Category Archives: Chokepoints and Littorals Week

Strategic Chokepoints and Littorals Week Concludes on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

During these past two weeks, CIMSEC featured a wide array of publications on strategic maritime chokepoints and littorals, submitted in response to our call for articles issued in partnership with the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity of U.S. Marine Corps University. This turned out to be one of the most packed CIMSEC topic weeks in recent memory, and one of the most insightful.

Maritime chokepoints and littorals remain strategic areas of interest in global strategy and potential warfighting campaigns. CIMSEC contributors pointed to a number of themes that can shape strategic calculations with respect to these critical geographic features.

Chokepoints and littorals magnify the influence of nearby states, who often by other measurements of national power are seen as lesser nations relative to major states. Yet in times of conflict or crisis, it is major states who could very well come to depend on these littoral nations for critical support and access, nations whose political sensitivities can powerfully constrain diplomatic and warfighting options for great powers. Even non-state actors, such as insurgents or pirates, can force multinational responses and contingency planning through small-scale actions in a chokepoint of global import.

Another major theme authors touched upon was the role of strategic chokepoints and littorals in emerging American warfighting concepts, particularly those of the U.S. Marine Corps that encompass archipelagic defense. As the Marine Corps transforms into a stand-in force that can hold the line against a great power while enabling follow-on access from friendly forces, it will have to master schemes of fire and maneuver across the vast array of chokepoints and littorals within Western Pacific island chains. Some authors envisioned the Marines as an anti-shipping force, with a few touching on the vital role mine warfare in particular can play in contesting chokepoints and manipulating an adversary’s avenues of access, while also bemoaning U.S. naval forces’ longstanding lack of interest in offensive mining. As U.S. forces develop new warfighting concepts for the Pacific, it is clear that open-ocean combat and fighting for chokepoints and littorals are two sides of the same coin. As 21st century great power competition begins to take shape, one can look to the world’s coastlines to find its major contours.

Authors also challenged traditional ideas of chokepoints being fixed geographic areas, whose influence is as supposedly permanent as their location. And yet the world is witnessing major changes that are redefining the chokepoint and its value. The Arctic is melting away, revealing a complex mosaic of chokepoints and littorals that will lend themselves toward new lines of communication for global commerce, as well as new zones of competition. Chokepoints may also emerge not as geographic features, but as more abstract zones that develop within the seams of operational concepts, intelligence collection abilities, diplomatic clout, and even in in the information environment. Their constraining effect remains the same, but the ability to adjust to their influence becomes much more complex than simply being in the right place at the right time.

Strategic chokepoints and littorals will continue to have major influence on world events, both in peace and in conflict. Today as thousands of ships sail through these narrow channels and naval forces traverse nearby waters, the access these zones create may have become an assumed feature of global activity. But should that access come under threat or become outright contested, the vital importance these areas will hold will become all too apparent, and in the form of consequences that could ripple across the globe.

Below are the articles that featured during the extended topic week, with excerpts. We thank these authors for their excellent contributions.

Sea Control 180 – Narrow Seas: The Black Sea with Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (ret.) by Jared Samuelson

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (ret.), former commander, U.S. Army Europe, stops by the podcast to discuss lessons learned from the exercise Defender 2020, Russia’s Black Sea strategy, and the importance of the Black Sea to NATO. 

Let Me Get this Strait: The Turkish Straits Question Revisited” by Paul Pryce

Since 1936, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, hereinafter referred to as the Montreux Convention, has allowed for the peaceful flow of commerce through the Turkish Straits. However, recent calls from Turkish and Russian policy circles for revisions to the Montreux Convention should be cause for concern, as these proposals threaten to either spur a naval arms race in the Black Sea region or look to exploit the Straits as a geostrategic chokepoint.

The Assumption of Access in the Western Pacific” by Elee Wakim and Blake Herzinger

The cornerstone of this power projection complex in the western Pacific is forward deployed military forces, which are in turn enabled by the availability of proximate and friendly basing in theater. However, the ability of the United States to sustainably conduct expeditionary operations in the strategic chokepoints and littorals of Asia could crumble in the absence of the allied access it has come to rely on.

Mine the Littorals and Chokepoints: Mine Warfare in Support of Sea Control” by Major Brian Kerg, USMC

While DMO and EABO provide the essential building blocks of sea control and denial, their deterrent power can be exponentially increased through the integration of mine warfare. Whether deployed between EABs by ExMIW companies, activated from UFPs and maneuvered into place as the situation dictates, or fired into shallow waters with the modified Quickstrike-ER and moved as required by C2 systems, MIW is the most promising yet underdeveloped capability for today’s maritime strategists.

There are no Strategic Chokepoints” by Captain Jamie McGrath, USN (ret.)

Military strategists often speak as Fisher did of strategic chokepoints, believing them to have significant geopolitical value and act as epicenters for maritime strategy, where the control of which is considered vital for success in maritime conflict. But are these chokepoints truly strategic? Does the success of a nation’s maritime strategy actually hinge on the control or loss of control of these narrow seas?

An Emerging Strategic Geometry – Thawing Chokepoints and Littorals in the Arctic” by Robert C. Rasmussen

The ongoing transformation of the Arctic from an inaccessible frozen wasteland to an accessible and untapped reserve creates not only a new contested space, but will create new strategic chokepoints and littoral operating environments. The United States, in concert with its allies, will need to invest in the ability to access and secure this environment in order to maintain sovereignty and security in this new world.

The Strategic Littoral Geography of Southeast Asia” by Pete McPhail, Arthur Speyer, Bret Rodgers, Steve Ostrosky, Jesse Burns, and Dan Marquis

The INDOPACOM AOR continues to be a primary focus of U.S. naval forces, and the area is of central importance to China. This map describes the strategic importance of Southeast Asian littoral geography to China’s interests. By studying the map the user sees correlations between China’s diplomatic and economic investments and chokepoint geography.

Chiseled in Space: Temporary, Non-Geographic Chokepoints in the Battle of the Atlantic” by Heather Venable

Much can be gained, then, by conceptualizing chokepoints more broadly as areas of temporary advantage that may be created or destroyed through the application of either new capabilities or existing ones in ingenuous ways to create an outsized advantage. In the case of the Battle of the Atlantic, these types of chokepoints resulted in the greatest strategic effect. 

Thinking Like a Pirate: Contesting Southeast Asia’s Chokepoints” by Drake Long

The chokepoints and littorals surrounding Indonesian and Philippine waters would make for excellent forward positioning for a Marine Corps stand-in force. It would provide a critical bulwark for U.S. force posture in the Pacific by facilitating access for follow-on forces from allied Australia, and access into the South China and Philippine Seas.

Sea Control 181 – The ‘Amphibious’ 8th in the Pacific War” with Jared Samuelson, Major General Pat Donahoe, and Don Chisholm

Major General Pat Donahoe, Deputy Commander for Operations, U.S. 8th Army, and Prof. Don Chisholm of the U.S. Naval War College join us to discuss why the 8th Army is known as “the Amphibious 8th,” the campaign through the southern Philippines in World War II, Admiral Daniel Barbey, and the different amphibious cultures that emerged during the war.

Sink ‘Em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction” by Dustin League and Dan Justice

The drone circling overhead continued to pace them, repeating its message, its demands growing increasingly terse and harsh. The ship’s master counted no less than three times his vessel was threatened with lethal force with never a blip on the radar to indicate a closing vessel or aircraft. Open seas, open skies, and toothless demands. Twenty-five minutes after the initial challenge, two long-range anti-ship missiles, their telemetry continually updated by the overhead drone, slammed into the Píng Jìng De Hǎi Yáng.

Seeing the World Through Points” by Captain H. Clifton Hamilton, USMC

Strategic chokepoints and littorals are the arena of current and future power struggles. Great power competition is layered within these maritime and littoral domains. To a lesser extent, but still consequential, are the potential actions of regional and non-state actors capable of causing disruption along maritime chokepoints and littoral zones. The United States will be required to address multi-layered challenges to its maritime dominance in these areas while also fulfilling the role of humanitarian and the facilitator of free and open commerce.

Guarding the Gates: Is International Naval Control of the Bab Al Mandeb Feasible?” by Elizabeth White

Many a discussion of the Bab Al Mandeb Strait starts with the translation from the Arabic name (Gate of Tears) as an introduction to the chokepoint’s woes. They are not wrong to do so. The Gate of Tears seems to be a place of permanent melancholy, surrounded by a depressing miasma of conflict, state failure, famine, crime, and now global pandemic. Unfortunately for all concerned, it is also the key trading route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Developing Security in a White Water World: Preparing for the Arctic” by Ian Birdwell

The Arctic is changing physically and the security dimensions of the region are changing along with it. The region will not be ice-free overnight, and the United States is not without partners in addressing those changing strategic considerations. It behooves the United States to not pursue a hardline balancing arrangement against Russian militarization and instead pursue what it has been doing for some time, preparing for the potential of Arctic operations across all service branches.

Does Tomorrow Ever Truly Die?” by Capt. John Holmes, USMC

My cinematic reveries were interrupted when it became apparent that 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, starring Pierce Brosnan as the titular hero, was a lot closer to our current reality than I had ever expected. Themes of great power competition, technological proliferation, state and non-state conflict, media manipulation, and conflict in the strategic waterways and littorals, which may have seemed somewhat out of place in 1997, feel all too prescient in 2020. 

Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and Mine Warfare in Littoral Control” by Mark Howard

Naval mines have the ability to shape the battlespace, manage vertical escalation of hostilities, act as cost-effective force multipliers, and are a proven coercive diplomatic tool that can have deep psychological and strategic impact. With advancements in naval mines and the changing naval threat environment, the USMC should reconsider the role of mine warfare to explore how it may complement nascent force development and warfighting concepts.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: SUEZ CANAL (March 16, 2013) The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) transits the Suez Canal. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Kameren Guy Hodnett/Released)

Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations and Mine Warfare in Littoral Control

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Mark Howard

The USMC was recently directed to change its mission focus from countering extremists to great power competition. To this end, numerous studies and guidance have been released, prompting considerable discussion internally and externally to the USMC. One new idea is the Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) concept, the purpose of which is employ Marines as an “inside,” low signature, joint naval force conducting sea control and denial operations in littoral and chokepoint regions.

In reviewing the proposed EABO operations, many different capabilities are mentioned, but one, naval mines, are given scant attention, and to the point of being almost completely ignored. One of the main prerequisites for success in the littorals will be a diverse weapon suite under decentralized command and control.1 However, the 70-page EABO Handbook only mentions naval mines four times.2 Other guiding documents are similarly unhelpful. Force Design 2030 mentions mines twice,3 while Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) mentions them three times.4 Most of these mentions are defensive in orientation or in reference to developing “battlespace awareness in uncertain environments.”5 Naval mines should instead be seen as an integral offensive tool used by EABO commanders to assist them in securing control of chokepoints and littorals.

Naval mines have the ability to shape the battlespace, manage vertical escalation of hostilities, act as cost-effective force multipliers, and are a proven coercive diplomatic tool that can have deep psychological and strategic impact. With advancements in naval mines and the changing naval threat environment, the USMC should reconsider the role of mine warfare to explore how it may complement nascent force development and warfighting concepts.

Mine Warfare and Naval Operations

Traditionally, naval mines have been thought of as being used in unrestricted warfare as a long-term attrition weapon intended to disrupt sea lines of communication for both warships and freighters. While the objectives of maritime warfare in the littorals remain somewhat similar to warfare in the open ocean, there are key differences that can be exploited for advantage.6 

Mining littorals can be accomplished relatively quickly, such as through aerial employment, as there is no complex deployment cycle required or large support bases that need to be in position. As logistically independent weapons, mines can maintain a persistent presence without requiring sustainment support or additional forces. Minefields are especially resilient in that they can easily be reseeded or reinforced from long-range aerial mining. Mining efforts can also be accomplished by either joint or combined operations. Should U.S. forces not be immediately available, mines can be dropped in conjunction with host nations’ forces in anticipation of the arrival of U.S. forces, leveraging partner nation capabilities in forward areas and in terrain they know best.7

Minefields can be sown with the intent to disrupt enemy operations or fix an enemy’s position long enough to allow other friendly assets to deal with the threat. Mines can also be used to force a hostile force at sea to recalculate its intended transit into a route that offers more opportunity for follow-on engagements from friendly units. Lastly, mines can be used in a more traditional manner to positively block and deter any maritime transit.8

Mines do not promote the vertical escalation of hostilities and are inherently a weapon of deterrence. International treaties require that minefields be noticed to all mariners and demand minefields remain under belligerent control. The exact location of minefields must be recorded so the area can be cleared once hostilities have ended.9 Once in place, mines are passive, low-signature, waiting weapons; the enemy must come to them. It is the enemy who must be the aggressor; the one who deliberately chooses to sail into the mined area and therefore shares responsibility for the outcome. Additionally, advanced mines can be set to respond to specific types of vessels, allowing for more flexible responses and strategies that could discriminate between warships and commercial shipping.

Naval mines are especially cost effective, but this has not always worked to their advantage with respect to the attitude of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Historically, mines have been chosen by weaker nations for this very reason of being cost effective, and the stigma of mines being a weapon of the weak remains today. Setting aside the psychological perception, mines have repeatedly demonstrated disproportionate cost advantages, where these advantages work in two directions. Not only are the costs for procuring and employing mines favorable relative to the targets sunk or damaged, but the expenditures the enemy must make to react to the minefield brings a significant cost of its own in resources and time.10 A mine need not even sink a target to achieve its purpose. Damaging a ship could be a better outcome as a damaged vessel requires that a force spend considerable time and resources withdrawing the stricken vessel safely from the area, something the U.S. Navy has seen in its own experience with mine strikes. Historically, one of the most impressive results of efficient mine warfare occurred in the Dardanelles in 1914, when Turkish forces routed the British Royal Navy with a string of only 20 mines.11 

Mines can take the place of other platforms in maintaining sea denial while extending the reach of friendly platforms. Naval mines serve to enhance and extend naval power as a whole.12 Their value also extends deep into second order effects, going far beyond the individual vessels they cripple or sink and into the adversary’s risk calculations and perceptions of access. Often, the psychological impacts of minefields tend to overshadow the actual military threat. Historians regularly comment on how the mere presence of naval mines in contested waters has “most often resulted in extreme political responses or exaggerated psychological reactions,”13 and how the “…psychological impact of the minefield was clear, even if disproportionate to the actual threat.”14

Naval mining operations have strategic value, and are a proven coercive diplomatic tool with an enviable track record. The best example might be the mining of Haiphong Harbor in 1972. The mining campaign helped force a change in the North Vietnamese diplomatic negotiating position concerning the withdrawal of American forces and the timetable for the release of POWs. With the mining of the harbor, “the face-to-face confrontations and the dangers inherent in it could be avoided.”15 Targets and desired effects need not be exclusively military in nature.


The USMC concept of creating an “inside” force to control chokepoint and littoral regions is a solid concept backed with a considerable amount of thought. However, one of the main prerequisites for success will be a suitable and diverse weapon suite that when used effectively, will be able to overcome state or non-state actors bent on controlling the same areas.

But offensive naval mining has received only trivial attention from USMC concepts. It suggests little to no serious consideration has been given to how a mining campaign can prominently feature in contesting chokepoints and littorals.Despite being in a period where budgets are likely to remain flat, if not decline due to severe budgetary pressures, the prominent use of these especially cost-effective weapons has mostly been ignored. For a weapon that has repeatedly demonstrated significant tactical, operational, and even strategic power, this must change.

Mark Howard retired from the Navy as a Commander after 23 years of service. He served as a flight officer in EA-6B Prowlers and is a graduate of the Naval War College with a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies.


1. Milan Vego, (2015), “On Littoral Warfare” Naval War College Review: Vol. 68 : No. 2 , Article 4, pg 16

2. Department of the Navy, (2018), “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) Handbook”, version 1.1, USMC Warfighting Lab, Concepts & Plans Division A

3. Department of the Navy, (2020), “Force Design 2030”, Washington, DC: Commandant of the Marine Corps.

4. Department of the Navy, (2017), “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment”, Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps

5. Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment, pg. 16

6. Vego, (2015), “On Littoral Warfare”, pg 1

7. National Research Council (2001), “Naval Mine Warfare: Operational and Technical Challenges for Naval Forces”, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press

8. Joshua Edwards (2019) “Preparing Today for the Mines of Tomorrow,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 72 : No. 3 , Article 5, pgs 5-6

9. David Lets, (2014) “Beyond Hague VIII: Other Legal Limits on Naval Mine Warfare”, Stockton Center for the Study of International Law: Vol 90, Pg 446

10. Andrew Patterson, Jr. (1971), “Mining: A Naval Strategy”, Naval War College Review: Vol. 24 : No. 5 , Article 6, pg 11

11. Sir Julian S. Corbett, (1921), “History of the Great War based on Official Documents, Naval Operations Vol 2”, Longmans, Green and Co., pg 223

12. “Naval Mine Warfare: Operational and Technical Challenges for Naval Forces”, pg 63.

13. Patterson, Jr. (1971), “Mining: A Naval Strategy”, pg 63

14. Greer, (1997), “The 1972 Mining of Haiphong Harbor: A Case Study in Naval Mining and Diplomacy”, pg 8

15. Ibid.

Featured Image: NAVAL WEAPONS STATION SEAL BEACH, Calif. (Jan 17, 2013) Chief Mineman Michael H. Hoffman and Mineman 2nd Class Daniel P. Cadigan go through final checks after building a practice mine at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Eli J. Medellin)

Does Tomorrow Ever Truly Die?

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Capt. John Holmes, USMC

Words are the new weapons, satellites the new artillery… Caesar had his officers, Napoleon his armies, and I have my divisions: TV, news, magazines” –Elliot Carver to James Bond

It’s a strange time in America, and the world at large. Like many Americans during this odd and stressful time, I’ve turned to popular media to take a break from the unrelenting confusion and fear of daily life. One of my favorite pieces of escapism comes in the form of the celluloid adventures of a certain British secret agent codenamed 007, James Bond. My cinematic reveries were interrupted when it became apparent that 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies, starring Pierce Brosnan as the titular hero, was a lot closer to our current reality than I had ever expected. Themes of great power competition, technological proliferation, state and non-state conflict, media manipulation, and conflict in the strategic waterways and littorals, which may have seemed somewhat out of place in 1997, feel all too prescient in 2020. If the British forces in the film were instead American, then the film makes for a worrisomely plausible prophecy of disaster.

Over a nearly 75-year long career, James Bond has faced KGB assassins, Voodoo priests, ninjas, space hijackers and everything in between. In Tomorrow Never Dies he faces off against…a newspaper publisher. Bond’s adversary in this film, the vicious media baron Elliot Carver (a somewhat frothing caricature of Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, and their peers), was indeed mocked as an unlikely or unimposing adversary when the film first premiered. However, he may actually be the most realistic and dangerous adversary Bond has ever faced. While Carver has the requisite heavily armed thugs, ruthless henchmen, and even a stealth boat, these are all largely theater. Carver’s true weapon is information. Control of information represents control of the single greatest resource available. Unlike other resources, information is both a weapon and the battlefield upon which current and future conflicts will play out.

When Tomorrow Never Dies was released, it was much derided, as it seemed that the end of the Cold War left James Bond and those like him without a clear adversary. This actually mirrors the prevailing sentiment of the time, when political scientists around the world were musing about the “End of History” and the “Clash of Civilizations” as opposed to nation-state rivalry and “Great Power Competition” which had shaped the preceding centuries. Despite those optimistic predictions, we find ourselves in a new phase of competition in which the balance of power is becoming increasingly fragile. Compared to the existential threats of the Cold War, Carver’s plan to provoke a war between England and China in order to secure media rights and access to the Chinese market was lampooned as being an unlikely take on the sort of “Yellow Journalism” pedaled by William Randolph Hearst and others prior to the Spanish-American War. In a rather heavy handed moment, Carver even utters Hearst’s famous line “You give me the pictures, and I’ll give you the war.”

In 1997, reviewers and commentators doubted that anyone would be willing to risk a war merely for the sake of ratings. In 2020, every major event, and even most minor ones, is spun in the hopes of increasing the viewership, reach, or influence of some media outlet or another. What was a novel and somewhat unrealistic prospect 23 years ago is today simply the way of the world. Beyond the quest for viewers, followers, likes and so on, modern-day “Great Powers” seek to avoid actual combat while directly and aggressively competing through all other means. Long before triggers are pulled, and even before troops are deployed, the conflict is being waged through all other instruments of national power: diplomatic, economic, and informational. The information environment is a key battleground in which both nation-states and non-state actors, such as Carver’s media empire or home-grown terror and criminal networks, wield nearly equal powers. In this unique environment, non-state actors may have the greater advantage due to a lack of accountability and face few consequences for their actions. Zero accountability, wielded by a nation-state’s proxies, a non-state actor, or even an individual is a powerful weapon. The information environment is the only place where a small group of actors can have such an outsized influence with relative impunity.

Carver’s media empire, encompassing all forms of media available at the time, is portrayed near the start of the film in a memorable character introduction scene. As the scene unfolds his executives and department heads provide an almost comically villainous commentary outlining the next day’s top stories, which include sensationalist reports of war, natural disaster, and civil unrest. Various members of Carver’s team are directed to blackmail prominent heads of state and to accept payment for spreading rumors about Mad Cow Disease. All of this occurs interspersed with scenes of Carver gleefully creating headlines for events that have not happened yet; events which he himself is secretly orchestrating. Of particular interest to Carver is the inciting incident of the film: the sinking of a British destroyer in the South China Sea, and the downing of a Chinese MiG by Carver’s agents in the hopes of stirring up conflict on the eve of the launch of his new satellite network.

Part of Carver’s animosity toward the Chinese comes from the Chinese government refusing to grant him broadcast rights on the mainland. This reflects the Chinese government’s continued real world quest to control all media, within their own borders, and throughout the world at large as well. Due to the Chinese government’s aggressive censorship of the truth, it has become a running joke on the internet that “nothing happened” at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. In 1997, China was powerful enough to deny broadcast rights to a media conglomerate like the Carver Media Group or its real-life counterparts, but not quite powerful enough to ensure that the offending organization would bend to its will. As the last decade or so of Hollywood kowtowing to China has demonstrated, that era has ended.

Control of information and control of the physical realm go hand in hand. Without information access, there can be no physical access. In previous centuries, this took the form of flattering and paying tribute to local rulers or even the outright theft or seizure of maps and navigational charts. In 2020, the information environment is much more complicated. The interplay of traditional media, social media, internet proliferation, and public diplomacy represent the tenuous balance of power and access in which both nation-states and non-state actors have to navigate through. By comparison, physical navigation through strategic chokepoints seems easy! Carver was ahead of the curve in his realization and understanding of the power of information.

A specific criticism of Carver’s plan in Tomorrow Never Dies is his reliance on traditional media, and later reviewers have argued that in the days of the internet, Carver’s plans would have fallen apart. Of course, these reviews either pre-date or are willfully ignorant of the era of “fake news,” in which incorrect, inaccurate, and/or manipulated information can assume a life of its own. Today it is more than believable that certain media outlets would only require slight nudging for an individual like Carver to achieve his goals. Even if Carver and his plans were fully and directly exposed to the general public (spoilers: they are not), a dedicated cadre of internet dwellers would likely absolve him of any responsibility. Remember that, today 500 years after Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, there is a persistent, vocal minority which maintains that we have all been lied to and the earth is flat. If anything, the internet and social media would only make Carver more powerful.

Another relic of the period in the background of Tomorrow is concern over U.S.-Vietnam relations. When, for example, the CIA assists Bond and his Chinese counterpart Wai Lin (played by the incomparable Michelle Yeoh) parachute into the area where the British destroyer sunk, the Americans are greatly concerned about the risk of any equipment with U.S. markings washing ashore in Vietnam. In their defense, the filmmakers could never have guessed that the U.S. and Vietnam would achieve a rapprochement due to their mutual distrust of and competition with China. Infamously, China’s claims in the South China Sea, in which they claim exclusive shipping, fishing, and mineral rights, extend to just outside of Vietnam’s territorial waters. Chinese manmade islands, complete with garrisons, continue to crop up in order to further cement these claims. A theme of the film, which is and will continue to be a critical facet of competition and influence in the littorals and strategic waterways, is the idea of strange bedfellows. A British agent working hand-in-hand with a Chinese one was unusual in 1997, and borderline unheard of in 2020. Instead, the ongoing great power competition will, and must, take on an almost 19th century-esque balance of temporary, regional, and unexpected alliances.

Somewhat amusingly, the aforementioned parachute entry is launched from a “U.S. airbase in the South China Sea,” which an onscreen map reveals to be Okinawa. It wasn’t too long ago that Okinawa was a considered a strategic backwater by both the U.S. and Japan. Now, it has become critical to both U.S. policy and international strategy in the Western Pacific. What’s old is new again, in ways that the originators could hardly imagine. Just recently the U.S. started promulgating the doctrine of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) and littoral operations in a contested environment (LOCE), last made famous as key components of the Pacific Campaign during the Second World War. Similarly, the concept of control of strategic chokepoints and influence in the littorals is not new either. It was a major feature of both wars and peace in the 18th and 19th centuries and only really fell out of focus at the end of the Cold War.

Some things do, however, change. Tomorrow Never Dies is often cited as one of the more technology heavy James Bond films, and with good reason. Technological advancement and proliferation is such a major feature of our daily life that it can be exhausting trying to keep up with the latest and greatest devices. A passion for the newest and most high-tech gadgets was a big part of the 1990s and Tomorrow Never Dies is definitely representative of this trend. MI6’s long suffering gadget master Q presents 007 with a 90s-era Nokia cellphone which could, among other things, copy fingerprints, pick locks, stun adversaries, and remotely drive his car. Other than fully displaying Hollywood’s fascination in the 90s with gadgets and technologies, this served as a metaphor for the oncoming prevalence and dominance of technology. In 1997, cell phones were still fairly new to the general public. Perhaps the filmmakers got the application wrong, but they were definitely on to something with the power of a cell phone in one’s pocket.

In the opening sequence of the film, Bond surveils a weapons bazaar on the Russian border. Eventually, Bond must intervene to ensure that an airstrike does not accidently trigger a pair of nuclear torpedoes. In the ensuing chaos, one of Carver’s more unassuming henchmen, Henry Gupta, escapes. Touted as one of the world’s top “techno-terrorists,” Gupta makes off with a GPS encoder which, when compared to the recovery of the nuclear weapons, is considered a minor loss. The folly of this is assumption is soon made apparent. Carver uses his satellite network to spoof Royal Navy GPS signals causing a British destroyer to wander into Chinese territorial waters. The destroyer is then buzzed by Chinese MiGs which order the ship to turn back. The British sailors check the GPS signal, which displays a false position, and assume that the Chinese are posturing. It was probably unnecessary for Carver’s henchmen to then manufacture a crisis by sinking the destroyer and shooting down one of the MiGs, as tensions were already high.

GPS spoofing or jamming was a novel concept in the late 1990s. Most considered the risk to consist of nothing more than getting units lost or mass formations being unable to coordinate. In the last few years, however, it has become a significant concern in areas of competition such as the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and of course the South China Sea. In 2020 this type of interference is performed by nation-states or third parties acting on behalf of nation-states. Consider, however, the Chinese territorial claims mentioned above, and the tendency of both Russian and Chinese aircraft to buzz U.S. and partner nation ships and aircraft. Such situations could easily and quickly escalate. It would likely not take the presence of a hostile stealth boat to tip ongoing tensions into open conflict; just a nudge in the right direction. With appropriate spoofing, both sides could have justifiable grievances; one arguing that their territorial sovereignty was violated and the other using position reports to contest that fact.

Carver’s ultimate weapon is information, not his stealth ship, or later, his stolen missiles. As quoted above, he views satellites as “…the new artillery.” It is the launch of his worldwide satellite network which serves as the background against which he instigates a conflict between China and Britain. Carver’s private satellite network, and its ability to communicate with the entire world, is portrayed as somewhat momentous and vaguely sinister while simultaneously being entirely plausible and slightly banal. This is far cry from the previous film in the series, in which a satellite weapon designed by the Soviet Union functions as a doomsday device. It was not long ago that satellite launches were exclusively the provenance of nation-states. Today, any company, group, or individual with the appropriate means can contribute to the increasingly crowded skies. With no real way to monitor what is in orbit or what capabilities these satellites have, the potential for control, communications, surveillance, interference, and any number of benevolent or nefarious actions is nearly unlimited. Bond probably didn’t realize how correct he was when he flippantly identified satellite networks as an incredible tool for disinformation.

One of the more unbelievable aspects of Tomorrow Never Dies is that Carver elects to conduct his final operations aboard his stealth ship, in hope of witnessing the start of a war between China and England. While this fits with his megalomaniacal personality, it’s very unlikely that he would be willing to risk even minor discomfort, let alone his potential death at the hands of a British secret agent. He easily could have (and as it turns out should have) observed the operation from his headquarters in Germany or his local affiliate in Ho Chi Minh City (referred to as Saigon in the film). As a media mogul and technologically savvy individual, Carver should have known that control and influence no longer require a physical presence. While a physical presence is an excellent way to monitor a nation-state’s interests, it is hardly cost effective in all cases and represents only part of the battle. If access is the goal, then the majority of the action must happen miles away, in the information environment.

Hopefully, the age of mercantilist skirmishes on the high seas to control access and resources are over. At the current moment, China’s only aircraft carrier routinely conducts patrols in the South Pacific to great fanfare every time it leaves port, never mind the fact that U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships are almost constantly stationed in this area. The purpose of having carriers and other ships in that region, and most other regions of the world, is not to directly contest with the ships of other navies, but rather to project a presence. No nation has the ability to station troops and assets around the world at all times in sufficient force to directly control its interests. By contrast, competition and influence through information and technology is bargain-priced. For far less than the cost of a carrier strike group, a nation or individual can exert an extremely outsized influence without ever having to set foot in the contested region. When Carver smugly declares that he desires “worldwide domination,” this is what he means. While 30 years ago that might have meant shattering armies and planting flags in opposing capitals, in 2020 he who controls the information controls the world.

By the time competition in the littorals and strategic waterways devolves into active combat, the majority of the fighting has already occurred outside of the physical realm. Tomorrow Never Dies demonstrates just how little it may take to push us in that direction. A slightly amoral media outlet looking to make a point may have a significant impact on the world even if they aren’t as openly villainous as Carver. In the end, Carver’s most imposing henchmen are not the gun-toting goons, but rather the media department heads who appear only briefly at the beginning of the film. They represent an interplay of information, media, and technology which not only shapes public opinion but also creates it.

In a time when people are more interconnected than ever, the power of information is paramount. Information is both the current battlefield and the most precious global commodity. There can be no freedom of physical navigation without freedom of operation in the information environment. By the end of Tomorrow Never Dies, even the good guys seem to have learned this lesson, as Bond’s boss dictates a press release announcing Carver’s death in a “boating accident.” We must understand that the confluence of competition in the littorals and strategic waterways along with the competition in the information environment run together to create an increasingly tenuous balance of power between the great powers. And while we may not always have a gentleman-spy to help us navigate away from a potential disaster, there are more than a few media outlets and information brokers, both state and non-state, who seek to profit by steering us in the opposite direction.

Captain Holmes is an Assault Amphibian Vehicle Officer and Psychological Operations Officer assigned to II MEF Information Group and currently attached to the 22d MEU/SPMAGTF CR-AF. Previous assignments have included both the First and Third Marine Divisions. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Featured Image: Elliot Carver’s stealth ship from “Tomorrow Never Dies” (via

Guarding the Gates: Is International Naval Control of the Bab Al Mandeb Feasible?

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Elizabeth White

The Gate of Tears

Many a discussion of the Bab Al Mandeb Strait starts with the translation from the Arabic name (Gate of Tears) as an introduction to the chokepoint’s woes. They are not wrong to do so. The Gate of Tears seems to be a place of permanent melancholy, surrounded by a depressing miasma of conflict, state failure, famine, crime, and now global pandemic. Unfortunately for all concerned, it is also the key trading route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Pre-COVID-19, the Bab Al Mandeb saw the movement of some 6.2 million barrels per day of crude oil, condensate, and refined petroleum products. As well as oil, the two-mile-wide shipping lanes of the BAM also squeeze in local and international merchant shipping, military vessels, fishing trawlers, and cruise ships. The world cannot afford for the fourth busiest waterway to crumble into lawlessness and cripple a trade system and regional economy already teetering on the edge. Securing this chokepoint is vital to the U.S. and its allies, but they are not the only ones seeking to gain the upper hand in this turbulent patch of ocean.

The challenge of the BAM is not just the volume of merchant and military traffic squeezing through narrow channels. It is also bordered by weaker countries too focused on internal issues to lead collective security. The region is now also grappling with COVID-19 and its effects on every aspect of society, including maritime security. Already in 2020 the BAM has seen a sharp increase in piracy that is almost certainly linked to the pandemic sapping regional attention and resources.

Meanwhile, the existing tangle of competing interests continues to play out. Saudi Arabia’s seemingly intractable conflict with the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen continues, occasionally spilling out into the Red Sea. China’s first overseas base in Djibouti appears to be under expansion, no doubt to the consternation of the U.S., France, and Japan, each with their own bases in Djibouti. Turkey is quietly building its presence in Yemen, with the backing of both Qatar and Oman. Egypt was already suffering economic woes from the disappointingly low uptake of the expanded Suez Canal. It is now also beset by COVID-19 hammering world trade, and Russia attempting to lure shipping to the alternative Arctic route. With all these complex moving parts, and the increasing desperation of some actors, the risk of a dangerous miscalculation is high.

Somebody needs to guard the gates. With global attention focused on COVID-19 and the security of the BAM increasingly fragile, is now the time to seize the initiative and establish hegemony or collective security in the Red Sea? Some actors may think so. But what would this take, what would it look like, and above all who is going to lead? These are questions that have global repercussions, and the actions of key players such as the U.S. and China could shape global trade for years to come.

Potential Guardians

The BAM is only one of three key maritime chokepoints crowded into the Middle East, alongside the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz. The Straits of Hormuz, the chokepoint for nearly all of the Middle East’s oil, is a high priority for many Asian countries in particular. Oil and petroleum products from the Persian Gulf will head east out of the Straits for Asian markets, with no need to head toward the BAM or the Red Sea. And yet, Djibouti is where China chose to place its first overseas base, ostensibly to support its operations to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The move makes more sense when taken in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). Since the announcement of the MSR by Xi Jinping in 2013, China’s investment in African infrastructure has been substantial as it eyes the mineral, oil, and other resource potential on the continent. While it plays the long game in Africa, building its economic and diplomatic investments, China still needs ready access to Middle Eastern oil and vital Indian Ocean trade routes.

All of this explains China’s interest in Djibouti, but what about the BAM itself? Even with its military presence now solidly established nearby, China is not yet getting involved in the rivalries and conflicts around the BAM. This is deliberate; China’s stance of neutrality means it can continue to cultivate its economic and diplomatic relationships in the Middle East and Africa without alienating one or more partners. Unless Chinese economic or strategic interests are severely threatened, it is doubtful it will take a more overt role in attempting to resolve the underlying causes of regional conflict around the BAM. Even if it were willing to do so, the People’s Liberation Army Navy does not have a history of playing well with others. It recently declined a similar opportunity in the Straits of Hormuz, and it is doubtful it would be able to lead its own coalition any time soon. Most countries are already committed to longstanding partnerships of their own that are not worth breaking for such a venture. If China wanted to secure the BAM via naval control, it would likely have to go it alone, a gargantuan effort with questionable returns.

One of the more plausible naval coalitions that could achieve control of the BAM would be the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Force (CMF). Although it technically already covers the BAM and the Red Sea, traditionally the CMF is more focused on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden. Nevertheless, the CMF has the flexibility, skills, and credibility to take on a greater role in the BAM. But should it?

Say the CMF expanded its activities, secured access to land and littoral areas in Eritrea and Yemen, and actively patrolled the BAM, protecting from threats such as piracy, terrorist attack, or spillover from local conflicts. Depending on how muscular the approach was, such an act could backfire terribly. Fragile Yemen could splinter further, and the move could provide the green light to Houthis looking to aggressively assert their dominance in their own waters. Turkey may take advantage of the chaos to entrench itself further in the region, and while President Erdogan is experienced at working in a complex conflict zone, he is not known for his subtlety in combat. Saudi Arabia would potentially support the U.S., but that support could rapidly fade if it opened it up to further Yemeni attack at a time when it is trying to find a way to back out of its disastrous Yemeni campaign and still save face. Eritrea, Djibouti and other weaker regional states may not have the wherewithal to do much either way, but perceived threats to their sovereignty from U.S.-led military actions in the region could push them further into China’s arms.

Further Options

So what is the answer to securing the BAM? The activities that have worked in the past, such as the suppression of piracy off the Horn of Africa, relied on an overt international naval presence; a big grey ship on the horizon tended to result in a sudden change of plans by would-be pirates. Being able to point to tangible actions with a visible result makes naval intervention a tempting response to further issues around the BAM. Such actions will not be a panacea, nor will their effects last if the navies subsequently withdraw without continued regional capacity-building efforts. But that does not mean a strong naval presence by the U.S. and its partners is pointless. From its first major base beyond its own waters, China will be looking at the lessons learned in the Middle East Region about how Western forces react in volatile situations. Other actors will also be looking at how much of a role the U.S. and its partners take in the BAM, and adjusting their actions accordingly. And Iran does not need a further excuse to fuel regional instability, particularly with Qassem Soleimani no longer acting as a brake on some of the more exuberant parts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

An increased – and increasingly visible – presence by the U.S. and its partners is warranted, leveraging existing partnerships and working with new and inexperienced partners. Activities such as passing exercises, boarding practice, and sailing in company help build regional capability and confidence (or at least keep some of the less professional navies out of trouble). A similar approach is used in the Persian Gulf via the CMF’s Combined Task Force (CTF) 152, but this does not necessarily make it a suitable blueprint. Led by local states for most of the past 10 years, CTF 152 is tasked with regional maritime cooperation between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The fairly straightforward tasks, focused on a mutual enemy (illicit non-state actors), provide a sandpit that regional countries can use to build trust and skills. But trying to get the countries of the Gulf to play together nicely is hard enough; expecting Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia to cooperate in providing regional maritime security (in the unlikely event they all had the resources to do so) is a fantasy.

Instead, a U.S. coalition should take the lead in a more overt naval presence. While China has pursued a carefully crafted and long-term military engagement in Africa (including sales of increasingly sophisticated military equipment), U.S. and like-minded military engagement with the countries surrounding the BAM has been patchy at best. But a stronger U.S.-led presence must be in the context of equally overt diplomatic and economic engagement that builds regional trust, not suspicion. It would be easy otherwise for such efforts to be misinterpreted as neo-colonialism. This risk can be countered, but it requires a concerted diplomatic effort and buy-in from regional states.

In counter-piracy this has come through activities such as the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) initiative and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). These could prove good models for coordinating and supporting naval activity focused on securing the BAM from a range of threats. Whatever takes place, any military activities in the BAM must use existing international norms and laws, reinforcing their validity and acceptance. To shun such norms only gives countries like China more incentive to disregard them elsewhere, such as in the South China Sea, and to continue a dangerous influx of high-tech weaponry in an already volatile region.


The security situation in the BAM does not look like it will be resolved any time soon; indeed, with the multiplying effects of pandemic, economic collapse and plunging oil prices, it is likely to get worse. International naval control of the BAM is possible, but only in coordination with regional states, with diplomatic and economic investment, and respect for international maritime law. Balancing these moving parts will take determination; but the rewards of shaping and influencing the regional approach to the BAM for years to come make it a price that may well be worth paying.

Elizabeth White is a former Australian Defense official. The opinions expressed here are her own.

Featured Image: On May 26, 2002, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) captured this image of sun glint in the Red Sea, between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. (Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)