All posts by J. Overton

The Advent of Feral Maritime Zones

By J. Overton

Massive amounts of seaborne debris were created from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The debris fields caused alarm as they floated about the Pacific Ocean, reaching all the way to the western United States. Components of the debris field included marine waste, invasive species, toxic discharge, derelict vessels, and even some radioactivity. Individually, these components were nothing new in the maritime environment. However, as these components combined and spread over an area larger than any oil spill, they impacted many different countries. The debris fields were poorly understood and comparisons and analogies to previous situations fell short. Expert opinions ranged from “mostly dissipating before landfall” to “environmental catastrophe.” 

While the outcome has been less damaging than some warned, the situation was not totally innocuous, nor unrepeatable. More than six years after the event, nearly 300 different species have crossed the world’s largest ocean and landed in North America, helped along on “rafts” of unsinkable, long lasting, man-made products. Although none of the species have appeared to establish themselves on American shores, the same phenomenon could play host to the next wave of invasive species.2 

The giant, seaborne, evolving environmental and navigational hazard that escaped nation-state boundaries was perhaps the first emergence of a phenomenon best described as a feral maritime zone (FMZ).

The feral, that which is a product of civilization but is now in some manner wild, has always held a fascination and challenge for still-domesticated humanity. Entities that can become feral and ways in which that condition may be brought about have historically been limited and managed locally. The possibilities for greater impact, however, are expanding. In a 2003 edition of the Naval War College Review, Richard Norton posited the idea of a “feral city.” He described it as “…a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system,” and “…where state and international authorities would be massively ignorant of the true nature of the power structures, population, and activities…”3

The FMZ’s composition, size, complexity, and international impact make it, like the feral city, an occurrence only possible in the last half-century. Cities have always had areas of danger, disease, and crime. But these problems, like urban decay and violence, have remained local issues and could be mostly confined. In recent decades, with uneven and accelerating surges in technology and population, cities have gained the potential to become feral. Likewise, the same surges in technology and population has allowed for the possibility of a rudderless flotilla of debris, animals, and plants surviving for years and crossing thousands of miles of ocean. “Shoreline species usually don’t find a way to get across the Pacific,” said an Oregon State University biologist who specializes in invasive species. “But the combination of the tsunami and man-made objects such as docks and floats meant that Japanese species got a rare chance at a ride to the West Coast.” 4

Because this debris exists in an already volatile and mysterious medium, there is massive “ignorance of its true nature” and a lack of consensus on how to deal with it. The FMZ, like the feral city, is now a part of the greater international system which no state controls, nor fully understands. While it may be hard to imagine circumstances aligning to produce another FMZ with all the elements of that caused by the Japanese tsunami, the fundamentals remain present. There are more people living in large unstable areas, using technology and creating more waste as a consequence. In addition, human activity has long exacerbated natural disasters and natural disasters have in turn created more unstable societies. For example, thousands of non-native farm-raised salmon were released into Washington State’s Puget Sound when their net pen broke open. Through the confluence of these factors, a new major feral maritime zone seems inevitable.

Feral situations may not seem like a problem with military solutions. For example, the remediation plan for the accidental salmon release has been to encourage unrestricted fishing on the species. However, in the case of the Japanese tsunami disaster, political leaders described the tsunami debris field’s landfall as a national emergency. The U.S. military is often tasked with solving these “national emergencies” because of their range of capabilities and assets. The U.S. Coast Guard, perhaps the most logical service to respond to an FMZ, was used post-tsunami to sink a derelict Japanese fishing boat found adrift near Alaska. In addition, National Guard troops and the U.S. Navy have been used in the past for beach clean-up after oil spills and oil-spill response, recently used in the 2010 British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

GULF OF ALASKA – The Japanese fishing vessel, Ryou-Un Maru, is sunk in the Gulf of Alaska after receiving significant damage from the Coast Guard Cutter Anancapa crew firing explosive ammunition into it 180 miles west of the Southeast Alaskan coast April 5, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard video by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Thomas)

An effective and holistic response and recovery effort for
a more severe FMZ’s impact on land and sea would be a tremendous and taxing effort. Although the first occurrence of an FMZ was thankfully not as destructive as some predicted, as Norton wrote of feral cities, so too with feral maritime zones: “It is questionable whether the tools, resources, and strategies that would be required to deal with these threats exist at present.”7 Although the sea services face many challenges and competing priorities, now may be the time to at least consider how dealing with a future FMZ might fit into that mix.

J. Overton is a civilian writer/editor for Navy. He was previously an adjunct instructor in the Naval War College Fleet Seminar Program and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College Distance Education Program. J. served in the U.S. Coast Guard, and has worked in other public affairs and historian positions for the Navy and Army. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government.


[1]   “ Japanese tsunami debris: It’s not the problem California feared”  From March, 2016,

[2] “Tsunami Debris Continues To Bring New Marine Species To The Pacific Northwest” at

[3]  Richard Norton’s article “Feral Cities” in the autumn 2003 Naval War College Review.

[4]  Read or listen to the NPR story on tsunami debris washing up on the west coast of the U.S. at

[5] “Washington State’s Great Salmon Spill and the Environmental Perils of Fish Farming” and the now-debunked “Eclipse blamed for accidental release of thousands of Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound” –

[6] “BP Oil Spill: Navy Sends MZ-3A Blimp to Help Survey Gulf of Mexico” at

[7] See ‘Feral Cities’

Featured Image: Response crews battle the blazing remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast on April 21, 2010. (U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters)

Capital Uncertainty

Future Capital Ship Topic Week

By J. Overton


A snowstorm hits the coastal city of a near-peer competitor. That country’s largest naval shipyard, housed in this city, communicates via its own web site and through the local commercial media that all non- essential navy personnel should stay home until further notice. It also releases notice that a ship homecoming, due to happen the next day, will be postponed until the weather improves.

That evening, fire breaks out on a dry-docked submarine in that shipyard. The minimal staff on-site fails to notice or report the fire until the next morning. By then, the submarine and dry dock have suffered massive and horrendously expensive damage.

That morning, packages and envelopes are delivered to facilities at each of the other major naval bases in the country, all containing white powder and threatening notes. Due to an abundance of caution, the buildings in which these packages were opened evacuated, locked down until a thorough test of the substances can be done. Backpacks and unattended bags found near the entrances to the bases cause further alarm, and all of the country’s naval bases are put on reduced manning until the suspicious packages are investigated. Bomb threats call in to every coastal base at noon that day and prompt further panic, and a decision is made to get all ships that can underway.

A contracted fuel tanker, pulling in to the nation’s largest fuel pier, loses steerage way and collides with the nation’s largest amphibious ship, then moored at this pier. The damage to both ships, and the fueling pier, causes few casualties, but results in an oil spill and both ships being unseaworthy. The spill shuts down the shipping channel leading into one of the largest bases and commercial ports, backing up cargo ships, and causing the navy ships attempting to get underway to do so with less than optimal fuel requirements. At another base on a different coast, a submarine joining the scramble to get to the safety of the sea reports experiencing an explosion or collision, and sends a distress signal as it begins abandon ship procedures.  

That evening, with attempts still being made to respond to the oil spill and the disabled submarine, power outages occur at the navy’s administrative offices, located in a commercial office block in an inland city. Within minutes of the complex going dark, an individual walks to the gate of the navy’s largest communications center, shoots the lone guard, and begins killing watchstanders.

By midnight of the second day, this nation’s leaders are yet are unsure if this mayhem is just a random serious of unfortunate events, or a coordinated, sponsored attack.

In the early hours of day three, a naval jet crashes just after taking off from its base, landing in a civilian community and, it seems, starting a quickly-spreading forest fire. That morning, this navy’s emergency messaging begins sending out text alerts, telling some sailors to shelter in place, and some that they’re wanted for arrest due to some criminal activity, or that a family member has died. Emails and photos of Navy leadership engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior are sent from navy addresses to news outlets around the world.

That evening, the chief of this besieged, bewildered navy is found dead in his office, apparently from self-inflicted poisoning. His national government is unsure if they are actually under attack, much less who the attacker might be, but they do know that their navy is, at least temporarily, dead in the water.

The capital ship concept may no longer be relevant. Modern navies spend the bulk of their time performing at the softer, fuzzier end of the Range of Military Operations. The seapower that best serves their respective nations may come in the form of counter-smuggling, icebreaking, humanitarian aid and disaster response missions, or in passive-aggressive sea lane interference, none of which require a modern equivalent to an Iowa-class battleship or Royal Navy Ship of the Line, circa 1781. Even the hard-power naval actions of recent decades have not involved symmetrical actors in surface-to-surface combat. Strikes from off-shore carriers on inland targets or massive and decisive attacks on hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered navies1 have been predominant in this young century.

But if the capital ship ideal is relevant today, or will again be in the future, then first some set of criteria, allowing for both traditional usage and technological advancement, must describe it. First, it would be the most powerful platform in the fleet (however one defines platform, power, or fleet). Next, it would be the most survivable platform in that Fleet, both in having the fewest critical vulnerabilities and in that if the rest of the fleet is lost, this ship could still operate. And finally, its primary objective would be the destruction or neutralization of the enemy’s Navy assets.

What is Capital?

Capital-ship type actions have occurred in the previous few decades, but not usually in a way that they would be recognized as such. Rather than envisioning what a future capital ship would look like and what technology or capabilities it would have, one instead can assess some of recent examples of when a human-directed action or natural obstacle has caused significant damage or destruction to a platform or facility of the contemporary world’s most powerful Navy.

The most egregious example of an entire first-rate navy’s first-rate ship being damaged beyond repair during this time period would be that of the fire on the submarine USS Miami. Set while the submarine was in dry dock by a shipyard laborer who apparently just wanted to go home early, it resulted in the total loss of an attack submarine.2 An extremely expensive platform, designed for stealth and survival under the harshest conditions of war and the natural environment was taken out permanently by a lone actor using the most basic technology (fire) with effectively no planning, particular expertise, or financial cost. Other losses or severe damage to U.S. ships and submarines in the last decade have come from collisions with uncharted undersea mountains, reefs, and other ships.3 Naval shore facilities in the U.S., where most of the Navy’s platforms and people spend most of their time, have been shut down for varying periods of time by bomb threats, anthrax threats, and gunmen, none of whom seem to have been carrying out the work of an organized group or nation state, nor to have been done with significant foresight or cost outlay.4

More traceable or kinetic actions have taken place against Navy assets, with near-misses by drones and jets, attacks from waterborne improvised explosives devices, and computer system hacks likely from state actors. 5 Other threats and actual criminal acts, using commercial, off-the-shelf technology, have been used to disable or interfere with the operations of extremely complex, expensive platforms, though thankfully none has yet caused catastrophic results.6

These navy-disabling actions share certain salient characteristics:

– The offenders were either lone actors, or were part of a network that was difficult to track or had a plausibly deniable connection to the offending action.

– The offender’s Center of Gravity and critical vulnerabilities were either not present at the site of action.

– The damage they caused was with commercially-available, cheap or at-hand technology, or natural-occurring obstacles, effectively exploiting the critical vulnerabilities of their target.

Amalgamating elements of the often-accidental events mentioned above into a set of characteristics and capabilities – and adding those to capital ship criteria – yields a near-formless concept that can destroy or mitigate the world’ foremost naval platforms.7

If the stealthiest and best-armed ships can frequently be tracked and detected, and as illustrated, have times of increased vulnerability during maintenance or restricted maneuvering, then the most powerful platform in the Fleet would not be a ship. It would be a small team, networked without a formalized, exploitable communications network, with their leadership, and perhaps all but one team member, safely-distant from the actual area of operations. The individuals on this team may not all know each other, and would not all know the full details of any particular operation, only a particular actions or times which triggered particular phases they would begin or execute.

Their lethality would come from attacking the critical vulnerabilities of modern fleets such as their long logistics tails and extensive, complex network of support and maintenance, be that from sabotage, hacks on navigation or fuel systems, compromising workers, or other any other method which brought about the desired end state without the undesired risks and attribution.8

An overt strike by a ship against a similar target would invite a reciprocal strike if possible, and if not, then other elements of the enemy’s national power would react. A small footprint with a connected human network would be the most survivable platform that could perform its mission. It would be able to strike before the adversary was aware that hostilities had commenced, and even then, the adversary still might be left in doubt as to whether or not a conflict had begun, or with whom it was being fought. And if it was attacked or compromised, its center of gravity would be distant and dispersed, leaving it a far more difficult “ship” to sink than the metal hulls it was after.

A few people with skills at commercial drone pilotage, subterfuge and sabotage, and cyberwarfare connections would in no way be available to carry out the range of missions in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority or even the more-focused update of a Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power. Many of those require amphibious ships, hospital ships, and the submarines and aircraft carriers that may pass for today’s conventional version of a capital ship. But if the primary objective of a capital ship is the destruction or neutralization of the enemy’s Navy assets, those symmetrical platforms would be not be both the most effective and most survivable.9 Once they had sufficiently carried out whatever assigned mitigation or destruction was needed, this “ship” would achieve sea denial no less thoroughly than a battleship or aircraft carrier – it’s organic “firepower” would allow for follow-on sea-going platforms, now un- or minimally-contested to operate freely within a space that they could not dominate, physically or politically, alone.


The functions of a capital ship can no longer be performed by a single afloat unit, and the destruction of a near-peer competitor or symmetrical fleet becomes increasingly less tenable with more accurate satellite imagery and more transparent oceans. A future Battle of the Capes, Trafalgar, or a Midway might still be something for which to prepare, but also something which becomes, in the preparation, inconceivable: all sides would be well aware of the others movements and preparations, and likely of their positions and capabilities as well.

The essentials of the scenario at this essay’s beginning have been carried out piecemeal against first-rate navies in the last few decades, and yet have either been random acts of violence and vandalism, of incompetence and natural causes, or haven’t left enough evidence to warrant a hard-power state response. This might illicit distaste in proponents of traditional seapower platforms, so once did steam power, iron hulls, submarines, and aircraft carriers. The need, or possible existence, of the most supremely effective naval platform for its era will not be obsolete for as long as nations and peoples use the world’s finite sea lanes and marine resources. But the idea that this platform must, however, be now and for always a ship no longer holds water.

J. Overton is a civilian writer/editor for the U.S. Navy, has been an adjunct professor for the Naval War College and Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government.

1. See The Sorry State of the Ukrainian Navy—and Why It Should Matter to America

Georgian Navy’s Cruel Fate And of course, during the same time period there have been more conventional attacks on U.S. and other modern Navies…the USS Cole bombing, the probable- torpedoing of the South Korean ship Cheonan.

2.  See Torching of nuke sub costs $400 million; Navy’s budget struggles for air

3. See, among others, Initial investigation blames Navy for USS Fitzgerald collision

In 2005, a U.S. Navy Submarine Ran Into a Mountain

Navy wants answers after warship, merchant vessel collide

4. See, among similar incidents, Gunman and 12 Victims Killed in Shooting at D.C. Navy Yard

Local bomb squads busy with suspicious package scares

2 Contractors Arrested for Bomb Hoaxes at San Diego Navy Base Plagued by Threats

5.  See China is suspected of hacking into Navy site Naval War College systems off-line following network intrusion

6. See Coast Guard warns of laser strikes on commercial ships in the Chesapeake Bay Coast Guard targeted by laser pointer

7. See Formless Warfare: An Innovative Concept to Gather More Information, Analyze it Faster, and Strike Harder by Michael Kim and Charles Schultz

Some New, Some Old, All Necessary: The Multi-Domain Imperative

8. Taking cues from Hassan i Sabbah (“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”) and Unrestricted Warfare (“the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.”) see A New Generantion of Unrestricted Warfare

9.  Power as defined as adaptability to function, as described by Joseph Moretz in “The Royal Navy and the Capital Ship in the Interwar Period: An Operational Perspective,” xvi.

Featured Image: A Marine Special Operations School student maintains security during Field Training Exercise Raider Spirit, May 2, 2017, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ryan Conroy)