All posts by Kurt Albaugh

Support Our Diplomats

The events occurring throughout North Africa and elsewhere have sparked invective between many opposing sides on many issues. Any comment I could make on the strategic or policy implications of the tragic past 48 hours wouldn’t rise above the din of voices clamoring to control the narrative of the assaults on our embassies in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. Public dignity should move us to memorialize those who have given their lives in the line of duty, and Rear Admiral Foggo does a better job than I could ever do over at the USNI Blog. If any immediate lesson should be drawn from our collective loss, it’s that we need to move beyond supporting the troops and re-think our approach to celebrating public service.

America has become used to supporting the military over this past decade of war. Many Americans quietly give time, money, and other services to support servicemembers who are wounded, in dire financial straits, or just because they wear the cloth of the nation. This is a good thing – it speaks to a culture of dignity, humility, and generosity that forms an important, but oft-ignored, part of American character.

But when I go to the movies and receive a military discount, or when I get head-of-the-line privileges in an airport security line, or when I’m in uniform and someone picks up a bar tab for me, I wonder why we don’t accord the same benefits to other public servants. Retired Army Colonel Paul Yingling expressed a similar thought in a Washginton Post op-ed late last year:

The iconic, life-preserving figures of the post-9/11 era — soldiers, police officers, firefighters — certainly deserve the adulation they receive. However, security is merely instrumental; peace and freedom make a good life possible but not inevitable. Especially in a democracy, we ought to respect most those who foster the character traits that make self-government attainable — parents and teachers, coaches and ministers, poets and protesters. When I hear the Army motto, “This We’ll Defend,” it’s them I have in mind.

Yes, supporting members of the armed forces is important. But there are many, many Americans in dangerous or difficult postings across the globe, and their lives are often a great risk. The Libya case proves this clearly. I’ve worked with many Foreign Service Officers during my career and greatly respect their professionalism as they fulfill important duties with little thanks. The most recent issue of Proceedings discusses ways that Foreign Service Officers and the Navy can work together more closely. Secretary Gates repeatedly made calls to increase State Department funding during his time in office. Diplomats make important sacrifices for the United States, so why is the military one of the few groups that recognizes this? I don’t think the public wants to ignore this kind of public service. Is it because that, unlike the armed forces, there are no political constituencies that support the State Department? Since they wear a coat and tie, is that why they’re unlikely to have a bar tab paid by a philanthropic stranger?

My message is simple: Support our Diplomats. The professionals in the foreign service components of the Departments of State, Agriculture, and Commerce routinely sacrifice – and too often make the ultimate sacrifice – to support our nation. Service is service. To citizens who value the armed forces: think about ways you can support other kinds of public service in your community and across the globe.

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.

Bridging the Moat

Professor Mearsheimer as a Cadet at West Point. As a work of the US Government, this image is not subject to copyright.

Late summer has arrived in Annapolis, bringing the Brigade of Midshipmen back with it to the Naval Academy. The halls echo anew with the footsteps of midshipmen and I hear the muffled, disembodied voices of my colleagues delivering lectures through the walls. As I begin the teaching/learning cycle anew, first principles have often been on my mind. Today, I want to look at Seasteading through one of the first principles of the realist school of international relations theory. A major tenant of security studies supported by many realists is the so-called “Stopping Power of Water,” a term taken from Prof. John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. As part of our continuing focus on Seasteading and Sea-Based Nations (SBNs), I’m going to examine possible effects that SBNs may have on the stopping power of water and on the stability of the current international order.

In Prof. Mearsheimer’s opus outlining offensive realism, he describes “the stopping power of water” primarily as a barrier to power projection (particularly an amphibious assault):

Water is usually not a serious obstacle for a navy that is transporting ground forces across an ocean and landing them in a friendly state. But water is a forbidding barrier when a navy attempts to deliver an army onto territory controlled and well-defended by a rival great power. Navies are therefore at a significant disadvantage when attempting amphibious operations against powerful land-based forces (Page 114).

The policy aim of war (to paraphrase Clausewitz: “imposing one’s will on an enemy”) is very difficult to achieve – under Mearsheimer’s reasoning – without the use of land power. In other words, Mearsheimer believes that political change rarely occurs through the use of sea power alone (i.e. though blockades or other similar measures), and that states separated from others by large bodies of water can easily resist most ground assaults. Therefore, the greatest security threats arise from territorially connected states (think Germany and France in the 20th Century), or from states who can transport ground troops to a territorially connected ally (think Kuwait and the United States versus Iraq in the Gulf War).

How could SBNs affect the stopping power of water? Could they bridge the protective moat of the world’s oceans? Let’s imagine the full realization of seasteaders’ dreams: a world with thousands or tens of thousands of SBNs, all innovating different forms of government while sustaining a steady populations of hundreds of thousands or millions of seasteaders in locations both near the coast and far out on the open ocean. Would the world’s seas hold more, less, or the same amount of stopping power as before?

Sea-Based Nations wouldn’t change the objective difficulty of assaulting the beaches of great powers like China or the United States. However, if states could use SBNs located near an adversary through either diplomacy or conquest, then that SBN could serve as a staging base for the invading country’s forces. Think how difficult it would have been for the Allies to invade Europe without the United Kingdom nearby. As noted earlier this week, a SBN could serve in the same manner, but with some key differences I’ll discuss later. Island bases affect something I’ve talked about before called the “Loss of Strength Gradient,” yielding significant advantages to the owner. Looked at another way, SBNs represent larger, more capable Afloat Forward Staging Bases. Since they would be sustained by citizens and their economic activities, they might become the “poor nation’s aircraft carrier,” particularly if they are engineered to have some kind of propulsion.

While the stopping power of water itself seems like it would remain intact, the proliferation of SBNs could start a new Great Game among world powers as they vie for influence or control with/over new maritime city-states in order to gain an advantage over other potential opponents. The existence of many SBNs that are – to some degree – mobile in their physical location and political alliances and vulnerable to even second- or third-rate navies could damage that portion of global stability that comes from the vastness of the world’s oceans. Paradoxically, this means that instead of obtaining greater freedom from established governments, SBNs might invite more attention from great powers who seek to gain an advantage over a potential adversary. I don’t pretend to know what effects this attention and interest might have on the domestic politics of SBNs, but they strike me as both potentially significant and damaging to the stated goal of seasteaders to break from established forms of government.

SBNs do differ in many important ways from Great Britain in World War II. For one, they can be sunk: even the most solidly build floating platforms would be vulnerable to attack, particularly from torpedoes. For another, they need to be flagged by an existing country, at least under my limited knowledge of current admiralty law. These facts could influence their foreign policies in important ways.

Given the potential instability SBNs could introduce to the balance of power, it’s also interesting to consider whether great powers would seriously allow their formation.

It seems easy to conceive of SBNs as communities allowed to evolve in isolation, but their very existence will affect the strategic calculus of the world’s great powers. As a result, they may not even be allowed to evolve as they may wish. Conversely, the growth of a diverse array of SBNs would challenge some of the key principles of realism. Regardless, SBNs promise to drastically alter the way we think about international relations.

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.

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.

Winter is Coming

Heat waves, rising temperatures, and retreating ice grab headlines today. However, receding sea ice in the Arctic and a concurrent increase in shipping traffic will intensify attention on the globe’s (still) frigid northern reaches. Though the United States issued a forward-looking Arctic policy with National Security Presidential Directive 66 in 2009, it has not seriously faced the implications of matching these policy goals to strategic ends and backing its interests in the region with capital investments. Our Canadian allies have, and we should seek to learn from their experience.

The Arctic was important to Canada and the United States well before the ice started melting.

Canada’s adaptation to the Arctic’s changing maritime geography is instructive. For starters, it serves as a reminder of Canada’s importance as an ally of the United States. Geography, heritage, and shared sacrifice have forged a special relationship between Canada and the United States and, like the Night’s Watch in the cold Northern reaches of the fictional world in Game of Thrones, I think we too infrequently give them proper credit for their support of our defense. This isn’t the first era requiring US-Canadian security cooperation in the Arctic – both countries jointly manned the “Distant Early Warning” Line of radar stations above the Arctic Circle during the Cold War.

The United States can look to Canada’s experience in matching ends, ways, and means in a new Arctic geography while under austere fiscal constraints to inform our own decisions as we contemplate our role in the region.

Canada is an Arctic nation, and this identity figures heavily in the Canada First Defence Strategy. Among the most important declarations in the strategy:

In Canada’s Arctic region, changing weather patterns are altering the environment, making it more accessible to sea traffic and economic activity. Retreating ice cover has opened the way for increased shipping, tourism and resource exploration, and new transportation routes are being considered, including through the Northwest Passage. While this promises substantial economic benefits for Canada, it has also brought new challenges from other shores. These changes in the Arctic could also spark an increase in illegal activity, with important implications for Canadian sovereignty and security and a potential requirement for additional military support.

and:

Canadian Forces must have the capacity to exercise control over and defend Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic. New opportunities are emerging across the region, bringing with them new challenges. As activity in northern lands and waters accelerates, the military will play an increasingly vital role in demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in this potentially resource rich region.

Canada First proposes Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) as the primary strategic means to accomplish the policy goal of demonstrating a visible Canadian presence in the Arctic. In early July of this year, the Canadian Government announced a preliminary contract to draft an execution strategy for the project and execute a design review of the proposed vessel, which will be based on the Norwegian Svalbard-class of ships. While representing a significant step towards realizing Canada’s goals in the Arctic, the proposed class has received a fair amount of domestic criticism. Some Canadians call the design too small, too light, and too slow. Others point to the vessel’s lack of armament, though some propose incorporating space for future weapons systems into the design. A final criticism of the class is that it is designed for light icebreaking duties, earning them the moniker “slushbreakers” in the Canadian American Strategic Review. Vessels designed for polar cruising typically conform to a “Polar Class” indicating a specific level of icebreaking capability. The proposed AOPS will be Polar Class 5, which means “Year round operation in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions,” and represents the lowest year-round capability to negotiate polar waters.

A portent of future Arctic FONOPS?

The AOPS represents, as some Arctic watchers have noted, a compromise between an offshore patrol vessel and a dedicated Arctic warship. This is the essential difficulty in planning an Arctic force structure: though the ice is retreating, there is still plenty of it and significant seasonal variations present new design challenges to Naval and/or Coast Guard vessels. True Arctic vessels require completely different hull, mechanical and engineering systems that significantly impact their tactical performance. No bow mounted sonar. Poor speed and maneuverability. Et cetera. Indeed, given the fact that American and Soviet/Russian submarines have a long, distinguished history of operating under the sea ice, I would question a surface vessel’s ability to operate in a submarine threat environment while noisily plowing through ice floes. This is just one challenge among many to tactical surface operations in the Arctic, and they are probably the reason why (as noted at Information Dissemination yesterday) the US Navy hasn’t seriously considered itself an Arctic player beyond ICEX and some limited research and development projects.

There are similarities between Canadian and US Arctic policy. While, geographically speaking, Canada seems to have a stronger need for an Arctic presence due to its more extensive maritime claims in the region, the Bering Strait – a critical choke point – is in Alaska’s back yard. US policy for the Arctic includes the following as summarized in a recent report:

The USA names several military challenges with implications for the Arctic, including missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations; and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.

It’s possible to fulfill many of these goals with submarines, but once the discussion veers towards sealift, missile defense, and freedom of navigation, a polar surface combatant seems a necessary part of an Arctic force structure. The United States will have to answer many key questions raised by these stated goals:

  1. Should Navy, Coast Guard, or joint assets fulfill these roles?
  2. How important is it to the United States to lead the exploration and militarization of the Arctic?
  3. What metrics of civil use and sea ice change will determine the extent and timing of the United States’ Arctic presence?
  4. What functions can/should an Arctic ship fulfill?
  5. How does receding ice impact the existing Polar Classification system? What baseline of Polar Class is appropriate to Arctic warships/coast guard cutters?

Answering these questions is the work of strategy, and it’s telling that a recent letter signed by both of Alaska’s senators requested just such a strategy. If the United States does forge a detailed Arctic plan, it would do well to consider the experience of Canada’s government. Canada has pioneered the militarization of the Arctic region and revealed many of the challenges inherent in operating beyond “The Wall.”

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.