All posts by Sally DeBoer

Sally DeBoer is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and holds a Master's degree from Norwich University. She lives in Groton, CT.

NAFAC: The 4th Battle for the Atlantic and Technology’s Impact on Warfighting

By Sally DeBoer

For the past fifty-six years, the United States Naval Academy has hosted the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). NAFAC, planned and executed by the midshipmen themselves, brings together outstanding undergraduate delegates as well as notable speakers, scholars, and subject matter experts from around the nation and the world to discuss a current and relevant international relations issue. The theme for this year’s conference, A New Era of Great Power Competition?, seeks to explore the shifting dynamics of the international system, challenges to a U.S. – led world order, the nature of potential future conflicts, the challenge of proto-peer competitors and rising  as well as what steps the U.S. might take to remain the primary arbiter of the international system at large. As this topic is of great interest to CIMSEC’s readership, we are proud to partner with NAFAC in this, their 57th year, to bring you a series of real-time posts from the day’s events in Annapolis, MD. CIMSEC would like to recognize MIDN 1/C Charlotte Asdal, NAFAC Director, and her staff for allowing us to participate in this year’s events and for inviting our readership to virtually share in the week’s rich academic environment.

Robert H. McKinney Address – Vice Admiral James Foggo, III, Director, Navy Staff and Former Commander 6th Fleet

“The greatest leaders must be educated broadly.” – Gen. George Olmstead

Vice Admiral James Foggo III addressed midshipmen and delegates Thursday morning, the last day of the NAFAC conference. The address, bolstered by personal anecdotes, videos, and photographs from the Navy Staff Director and former 6th Fleet Commander, largely addressed the question of great power competition from the perspective of the United States’ relationship with the Russian Federation. The admiral’s address familiarized the audience with recent history and current operations within the Mediterranean, Arctic, Baltic and beyond, informing the day’s discussion on the evolution of great power competition in the coming decades.

What Makes a Great Power?

To begin, VADM Foggo was careful to define the terms used in answering the question: Are we in a new era of great power competition? The admiral expressed confidence that the United States remains the greatest nation in the world, providing exposition on what makes the United States a great power.  Great powers, he explained, go beyond the sum of their people, economic, or military strength to offer ideas, opportunity, and leadership, using their power to affect change for the world’s weakest and most vulnerable populations. Russia, he went on to conclude, is not by this definition a great power – their “sum” qualifies the Federation as a major power, but their actions, primarily enacted in self-interest, disqualify them from great power status.  Understanding this distinction is crucial.

The 4th Battle for the Atlantic

VADM Foggo provided helpful historical context for the historical relationship between the Soviet Union/Russian Federation and the United States. The First Battle for the Atlantic, he explained, occurred during the course of World War One, while the Second, where the United States and her allies defeated axis powers relentless undersea tactics with “grit, resolution, the submarine detection system, and the lend-lease program to Britain.” The third battle, he explained, occurred during the course of the Cold War. An unclassified report based on the 3rd Battle Innovation Project commissioned by the United States Submarine Force on the contribution of U.S. undersea assets to U.S. victory in the Cold War concluded with the following sentiment: “someday, we may face a 4th Battle of the Atlantic.” VADM Foggo asserted that we are, indeed, in the midst of this battle now. The admiral and his co-author Alarik Fritz of the Center for Naval Analysis, collected their thoughts in an article published by the United States Naval Institute,  “The 4th Battle for the Atlantic.”

Rising Tensions 

VADM Foggo characterized the aforementioned 4th Battle for the Atlantic though a series of examples and anecdotes. Beginning with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, the United States exercised its responsibility as a great power to seek to deescalate tensions and compromise where possible by pursuing the Reset policy with the Russian Federation. This policy, he explained, did not work as intended. In 2014, the U.S. was once again surprised by Russia’s aggressive and illegal actions in Ukraine. This unjustified action, he went on, is an example of why Russia is not a great power, but rather only a major power. This action partially inspired the “back to basics” policy for U.S. defense thinkers and policymakers called for by ADM Greenert.

Admiral Foggo recommended several books to the audience, including ONI’s Russian Navy report, which he emphasized was a “must read” for tomorrow’s defense and foreign policy leaders.

Continued Vigilance

VADM Foggo explored a few key areas where Russia is challenging U.S. and allied interests, providing tangible examples. In the Arctic, he explained, Russians currently operate seven former Cold War bases at company- and battalion- strength units with an endurance of a year or more. Russia has militarized the Arctic, which concerns the U.S. and our allies, particularly the Norwegians, regarding restricted access to international waters. To drive this point home, the admiral displayed a photograph of the Russian flag planted at the geographical North Pole, moved there by a Russian submersible.

U.S. Navy ship encounters aggressive Russian aircraft in Baltic Sea, April 12, 2016. (U.S. European Command)

Given the venue of the conference, VADM Foggo appropriately addressed his professional experience with aggressive actions by the Russian Federation at sea. Beginning with the Su-24 flyby of the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Black Sea, during which, he emphasized, the wingtip of the Russian aircraft was no more than 30 feet from the deck of the destroyer, the Russian Naval forces escalated tensions in response to U.S. presence in Russia’s adjacent international waters and beyond. The admiral explained the import of strategic communication to gain the moral high ground, which the U.S. achieved by declassifying and releasing an image of the Su-24 narrowly off the bridge wing of the Donald Cook, along with diplomatic protest and meaningful presence in the form of BALTOPS 2016.

“49 Ships Became 52”

BALTOPS is a NATO exercise to improve and display the interoperability of allied forces. The 2016 exercise communicated a clear strategic message; the exercise boasted three amphibious landing operations (versus the previous year’s two), extensive anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations with three allied submarines and maritime patrol and reconnaissance (MPRA) aircraft, and more. In an effective anecdote that illustrated the Russian response to the exercise, the admiral shared that when reviewing photos from the PHOTOEX conducted during BALTOPS, 52 ships appeared in the photograph – 49 allied vessels, two Russian destroyers, and a Russian AGI. “49 ships, he recalled, became 52.” Tellingly, the Russian response to the success of the strategic messaging of the exercise included “a Stalin-like purge of Russian commanders in the Baltic Fleet,” due to their unwillingness to challenge western ships. Further reinforcing the point, VADM Foggo shared moreexamples of his interactions with Russian counterparts in multilateral and bilateral discussions.

Looking Forward – “The Surest Guarantee of Peace”

The tone of VADM Foggo’s remarks was one of stark realism, but also optimism as well. The admiral expressed confidence in the forces that were under his command, but reiterated to the audience of future diplomatic and military leaders the crucial nature of continued vigilance and continued action in support of the United States’ responsibilities as a great power. He included a timely example – the recent strikes on a Syrian airbase in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. “Great powers react, but they react proportionally,” the VADM concluded, expressing belief in the possibility that such actions can bring compromise – a concept, he said, a great power should pursue and prioritize.

Technology and Cyber-Competition Panel

Note: The following information is paraphrased from the panelists’ remarks – their thoughts, remarks, and research are their own and are reproduced here for the information of our audience only.

Panelists Brigadier General Greg Touhill, USAF (ret.), the First Federal Chief of Information Security Officer, Mr. August Cole, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-author of Ghost Fleet, and Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Fellow at the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institution, were given the opportunity to provide open-ended remarks before the question and answer portion of the panel.

A Strategic Framework for Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is a provocative issue, and General Touhill used his opening remarks to dispel some common rumors about the cyber realm. This is not a technology issue, he went on, but a risk management issue; it is an instrinsic facet of [the United States’] national economy and security to be sensitive to the protection of our technology, information, and competitive advantage. Cybersecurity, he explained, is not all about the tech, but rather about the information. When considering cyber strategy, the General contended that a direct, simple strategy is best and most likely to be effectively executed. To this end, he outlined five lines of effort:

  • Harden the workforce: risk exposure is tremendous, as our culture, norms, and economy rely on automated information systems – this includes home, federal, and corporate entities
  • You can’t defend what you don’t know you have. Information is an asset, and should be treated as such.
  • Within five years, every business will be conducting asset inventory and valuation of its information as any other asset – some entities within the Federal Government, he explained, may not appreciate the value of their information and may not even realize they have it.
  • Do the right things, the right way, at the right time: Cyber hygiene is great, but has to be applied smartly – 85 percent of breaches, he explained, are due to improper patching of common vulnerabilities. The basics come first – stakeholders should update apps, OS, and apply other simple fixes. Care and due diligence is required.
  • Investment. The General introduced “Touhill’s Law,” which contends that one human years accounts for twenty five “computer” years – by this math, some machines in the federal government architecture are several thousand years old. Depreciation and recapitalization are key; from a strategic standpoint, neglecting this reality is a failure.
  • It’s all about the risk. In a contemporary sense, much of the risk is deferred to server management teams and IT, and decisions on that risk are not being made at the right levels.

The general indicated a desperate need for a cogent strategic cyber framework on which to operate and that these five lines of effort are a good foundation for such a framework.

Fiction’s Role in Challenging Assumptions

August Cole, a noted analyst and fiction author, began by recounting the impact that Tom Clancy’s 1986 thriller Red Storm Rising had on his life. As a fiction author, he went on the explain, his job is to think the unthinkable, devoting intellectual energy and professional attention to considering tomorrow’s conflict from a multitude of perspectives. Fiction, Cole explained, allows us to consider an adversaries perspective and confront our own biases to present a bigger truth.

Cole and his co-author Peter Signer’s novel Ghost Fleet addresses the rise of China – the book starts a conversation in an engaging way that captured the authors’ imagination. The writing process caused the authors to confront some uncomfortable truths. The American way of war, he said, is predicated on technical superiority that isn’t necessarily in line with our evolving reality. The reliance on tech creates a vulnerability, and through the lens of great power competition, we should be thinking about the difference between our assumptions about conflict and how conflict will actually be. One must challenge their assumptions, and resist the urge to fall in love with their own investments.

Information as a Commodity and Vulnerability

As a policy analyst and social scientist, Dr. Turner-Lee looks to understand behaviors that are overlaid with technology – she has focused on what we need to do to create equitable access to technology. Tech, she explained, is changing the nature of human behavior and increasing vulnerabilities. We must consider, she said, how we are contributing to the evolution of the tech ecosystem from the realm of consumption to an entity that effects the fabric of national security. What we understand as being “simple” actually isn’t, and what started as a privacy discussion has evolved into a security issue. When considering social media, Dr. Turner-Lee went on, it is interesting to see how 140 characters can become the catalyst for campaigns that threaten national security.

Dr. Turner-Lee  mentioned the concept of pushback from technology companies against government requests for information and policies that need to be engaged to address this. There is a role, she explained, for the military to identifies vulnerabilities, while companies are appointing chief privacy officers and innovation officers, while lastly, the research community needs people to understand how information has become a commodity. As researchers, she explained, she and her colleagues are trying to find vulnerability and understand the impact on our national economy by looking at the nature of human behavior prescribing the right policies to ensure threats are minimized.

Given the current security landscape for cyber, what do you see as the greatest cyber threats facing the U.S.?

Brig. Get Touhill explained that at the Department of Homeland Security, they binned threats into 6 groups:

  • Vandals – frequent and common
  • Burglars – financially motivated and prevalent 
  • Muggers – this includes hacks like SONY as well as cyber-bullies
  • Spies – can be either insiders or traditional political-military threat looking to gain a competitive edge by stealing intellectual property.
  • Sabatuers – pernicious, difficult to find, and could be, for example, an individual who is fired but retains access to a system.
  • Negligent Users – This group constitutes the greatest threat. This group includes the careless, negligent, and indifferent in our own ranks.

China has been evidently and aggressively pursuing AI, hypersonic, quantum computing, and other next-generation technology – what does this mean for our assumption about the American way of war over the next several decades?

August Cole explained that the U.S. must directly confront the assumption that we will always have the edge of technical superiority – this may very well remain true, he said, but we cannot count on it. From a PRC military point of view, they look to not only acquire capabilities but further their knowledge on how best to employ them. We must, he went on, work to connect information and technology that we would not instinctively put in the same basket by considering, for instance, the battlefield implications of a hack on a healthcare provider who serviced military personnel. Technology, he explained, will alter the relationship between power and people, and understanding this connection is complex and difficult. Fiction allows us to synthesize these realms in a way that may be difficult otherwise – and appreciate the operational implications.

How has social media impacted our ability to monitor and address national security threats?

Dr. Turner-Lee began by exploring the implication of emerging social media tools that do not curate data (think Snapchat), explaining that as encryption technology has become more sophisticated, it has further complicated the national security problem. Nicole referred to “permission-less innovation,” meaning that the tech community continues to innovate in ways that cannot be controlled and this innovation is sometimes disruptive. Social media, she went on, is not always designed with privacy in mind, and enacting privacy policies has been reactionary for many companies.

Turner-Lee addressed the general hesitation of users to hand over or allow the collection of their information – personal data, she said, is seen as just that – personal – and companies promote this quality in their tech. For instance, she alluded to the current lawsuit between Twitter and the federal government over the identities of disruptive Twitter accounts. The disconnect between privacy and security, she concluded, can sometimes constitute a weakness.

The moderator pointed out that while tech has developed, policy has lagged. Mr. Cole added that the “internet of things” provides a corollary to this. Further development of wearable or say-to-day tech that generates and collects data automatically has national security implications. He provided an example in the domain of land warfare, suggesting that operators could notionally create a digital map based on device feedback. The data and processing power to make these analytics will exist, he affirmed, but we haven’t considered it.

Dr. Turner-Lee further elaborated that machine-to-machine interactions, which are based on algorithms that predict what you will or will not do, sustain a threat to national security when those algorithms are incorrect or tampered with. For instance, autonomous vehicles could be hacked and directed in a way that makes them a vehicular bomb. Overcoming machine-to-machine bias is very difficult and constitutes a security risk proportional to our dependence on machine-to-machine tech. This is a space, she said, with many vulnerabilities, driving itself in ways we are unaware of.


The final day of NAFAC 2017 proved a fitting end to three days of intense discussion and consideration on the topic of a new era of great power competition. VADM Foggo’s address brought a much needed operational perspective to the delegates and attendees, relaying the seriousness and immediate applicability of the question at hand, particularly for those midshipmen who will be serving aboard operational vessels in just a few short months. Further, the Technology and Cyber-Competition panel provided much needed context for the changing nature of tomorrow’s conflicts, challenging many long-held assumptions about the way of war.

Our representatives were impressed with the diligence, research, and creative thought participants brought to the round table panels. Readers can look for select publications from the Round Tables next week, when CIMSEC will share outstanding research essays from delegates. CIMSEC is extremely grateful to the United States Naval Academy, MIDN Charlotte Asdal and her NAFAC staff, and senior advisors and moderators for allowing us to participate in this year’s conference and share the great value of this discussion with our readership.

Until next year!

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Featured Image: A CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter flies ahead of the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA-5) after conducting helocast operations at Pyramid Rock Beach, Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The helocast was part of a final amphibious assault during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan/Released)

The Four Plus One and Global Mega Trends: General John Allen Addresses NAFAC

By Sally DeBoer

The Forestall Lecture series at the United States Naval Academy affords midshipmen and select guests an opportunity to listen to and learn from a diverse group of speakers, from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to former St. Louis Rams coach football coach Dick Vermeil. From the USNA Public Affairs Office:

The Forrestal Lecture Series was established at the Naval Academy in May 1970 in honor of the late James V. Forrestal who, as one of the foremost proponents of seapower of our era, was instrumental in the development of the modern Navy.

The purpose of this lecture series is to enhance the education, awareness, and appreciation of the members of the Brigade of Midshipmen in the social, political and cultural dimensions of the nation and the world. Featured are leading representatives from various walks of life – government, the arts, humor, literature, education, sports, politics, science, and other major fields on the national and international scene.

The Brigade of Midshipmen, some 4,000-plus strong, and delegates from NAFAC, gathered in Alumni Hall Tuesday night to hear from General John Allen, USMC (ret.), former Commander, NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and former Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.  Gen. Allen currently serves as the Chair of the Security and Strategy Department and as Distinguished Fellow in Residence for Foreign Policy at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution. 

Led by a hearty “yut” from what one can only presume was a midshipman who has selected Marine Corps, the brigade and NAFAC welcomed Gen. Allen to the stage. Gen. Allen’s experience in the Near East and East Asia informed his view that it is, indeed, a new era of great power competition – never before, he said, had he seen so many complex issues all at once.

Destabilizing Influences

The construct of the current international system is referred to, Gen. Allen told the Brigade, as the “four plus one,” the four being Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and the plus one representing the extremist jihadi network at large. Gen. Allen cited the annexation of Crimea, Chinese special operators dealing with both the Chinese populace and Uighur population, and the IRGC as destabilizing influences in the modern world. When we talk about these four challenges to the U.S., each has a quality of great power competition associated with it, he said, especially Russia. NAFAC represents an opportunity to take stock of the challenges we face for the road ahead.

The Plus One

“A generation of graduates have known nothing but war – and it may be while before that changes.” ISIS, Gen. Allen said, is merely the latest iteration of the global spread of extremism, and this larger issue is one that worries him the most. In the course of his advisory duties to the president, Gen. Allen expressed that his number one concern is that defeating ISIL physically is not, in fact, an end – they have spread around the world – but the problem of what they stand for is a failure of the human condition in so much of the world today. This dynamic is  due to sea changes in the nature of the world people live in. These changes, Allen explained, may rephrase the question of the international system – the era of great power competition will in fact be shaped by the world we live in and not the other way around.

Global Mega-Trends

The world in which midshipmen and delegates will serve, Gen. Allen warned, will be shaped by the forces affecting the world’s populations – reality is changing quickly and dramatically, and will shape politics, economic opportunity, and the security situation in the world. Gen. Allen familiarized attendees with five global mega-trends, paraphrased below:

  • Shift of Economic Power from West to East: Western states are losing economic clout to Asia. GDP growth in the East (China, India, Russia, Indonesia) will dwarf that of the West by 2050 by nearly 75 trillion dollars – this wealth will be available to be applied to education and armament. While this wealth is migrating, it leaves one country after another bereft of resources, which leads to the next trend, changes in demography.
  • Demographic Changes: The world’s population is changing in ways we must understand to lead forces in tomorrow’s world. Allen explained that the worldwide average age will increase by 8 years to 60 years of age in much of the developing world, leading to a smaller, less productive work force with huge strains on the social safety net and health care. In the developing world, the population will change in the opposite direction due to a “youth bulge” or “youth surge,” growth of the 15-29 age group is outstripping the rest of the population, leading to increased expectations for access to goods, education, and wealth – 129 million men and women around the world turn 16 each year, and 90 percent of these newly minted adults are in developing countries who are already struggling to provide for their populations. As these numbers grow and their nations become less capable of meeting demand, the disparity creates large groups of disaffected people – this is the “ticking time bomb” for radicalization, Gen. Allen contends, which creates huge reservoirs of easily recruited and vulnerable populations.
  • Rapid Urbanization: Rapid movement of people into cities is one of the greatest challenges we will face, specifically land forces, in tomorrow’s conflicts. A mega-city is by definition made up of 10 million or more; by 2030 50 percent of the world population will live in mega cities, and up to 75 percent by 2050. Eight of ten mega cities are in Asia, and of the top five, all are in Asia. Gen. Allen explained that the primary issue with this is the strain on the infrastructure of these cities – sanitation, electricity, waste, poor air quality, and more. The challenge of rapid urbanization demands the West help these populations prepare with urban planning, energy, and infrastructure. As these populations move to cities, we hear the term “mega slum,” an area attached to a city where the population lives off the grid and independent of governance. So-called “no go” areas are becoming prevalent. “Ungoverned space” is another oft-used term (though the General expressed a dislike for this term in particular). Such places, he concluded, become a haven and platform for criminals and extremists. Gen. Allen’s challenge in Afghanistan became, secondarily, to fight against highly and well organized criminal networks that “govern” in these ungoverned spaces – and plan tomorrow’s wars and attacks with impunity.
  • The Rise of Technology: Tech, Gen. Allen explained, has changed our lives rapidly in ways that are helpful and dynamic, but has also introduced associated national security challenges. The proliferation of network capable devices has brought a direct assault on the Western system of government. The Islamic State, for instance, has UAVs, some of which are armed. Non-state actors and extremists have sophisticated hacking capabilities that create ad hoc hacker armies to attack the U.S. and our allies. State actors are also using networks to exploit and penetrate the U.S. and our allies to interrupt democracy. Hacking at a state and non-state level will define tomorrow’s conflict. Gen. Allen warned: [we] can physically defeat a force, but defeating an idea rides on the internet of things and social media – we must be able to compete with [adversaries] in this domain. Al Qaeda was sophisticated, Gen. Allen recalled, but AQ never embraced tech the same way as the Islamic state – all the “plus ones” of the future will be powered by emerging tech.
  • Global Warming: Gen. Allen tackled the topic of climate change and coming resource scarcity unambiguously. “It’s not a theory, not abstract, it is happening…it is a fact, and not an alternative fact,” he stated plainly, leading to applause from the audience. For the Near East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia, the resulting desertification will further accelerate urbanization. Larger populations will demand more resources. Gen. Allen concluded: when we discuss great powers, it’s not a clash of values we should be worried about…in the 2050 world, the clash will be over will be over scarce resources.


When we consider the prospect of great power competition, we must consider these mega trends. Gen. Allen emphasized the need to study these forces, and soon, before the very different world of 2050 arrives.  Though the tone of his remarks was foreboding and serious, in a response to a question from an audience member, Gen. Allen addressed what the United States and its allies can do to prepare for and anticipate these coming challenges. He outlined some primary steps: 1) Embrace the changes and make global commitments to change. Examples include long-term and enforceable climate change agreements. 2) Work with states on urban planning, human services, and more to improve conditions in mega-slums, as well as help countries accumulate resources to provide for their populations. Germany’s Marshall Plan 2.0 provides an excellent example. These will require courage, cooperation, coalition, and sharing, he conceded, but these qualities will be necessary for tomorrow’s leaders.

Sally Deboer is serving as the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Featured Image: General Allen addresses the Brigade and NAFAC on stage at the Naval Academy’s Alumni Hall. Photo credit: NAFAC PAO Staff, special thanks to MIDN Danny Vegel.

NAFAC: RADM John Kirby’s Favorite Acronyms and Questioning U.S. Primacy

By Sally and Michael DeBoer

For the past fifty-six years, the United States Naval Academy has hosted the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference (NAFAC). NAFAC, planned and executed by the midshipmen themselves, brings together outstanding undergraduate delegates as well as notable speakers, scholars, and subject matter experts from around the nation and the world to discuss a current and relevant international relations issue. The theme for this year’s conference,  A New Era of Great Power Competition?, seeks to explore the shifting dynamics of the international system, challenges to a U.S. – led world order, the nature of potential future conflicts, the challenge of proto-peer competitors and rising powers, as well as what steps the U.S. might take to remain the primary arbiter of the international system at large. As this topic is of great interest to CIMSEC’s readership, we are proud to partner with NAFAC to bring you a series of near real-time posts from the day’s events in Annapolis. CIMSEC would like to recognize MIDN 1/C Charlotte Asdal, NAFAC Director, and her staff for allowing us to participate in this year’s events and for inviting our readership to virtually share in the week’s rich academic and policy environment.

Keynote Address: RADM John Kirby (ret)

After introductory remarks from MIDN Charlotte Asdal, NAFAC Director, and VADM Walter E. Carter, Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy, the events of the conference kicked off in earnest with the LCDR J.J. Connell Keynote Address from Rear Admiral John Kirby (Ret), former Pentagon press secretary and State Department Spokesman. 

RADM Kirby’s address engaged delegates, midshipmen, and guests largely on the topic of “how the best decisions are reached and communicated.” In keeping with omnipresent military tradition, the admiral introduced his audience to a series of acronyms he suggested would aid future decision-makers faced with difficult decisions. His first example stemmed from his time in Afghanistan. In 2012, faced with escalating violence following a scandal, Kirby recalled his then-boss, Gen. John Allen kept an acronym in mind – NIDBIT – No Decision Before its Time. Artificial pressure to make a decision, he went on to describe, leads to mistakes, and decision-makers and leaders should not “rush to failure.” Reminding oneself of NIDBIT makes for better tactical and policy decisions, and sends a better strategic message, leading to a more credible organization. Not making a decision right away can buy space, allow leaders to define the principal issue, and let values guide their decision making process. Interests are more effectively secured, he elaborated, when they align with your values. 

RADM Kirby takes a question from the audience.

This point led the retired admiral to his next acronym, KIP – Keep it in Perspective. Kirby characterized the current environment as a post-audience world, meaning people are no longer satisfied by knowing what one is doing but why as well. RADM Kirby advised leaders to “stand back from the crush of headlines, the power of myth, and chart a course that when looked back upon reveals the wisdom of your leadership.” Drawing upon wisdom he had received, he surmised that the best leaders see themselves as part of a continuum of events, rather than problem solvers of the moment. 

RADM Kirby’s final acronym – WWTS – What Would They Say, informed much of his thought process as a public affairs professional in both a military and civilian context. By keeping an open mind and incorporating a variety of perspectives, even though they may be antithetical to one’s own views, allows a decision-maker to consider rebuttals to tough criticism and lends oneself to “sustainable policy and compromise, good sense, civility, and  practicality.” To this end, Admiral Kirby advised audience members to go about following someone they do not agree with on Twitter or some other social media outlet. Social media’s promise of an expanded worldview is a false one, Kirby articulated; indeed, the sheer volume of media and sources makes us self-select what information and perspective we consume – because we can – and this makes a decision-maker’s universe small and myopic. WWTS allows one to resist this.

Kirby’s remarks concluded with a period for questions from the audience. The most widely discussed question came from a delegate who inquired how decision-makers can best account for high degrees of ambiguity from a foreign policy perspective. Admiral Kirby responded that in the foreign policy realm, all actors come with their own interests and may not be as forthcoming [as the United States] – the Russian Federation is, in his experience, a case in point – when actors’ interests and values are not aligned, one must be able and willing to recognize and anticipate reactions. RADM Kirby’s statements set a tone of open-mindedness and questioning for the day ahead.

Round Tables

Round tables, held daily over the three-day span of the conference, provide midshipmen and their peer delegates an opportunity to present their own research and thoughts on a variety of topics germane to the discussion of great power competition in the 21st century. On Tuesday, CIMSEC representatives attended two of these discussions – Springtime for Putin: The Reawakening of the Russian Bear and Anyplace, Anywhere, Anytime: Power Projection and Sea Control in a Multipolar World. Readers can look for select publications from the Round Tables next week, when CIMSEC will share outstanding research essays from delegates. 

Panel Discussion: Are We Actually in a New Era of Great Power Competition?

Note: The following information is paraphrased from the panelists’ remarks – their thoughts, remarks, and research are their own and are reproduced here for the information of our audience only.

Moderated by Lt Col (Ret) Scott Cooper, USMC, the first panel of the conference tackled the central question of the week; subject matter expert panelists, including William Ruger, Research Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the CATO institute, Shawn Brimley, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security, and Brigadier General Se Woo Pyo, Republic of South Korea Defense Attache to the United States, characterized the current direction of the international system as it relates to our contemporary understanding of relationships between great powers. Each panelist was given an opportunity to provide foundational remarks in response to an open ended question, followed by a period of questions from the audience. 

The CATO Institute’s Mr. William Ruger was asked to elaborate on an assertion he made in his August 2016 piece published on War on the Rocks in which he and his co-author Christopher Preble stated: For decades, U.S. foreign policy has followed a quixotic goal of primacy, or global hegemony. It presumes that the United States is the indispensable nation, and that every problem, in any part of the world, must be resolved by U.S. leadership or else will impact American safety

Ruger contended that the U.S. has been following a policy of liberal hegemony to preserve its role in the world, and key features of this pursuit include the assumption that most problems in the world are threats to American safety and interests. In this view, he went on to explain, all problems are interconnected, there are no seams, and this assumption requires the U.S. to show resolve and provide leadership on threats proactively and reactively. This policy also requires, Ruger went on to articulate, the U.S. to challenge potential regional hegemons and also aim to spread U.S. values even through use of force, requiring a very large, expensive, and globally deployed military as well as a vast network of allies. Lastly, it requires occasional warfighting to extinguish threats.

The U.S. is a great country, Ruger said, but need not be seen as indispensable to protect and defend its interests. Ruger expressed his doubts regarding the value of primacy based on three major factors, paraphrased below:

1) Washington, DC is a “threat inflation machine,” any kind of problem is inflated, realists see the world as it is and do not engage in threat inflation or naivety, instead choosing to see things “as they are.”

2) Though the U.S. is actually very secure in terms of the global history of great powers, we have internalized a security view that doesn’t check with this reality. The U.S. spends as much as the next eight countries combined on defense, and three times as much as Russia and China combined. Further, nuclear weapons play a key role in reducing any threat to the homeland, and this is unique to this period in history. U.S. conventional deterrence is also high.

3) Geography still matters, and it is still difficult to project power across oceans. We have weak or nonthreatening neighbors, something other great powers in history have not enjoyed.

Mr. Ruger concluded his opening remarks by expressing his doubt that Russia and China are unlikely to become truly peer competitors to the U.S anytime soon. Russia’s economy, for instance, dependent on natural resources, is limping, and so they lack an engine to drive the necessary growth. This is complicated by a deepening demographic crisis. China is a rising power, he conceded, but it still has low per capita GDP, corruption problems, cronyism, environmental challenges, ethnic conflict potential, and no blue water navy comparable to the United States’ current force. The nature of the architecture of A2/AD forces will prevent China from moving from the first island chain. The situation for the U.S. and their allies is actually quite good, Ruger concluded. 

Shawn Brimley, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security, was prompted to discuss his War on the Rocks column: For an Audience of One: Re-booting Agenda SecDef, which is explicitly directed to the Secretary of Defense.

L to R – William Ruger, Sean Brimley, Brig. Gen Pyo, and Moderator Lt Col (Ret) Scott Cooper, USMC. 

Brimley began by characterizing the situation the Trump Administration inherited. On the positive side, Brimley explained, the killing of Osama Bin Laden showed the growth of the special ops community and their capabilities, alliances in the Asia-Pacific are stronger and more resilient after the Obama Administration’s rebalance, and finally, the international system is currently free of outright great power conflict. On the negative side, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on and continue to be complicated, the reduction of forces in Iraq was possibly too steep and sowed seeds for the rise of ISIS, and the United States’ strategy in Syria remains opaque, particularly with regard to the fate of the Assad regime.

With respect to Russia and China, Brimley expressed concern but not surprise at their actions, as he believes them to be rational actors pursuing their respective interests. Russia, he explained, is testing the limits of their ambitions, but remains a deeply weak country – the problem as Brimley sees it is how to deal with Russia as a declining world power. As for China, Brimley concluded that they are indeed an emerging great power, but articulated that China isn’t seeking to create tension for tension’s sake, but rather in the pursuit of  perceived real national interests. China’s assertive behavior, Brimley summarized, is rational and predictable.

Mr. Brimley went on to typify the military operational environment. He explained that the modest increase in the defense budget proposed by the Trump Administration won’t eliminate tough choices for DoD. For instance, the Navy must decide on what it wants as a service, as must the other services, and no amount of money will preclude these choices. Lastly, Brimley explained that the days of uncontested technological superiority are over for the U.S. – the world has changed and decision-makers must internalize this – qualitative superiority is no longer assured. Mass as an element of warfare, he concluded, will be increasingly important in an age of precise munitions.

Brigadier General Se Woo Pyo, Republic of South Korea Defense Attache to the United States and 1990 graduate of West Point, was queried on how the world had changed in the 30 years since he began his service in defense of the Republic of Korea. His answer, which he characterized as almost “too easy,” was that the situation on the Korean Peninsula had not actually changed much at all. The strategic environment has not changed, he said; the Cold War still exists on the Korean Peninsula and along the DMZ – the two sides have been at a tense standoff this entire time. The cost has been high for South Koreans: North Korea (DPRK) sunk the South Korean Corvette Cheonan, bombarded the South Korean Western Islands, and precipitated other incidents in which South Korean lives were lost. The Republic of Korea was determined to retaliate, General Brigadier General Se Woo Pyo explained, and field commanders were given authority to fire on DPRK positions in response to incoming rounds.

ROK soldier preparing for counter fire after the surprise shelling by North Korea, November 23, 2010. (ROK MND)

The intent of this South Korean posture is not to start a war but to deter – “[they] are very careful to deter by showing willingness and  capability [to act], but simultaneously resisting a skirmish that would move into full-scale war. This kind of environment, Brigadier General Se Woo Pyo went on to describe, informs the sensitivity of ROK leaders and citizens to action against North Korean provocation.

With regard to the recent movement of the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group (CSG), the General emphasized concern and close communications between U.S. and Korean leadership. When the CSG moves into the Western Pacific, however, speculation occurs in the South Korean press regarding unilateral action by the U.S., crisis and war, despite these close consultations. The public perception in South Korea, he articulated,  does not reflect this reality and is hard to control. Indeed, the Korean Peninsula still experiences Cold War concerns and dynamics to this day.

The general was also careful to point out changes since the Cold War. The rise of China and continued influence over neighboring states is the primary concern of Koreans, he stated, while Russia is no longer a huge concern or determining factor in Korean decision-making. Competition between China and the U.S. will shape almost all foreign policy decisions for other nations. General Se Woo Pyo was careful to point out that he doesn’t think China espouses one core value that other nations will strive for. Hardware doesn’t lend great power status – “software” remains extremely important, and in that sense, he explained, the U.S. has the advantage. 


While the morning keynote came off as light, digestible, and thoughtful, the afternoon panel’s tone proved more somber and a little surprising. In some ways, the spoken points of Dr. Ruger and Dr. Brimley echoed the foreign policy debates of the election cycle. Ruger repeatedly reasserted his misgivings about the U.S.-led alliance system, but did not clearly articulate what those misgivings were. Likewise, Dr. Brimley, while appearing more mainstream in his views of the use of American power abroad, forwarded his own dreary assessment of the likelihood of funding the defense accounts to a level that would assure continued American access. Of the three, it appeared Brigadier Pyo maintained the most nuanced view, reciting a vivid recollection of the shared U.S.-Korean experience and what the alliance meant to his people and to stability in East Asia.  

More to follow from NAFAC.

Sally DeBoer is the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Mike DeBoer is a naval officer and regular contributor to CIMSEC.

Special thanks to the MIDN Danny Vegel and his Midshipmen PAO staff for the photos used in this post.

Arctic Security and Legal Issues in the 21st Century: An Interview with CDR Sean Fahey

By Sally DeBoer

The changing Arctic is a topic of increasing interest to the maritime security community. Rapidly receding sea ice and increasingly navigable waters combined with the promise of rich natural resource deposits have made investment in the Arctic – particularly military and infrastructure investment – a priority for Arctic nations and other parties that stand to benefit from the region. To discuss these issues and more, CIMSEC interviewed Commander Sean Fahey, USCG of the U.S. Naval War College Stockton Center for the Study of International Law for his expert insight on legal and security issues in the High North in the 21st Century. 

SD: CDR Fahey, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss legal and security challenges to the Arctic in the 21st Century. We are honored to have someone with your experience and expertise speak with us! To begin, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

SF: Great to be with you; thank you for the invitation. I serve as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, at the U.S. Naval War College. In this role, I conduct research and teach global maritime security law. In particular, I focus on the intersection of law and security in the Arctic Ocean. For example, I recently collaborated with Professor James Kraska on a position paper for the U.K. House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee, Defence in the Arctic Inquiry. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies, the Stockton Center’s peer-reviewed law journal, and the oldest journal of international law published in the United States.

By way of background, I am an attorney and commissioned officer in the rank of commander in the United States Coast Guard, and have advised various levels of command on the legal issues impacting maritime security operations, primarily counter-drug, fisheries enforcement, migrant interdiction and environmental law enforcement. I have also served as a Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as a legal advisor in the operational law division of USAFRICOM, where my focus was on maritime security operations, namely counter-piracy and maritime law enforcement support, and counter-terrorism.

SD: Can you characterize the United States’ current position in the Arctic? Is the U.S. prepared – materially and strategically – for challenges ahead in the Arctic?

SF: The United States is an Arctic nation, and the region is of significant strategic, economic and environmental importance to us. Some of the challenges we face in the region, for example, energy and mineral exploitation, are future challenges, but many, such as preserving freedom of navigation and overflight, are immediate. Climate change – whatever the cause – promises to be a major factor in how we prioritize our responses to those challenges, but it is not the only factor. Our strategy is influenced by the actions and priorities of the other Arctic nations as well, and in some areas the United States is not in the lead.

Strategically, we have comprehensive guidance on how to structure our approach to the region. American priorities are set forth in National Security Presidential Directive-66/Homeland Security Directive-25 and the “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” and the accompanying Implementation Plan. Broadly, U.S. strategy is to advance U.S. security interests, pursue responsible Arctic stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation in the region. Each of those priorities has several detailed lines of effort. For example, the U.S. has four primary lines of effort to promote security: (1) preservation of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the Arctic region; (2) enhancement of Arctic regional domain awareness and presence; (3) development of future U.S. energy security; and (4) evolve Arctic strategic capabilities, military force structure, and civilian infrastructure to be able to best respond to challenges unique to the region.

Many of the federal departments and agencies tasked with taking the lead on a particular line of effort within the national policy further refine the National strategy with additional guidance documents, among them the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense. So, in response to the second part of your question – is the United States prepared for future challenges in the Arctic? Strategically we are. We know the priorities and we know who is responsible for advancing them. Materially, however, the United States is not in the best position it could be to advance its strategic priorities. The most pressing example of this lacuna is the requirement for icebreakers.

One of two USCG Polar Icebreakers (Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst/Coast Guard)

Enhanced icebreaking capabilities are vital to properly support U.S. security interests in the Arctic. You cannot be present if you cannot get there. Virtual presence is actual absence. A persistent presence in the Arctic region is a condition precedent for the effective exercise of law enforcement jurisdiction and improved domain awareness. Currently, the U.S. has two icebreakers. The Russian Federation has 37. A fleet of at least six heavy icebreakers would provide one full-time U.S. presence within the Arctic Ocean in both the east and west, while also allowing enough hulls for training, work-ups, and post-deployment maintenance. This requirement is supported by the Pentagon, and is the single most important capability for the U.S. to pursue in the Arctic. Only a robust ice-breaking capability allows the U.S. to respond to all threats and all hazards in the region.

SD: The United States is in a time of flux, politically – how do you think a U.S. position that is perhaps less invested in preventing the effects of climate change might affect the security situation in the Arctic and the role of the U.S. as an Arctic leader?

We certainly are in a time of flux, but it is too early to say how the administration will address the challenges posed by climate change. Time will tell. That said, the data on the environmental changes occurring in the Arctic are alarming. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is directly supported by NASA and NOAA, the minimum Arctic sea ice extent has reduced by 40 percent since 1978. Last year the maximum (wintertime) sea ice extent was at a record low for a second year in a row. Additionally, NASA reports that global surface temperatures – to include in the Arctic – were at record highs in 2016. In short, the data indicate that the melt will not only continue, but will likely accelerate.

Trends in sea ice thickness/volume are another important indicator of Arctic climate change. While sea ice thickness observations are sparse, this figure utilizes the ocean and sea ice model, PIOMAS (Zhang and Rothrock, 2003), to visualize October sea ice thickness from 1979 to 2017. Sea ice less than 1.5 meters is masked out (black) to emphasize the loss of thicker, older ice. Updated through January 2017. (Zachary Michael Labe, Ph.D. Student, Department of Earth System Science, The University of California, Irvine)

Responsible regional stewardship – over the Arctic and its resources – is one of the pillars of our national strategy. It would be unfortunate if the United States were forced to effectively abdicate its leadership position in the Arctic due to a perceived lack of credibility on this issue by other Arctic nations. If we abdicate our leadership position, we abdicate our ability to shape regional security issues, and other Arctic nations may be reluctant to partner with us.

SD: Can you speak to some of the impacts that climate change has had on the Arctic security situation?

SF: The changing Arctic climate has already had a recognizable impact on the regional security landscape. Less ice means greater access and more activity. Some of the impacts may be positive. For example, the Arctic has enormous importance for long-term U.S. energy security. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves (90 billion barrels) are in the Arctic. This estimate is in addition to more than 240 billion barrels of petroleum reserves that have already been discovered. The USGS estimates that one-third of this oil is in the circum-Arctic region of Alaska and the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Responsibly and safely developing new domestic energy sources strengthens U.S. energy security by reducing U.S. reliance on imported oil, some of which, as you know, travels vast distances from extremely unstable regions before entering the national supply.

That said, competition for energy resources in disputed areas of the Arctic could destabilize the regional security balance. I am confident however, that the United States and the other Arctic nations will resolve their boundary disputes peacefully. We have seen evidence of this already with the Russian Federation and Norway resolving a long-standing maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea.

The more immediate impact of climate change on the Arctic security situation will be on freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. Broadly speaking, freedom of navigation and overflight are critical for the U.S. to be able to support peacetime and wartime contingencies across the globe. If the Arctic ice melt continues at its current pace, the Northwest Passage, the shipping route along the Canadian Arctic coastline, and the Northern Sea Route, the shipping route along the Russian Arctic coastline, will be accessible for longer periods of time, possibly year round.

Strategic mobility throughout the Arctic could become critical to support strategic sealift for U.S. contingency operations worldwide, and the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route could serve as waterways to support such contingency operations. Portions of both shipping routes cross areas where the respective coastal state has made, in the opinion of the U.S., an excessive maritime claim, and these claims threaten the ability of naval forces to exercise their navigational and overflight rights. Preserving these rights is a central tenet of the National Arctic strategy. The U.S. Department of State, the lead agency for this strategic priority, is actively engaged with Canada and Russia on this issue, but it may be prudent for the United States to conduct freedom of navigation operations – the peaceful exercise of international legal rights in disputed sea areas – in areas of the Arctic Ocean that are subject to unlawful maritime claims.

SD: Many of our readers may not be aware of the pivotal role the U.S. and international Coast Guards have in maritime operations, specifically on operations in the high north. What improvements could the United States make to its infrastructure to be more prepared for operations in the Arctic?

At the risk of sounding redundant, I think greater icebreaking capability, and the shore-based infrastructure required to support icebreakers, is absolutely critical for the U.S. to achieve its maritime security goals in the Arctic. In order to respond to regional threats and hazards, U.S. surface forces need to be able to safely navigate the Arctic Ocean.

In the same vein, the U.S. should also commit to constructing ice-strengthened patrol ships for its seas services, similar to the Arctic Offshore Patrol ships being commissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy. The increased security presence in the region that greater icebreaking capability and ice-strengthened patrol ships would enable will help further deter conventional and unconventional maritime security threats and also ensure that U.S. near-shore and offshore oil and gas industry infrastructure is properly safeguarded. Search and rescue (SAR) also requires both ships and aircraft that are capable of operating in extreme climate. The United States has inadequate force structure to meet SAR contingencies.

Additionally, the U.S. needs to strengthen is pollution response capabilities and infrastructure in the Arctic. Needless to say, as the energy sector expands in the Arctic, so too does the risk of pollution. Given the remoteness of the region, sufficient pollution response capabilities and infrastructure need to be in place and accessible in order to ensure a timely response.

Finally, as the region becomes more accessible to year-round commercial navigation, the U.S. needs to ensure we have the sufficient infrastructure to support safe and secure maritime commerce. This could include harbor and dock improvements, aids to navigation, management systems for high risk vessel traffic areas,  search and rescue capabilities, and effective communications networks. Some of these are in place, some just need to be enhanced, and some need to be created.

SD: As you are a legal scholar, we’d like your insight on competing maritime claims in the region. First, what legal foundation, if any, does Canada have for its claim over the Northwest Passage? We know this is a controversial topic; what does the letter of the law dictate on the matter?

The Northwest Passage Route (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.)

Canada asserts they have complete sovereignty over the waterways that comprise the Northwest Passage. Their legal argument for doing so is that the waters comprising the Northwest Passage lie within either Canadian internal waters or its territorial sea, and are thus subject to their jurisdiction and control. The United States and the European Commission have rejected Canada’s claims, and consider the Northwest Passage, a strait used for international navigation, open to navigation without coastal state interference.

Canada’s internal waters claim is predicated on straight baselines and the assertion of historic title to the waters of the Northwest Passage. Though the normal baseline used to measure the extent of a nation’s territorial sea is the low-water mark along their coast, UNCLOS does permit nations to draw “straight baselines” if certain criteria are met. Once a legal baseline has been drawn, waters seaward of the baseline, up to twelve nautical miles, are considered territorial sea; waters landward of the baseline are considered internal waters, subject to absolute coastal state sovereignty and jurisdiction. In short, Canada claims that, through its application of straight baselines, the entire waterway of the Northwest Passage became part of its territorial sea or internal waters, and is subject to its exclusive control. Remember though, that the Northwest Passage is some 100 nm wide in many areas, and Canada may not claim these areas as internal waters or territorial sea.

The U.S. position is that Canada’s application of straight baselines along the Northwest Passage is excessive and constitutes an unlawful interpretation of the criteria for establishing straight baselines under UNCLOS. Straight baselines may be used in the case of fringing islands or a coastline that is deeply indented and cut into. But even in these cases, the coastal state must draw the baselines narrowly. Under Article 8(2) of UNCLOS, even if countries accepted the limits of coastal state jurisdiction, then vessels from any nation would be completely free to traverse the area in innocent passage.

Consequently, even if nations accepted Canada’s straight baseline claims on their face, the ships of all nations would still be entitled to “innocent passage” through these “internal waters.” UNCLOS is clear on this issue; when the application of straight baselines have the effect of enclosing as internal waters areas which had not previously been considered as such – as is the case in with the Northwest Passage – the right of innocent passage still exists. Canada asserts that – the UNCLOS provisions about straight baseline enclosures notwithstanding – they have a historic claim to the Northwest Passage as well, one that precedes its straight baseline application. One of the weaknesses with that argument, however, is that a claim of historic title to internal waters requires, among other things, the acquiescence of foreign nations to that claim. The United States have never acquiesced to Canada’s claim, but have, instead, openly protested it, and continue to do so.

As you indicate though, it is a controversial matter, and much stronger legal scholars than I have written at length on the issue, but I think the position of the United States and European Commission is the legally correct one; the Northwest Passage is an international strait. Various legal characterizations aside, I am confident that the dispute over the Northwest Passage will be resolved amicably. Canada is a longstanding and indispensable ally of the United States – one that we have the deepest respect for – and an invaluable partner in the Arctic. The U.S. shares the same interests as the Canadians in ensuring a safe, secure, and environmentally protected Arctic, and many of the systems employed and contemplated by Canada to protect its interests – ship reporting, designating sea lines, vessel traffic separation schemes – do not require absolute sovereignty to affect. A diplomatic solution will be found.

SD: Can you provide some context for Russia’s extensive maritime claims? Can they reasonably expect a favorable ruling on their extension of their continental shelf?

The Russian Federation has several maritime claims of interest, particularly their claims regarding the Northern Sea Route and, as you note, their claim to an extended continental shelf. The Northern Sea Route claims need to be looked at closely from a maritime security perspective, as they have the potential to adversely impact maritime mobility.

As you know, the Russian Federation enacted national legislation establishing a state institution (the Northern Sea Route Administration or “NSRA”) with a mandate to “organize navigation in the water area of the Northern Sea Route.” This national legislation also defined “the water area” of the Northern Sea Route to include the Russian Arctic internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and – notably – their exclusive economic zone. Shortly after its establishment, the NSRA published their “Rules of Navigation on the Water Area of the Northern Sea Route,” which contains several provisions that adversely impact freedom of navigation and may not be consistent with international law, chief among them the unilateral requirement that all ships must request advance permission from the NSRA to enter “the water area” of the Northern Sea Route.

The potential impacts of this provision alone to maritime mobility could be significant; the regulation is arguably an attempt to unilaterally bypass vital high seas freedoms and navigational rights, such as innocent passage and transit passage that ships would otherwise be entitled to, in order to assert greater control over the shipping channel. Though UNCLOS (Article 234) provides for limited legislative and enforcement rights in “ice covered areas” of a coastal state’s EEZ, any coastal state legislation adopted under this limited authority must have “due regard to navigation.” As such, the Russian Federation’s reliance on Article 234 as the international legal basis for its regulation requiring ships to request permission to enter the water areas of the Northern Sea Route is overreaching. The impacts to navigation of this provision are severe.

Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy (Sputnik, Sergey Eshenko)

With respect to whether the Russian Federation can expect a favorable ruling from the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on their extended continental shelf claim, I would say that the Russians are certainly doing everything in their power to see that they do. And if they do not receive a favorable ruling, I fully expect them to continue conducting research into the Arctic seabed, compiling data, and submitting revised claims, much like they did in 2015 after their 2001 application was rejected and the Commission requested additional scientific evidence from the Russians to support their claim. The natural resources potentially at stake are too valuable for Russia to simply walk away.

SD: The PRC’s response to the arbitration ruling on claims in the SCS indicated a disregard for international law – can you see such a reaction leading to similar reactions when it comes to Arctic rulings?

There’s always the potential for it and, in fact, already some evidence of it. In 2013, the Russian Federation refused to directly participate in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea proceedings in the Arctic Sunrise case, the dispute between Russia and the Netherlands over law enforcement actions taken by Russia in their Exclusive Economic Zone against a Netherlands-flagged Greenpeace vessel protesting against Russian oil exploration in Arctic waters. To be fair, the Russian Federation did, however, submit several position papers to the arbitral tribunal about various aspects of the case, to include protesting the jurisdiction of the tribunal, but ultimately Russia rejected the tribunal’s ruling.

More generally though, any given nation’s strategic priorities may not always be in perfect alignment with what international law requires. Ideally though, in such a situation, nations will recognize that short-term national “gains” may ultimately compromise their standing within the international community, and erode their ability to partner with other nations. My concern is that as energy resources become less plentiful in other regions and more accessible in the Arctic, particularly in the disputed areas, we may see some nations more inclined to act solely in their own national self-interest, even if their actions are in direct conflict with international law.

To date, however, many of the challenges facing the Arctic have been addressed collectively. There appears to be a genuine spirit of international cooperation in the region. We’ve seen this in the Ottawa Declaration establishing the Arctic Council as a forum for intergovernmental cooperation in the region, the commitment to the Law of the Sea as the legal framework to govern the Arctic Ocean made by the Arctic coastal states in the Ilulissat Declaration, the participation of the Arctic coastal states in the formation of the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, and the successful development of a binding multilateral search and rescue agreement between all of the Arctic nations, governing the entire region. There are many examples of international collaboration in the Arctic, and I am cautiously optimistic that nations will respect collective interests – such as adherence to international law – even when there may be some short-term national advantage to be gained by disregarding them. The Arctic is not a region where you can “go it alone.”

SD: Let’s discuss militarization in the Arctic – do you foresee a trend toward greater military presence in the Arctic and what possible implications of this movement might you caution?

I do, and it is a trend that cannot be solely attributed to any one nation. Many of the Arctic countries are increasing their military footprints in the region, which of course has a ripple effect. As you know, the Russian Federation recently stood up a Joint Strategic Command for the Arctic. The entirety of Russia’s Northern Fleet was completely absorbed into this new Arctic Command, and the land component is comprised of two brigades, with plans for a third, as well as specially trained Arctic coastal defense divisions. Fourteen airfields and sixteen deepwater ports are in various stages of development along the Northern Sea Route. Russian submarine patrols across the North Atlantic rose by nearly 50 percent last year. These capabilities and this infrastructure positions Russia to have a dominant military presence in the Arctic for the foreseeable future.

Despite this escalation, however, I think the potential for a large-scale, conventional conflict in the region is low. Perhaps that’s naïve, but there is little evidence that the Arctic nations will abandon diplomacy as the preferred dispute resolution tool in favor of force. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary. I think what is more likely is another “Black Sea Bumping Incident” type scenario between an Arctic coastal state, defending what they believe their territorial integrity, and a foreign naval vessel, exercising freedom of navigation, perhaps along the Northern Sea Route. Of course, this kind of scenario can – in and of itself – lead to an escalation.

SD: How would you answer those who feel UNCLOS is insufficient when considering legal issues in the High North?

I agree with the wisdom of the signatories to the Illulissat Declaration. The Arctic is primarily a maritime region, and the Law of the Sea is the appropriate international legal regime. Many of the future challenges in the Arctic – delineating the outer limits of the continental shelf, which will hopefully resolve many of the potential resource disputes in the region; ensuring freedom of navigation along shipping routes that may become increasingly more accessible with the changing climate; ensuring comprehensive, but fair, environmental stewardship – are challenges that the Law of the Sea already addresses. Bilateral and multilateral treaties on specific issues – for example, the Arctic Search and Rescue Treaty – can help fill most of the gaps not directly addressed by the Law of the Sea. In terms of a governing body of law, however, the Law of the Sea, to include UNCLOS, is more than sufficient.

Commander Sean Fahey, United States Coast Guard, is currently assigned as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies. He can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed here are presented in a personal and unofficial capacity. They are not to be construed as official policy or reflecting the views of the United States Coast Guard or any other U.S. government agency. 

Sally DeBoer is currently serving as the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Featured Image: Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy (Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich)