All posts by Joshua Tallis

A New Arctic Strategy for an Emerging Maritime Domain

By Joshua Tallis

Coming on the heels of the new tri-service maritime strategy (“Advantage at Sea), the Department of the Navy has now released an updated framework for the Arctic region— “A Blue Arctic: A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic.” The document is a marked improvement on the brisk 2019 Navy version. It is particularly innovative (as strategies go) in including the Marine Corps in a “Blue/Green” approach to the region and in its navigation of cooperative themes in a moment dominated by great power competition. Yet it also has room for growth, in particular on how to connect loftier concepts with operational realities.

As the title implies, the strategy leans into framing the Arctic as “blue” (as opposed to “white”). The “Blue Arctic” conceit is likely to be among the document’s most enduring legacies. Coming on the tail end of a Trump presidency, the strategy may not be officially in force for long. As a result, its rhetorical contributions could outlast any specific policy proposals. On that score, the Blue Arctic push might be a success. Given the realities of climate change, the real novelty that the Navy, Marine Corps, and US policymakers must wrestle with in the Arctic’s future is how rapidly its maritime character is changing. It makes sense to grapple with that reality directly, and to give it a moniker that the bureaucracy can grab hold of.

That maritime focus does not displace the long-term role of aerospace defense in the Arctic, as attested by the enduring US-Canada partnership through the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Yet going back to documents from the Obama administration, like the 2016 implementation framework for the 2013 national strategy, it was clear (via tasking to the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that the maritime angle was rising in importance. Similarly, the Blue Arctic framing well highlights emerging challenges—climate change is the central factor reshaping Arctic geopolitics. Coming with an opening seascape is the greater likelihood for accidents at sea and the prospect of miscalculation that accompanies rival navies operating near one another. So, as a framework for thinking about what is strategically salient in the Arctic today, the Blue Arctic is a helpful construct.

Similarly innovative is the strategy’s authorship. Although the document is not fully tri-service like its recent partner, it is notable as the first modern joint Navy/Marine Corps Arctic strategy. This is not just a bureaucratic feat. The Marine Corps has long-standing operational requirements in the Arctic—as evinced by High North amphibious exercises off Alaska and Norway. 

Integrating Navy and Marine Corps operations is part of a bigger trend, as seen in the commandant’s planning guidance and the release of new operational concepts like Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and Littoral Operations in Contested Environments (LOCE). Some of these, particularly LOCE, also feature in the Arctic strategy. Yet considering those operational concepts were developed for a potential crisis in the Pacific theater, their reapplication to the Arctic warrants some further scrutiny.

Where the document is at its best, however, is in the focus on the US’s objectives in the Arctic. The document should be lauded—in a moment dominated by great power competition—for foregrounding stability, governance, and peace as the main political objectives guiding US engagement in the Arctic. The invocation of peace through strength is vague and opens the potential for a more confrontational approach to the Arctic, but it does not require that interpretation.

This pivot to stability can also be seen, if subtly, in the document’s treatment of Russia and China. The Department of Defense’s 2019 Arctic strategy, by comparison, references Russia and China in near equal measure. The new Department of the Navy strategy leans slightly more to Russia, which makes sense for an Arctic document. Qualitatively, the document probably also does better differentiating between the two countries compared to the DOD document. That is most evident in its treatment of the theme of cooperation with Russia, where feasible. The strategy is shy about saying so out loud sometimes, but such is evidently the subtext behind the “new partners” section on page 16, for example.

The recent Air Force and the Space Force Arctic strategy offers another useful comparison. That document is forward leaning on the theme of cooperation—but mostly in the context of allies and partners (it names Greenland and Thule frequently to reinforce the Arctic equities of the two services). The Navy/Marine Corps strategy names names too, but with a savvy eye towards domestic readers. Alaska is an obvious hallmark of US Arctic strategies and the Alaska delegation is the key constituency on the Hill for Arctic products. But the Navy document also elevates Maine to new heights, likely given the state’s burgeoning economic emphasis on ties to Greenland and Senator King’s co-chairing of the Arctic caucus.

The move to focus on stability and engagement is not a full pivot from competition. In fact, as in the new tri-service maritime strategy, day-to-day competition is a notable undercurrent throughout the Arctic document. As I’ve written previously, the question of what it means to compete day-to-day for maritime services can be split along two axes: positional and political competition. 

Positional competition means posturing forces to deter a conflict or, failing that, creating the conditions for success in the event of a fight. That boils down to a persistent need for basing, access, and allies. 

Political competition is about continued US security and economic leadership of an international order that reflects its interests and values. That invites a competition over global agenda setting, defending maritime norms, and not strictly a perspective on winning the big fight. 

The new Arctic framework hints strongly at political competition when it talks about the need to compete in “a way that protects vital national interests and preserves regional security without undermining trust and triggering conflict.” That is, I believe, the right approach, and those responsible for implementing the strategy should look to the new tri-service document for its extended treatment of the idea of day-to-day competition.

Presence typically rhymes with competition for the Navy, and it is no surprise that the strategy emphasizes that issue at length. As others have noted, the strategy takes a big picture view of the Arctic as one space for policy-making (a circumpolar perspective). That is understandable for a document that lives at the high altitude of strategy, but it challenges building connective tissue between the idea of presence and specific operational recommendations on where presence is most useful to pursue stability, peace, or rule of law. Strategy is ultimately about helping shape hard choices on the application of finite resources, and when it comes to where presence is most needed, an implementation framework is particularly critical to help translate the broad (and standardly Navy) idea into practice.

Then there is the question of presence with what? In the Arctic, that question has implications for whether the Navy buys different kinds of assets (ice hardened vessels?) or how it plans to compete day-to-day in an austere domain. Submarines commonly operate in the Arctic, but they are high demand, low density assets and are famously bad at overt signaling (by design). Aircraft carriers have gone north (see exercises Northern Edge or Trident Juncture) but are even scarcer and can be quite provocative. Destroyers are versatile platforms but constrained in operational range by the presence of ice in some regions at some times of year. Because service strategies can most directly influence service activities—staffing, training, and equipping the fleet—the issue of platforms is also one that an implementation plan should tackle directly.

There is a lot more to the new blueprint. It laudably addresses the need to plug data gaps for issues of weather modeling, for example, and it emphasizes the role of the professional military education complex in better preparing future military leaders for the Arctic’s political and strategic character. Yet its greatest innovations may be the ones that require the least digging. The subtle but evident broadening of cooperation, to occasionally include Russia, is a key feature of addressing stability in the Arctic and managing China’s rise. Most evidently, the framework clearly stakes a claim to the Arctic as fundamentally maritime and littoral. Following on that geography, it invites the Navy and Marine Corps to collaborate strategically where so far they have mostly done so operationally. That marriage necessitates more critical analysis about how Blue/Green operational ideas translate to the Arctic, but the underlying shift the framework represents is a notable achievement in its own right.

Dr. Joshua Tallis is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University specializing in maritime security, polar affairs, and naval strategy. He is the author of the 2019 book, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity. The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of CNA or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Scientist carrying equipment on ice in front of RV Polarstern during the MOSAiC expedition in September 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

How Good Order at Sea is Central to Winning Strategic Competition

By Josh Tallis


The United States sea services—the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—are regularly underway and forward-deployed, carrying out routine activities and exercises daily. These activities are technically demanding, expensive, and occasionally dangerous. Consequently, the services face pressure to explain how their typical activities at sea support national strategy, which today means answering how the sea services compete, day-to-day, in an era of strategic competition with great powers. In other words, do the regular functions of the sea services figure in U.S. national strategy, and if not, what must they do to adapt to competition? In so answering that question, we can gain a deeper insight into what it means to compete more fundamentally in the modern era.

Policy implications for how the sea services must adapt to competition with great power rivals should begin with a concept of where day-to-day activities intersect with national strategy. The sea services require a defined strategic objective of day-to-day competition, which this article argues is U.S. leadership of the international order. This framing has operational and strategic ramifications. Operationally, it means that “smaller” maritime missions are now some of the sea services’ most important functions. Strategically, this is an important observation, as despite being a longstanding part of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard history, maritime security infrequently drives or derives logically from overarching strategic concepts. The services must therefore adapt to meet the strategic challenges of competition. This means rethinking core aspects of Navy and Marine Corps policy and the Coast Guard’s operational priorities. It also augurs an even broader need for creative thinking about how the U.S. should incorporate lesser adversaries (e.g., Iran, North Korea, and non-state actors) into the context of competition with great power rivals, something that is particularly absent in contemporary strategy.

“Winning” the Competition

Defining the strategic objective of competition is foundational to our understanding of the day-to-day functions of U.S. sea services. If victory is the objective, what constitutes victory? And if the sea services seek to win, what are they trying to win? In exploring the definition of victory, we obtain a clearer understanding of the nature of the competition. Two different theories of victory are emerging. They rely on complimentary concepts but fundamentally represent different underlying visions of success.

One theory of victory is positional. Positional success is deterring conflict or, failing that, creating conditions for success in the event of a conflict. With victory understood in that largely operational context, competition would seem a matter of geographic positioning of U.S. assets, which would result in contests over access, basing, postures, and capable allies. U.S.-China contestation over key terrain such as Djibouti or the Philippines offer examples of this positional battle.

The other theory of victory is political. Political success is continued U.S. security and economic leadership of an international order that reflects U.S. values. With victory understood in that geostrategic context, competition becomes a matter of global agenda setting, which would result in competition over the international order, its character, its values, and its norms. U.S. contestation of Russian sovereignty claims in the Northern Sea Route, or Chinese claims over territoriality in the South China Sea, represent competition on this political plane.

Although both the positional and political theories of victory represent necessary activities on the part of the military, they offer competing visions of the role of U.S. sea services in day-to-day competition. Is it to deter conflict—imposing costs on adversaries—or to win without fighting—building a political order that offers sufficient benefits to make revisions difficult or undesirable? The positional vision is ultimately about deterring and preparing for conflict, not competition. As a result, the political theory of victory is more important when evaluating U.S. sea services and their role in day-to-day competition.

This conclusion is rooted in the very concept of strategic competition. If the present is an era defined by competition between great powers, what makes a power great? No theoretical architecture in U.S. strategy answers this question, but one particularly instructive definition offered scholars such as Nick Bisley and Bear Braumoeller is that great power status reflects a state’s outsized stake in, and effect on, the international order. If the order is central to what makes powers great, then great power competition is more than just a matter of conflict, it is political—it is a battle over the order.

“Winning” the Global Order

If we understand the nature of day-to-day competition with great powers to be a political, not positional, contest, how might the sea services identify barriers to victory? We can think about threats to the international order in two buckets—order defense and order maintenance.

First, the order could collapse abruptly, likely through a violent overthrow of the existing order. And if great powers are those with an outsized effect on the order, great powers are then the likeliest candidates to force a violent reversal of the prevailing order. In other words, the first type of threat to the international order is a great power war, a risk for which the sea services spend significant resources deterring and preparing to defeat.

The second threat relates to the order’s long-term health. An order can erode, through lack of proactive maintenance on the part of its steward, and it can corrode, through the persistent malign activities of both large and small actors. U.S. strategists are often concerned with avoiding a total collapse of the system (defending the order). Yet day-to-day competition is a function of understanding how to sustain the United States’ position in, and the character of, the existing system over a long time horizon and against subtle threats. It is about avoiding death by a thousand cuts, policing norms and ensuring the credibility of the institutions and rules that benefit the U.S. and its partners.

Vessels, including Chinese maritime militia vessels, at Thitu Island in the South China Sea, December 18, 2019. [Click to Expand] (CSIS/AMTI/MAXAR Technologies)
The Rule of Law and Day-to-Day Competition

Credibility is an operative word when describing competition over the international order. The current, U.S.-led order is successful in part because association with it is somewhat voluntary—states aspire to join its commercial and political structures because an American security umbrella and predictable economic rules create a largely safe, stable, and prosperous dynamic. The desirability of participating in that structure is partially contingent on U.S. credibility sustaining certain core commitments, many of them stemming from the sea. These obligations—ensuring freedom of navigation, enforcing international norms, enforcing multilateral sanctions, containing terrorism and piracy—represent fundamental maritime security tasks that promote the maintenance and success of the order. The low-end maritime security missions that bolster U.S. credibility as capable of enforcing core security and economic norms are central to day-to-day competition.

Rescue swimmers and aircrewmen from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., conduct hoist training evolutions June 23, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell)

The objective of maritime security (or, good order at sea) is to sustain and enforce the rule of law, to promote the mutual gains that encourage nations to trust in and rely on the United States, and to protect the legitimate uses of global commons that keep the world prosperous and safe from major conflict. To maintain the U.S. position at the helm of the international order is to pursue maritime security. To fail to pursue maritime security is to concede rulemaking and rule breaking to competitors, creating a less desirable and beneficial order and thus facilitating its erosion or corrosion. Countries that fall further from the U.S.-led order will have China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) to turn to as partners in facilitating the construction of robust alternatives.

The Sea Services as Unique Instruments of Competition

The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are not just a part of maintaining the international order, they are critical to it. The ability to deliver dynamic, calibrated coercion or reassurance without a large footprint is a longstanding benefit of seapower. Each force (and the Navy in particular) has historically served as primary levers in the pursuit of good order at and from the sea because they provide policymakers with unique coercive and diplomatic tools. As one CNA report remarks of the Navy, the force has “almost always been involved in smaller-scale contingencies (SSC) and operations other than war (OOTW). For long stretches, these operations were all that the Navy did.” Even as strategic competition has reinvigorated attention to great power wars, the missions that U.S. leaders pursue in practice reflect a reality that is equally if not more concerned with the maintenance of the U.S.-led order (e.g., freedom of navigation operations, presence operations, sanctions enforcement, counterterrorism, and capacity building).

There is little evidence that great power competition will disrupt policymakers’ use of the sea services in pursuit of order maintenance. Such are core functions for the Coast Guard. And for the Navy and Marine Corps, the forces historically balanced small-scale missions with preparations for conflict. That these operations did not produce a substantial effect on strategy is what should concern us today. Despite being a dominant part of naval history, maritime security is often pursued as an annex to strategy, not logically derived from it. Policymakers can help avoid that mistake in this era, which begins by understanding good order at sea as central to, not an appendage of, great power competition.

Implications for the Sea Services and Strategy

This assessment yields implications for Navy and Marine Corps policy, Coast Guard priorities, and U.S. strategy. First, the Navy and Marine Corps must reflect the rising strategic prominence of day-to-day competitive tasks in their policies. Decisions over where the sister services station forces, what the Navy buys to deploy those forces, and what both services do with the platforms they send forward should all include some assessment of their impact on day-to-day competition. In practice that should mean a more dispersed fleet to compete effectively in more places at once. It should also mean an increase in the number of smaller platforms the Navy fields (including with embarked Marines), designed to support maritime security missions in African, Latin American, and Indian Ocean waters. The forces should also operationally prioritize, to a much greater extent than they do currently, low-end missions, affording them a place of prominence in internal decisions regarding force allocation, readiness, and external communications about what they are doing and why.

Second, the Coast Guard does (and should continue to) play an integral role in reinforcing good order at sea and compliance with international norms. It is uniquely situated to do so regarding key issues in day-to-day-day competition such as maintaining rule of law, including through fisheries enforcement and promoting U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic. The Coast Guard will also continue to serve as an agent of U.S. law enforcement, and thus cannot always act strictly with an eye toward maintenance of the international order in a time of strategic competition. Yet the Coast Guard must make hard choices where those obligations conflict (i.e., system maintenance versus other constabulary duties), and policymakers must evaluate whether certain tasks optimally utilize a limited national resource to maximal effect in defense of core security and economic norms. Counter-drug missions in the Caribbean offer one such example. They consume high levels of Coast Guard resources, are doubtless important to its law enforcement functions, but represent a Sisyphean effort that may not optimally use finite assets in defense of the most important norms in the international order. That is the type of policy prioritization balance facing the Coast Guard in day-to-day competition.

Finally, despite emphases on China and Russia, the National Defense Strategy maintains the need for continued attention to Iran, North Korea, and terrorists, but at levels that do not hold U.S. forces hostage. U.S. strategy must therefore reflect how actors that are not great powers can undermine its ability to compete successfully with primary rivals. Even if only major powers can overthrow a global order, actors up and down the power spectrum can corrode an order so that it becomes less desirable. The result of such corrosion may not be a wholesale replacement of the order, but its weakening or fracturing. And since great powers are those with the most to benefit—and the greatest ability to capture incremental improvements—from such degradation, China and Russia stand to gain even when North Korea, Iran, pirates, or terrorists strain the order’s credibility. Thus, more than just great powers can influence the outcome of day-to-day competition. The sea services should deliberately incorporate lesser powers into their policies of great power competition to ensure that risks emanating from lesser powers neither overtake the focus on great powers nor disappear entirely in their wake.


Great power competition is not only about preparing for conflict, but also includes sustained, day-to-day competition regarding who most shapes the structure of the international order. The U.S. sea services—the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—are uniquely positioned to wage this competition. They have historically served as tools for preserving rule of law at and from the sea in the past.

What is required now is for the sea services to articulate a clear theory of victory in the era of strategic competition, to recognize the relationship between competition and the small tasks that uphold the international order, and to prioritize policies and operations that reinforce the order upon which U.S. security and prosperity rests. In the process, a focus on the international order underscores the role of lesser adversaries as spoilers in strategic competition, whose malign actions can corrode the credibility of U.S. leadership to the benefit of China and Russia.

Whether combatting corrosion of the order by great powers or lesser adversaries, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard policy must adapt in order to prioritize, resource, and meet the demands of low-end missions in an era of great powers. Only then, as a function of preserving good order at sea, might the sea services achieve their measure of victory in this global competition.

Dr. Joshua Tallis is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University specializing in maritime security, polar affairs, and naval strategy. He is the author of the 2019 book, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity and the recent CNA report, Maritime Security and Great Power Competition: Maintaining the U.S.-led International Order, from which this article is partially derived. The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of CNA or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: SAN DIEGO (March 3, 2017) USS Jackson (LCS 6) is pierside during sunset. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Miranda V. Williams/Released)

The Case for Maritime Security in an Era of Great Power Competition

By Joshua Tallis

“Maritime security.” The phrase, and the nebulous set of missions that loosely fall underneath it, came into expanded use in the decades after September 11, including in U.S. strategic documents. Even during the height of interest in maritime security, however—say, around 2007 and the publication of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower—it was not clear how those missions could or should be prioritized with respect to other strategic challenges. As the Department of Defense, and the Navy with it, reorients to great power competition, it will only become easier for those questions to slide into the background. And yet, as we will see below, historical trends and emerging patterns will conspire to keep the littorals at the forefront of policymaker’s minds. Alongside the renewed focus on traditional adversaries, therefore, operations in green and brown waters driven by unconventional threats will likely play an enduring role in U.S. foreign policy.

In his book Out of the Mountains, counterinsurgency strategist David Kilcullen sets out a compelling argument for taking the littorals seriously. Kilcullen’s argument is focused on events ashore, but his articulation of the global drivers shaping the littorals can be made equally valuable for the seaward end of the domain. The premise underlying these drivers is based on one simple principle: conflict happens where people are.1 So, where are the people?

In response, Kilcullen identifies four “megatrends” of demography and economic geography that suggest where we will find most of the world’s population in the coming decades. “Rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, littoralization (the tendency for things to cluster on the coastlines), and increasing connectedness” all suggest that populations are concentrating in networked, urban, dense, littoral communities.2 UN estimates project that by 2050 at least two-thirds of the global population (which is projected to reach 9.8 billion) will likely live in cities, a great many of whom will end up in slums (where about a billion people already call home). Moreover, much of this urban expansion—most of which will be coastal—will take place across the global South, often where governments are least prepared to receive it. The populations of the Caribbean and Latin America could grow by more than 130 million people; Africa may see its population expand by more than a billion; and Asia will see a growth of at least 800 million according to mean estimates from the United Nations.

To give an indication of scale, consider the following. In one generation, the world’s poorest cities will absorb most of a population increase equal to all the population growth ever recorded in human history through the year 1960.3 That is sure to produce astounding institutional strains, ones that will inevitably stress already fragile municipal governments. And we need not wait for 2050 to see these statistics in action. Today, half of the world’s population lives within about thirty miles of a coast, and three-quarters of large cities are on the water. To those and other cities, nearly 1.5 million people migrate to every week, which explains why urban areas are soon expected to absorb almost all new population growth.4

But how is demography dangerous? The answer comes from how urban communities respond to the pressures of these trends. Research suggests that when a city doubles in size, it produces, on average, “fifteen percent higher wages, fifteen percent more fancy restaurants, but also fifteen percent more [HIV/AIDS] cases, and fifteen percent more violent crime. Everything scales up by fifteen percent when you double the size.”5 In cities already straining their respective systems, cities like Lagos or Mumbai or San Pedro Sula, the consequences of a 15 percent spike in crime or HIV/AIDS rates act on preexisting stressors like poverty, climate change, and political violence, which can precipitate disorder. In the most extreme cases, the impact of these magnified stressors might even cause a metropolis to turn “feral.” In the Naval War College Review, Richard Norton defines a feral city 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.”6 John Sullivan and Adam Elkus describe the feral city as a place without any meaningful presence of legitimate authority, where “the architecture consists entirely of slums, and power is a complex process negotiated through violence by differing factions.”7 Norton noted at the time that only Mogadishu truly exemplified his criteria of a feral city. Yet, several cities then contained feral pockets characteristic of Norton’s theory. In such pockets, segments of an urban sprawl may exist outside the reach of the government. A Proceedings article by Matthew Frick as well as a New York Times piece both cite São Paulo, Mexico City, and Johannesburg (the Times also adds Karachi) as examples of modern cities with components that could be described as feral.Frick even explicitly links these feral cities to maritime security by arguing that they are echoes of the pirate havens of the 18th century, when raiders similarly leverage ungoverned spaces as bases of operation. In feral cities or pockets, the legitimate governing fabric of the urban area erodes as the stress of an oversized population pushes it past the ability to cope with the pressures of crime, poverty, and health. Such violence perpetuates the cycle of urban exclusion that created it, precipitating yet more political, social, economic, and infrastructure neglect.9

The collapse or erosion of local governance creates a power and services vacuum. That power vacuum creates disorder from which people naturally crave a reprieve. In turn, the local actor that can produce a sense of order and stability is frequently adopted as a surrogate government. Inevitably, these surrogates are not peaceful neighborhood watch groups. Kilcullen’s concept of “competitive control” posits that the surrogates most likely to survive in these environments are those that can act across a spectrum of power ranging from soft to coercive.10 Without soft power, the allure of an institutionalized set of normative community rules, the population is denied the sense of order it demands. Under such a rules-based system, a neighborhood is likely to tolerate a measure of violence because it can be predicted and avoided. Without violence, a competitor will find it easy to supplant the surrogate. What we are left with is a void filled by organized gangs, terrorists, militias, or criminal networks that manipulate a feral city’s disorder to establish fortifications within neighborhoods that often come to depend on them. In Kingston, Jamaica, garrison neighborhoods offer one such example where these districts are made loyal to gang leaders because of their dominant role in the local informal justice system and economy.11 We are left facing an amorphous hybrid threat, what John Sullivan calls “criminal insurgents,” or the melding of criminal syndicates with the direct political control of territory.12 When such groups offer residents enough of a sense of fair and predictable order, many are willing to tolerate their presence.

So far, however, violent nonstate groups and feral cities would appear a danger largely within their own neighborhoods, far from concerning the United States, and certainly not U.S. maritime services. What brings these groups and populations into the international maritime orbit is Kilcullen’s final megatrend—connectedness. Crowded, poor, coastal zones may turn feral, but feral regions do not implode. Instead, they remain connected with the world around them through the Internet, ports, airports, diaspora communities, and other connective tissues. Thus, with all the implications of such connectedness, even a feral region remains a dynamic, strategic, and significant actor in the international arena. This connectedness allows the feral elements of a community to interact with licit and illicit trade and information flows, offering local actors the capacity to directly impact events across the country and, potentially, the globe.13 The same pathways that facilitate normal trade and migration likewise enable illicit transfers such as the smuggling of narcotics, people, and weapons; human trafficking; terrorism; and piracy. This connectedness is what gives rise to the potential for actions a world away, events like protests or acts of political violence, to have a rapid and meaningful consequence across domains, from cyberspace to the sea. September 11 was a dramatic example of the extreme consequences of this networked, globalized connectivity of local violence to the international system. What we have increasingly seen in the intervening two decades, thanks in part to the explosive growth in technologies that connect all of us, is that this ladder between local and international is only strengthening. As a result, in the sphere of nonstate threats, “the distinction between war and crime, between domestic and international affairs” almost disappears.14

As the line blurs between war and crime, the capacity for the return to great power competition to focus minds on a singular, important challenge may simultaneously make it more attractive for strategists to circumvent planning for these opaque, nontraditional challenges. History, however, suggests that would be a mistake. What is remarkable about the pattern of unconventional conflict is its irreverence for the preferences of policymakers.15 Lyndon Johnson was eventually subsumed by a troop escalation in Vietnam despite his clear domestic policy agenda. Bill Clinton, after reluctance to act in the Balkans and Rwanda, ultimately sent troops to Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Haiti, and Liberia. While candidate George W. Bush dismissed interest in stability operations, President Bush launched two prolonged, large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns and led NATO into its largest stabilization mission ever.16 As President Obama initiated his pivot to Asia, he was still negotiating the drawdown of two land wars while conflicts simmered (and flared), inter alia, in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and the Congo. Now President Trump, despite obvious isolationist impulses, has struggled to extricate U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Syria in practice. “American policy makers clearly don’t like irregular operations, and the U.S. military isn’t much interested in them, either,” but as the demographic and economic geographic trends discussed above suggest, they will likely continue to present policymakers with difficult choices.17

Any attempt to predict the exact nature of a future threat or conflict is a fool’s errand. To borrow a metaphor from Kilcullen, much like how climate modeling cannot say whether it will rain or snow next week, the projections above say little about the near-term conflict forecast. Yet, just as with climate models, such forecasts “do suggest a range of conditions—a set of system parameters, or a ‘conflict climate’—within which [future] wars will arise.”18

These projections illustrate trends. And while those trends do not say much about what happens tomorrow or the day after, they speak volumes about the forces steadily reshaping our world. These forecasts are unequivocally telling us that dense, networked, and littoral communities are an emerging global force. How maritime forces meet (or fail to meet) the challenges associated with that rise will be dictated by their attentiveness to the unique constraints of securing muddy waters.

Joshua Tallis is the author of The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity, from which the above passage is adapted. He is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and holds a PhD in international relations from the University of St Andrews.


[1] David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (London: Hurst, 2013), 239.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 247.

[6] Richard Norton, “Feral Cities,” Naval War College Review 56, no. 4 (2003): 98.

[7] John Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege,” Small Wars Journal, February 16, 2009, 8.

[9] Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains, 40.

[10] Ibid., 114.

[11] Ibid., 89, 93.

[12] Sullivan and Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai.”

[13] Kilcullen, 45.

[14] Ibid., 99.

[15] Ibid., 24.

[16] Ibid., 24.

[17] Ibid., 24.

[18] Ibid., 27.

Featured Image: A Republic of Singapore Navy Littoral Mission Vessel (background, far left), and the Police Coast Guard’s patrol interdiction boat (at right) intercepting a mock terrorists’ speedboat in Singapore waters off Changi Coast Road during a demonstration for Exercise Highcrest. (PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO)

Is Somali Piracy Back?

By Joshua Tallis

Late Monday, crew on the Emirati-owned oil tanker Aris13 activated a distress call indicating they were being pursued by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The subsequent hijacking, once confirmed, would mark the first successful Somali act of piracy since 2012. This of course begs the question: Is Somali piracy back?

The answer is probably yes; also probably no (forecasting is a bad business to be in these days). Credible arguments could be made in either camp. Here I’ve chosen to explore some of the key points on either side.

Is Piracy in Somalia is Making a Comeback?

When Somali piracy spiked in the late 2000s, the international community was fairly quick to respond. Somalia sits alongside some of the most important shipping lanes in global trade, and precipitously close to three maritime chokepoints: the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Hormuz. Rising insurance premiums for shipped goods and the market-wide consequences of scares to the free flow of oil made addressing piracy off the horn of Africa an issue of importance for many navies. One of the largest such engagements was operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s contribution to counter-piracy. Ocean Shield and related efforts, like EU’s operation Atalanta, were heavily credited with the dramatic reduction in Somali piracy that followed. As Rear Admiral Terry McKnight (USN, Ret) notes, though after years of no successful attacks, Ocean Shield was suspended at the end of 2016. If the deterrent effect of NATO and other warships in the region was indeed primarily responsible for suppressing Somali piracy, the minimization of that deterrent could be credibly seen as providing an opening for resurgent piracy.

At the height of regional piracy, a CNA study warned that “the resilience of the pirate enterprise should not be understated.” Four years later, that cautionary note remains relevant. First, it should be noted that piracy rarely just disappears. Like any crime, eradication is an unlikely end state. That is the case off Somalia as well. Even though attacks were unsuccessful after 2012, a small number of attempted attacks were reported in the Gulf of Aden in 2013 (6) and 2014 (4). Attempts by Somali pirates in the Red Sea were also reported in 2013 (2) and 2014 (4), while attacks closer to Somali waters occurred in 2013 (7), 2014 (3) and 2016 (2). These numbers are orders of magnitude smaller than in previous years, and gaps in attacks in 2015 tell a remarkable story. For all those reasons we could look at those numbers and conclude this most recent alleged attack is an outlier (and in truth it likely is, I suspect). Nevertheless, as per the International Maritime Bureau (the organization that actually collects all this information), the attempted assaults in 2016 indicate that the “capacity and intent to attack merchant shipping still exists off Somalia.” Lingering institutional knowledge means that a resurgence is not impossible. Closely linked to this point is the idea that (like other types of crime) piracy may have a contagion effect. A successful hijacking now could produce copycat attempts, the success or failures of which would have significant consequences for the overall trajectory of regional piracy.

Of course, it is now almost a cliché to note that piracy is ultimately solved on land, not at sea. Suffice it to say that, despite apparent gains in power consolidation, Somalia remains quite clearly a country in search of greater stability (it was the top ranked state in the most recent Fragile States Index report). Like the pirate havens of lore, ungoverned spaces will always run the risk of attracting maritime criminality.

Is Piracy in Somalia is Gone for Good?

The numbers reflected above speak in large part for themselves. Piracy in Somalia, for several years now, has been as close to nonexistent as is practicable. One incident does not make a convincing trend.

Moreover, while a decline in anti-piracy-tasked warships is important to note, other deterrents continue to play an important role. In addition to a remaining naval presence, shippers also developed myriad means of combatting piracy. Embarked armed security is a very credible threat, while passive security measures (watch Captain Phillips), and best management practices (like better reporting standards) all likely contributed to declines in piracy rates and remain just as relevant today as in 2012.

Some systemic arguments are harder to make with certainty but are also worth noting. Unlike piracy in the Gulf of Guinea or parts of Southeast Asia (Indonesia, notably), Somali piracy was remarkably organized (i.e. not opportunistic). A wide-scale resurgence in Somali piracy, in the vein with which we are familiar with it, would mean a major retooling of operations for the regional transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that provide a backbone for piracy’s infrastructure (bank accounts, negotiators, financiers). Like most TCOs, it is likely that Somali gangs have diversified to survive, perhaps branching into weapons smuggling or, as a report from 2012 suggests, kidnapping foreigners on land. Making the switch back to piracy is far from impossible, but could run into bureaucratic resistance (even criminals have bosses).

The German Frigate ‘Hamburg’ (R) patrols after destroying two fishing boats (L) which were discovered floating keel side up in open waters off the coast of Somalia, in this undated handout photo made available to Reuters August 15, 2011. (REUTERS/Bundeswehr/Christian Laudan/Handout)

Globally, piracy has also just hit its lowest rates in 18 years. And when you get deeper into the details, the numbers don’t not look ripe for a Somali resurgence. Overall piracy attempts are down, including hijackings, which are the typical type of attack employed near the horn of Africa. What is up are kidnappings, seen increasingly in Nigerian piracy (which is still very active). Indonesia, meanwhile, saw a large decline in piracy, but still owns a substantial portion of total attacks, almost all of which are simple and opportunistic. If global numbers can say anything about a specific region (which is admittedly a big ‘if’), one potential takeaway is that opportunistic piracy and hit and run kidnappings are (for now) more viable tactics than those that Somali pirates usually employed.


There is more to this conversation to be sure. Historically, claims that Somali piracy was a response to toxic dumping and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing (the Somali coast guard narrative) struck some experts as an inadequate explanation for the phenomenon. Fishing has not traditionally been a major part of Somali culture or economies, nor were most pirates former fishermen. (That does not excuse the devastation of toxic dumping and IUU fishing, only its ability to causally explain piracy.) In response to this latest incident, however, that claim has resurfaced as a direct cause of the Aris 13 hijacking. Should it prove that fishermen were indeed responding to predations in Somali waters, that could spark a much wider debate once again. Only time will tell whether Somali piracy will ebb or surge. For now, our thoughts are with the crewmembers and their families.

Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.

Featured Image: Mohamed Dahir/Getty Images