Tag Archives: Sea Control

There Are No Strategic Chokepoints

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Captain Jamie McGrath, USN (ret.)

Keys to the World

Naval theorist Milan Vego opens a chapter on chokepoint control with a quote from British Admiral Sir John Fisher, who stated that there are “five keys to the world. The Strait of Dover, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Malacca, and the Cape of Good Hope. And every one one of these keys we hold.”1 Fisher spoke from an Anglo-centric view, but his point is evident that control of key chokepoints equated to control of national strategic interests. But a century later, with the technological advances in weapons and sensors, and the interconnectedness of the global economy, can such a claim be made today?

There are over 100 straits where international interest in the free flow of trade transcends the interests of the nearby littoral states. Not all of these maritime chokepoints are of equal importance. Military strategists often speak as Fisher did of strategic chokepoints, believing them to have significant geopolitical value and act as epicenters for maritime strategy, where the control of which is considered vital for success in maritime conflict. But are these chokepoints truly strategic? Does the success of a nation’s maritime strategy actually hinge on the control or loss of control of these narrow seas?

Perhaps the strategic value of any given chokepoint is overstated because the ability to truly “control” these chokepoints is significantly degraded in the current maritime threat environment. The focus should instead be placed on strategic seas, and not the connectors between them.

Strategic Versus Operational Significance

Before scuttling the idea of strategic straits, there should be a common understanding of the difference between the strategic and operational importance of maritime geography. Maritime strategy is the science and art of using all naval and non-naval sources of power at sea in support of the national military strategy, with military strategy being “the art and science of using or threatening to use military power to accomplish the political interests of a nation…”2 The 2018 National Defense Strategy calls for:

“A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order. Collectively, our force posture, alliance, and partnership architecture, and Department modernization will provide the capabilities and agility required to prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.”3

The focus on lethality, resilience, and lethality within an alliance and partnership architecture, combined with “lethal, agile, and resilient force posture and employment,”4 and “a global strategic environment [which] demands increased strategic flexibility and freedom of action,”5 indicate that fixed geographic positions like chokepoints have reduced strategic relevance in U.S. strategy.

Naval operations are defined as the “theory and practice of planning, preparing, and executing major naval operations aimed at accomplishing operational objectives.”6 While operational objectives are chosen to achieve strategic ends, there often are multiple operational options to a support strategy. The operational value of a chokepoint tends to be temporal and depends on the other operational factors of time, space, and force of the particular operation. A chokepoint with high operational value may have limited or no strategic value if other options exist to achieve the national political objectives.

Traditional Methods of Sea Control

The control of chokepoints has long been a primary way to control access to a given body of water. Revisiting Fisher’s assertion that there were five keys to the world, control of key straits meant control of the flow of global maritime traffic and, therefore, the strategic interest of most maritime nations. Warships and merchantmen during the age of sail depended on the prevailing winds for reliable propulsion and shore bases for routine resupply. These trade winds and shore bases funneled ships through specific shipping lanes, many of which transited the key chokepoints Fisher identified. Since transit of these chokepoints was essential, controlling them guaranteed control of merchant shipping and warship movement.

The emergence of steam propulsion removed reliance on the trade winds, but increased dependence on the shore bases that had been established in the age of sail, which were starting to serve as coaling stations. Thus, in Admiral Fisher’s time, his assertion was correct. But since World War II, dependence on shore basing for resupply has diminished. The U.S. Navy perfected at-sea replenishment during World War II, and merchantmen have significantly increased their unrefueled range, both of which reduced the reliance on shore stations and subsequent dependence on specific shipping lanes.

Chokepoints simplify several operational and tactical aspects of naval warfare by concentrating forces. This, in turn, limits the challenges of scouting and screening, because less sea space must be scouted and screened. The avenues of approach to the chokepoint are limited, so the party that controls the chokepoint can concentrate forces or make better use of limited forces available.

Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s defeat of Russia’s Second Pacific Squadron at the Tsushima Strait demonstrates how chokepoints simplify scouting. Togo did not know when the Russian fleet would arrive, nor did he wish to search for it in the open ocean. But he did know that the Russian fleet had to pass through the Tsushima Strait to reach its base at Vladivostok. This allowed Togo to concentrate his scouting force of cruisers in the strait and consolidate his battle line inside the Sea of Japan. But what if the Russians had entered the Sea of Japan through the La Pérouse Strait, Tsugaru Strait, or Strait of Tartary? In the 1890s, the limitations of coal-fired steam plants meant that traveling the extra 1000 or more miles without a coaling station made the Tsushima Strait the only choice. Today, however, at-sea logistics provide naval forces greater flexibility in entering strategic seas.

Changing Military Value of Chokepoints

Historically, chokepoints held strategic military value partly because they forced ships to transit within range of the weapons and sensors posted there, and made movements more predictable. Into the second decade of the twentieth century, optical sensors and coastal guns limited that range to or just beyond the horizon. Technological advances over the intervening century expanded that range immensely. First, aircraft extended scouting range, then, as aircraft improved, expanded the striking range of weapons well beyond the chokepoint’s horizon. The introduction of radar further enhanced scouting and early-warning capabilities, and space-based surveillance now allows for the searching of vast ocean areas independent of geographic chokepoints. The missile age added over-the-horizon, ship-killing weapons, with anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) marking the ultimate long-range strike capability.

Holding a chokepoint serves two fundamental purposes, one rooted in sea control and the other in sea denial. The sea denial case, often a strategy of the weaker navy, holds that by controlling the chokepoint, an adversary cannot access the seas on its opposite side. As Vego points out, this is often part of a larger, major defensive joint/combined operation and maybe one of several elements of a national defensive strategy to either bottle up an opponent’s naval force in its own narrow seas, or prevent an opponent’s naval force from entering a narrow sea where it could threaten the defending nation’s territory.7 In the sea control case, control of the chokepoint theoretically allows one to use their naval forces at the time and manner of their choosing within the chokepoint and in the seas controlled by the strait. That is to say, if a nation controls a chokepoint, naval forces and maritime trade can pass through that chokepoint freely at the discretion of the nation that controls it.8

In the current maritime threat environment, controlling the land and water in the vicinity of the chokepoint no longer represents the exclusive manner to control it. The focus on strategic chokepoints may have held when the range of weapons was barely over the horizon, but today an adversary no longer has to control the geographic entrance to strategically important seas to deny their use. Space-based sensors and long-range missile firepower allow an adversary to effectively close, or at least threaten closure of, geographic chokepoints without the traditional need to hold the immediate surrounding land or seas. “Holding” a geographic chokepoint no longer guarantees the use of the seas on either side, nor does it ensure safe passage through the chokepoint itself. Therefore, the U.S. Navy would be better served to focus more broadly on its ability to control or deny strategic seas than the strategic chokepoints of ages past.

Changing Economic Value of Chokepoints

Another element that gives a chokepoint strategic value is the volume of trade transiting the strait. Traditionally, blockades and maritime trade warfare have used control of chokepoints to great strategic effect. Britain’s control of the Dover Straits, combined with the North Sea Mine Barrage, closed all maritime trade to Germany during World War I and contributed to the fall of the Kaiser’s government in 1918. During World War II, the failure of the Axis powers to seize the Suez allowed Great Britain to continue using the canal for resupply of its empire. Would such action have the same strategic effects today?

Vertical and horizontal charts showing locations and densities of mine fields of the North Sea Mine barrage, issued in November and December 1918, after the fields were completed. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Today, high trade volume certainly gives a strait economic value because these chokepoints often represent the shortest route from manufacturer to market and thus the cheapest transportation cost. But is controlling trade through a strait a viable strategic goal? Chris McMahon argues that maritime trade warfare is ineffective in today’s global economy. Among the many reasons he presents, he notes that the closing of chokepoints has no real impact on global trade.9 One of the most-often mentioned strategic chokepoints is the Strait of Malacca because it handles so much of the world’s maritime traffic. But how would closing the Strait of Malacca affect global trade? It would impact Singapore’s role in the global shipping market, certainly. But would the global shipping network be severely burdened by having to transit the Sunda Strait or the Lombok Strait? Would there be a cost increase, yes, but once the market adjusts for the increased cost, shipping will find a way to make it work. 

Consider the wave of piracy off the Horn of Africa in the early 2000s, an area often discussed as a strategic chokepoint because of the volume of trade passing through the Arabian Sea. Shipping companies dealt with the insecurity of that maritime region in one of three ways – accept the risk and charge accordingly, arm themselves against pirates, or re-route ships around the Cape of Good Hope at increased cost and charge accordingly. In each case, maritime trade continued. Lord Fisher mentioned the Suez Canal as one of the keys to the world, but it has been closed on five occasions since it opened in 1869, including for eight years between 1967 and 1975. During that most recent closure, the cost of shipping around the Cape of Good Hope was markedly higher than the Suez route but presented no serious economic hardship to global consumers. Rerouting Pacific trade for a closed Strait of Malacca would have a similar minimal effect on the cost of global trade.10

Chokepoints Can Be Superseded

The demise of the strategic value of chokepoints is revealed by looking at some traditional strategic chokepoints of the past. One of Fisher’s keys to the world, British control of the Straits of Dover, seemingly kept Hilter’s Kriegsmarine bottled-up in the North Sea, much as it had the Kaiserliche Marine three decades before. But Germany negated the British advantage by conquering France and establishing bases in Brittany, unfettered by the Straits of Dover. To be sure, the straits still impeded access to merchant shipping and warship transit to the German homeland, but control of the strategic strait did not mean control of the German U-boats. Chokepoints can be bypassed.

During the Cold War, the water between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom – the so-called GIUK Gap – was a strategic chokepoint because Soviet ballistic-missile submarines had to pass through that gap to threaten the United States. The later development of longer-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles meant the submarines could remain in the Arctic to launch these weapons, thus limiting the strategic value of the GIUK Gap as a chokepoint. Chokepoints can be outranged.

The GIUK gap and major regional military bases. (Heritage Foundation)

Today, a resurgent China lays claim to the South China Sea (SCS) as its own internal waters. As discussed above, the Strait of Malacca has traditionally been a key to control of the SCS and, therefore, strategically important for trade between Europe and Asia. But the Strait of Malacca is not the only access route to the SCS, which can also be accessed through the much larger Luzon Strait and numerous passages through the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The PRC recognizes this and has adopted control mechanisms that do not depend on control of the chokepoints, but instead focuses on long-range anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and redundant fortified islands within the SCS.11

China’s A2/AD strategy in the SCS is important for two reasons. First, the assumption that physical control of a chokepoint guarantees use of the chokepoint is invalid in the face of PRC A2/AD weapons and sensors. Although the United States and its partner states may possess the land on either side of the Strait of Malacca, and have sufficient naval forces to patrol the strait, the PRC could nonetheless prevent free transit of the Strait of Malacca using ASBM and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). Furthermore, these long-range weapons based on the Chinese mainland or in the central SCS can contest the other straits leading into the SCS. Conversely, the reduced reliance of predictable trade routes for maritime traffic – both merchant and military – means they can easily bypass the Strait of Malacca if it were to be “controlled” by an opposing power.12 Chokepoints can be replaced.

Conclusion

The question then should not be “what are today’s strategic chokepoints?” but instead, “what are today’s strategic seas?” Control of chokepoints is only one of the ways to control a sea. Vego writes that there are two primary arenas of naval conflict: open ocean and narrow seas. While many characteristics differentiate the open ocean from the narrow sea, the predominant one is proximity to land.13 In narrow seas, the land influences many aspects of naval warfare, from the ability of naval vessels to maneuver to the threat from land-based weapons. As one moves further out to sea, maneuver space opens up and land-based threats dissipate, or so it would stand to reason.

The ability of naval forces to operate freely on the open ocean outside the threat of land-based weapons, whether missiles or aircraft, is greatly diminishing in the current threat environment. This, in turn, means an expansion of the areas previously considered narrow seas – even if not in all aspects. If the narrow seas have now broadened to cover a much higher portion of the world’s oceans, then the restrictive chokepoints once seen as strategic lose much of their relevance. 

There may be operationally compelling reasons to control a chokepoint, but their strategic value is greatly diminished in an era of space-based sensors and proliferating long-range missiles. Control of a chokepoint no longer means the “keys to the world” as it did in Admiral Fisher’s day. Expending the time and force to control a chokepoint will likely not result in the strategic advantage sought, and worse, could fix forces to a geographic location when mobility is operationally necessary. The U.S. would be better served exercising more agile and dynamic mechanisms of strategic sea control and sea denial rather than focusing on the obsolete idea of strategic chokepoints.

Captain Jamie McGrath (ret.), retired from the U.S. Navy after 29 years as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer. He now serves as a Deputy Commandant of Cadets at Virginia Tech and as an adjunct professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s College of Distance Education. Passionate about using history to inform today, his area of focus is U.S. naval history, 1919 to 1945, with emphasis on the interwar period. He holds a Bachelor’s in History from Virginia Tech, a Master’s in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and a Master’s in Military History from Norwich University.

References

1. Quoted in Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice (Rutledge: London, 2016), 188.

2. Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice (Rutledge: London, 2016), 2.

3. James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Military Strategy of the United States of America (US Department of Defense: Washington, DC, 2018), 1.

4. Ibid., 7.

5. Ibid.

6. Milan Vego, Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice (Rutledge: London, 2017), 1.

7. Vego, Sea Denial, 301.

8. Vego, Sea Control, 188-9.

9. Christopher J. McMahon, “Maritime Trade Warfare,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 70: No. 3 (Summer 2017), 29-34.

10. Ibid., 29-30.

11. Naval War College Professor James Holmes argues that considering PRC sea power, their entire military must be considered and not just the PLAN, see James Holmes, “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings (June 2018). https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/june/visualize-chinese-sea-power

12. McMahon, “Maritime Trade Warfare,” 29-30.

13. Vego, Sea Control, 18-20.

Featured Image: August 6, 1988, Egypt: An aerial port bow view of the aircraft carrier USS FORRESTAL (CV 59) transiting the Suez canal. A formation of crewmen spells out”108″on the bow to signify that the ship has been at sea for 108 consecutive days. (Photo by PH2 Buckner, USN/U.S. National Archives)

Sea Control Through The Eyes of the Person Who Does It, Pt. 2

The following article originally appeared in The Naval War College Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It will be republished in three parts, read Part One here

By Christofer Waldenström 

The Field of Sensors

To determine whether the field of safe travel is receding toward the minimum safety zone, the commander must be able to observe the objects present in the naval battlefield. Today, the naval battlefield comprises more than just the surface of the sea. Threats of all sorts can come from either beneath the surface or above it. The driver of a car determines from the pertinent visual field whether the field of safe travel is receding toward the minimum stopping zone.22 For a commander, however, it is not possible to perceive directly the elements of the operations area—the naval battlefields are far too vast. Instead, as noted above, the objects present have to be inferred, on the basis of sensor data.23

Thus, there exists a “field of sensors” that the commander uses to establish whether the field of safe travel approaches the edge of the minimum safety zone. The field of sensors is an objective spatial field the boundaries of which are determined by the union of the coverage of all sensors that provide data to the commander. The importance of the sensor field is also emphasized in one theory of perception-based tactics that has been advanced (though without discussion of its spatial dimensions).24 As the sensors that build up the field have different capabilities to detect and classify objects, the field of sensors will consequently consist of regions in which objects can be, variously, detected and classified with varying reliability. (These regions could be seen as fields in their own right, but for now we will leave them as is.) Nevertheless, to establish the boundary of the field of safe travel and determine whether it is receding toward the minimum safety zone, the commander must organize the field of sensors in such way that it is possible both to detect contacts and to classify them as nonhostile before they get inside the minimum safety zone.

Factors Limiting Detection

Several factors limit the detection of enemy units. First, terrain features can provide cover. Units that hide close to islands are difficult to detect with radar. In a similar way, a submarine that lies quietly on the bottom is difficult to distinguish from a rock formation with sonar. The weather is another factor: high waves make small targets difficult to detect; fog and rain reduce visibility for several sensors, such as visual, infrared, and radar; and temperature differences between layers in the atmosphere and in the water column influence how far sensors can see or hear. Yet another factor is stealth, or camouflage, whereby units are purposely designed to be difficult to detect with sensors. Sharp edges on a ship’s hull reflect radar waves in such ways that they do not return to the transmitting radar in detectable strength. Units are painted to blend into the background, propulsion systems are made silent, ships’ magnetic fields are neutralized, and exhaust gases are cooled—all to reduce the risk of detection. Being aware of these factors makes it possible for commanders to use them to advantage. Units might be positioned close to islands while protecting the field of safe travel, or the high-value units might select a route that will force the enemy units to move out at sea, thus making themselves possible to detect.

Factors Limiting Classification

To avoid being classified, the basic rule is to not emit signals that allow the enemy to distinguish a unit from other contacts around it. Often naval operations are conducted in areas where neutral or civilian vessels are present, and this makes it difficult to tell which contacts are hostile. To complicate matters, the enemy can take advantage of this. For example, an enemy unit can move in radar silence in normal shipping lanes and mimic the behavior of merchants, so as to be difficult to detect using radar and electronic support measures. Suppressing emissions, however, only works until the unit comes inside the range where the force commander would expect electronic support measures to classify its radar—no merchant ever travels radar silent. To detect potential threats the commander establishes a “picture” of the normal activities in the operations area. Behavior that deviates from the normal picture is suspect and will be monitored more closely. Thus, contacts that behave as other contacts do will be more difficult to classify.

The Field of Weapons

As mentioned above, the commander has three choices for handling a detected threat: move the high-value units away from the threat, take action to eliminate the threat, or receive the attack and defend. In the two latter cases the threat can be eliminated either by disabling it or by forcing it to retreat. Either way, the commander must have a weapon that can reach the target with the capability to harm it sufficiently. It is immaterial what type of weapon it is or from where it is launched, as long as it reaches the target and harms it sufficiently. Thus, the weapons carried by the commander’s subordinate units, or any other unit from which the commander can request fire support, create a “field of weapons” in which targets can be engaged. Like the field of sensors, the field of weapons is a spatial field, bounded by the union of the maximum weapon ranges carried by all units at the commander’s disposal. The field of weapons is further built up by the variety of weapons, which means that the field consists of different regions capable of handling different targets. For example, there will be regions capable of engaging large surface ships, regions capable of destroying antiship missiles, and other regions capable of handling submarines. Nevertheless, to prevent the high-value units from being sunk, the field of weapons must be organized in such way that it is possible to take action against hostile units and missiles before they get inside their corresponding minimum safety zones. For example, the threat posed by air-to-surface missiles can be dealt with by protecting two minimum safety zones. The commander can take out the enemy aircraft before they get a chance to launch the missile—that is, shoot down the aircraft before they enter the minimum safety zone created by the range of the missile they carry. If this fails the commander can take down the missiles before they hit the high-value units—that is, shoot down the missiles before they get inside the minimum safety zone created by the distance at which the missile can do damage to the high-value units.

It is now possible to specify how the fields of sensors and weapons work together: the field of sensors and the field of weapons must be organized in such a way that for each field of safe travel hostile units can be detected, classified, and neutralized before they enter the corresponding minimum safety zone. One scholar of naval tactics and scouting touches on what can serve as an illustration. Closest to the ships that should be protected is a zone of control where all enemies must be destroyed; outside the zone of control is a zone of influence or competition, something like a no-man’s-land.25 Outside the zone of influence is a zone of interest where one must be prepared against a detected enemy. Scouting in the first region seeks to target; in the second, to track; and in the third, to detect. Important to notice is that the field of sensors and the field of weapons are carried by, tied to, the commander’s units, which simultaneously bring the fields to bear with respect to all pairs of fields of safe travel and minimum safety zones. This complicates matters for the commander. As the fields of safe travel and minimum safety zones are stacked, actions taken to tackle a threat to one minimum safety zone may create problems for another. The competition of units between the pairs of minimum safety zones and fields of safe travel may lead to a situation where a managed air-warfare problem creates a subsurface problem. This bedevilment is not unknown to the naval warfare community: “The tactical commander is not playing three games of simultaneous chess; he is playing one game on three boards with pieces that may jump from one board to another.”26

To illustrate the problem, suppose that the situations in figure 3 occur simultaneously; there is both a surface and a subsurface threat to the high-value unit. In this case the field of sensors has to be organized so that contacts can be detected and classified in a circular field with a radius of a hundred kilometers (for the antiship missile, figure 3a) and also within a smaller and elliptical field (figure 3b, in the torpedo case). For example, radars and electronic support measures have to be deployed to detect and identify surface contacts, while sonar and magneticanomaly detection have to be used to secure the subsurface field. Accordingly, the field of weapons has to be organized so that contacts can be engaged before entering the respective minimum safety zones—antisubmarine weapons for subsurface threats and antiship weapons for surface threats.

Not only weapons can be used to shape the field of safe travel; another means to influence it is deception. Deception takes advantage of the inertia inherent in naval warfare. First, there is the physical inertia whereby a successful deception draws enemy forces away from an area, giving an opportunity to act in that area before the enemy can move back. Second, there is the cognitive inertia of the enemy commander. It takes some time before the deception is detected, which gives further time. Deception can, thus, be seen as a deliberate action within the enemy’s field of sensors to shape the field of safe travel to one’s own advantage. For successful deception it is necessary that commanders understand how their own actions will be picked up by the enemy’s field of sensors and that they be aware of both the enemy’s cognitive and physical inertia. The commander has to “play up” a plausible scenario in the enemy’s field of sensors and then give the enemy commander time to decide that action is needed to counter that scenario (cognitive inertia) and then further time to allow the enemy units to move in the wrong direction (physical inertia). The central role of inertia will be further discussed later.

Having defined the fundamental fields it is now possible to formulate what is required from commanders to establish sea control. The skill of securing control at sea consists largely in organizing a requisite set of pairs of correctly bounded minimum safety zones and corresponding fields of safe travel shaped to counter actual and potential threats, and in organizing the field of sensors and field of weapons in such way that that for each field of safe travel, hostile contacts can be detected, classified, and neutralized before they enter the corresponding minimum safety zone.

Factors Limiting the Field of Safe Travel

So far it has been said that it is the enemy that limits and shapes the field of safe travel. This is, however, not the whole truth. The field of safe travel is also shaped by other physical and psychological factors.

Terrain Features That Reduce Capability to Detect and Engage Targets

To be able to sink the high-value unit the enemy must detect, classify, and fire a weapon against it. All this must happen in rapid succession, or the high-value unit may slip out of the weapon’s kill zone. This means that to fire a weapon against the high-value unit the enemy must organize its field of sensors and its field of weapons so that they overlap the high-value unit at the time of weapon release. In this way the field of safe travel is built up by all the paths that take the high-value unit outside the intersection of the enemy’s field of sensors and the enemy’s field of weapons. This further means that the boundaries of the field of safe travel are determined in part by terrain regions where high-value units can go but enemy weapons cannot engage them—for example, an archipelago that provides protection against radar-guided missiles. The boundaries are also determined by the enemy’s capability to detect the high-value units, and thus terrain features can also delimit the field of safe travel in that they protect the high-value units from detection. For example, the archipelago mentioned above also provides protection against detection by helicopter-borne radar, as long as the ships move slowly. (If they start to move quickly, however, they will stand out from the clutter of islands.) It is also important to notice that a minimum safety zone is resized in the same way as the corresponding field of safe travel—if the enemy cannot see the high-value unit or has no weapon that can engage it, the enemy unit can be allowed closer in.

Terrain Regions Where Enemy Units Can Hide

Like enemy units, potential threats also throw out lines of clearance. One such potential threat is a terrain feature where the enemy might have concealed units and from which attacks can be launched (see figure 4a). Such regions—for example, islands where enemy units can hide close to land—contain potential threats. There may or may not be actual threats there, the objective field of safe travel may or may not be clear, but since commanders can only react to their subjective fields, the latter are properly shaped and limited by these barriers.

Terrain features that serve as good attack points for the enemy also radiate lines of clearance, and they shape the field of safe travel (a); enemy units may or may not be present. In (b) the field of safe travel is impinged by the potential location of enemy units. When an enemy unit slips out of the field of sensors, it creates an area of potential threat that grows as time passes. These potential threat areas also determine the boundaries of the commander’s subjective field, although here the enemy never encroached on the objective field and is now well clear of it.

Enemy Units That Are Spotted and Then Lost

Another potential threat that will radiate clearance lines arises from the movement of enemy units. It is possible for a contact that has been detected and classified to slip out of the field of sensors —for instance, by turning off its radar after being tracked by electronic support measures. The potential movement of such a unit shapes the field of safe travel. Suppose an enemy unit was detected at position p at time t (see figure 4b). As the enemy is outside the field of safe travel, it does not pose a threat to the commander at this time. Now, the contact slips out of the field of sensors, and contact with it is lost. As time passes and the commander fails to reestablish contact, the region where the unit can be is a circle that grows proportionally to the maximum speed of the enemy unit. Eventually the region grows to such a size that it is not possible for the force to pass without the minimum safety zone intersecting with it. In figure 4b the subjective field of safe travel is correctly shaped by the potential threat, but the objective field of safe travel is clear—the enemy unit has turned around and is heading away.

Legal Obstacles and Taboos

 The field of safe travel is also limited by international law. One such legal obstacle is the sea territory of neutral states. A neutral state has declared itself outside the conflict the commander is involved in, and this prohibits the parties of the conflict from using its sea territory for purposes of warfare. Such regions delimit the fields of safe travel and thus restrict where the commander’s units can move. On the other hand, they do not pose a threat to the high-value units and can safely be allowed to encroach on the minimum safety zone.

Neutral Units in the Operations Area

Today, as noted, naval operations take place in areas where neutral shipping is present. Like the sea territory of neutral states, neutral shipping is protected by international law. A consequence of this is that neutral shipping in the area also influences the shape of the field of safe travel. The commander is of course prohibited from attacking neutral merchants. This is not a problem in itself—if a certain contact is classified as neutral, we cannot engage it. Nevertheless, it has implications for where high-value units are allowed to move. As neutral shipping cannot be engaged, we are forbidden to use it for cover—for instance, to move so close to a merchant vessel as to make it difficult for the opponent to engage without risk of sinking the merchant. This means that neutral shipping creates “holes” in the field, where combatants are not allowed to move. If the commander does not track the merchant vessels continuously, these holes grow proportionally to the merchants’ maximum speed, as they do for enemy units spotted and then lost.

Mines

Mines shape the field in the same way that ships do. They can be seen as stationary ships with limited weapon ranges; the minimum safety zone for a mine would be the range at which a ship could pass it without being damaged if the mine detonated. Laying mines shapes the commander’s field, and the commander must react, either by taking another route or by actively reshaping the field—that is, by clearing the mines. Clearing mines has the same effect as taking out enemy ships; the field of safe travel expands into the area that has been cleared. Of course, the enemy can use this for purposes of deception, pretending to lay mines, sending a unit zigzagging through a strait, and making sure that the commander’s field of sensors picks this up. If the deception is successful, the commander’s subjective field is shaped incorrectly.

Dr. Waldenström works at the Institution of War Studies at the Swedish National Defence College. He is an officer in the Swedish Navy and holds an MSc in computer science and a PhD in computer and systems sciences. His dissertation focused on human factors in command and control and investigated a support system for naval warfare tasks. Currently he is working as lead scientist at the school’s war-gaming section, and his research focuses on learning aspects of war games.

References

22. Gibson and Crooks, “Theoretical FieldAnalysis of Automobile-Driving,” p. 457.

23. Intelligence reports from higher command are also included when constructing this operational view of the battlefield. This operational view of the battlefield is compiled by exchanging and merging sensor data, a partly manual and partly automatic process well known in all navies. The result is usually displayed as a map of the operations area overlaid with symbols representing the objects present in varying stages of classification— detected, classified, or identified.

24. T. Taylor, “A Basis for Tactical Thought,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (June 1982).

25. Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat.

26. Ibid., p. 196.

Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (July 25, 2012) A plane captain signals to the pilot of an F/A-18C Hornet assigned to the Blue Blasters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 34 on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joshua E. Walters/Released)

Bringing Back Sea Control Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This concludes our topic week where authors submitted their ideas on bringing back sea control in response to our Call for ArticlesThey covered a broad range of topics including capability trends, concepts of sea control, and how to evolve naval power. Below is a list of articles that featured during the topic week and we thank these authors for their contributions.

New Forms of Naval Operational Planning for Earning Command of the Seas by Bill Shafley

“Future operations against peer competitors will require a different mode of thinking to understand the nuances of employing a strike group’s combat power where near-constant tradeoffs are required between offense and defense. Staffs must refine their thinking and improve their methods in three ways to make planning for Sea Control operations more effective.”

Sea Control at the Tactical Level of War by Adam Humayun

“Sea control is about sinking these ships and aircraft, platforms that are growing in vulnerability and are harder to replace than their predecessors. A force that performs well in attrition will weaken, and in many dimensions of military power, perhaps even disarm an adversary. Destroying military assets that cannot be effectively replaced for years, and only after the political issues at hand have been resolved, grants sea control today a value well beyond its immediate military effects. The battlespace, concrete and conceptual, in which contenders will struggle for sea control thus needs to be carefully defined.”

Bringing Back Sea Power from the Deckplate on Up by Olivia Morrell

“When the Navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for Sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?”

For Sea Control, First Control the Electromagnetic Spectrum by Damien Dodge

“Lofty tactics and operations will perform sub-optimally and be disrupted through electronic attack unless the Navy builds a solid foundation in electromagnetic freedom of action. Fortuitously, these technologies creatively combined will lay the keel of advanced naval warfighting upon which future naval success will be built, launching a powerful, tough, and confident Navy into the turbulent waters of great power competition to seize sea control when and where she chooses.”

The Nature of Sea Control and Sea Denial by Dr. Ching Chang

“We may define sea control as acquiring and securing the privilege to utilize the maritime space in the period of time as expected. Nonetheless, whether the adversaries and neutral parties may use the same maritime space at the same time is not necessarily the concern of sea control approach. On the other hand, we may also define sea denial as excluding adversaries from utilizing the maritime space in an expected period of time and place of choosing. Integrating these two aspects of sea control and sea denial together and their effects on the nature of choice can serve as a foundation for maritime operational design for earning command of the sea.”

Merchant Warships and Creating a Modern 21st Century East Indiaman by Steve Wills

“The great mercantilist trading companies of the age of sail are long gone, but the idea that a heavily armed merchant ship might again more fully participate in naval warfare has new credence. The advent of the large, survivable container ship, with the potential for containerized weapon systems changes the calculus of the last century where merchant ships were soft targets requiring significant protection. If properly armed and crewed, U.S. owned and U.S. government chartered container ships have the potential to become powerful naval auxiliaries capable of defending themselves and presenting a significant risk to those that might attack them.”

Fighting For Sea Control in the Next War by Lars Wedin

“The issue of sea control in a major war brings forward a number of unknowns as well as known unknowns. This is only natural as the world has not experienced major naval war in today’s strategic and technological setting. It is also natural because war is a human affair and it is always characterized by uncertainty and friction. The one who believes that a naval war would imply fighting with most systems intact will be in for a big surprise.”

Adjusting to New Conditions for Command of the Seas by Theodore Bazinis

“Whatever character naval warfare takes on in the future sea control will always be the key to success. Being so essential one should understand its principles in order to gain sea control, but history abounds with cases where nations succeeded or failed. Some of those who initially failed were able to readjust their doctrines in time (and consequently their capabilities) to gain sea control and win.”

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org

Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Aug. 11, 2018) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64) transits the Mediterranean Sea. Carney, forward-deployed to Rota, Spain, is on its fifth patrol in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of operations in support of regional allies and partners as well as U.S. national security interests in Europe and Africa. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ryan U. Kledzik/Released)180811-N-UY653-386

Adjusting to New Conditions for Command of the Seas

Sea Control Topic Week

By Theodore Bazinis

In a historical turn, the 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States asserts that the world is returning to an era of great power competition. The 2018 NSS explicitly states that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition has returned.”  World history is a landscape of consecutive great power competition for hegemony and as the great navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan showed in his book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, the one who commands the seas is the one who imposes the rules of the sea (most of the time at least). Even though the Mahanian term “Command of the Seas” is rather an ideal condition, in the real world we could substitute it with the term “sea control’’ which describes a temporary1 condition existing in a particular maritime area where one has freedom of action to fulfill goals and purposes.2 Sea control is a condition and a necessary operational function to achieve strategic goals.

Whatever character naval warfare takes on in the future sea control will always be the key to success. Being so essential one should understand its principles in order to gain sea control, but history abounds with cases where nations succeeded or failed. Some of those who initially failed were able to readjust their doctrines in time (and consequently their capabilities) to gain sea control and win.

The First World War revealed the insufficiency of the Mahanian doctrine (and thus the capabilities of the U.S. Navy), to fulfill U.S. strategic objectives. A doctrine designed to win a decisive battle in the Caribbean had resulted in building a fleet of heavy battlecruisers quite improper to gain sea control in the Atlantic Ocean dominated by German submarines. This resulted in an inability to protect sea lanes through which supplies were transported to European allies. The improvidence of Mahanian doctrine to anticipate the nature of the future war at sea (attrition instead of decisive battle) and mainly the inability to foresee the vital role that a new technological asset had (the submarine instead of big-gun warships), were the causes of the gap between ends and means. However, the U.S. realized this in time and procured lighter combatant crafts such as destroyers which were  more suitable units to assert protection of sea lanes, escort supply transport vessels, destroy enemy submarines, and finally to acquire sea control in a new context.

Just concluding that sea control is a dependent variable of proper capability is not new. But what does proper capability mean? Capability can be defined as the means that enable a Navy to fulfill strategic objectives, adjust to the particular demands of the operational environment, and encounter all possible expected threats.

The case of WWI highlights the dramatic influence that new technologies have in the ability to gain sea control. The introduction of submarines, aircraft carriers, and naval air forces expanded the physical dimensions of war at sea to include air and undersea domains. This in turn changed the number and the quality of threats a navy could encounter. A robust reform of existing doctrines was introduced and subsequently new capabilities for the fleet were required. The successful use of sea power has now come to be regarded as the best method of distributing capabilities and tactics across domains. A major consideration for gaining sea control during war was the quick adjustability of capabilities and tactics to operational conditions. However, changing tactics and tools in the midst of war will be difficult in the modern threat environment. That means that the planning of the fleet during peacetime is very critical.

Littorals (green/brown waters) rather than high seas (blue waters) are expected to be more essential in future maritime conflicts. They may feature anti-access strategies using mines,3 land-based precision guided munitions (of extended range or/and ballistic), diesel submarines,4 Special Forces, electronic warfare, space systems and cyber operations. As advanced capability proliferates, traditionally less powerful states in the littoral will be able to pursue sea control and sea denial in ways they have not been able to before.

In order to balance asymmetries in military power, states that feel weaker are also expected to use terrorist networks, criminal groups and/or state-incited paramilitary groups equipped with low cost but of high effectiveness light arms. They will also attempt hybrid tactics, exploiting high technological means (smart mines, cyber-attacks) and simple tactics (suicidal bomb attacks, old fashioned guided weapons) which base their success in the inability of the defender to deter attacks. The same effect is caused in complex geographic environments like littorals, island clusters, and archipelagic waters.

Non-Military Dimensions of Sea Control

Considering all abovementioned threats and characteristics of the international environment we need to procure fleets with proper capabilities to enable their successful response. Even though the ability to respond to advanced threats emerging in tactical level is essential however these capabilities should include the consideration that sea control operations are not just a summation of hard power but they should simultaneously shape a conducive strategic environment in which military acts will follow in a more favorable context. At the strategic level, executing information operations of an honest nature to further a narrative that legitimizes military acts to internal or international audiences, especially with respect to preserving international law.

Great powers could be questioning world order in the context of command of the seas. At sea this strategy is manifested by arbitrary interpretations of international law which (in many cases) attempt to negate freedom of navigation, by planning anti-access policies and/or provoking small scale crises to achieve political ends. International law is expected to exert vast influence (more than any other time in history) on rules of engagement and wartime conduct, especially in areas replete with commercial shipping and civilian crews. As a result this will limit freedom of action to operational commanders. Military actions should always take into consideration international law so as to assert the legitimacy of their actions.

In the operational level, executing legal warfare will be important to secure the legitimacy of military actions during war or crisis. Certain situations could limit or affect commanders’ decision-making procedure, for example when trying to clarify if existing assets are paramilitary groups such as maritime militia or genuine non-combatants. Legal confusion with respect to using force may result in civilian casualties which would then create undesirable legal and diplomatic consequences.

Conclusion

To conclude, sea control is the ultimate criterion that should be fulfilled in order to achieve strategic aims in and through the maritime environment. Although sea control is a military concern, it would be wrong to regard it as a bare result of military power and neglecting the realm of law or public opinion. New threats, new conditions, and new courses of action by opponents require fresh responses and capabilities. Rapid adjustability to the conditions, to the specific threats, and to the environment of operations should blossom as an organizing principle of naval planning.

Theodore Bazinis has an MA in International Relations. He is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Athens and a of member of the Maritime & Seapower Analysis Group. He also cooperates with Hellenic Institute of Strategic Studies and Center of International Strategic Analysis (KEDISA).

Endnotes

[1] For a predetermined time.

[2] The highest level of Sea Control is to deny (the opponent) access in a particular area.

[3] As a retardant factor to time intensive operations / tasks.

[4] Advanced diesel electric submarines present the most challenging proposition due to their numbers and propensity to operate near or in littorals.

Featured Image:  The Vanguard-class submarine HMS Vigilant, one of four Royal Navy submarines armed with Trident missiles, is seen at Naval Base Clyde, also known as Faslane, in Scotland in January. (AP)