Tag Archives: land power

Sea Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay, is part of the Personal Theories of Powerseries, a joint Bridge-CIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Air and land power leave monuments to teach us of their authority: from the House of Commons’ bomb-scorched archway to the nation-wide wreckage of the Syrian Civil War. Sea power’s traces are washed away by its namesake — no rubble marking the battle of USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia nor shattered remains of the convoys from the Battle of the Atlantic. The power with which the sea consumes is the same power with which sea power is imbued. Sea power’s force, persistence, and fluidity –the vast opportunities afforded by the sea — create three properties: the gravitational, phantasmal, and kinetic manifestations of its power.

The Fundamental Nature of Sea Power

Sea power is the physical or influencing power projected by independent mobile platforms within a sea. Like the vast waters of the deep oceans, sea power does not “flow” from a source like air power would, nor does it need to “settle” as land power does. The sea is a large and open commons in which a platform can achieve mobile-and-independent semi-permanence. Being “mobile” gets to the core of sea power; it’s an ability to maneuver a semi-permanent threat at sea or anywhere near or touching the sea. Sea power provides a unique mid-point between persistence and mobility.

Airmen prepare to load a Mark 60 CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) anti-submarine mine onto a B-52G Stratofortress. US Navy
Airmen prepare to load a Mark 60 CAPTOR (encapsulated torpedo) anti-submarine mine onto a B-52G Stratofortress.
US Navy

Ordnance merely aimed or fired towards the sea is not sea power. Land-based aircraft dropping sea-mines is not sea power, just as naval gunnery on land targets is not land power, nor flying artillery shells air power. Land, sea, and air power can all be used to combat each other; their powers are not restricted to effects within or through their own medium. Our types of power are the spectrum of capability afforded by nature of one’s presence within a medium.

Sea Power’s Gravity: An Inescapable Weight

Adversarial resources are strongly drawn into defense against sea power’s mobility and potency; in this manner, sea power’s weight, or “gravity”, holds down adversarial actions. Even a weak fleet huddled in port can generate sea power, forcing the enemy to pull resources away from more productive tasks to hold down an adversary’s most mobile threat — it’s fleet.

Take the Spanish-American War, for instance. The Americans had an abiding fear of the mere existence of Spanish sea power and the possibility that it would descend without notice on their coastline, shelling cities and port facilities. Though the Spanish fleet was ultimately wasted in a force-on-force fight, strategists have historically referred to a standing fleet whose purpose is to leverage mere threat as “fleet in being”. Rather than winning through firepower, an in-port “fleet in being” has potent effect on even far-away nations by the potential of their sure potential.

Today it is easier to imagine a mobile “capability in being”, rather than a stationary “fleet in being”. This also leverages the advantages afforded by the sea. The might of this “capability in being” has been illustrated in the past by Allied sea power’s forcing the Nazi’s into building the failed “Atlantic Wall”.

Joerg Karrenbauer Atlantic Wall — no. 3 http://www.karrenbauers.com/atlantic-wall/atlantic-wall-3-wissant-france/


In WWII, sea power afforded the Allies significant advantage, while the Reich’s land power was forced up against the coast to guard every inch of accessible shore of the Atlantic Wall. The Atlantic Wall stretched for hundreds of miles, covering every inch of Reich-held coastline. The scale of preparations and their drain on Nazi resources was enormous, but deemed necessary due to the threat of allied sea power’s mobile capability to penetrate of the continent.

The gravity weighs not only on an adversary’s defenses, but holds down an adversary’s desire to project power. Contrast the case of Taiwan to that of the South China Sea. American sea power has been a guarantor of unimpeded passage in the Pacific since the end of WWII. Taiwan’s existence reflects both the potential and the potency of American sea power, as was demonstrated in the 1996 crisis. However, China’s growing sea power creates space for it to unilaterally declare control of new areas in the South China Sea through ‘salami-slicing’, despite its neighbors’ protests.

Ultimately, sea power is tangible. Its destructive capability is only matched by its potential influence. Sufficient sea power, even hundreds of miles away, has enough gravity to hold down or absorb the resources of the mightiest land or air power. While the adversary of sea power must guard every crack in his armor, a sea power is at liberty to bide time and seek an asymmetry.

The Phantom of Sea Power: Pervasive Uncertainty

Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728) US Navy
Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida (SSGN 728)
US Navy

Sea power’s gravity is complemented by the obfuscation and fluidity allowed by the sea. Armies leave a trail — they transit urban areas, gather supplies from the land, and generally reside where we do. The sea is far more secretive about its residents. Like silent undercurrents, sea power can be hidden from observers, summoning fearful phantoms.

The best modern example of the sea power phantom is the submarine at the 1916 Battle of Jutland. The mightiest fleet on earth could not bring itself to destroy the German fleet for fear of lurking U-boats. This example of sea-denial highlights a greater return than the expenditure of any ordnance.

Today, submarines have become greater tools for generating uncertainty. The submarine’s invisible presence places an adversary under threat of destruction by Tomahawk missile or direct action by inserted special operations forces. Further threat might be generated by the uncertainty of an un-located fleet or the aircraft that could come from anywhere deep enough for a carrier. Sea power has the unique ability to veil-and-move large amounts of force, leveraging fear of devastating capability hidden by the surface or the horizon.

Sea Power’s Kinetics: When Opportunity Knocks

The gravity and phantom of Sea Power is summoned by a credible threat. History speaks for sea power: the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, Pearl Harbor, German unrestricted warfare, British logistics in WWII, island hopping, D-Day, and modern South China Sea bumper boats. In the interest of brevity, we will split sea power’s kinetic abilities into two categories: logistics and violence.


Sea Power’s logistical ability is often the forgotten part of sea power. A British WWI poster highlights this best. “Britain’s Sea Power is Yours” consists not only of a fleet of warships, but an entire horizon of commercial and military supply vessels. The ability to execute and secure seaborne logistics and to use and defend access to the global commons is potent power indeed. The effects of sea power on Malta, from its seizure by Britain during the Napoleonic Wars to its stubborn survival against the mightiest air force in Europe during WWII, serves as a testament to the subtle potency of the physical and logistical components of sea power. This flexible logistics train can either build an offensive opportunity or sustain a force until such opportunity arises.

The purely destructive capacity of sea power has indirectly already been described. Gravity becomes matter, the Allied fleet putting the wedge’s thin edge to the Atlantic Wall. The force feared by the Nazis came to fruition on D-Day. The phantom materializes, as experienced by Allied convoys facing wolf packs in WWII. It starts with the ability to find the point at which the thin end of the massive wedge can be applied; mobile forces deploying their feelers across the open commons. The American dance-and-smash across the Pacific is the best example, as Nimitz “island hopped” around Japanese defenses and two fleets fought for the first time without even seeing one another. Sea power allows forces a degree of sustainability of land forces to wait out an enemy while carrying along the independent payload with a degree of mobility of air power to respond in time to the development of that opportunity.

Sea Power: The Power of Opportunity

When we say “sea” we are using a placeholder for the large-and-open commons in which a platform can achieve mobile-and-independent semi-permanence. We discuss space power, but ships in space could eventually meld into a future sea power narrative. In WWI, one could argue that Zeppelins carrying aircraft could have joined a sea power concept. Rather than limiting oneself to the conventional “sea”, consider where humans have instinctively decided they can put “ships” from the type of freedom and opportunity the medium affords.

Sea power may have neither the total enduring strength of land power nor the mobility of air power — but it has a strategically potent degree of both. This affords it a unique gravity, an ability to generate fear, and a physical footprint unique from other powers. It finds, creates, and exploits opportunities better than any other type. It creates opportunity and suppresses those of adversaries by virtue of its physical capability or its influence upon enemy action. Sea power is the power of opportunity.

Matthew Hipple is an active duty officer in the United States Navy. He is the Director for Online Content at the Center for International Maritime Security, host of the Sea Control podcast, and a writer for USNI’s Proceedings, War on the Rocks, and other forums. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government, he wishes they did.

Land Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Every war, and every belligerent in every war, manifests a distinctive pattern of strategic behaviour among an expanding list of geographical environments. It is true that modern strategy and war registers trends towards ever greater complexity, ever greater ‘jointness’ to offset and exploit that complexity, and in the maturing potency of new modes of combat…It is no less true, however, that land, even ground, warfare has yet to be demoted to an adjunct, auxiliary, or administrative, role vis-à-vis superficially more modern modes and foci of fighting.[i]

In a discussion over the modes of power that are employed to achieve political purpose, the above quote would likely halt all communication before it even started. Some would even immediately engage their cognitive biases and fill their slings with the tried-and-true military service-focused and parochial rhetorical ammunition. The current narratives from the various services can certainly be seen to support such an assertion.

However, while the above quote captures repeated insistence on the importance of land power, the author also indicates that while land power is vital, it is not sufficient, for “In practice, thus far, no single geographical domain suffices as provider of all strategic effect that belligerent states need.”[ii]

So, when a political decision requires a definitive, more enduring answer, land power will likely be the main element of national power employed — there’s a reason the key theorist of war and land power focused on destroying an adversary’s armed forces, occupying his country, and breaking that nation’s will as his three main objectives in war.[iii] Such use of large amounts of men and women in campaigns of physical control are not the only use for land power, however. While it is the only element of national power that can compel through physical dominance (or as some have described in recent posts by quoting Wylie, through a sequential strategy),[iv] land power can also accomplish tasks through three other approaches to the use of force — assurance, deterrence and coercion — to create strategic effect.

Grant and Lee at Appomattox | Tom Lovell

Beyond Physical Control
To Gray, “strategic effect is the [cumulative and sequential] impact of strategic performance on the course of events.”[v] It is the expression of how well a force translates tactical action into political gain; or said another way, how well the effects of military action maintain alliances and/or force an adversary (or adversaries) to change their behavior to match our desires. Given the fact that land power will likely be the element of national power least used to create strategic effect in today’s environment given its high political cost at home and abroad, how does an Army, as the principle manifestation of land power, provide options to assure, deter, and coerce?[vi]

Deterrence and assurance require both credibility and capability. Credibility is created through the perception that force will be used to achieve stated interests. However, without an acknowledged force required to achieve said interests, i.e. the capability, then the threat of its use to deter undesired behavior or assure anxious allies is empty. In the end, an adversary cannot be deterred or an ally assured unless they believe the offending party can be compelled to appropriately change their behavior. While other elements of national power are important to either deterrence or assurance, both require credible and capable land power, the only element of national power that can compel behavior through physical control. The size, capability, proficiency, and posturing of land forces is what provides a credible deterrent and assures allies. As has been shown in recent events in Eastern Europe, the lack of a credible and capable force for deterrence can lead to political adventurism by adversarial entities and a failure to assure allies in a region.

Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade and a Polish paratrooper unit attend a welcome ceremony | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade and a Polish paratrooper unit attend a welcome ceremony | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Coercion is used to impel adversary behavior by shaping choices, either by punishment or denial; both utilize physical and psychological factors. Coercion by punishment is accomplished by damaging or destroying adversary capabilities required to achieve their interests, such as destroying naval assets that are being used in a blockade. Coercion by denial is using force to prevent the adversary from accessing the resources or territory required to accomplish their goals. Land power largely utilizes coercion by denial, such as placing American troops in a threatened country to significantly raise the costs of any action by an adversary. This also provides a degree of assurance for that partner nation. A recent example is the deployment of U.S. troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The use of these three approaches to force — deterrence, assurance, and coercion — can be seen as largely an attempt to control the choices of an adversary through the threat of force or limited use of violence. In Wylie-speak, since he is in vogue throughout these blog posts, the threat of force or limited use of violence by land forces in this manner reduces the adversary’s choices through a sequential strategy, ideally creating “implications of certainty of the end” through “its persistent exercise…typically steadily reduce the number of viable options open to the enemy.”[vii]

Land Force Considerations Outside of Physical Control
Using land forces to deter, assure and coerce in today’s strategic environment will require three core elements:

1) The use of smaller, tailorable elements of the Army to accomplish strategic objectives. From a Special Forces detachment supporting a partner nation through foreign internal defense to a battalion task force taking part in a multinational exercise to strengthen NATO, Army forces must be prepared to train, equip, deploy, employ and sustain smaller packages of forces around the world. However, these elements must also be able to tap into larger regionally-focused/based forces to provide flexible options and scale up to conduct operations that provide denial by punishment, or compellence when necessary. The ability to disaggregate for cumulative operations must be matched with the ability to re-aggregate into larger formations — up to Division- and Corps-level — to conduct the combined arms operations required in ground combat across the range of military operations.[viii]

A launch of the Patriot air and missile defense system | Dan Plumpton.
A launch of the Patriot air and missile defense system | Dan Plumpton.

2) A better balance of combat and enabling capabilities. While the application of land power is largely seen through the action of combat elements, so called “tail” elements are as important, if not more so, to military forces. Even Clausewitz, who purposefully excluded logistics discussions in his magnum opus due to his focus on the fighting itself and its use as a political instrument, recognized that “The provisioning of troops, no matter how it is done…always presents such difficulty that it must have a decisive influence on the choice of operations.”[ix] The U.S. Army post-WWII has largely diminished the importance of its enabling capabilities — everything from transportation to engineers to missile defense to logistics — in favor of the “tooth” resident in its combat formations, even to the point of contracting out significant portions of the enabling functions; this in spite of the frequent acknowledgement of the importance of logistics in war.[x] The Army must create a better balance between combat units to those that project, set, protect, and sustain a theater.

3) Assigning dedicated Army forces to geographic combatant commands and posturing those forces forward. Supporting the two elements above, land forces should be more permanently provided to those that use them in theatre. The value of Army forces is not that they can be made expeditionary, but that they can provide quick and enduring force when properly postured in theater. These elements can be used to conduct any and all of the three uses of force, in addition to be present when compellence, or a sequential strategy, is required.

In discussions of military power today there is much elaboration upon of the loss of “overmatch capability”. This term is largely meant in terms of the decreasing technological gap between the U.S. and its likely adversaries, from non-state actors with anti-acess/area-denial capabilities to near-peer states with air and sea platforms that look suspiciously like our own technology still in production. Another aspect of overmatch is how presciently forces are postured and organized to prevent conflict through the assurance of allies or the deterrence or coercion of adversaries — or to be used to compel an enemy, if necessary. A decrease in overmatch from this aspect creates risk that our military will not be able to achieve the missions the U.S. requires of it. While we must mitigate risk across all domains, risk to the land domain is the most deadly. For, “Military success in land warfare can have a decisiveness unmatchable by success in the other geographies. If a state loses on land, it loses the war.”[xi]

Nathan K. Finney is a U.S. Army officer and a member of the Infinity Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board.  He has written on issues that involve strategy, building partner capacity, security sector reform, security force assistance, stability operations, and the integration of civilian and military agencies.  He holds a Masters in Public Administration from both Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.

[i] Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 165.

[ii] Colin S Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations (London: Routledge, 2007), 316.

[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (New York: Alfrec A. Knopf, 1993), 102.

[iv] For example, see Rich Ganske’s use of Wylie as quoted by Lukas Milevski: “[A] sequential strategy would utilize the ability of force to take and protect” found in Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 229.

[v] Gray, Modern Strategy, 19. The “cumulative and sequential” was added to the definition in Gray, Strategy Bridge, 18.

[vi] Elements of this strategic environment are not unique, of course, nor are its impact on the use of land power. For example, Clausewitz acknowledged the facts of limited war in his 10 July 1827 note and Corbett recognized land power was often ill-suited for limited warfare because of its inherent threat to the territorial imperative in his Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.

[vii] Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 35:2, 2012, 233.

[viii] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting, RAND, 2011, 173, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/RAND_MG1085.pdf, accessed 20 May 2014.

[ix] Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Hans W. Gatzke, The Principles of War (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 1942), http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Principles/, accessed on 24 May 2014.

[x] For example, see Martin van Creveld’s Supplying War, John Lynn’s Feeding Mars and Benjamin Bacon’s Sinews of War.

[xi] Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 313.