Straits of Malacca, places which are narrow waterways, that would be the territorial waters of the contiguous states, but this special set of transit rights are granted. It’s rather like innocent passage, but because international straits are so critical to global security and commerce the rules are more relaxed.

I mentioned submarines couldn’t proceed on a submerged basis in innocent passage. They can in transit rights. The number of restrictions on activities in transit rights is much more limited than for innocent passage. And aircraft have transit rights as well as vessels in innocent passage, only surface vessels and submarines have that right. So, this is to the more liberal regime, which is a critical regime to assuring global access to those straits that are fundamental choke points in the conduct of global commerce.

MM: There’s also a concept inside the Law of the Sea called sovereign immunity.

JB: Yes.

MM: I was wondering if you – since that’s at least tangentially connected to innocent passage and freedom of navigation rules – walk us through what is sovereign immunity? What does that mean?

JB: Well, it’s more than in the Law of the Sea; it’s really more of a doctrine of international law that states will not conduct criminal or adversarial actions against other states. And when you think about it, it’s an element of comity and we won’t go on with France interfering with U.S. military aircraft and ships and France similarly does not want us doing the same with theirs. But its significant with the Law of the Sea in that many of the provisions in the Law of the Sea exempt vessels that are subject to sovereign immunity or aircraft that are subject to sovereign immunity. For instance, the anti-pollution provisions don’t apply to a U.S. warship or a French warship for that matter.

In innocent passage, it’s an interesting dynamic because it basically says that if a ship that has a right to sovereign immunity violates the ground rules for innocent passage, the coastal state has the right to take steps to ask it to cease the passage. What that means isn’t entirely clear, it is in fact very likely that there’s no right of force or coercive ability to force the sovereign immune vessel to change its course and conduct, so implicit of that is risk of standoff and certainly the rights against the sovereign immune vessels are more limited. And state interference with those kind of vessels is a very serious breach, not just of Law of the Sea but of international law, which was why when the Chinese picked up a drone operated by the U.S. vessel, which is subject to sovereign immunity, it was a U.S. government vessel although not a naval ship as such, that raises implications of a breach of sovereign immunity.

MM: So then let’s talk about some of the specific examples since you mentioned China, since that’s the one that probably most of the people out here are familiar with. Walk us through the South China Sea, why is the Law of the Sea a part of the disputes happening there? What does it say about the disputes that have been happening and how is it generally guided the developments that have happened in that region?

JB: Well, in some ways it’s a textbook example of the importance of the Law of the Sea because the South China Sea is fraught with conflict. There are small islands: the Spratlys, for instance, and the Paracels that are claimed by the multiple adjoining states. The claims with respect to economic zones and extended continental shelf create issues of overlap and conflict. And, this is in a region where suspicion and friction between the neighboring states is high, so the ground rules of the Law of the Sea are critically important element in helping to resolve the frictions that are embedded in the issues I just described to you. And one of the key elements has been the tension between the Chinese view of its rights with respect to the South China Sea and those of the adjoining states.

The international tribunal decision at the permanent court of arbitration in 2016 that I mentioned earlier, really arose out of that and some other related disputes, but the principal core was with respect to China’s view of its rights over the South China Sea. China has asserted that it has broad sovereign rights within an area defined by the so-called 9-dash line, and that expression comes from the fact that the map that originally included it had nine dashes, the number of dashes varies from time to time, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the line embraces the great majority of the South China Sea. It comes down close to Indonesia, Vietnam and to the Philippines. And the line conflicts with the Exclusive Economic Zones of those nations. China’s never defined precisely, and certainly not in the context of the Law of the Sea, what it means by the sovereign rights under the 9-dash line, but both verbally and in action, has asserted rights that would be in conflict with the Law of the Sea for instance, the access of Filipino fishers to living resources within the South China Sea has been restricted by the Chinese on the basis of the 9-dash line.The tendency of China to increasingly enforce or assert the 9-dash line was triggered when Vietnam and the Philippines began oil exploration in the South China Sea.

The tribunal took a hard look at the 9-dash line, and it unequivocally said that, this line which China asserts has its origins in ancient historic rights to the sea is in conflict with the Convention of the Law of the Sea and hence is legally of no effect. The tribunal said that when China signed the Convention, it gained great rights including to the EEZ around China that didn’t exist before, and in doing so, also lost any more vague and historic claims. And that was a very important decision both legally and geopolitically. It’s no question that legally it was the right decision. This kind of broad, inchoate historic right to great reaches of water doesn’t exist anywhere in the Law of the Sea. And in addition, it was a firm message that, from a political standpoint, China’s position was an overreaching assertion of sovereign rights, which is one of the reasons why the Chinese have so bitterly denounced the decision.

MM: So, let’s talk about the other end of this, since we’ve talked mostly about the economic rights, let’s talk about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, because you mentioned the drone seizure, what then does the Law of the Sea say should be happening in the South China Sea and what is the position of China, how they’re acting, and how do they contrast with one another?

JB: Yes, the tribunal did not address that set of issues, but it has been an escalating and critical source of friction as well particularly although not exclusively between the U.S. and China. And it has two elements, the first relates to innocent passage. I’ve described that before, it’s the right for the continuous and expeditious crossing of territorial seas, innocent passage is available to warships as well as civilian vessels, but a certain number of nations including China have asserted that it’s necessary to provide notification and to obtain consent to conduct innocent passage. The U.S. position, which is consistent with the Convention, is that that consent is not required.

That war honestly has been more one of words than of action perhaps fortunately. The U.S. conducts what it calls freedom of navigation exercises from time to time to preserve those rights. It’s complicated in the South China Sea because those navigation exercises have sometimes been ambiguous, the U.S. has sailed within 12 miles of certain of these small maritime features and it’s been unclear whether the U.S. is in fact asserting innocent passage and conceding there’s a territorial sea around the feature, or is the U.S. asserting that there’s no territorial sea, and is simply a high seas transit right, and that ambiguity continues. China protests those exercises, we periodically conduct them, as I said the struggle has largely been one of words, but it is important and as a security matter for the United States, the assertion of the right of innocent passage within the South China Sea is very important.

The other and more broad question is, whether there are any limitations on the conduct of military surveillance, reconnaissance, or activities within China’s EEZ. And China also interprets its rights there very broadly. It asserts that the EEZ can only be used for peaceful purposes and that reconnaissance flights, this is beyond the 12 miles remember, it’s out beyond that zone, or military exercises are inconsistent with its interpretation of the Convention. And that has led to serious difficulties.

More than a decade now ago, there was a collision between a Chinese interceptor aircraft and a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, the Chinese pilot was killed and his plane crashed, the U.S. aircraft was forced to land on an emergency basis on a Chinese airbase. And unfortunately, with the last couple of years, nothing that serious has occurred, but there have been recurring games, for the lack of a better word, of international chicken between Chinese interceptor aircraft and U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. And the risk of an incident there is real. And again, arises from the U.S. goal of assuring, particularly as a major power in the region and as a leading naval power, that its high seas rights are preserved. The erosion of that would be a serious blow to U.S. security interests, and China’s assertions that at least within the EEZ, conduct of that nature is not allowed of absent Chinese consent.

MM: So, lest our audience assume that basically every tension over the Law of the Sea somehow involves the United States and China or let’s be honest, sometimes just China and its neighbors, tell us a little bit about the United States and Canada and its disagreements on freedom of navigation.

JB: What could be friendlier than the United States and Canada? But things do happen when the issues are ones critical to open navigation to the principles of Law of the Sea and to access resources and that’s shown up between the United States and Canada on an abiding disagreement regarding the fabled Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Canadian island chain, that once upon a time explorers hoped led directly to El Dorado, but now with melting arctic ice may offer a way through the great circle route to significantly reduced transit time between the U.S. east coast and Asia. 

The Canadian position is that they are internal waters and if you recall, internal waters are equivalent to sovereign territory, there are no rights of third party nations and the rights abide exclusively with the coastal state. And in some ways, this has become a key psychological element to the Canadians, the Northwest Passage being truly part of the “Canadian north” or the “Canadian arcti”c, however you define it. The U.S. perspective is rather different. It is that the Northwest Passage is in fact an international strait, a way to connect two sets of high seas, and is subject to the transit rights available to third party nations under international law. And that therefore for example, a U.S. ship could proceed through the northwest passage without consent or notification, provided that it abided by the rules applicable to transit passage.

This disagreement remains more theoretical than real in the sense that traffic obviously through the Northwest Passage is limited. The two states have agreed to share information regarding such passages without the United States in anyway acknowledging that Canadian waters are internal and without Canada acknowledging in any fashion that the Northwest Passage is an international strait. And part of the disagreement turns on what an international strait mean. What does it mean to be used to permit passage between two sets of high seas or EEZs? Does “real use” constitute part of that definition? Because historically transit to the Northwest Passage relative to most other international straits has been very limited.

The U.S. view is that it can be used and it has been used whether or not it’s a large number of times and hence it’s a strait. The Canadian view is that that’s not the case because usage has been highly limited and doesn’t correspond to what has been historically associated with international straits. There are ironies to the position on both sides, I will note that it’s not entirely clear that it would be a geopolitical victory for the U.S. if it is an international strait, because for example, that means that Russian reconnaissance aircraft are free to fly down the straits under rights of transit. On the other hand, from the U..S standpoint, the principle at stake is critical because if there is any evolving body of law that erodes the definition of international straits, it’s a clear detriment to a leading maritime and a naval nation like the United States, so it does matter.

MM: So, the Canada issue and the strait versus internal water alludes to the fact that the ocean is changing and that as a result of the changes in the ocean, it is also then driving changes in the Law of the Sea, if not the law itself, but in terms of evolving issues that are coming up. So, besides the Canada strait versus internal waters issue, what other issues do you see coming down the pike for the Law of the Sea?

JB: Well, the issue you just alluded to is one of them. And as you also mentioned it goes well beyond the question of the northwest passage. As we’ve talked about before, the definition of the low tide line is a very important marker, one of the key ways, not the only way, but one of the key ways that the baselines from which the maritime zones are measured is defined. We had a discussion about the difference between a rock and an island.

Well imagine if as it seems to be the case, global sea levels are rising, there are currently islands that are a meter or two above sea level. Given another 50 or a 100 years, if current trends continue, that could fundamental impact on the definition of maritime zones. They may be retreating landward. There are islands which would disappear, eliminating EEZs, or territorial seas associated with those islands. And there’s no resolution today about whether the baseline should be frozen and the way the borders are defined today is embedded, at least for some period of time, or whether they’re ambulator: the legal word for walking around, whether they reflect adjustments in sea level. 

There are groups under the International Bar Association and U.N. auspices looking at it and it’s a real question. Let alone dealing with the broader question which is not purely a Law of the Sea question of what becomes of island states, small nations in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean, it’s not simply a question of maritime borders disappearing, but of a country disappearing. And what is the status of a country’s sovereignty and what happens to its population? So it’s a good thing that it isn’t going to happen in the next five years, because it’s going to take a lot longer to resolve issues of that depth and complexity.

MM:  So, as is Sea Control tradition since we’re approaching the end, please walk us through what it is that you’re reading right now. You obviously have a very interesting and diverse background in terms of you know your education. So, tell us a bit about what you’ve been reading lately, whether its Law of the Sea-related or maritime-related, even if it’s something fun you found online recently.

JB: Yeah, well I think I describe two things. One is kind of a pure Law of the Sea book, but it covers a bit different topics then we’ve been discussing but one that the audience might be interested in is and that is a book by Natalie Klein on maritime security and the Law of the Sea that talks about issues we really couldn’t talk about today, including piracy and weapons of mass destruction and issues of intersection of security issues and Law of the Sea. And I’ve also been reading a book on the Barbary pirates which is a kind of a classic set of questions that relates to the history of U.S. frigates but also these, some of these issues were present at the beginning of the United States, issues of control of piracy, freedom of navigation. If the Barbary pirates were anything, they were dedicated to limiting freedom of navigation and exploiting the sea in a way that was at odds with freedom of commerce and of security.

MM: Wonderful, well thank you very much again professor for being with us on Sea Control and best of luck with all of your work. And hopefully we’ll be able to welcome you back on again at some point in the future

JB: My pleasure, thanks a lot.

John A. Burgess is Professor of Practice and Executive Director of the LLM Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He teaches courses on international finance transactions, international securities regulation and cross-border mergers and acquisitions.

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer of Sea Control and Assistant Director of Fletcher’s Maritime Studies Program.

Sea Control 139: What Does It Mean To Be A SMWDC Warfare Tactics Instructor?

By Matthew Merighi 

The Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) is a critical element of the Navy’s Surface Force Strategy: Return to Sea Control.The command’s four lines of operation are advanced tactical training and tactical guidance development, operational support to combatant commanders, numbered fleet commanders and task force commanders, and capabilities assessments, experimentation, and future warfighting requirements. A critical supporting element in each of these focus areas are the men and women who are trained as Warfare Tactics Instructors (WTIs). 

In this interview, Sally DeBoer (SD) spoke with four WTIs who are on the cutting edge of the cultural shift taking place in the surface Navy. Our guests are Lt. Tyson Eberhardt (TE), who is an Anti-Submarine Warfare/Anti-Surface Warfare Tactics Instructor (ASW/SUW), Lt. Brittany Hubbard (BH), who is an Amphibious Warfare Tactics Instructor (AMW), Lt. Benjamin Olivas (BO), who is an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Warfare Tactics Instructor (IAMD), and Lt. Damon Goodrich-Houska (DGH), who is an ASW/SUW WTI. Read the transcript or download the audio below. 

Download Sea Control 139: What Does It Mean To Be A SMWDC Warfare Tactics Instructor?

SD: Welcome back! On this episode of Sea Control, our guests today are four Warfare Tactics Instructors from the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) in San Diego, CA. Thank you all so much for taking time out of your schedule to join us today. Let’s begin by getting a little background on each of you. What did you do prior to coming to SMWDC, and what drew you to the command?

TE: I was the ASWO officer and navigator on USS Preble as a division officer, I really enjoyed the tactical aspect of getting to meet sonar technicians and finding submarines. As a division officer, the opportunity on shore duty to expand my knowledge base and help other ASWOs drew me to the command.

DGH: I served on USS Reuben James and as the training officer on the USS Rushmore, part of that tour was going through a training cycle where you get the crew and all the watchstanders up to the level they need to be to deploy. With that experience, I got to conduct drills, run through scenarios, and train sailors. What drew me to SMWDC was the opportunity to learn and implement advanced tactics, then train warfighters on how to fight more effectively, I really enjoy ASW especially.

BH: I spent my first division officer tour on the USS Green Bay, and then I moved to a destroyer, the USS Lassen, as the damage control assistant. What interested me in SMWDC was going back to my roots as an amphibious sailor. A lot of the mission sets we conducted with the Marine Corps taught me how to be a liaison and work on the relationships between sailors and our USMC counterparts. That is what interested me in joining this program.

BO: Before I came here, I was the communications officer on USS Paul Hamilton and then I was the training officer on USS Michael Murphy, both out of Pearl Harbor. I served as air warfare coordinator and I came from a background where most of my captains knew this domain really well; I truly enjoyed that billet. Working with sailors and teaching people was something I also found enjoyable. When I heard about SMWDC, I thought what better way to use all this knowledge I have accumulated, pass it on, and make a difference?

SD: What impact do you see from the work you have done at SMWDC

DGH: One of the biggest things I have seen is a culture shift, and one of the main aspects is the PBED (Plan, Brief, Execute and Debrief) model. If you look at elite athletes, they don’t just go out and do their event, they will study, watch videos of themselves doing the actions, look over the minute details to improve, as well as watch competitors to adapt techniques and methods.

So we go out and do Surface Warfare Advanced Tactics and Training (SWATT) and have WTIs on each ship and, after doing various events, we will actually show the crew and the watchstanders a replay of the event, including voice recordings of reports. Walking through that, we start with the WTIs doing the majority of the presentation with the watchstanders and crew jumping in here and there, but by the end of the training, the watch teams are running things on their own and identifying issues themselves. So, seeing that training change hands from the WTIs to the ship’s crew, to where they are able to conduct their own training and self-improvement, is really great.

TE: We also conduct training ashore, so my primary job as an advanced sonar instructor is to provide this advanced tactical instruction to officers that will go out and conduct training. This classroom training is another important part of our mission. Getting to work with officers before they go to sea is another exciting part of our mission here.

BO: We tend to pride ourselves on not just conducting training but also building knowledge. One of the things that we have done is try to apply the same type of teaching approaches we learn from our counterparts. We put them through the ringer here in terms of making them go up and do a brief, do it well, and do it repeatedly to the point where they’ve put in so many hours, done so much research, taken and internalized these techniques…this goes for all of the schools here. So when you see a sailor give a brief, you know you will get a certain product because it’s been tailored a certain way. Since we have been doing it this way, we’ve seen a great payoff.

SD: How does the reported success of the WTI program in improving tactical proficiency translate to future training development for the Navy’s SWOs?

BH: I think that the three different schoolhouses that we currently have provide a good baseline for how we expect our future SWOs to participate in developing tactical proficiency. We take an elite cadre of junior officers and we put them through these schoolhouses and then, as we complete our production tour, which is anywhere from two or three years, those same officers then go back out to the fleet as department heads that will eventually be XOs and COs. So we are bringing our tactical proficiency to a new standard.

DGH: Another point is that as we develop new tactics and doctrine, we get a chance to take it out to sea with real world watchstanders to test it out and make sure that it is up to par, that it’s effective, and if not, we can make adjustments very rapidly.

SD: Is the emphasis more on teaching rigid existing doctrine or on allowing WTIs to develop and pursue new, original ideas?

DGH: It’s a little of both. We do rely on doctrine, but we also take our WTIs and ensure that we apply rigor, academic rigor, to our doctrine and tactics to make sure they are in fact reliable, and if there are issues, then again we identify them, correct them, and ensure the WTIs are empowered to enact changes and improve things.

TE: I think to Damon’s point, we have WTIs out at sea who have a responsibility to know the doctrine and the guidance, but have the opportunity to think critically and bring new ideas to the organizations. We’ve taken a more active role in events like the SCC (Submarine Command Course) where we have a chance to try out new tactics and see how effective they can be, then feed that back into formalized doctrine.

BO:  One of the good things about being able to test out new TTPs and doctrine is also being able to apply those things earlier and develop that muscle memory. The more we internalize tactics, the more they are applied and become part of the ship. Out there on the water where officers are asked to make quick decisions, this muscle memory represents a force multiplier for the entire fleet.

SD: How do you see yourselves speeding up and improving the Navy’s ability to field new thinking and capabilities?

 BH: A lot of what we do when we go out to ships and in the schoolhouse is not only study current doctrine but also evaluate new ways of utilizing that doctrine. We receive immediate feedback from the ships, and then we conduct workshops and working groups that take a really hard look at what we are currently teaching and make sure it is the best way to conduct that event.

BO:  The other thing we’ve hit on in terms of improvement is the impact that we see in the classroom, the way we teach. Being able to sit down and listen to briefs and take them in has created a much better experience for the students, they take on a lot of what we’ve done and they “get it.” We have created these lessons so when they walk away from classrooms they’re ready to use what they have learned. We use the ARCS (attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction) approach – we see that as a feedback loop for the students. Once we have their attention, we present relevant information. Confidence means that they can walk away feeling like they “get it,” and satisfaction (S) means they can go to their ships and into combat or an exercise and satisfactorily apply the things we’ve taught them. 

DGH: To add on, in operational environments, the more we get WTIs out to the ships as DHs, especially once we hit that critical mass where there’s one WTI per ship, we will have already created a network of WTIs that all know how to get in touch with subject matter experts (SMEs) in various areas. Much of that reach back comes here (SMWDC HQ), and we have good communications with the aviation and undersea communities, etc.

As things change and real world events occur, we rapidly take in feedback and develop new tactics and doctrine as needed. We can model new systems going into the fleet, and any feedback from doctrine and tactics used in the real world can be brought into the classroom to make sure that the next set of WTIs that head out to train others have the most up-to-date information. We are not teaching out-of-date stuff, we are teaching the latest and greatest.

SD: What kind of collaboration and integration do WTIs have with one another and different communities (aviation, undersea, etc.)?

BH: So, one way that we do this is anytime we have a course that we are trying to teach or area of interest we need more information on, we reach out to that community. For example, we are participating in an SCC (Sea Combat Commander) course for various DESRONs and PHIBRONs working through training cycles. We recently reached out to the aviation weapons schools for input and participation to make sure we are as tactically proficient in the relevant areas we are teaching as they are.

TE: Along those lines, an important part of what WTIs do is that broad reach. While we train WTIs here at SMWDC, others are working for various other schools and groups and counterparts that have a specific focus. That allows us as a community of WTIs to try and foster cross-domain thinking about problems that don’t just affect one area, but affect the whole spectrum of naval warfare.

SD: How can you work to keep your skills current in an age of rapid change? 

DGH: We have a lot of WTIs here that are traveling, going out and doing various events, training aboard ships, and getting a lot of great experiences, such as live fire events, things that previously were something an officer might get to do once or twice in a career, we have WTIs doing multiple times a year.

What we ended up starting was what we call “Tactical Taco Tuesday,” which we hold multiple times a month. It is a long working lunch where we cross-train between domains, IAMD folks, ASUW, ASW, and amphibious folks. We also pull in other warfare areas as well, such as CW or Intelligence, and get some good cross-training in a less formal environment that allows for really good quality discussion and in-depth questions – plus everyone brings food so it builds an esprit de’corps that keeps the WTI network strong.

When we go on to our next tours, we know who to talk to and who the experts are. The more formal way we do this is that when WTIs come back to the schoolhouse, which we call Re-Bluing, we conduct refresher courses where the latest and greatest TTPs are taught.

SD: What do you think is next for SMWDC and the WTI program? How do you envision WTIs being utilized five or ten years down the line?

BH: I think that as WTIs, this is simply a two or three year tour, but when we leave this production tour, we do not take off our patch, it is still up to us to continue remaining as tactically proficient as our patch would designate us to be. So in 5-10 years, the goal is to be DHs, XOs, and COs, all the while continuing to build that knowledge base that we started back during a WTI production tour.

DGH: As we have more and more senior leadership who are WTI-qualified, it’s going to push an overall culture change, much like the phrase “a rising tide raises all boats,” it’s that idea that as increasingly more senior leadership has experience as WTIs, they will maintain that emphasis on being the best, drilling hard, working on doctrine and tactics, and that will really shift our focus.

WTIs are supposed to be warriors and thinkers and teachers, so when we get out and stand tactical watches, those same WTIs will be thinkers and work on doctrine, tactics, and improving existing processes as well as developing new systems and ideas, while also serving as teachers, in that they will train watchstanders, crews, and even strike groups. Ultimately, this will improve our warfighting ability.

BO: One of the things that we really hammer home is that this command is primarily O-3s and O-4s, which in the grand scheme is very junior in rank, but we are the ones doing the homework and teaching people in ranks above and below. Ultimately, I think what we are trying to get at is that the tactical experts will be the gatekeepers and have the breadth of knowledge to build something great.

TE: The WTI program is an effort to put warfighting first among SWOs. As SWOs we have so many things we have to be proficient at, but the bottom line is we need to be warfighters, and this requires an advanced understanding of tactics. And by building this cadre of WTIs, for years down the line as DHs and beyond, we will be making an impact by bringing that to the fleet

SD: What is your message to aspiring surface warfare officers who are interested SMWDC

TE: I think what most excites me about getting to be a part of this command is that the Navy is investing in my level of knowledge and in my ability to go out and lead sailors in the future. It is exciting to train others, to do these exercises. The bottom line is that every single day I come to work I learn something new, and the organization is committed to training me to a higher level of knowledge that will pay off for years as I have come to a whole new appreciation for expertise in surface warfare.

DGH: For aspiring SWOs, as a JO, as a non-qualified SWO working toward that pin, you have much to learn and focus on, but number one I would encourage young SWOs to learn as much as you can and focus on tactics, but communicate early with your chain of command that you’re interested in the WTI program if you have a passion for tactics and training. Of course, work on your qualifications and do your job well, but there are many opportunities to become qualified in warfare areas as a JO, whether it’s ASWE for a second tour or various air warfare qualifications on an Aegis platform. Focus on those and work toward being the best tactician you can in whatever position you are in – strive to be the “go-to” guy or gal in that position. So when you do apply to be a WTI, those recommendations will really help.

BH: For SWOs looking to come here, this is probably going to be a once-in a-career type of opportunity. Every day when I come to work, my job is to take research, take what we’re doing, take a schedule, and make it the best that I can for the fleet, event, or scenario. There wasn’t a time in the first four years of my career where someone asked me to research tactics or to figure out a problem – but for all SWOs this is your time. You’re two to three years out of your career that you can spend just focusing on making the warfare areas better, building relationships, and networking. In that way it is different from many tours you could do otherwise.

BO: Looking back on everything, I think all of us are close enough to our JO tours to realize that being a junior officer onboard a warship is not an easy task. It is a lot of sustained hard work that keeps you up many nights studying. We understand how hard you’ve worked for your pin. The shore tour is a time when many look to take some gas off the pedal and regroup. Here we have an opportunity to do that, but we also have a lot of work to do, but it’s good work. It is something that is going to make a difference.

Quite frankly, of all the people I have worked with in my career, there is no one I would rather work with. The people here are trying to make a difference, and that work will echo in the Navy for many years to come. My takeaway to you is, if you’re qualified in an area, pursue it rigorously, look at the pubs, talk to the watchstanders, and ask as many questions as you can, because one day you may be the one teaching others to do that and it is going to matter. That is why we were created.

SD: Thank you all so much for taking time out of your day to join us here on Sea Control and for leaving our listeners more informed about the work you’re doing and the mission of the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center. We hope you’ll join us again! For our listeners – this has been another episode of Sea Control. Thanks for listening!

Lt. Benjamin Olivas is a native of El Paso, Texas and earned his bachelor’s degree in history from the United States Naval Academy in 2011. He received a commission in the Navy and was selected to be a Surface Warfare Officer. Olivas is an Integrated Air and Missile defense Warfare Tactics Instructor (IAMD WTI), and currently serves as the Standardization Officer at the Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) in San Diego, CA.

Lt. Brittany Hubbard is a native of Grand Chain, Illinois and earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of Illinois in 2012. Hubbard is currently at SMWDC Sea Combat Division as an Amphibious Warfare Tactics Instructor.

Lieutenant Damon Goodrich-Houska graduated from Indiana University in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public and Environmental Affairs. Damon earned his commission through Officer Candiate School in 2010. Additionally, he earned his master’s degree in Cyber Security from National University in 2016. Lieutenant Goodrich-Houska is currently assigned to Navy Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center as N5 Anti-Submarine Warfare Assistant, N5 Doctrine & Tactics Branch. Damon completed the Legacy SuASW WTI course at the top of his class, and completed the ASUW/ASW WTI Pilot Course as the honor graduate.

LT Tyson Eberhardt is a native of Seattle, Washington and earned his bachelor’s degree in from Princeton University in 2008. He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Eberhardt earned his commission through Officer Candidate School in 2013. He is currently an ASW/SUW Warfare Tactics Instructor at SMWDC Sea Combat Division specializing in active sonar systems and tactics. During his time at SMWDC he also served as the uniformed lead for SHAREM 188 with the ROK Navy.

Sally DeBoer is an Associate Editor with CIMSEC, and previously served as CIMSEC’s president from 2016-2017. 

Matthew Merighi is the Senior Producer for Sea Control. 

Strategy and Ship Design – History’s Lessons For Future Warship Concepts

Future Surface Combatant Topic Week

By Harry Halem


The development of the Future Surface Combatant (FSC) family of warships has widespread implications. These ships will form the backbone of the Navy’s surface force, and add sorely needed numbers to the fleet in general. They may also signal a reorganization of the Navy from its current strike group system to a more amorphous model. Additionally, the FSC’s projected service life indicates that it will encounter and employ technologies that today are only in the developmental stages. Creating requirements for this ship is obviously important.

However, proper assessment of the above factors in the FSC’s development is impossible without a broader conception of America strategy, the Navy’s role in that strategy, and the place of surface combatants within the Navy. New technologies may change the way wars are fought at the tactical and operational level, but policymakers and naval officers must organize those developments under a broader umbrella to understand their true application and effects.

History demonstrates the need to understand strategy, and a service’s role in that strategy, when modernizing a military force. In particular, a comparison of Britain’s largely successful naval modernization before the First World War can be compared to the less successful naval modernization and construction attempts in the U.S. from 1991 to the present. Comparing the underlying clarity of strategy in both modernization attempts offers major lessons to the modern policymaker that should be applied to the FSC’s development.

These lessons should reveal the primacy of sea control in orienting warship and fleet design. The FSC trio of ships should be designed to embody the surface Navy’s distributed lethality concept of operational warfighting against advanced A2/AD threats. These ships will take on specialized roles: the large combatant as an arsenal ship with numerous VLS cells to provide fires; the small surface combatant as an ISR-laden scout to probe the A2/AD envelope, hunt submarines, and retarget missiles; and the unmanned ship as a highly stealthy deception platform employing electronic warfare systems to lure and jam adversary assets. Together, these ships will provide a lasting sea control capability against an ever more challenging threat environment. 

Strategy and Fleet Design

In particular, one can employ the idea of a “strategic concept” to connect national strategy with a service’s strategy and force structure. Samuel Huntington coined the term in a 1954 Proceedings essay entitled “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” One can define a strategic concept as the way a specific service’s capabilities and missions fit into an overall national security strategy.

Huntington’s essay tracks the U.S. Navy’s development, contrasting the pre-1880s coastal and frigate Navy with the post-Spanish American War Mahanian Navy. In the former case, America’s primary objectives were located on land, giving the Navy the role of denying foreign powers access to the American coastline, protecting American international trade, and harassing enemy commerce and light warships during conflict. The Navy was subordinate to the Army, as most threats came from land, not sea. The Spanish-American War changed the U.S.’ strategic position, and changed the Navy’s role to defending American interests in the Atlantic and Pacific against European and Asian powers. Consequently, the Navy became the U.S.’ strategically important service. These differing strategic concepts created different fleets. The pre-1880s strategic concept necessitated a coastal navy with a handful of long-range frigates for blue ocean missions, while the post-Spanish American War concept required a battlefleet that could gain command of the seas.

Huntington’s argument specifically addresses the U.S. Navy’s strategic concept in the Cold War. A change in the international balance of power from multipolarity between states with land and naval power to bipolarity between a Eurasian land faction and an insular naval faction required a redefinition of the Navy’s strategic concept.

The present international balance of power has shifted from its 1991 state, and continues to shift as America’s adversaries expand their militaries. China approaches qualitative parity and quantitative superiority in the Pacific, while Russia and Iran can use long-range missiles and, in Russia’s case, a large submarine fleet coupled with a small but modernizing surface force. Each can challenge American sea control in their respective regions. For the first time since the Second World War, the U.S. faces adversaries in two hemispheres that are capable of not only denying it sea control, but also establishing sea control themselves. In the face of such a dramatic shift in the balance of power, understanding American strategy and the Navy’s role in that strategy is a prerequisite for sound fleet design.

The Scheme and Ship Design – Britain before World War I

This can best be shown by illustration of a situation in which a Navy had a clear strategic concept. The pre-First World War Royal Navy, dominated by Jacky Fisher and Winston Churchill, had a strong conception of Britain’s strategy and its own strategic concept. This enabled the success of “the scheme,” Fisher’s modernization program. Remarkably, this success occurred during a period when Britain’s government only loosely understood the implications of the policy choices, as Aaron Friedberg and Donald Kagan articulate.

Establishing the Royal Navy’s strategic concept during the pre-war period requires a brief review of British grand strategy from 1905 onward. Germany was slowly recognized as the primary threat to British power, particularly after the Russo-Japanese War. Britain’s desire to retain a free hand led to a reliance on its naval power, rather than a land army, to deter Germany. In the event that deterrence failed, Britain would use naval power to degrade the German economy through blockade while it mobilized resources to support its continental coalition partners.

This dictated a strategic concept for the Royal Navy that held sea control as its central objective. The concentration of a battle squadron in the North Sea would most effectively achieve this goal. Hunting down enemy raiding squadrons and protecting British and allied commerce was another a major component of the sea control objective. In addition, the Navy was expected to influence the land war through the aforementioned blockade of the Central Powers, impossible if Germany could operate freely at sea. Tangential to this were limited power projection attempts, including the Cuxhaven Raid and the much larger Gallipoli Campaign.

Fisher’s “scheme” is a reflection of this strategic concept, as demonstrated by its main components, the dreadnought battleship and the battlecruiser. The dreadnought fulfilled the need to deny Germany naval parity. The role of the dreadnought is not remarkable – a capital ship is inherently designed to destroy other capital ships. However, by leveraging technology, namely long-range gunnery advances and new propulsion techniques, Fisher and the Royal Navy were able to make all non-dreadnought battleships obsolete, forcing Germany to devote even more resources to its Navy in the pre-war period, or, as eventually occurred, surrender naval superiority to Britain.

HMS Dreadnought in 1906. (Wikimedia Commons)

The dreadnought’s development has strategic aspects, but the invention of the battlecruiser indicates the clear link between strategy and effective fleet design. Conceived by Fisher as “cruiser-killers,” the ships were armed with dreadnought-style guns, but eschewed the armor of a battleship for additional speed. As conceived, the battlecruiser could outrun anything powerful enough to destroy it, and catch anything lightly armed enough to fall prey to its heavy guns. When used in their intended role, such as at the Falklands, the ships excelled. Even the battlecruiser’s notable failures, such as at Jutland and Dogger Bank, had more to do with tactical handling than the inherent concept of the ship class.

After Fisher departed the admiralty in 1910, the new First Lord, Winston Churchill, continued the scheme’s progress, frequently taking advice from Fisher on fleet design and expansion issues. This continuity of thought up until the Great War began gave the scheme remarkable staying power. Indeed, the Fisher-Churchill fleet served Britain through both world wars. The Revenge and Queen Elizabeth-class battleships are two notable examples of this fact. The ships remained useful not only because of the quality of their construction, but also because they were designed with a specific role that remained strategically relevant for Britain over the entirety of their service lives.

Post-Cold War Strategic Malaise and Fleet Development

The same cannot be said of the U.S. Navy’s development projects since 1991. While America’s national security strategy shifted throughout the Cold War, the underlying political and strategic situation remained consistent, facilitating remarkable continuity in the Navy’s role. The 1982 Maritime Strategy and successive strategic documents were the clearest articulations of this approach, which one could term a strategic concept, to borrow from Huntington. In the event of a conflict, the Navy would use the Mediterranean as a staging ground for strikes against advancing Soviet forces while protecting allied convoys from submarines. Russia would need to divert attention from the central front, while the U.S. and its allies would gain operational flexibility. A 600-ship Navy of supercarriers; large and small surface combatants; attack and ballistic missiles submarines; and amphibious ships, emerged from this approach.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 created a new strategic environment within which the Navy had difficulty articulating its purpose. The Navy published two operational and strategic documents during the 1990s: …From the Sea in 1992 and Forward…From the Sea in 1994. Both rest on the assumption of absolute sea control, and indicated a shift in focus to littoral operations. One can derive the Zumwalt-class destroyer and LCS from this focus. The former was designed in part to replace the battleship in the naval gunfire support role while using stealth technology to avoid detection by enemy shore installations. The latter was intended to counter low- and medium-level littoral threats like diesel-electric submarines, mines, and, fast-attack craft.

The Navy’s post-Cold War missions did support this role. During the Gulf War, the Navy used 288 Tomahawk missiles to strike Iraqi ground targets, while the embarked MAGTF in the Persian Gulf combined with the First Marine Division’s frontal assault on Iraqi positions in Kuwait pinned Saddam’s forces in place for Schwarzkopf’s turning movement. The Navy played a critical facilitating role in the opening stages of the war in Afghanistan, providing air support for Special Forces and CIA operatives. During Iraq, the Navy played a similar role. However, the 700,000-strong ground force deployment during the Gulf War overshadowed the Navy’s strike role, while the counterinsurgency campaigns of the early 21st century further diminished the Navy’s public visibility.

Moreover, …From the Sea and Forward…From the Sea were based on assumptions that no longer hold true. The Navy can no longer assume universal sea control. This is most apparent in the Asia-Pacific. In 1991, the PLAN was unsuited for missions beyond China’s immediate coastline. It possessed no aircraft carriers, and had only one SSBN, precluding steady nuclear deterrence patrols. So pronounced was China’s naval inferiority that, during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, an American aircraft carrier and amphibious assault ship were able to sail through the Taiwan Straits without fear of retaliation. The U.S. had achieved absolute naval supremacy in the Pacific, preventing China from isolating American regional allies, and constricting Chinese freedom of movement in wartime.

Today, the PLAN surface combatant fleet outnumbers the U.S. Navy’s, while the PLAN has nearly achieved numerical parity with the U.S. attack submarine force. It currently operates one ex-Soviet STOBAR carrier, will operate two STOBAR carriers by 2020, and will field an 85,000-ton CATOBAR carrier by 2022. Moreover, the PLA employs long-range anti-ship missiles like the DF-21 to create an anti-access bubble in the South and East China Seas, within which its surface fleet can operate relatively unopposed. Littoral operations and power projection are made less feasible in an environment where long-range missiles force American warships to remain hundreds of miles away from hostile coastlines.

Regarding recent U.S. Navy surface combatant programs, the Zumwalt-class destroyer incorporates a number of technological advances. It is one of the world’s first stealth ships, has the potential to use energy weapons due to increased power generation, and was designed to use terminally guided artillery shells that were eventually cancelled due to cost. The program ran over budget, was cut from 32 ships to just three, and has experienced multiple mechanical issues during testing. The Littoral Combat Ship has fared slightly better, but still has budgetary and mechanical issues. Additionally, survivability and lethality concerns have compelled a potential “frigate” spinoff class, indicating the initial design’s weaknesses in the emerging strategic environment.

PEARL HARBOR (Sep. 4, 2016) Littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) returns to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam after experiencing an engineering casualty while transiting to the Western Pacific. Coronado departed Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Aug. 26 to continue its independent deployment to the Western Pacific. Prior to departing Pearl Harbor the ship participated in the Rim of the Pacific 2016 exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Katarzyna Kobiljak/Released)

Both the Zumwalt and LCS were built to field advancing technologies that, according to the transformation doctrine of the early 21st century, would revolutionize warfare. Transformation proponents may have been overzealous in predicting the initial operability of their technologies, but the general assertion that networked computing, combined with precision weapons, stealth, unmanned systems, and other weapons developments would indelibly change tactics and operations is being proven correct today. Indeed, the LCS and Zumwalt may been seen as test projects for the advances that will dominate warfare in the foreseeable future: automation, stealth technology, modularity, unmanned systems, and networking.

However, the transformation-RMA concept of warfighting did not translate into a coherent strategy that directed force structure, particularly in the context of the Navy. This was likely a historical accident. September 11th forced the Bush Administration, and the military as a whole, to entirely reorient its paradigm of war against a non-state enemy. The RMA, in contrast, was intended to revolutionize conventional warfare. Such a shift in threat perception did not translate well to naval development, and is in part responsible for the difficulties that the Zumwalt and LCS experienced.

Now, just as the military had adapted to the counterinsurgency framework of the early 21st century, it must return to a more traditional situation, albeit with persistent non-state threats. This strategic complexity and confusion can help explain the Zumwalt’s and LCS’ developmental difficulties. The Zumwalt may be an advanced ship, but its exact role is amorphous. The LCS’ modular nature appears to offer planners a greater breadth of employment options, but in reality decreases the overall lethality of the surface fleet.

An important lesson for the FSC’s development is that a solid conception of strategy, and from it the role each ship must play in an envisioned fleet, is paramount for effective acquisition and development. Therefore, a discussion of America’s national security strategy, and the Navy’s role in that strategy, is required.

American Strategy and the Navy’s Role

U.S. strategy is derived from the balance of power it currently faces internationally. Three sorts of threats undermine America’s international status. First, major state challengers like China and Russia threaten to undermine U.S. interests in the Pacific and Europe. China combines an expanding Navy with economic initiatives including the NDB, AIIB, and New Silk Road to create an independent Asian power bloc. Russia manufactures instability in Eastern Europe while using its foothold in Syria to wrap around the U.S. flank, and threaten the Balkans and Southern NATO. Second, medium challengers use traditional and non-traditional means to threaten American interests. Iran and North Korea fall into this group, with the former’s use of Shia militias in Iraq and Syria to increase its influence and the latter’s nuclear bullying, where both are designed to decrease American prestige and influence. Third, non-state actors, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, create pervasive instability in strategically important regions, while consistently attempting to strike American and allied citizens. These threats do not exist in isolation – multiple hostile actors operate within the same theater, as is the case in the Middle East.

The Navy’s role in responding to these threats returns to the Mahanian concept of “command of the seas.” The U.S. today faces a naval threat similar in effect to the great power fleets of the early 20th century. However, this threat is not expressed through battle squadrons intended for decisive fleet actions, but through an anti-access area denial (A2/AD) network. Each threat creates this network differently. As previously stated, China uses a more traditional fleet to establish sea control within the wider A2/AD bubble its long-range missiles create. On the lower end of the spectrum, Iran’s focus is on denying the U.S. sea control, rather than achieving its own regional command of the seas. Rather than investing in surface combatants and attack submarines, it uses missiles, fast-attack craft, and midget submarines for sea denial. Ironically, this bears greatest similarity to the situation …From the Sea and Forward…From the Sea initially envisioned, albeit with the added and pervasive element of advanced long-range missiles. Russian capabilities are more similar to Chinese ones, but Russia’s less advanced and smaller navy cannot achieve meaningful sea control in the same way that the PLAN can.

Regardless of the differences, RMA predictions enable all these A2/AD networks. America’s adversaries use long-range missiles and ISR architectures based on networked computing to counter the U.S. network of global super bases and forward deployed assets. A decade ago, the U.S. could reliably assume that, in the event of conflict, it could shuttle soldiers, aircraft, and other equipment to any point in the world without obstruction. Moreover, force deployments were relatively small – the Iraq War’s peak troop strength of 168,000 is dwarfed by Korea’s 325,000 troops, and Vietnam’s 500,000-plus-soldier commitment. Today, great power conflict is viable, creating the potential for larger force deployments, all while sea control is no longer guaranteed.

Ships must therefore be designed to combat the great power adversaries that field these A2/AD networks, rather than to focus on projecting power against land targets, or counter the low-tech littoral assets of rogue regimes. The Zumwalt and LCS will have a role in this new fleet architecture, but some of their original missions such as naval gunfire support and littoral dominance will have less relevance.

Nuclear weapons also complicate the Navy’s role. Russia, China, and North Korea are nuclear states, while Iran can obtain nuclear capabilities. Inland strikes against logistics and communications facilities could prompt a nuclear response and other forms of escalation. Using the Navy to blockade hostile nations and shifting its focus from power projection to sea control has military and political benefits, as it gives the U.S. greater control over a conflict’s escalation.

In modern conflict, applying decisive firepower is less dependent upon concentrating forces than before. Thus, although the Navy’s task will be more similar to the traditional role of a great power sea service than it has been since World War II, it will not need to seek out an enemy battlefleet in force in the traditional manner. Instead, its targets will be networked manned and unmanned air forces, ships, submarines, and land-based installations spread out over vast distances. The U.S. disposition is similar to this. The Navy can retain the CSG/ESG structure for certain operations, but the distributed lethality concept indicates the beginning of a concerted effort to network spread-out American warships.

The Role of Surface Combatants and the FSC

From an operational and strategic standpoint, one can identify many similarities between the A2/AD-network competition the U.S. will face in the near future and the First World War’s western front. Networking allows a broader distribution of forces, and decreases the need for, and effectiveness of, excessive target hardening. Nevertheless, one can envision a large-scale Sino-American conflict developing into a war of attrition in which China attempts to create an envelope within which it can establish uncontested sea control, and subdue American regional bases. Concurrently, the U.S. will use submarines and its own long-range missiles to punch through China’s A2/AD network, much like infiltration tactics and maneuver warfare schemes were used to break trench lines a century ago.

In this new environment, surface combatants can no longer be purely defensive ships as they are today. The Arleigh Burkes’ and Ticonderogas’ air defense capabilities will remain important, but surface combatants must have the means to strike enemy targets offensively, and not simply to protect American capital ships. Submarines will be the primary tool used to penetrate and degrade A2/AD networks, but surface combatants provide heavier capabilities in higher volumes than undersea assets in more domains. In addition to their strike role, surface combatants must be able to detect and destroy enemy submarines. The Pacific’s geography, combined with Russo-Chinese force structure, makes this an imperative. Outside of wartime, the FSC will also conduct presence missions in contested Asian and European maritime regions. Ideally, older ships like the Arleigh Burke could provide shore strike capabilities, while amphibious ships equipped with land-attack missiles would support naval landings. This overall structure would free up the FSC for greater sea control specialization.

The Navy’s overarching operational goal will clearly be to break down an A2/AD network. While submarines can avoid detection and hit critical nodes in this network, the FSC would best be used to provide sustained salvo fire against exposed targets, while delivering overwhelming firepower when a more significant target presents itself. In peacetime, the FSC’s components may operate independently while conducting presence or deterrence missions. However, during wartime, the best way to take advantage of networking and distributed lethality is to consistently use all three FSCs in tandem. Much as the Grand Fleet served as a blockade force and battlefleet in its station at Scapa Flow, these FSC SAGs would blockade China’s maritime space in the Asia-Pacific, while also forming the core of America’s Pacific battlefleet. Each FSC would have a specific role in fulfilling this strategy.

The large FSC would form the backbone of the SAG’s striking power. Much like the projected Arsenal Ship concept of the early 1990s, this ship must be maximized for its offensive firepower, using a low freeboard and long-range missiles to avoid retaliation. As envisioned, this ship would operate in two ways. First, it would receive targeting information from other assets deployed closer to enemy positions, launching strikes against those targets – like an advanced battleship relying on spotting aircraft to direct its ordinance. Second, the large FSC would launch its missiles and “hand off” retargeting control to other ships and aircraft more proximate to the target, serving as the SAG’s “quiver.” Considering its mission, the large FSC could be larger than a contemporary destroyer, and even approach the cruiser size of 15,000 tons.

The Navy should also consider nuclear propulsion for this FSC. This would enable the Navy to more quickly field directed energy weapons and railguns, likely for point defense against missiles, and would compliment the ship’s armament of long-range missiles by allowing for more launch cells to be allocated for offensive strike weapons rather than defensive anti-air munitions. Nuclear power will also provide critical advantages in endurance and logistics, allowing a smaller number of large FSC’s to service multiple SAGs. Underway VLS replenishment is critical for this ship, and for the Navy as a whole, if this SAG structure is to be used.

While the large FSC provides the bulk of the striking power, the small FSC serves as the envisioned SAG’s targeting ship,and ASW platform. Rather than fielding its own long-range missiles, the small surface combatant, which should be sized at no more than 5,000 tons (i.e. no larger than a small destroyer), would use unmanned vehicles to detect and target enemy A2/AD nodes. Several catapults, deploying Predator/Global Hawk style drones, would extend this ship’s ISR range. Rotary facilities are critical, as are point-defense anti-aircraft missiles. However, the small surface combatant should rely on its larger cousin for most air, surface, and land striking power. In return, the small surface combatant could use the extra space for a full ASW suite, augmented by UUVs to increase detection range. Short-range anti-ship missiles, similar to those envisioned on the fast frigate model LCS, would be the ship’s sole offensive armament. Networking’s most powerful effect will be seen here – independently or otherwise, the small surface combatant should rely on its larger cousin for long-range strike support while it scouts and penetrates the A2/AD bubble. The retargeting capability resident within the Block IV Tomahawk missile and LRASM would allow the small surface combatants closer to the target to redirect missiles launched from a stand-off position by the larger FSC.

Finally, the unmanned surface combatant should be used to jam and deceive enemy assets, while also supplementing the small FSC’s detection capabilities. Stealth is imperative for this ship, as it will operate closer to the enemy during combat than any other surface ship. While the large surface combatant provides firepower, and the small surface combatant detects threats, the unmanned surface combatant conducts electronic warfare schemes that misdirect and confuse enemies attempting to strike back at the SAG. This unmanned ship should be as small as possible, ideally no more than 1,200 tons.

Room for integration exists between the FSC-based SAG and the contemporary fleet. Arleigh Burkes can serve as makeshift arsenal ships, or as dedicated anti-air platforms, freeing up the large FSC for anti-ship missions. Regardless, the emphasis must be on networked integration, not only between the SAGs ships, but with the fleet more broadly, and with other armed services.

As described, the FSC would best be suited for interstate conflict, rather than for power projection against rogue regimes and non-state actors. This is a conscious choice – the Navy could use older ships and aircraft (or allied assets) in those contexts, freeing up advanced platforms for the most sophisticated threats. If constructed in this way, the FSC family of warships would help the Navy fulfill its future sea control mission requirements, while operating independently or as part of a strike group.


Military modernization requires an understanding of strategy. Absent this, new weapons and platforms become imperfect tools to use against growing threats. With it, new assets multiply the fighting effectiveness of the service in question, while reinforcing a nation’s objectives. Therefore, the most important lesson history provides for the FSC’s development is the primacy of strategy. Without an understanding of America’s strategy and the Navy’s role in achieving America’s goals tactical, operational, and technological discussions are groundless.

Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at hh66@st-andrews.ac.uk

Featured Image: USS Zumwalt (Eric Kaufman)

China’s Aircraft Carrier: ‘Dreadnought’ or ‘Doctrinal Dilemma’?

This post first appeared on the National Maritime Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here

By Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana, PhD

Less than five years after the China commissioned its first Soviet-origin aircraft carrier Liaoning in September 2012, it launched its first-ever domestic carrier – the Type 001A – on 26 April 2017. The new carrier is likely to be commissioned in 2020 as Shadong. Even though the Liaoning and the Type 001A are medium-sized conventionally powered (non-nuclear) vessels equipped with aircraft ski-jumps (not catapults), and thus far less capable than the super-carriers operated by the United States, the occasion was celebrated in China as a major achievement symbolic of China’s ‘great power’ status. A report indicates that a larger, next generation Type 002 carrier equipped with a steam catapult has been under construction since March 2015, and its follow-on carriers may be nuclear powered.  

The launch of the Type 001A is, indeed, a milestone in the development of China as a major naval power. It reminds us of the famous battleship HMS Dreadnought commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1906. The Dreadnought was a highly successful warship induction marking the dawn of the 20th century warfare at sea. It became iconic of a transformative naval capability in a manner that the older existing warships of the world began to fade into obsolescence as pre-Dreadnoughts. The celebration in Beijing similarly justified, given the achievement of China’s defense-technological endeavor within a relatively short period of time. It stands out rather conspicuously in comparison to India, which has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961, but is yet to commission its first indigenous carrier named Vikrant.

Moving from ‘symbolism’ to ‘substance,’ such ‘flat-tops’ are indeed valuable platforms for maritime force-projection, which, for centuries, has been an important naval mission of all major power navies. However, given China’s maritime geography and the kind of insecurities it encounters today from vastly superior adversarial navies of the United States and Japan operating in the western Pacific Rim, the PLA Navy’s growing doctrinal reliance on carriers seems to be an aberration. It may have been more prudent for China to focus on bolstering its existing Anti-Access/ Area-Denial (A2AD) operational doctrine with the naval doctrine of ‘sea-denial’ – particularly given the PLA Navy’s traditional strengths in submarine, sea-mine and missile warfare – rather than diluting its naval doctrine by adding the carrier-based ‘sea-control’ doctrine.

Chinese carriers will also be highly vulnerable in the western Pacific Rim, not only to the advanced navies, but also to the many unfriendly airbases and submarine bases of the littoral countries dotting the periphery of the East and South China Seas. It is well known that even the smaller countries in the region are building potent sea-denial capabilities against China. The recent induction of the six advanced Russian Kilo-class submarines into the Vietnamese Navy is a case in point. If a maritime conflict breaks out in the area, the PLA Navy carrier would surely be a prime target and any such successful targeting would be a major symbolic blow to China’s morale, and thus its war effort.

The Chinese believe that ‘sea-control’ is necessary to assert its maritime-territorial claims in the China Seas. This could have been achieved effectively – and at reduced risk – by optimally using the air-bases in the Chinese mainland and the occupied islands, which China is expanding through reclamation. Ironically, China’s island-building activity in the South China Sea has caused a major damage to China’s claim to its ‘peaceful rise’ theory, which is now being aggravated by its own carrier-building program. Furthermore, the program lacks operational credibility, much into the foreseeable future. It would take the PLA Navy many years to operationalize a full-fledged Carrier Task Force, and possibly decades to make it effective enough to achieve sea-control against advanced navies. Meanwhile, the process could cause an indelible dent in China’s objective to propagate a ‘benign’ and ‘constructive’ image in the Indo-Pacific region, including through its ‘One-Belt-One-Road’ (OBOR) initiative.

Chinese strategists also believe that carrier-based sea-control is necessary to protect their Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean, as indicated by China’s recently articulated strategy of “open-seas protection” in its 2014 Defense White Paper. However, this could have been achieved – again effectively, and at reduced risk – by deploying its warships in its naval bases at strategic locations such as Djibouti and Gwadar.

China is likely to have at least three aircraft carriers in commission at any given time in the future. The Chinese have clearly gone too far ahead for any reappraisal of its aircraft-carrier program, possibly lured into the ‘command of the seas’ gambit of the major western naval powers, without factoring their own geostrategic conditions and circumstances. One may therefore, expect that the PLA Navy’s ‘doctrinal duality’ in terms of primacy to both ‘sea control’ and ‘sea denial’ may become its dilemma in the coming years.

Captain Gurpreet S Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director at the 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.

Featured Image: In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a newly-built aircraft carrier is transferred from dry dock into the water at a launch ceremony at a shipyard in Dalian in northeastern China’s Liaoning Province, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)