Tag Archives: Trade

Port Automation and Cyber Risk in the Shipping Industry

CIMSEC is committed to keeping our content FREE FOREVER. Please consider donating to our annual campaign now so we can continue to provide free content.

By Philipp Martin Dingeldey 


To stay ahead of competing ports and technological developments, automation has been heralded as inevitable. Major transshipment hubs and aspiring ports bet their future on automation, which raises the impact  cyber risks could have in the long-run.

Singapore’s Port Modernization

One example of port modernization is Singapore’s Tuas Port Project. To stay ahead of competing ports in Southeast Asia, PSA International and the city state have bet their future on the fully automated port on the western side of the island. The project is set to almost double the port’s current throughput capacity of twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and consolidate all its container operations by 2040.

Singapore’s port is ranked second, behind Shanghai’s mega port, by total TEUs handled. Nevertheless, Singapore’s port is the world’s busiest transshipment hub, and therefore immensely important to global supply chains. The port’s volume growth of 6.4 percent for the first half of 2017 indicates that its investments in modernized berths and joint ventures with liners paid off.

While this is great news for the short term, container vessels on Asia-Europe trade routes will inevitably increase in size, requiring higher handling efficiency to achieve fast turn-around times. By the end of 2018, ultra large container vessels (ULCVs) are expected to gain a share of 61 percent of total capacity, pushing established hubs like Singapore to automate its terminals to stay relevant.

At the same time, next generation container vessels will not only be bigger, but also increasingly automated and even autonomous. As ports and the shipping industry are integral parts of global and regional supply chains, their automation and technological modernization raises the impact and potential of cyber risk.

How Good is Automation?

For Singapore’s port, automation is seen to not only strengthen its position as a transshipment hub well into the future, but also helps it keep up with technological developments and industry trends.

The shipping industry has generally been slow in adapting new technologies, due to its conservative nature and the large number of players involved. Currently, only a fraction of global container volume is handled by fully automated container terminals. In 2016, it was estimated that only 4-5 percent of container volume will be handled by fully automated terminals once ongoing projects were completed. Nonetheless, industry pressure and competition have heightened the need for ports to invest and automate, indicating that the number of automated terminals will increase.

Automated terminals allow ports to handle containers more efficiently by using operating systems to plan storage in accordance with collection and transshipment times. This reduces unnecessary box moves, shortens cycle times, and enables consistent and predictable throughput numbers.

Fully-automated terminals have the advantage of low operating costs and reliable operations, but require higher upfront costs, longer development, offer only low productivity increases at peak times, and have the general difficulty to fully automate a working terminal. On the other hand, semi-automated terminals offer the possibility for greater productivity increases at peak times, are generally understood to have the best overall productivity with less upfront costs, but require higher operating costs and are inconsistent when it comes to handling ULCVs.

While full automation gives large ports like Singapore’s the advantage of reliable, full-time operations at low operating costs, it requires long development times to fix bugs and offers only gradual productivity increases at peak times. On top of that, full automation also increases their vulnerability to cyber risks. This is due to the use of technologically advanced and networked systems.

The investment threshold to enter automation for ports is high, while not necessarily offering major increases in productivity. What automation does offer major port hubs is better predictability and consistency of container moves per hour. Additionally, automation reduces the room for human error, making operations safer. At the same time, automation reduces the environmental impact since terminals are mostly electrified, giving ports an additional competitive edge in an industry increasingly focused on sustainability.

Cyber Risks

The shipping industry and ports are seen by many insiders as underprepared for cyber threats. Even though major players in the shipping industry have recognized and acted on the risks posed by cyber threats, the majority have been slow to recognize potential business risks. Even though awareness has grown, the need for better information sharing persists. Automation further increases the exposure and impact of cyber threats for ports, highlighting the importance of data and system integrity.

The reality of cyber threats to automated terminals was demonstrated in the “NotPetya” cyber-attack in June 2017. The attack forced Maersk to interrupt operations at multiple terminals worldwide, causing logistical havoc for weeks after the attack. Overall, it cost Maersk roughly US$300 million, even though the attack was not specifically directed at the company. The “lucky hit” against one of the industry leaders showcases that even well-prepared firms can suffer financial losses due to cyber threats.

The difficulty with protecting automated terminals from cyber risks lies with their complexity. These terminals use industrial control systems that translate sensorial data and commands into mechanical actions. The network links between mechanical equipment and sensors are exposed to the same threats as data networks. The complexity is further increased by the months and years it can take to figure out and fix bugs and weaknesses in automated systems. In an automated system, different system components have to effectively work together as one, stretching the time needed to figure out and fix bugs. This involves mainly software issues that have to be fixed while also moving boxes of cargo at the terminal.

While ports have to secure themselves from a broad range of risks, cybercriminals can choose from a number of entry points. For example, external vendors, terminal operating systems, and unaware employees may be vulnerable to phishing attacks. Operational systems and data networks are not always up-to-date or properly secured, allowing criminals to gain comparatively easy access to information. To prevent the ports and shipping industry from most attacks, regular operating system updates, stronger passwords, secure satellite connections, resilience exercises, information sharing, and employee awareness campaigns should be practiced.

On top of that, modern ships bear the risk of spreading viruses onto port systems simply via Wi-Fi or other data networks. Industrial control systems are not designed with cyber risks or active network monitoring in mind. This is especially true for ships’ control systems, but can also affect the system components of ports.

Nevertheless, this is only addressing the technical side. The human factor still plays a major role in mitigating cyber risks. Personal details of ship crews can still be easily accessed, making them more vulnerable to social engineering via phishing or other techniques, unknowingly granting access to systems.

Human factors can take the form of criminals, terrorists, competitors, disgruntled employees, and more. Workers at mostly manual terminals, for example, generally do not like automation because it makes their jobs largely redundant. To reduce the chance for cyber threats stemming from or aided by disgruntled employees, ports can offer training and job guarantees to their workforce to make the transition to automation more incremental.

Port authorities, registries, and all major organizations in the shipping industry are increasingly aware of cyber threats and are responding through raising awareness or offering training courses. These are simple steps to better protect information and navigation systems on board ships. For example, BIMCO, the world’s largest international shipping association, made cyber security an important issue for the shipping industry three years ago via an awareness initiative. The association has further advocated the need for guidelines to evolve with the threats, launching the “Guidelines for Cyber Security Onboard Ships” in July 2017, which was endorsed and supported across the industry.

In addition, the Liberian ship registry started a computer-based two-hour cybersecurity training program in October 2017, offering a comprehensive overview of cybersecurity issues aboard ships. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that these courses and campaigns are enough to protect the industry. While it is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done through regulations.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

Since 2016, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has put forward voluntary guidelines regarding cyber risks. Only after 2021 does the IMO plan to enforce a set of binding regulations on cybersecurity. This might be too late for many companies in the industry. Shipping companies should not wait until 2021, but should begin now to implement simple measures, like using firewalls and stronger passwords, to deter criminals from trying to exploit current weaknesses.

Further, even though the IMO adopted guidelines on maritime cyber risk management into the International Safety Management Code this year, ports and the shipping industry still need to establish a stronger culture on cybersecurity.

Major shipping hubs are part of large and less resilient supply chains, which are essential for regional and international trade. These supply chains depend on a small number of key ports, which are vulnerable to shocks from other ports. To make supply chains and port hubs more resilient to cyber risks, the shipping industry as a whole will have to adjust and prepare.

Companies will have to work together and share information on previous or ongoing attacks, so that experiences and best practices can be shared directly. Unfortunately, this has been difficult to achieve due to worries about how competitors may use the shared information. Singapore has set up the Port Authorities Focal Point Correspondence Network to further the exchange of information on past and current incidents. It remains to be seen if this network has worked to encourage the sharing of information.

Ports are logistical hubs where many companies compete for business, making information sharing naturally difficult. Currently, port security is based on the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, which is heavily focused on the physical aspects of security. In order to make cyber risks a much more important issue for port security, the whole sector needs to step up and make it a priority.

Cyber risks are not just a technological matter, but require adequate awareness and planning to strengthen a port’s resilience. Training employees actively in security protocols and procedures with information systems is one way of achieving this. At the same time, ports need to engage in contingency and scenario planning to be better prepared should an attack occur. On top of all this, national bodies (e.g. institutes of standards) need to give better guidance on security testing and planning for ports, which should be supplemented by binding guidelines on reporting and information sharing mandated by global bodies like the IMO.

Philipp Martin Dingeldey is a Research Analyst with the Maritime Security Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. For questions and follow-ups he can be reached at research.pmdingeldey@gmail.com.

Featured Image: Port of Singapore (XPacifica/Gettyimages)

Deglobalization Will Change the Mission of Naval Forces

The following article is adapted from a report for the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, International Studies, Will Technological Convergence Reverse Globalization?

By T. X. Hammes

Since the end of World War II, the United States has consistently supported greater global integration. U.S. leaders saw this as the route to both prosperity and security. After the shock of Korea, the United States consistently forward deployed its armed forces to support this policy. The following decades of increasing global trade seem to validate this strategy. However from 2011 to 2014, manufacturing trade as a percentage of GDP actually flattened and then declined from 2011 to 2014. Services and financial flows followed the same pattern. In its 2016 report, Mackenzie Global Institute reported, “After 20 years of rapid growth, traditional flows of goods, services, and finance have declined relative to GDP.”

hammes figure 1

Figure 11

Figure 2 Hammes

Figure 3 Hammes

Many analysts contend these are short term trends and soon trade will resume growing. In contrast, this article will argue that the convergence of new technologies is dramatically changing how we make things, what we make, and where we make them. These technologies plus trends in energy production, agriculture, politics, and internet governance will result in the localization of manufacturing, services, energy, and food production. This shift will significantly change the international security environment and in particular the role of the U.S. naval forces.

How We Make Things

The cost advantages derived from the combination of robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing is driving production to automated factories. According to Boston Consulting Group, about 10 percent of all manufacturing is currently automated, but this will rise to 25 percent by 2025. This is only the very front end of the shift of labor to automation. A Price Waterhouse Cooper survey showed 94 percent of CEOs who had robots say the robots increased productivity.

Even as robots are changing traditional manufacturing, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is creating entirely new ways to manufacture a rapidly expanding range of products – from medical devices to aircraft parts to buildings. In April 2016, Carbon3D released the first commercial version of a machine that prints 100 times faster than its predecessors.

Commercial firms are exploiting these advances. United Parcel Service established a fully-automated facility with 100 3D printers to manufacture one-off parts or mass produce thousands of the same part. “UPS can see a major change coming. The concept is simple, local production of a vast number of components will hit the international shipping market hard.”

In fact, Price Waterhouse Cooper surveyed over 100 industrial manufacturers and reported that fifty-two percent of the CEOs surveyed expect 3D printing to be used for high volume production in the next 3-5 years. 

What We Will Make

3D printing will have two other major impacts — mass customization and design for purpose. Rather than stocking the wide variety of parts in the spectrum of colors and finishes they use, a range of industries are looking to maintain only digital files and print on demand. More revolutionary, designers can now design an object to optimally fulfill its purpose rather than to meet manufacturing limitations. General Electric replaced jet engine fuel nozzles made from 18 smaller parts with a single, lighter, stronger, longer lasting, and cheaper 3D printed part.

3D printing can also increase the strength of a product through honeycomb construction, like that of bird bones. Very difficult to make with traditional manufacturing, 3D printing can make them with relative ease. Further, 3D printing can create gradient alloys which expand the material properties of the product. 3D printing can actually improve the performance of existing materials. 3D printed ceramics can have 10 times the compressive strength of commercially available ceramics, tolerate higher temperatures, and be printed in complex lattices, further increasing the strength to weight ratio.

Where We Make Things

The combination of robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing means “on-shoring,” returning manufacturing to the home market, is increasing rapidly. In 2015 survey of CEOs, Boston Consulting Group noted

            –a 17 percent increase in the number that report they are actively reshoring now, which is 2.5 times the number actively reshoring in 2012.

            –31 percent would put new capacity to serve the U.S. in the U.S. versus 20 percent who would choose China.  A reversal from 2 years ago when China was favored 30 percent to 20 percent.

            –71 percent believe that advanced manufacturing technologies will improve the economics of localized production.

The trends noted in Boston Consulting Group’s survey are reflected in the reversal of manufacturing job trends over the past two decades. The United States lost manufacturing jobs every year from 1998 to 2009 — a total of 8 million jobs. But in the last six years, it regained about 1 million of them.

Co-location reduces shipping and inventory costs. It also allows closer interaction between design and manufacturing which speeds the design, test, build, employ, and improve cycle. General Electric just finished building an Advanced Manufacturing Works right next to a large manufacturing plant to both take advantage of proximity and learn more about how to maximize that benefit.

Hal Sirkin, an analyst with Boston Consulting, predicts “you’re going to see more localization rather than more scale… I can put up a plant, change the software and manufacture all sorts of things, not in the hundreds of millions but runs of five million or ten million.” The bottom line is that more and more products will be produced locally, which will steadily reduce the need for international trade in manufactured goods.

Service Industries Are Coming Home Too

Service industries are following suit as artificial intelligence takes over more high order tasks. Pairing AI with humans has resulted in lower costs (fewer humans) and higher customer satisfaction for United Services Automobile Association’s call center.

Nor is artificial intelligence limited to routine call center tasks. This year the Georgia Institute of Technology employed a software program named “Jill Watson” as a teaching assistant for an online course without telling the students. All of the students rated Ms. Watson as a very effective teaching assistant. None guessed she wasn’t human. Baker & Hostetler, a law firm, announced it has hired her ‘brother,’ Ross, also based on Watson, as a lawyer for its bankruptcy practice.

Artificial intelligence is already handling tasks formerly assigned to associate lawyers, new accountants, new reporters, new radiologists, and many other specialties. In short, non-routine tasks – whether manual or cognitive – will still be done by humans while routine tasks – even cognitive ones – will be done by machines.  And this is not a new phenomenon, computer technology has been eating jobs since 1990. 

Figure 4 Hammes

With labor costs much less of an issue, better communications links, better infrastructure, more attractive business conditions, and effective intellectual properly enforcement, services are returning to developed nations. The few, more complex questions that require human operators are better handled by native language speakers intimately familiar with the culture. 

Only the First Step?

The changes in manufacturing and services may be only the first step in de-globalization. Electric/hybrid vehicles, alternative energy technologies, and increased energy efficiency are reducing the global movement of coal and oil. While starting from a small base, renewable energy — wind, solar, thermal — is growing very rapidly.  In 2014, 58.5 percent of all new additions to global power systems were renewables. In 2015, 68 percent of the new capacity installed in the United States was renewable. As vehicle fuel efficiency, hybrids, and all-electric vehicles improve, Wood Mackenzie suggests that U.S. gasoline demand could fall from 9.3 million barrels/day to 6.5 million barrels/day by 2035. Fracking, alternative energy, and new efficiencies have already dramatically reduced the U.S. need for imported energy. If other nations can make similar advances in these areas, it will slow and then reduce the global trade in gas and oil.

Agriculture is another area that has seen increased global trade over the last few decades. High value fruits, vegetables, and flowers move from nations with favorable growing conditions to those without. However, indoor farming has begun to undercut this trade by providing locally produced, fresher, organic products. Depending on the product, such farms can produce 11-15 crop cycles per year. A facility in Tokyo produces 30,000 heads of lettuce per day and plans a second plant to produce 500,000 head of lettuce daily within 5 years. Now that the concept has been proven, Japanese firms are putting 211 unused factories into food production.

The industry is not restricted to Japan. A firm in the United States is planning to establish 75 indoor factory farms. Similar urban farms are being built across Europe and Russia. These indoor farms do not require herbicides or pesticides, use 97 percent less water, waste 50 percent less food, use 40 percent less power, reduce fertilizer use, reduce shipping costs, and are not subject to weather irregularities. Scaled-up, these processes will seriously reduce the market for long-range shipping of high value agricultural products. Japanese firms are even experimenting with growing rice in a number of their facilities. 

All of the factors listed above are being reinforced by social pressures to “buy local” to reduce the environmental impact of production. Local production both creates jobs near the consumer and dramatically reduces transportation energy and packaging waste. Indoor farming can almost eliminate the environmental impact of farming on land and waterways.   

A further driver of global fragmentation is the effort by authoritarian governments to segment the internet.  Initially considered an impossible goal, China has steadily improved its ability to control what people can access inside its territory. Totalitarian nations have decided the costs of connectivity exceed the benefits of globalization. Restricted access to the internet will inevitably reduce these nations’ participation in the global economy.

Cumulative Effects

The key question is how much will the sum of shifts in manufacturing, automation of services, localization of power, and food production reduce globalization. Localizing production will dramatically reduce traffic in components and finished manufactured products thus disrupting established trade patterns. Currently we ship raw materials to one country. It puts together the sub-assemblies, packs them, and ships them to another country for assembly. There they complete the assembly and packaging, then ship the packaged product onward to the consuming country. With the emergence of 3D manufacturing, we will ship smaller quantities of raw materials to a point near the consumer, produce them, and then ship them short distances for consumption. Thus reducing international trade. The localization of energy production and return of high value agriculture to developed nations will further reduce global trade.

Other factors are slowing globalization. First, protectionism is growing. Since 2008, more than 3,500 protectionist measures and administrative requirements have been instituted globally. As technology eliminates jobs, the political pressure for protectionism will rise. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Its Atlantic counterpart, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is still being negotiated but faces growing political opposition on both sides of the Atlantic. Brexit probably has killed it.

American policy makers and economists still believe global trade is essential. But according to a recent Pew poll, only 17 percent of Americans thought it leads to higher wages, only 20 percent believed it created new jobs. 

Implications for National Security

Since 1945, the United States has pursued globalization for both economic and security reasons. Today, the economic premise of globalization is being challenged by a wide range of political actors. Thus, whichever party wins the next election will likely encourage each of the trends discussed in this paper with tax breaks, trade policy, and administrative actions. The cumulative effect will be to discourage and undermine the case for globalization while potentially strengthening the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trading bloc. Similar pressures may drive nations across the globe to regional trade blocks.

In turn, if globalization no longer has major economic benefits for the United States, then employing U.S. power in an effort to maintain global security will be seen purely as a cost. This will create a very different domestic environment for the practice of U.S. foreign policy. Deglobalization will reduce the American people’s interest in propping up global stability at exactly the time the widespread dissemination of smart, cheap weapons will significantly increase the costs of doing so. Faced with growing social and infrastructure needs, Americans may no longer be willing to underwrite international security with their blood and treasure.

Turning isolationist would reverse over 60 years of American foreign and security policy and radically alter the international security picture. Europeans, already struggling with the implications of Brexit, will have to determine which threat – mass migration or Russian expansion – is the greater one and how they will reach agreement on allocation of security resources. 

Asian nations will also face a very different environment. American presence in Asia has been seen as the major provider of stability and peace for the region. Given China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, the biggest question for Asian nations will be how to prevent Chinese domination. In a region with no history of military security alliances, the challenges will be extensive. Some Asian states have the capability to rapidly develop nuclear weapons and may choose to do so to provide nuclear deterrence. 

Role of Seaborne Trade in a Regionalized World

Deglobalization will take a decade or two and while it will result in major decreases in international trade, it will not eliminate it entirely. From the U.S. point of view, the import of raw materials and the export of bulk energy, food, and manufactured goods will remain economically important. However, maritime strategists should understand the relatively low percentage of U.S. GDP this represents. In 2014, the United States exported over $1.5 trillion of its $18 trillion GDP. Canada and Mexico accounted for about 35 percent of the total, with most of it shipped overland. The other 65 percent was broadly distributed globally. While 75 percent of those exports by weight were seaborne only 33 percent of exports by value were. This means just under 2 percent of the GDP of the United States was exported by sea and just over 3 percent by air. While mariners faithfully repeat the mantra that 90% of U.S. goods travel by sea, we fail to see the relatively low value to our economy. Thus sustaining support for a global Navy in times of reduced budgets and isolationist sentiment will be a real challenge. Nor will the fact that we import $2.2 trillion per year be a useful argument if isolationist tendencies continue to dominate the political sphere.

So What For The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps

A couple of decades may seem adequate time to prepare if isolationism does come about. It is in fact a very short time for the Department of the Navy. Most of the procurement budgets for the next two decades are effectively obligated to existing and planned programs such as the Ford class, the F-35, and the SSBN replacement. Thus the services must think through how their roles and missions may change in such a future.

Maintaining nuclear deterrence will remain the highest defense priority. However, the combined cost of replacing the triad may force the United States to reconsider whether it needs all three legs. The Navy must be prepared to articulate why the submarine leg of the triad remains important – and deal with the concerns about increasing transparency of the oceans.

In an isolationist America, the next highest priority is likely to be defense of the hemisphere or at least the North American trading block (U.S.-Canada-Mexico). This will require an integrated air, sea, and sub-surface defense of the territory and waters of the region. It will also include protection of undersea fiber optic networks. 

A secondary mission will remain the protection of U.S. trade. Even with these increases in manufacturing and energy exports, U.S. exports will likely remain well less than 10 percent of our national economy. Further, these exports will be focused on developed nations in Asia and Europe perhaps reducing the need for naval forces in other regions. Thus the current emphasis on intensive and extensive engagement with navies around the world will be significantly reduced. However, as always, naval forces will often be the force of choice for protection of U.S. facilities or evacuation of U.S. citizens overseas and this will require forward deployed forces.

In an isolationist future, America will not conduct major land campaigns overseas unless absolutely forced to by strategic need. If America chooses to do so, Navy and Marine forces may be the force of choice for initial deployment. The continuance of the small, smart and many revolution means naval forces will have to rethink how they fight. As Professor and retired U.S. Navy Captain Robert C. Rubel noted in 2013,

“Given the increasing sophistication of defenses and the growing expensiveness (and thus smaller numbers) of traditional strike platforms, such as tactical aircraft, the answer to this problem will increasingly involve new kinds of missiles and other unmanned systems. If the Navy, along with the other services, can evolve to a predominantly missile-based, aggression-disruption posture, U.S. influence may be manifested in the inability of unwillingness of dissatisfied power to try to overturn the international order, either regionally or globally, via military means.”

Thus rather than projecting power to dissuade, enemy naval forces might turn to disrupting the opponent’s ability to project power. The convergence of technologies – artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D manufacturing, and drones – will provide thousands of autonomous weapons able to reach out hundreds of miles and even a few that will range thousands of miles. In short, A2/AD will become much more effective and powerful. Fortunately, it can work both ways; strategic geography heavily favors the United States in any contest with China.

A new, old mission may also evolve – Marine Defense Battalions. Developed prior to WWII, they were formed to rapidly establish anti-air and coastal artillery on critical islands. With the exponential increase in range of drones, ASCMs, cruise and ballistic missiles as well as self-deploying sea mines, such forces could create sea denial areas reaching hundreds of miles into the surrounding waters or close maritime chokepoints. These units could be employed in the first island chain to force the Chinese to fight hard if they want to exit the South or East China Seas. Further, they can be used as models for partner and allied nations that wish to build a relatively inexpensive A2/AD capability to raise the cost to China if it attempts to bully them.


Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum writes, “The speed of the current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.”

The 4th Industrial Revolution will unfold over the next couple of decades, bringing amazing advances in manufacturing and services. There is no doubt the global economy will change in many ways. Manufacturing, services, energy, and agriculture all seem to be moving to localized production. The net effect is slowing and may be reversing globalization. Obviously, this is not a certainty but it is a strong possibility supported by technical, social, and political trends. If this is happening, the basic assumptions undergirding sixty years of post-World War II prosperity and security will change too. Thus the fundamental assumptions about the role of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps must also change. As part of their continuing efforts to understand the future, the services must add this possible future and explore what it means.

Dr. T. X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U. S. National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government. An extended version of this article is available here


1. World Bank, “Trade ( percent of GDP), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NE.TRD.GNFS.ZS/countries/1W-CN-US?display=graph, accessed Mar 29, 2016.

2. World Bank, “Merchandise trade ( percent of GDP), http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TG.VAL.TOTL.GD.ZS/countries?display=graph, accessed Mar 29, 2016. 

3. Matthieu Bussiere, Julia Schmidt, Natacha Valla,  International Financial Flows in the New Normal: Key Patterns (and Why We Should Care), CEPII, Mar 2016, p.5,  http://www.cepii.fr/PDF_PUB/pb/2016/pb2016-10.pdf, accessed May 26, 2016.

4. Maximiliano Dvorkin, “Job Involving Routine Tasks Aren’t Growing,” St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, https://www.stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy/2016/january/jobs-involving-routine-tasks-arent-growing, accessed May 25, 2016.

Featured Image: Mariners aboard MSC-chartered cargo ships MV BBC Seattle and MV Marstan conduct cargo operations in Talamone Bay, Italy. (U.S. Navy photo by Matthew Sweeney)

Sea Control 21 – Threat Projection


Today’s extended episode is a chat on future threat projection with Dennis Smith of the Project on International Peace and Security from William and Mary, Chris Peterson of the Fletcher School’s Neptune Group, and Alexander Clarke of the Phoenix Think Tank. We talk about the next 5-10 years in maritime security, concentrating on global human security, china, and the economy. Please enjoy Sea Control 21- Threat Projection (download).

Remember, we are available on Itunes, Stitcher Stream Radio, and a bunch of other places my Google data can’t identify. Please, leave a comment and a five-star rating so we can get on the front page one day.

Shipping as a Repository of Strategic Vulnerability

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

“Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”

                                            Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911)

In a global system marked above all by its complexity and interconnectedness, dependence on international shipping is universal. Yet some nations are far more vulnerable than others. As students of naval history well know, such vulnerability is often turned into a source of strategic leverage. To what extent can this leverage actually be exploited under 21st century conditions?

The needs of a nation, the opportunity of a foe
The needs of a nation, the opportunity of a foe

The globalized economy is, in a very real sense, a system of maritime exchange. As Thomas Friedman points out, as much as any other recent innovation, it was the shipping container that shaped our daily lives by making the economic transformation of the late 20th Century possible.[1] In the past two decades alone, the volume of sea-borne commerce has more than doubled, from 4 billion tons in 1990 to 8.7 billion tons in 2011. According to the International Maritime Organization, if the overall trend of trade growth observed over the last one and a half centuries continues, the figure will be 23 billion tons in 2060. And, while the exact share of global trade in goods that is moved by is a matter of some debate, it is sea well in excess of 75 percent by most reckonings. Further, it is clear that only cheap and plentiful shipping in a secure maritime environment can sustain this transformation. As a result, the stakes in international shipping are widespread.

But while any nation that wishes to prosper in the current global environment shares in the global dependency on shipping, the vulnerabilities that arise from it are distributed unevenly. This is mainly for two reasons: First, the degree to which specific nations sustain themselves by means of ship-borne imports, and to which they found their prosperity upon maritime exports, varies greatly. Secondly, depending inter alia on a country’s geopolitical setting, it will be more or less able to manipulate the degree to which it has to rely on shipping for its economic security. A resource-rich, continental-size state with landward access to sizeable markets – like Russia – has serious alternatives to maritime transportation. A small island nation with an export-oriented economy that runs on imported hydrocarbons – such as Taiwan – does not. It is where dependency gives rise to vulnerability that it turns into a potential source of leverage for outside powers.

Targeting Shipping for Strategic Effect

In what ways can vulnerabilities in the area of maritime transportation be exploited for strategic effect? There is, of course, a whole spectrum of options available to would-be-predators. Unilateral or multilateral sanctions have been a mechanism of choice since the end of the Cold War. But historically, it has been direct military action against the opponent´s shipping that has had the greatest impact on trade. Two main methods of waging war on commercial shipping can be distinguished, at least at an analytical level: (1) the blockade, and (2) guerre de course, or commerce raiding. The blockade relies on concentration and persistence to choke off the flow of sea-borne goods into enemy harbors, and as such will usually require some form of command of the sea. Commerce raiding, on the other hand, relies on dispersed, attritional attacks by individual vessels (or small groups of vessels), which makes it an attractive option for navies that find themselves in a position of inferiority. Both methods leverage the disruption of shipping to impose a cumulative toll on the adversary’s economy, which is expected to have a significant indirect impact on the war effort and/or erode the opponent´s will to resist.

Recsuing the survivorsHistorical examples of shipping being turned into a strategic lever are abundant. In the age of sail, preying on adversaries’ commerce was an integral part of most naval campaigns, including those of the Dutch Wars, the Seven Years’ War, and the Wars of the French Revolution. While it was seldom decisive, it was often “exceedingly painful,”[2] as Colin Gray observes. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, innovations in naval technology all but brought to its termination the “close blockade” of enemy harbors while also providing means – the submarine, torpedo, and naval mine – that would transform guerre de course into a method of total warfare. Much ink has been spilled on Germany’s failed – and strategically counterproductive – attempts subdue Britain by way of Handelskrieg (the German variation of commerce raiding), while a slightly more specialized literature focuses on the “distant blockades” of Germany that were a key feature of British naval operations in both World Wars.  However the case of Japan is most the instructive for the purposes at hand.

An island nation with an extremely circumscribed resource base, Japan was utterly dependent on ship-borne imports of a range of raw (and precursor) materials. In a very real sense, the Empire´s huge naval modernization program during the 1930s was based on its maritime commerce with the United States. Among other things, the U.S. covered 80 percent of Japanese liquid fuel needs. Given its political and military trajectory, Japan´s demand for key commodities was highly inelastic. The only alternative to trade with the United States and other potential adversaries was the unilateral extraction of resources from Japan´s near abroad – which could decrease its dependence on this particular foreign power, but (crucially) not on maritime transportation. When war came, the U.S. was able to exploit this vulnerability to devastating effect. Despite the many operational and technical inadequacies revealed by its initial operations in 1941-42, the U.S. Navy´s all-out war on Japanese shipping eventually came as close to strategically decisive as can reasonably be expected from any indirect use of military power.[3] Aided by the dire lack of defensive measures on the part of the Imperial Japanese armed forces, U.S. submarines alone sent more than 1,100 Japanese merchantmen to the bottom, and nearly as many were sunk by aircraft and mines. By the spring of 1945, Japanese sea-borne logistics had virtually ceased to exist, and so had Japan´s ability to sustain its war effort.

It has been suggested that other attempts throughout history at disrupting shipping flows might well have been equally successful in exploiting strategic vulnerabilities, had it not been for the predators´ “technical incapacity, operational ineptitude, and policy incompetence […] in the conduct of commerce raiding.”[4] Whether this assessment is accurate or not, there is little doubt that – despite the moral opprobrium that has often accompanied attacks on civilian vessels – the vulnerable dependence on sea-borne trade can be exploited to considerable effect. What relevance this finding might possess in an era of global economic integration is, however, much less clear.

Execute against China?

Until very recently, the explosion of maritime trade supporting economic globalization has not resulted in a resurgence of military strategies based on the (selective) disruption of international shipping. An important exception has been Iran´s focus on the Strait of Hormuz, which has played a critical role in Iranian strategic thinking since the 1980s. But it is the rise of China that has reignited naval strategists´ interest in shipping as a source of strategic vulnerability.

One set of scenarios that has been debated in detail involves Chinese offensive operations against Taiwan´s economic lifeline.  Given the island´s vulnerable dependency on shipping and the enduring limitations of the People´s Liberation Army with regard to a full-scale invasion, it is hardly surprising that the imposition of a coercive blockade should hold some appeal in PLA planning circles.

Considerably greater attention has been attracted, however, by the possibility that the People´s Republic might itself become the target of offensive military action against the sea-borne commerce on which the integrity of its economic model stamds. After all, 90 percent of China’s exports and 90 percent of its liquid fuel imports – which, as Sean Mirski observes are “functionally irreplaceable”[5] – are transported by sea. The oft-cited ‘Malacca dilemma’ is but one expression of a suspicion that now unites an increasing number of strategic thinkers, both Chinese and foreign: namely, that its dependence on maritime transportation may prove to be China´s Achilles’ heel on its way to greatness.

While the vulnerability of the PRC’s sea lines of communications has become an official justification for naval expansion and a rallying cry for naval nationalists, it is also a focal point for U.S. strategizing in the context of increasing access challenges in the Western Pacific. Thus, a blockade of Chinese (or rather China-bound) shipping has been debated both as an element of, and as an alternative to, the AirSea Battle Concept that is designed to enable operations in the face of an anti-access/area-denial challenge, such as U.S. military planners anticipate in case of conflict along the Chinese periphery.

Shipping LanesWhile Western treatments of the subject tend to agree that a blockade would be militarily feasible – given an adequate investment of resources – and could have a very considerable impact on the Chinese economy, the assumptions under which they arrive at these conclusions are extremely restrictive. For example, Mirski assumes that (1) the U.S.-China conflict in question would not be limited in scope, yet would stop well short of nuclear use, (2) the U.S. would find itself in the position of defender of the status quo against a blatantly aggressive China, (3) the U.S. would be able to build a coalition that includes Russia, India, and Japan; and (4) under these conditions, a ‘sink-on-sight’ policy towards civilian vessels in China’s near seas would be politically viable. Even with these preconditions, he concludes that despite the American blockade “China would be able to meet its military needs indefinitely.”[6]

Recent publications also points to changes in the nature of international shipping itself as potential complicating factors: in a prospective blockade scenario, few – if any – civilian vessels would fly the Chinese flag and, given the practice of selling and reselling cargo on spot markets, a ship´s final destination might not be known until it actually enters port.[7] But while Mirski’s proposal of instituting a system of digital navigational certification is ingenious, he dodges the broader question of how the United States and the nations of the Asia-Pacific would deal with the myriad repercussions of what would amount to a major disruption of the globalized economic sphere for an extended period of time.

Conclusion: Return of the commerce raiders?

If nothing else, the current debate about a U.S. naval blockade of China reveals that – much like their predecessors in past centuries – strategists in a globalized era see shipping as a repository of strategic vulnerability, particularly in cases of high-intensity conflict between great or medium-size powers. But while the potential leverage to be gained from nations’ dependence on international shipping is perhaps greater than ever before, the actual leverage might not correspond to planners’ expectations. The sources of this disconnect lie primarily in the political and economic context in which any concerted military action against sea-borne trade would be embedded. Given the U.S. Navy’s determined stewardship of freedom of navigation, the U.S. in particular would find itself on the wrong side of the norms it has been upholding for the past 60 years. And while the economic fall-out of any great power war is likely to be significant, the willful disruption of trade flows for strategic effect would only serve to accentuate the costs to regional allies and global trading partners.

As a result, unrestricted commerce warfare of the type pursued by the U.S. Navy against Japan in 1941-45 is just not in the cards. On the other hand, anything short of a strategically counterproductive ‘sink-on-sight’ policy might not produce sufficient strategic impact to justify the cost of embarking on such a risky course of action in the first place. Finally, once we move beyond the context of open interstate warfare, multilateral economic sanctions offer the possibility of causing many of the same effects at markedly lower cost to the attacker’s international standing.

Overall, the recent surge of interest in economic warfare strategies does little to encourage faith in the potential decisiveness of military actions against globalized trade, and serves to underline the practical and political challenges presented by any attempt at leveraging the vulnerabilities of a major trading power under 21st-century conditions. While the dependence on international shipping poses many risks, the strategic leverage it provides as a direct result of its crucial contribution to the prosperity of nations is now more apparent than real.

Michael Haas is a researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. The views presented above are his alone. Michael tweets @the_final_stand.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman (2006), The World Is Flat: The Globalised World in the Twenty-first Century (London: Penguin), 468.

[2] Colin S. Gray (1992), The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War (New York: Free Press), 13.

[3] Robert A. Pape (1996), Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP), 100-01.

[4] Gray 1992, 13.

[5] Sean Mirski (2013), “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36:3, 389.

[6] Mirski 2013, 416.

[7] Ibid., 402; Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray (2008), “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” Naval War College Review 61:2, 84.