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From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett

When a city can cut ties, there may be danger on the seas if it does – no matter how nice the upholstery.

The concept of Sea-based Nations, which won a recent CIMSEC poll directing our coverage for this week, is an idea with a significant potential to impact human societies. The extent of the changes depends on how far into the utopian imagination this idea is realized. In its simplest form, Sea-based nations could describe the venture of existing states into the open oceans. If so, tensions could rise significantly as the scramble for maritime territory takes on new dimensions, but there would be little new in terms of basic rules of naval strategy. Alternately, there could be a revival of ancient Greece-like city-states, as the name “Sea-based Nations” suggests. In this case the changes to the world and its citizens would be substantial, but even here we would still operating with known concepts. The most dramatic impacts would arise from the realization of the idea of Jules Verne in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In his 19th-century story, Captain Nemo and his crew of the Nautilus wanted to isolate themselves from the existing world. They cut all links and created a self-sufficient small community.

The latter two propositions could not be achieved without influencing existing maritime, and more narrowly, naval matters. The constabulary, diplomatic, and military functions of the world’s navies will be affected. And, in the most radical version – the Captain Nemo scenario – Sea-based Nations could undermine world order not by hostile actions or intentions, but simply by their existence. The bitterness in the words of Captain Nemo towards a frigate sailor in the U.S. Navy (who thought he’d been chasing a sea monster) reveal the challenges of renegade, roving, and unlocated Sea-bases facing humanity:

“M. Aronnax,” he replied, “dare you affirm that your frigate would not as soon pursued and cannonaded a submarine boat as a monster?”

From a professional standpoint, looking at the pictures of huge semi-floating structures, it is easy to imagine that military tactics will be affected as well. Let us think for a while about naval assault on such structure. Here naval warfare meets urban warfare. This raises questions not only about technology, but also about naval theory and its divergence or convergence with land warfare. Sir Julian Corbett believed that there are three principles of land warfare and that naval warfare significantly differs from them. The first principle is concentration of force and overthrowing the enemy, which is exemplified in maxim “The primary object of our battle-fleet is to seek out and destroy that of the enemy.” Here, naval warfare diverges with its concept of “fleet-in-being”:

In naval warfare we have a far-reaching fact which is entirely unknown on land. It is simply this–that it is possible for your enemy to remove his fleet from the board altogether.

The second principle is the definite lines of operation and of communications often determined by road and obstacles:

But afloat neither roads nor obstacles exist. There is nothing of the kind on the face of the sea to assist us in locating him and determining his movements.

The last principle is the concentration of efforts, which means a focus on an enemy’s force “without regard to ulterior objects.” In the case of naval warfare there is an ever-present question of lines of communication, independent from the focus on enemy forces, formulated in a simple and elegant way by Sir Julian:

Now, if we exclude fishery rights, which are irrelevant to the present matter, the only right we or our enemy can have on the sea is the right of passage;


Depending on whether the Sea-based Nation is more like Sparta than Athens, the above differences might be modified, if not eliminated. The “Fleet-in-being” strategy works only because the fleet removed from the board represents a reserve potential of action. The way of dealing with it is blockade. But what happens if a blockade is perfect?


Fighting for control of a Sea-based Nation could blend maritime and urban warfare.

On the other hand, as anti-access (A2) technologies matured throughout history, the close blockade became more and more costly. It was also exhausting and turned into the distant blockade. If a Sea-based Nation is a Sparta, self-sufficient in the long-term and powerful enough to push out its blockade through A2 technology, then a “fleet-in-being” would lose its importance and the difference between naval and land warfare starts to pale. Similarly, even tens or more floating Spartas will not change the sheer size of the ocean, but if located in one specific region, then they could act to increase or decrease the probable usage of particular sea routes.

The last difference would be least affected. However, some convergence comes from developments in land warfare as well. Looking at Afghanistan war, I suppose that Army generals would support Sir Julian Corbett’s focus on keeping safe lines of communications, regardless of the goal of overthrowing enemy forces.

In the end, what is the difference between armed floating cities and warships that justifies the digressions from known theories? Sustainment and self-sufficiency. If technology allows these structures enough of the two, we could face a hybrid of warships crossed with the type of well-defended islands seen in the Pacific campaign during WWII. The convergence between naval and land warfare would then accelerate.


Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

NWDC Innovation Blog

Navy Warfare Development Command just started a new innovation-centric blog as part of a series of actions spurred by the Junior Innovation Symposium they held earlier this year. As they say in one of their initial posts:

We know you’re out there. Smart, passionate, experienced Sailors and Officers who care about the Navy and moving it forward. We know you have ideas about how to improve our Navy’s warfighting capabilities. And we want to give you a forum where you can share, debate and propose ideas that challenge conventional thinking about how we solve any number of challenges facing our Service.

There’s already an established community of informal bloggers on naval and maritime matters, but NWDC’s blog is a gateway to get your ideas heard in official channels. Also, keep a sharp lookout for more innovation events hosted by NWDC in the future!

Alright, back to Sea-Based Nations!

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.

Interview with the Seasteading Institute

The idea of creating a base, or even a fully fledged nation, in the middle of the ocean where none previously existed is not new. Through the undersea bases and floating man-made islands of science fiction humans have long pondered how to colonize the vastness of the ocean for both warfare and peace. As far back as the 19th century, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo took to sea in the Nautilus to escape the governments ashore. Such thinking has on one hand guided the Navy’s development of aircraft carriers and the U.S. Marine’s Mobile Landing Platforms – and on the other hand given us cruise ships and man-made islands in Dubai.  

But no one has yet created a new nation from scratch. The so-called Principality of Sealand, founded on an abandoned sea fort 6 miles off the coast of England (then beyond the standard 3 miles of territorial water) in 1966 comes close, but has not been internationally recognized, is not self-sustaining, and was created without much forethought or room for growth (although you can purchase yourself a title of nobilty from the website).

While not short of enthusiasim or imaginination, the non-profit Seasteading Institute, founded in 2008, has set about to make the dream of colonization of the seas, or seasteading, a reality through practical steps and grounded analysis. By taking a long-term approach and funding detailed studies of international law and engineering the institute hopes forethought will help the endeavors that do materialize avoid the pitfalls of a type that bedevil Dubai’s islands, which carry on a running battle against the sea’s attempts to angrily reclaim its territory. As a first step in their journey the Seasteading Institute announced this weekend that they had received a donated 275-foot boat, appraised at $10 million and capable of carrying 900 passengers, which they hope to use as a platform for testing seasteading business concepts (more on the boat in a later post).  

Last week I had the chance to interview Randy Hencken, Seasteading Institute’s Executive Director:

What is the mission of the Seasteading Institute?

We’re interested in providing people with new opportunities. We think seasteading can give people the chance to create new business opportunities, new societies, and new governments in international waters. This is a long-term dream that we realize is not going to happen overnight. We are going to start small and have to provide financial opportunities that will pull people out there; they’re not going to be pushed.


According to your website, one of the aims of seasteading is to “Improve Governments” – how would it do so?

We have no stance on what governments ought to look like – but we recognize that established governments have a difficult time changing. They’re rooted in a particular way of doing things and bureaucracy. We want to provide the opportunity for all kinds of innovative ideas that can’t be tested as easily in established governments.  


Do you envision seasteads as clean breaks from existing governments, extensions akin to new territory, or a  mix of both?

There’s potential for a mix of both, especially in the early years of seasteading. To avoid legally being a pirate, seasteads will have to flag themselves with the flag of an existing nation and partner up. As seasteading matures and grows, we foresee seasteads eventually breaking off when they have enough of their own economic power and population to no longer need to be binded to existing governments, when they’re at a point where they can be recognized by others as a micro-nation.


Have you talked with any states about flagging options?

There’s a study on our website that gives an outline of aspects of different flags. The choice for an individual seastead would be based on what business you’re running, but generally you want it to be one that has good diplomatic and legal systems. If you do get into a conflict, you want it to be one you can trust has a good legal backbone and that you can trust will respect you.


Do you have any thoughts on where seasteads may be initially located?  

On our website we have also put up a location study online. Weather is a major variable, as are sea conditions, proximity to economic opportunity, and a location near a major metropolis. It’s not until sometime in the future that you’ll see seasteads further out into the ocean.


Seasteading Institute – Flagging from The Seasteading Institute on Vimeo.

What sort of opportunities besides flagging are there for partnering with existing governments?

For example if a government were to offer a special economic zone close to or within their territorial waters. There’s no official cooperation at this time between seasteaders and any governments, but in the past we have spoken with higher-ups in governments and been treated with respect, not faced by people resistant to the idea.  


Is there a worry that if seasteads do ultimately prove successful some governments may try to annex the territories, or force an evacuation if their citizens are threatened?

Of course there’s that concern, which is why we really want all seasteads to be diplomatic. We don’t want them to scare the horses. They have to choose practices that aren’t going to be perceived as threatening to their neighbors.


Has there been any thought given on the need to defend seasteads against a potential hostile government?

There’s a report that an intern did on security on the seasteads. We advocate the use of non-lethal force and would like to promote peace. Not putting a seastead in heavily pirated waters would be a good place to start. Maybe 40-50 years from now they could have a very sizable Navy, but the reality is no seastead is going to have one that would contend with the U.S. For the foreseable future is makes more sense to act cooperatively and diplomatically with existing governements.

Our goal early on is to communicate to legislators and bureaucrats in the government what we are, who we are, and what we’re promoting so they’re prepared for us. We plan to keep our eyes on laws to try to influence them so they’re friendly to us. Additionally, in these pioneering years it’s important to not do something that provokes a hysterical reaction, and instead to get people excited about the opportunities we hope seasteading will provide.

We believe seasteading can benefit anyone eventually. The best ideas will be transferred to existing nations, and we may see some problems in the U.S. government recede when ideas first tested in a micro-nation are implemented.


What models or historical examples do you draw lessons and parallels from?

Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai – these are very successful major metropolises that have broken off from a major nation and been able to provide new opportunities.  


What sort restrictions does international law place on seasteads within territorial waters and a country’s Exclusive Economic zone [EEZ]?

Some of that is still pretty grey. I don’t want to overstate something and am not a legal expert. Right now a vessel is a vessel in the eyes of some courts. We recommend a seastead locate at least outside of territorial waters [12nm], or 24nm to reside out of a nation’s contingency zone depending on what they’re engaged in.

Personally, what excites me the most is aquaculture. I think seasteading has the opportunity to feed the world’s population, take carbon out of atmosphere, reduce ocean acidification, and provide economic opportunity to farmers and ranchers in the U.S. by raising bivalve, fish, etc. Currently this can’t be done within 200nm of a country’s coast – it would have to be done further out or with permission of the government. The U.S. is almost the most conservative nation when it comes to what it will or won’t allow in its EEZ. It’s easier in Asia to do ocean farming. We’d like to do some trial projects, but I don’t know of any permits for ocean aquaculture at this point.


One the Seasteading Institute’s areas of strategic is “Conducting engineering research for long-term engineering challenges.” What are you looking into?

What can we do to make a city that will stand up to the difficulties of the sea? How do we make people comfortable living there and confident the city won’t sink or rust away? What’s the best way to design and deploy floating breakwaters? How can they get their energy in a responsible way? Wave power, solar polar, thermal conversion. Making materials longer-lasting than steel or maybe even concrete.


And “Pursuing political and institutional diplomacy to make way for the era of seasteading?”

We’re trying to network with those in both industry and politics, so that they might be both interested and prepared. There are lots of opportunity for industry. If we can excite them about seasteading, they’ll get behind us and also exercise their influence to encourage governments to embrace the concept and what seasteading can do for both governments and their people.


What are some of the biggest accomplishments of the past 5 years, and what should we look for in the next 5 years?

We’re proud of how seasteading’s base has grown. We’ve helped make seasteading a word recognized in pop culture, we’ve helped conduct research in legal and engineering fields. And, as you’ll notice in our newsletter on Sunday – we’ve just been given a ship that we’ll be able to use as a seasteading platform to advance tech for long-term ocean inhabitation.

As for the next five years, we’re looking for partners. We see ourselves as a think tank, helping others figure out ways to grow. We believe the for-profit sector ought to take the lead in investing in the business opportunities – we don’t have enough money to do so ourselves. We think we’ll eventually see viable seastead platforms in the next 5-10 years.


For more about the Seasteading Institute check out the FAQ or the listed media coverage on the site:

Kicking off Sea-Based Nations Week

Tomorrow marks the start of our Sea-Based Nations Week, the result of an experiment in giving you, the readers, the chance to direct our analysis. It should make for some interesting reading, and I believe we have some thought-provoking material lined up. We’ll have an interview with Randy Henrickson, the Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute, a group that looks to make new sea-based nations a reality. We’ll also take a look at what nations have the most to gain or lose, the legal complications, and (as we’re a blog with a fondness for the naval side of things) the defensive and offensive aspects of conflict involving sea-based nations. While the winning term was “sea-based nations” we may have some posts on sea-bases without claims to sovereignty, but I anticipate they’ll be just as entertaining.