Tag Archives: Strategy

Bridging the Moat

Professor Mearsheimer as a Cadet at West Point. As a work of the US Government, this image is not subject to copyright.

Late summer has arrived in Annapolis, bringing the Brigade of Midshipmen back with it to the Naval Academy. The halls echo anew with the footsteps of midshipmen and I hear the muffled, disembodied voices of my colleagues delivering lectures through the walls. As I begin the teaching/learning cycle anew, first principles have often been on my mind. Today, I want to look at Seasteading through one of the first principles of the realist school of international relations theory. A major tenant of security studies supported by many realists is the so-called “Stopping Power of Water,” a term taken from Prof. John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. As part of our continuing focus on Seasteading and Sea-Based Nations (SBNs), I’m going to examine possible effects that SBNs may have on the stopping power of water and on the stability of the current international order.

In Prof. Mearsheimer’s opus outlining offensive realism, he describes “the stopping power of water” primarily as a barrier to power projection (particularly an amphibious assault):

Water is usually not a serious obstacle for a navy that is transporting ground forces across an ocean and landing them in a friendly state. But water is a forbidding barrier when a navy attempts to deliver an army onto territory controlled and well-defended by a rival great power. Navies are therefore at a significant disadvantage when attempting amphibious operations against powerful land-based forces (Page 114).

The policy aim of war (to paraphrase Clausewitz: “imposing one’s will on an enemy”) is very difficult to achieve – under Mearsheimer’s reasoning – without the use of land power. In other words, Mearsheimer believes that political change rarely occurs through the use of sea power alone (i.e. though blockades or other similar measures), and that states separated from others by large bodies of water can easily resist most ground assaults. Therefore, the greatest security threats arise from territorially connected states (think Germany and France in the 20th Century), or from states who can transport ground troops to a territorially connected ally (think Kuwait and the United States versus Iraq in the Gulf War).

How could SBNs affect the stopping power of water? Could they bridge the protective moat of the world’s oceans? Let’s imagine the full realization of seasteaders’ dreams: a world with thousands or tens of thousands of SBNs, all innovating different forms of government while sustaining a steady populations of hundreds of thousands or millions of seasteaders in locations both near the coast and far out on the open ocean. Would the world’s seas hold more, less, or the same amount of stopping power as before?

Sea-Based Nations wouldn’t change the objective difficulty of assaulting the beaches of great powers like China or the United States. However, if states could use SBNs located near an adversary through either diplomacy or conquest, then that SBN could serve as a staging base for the invading country’s forces. Think how difficult it would have been for the Allies to invade Europe without the United Kingdom nearby. As noted earlier this week, a SBN could serve in the same manner, but with some key differences I’ll discuss later. Island bases affect something I’ve talked about before called the “Loss of Strength Gradient,” yielding significant advantages to the owner. Looked at another way, SBNs represent larger, more capable Afloat Forward Staging Bases. Since they would be sustained by citizens and their economic activities, they might become the “poor nation’s aircraft carrier,” particularly if they are engineered to have some kind of propulsion.

While the stopping power of water itself seems like it would remain intact, the proliferation of SBNs could start a new Great Game among world powers as they vie for influence or control with/over new maritime city-states in order to gain an advantage over other potential opponents. The existence of many SBNs that are – to some degree – mobile in their physical location and political alliances and vulnerable to even second- or third-rate navies could damage that portion of global stability that comes from the vastness of the world’s oceans. Paradoxically, this means that instead of obtaining greater freedom from established governments, SBNs might invite more attention from great powers who seek to gain an advantage over a potential adversary. I don’t pretend to know what effects this attention and interest might have on the domestic politics of SBNs, but they strike me as both potentially significant and damaging to the stated goal of seasteaders to break from established forms of government.

SBNs do differ in many important ways from Great Britain in World War II. For one, they can be sunk: even the most solidly build floating platforms would be vulnerable to attack, particularly from torpedoes. For another, they need to be flagged by an existing country, at least under my limited knowledge of current admiralty law. These facts could influence their foreign policies in important ways.

Given the potential instability SBNs could introduce to the balance of power, it’s also interesting to consider whether great powers would seriously allow their formation.

It seems easy to conceive of SBNs as communities allowed to evolve in isolation, but their very existence will affect the strategic calculus of the world’s great powers. As a result, they may not even be allowed to evolve as they may wish. Conversely, the growth of a diverse array of SBNs would challenge some of the key principles of realism. Regardless, SBNs promise to drastically alter the way we think about international relations.

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Winter is Coming

Heat waves, rising temperatures, and retreating ice grab headlines today. However, receding sea ice in the Arctic and a concurrent increase in shipping traffic will intensify attention on the globe’s (still) frigid northern reaches. Though the United States issued a forward-looking Arctic policy with National Security Presidential Directive 66 in 2009, it has not seriously faced the implications of matching these policy goals to strategic ends and backing its interests in the region with capital investments. Our Canadian allies have, and we should seek to learn from their experience.

The Arctic was important to Canada and the United States well before the ice started melting.

Canada’s adaptation to the Arctic’s changing maritime geography is instructive. For starters, it serves as a reminder of Canada’s importance as an ally of the United States. Geography, heritage, and shared sacrifice have forged a special relationship between Canada and the United States and, like the Night’s Watch in the cold Northern reaches of the fictional world in Game of Thrones, I think we too infrequently give them proper credit for their support of our defense. This isn’t the first era requiring US-Canadian security cooperation in the Arctic – both countries jointly manned the “Distant Early Warning” Line of radar stations above the Arctic Circle during the Cold War.

The United States can look to Canada’s experience in matching ends, ways, and means in a new Arctic geography while under austere fiscal constraints to inform our own decisions as we contemplate our role in the region.

Canada is an Arctic nation, and this identity figures heavily in the Canada First Defence Strategy. Among the most important declarations in the strategy:

In Canada’s Arctic region, changing weather patterns are altering the environment, making it more accessible to sea traffic and economic activity. Retreating ice cover has opened the way for increased shipping, tourism and resource exploration, and new transportation routes are being considered, including through the Northwest Passage. While this promises substantial economic benefits for Canada, it has also brought new challenges from other shores. These changes in the Arctic could also spark an increase in illegal activity, with important implications for Canadian sovereignty and security and a potential requirement for additional military support.

and:

Canadian Forces must have the capacity to exercise control over and defend Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. New opportunities are emerging across the region, bringing with them new challenges. As activity in northern lands and waters accelerates, the military will play an increasingly vital role in demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in this potentially resource rich region.

Canada First proposes Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) as the primary strategic means to accomplish the policy goal of demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in the Arctic. In early July of this year, the Canadian Government announced a preliminary contract to draft an execution strategy for the project and execute a design review of the proposed vessel, which will be based on the Norwegian Svalbard-class of ships. While representing a significant step towards realizing Canada’s goals in the Arctic, the proposed class has received a fair amount of domestic criticism. Some Canadians call the design too small, too light, and too slow. Others point to the vessel’s lack of armament, though some propose incorporating space for future weapons systems into the design. A final criticism of the class is that it is designed for light icebreaking duties, earning them the moniker “slushbreakers” in the Canadian American Strategic Review. Vessels designed for polar cruising typically conform to a “Polar Class” indicating a specific level of icebreaking capability. The proposed AOPS will be Polar Class 5, which means “Year round operation in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions,” and represents the lowest year-round capability to negotiate polar waters.

A portent of future Arctic FONOPS?

The AOPS represents, as some Arctic watchers have noted, a compromise between an offshore patrol vessel and a dedicated Arctic warship. This is the essential difficulty in planning an Arctic force structure: though the ice is retreating, there is still plenty of it and significant seasonal variations present new design challenges to Naval and/or Coast Guard vessels. True Arctic vessels require completely different hull, mechanical and engineering systems that significantly impact their tactical performance. No bow mounted sonar. Poor speed and maneuverability. Et cetera. Indeed, given the fact that American and Soviet/Russian submarines have a long, distinguished history of operating under the sea ice, I would question a surface vessel’s ability to operate in a submarine threat environment while noisily plowing through ice floes. This is just one challenge among many to tactical surface operations in the Arctic, and they are probably the reason why (as noted at Information Dissemination yesterday) the US Navy hasn’t seriously considered itself an Arctic player beyond ICEX and some limited research and development projects.

There are similarities between Canadian and US Arctic policy. While, geographically speaking, Canada seems to have a stronger need for an Arctic presence due to its more extensive maritime claims in the region, the Bering Strait – a critical choke point – is in Alaska’s back yard. US policy for the Arctic includes the following as summarized in a recent report:

The USA names several military challenges with implications for the Arctic, including missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations; and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.

It’s possible to fulfill many of these goals with submarines, but once the discussion veers towards sealift, missile defense, and freedom of navigation, a polar surface combatant seems a necessary part of an Arctic force structure. The United States will have to answer many key questions raised by these stated goals:

  1. Should Navy, Coast Guard, or joint assets fulfill these roles?
  2. How important is it to the United States to lead the exploration and militarization of the Arctic?
  3. What metrics of civil use and sea ice change will determine the extent and timing of the United States’ Arctic presence?
  4. What functions can/should an Arctic ship fulfill?
  5. How does receding ice impact the existing Polar Classification system? What baseline of Polar Class is appropriate to Arctic warships/coast guard cutters?

Answering these questions is the work of strategy, and it’s telling that a recent letter signed by both of Alaska’s senators requested just such a strategy. If the United States does forge a detailed Arctic plan, it would do well to consider the experience of Canada’s government. Canada has pioneered the militarization of the Arctic region and revealed many of the challenges inherent in operating beyond “The Wall.”

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

The Sinews of War

Fleet Admiral King – probably thinking about the challenge of getting from A to B.

I don’t know what the hell this “logistics” is that Marshall is always talking about, but I want some of it.

– Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King to a Staff Officer, 1942

Carting around beans and bullets has never much interested me until recently. Of course, the Military Sealift Command has been on my mind due to the recent engagement of a suspicious vessel by the USNS Rappahannock. I’ve also been reading more about the Falklands War after my conversation with Scott Cheney-Peters on TheRiskyShift.com‘s “Debrief” and recently found an out-of-print book from the 1960s titled Conflict and Defense: A General Theory with a lot of smart things to say about military might. Finally, Undersecretary of the Navy The Honorable Bob Work has been weighing in on forward basing of ships over at Information Dissemination. Though they seem unconnected, all of this has led me to the following conclusions:

  1. You can’t claim to be a Navalist without having an interest in logistics. When we talk about future fleet composition, we’re not spending enough time talking about how we will support our combat ships and how many/what types of replenishment and pre-positioning ships we need.
  2. If you’re looking for a single measure of national power, the size of a country’s merchant marine is a good place to start, but:
  3. The globalization of the shipping industry both affects this last measure and may make large conventional wars less likely.

The Falklands War is a clear example of what Scott calls “The Tyranny of Distance.” The further a state has to go to get to the fight, the less combat power they will be able to apply in that fight. Part of the reason Argentina decided to invade the Falklands in the first place was that they believed that they were so far away from Britain, whose military power (and some would argue, national power) was on the decline. Few believed the British could sustain military operations so far from home – and with good reason. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) could only muster 22 ships with around 120,000 tons combined displacement to sustain a naval task force, a brigade of Royal Marines, an army brigade, and other ground, air, and special operations forces.

The famous RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 converted for wartime service under “Operation Corporate.” Photo: Andy Shaw.

One of the reasons for Britain’s success was the rapid signing of the Requisition of Ships Order of 1982 and the launch of “Operation Corporate” – the rapid conversion of civilian ships to aid the RFA. Virtually overnight, Britain quintupled its replenishment and sealift tonnage. These ships were indispensable to the war effort, allowing the British to concentrate far more military strength in the Falklands theater than many outside observers anticipated. This is why I think a country’s merchant marine is a critical measure of national power – military forces rarely invest enough in logistics capabilities during peacetime. Once a crisis erupts, countries with robust merchant fleets can quickly convert them for wartime use. Great powers need to respond globally, and sometimes that will require surging logistics forces during a crisis.

The United States operates under the tyranny of distance every day. Perhaps that’s why we’ve become insensitive to our logistics forces – we rely on them so often. And we have such a professional and robust force in the Military Sealift Command that the merchant marine becomes an afterthought. But our merchant marine has shrunk drastically since the 1940s. It’s telling that the United States lost 733 merchant ships greater than 1,000 tons displacement in World War II – our current merchant marine stands at only 393 ships according to the CIA World Factbook. I’m not advocating for a return to a 6,000 ship merchant marine, but this historical perspective should spur us to ask the question: do we need more sealift capability in reserve? What kinds of policies might increase our merchant fleet? And comparatively, when we talk about China, we rarely note that it has the largest merchant marine of any great power at 2030 ships.

Going down the rabbit hole further, I find it interesting that our National Defense Reserve Fleet – the ships in “mothballs” – is shrinking significantly. According to a report published in May, the US Maritime Administration is planning to dispose of 34 of 142 ships, with the potential for more down the road. Most of the vessels being disposed of are some kind of bulk carrier or tanker.

Forward basing definitely mitigates some logistics challenges. According to Conflict and Defense by Kenneth Boulding, a Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, forward bases can actually reverse the tyranny of distance – so powerful is their influence. Students of Mahan know this argument well. Forward basing is also the sensible posture to assume in times of austerity, allowing more operational use to be had from a smaller number of ships without completely burning out equipment or people. But we must consider the future of our logistics capability, particularly the reserves from which we might surge during a crisis.

Finally, a thought on globalization: with the rise of multinational shipping companies and the prevalence of flags of convenience, I think that conventional wars between great powers – particularly invasions across the seas – might be far less likely. In this sense, the decline of national merchant marines might offer some security advantages. Famed international relations theorist John Mearsheimer coined the term “the stopping power of water.” With countries less able to mobilize the logistics capability to transport large numbers of ground troops, great powers (like, perhaps, the United States and China) will be less able to invade one another.

What do you think: does the United States need more logistics forces? Should the United States seek to grow its merchant marine? How? What does China’s large merchant marine say about its national ambitions? This is a conversation worth having…

LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

More Mahan and Corbett

The Battle of the Nile, 1798

In my last post I criticized those who overemphasize the size of a fleet as a measure of its operational effectiveness, using the historical example of the Royal Navy’s fleet modernization efforts prior to the First World War.  I did not offer any alternate criteria by which to judge what an optimally sized U.S. Navy would look like.  With discussions of what insights turn-of-the-century theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett would have on modern maritime strategy so popular right now, however, I thought there might be value to apply their models of sea power to evaluate the composition of today’s U.S. Navy.

Responding to a critique that the current fleet is the smallest it has been since 1917, Under-Secretary of the Navy Robert Work noted that the ability of the current fleet to accomplish its missions is as great as it has ever been, arguing that at a century ago “we didn’t have any airplanes in the fleet.  We didn’t have any unmanned systems.  We didn’t have Tomahawk cruise missiles.”

Critics of what they perceive as a too-small fleet claim that quantity is important because “presence” is necessary for command of the sea.  On its face this is logical, as without enough combat power at the right spot and right time, victory is impossible.  Having more ships makes it theoretically possible to concentrate a larger force at the decisive point, as well as providing more resources in more places to deter against the enemy, wherever they may be.  The only restriction in a navy’s ability to provide presence is the amount of resources that a state has at its disposal.

Mahan was opposed to any notion of presence itself providing any particular utility, expressing a preference for offensive fleet action, even when that end was accomplished by a fleet inferior in total size to that of its foes.  His optimal navy was “equal in number and superior in efficiency” to its enemies at the decisive point within “a limited field of action,” not necessarily everywhere.  It protected national interests “by offensive action against the fleet, in which it sees their real enemy and its own principal objective.”  Mahan would have not approved of an emphasis on presence as an objective, for his description of the undesirable alternative to his above strategy was one which requires the “superior numbers” needed to provide “superiority everywhere to the force of the enemy actually opposed, as the latter may be unexpectedly reinforced.”  Trying to outnumber the enemy everywhere at sea is an impossible end state in any situation in which a pair of opponents have remotely comparable resources upon which to draw.

Corbett’s view of sea power is more compatible with the notion that presence is important.  Corbett felt that what he called “Command of the Sea” was “normally in dispute” and that the most common state in maritime conflict was that of “an uncommanded sea.”  In that context, presence in terms of more ships means that a navy can employ its forces in more places, with command thus achieved.  It would be easier to achieve this state of command through presence in asymmetrical situations in which the smaller force is overmatched both in terms of quantity and quality.

War at sea often revolves around two factors: the ability to locate the enemy, and the ability to employ decisive force against the enemy first.  Until navies began to use aircraft in the early twentieth century, the only way to locate an enemy fleet was to actually see it from onboard ship (or ashore).  Until the introduction of wireless communications, the ability to pass any intelligence thus derived was also restricted to line-of-sight or the speed of a ship.  Mahan noted the difficulty to locate and track a fleet when he said that they “move through a desert over which waters flit, but where they do not remain.”

By having more ships (assuming they effectively employed them), a navy would theoretically have a better chance to locate the enemy on favorable terms.  Nelson could sail across the Atlantic (and back again) and around the Mediterranean without finding the French fleet because his “sensors” were limited to the visual range of his fleet.  The conflict between the German and British navies during the First World War was largely one in which the two fleets were unable to achieve their tactical objectives because they could not find each other (at least under tactically favorable circumstances).  In a more modern example, the American victory at Midway was made possible by SIGINT.  Because the US Navy knew that the Japanese intended to attack Midway, its fleet was placed in a position where they were more likely to find the Japanese first (even then however, each fleet was limited in their ability to locate the enemy to the range of their aircraft).

A smaller fleet which is enabled in its ability to project combat power over a larger area through technology to engage the enemy on its own terms would seem to be just as important as a large fleet.  Today’s U.S. Navy, with access to a historically unprecedented web of information made possible by sensors and surveillance assets in the air, on the surface and under the water, has the ability to win battles against a capable enemy because those sensors mean it can deliver ordnance against enemy targets first.  However, one of the more astute criticisms of Under-Secretary Work’s defense of the current fleet size is that it only works in war, not other situations in which it is not clear “whether replacing ships with aircraft is a legitimate approach towards maritime battlespaces in peacetime when that same effort has been largely ineffective dealing with other low intensity maritime problems like narcotics and piracy.” 

The debate over presence revolves around strategy and objectives, and whether the size and composition of a fleet matches up with those objectives.  If the U.S. maritime objective is the ability to operate at sea in any contested theater, then having a sensor-enabled battle force in which surveillance assets make decisive action possible before the enemy can act is more important than surface presence in terms of many ships.  Conversely, if the most important objective is to provide maritime security against illicit actors such as pirates or drug smugglers, then presence is more important.  As the linked post above from Galrahn notes, a UAV can enable kinetic offensive operations from another platform located far away, but it cannot board a suspect vessel and detain the crew.

The debate between the advocates of presence and a high-end battle force is actually one over the relative importance of the Maritime Security and Sea Control missions, and the resources devoted to each at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, there is not a straightforward answer as to which is the more necessary one for the US Navy to conduct.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.