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

By Christopher Bassler and Matthew McCarton

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

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

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

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

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

No Good Options: Considering Maritime Asymmetric Strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Least Bad Option: Rerouting the Sea Lanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every Sailor a Cyber Warrior

Notes to the New CNO Topic Week

By LT Douglas Kettler, USN 

Every Marine a rifleman. This mantra resonates with the nation and highlights a fundamental fact about the USMC – no matter what a Marine’s primary job is, they are expected to be able to pick up a weapon and fight.

The CNO, having been a previous commander of U.S. Tenth Fleet/Fleet Cyber Command, should instill this same principle into his Sailors with a new creed, “Every Sailor a cyber warrior.” Given that the CNO is taking charge of numerous complex naval weapons systems that nearly all depend on the cyber domain to ensure their lethality, it is extremely vital that the CNO foster cyber literacy, programming skills, and robust cyber hygiene across the force. Similar to learning a new language, this process may appear difficult, but as a 2015 RAND study suggests, the impact could save the Navy billions of dollars and prevent critical network infiltrations.

This change will benefit the Navy in two primary ways, innovation and cyber defense.

First, naval innovation will be unleashed through advancing Sailor-driven programming skills and Sailor-driven coding solutions to improve computer-based weapons systems. The USAF has embraced airmen-driven innovation schemes with programs like the “Kessel Run,” while the Navy has continued to be beholden to expensive and slow contractor “solutions” to Sailor needs.

An emphasis on cyber will squeeze the most effectiveness and innovation out of fielded weapons systems by having the Sailors that run the systems manage an improvement cycle at little to no cost. A recent success story along these lines is seen in the Maritime Patrol community with a junior officer who drove innovation from the front while the contractors struggled to catch up. The CNO’s approval and fostering of similar types of programs across his weapons platforms at the Fleet level could unleash a wave of combat lethality and innovation unrealized since Eugene Fluckey created land-attack strike and special operations missions for the submarine force in World War II.

Second, cyber defense is critical to maintain if Sailors are trained and encouraged to make programming improvements for weapons platform software. This is where the CNO can generate outsized returns for his Navy. The current system of Cyber Awareness General Military Training alone does not cut it. The CNO must go further and inculcate more impactful and more frequent cyber training. This means cyber training that focuses on how the cyber domain specifically impacts the Sailor’s rating and the Sailor’s weapon system, not just their cellphone. While extremely important, social network operations security, personal electronics management, and other traditional “all-hands” cyber efforts are entry-level education that all Sailors are expected to understand. The next level of fleet-wide cyber education should show the Sailor how the domain impacts their lethality and arms them with the education to recognize, respond, and overcome adverse cyber effects.

Through the new creed of “every Sailor a cyber warrior,” the CNO will be able to leverage his experience at Tenth Fleet to arm the Navy with the foundational skills necessary to fight and prevail in twenty-first century network-centric warfare.

Lt. Douglas Kettler is a P-8A Naval Flight Officer and Weapons and Tactics Instructor in the U.S. Navy. He is an associate editor with CIMSEC. His views are his own and do not reflect the official position or policy of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (July 25, 2019) Operations Specialist 2nd Class James Martin, from Pennridge, Pa., plots surface contacts in the combat information center (CIC) aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton (DDG 60). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Julio Rivera/Released)

Distributed Maritime Operations Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

Last week CIMSEC published articles on the U.S. Navy’s nascent Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept. Authors looked at institutional challenges, capability gaps, and other facets that could inform the development of the DMO concept. We thank the below authors for their contributions.

Look Beyond the Fleet: Finding the Capability for Distributed Maritime Operations” by Walker D. Mills

“The 2016 SFS labels the ‘right mix of resources to persist in a fight’ as one of the three tenets of Distributed Lethality. At a minimum that mix must include Marine and Army surface fires, fast attack craft, Air Force anti-surface warfare, and whatever else is needed to distribute firepower and sustain command of the seas.”

Operationalizing Distributed Maritime Operations” by Kevin Eyer and Steve McJessy

“In the course of operationalizing a viable DMO system and concept, a voyage of discovery will be necessary, and in this, both blind alleys and new approaches will be discovered. What is essential is a clear understanding of what DMO might look like so that a path to a solution can then begin to be envisioned.”

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

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 19, 2019) The guided-missile destroyer USS Preble (DDG 88) changes course after steaming beside the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) during flight operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bryan Niegel)

Establish a Seabed Command

Seabed Warfare Week

By Joseph LaFave

The U.S. Navy got a lot of press in 2017, and a lot of it was negative. In the Pacific, there were two incidents where U.S. Navy ships collided with civilian vessels, and as a result 17 American Sailors lost their lives. In the wake of these incidents, report after report has come out detailing how the U.S. Navy’s surface fleet is overworked and overwhelmed.

After the collisions, several U.S. Navy commanders lost their jobs, and charges were filed against five Navy officers for offenses ranging up to negligent homicide. This is an almost unprecedented move, and the Navy is attempting to both satisfy the public outcry and remedy the training and readiness shortfalls that have plagued the surface warfare community for some time.

The point isn’t to shame Navy leadership, but rather to point out that the Navy’s surface fleet is terribly overworked. As a nation we are asking them to do too much. Reports show that while underway, Sailors typically work 18-hour days, and fatigue has been cited as a major factor in the collisions. While there may be a desire to generate more overall mine warfare capacity, it is unrealistic to expect the rest of the surface fleet to assume any additional burden for this mission area.

The surface fleet needs to refocus its training and resources on warfighting and lethality. Of all of its currently assigned missions, mine warfare in particular could be transferred to a seabed-specific command.

A Seabed Command would focus entirely on seabed warfare. It could unite many of the currently disparate functions found within the surface, EOD, aviation, and oceanographic communities. Its purview would include underwater surveying and bathymetric mapping, search and recovery, placing and finding mines, testing and operating unmanned submersibles, and developing future technologies that will place the U.S. on the forefront of future seabed battlegrounds.

Why It Is Important

The seabed is the final frontier of the battlespace. Even low earth and geosynchronous orbits have plenty of military satellites, whether they are for communication or surveillance, but the seabed, except for mines and a few small expeditionary vessels, remains largely unexplored.

There are several reasons for this. For one, it’s hard to access. While the U.S. Navy has a few vehicles and systems that allow for deployment to deep depths, the majority of the seabed remains inaccessible, at least not quickly. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this hasn’t been a huge problem. Except for in rare cases of submarine rescue, there has been little need for the Navy to deploy forces to extreme depths.

That is changing. Secretary of Defense Mattis has made it clear that in the coming years, threats from nations such as Russia and China will make conventional forces more relevant than they have been in the past 20 years. It is imperative that the U.S. Navy has a solution to rapidly deploy both offensive and defensive forces to the seabed, because right now it can’t.

While mine-hunting robots have been deployed to Arleigh Burke destroyers, it seems unlikely that in a full-scale war the Navy will be able to direct these assets to work full-time at seabed warfare. After all, they’re too valuable. The Arleigh Burke destroyer proved its mettle in Iraq; being able to place cruise missiles through the window of a building certainly has a deterrent effect. But this also means that any attempts to add mine warfare to the destroyers’ responsibilities will be put on the back burner, and that will allow enemies to gain an advantage on the U.S. Navy.

There is simply a finite amount of time, and the Sailors underway cannot possibly add yet more tasks to their already overflowing plate. It would take a great deal of time for Sailors onboard the destroyers to train and drill on seabed warfare, and that’s time they just don’t have. No matter how many ways you look at it, the surface fleet is already working at capacity.

What is needed is a new naval command, equipped with its own fleet of both littoral and deep-water ships and submarines, which focuses entirely on seabed warfare.

In this new command, littoral ships, like the new Freedom Class LCS, will be responsible for near shore seabed activities. This includes clearing friendly harbors of mines, placing mines in enemy harbors, searching for enemy submarines near the coast, and denying the enemy the ability to reach friendly seabeds.

The deep-water component will be equipped with powerful new technology that can seek out, map, and cut or otherwise exploit the enemy’s undersea communications cables on the ocean floor, while at the same time monitor, defend, maintain, and repair our own. It will also deploy stand-off style torpedo pods near enemy shipping lanes; they will be tasked with dominating the seabeds past the 12 nautical mile limit.

We have to be prepared to think of the next war between the U.S. and its enemies as total war. Supplies and the transfer of supplies between enemy countries will be a prime target for the U.S. Navy. We have to assume that in a full nation vs. nation engagement, the submarines, surface ships, aircraft carriers, and land-based aircraft will be needed elsewhere. Even if they are assigned to engage enemy shipping, there are just not enough platforms to hold every area at risk and still service the required targets.

For example, the U.S. will need the fast attacks to insert Special Forces troops, especially since the appetite to employ the Special Forces community has grown in the last 20 years. They will also be needed to do reconnaissance and surveillance. Likewise, the aircraft carriers will have their hands full executing strike missions, providing close air support to ground troops, working to achieve air superiority, and supporting Special Forces missions. Just like the surface fleet is today, the submarine fleet and the aircraft carriers will be taxed to their limit during an all-out war.

That’s why a seabed-specific command is needed to make the most of the opportunities in this domain while being ready to confront an adversary ready to exploit the seabed. Suppose that during a total war, the Seabed Command could place underwater torpedo turrets on the seabed floor, and control them remotely. A dedicated command could place, operate, and service these new weapons, freeing up both the surface and the submarine fleets to pursue other operations. Under control of Seabed Command, these cheap, unmanned torpedo launchers could wait at the bottom until an enemy sonar contact was identified and then engage. Just like pilots flying the MQ-9 Reaper control the aircraft from thousands of miles away, Sailors based in CONUS could operate these turrets remotely. Even the threat of these underwater torpedo pods would be enough to at least change the way an adversary ships crucial supplies across the ocean. If the pods were deployed in remote areas, it would force the enemy to attempt to shift shipping closer to the coast, where U.S. airpower could swiftly interdict.

The final component of Seabed Command would be a small fleet of submarines, equipped for missions like undersea rescue, repair, and reconnaissance. The submarines would also host saturation diving capabilities, enabling the delivery of personnel and equipment to the seafloor. Because these assets are only tasked with seabed operations, the Sailors would receive unique training that would make them specialists in operating in this unforgiving environment.


A brand new Seabed Command and fleet is order. It will be made up of both littoral and deep water surface ships, unmanned torpedo turrets that can be deployed to the ocean floor and operated from a remote base, and a small fleet of submarines specially equipped for seabed operations.

The U.S. Navy cannot rely on the surface warfare community to complete this mission; they are simply too busy as it is. While the submarine force might also seem like a logical choice, in a full-on nation vs. nation war, their top priorities will not be seabed operations. Only a standalone command and fleet will ensure America’s dominance at crush depth.

Joseph LaFave is a journalist covering the defense contracting industry, defense trends, and the Global War on Terror. He is a graduate of Florida State University and was an engineer at Lockheed Martin.

Featured Image: ROV Deep Discoverer investigates the geomorphology of Block Canyon (NOAA)