Tag Archives: Maritime Strategy

Asymmetric Naval Strategies: Overcoming Power Imbalances to Contest Sea Control

By Alex Crosby

According to Julian Corbett, “[T]he object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.”1 However, naval warfare innately favors stronger naval powers in their pursuit of command of the sea. This institutional bias can drive weaker naval powers to act in less traditional manners, with the effects bordering on dangerously destabilizing to the involved security environment. Likewise, weaker naval powers can become increasingly receptive to the establishment of innovative and unique options to achieve the relative parity necessary for contesting command of the sea.

First, weaker naval powers can use asymmetric naval warfare in the form of devastating technologies and surprise shifts in strategy. Second, weaker naval powers can leverage coalitions to increase relative combat power and threaten secondary theaters to diffuse the adversary’s combat power. Finally, weaker naval powers can inflict cumulative attrition along distant sea lines of communication. These options, singularly or together, can enable a weaker naval power to contest command of the sea against a stronger naval power.

Asymmetric Naval Warfare

A weaker naval power can use asymmetric naval warfare to contest the command of the sea through the integration of devastating technologies. For example, during the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese leveraged two unique warfighting capabilities to undermine relative Russian naval superiority. First, the Japanese Navy used naval mines to offensively damage or destroy Russian ships attempting to leave Port Arthur.2, 3 Additionally, the placement of mines provided a means of sea denial, allowing Japanese ships to contest and control the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula with limited demand for direct naval engagements.

Second, the Japanese Navy used destroyers armed with torpedoes in close-proximity attacks on the Russian battleships of Port Arthur.4 This asymmetric employment of small naval assets with lethal firepower proved to be a devastating surprise against Russian ships expecting significant force-on-force engagements. This technology combination, mines and torpedo-equipped destroyers, is an example of how a relatively weaker naval force can contest command of the sea, especially in littoral waters.

Another means of asymmetric warfare that a weaker naval power can leverage for contesting command of the sea is a surprise shift in strategy. An example of this is the strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare focused on commerce targets that the German Navy used during the early stages of the Second World War. Early in the conflict, Germany identified the sea lines of communication crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the United States as critical for continued Allied efforts in the European and North African theaters.5 Germany concentrated its well-trained and disciplined submarine force and associated combat power into wolf packs to target this vulnerability. The primary objective of these wolf packs was to attrit as much tonnage of Allied shipping as possible, with the desired effect of exceeding the rate at which the Allies could replace their respective shipping fleets.6, 7 Germany was able to have significant successes during the early stages of the war, particularly by focusing these wolf packs off the east coast of the United States. This placement and intensity of submarine forces instilled a corresponding fear into the American populace and directly contested command of the sea.8, 9

In the early period of the war, the German strategy was definitively effective against the desired target set. Thus, a strategy such as unrestricted submarine warfare can be particularly useful in contesting command of the sea when the adversary is unsensitized to that type of warfare and remains slow in implementing tactics or technology necessary for countering.10 Asymmetric naval warfare, either through the employment of devastating technologies or the employment of surprise strategies, has the potential to be a force multiplier for weaker naval powers in contesting command of the sea.

Leveraging Coalitions

A weaker naval power can further contest command of the sea by leveraging coalitions, mainly through the increase of combat power parity to surpass that of an adversary’s superior naval strength. During the Peloponnesian War, Sparta represented a predominantly land-centric power compared to the naval-centric Athens in a conflict dominated by the maritime domain. Assessing its accurate position as the weaker naval power, Sparta sought allies that possessed naval strength to increase the combined power of the Peloponnesian League to contest Athens’s claim on command of the sea.11 Additionally, Sparta leveraged the Persian willingness to export naval capabilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic trades further to increase the naval strength of the Peloponnesian League.12 The Spartan increase in maritime power through a combination of direct and indirect coalitions had the additional effect of instilling strategic paranoia in Athenian leadership. This fear of Sparta, and more specifically the fear of Sicilian states joining the Peloponnesian League, caused Athens to overextend its naval power for a resource-draining expedition.13 The alignment of combined naval strength against the Delian League ultimately proved decisive for turning the tide of the Peloponnesian War in favor of the Spartan-led coalition.

A weaker naval power can also leverage coalitions, and the increase in combined naval power, to threaten a stronger adversary in secondary theaters and diffuse their combat power to more manageable levels. The American Revolution is an example of this situation, where the American colonies gained the critical maritime support of France. This coalition represented relative combined naval power that exceeded that of the British Navy and continued to increase throughout the remainder of the war.14, 15 Additionally, the France’s colonial garrison forces and associated sea lines of communication in proximity to British global equities diffused British naval power to relatively weaker concentrations.16 This reduction in the British Navy’s ability to mass combat power was further compounded with France’s entry into the conflict. The threat posed by France spurred Britain to allocate significant naval power for the defense of the British Isles from invasion, altering the primary strategic objective of the entire war.17, 18 The combined effort of France and the Thirteen Colonies displayed the importance of several weaker naval powers forming a coalition against a stronger naval power and the strategic dilemma it can manifest for an overextended adversary.

Inflicting Cumulative Attrition Along Distant Sea Lines of Communication

Finally, a weaker naval power can contest command of the sea by inflicting cumulative attrition along distant sea lines of communication. During the Second World War, the Japanese Navy identified the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean as a critical operation factor that presented several advantages to achieving command of the sea. The tyranny of distance associated with any sea lines of communication required by a transiting American force would be vulnerable to Japanese exploitation. Specifically, Japan planned for the expected significant quantities of merchant shipping to be a central target set of its strategy for degrading American naval power to more manageable levels.19 Additionally, the extreme distances of the Pacific Ocean would, at least in the initial stages of the conflict, prevent the American Pacific Fleet from massing to its maximum combat potential. Based on the detriments the distances would inflict on American naval operations, the Japanese aimed to inflict cumulative attrition with a defined strategy.

The Japanese Navy implemented a wait-and-react strategy, which was planned to involve a series of naval engagements far from Japanese centers of gravity to attrite the American Pacific Fleet.20 In addition to these minor naval engagements, the wait-and-react strategy relied upon the garrisoning of island strongholds. These strongholds would allow the concentration of air and naval offensive combat power to attrite a westward-moving American naval force further. The projection of Japanese combat power would have directly threatened the massing of American naval strength, both of warships and the associated merchant shipping.21 Through this added attrition of sea lines of communication, the American naval power was intended to have been decreased to matching or weaker status than the Japanese Navy. This risk reduction would then have enabled a decisive fleet-on-fleet engagement, allowing Japan to gain command of the sea.22 Despite the distances of the Pacific Ocean and its status as a relatively weaker naval power, the Japanese Navy formulated a strategy with the potential to inflict enough cumulative attrition for decisive effects.

An Argument For Joint Force Integration

Some might argue that a better option for a weaker naval power to contest command of the sea would be the integration of the joint force against the threats posed by a stronger naval power. Julian Corbett in particular proclaimed the value of joint integration to achieve maritime objectives such as contesting command of the sea.23 The coordination of joint firepower is critical to mass enough effects to contend with a stronger naval power, which is especially pertinent with the introduction of modern technology.24

Additionally, the influence of devastating offensive firepower, including over the horizon targeting capabilities, validates the insufficiency of mono-domain action from the sea. The combination of a multi-domain aggregation of firepower is a near necessity for a weaker naval power to have any legitimate chance at contesting command of the sea.25


Joint operations, while important in a general sense, and critical for first rate navies, are not the best option for weaker powers to contest command of the sea. Joint operations are resource-intensive and could prove more burdensome than helpful for a weaker naval power. Additionally, joint interoperability would likely be nonetheless reliant on the previous factors of asymmetric naval warfare, coalition leveraging, and attrition of distance sea lines of communication in order to be effective. Conversely, joint interoperability is not a prerequisite for those different factors. Asymmetric naval warfare can be conducted regardless of a joint force in a variety of ways, especially when possessing devastating technologies and employing surprise shifts in strategy that undermine an adversary’s understanding of the maritime environment.

Coalitions can be leveraged to increase relative combat power and threaten an adversary’s secondary theaters without the demand of a joint force. Distant sea lines of communication can be harassed and attacked to inflict cumulative attrition absent a joint force. Even a small, unique advantage has the benefiting possibility of supporting the instillment of innovation and growth towards multilateralism, all caused by existential concerns with the maritime domain.

Ultimately, a weaker naval power has a multitude of options when it comes to contesting command of the sea against a stronger naval power without needed to rely on joint operations. 

Lieutenant Commander Alex Crosby, an active duty naval intelligence officer, began his career as a surface warfare officer. His assignments have included the USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), U.S. Seventh Fleet, and the Office of Naval Intelligence, with multiple deployments supporting naval expeditionary and special warfare commands. He is a Maritime Advanced Warfighting School graduate and an Intelligence Operations Warfare Tactics Instructor. He has masters’ degrees from the American Military University and the Naval War College.


1. Corbett, Julian S. “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.” London: Longman, Green, 1911. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, reprint, 1988. 62.

2. Mahan, Alfred Thayer. “Retrospect upon the War between Japan and Russia.” In Naval Administration and Warfare. Boston: Little, Brown, 1918. 147 

3. Evans, David C. and Mark R. Peattie. “Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941”, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997. 101.

4. Corbett, “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,” 149.

5. Matloff, Maurice. “Allied Strategy in Europe, 1939-1945.” In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Peter Paret, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. 679.

6. Murray, Williamson and Alan R. Millett. A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 236.

7. Baer, George W. “One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990”. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. 192.

8. Ibid., 194.

9. Cohen, Eliot A. and John Gooch. Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. Paperback edition. New York: Free Press, 2006. 61-62.

10. Murray and Millett, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War, 250-251.

11. Strassler, Robert B., ed. The Landmark Thucydides. New York: The Free Press, 1996. 1.121.2.

12. Nash, John. “Sea Power in the Peloponnesian War.” Naval War College Review, vol. 71, no.1 (Winter 2018). 129.

13. Strassler, ed. “The Landmark Thucydides,” 6.11.

14. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, 505.

15. O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 343.

16. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, 520.

17. O’Shaughnessy, “The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire,” 14.

18. Mackesy, Piers. “British Strategy in the War of American Independence.” Yale Review, vol. 52 (1963). 555.

19. James, D. Clayton. “American and Japanese Strategies in the Pacific War.” In Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Peter Paret, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. 717.

20. Evans, David C. and Mark R. Peattie. Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997. 464.

21. Lee, Bradford A. “A Pivotal Campaign in a Peripheral Theatre: Guadalcanal and World War II in the Pacific.” In Naval Power and Expeditionary Warfare: Peripheral Campaigns and New Theatres of Naval Warfare. Bruce A. Elleman and S. C. M. Paine, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2011. 84-85.

22. Evans and Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, 464.

23. Corbett, “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy,” 15. 

24. Corbett, Julian S. “Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905”. Vol. 2. Annapolis and Newport: Naval Institute Press and Naval War College Press, 1994. 382.

25. Evans and Peattie, Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, 484.

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (April 22, 2023) – F/A-18F Super Hornets from the “Mighty Shrikes” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 94 fly in formation above the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). (U.S. Navy photo)

A Tale of Two Seas: The Caribbean and South China Sea in Great Power Perspective

By Akshat Patel

The South China Sea is to China as the Caribbean Sea is to the United States. Just as the United States repeatedly thwarted European powers from the Caribbean throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China intends to thwart an American presence in the South China Sea in this century.1 In 1962, the ambitions of two superpowers reached a crescendo in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Along the same lines, the ambitions of two of today’s great powers are resulting in skirmishes across the South China Sea. In the same way that the clash in the Caribbean was a deciding factor in who the victor of the Cold War would be, American maritime superiority will be decided in large part by who the reigning power in the South China Sea will be.

The parallels between Soviet-U.S. relations vis-à-vis the Caribbean and China-U.S. relations vis-à-vis the South China Sea are as striking as they are instructive. The Red Navy’s mistakes in its transatlantic ventures serve as salutary course corrections for the U.S. Navy’s transpacific undertakings today.

Then, as Now

By the twentieth century, the United States had established itself as the dominant power in the Americas. Politically stable and economically vibrant, the United States overshadowed the smaller republics of the Caribbean. Blessed with two adjacent oceans and two peaceful neighbors, the United States was virtually immune to a land-based invasion. The only way for a foreign power to establish a foothold in the American hemisphere was through the Caribbean. While “the Caribbean was the natural maritime extension of the continental United States, it was also the part of America’s security environment most vulnerable to European attack,” notes Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.2

In October of 1962, the Soviet Union attempted to exploit this potential American vulnerability through Cuba. The Soviets wanted to establish a naval base and station land-based nuclear missiles on the island nation. President Kennedy ordered an embargo around Cuba to expunge Soviet ambitions from the Caribbean and compelled Khrushchev to blink in the ultimate staring contest. In exchange for withdrawing nuclear missiles from Cuba, the Soviets extracted a public promise to not invade Cuba and a private promise to withdraw American nuclear missiles from Turkey.3 Both sides avoided direct conflict by reaching an agreement that neither desired. The Soviets surrendered their Caribbean aspirations and the United States surrendered its Cuban advances. 

China enjoys many of the same benefits of geography as the United States. Surrounded by natural barriers to aggression such as frigid Siberia, the Gobi Desert, the impenetrable Himalayas, and the lush forests of Vietnam and Laos, China is largely shielded from terrestrial attack. Just like the United States, China’s vulnerability is to the southeast. Not only do most Chinese live near the coast, but the South China Sea serves as their primary economic lifeline.4 The straits of Malacca, Makassar, Sunda, and Luzon all pour into the South China Basin and control both China’s energy supplies from the Middle East and its exports to the West.5 Just as the Caribbean is littered with small island nations eclipsed by a colossal United States, the South China Sea is peppered with littoral states over which China casts a large shadow.

The fallout over control of an American sea of 1.5 million square miles foreshadowed the rest of that great-power competition – the Cold War. Similarly, the contest for an Asian sea of comparable proportions will act as a bellwether for the great-power competition taking place today. Five claimants occupy almost 70 different atolls and have built more than 90 different outposts in the South China Sea.6 With 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands, 7 in the Spratly Islands, and 3,200 acres of newly constructed land, China is by far the most aggressive player in the area.7 Malaysian, Philippine, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese maritime claims have been brushed to the wayside while China charges forward to secure its “blue national soil.”8 China is aware of its vulnerability to the southeast and stands to gain immensely by shielding against it. By turning the South China Sea into a Chinese enclave, Beijing would not only safeguard the lives and livelihood of its citizens, but would also create a strategic disadvantage for the United States. The South China Sea is a conduit linking the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and Chinese control of that critical juncture would jeopardize American maritime dominance. Lucrative global trade routes would cease to be international common grounds and the redoubts of allied nations would fall under a Chinese penumbra. American merchants would be subject to harassment by the Chinese coast guard and the U.S. Navy would no longer be able to crisscross the Indo-Pacific theater with impunity.

To circumvent China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea, American naval policy is rightly learning from Soviet efforts. By maintaining naval bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam while simultaneously encouraging a naval buildup in Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, the United States is building a multilateral coalition to check Chinese forays into the Pacific.9 As the Soviet Union attempted to tamp down American influence in the Americas through Cuba, the United States is curbing Chinese influence in Asia through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations.

Empowering the Right Platform

When Che Guevara expressed concern at the Soviet gambit in the Caribbean, Soviet Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky replied, “There will be no big reaction from the U.S. side.”10 The Soviet defense minister expected little retaliation from the United States because, as he viewed it, he was exercising soft power by bringing Cuba into the fold. As the term “Cold War” reminds us, neither side was ever interested in a full-fledged, direct, violent conflict; instead, the Cold War was a great-power competition in which both sides tried to undermine the other through maximum power projection while suffering minimal losses. To project this power, the Soviets wanted to permanently station an entire fleet in the Caribbean: two cruisers, four destroyers, eleven diesel electric submarines, and two submarine tenders.11 But, at the last minute, the Soviets changed their plans. Instead, they sent forth four covert Foxtrot-class diesel submarines as the vanguard of the Red Fleet.12

The reigning Soviet naval doctrine prioritized submarines over surface ships. In 1956, Khrushchev stated that “submarines were the most suitable naval weapon and they would receive emphasis in the future development of the Soviet Navy.”13 As a result, new construction of major surface vessels was virtually terminated under his premiership.14 According to a 2017 CIA analysis of the Soviet Navy, “Khrushchev declared surface naval forces…no longer useful and predicted they would soon become obsolete.”15 Motivated by advances in technology, the Soviets wanted to reduce overall military manpower and costs by replacing a large surface fleet with a more effective, smaller submarine fleet.16 In other words, they prioritized a denser more capable force over a more numerous, less capable one.

By attempting a transatlantic overture to the Caribbean, the Soviets made the right geopolitical decision. By sending submarines, they made the wrong tactical decision. Submarines are mobile, undersea intelligence gatherers packed with brutish lethality. They are about “sheer aggression,” not power projection.17 They are best suited to spy and wreak havoc, not as conspicuous icons of power. By deploying covert submarines to the Caribbean, the Soviets were guaranteed to alarm Americans and provoke a strong response. President Kennedy ordered a maximum Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) effort to track and surface the submarines.18 The Soviets were not harmlessly posturing by deploying submarines within sailing distance of Florida while simultaneously stationing land based nuclear missiles at America’s doorstep. They were committing an act of belligerence that the Unites States met with force. The Atlantic Fleet mobilized to detect and ferret out the furtive aggressors. As Defense Minister Malinovsky’s comment suggests, the bold step to Cuba was never supposed to culminate into the hair-raising crisis that it did. His intention was to assert Soviet dominance without causing an international scene. This is exactly the United States’ objective in the South China Sea today.

To maintain American primacy in the South China Sea, Chinese maritime ambitions must be curtailed without devolving into the grand standoff that occurred in the Caribbean. Submarines should not be the U.S. Navy’s primary tools in this great-power competition. Because of the raw aggression that submarines communicate, they are ill-suited for missions that display military power and best suited for missions that exercise military power. The surface fleet’s strengths are altogether opposite.

Aircraft carriers, simultaneously symbols of national power and of national prestige, are excellent tools for communicating power, but a ruinously costly platform to lose.19 Losing a symbol of national pride would deal irreparable damage to the national psyche. The U.S. Navy must look to its destroyers and cruisers as the primary combatants of this great-power competition. While not as awe-inspiring as an aircraft carrier, they are still an excellent form of communication. The U.S. Navy has rightly increased destroyer and cruiser freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, and it must continue this upward trajectory.20 By regularly challenging expansive Chinese claims, Washington must continue to signal Beijing that the South China Sea is not a Chinese lake. Frequent FONOPs through contested sea lanes go much farther in projecting maritime strength, communicating intentions, and deterring aggression than stealthy submarine deployments. To do this effectively, and not repeat Soviet mistakes, the United States needs a larger surface fleet.

The battle of ‘capability vs. numbers’ is a perennial struggle that has haunted the minds of American naval policy wonks for decades. Examined holistically, there is a clear winner. “The trend towards fewer, more capable ships is both unarguable and . . . inexorable,” notes Admiral John Ellis, former Commander of United States Strategic Command.21 Over the past twenty-five years, the number of ships in the U.S. Navy has decreased by nearly half while the demands placed on the American fleet remain the same.22 “Today, that means twice the percentage of the fleet is deployed than was at the height of the Cold War,” notes ex-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead.23 At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office recently determined that the Navy is only able to fulfill 60 percent of deployments requested by combatant commanders.24 In short, at some point, numbers do matter. Simple math dictates that if the U.S. Navy has fewer ships, either they need to be deployed more often or they must be asked to execute fewer missions. The Navy must stem its unrelenting pursuit of a leaner, cutting-edge fleet. Naval budgeteers must be willing to substitute a pricey aircraft carrier for a dozen more destroyers or cruisers. Vulnerable aircraft-carriers and stealthy submarines will not be the heroes that secure American maritime superiority, it will be destroyers and cruisers.

Together, not Alone

The Cuban missile crisis of 58 years ago stands as the most studied event of the nuclear era—so much so that there are essays about why we should stop writing essays about it.25 Yet, until fall 2002, American national security experts were not aware that the four Foxtrot-class diesel submarines deployed to Cuba had been armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes.26 The CIA’s four intelligence reports on Soviet arms buildup leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis categorically ruled out the presence of nuclear weapons in the Caribbean.27 Instead of preparing Americans for the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, intelligence reports based on complacent assumptions made the discovery of this fact all the more shocking. In short, the Soviet Union caught the United States flat-footed.

Handicapped by the technology of the time and oblivious to the presence of tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. Navy decided to release a Notice to Mariners (NTM) detailing how depth charges would be used to peacefully signal the submarines to surface. Moscow never sent an acknowledgement of receiving the NTM.29 Upon detecting the nuclear torpedo laden B-59, American naval forces started dropping depth charges in accordance with the NTM. Unaware of American intentions, suffering from inhospitable conditions and agitated by the subsurface explosions, Captain Savitsky gave the order to ready the nuclear torpedo: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”30 It is because cooler heads prevailed on the B-59 that day that the Caribbean was not subject to a nuclear explosion. Second Captain Vasily Arkhipov overruled Captain Savitsky and prevented the opening shot of a nuclear war.

Now as then, complacency continues to surprise and compel the United States into ad hoc, reactive measures. In 2012, both China and the Philippines swarmed a collection of rocks and reefs known as Scarborough Shoal. Up until then, both countries claimed the Shoal as theirs, but it was under de facto Philippine control. 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese land mass and 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, the Scarborough Shoal episode exemplifies China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.31 To mediate their dispute, the United States hastily brokered a bilateral agreement for both sides to retreat and, in effect, return control to the Philippines. Only one side held to its word. China used the agreement to deceive the Philippines into retreating while maintaining its presence. Without American reprisal or condemnation, China has since then controlled Scarborough Shoal.

The United States must not let the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) bully China’s neighbors. Unlike Khrushchev’s about-face with Castro, the United States must stand steadfast beside its allies. Despite increased FONOPs in the South China Sea, a recent public opinion poll of ASEAN citizens indicated that almost two-thirds of respondents believed U.S. engagement with ASEAN nations had declined. Another one-third said they had little to no confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner and provider of regional security.32 The United States must reaffirm its commitment to the South China region through military sales, combined exercises, and economic empowerment. It is much harder to reverse a change in the status quo than to maintain it through deterrence. By turning the cause of American maritime dominance into a multilateral quest, China’s unilateral offensives will be rendered moot. 

One More Time

The Soviet Union was not defeated through armed conflict; it was defeated through persistent coercion. As the United States negotiates its presence in the South China Sea, and by extension its maritime dominance, it must rely on the same strategy that overwhelmed the Soviet Union while not resurrecting Soviet mistakes. The Soviet decision to forsake their surface fleet and their allies precipitated their withdrawal from the Caribbean, which in turn forecasted their global retreat and eventual downfall. The United States must simultaneously lean on its surface fleet and its ASEAN allies to maintain its position as the bailiff of the world’s saltwater commons.

Sun Tzu pithily remarked that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. We have done it once before, now we must do it again.

LT Akshat Patel is a Submarine Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense. 


1. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (W. W. Norton, New York, 2001), 401.

2. Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2015), 278.

3. Noam Chomsky, “Cuban Missile Crisis: How the US Played Russian Roulette with Nuclear War,” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, October 15, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/15/cuban-missile-crisis-russian-roulette.

4. George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 2009), 153.

5. Ibid.

6. “Occupation and Island Building,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic and International Studies), accessed April 25, 2020, https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/

7. “China Island Tracker,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic and International Studies), accessed April 25, 2020, https://amti.csis.org/island-tracker/china/

8. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 60.

9. Ibid., 75.

10. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:2 (April 2005): 236, doi: 10.1080/01402390500088312.

11. Raymond Garthoff, “New Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev, Nuclear Weapons, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cold War International History Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998): 253.

12. Ryurik A Ketov, Captain 1st Rank, Russian Navy (retired), “The Cuban Missile Crisis as Seen Through a Periscope,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:2 (April 2005): 218, doi: 10.1080/01402390500088304.

13. Soviet Navy: Intelligence and Analysis During the Cold War (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017), 12.

14. Ibid., 7.

15. Ibid., 12.

16. Ibid., 8.

17. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 71.

18. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 249.

19. “Aircraft-carriers are big, expensive, vulnerable – and popular,” The Economist, November 2019; Jeff Vandenengel, “Too Big to Sink,” Proceedings, May 2017.

20. Zack Cooper et al. “America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations Are Lost at Sea,” Foreign Policy, January 2019.

21. James O. Ellis, Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired), “Rightsize the Navy,” Hoover Digest (Summer 2018): 49.

22. Gary Roughead, Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired), “A Stretched Navy and A Fiscal Disconnect” Strategika 47 (January 2018).

23. Ibid.

24. Ellis, “Rightsize the Navy,” 51.

25. Eliot A. Cohen, “Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Interest, Winter 1985/86.

26. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

27. Amy B. Zegart, “October Surprises,” Hoover Digest (Fall 2013): 50.

28. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 249.

29. Ibid., 250.

30. Ibid., 246.

31. Gordon G. Chang, “A China Policy That Works – For America” Strategika 41 (May 2017).

32. Jack Kim et al. “Southeast Asia wary of China’s Belt and Road project, skeptical of U.S.: survey,” last modified January 6, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asean-singapore-idUSKCN1P00GP.

Featured Image: A P2V Neptune U.S. patrol plane flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

There Are No Strategic Chokepoints

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Captain Jamie McGrath, USN (ret.)

Keys to the World

Naval theorist Milan Vego opens a chapter on chokepoint control with a quote from British Admiral Sir John Fisher, who stated that there are “five keys to the world. The Strait of Dover, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Malacca, and the Cape of Good Hope. And every one one of these keys we hold.”1 Fisher spoke from an Anglo-centric view, but his point is evident that control of key chokepoints equated to control of national strategic interests. But a century later, with the technological advances in weapons and sensors, and the interconnectedness of the global economy, can such a claim be made today?

There are over 100 straits where international interest in the free flow of trade transcends the interests of the nearby littoral states. Not all of these maritime chokepoints are of equal importance. 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?

Perhaps the strategic value of any given chokepoint is overstated because the ability to truly “control” these chokepoints is significantly degraded in the current maritime threat environment. The focus should instead be placed on strategic seas, and not the connectors between them.

Strategic Versus Operational Significance

Before scuttling the idea of strategic straits, there should be a common understanding of the difference between the strategic and operational importance of maritime geography. Maritime strategy is the science and art of using all naval and non-naval sources of power at sea in support of the national military strategy, with military strategy being “the art and science of using or threatening to use military power to accomplish the political interests of a nation…”2 The 2018 National Defense Strategy calls for:

“A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order. Collectively, our force posture, alliance, and partnership architecture, and Department modernization will provide the capabilities and agility required to prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.”3

The focus on lethality, resilience, and lethality within an alliance and partnership architecture, combined with “lethal, agile, and resilient force posture and employment,”4 and “a global strategic environment [which] demands increased strategic flexibility and freedom of action,”5 indicate that fixed geographic positions like chokepoints have reduced strategic relevance in U.S. strategy.

Naval operations are defined as the “theory and practice of planning, preparing, and executing major naval operations aimed at accomplishing operational objectives.”6 While operational objectives are chosen to achieve strategic ends, there often are multiple operational options to a support strategy. The operational value of a chokepoint tends to be temporal and depends on the other operational factors of time, space, and force of the particular operation. A chokepoint with high operational value may have limited or no strategic value if other options exist to achieve the national political objectives.

Traditional Methods of Sea Control

The control of chokepoints has long been a primary way to control access to a given body of water. Revisiting Fisher’s assertion that there were five keys to the world, control of key straits meant control of the flow of global maritime traffic and, therefore, the strategic interest of most maritime nations. Warships and merchantmen during the age of sail depended on the prevailing winds for reliable propulsion and shore bases for routine resupply. These trade winds and shore bases funneled ships through specific shipping lanes, many of which transited the key chokepoints Fisher identified. Since transit of these chokepoints was essential, controlling them guaranteed control of merchant shipping and warship movement.

The emergence of steam propulsion removed reliance on the trade winds, but increased dependence on the shore bases that had been established in the age of sail, which were starting to serve as coaling stations. Thus, in Admiral Fisher’s time, his assertion was correct. But since World War II, dependence on shore basing for resupply has diminished. The U.S. Navy perfected at-sea replenishment during World War II, and merchantmen have significantly increased their unrefueled range, both of which reduced the reliance on shore stations and subsequent dependence on specific shipping lanes.

Chokepoints simplify several operational and tactical aspects of naval warfare by concentrating forces. This, in turn, limits the challenges of scouting and screening, because less sea space must be scouted and screened. The avenues of approach to the chokepoint are limited, so the party that controls the chokepoint can concentrate forces or make better use of limited forces available.

Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s defeat of Russia’s Second Pacific Squadron at the Tsushima Strait demonstrates how chokepoints simplify scouting. Togo did not know when the Russian fleet would arrive, nor did he wish to search for it in the open ocean. But he did know that the Russian fleet had to pass through the Tsushima Strait to reach its base at Vladivostok. This allowed Togo to concentrate his scouting force of cruisers in the strait and consolidate his battle line inside the Sea of Japan. But what if the Russians had entered the Sea of Japan through the La Pérouse Strait, Tsugaru Strait, or Strait of Tartary? In the 1890s, the limitations of coal-fired steam plants meant that traveling the extra 1000 or more miles without a coaling station made the Tsushima Strait the only choice. Today, however, at-sea logistics provide naval forces greater flexibility in entering strategic seas.

Changing Military Value of Chokepoints

Historically, chokepoints held strategic military value partly because they forced ships to transit within range of the weapons and sensors posted there, and made movements more predictable. Into the second decade of the twentieth century, optical sensors and coastal guns limited that range to or just beyond the horizon. Technological advances over the intervening century expanded that range immensely. First, aircraft extended scouting range, then, as aircraft improved, expanded the striking range of weapons well beyond the chokepoint’s horizon. The introduction of radar further enhanced scouting and early-warning capabilities, and space-based surveillance now allows for the searching of vast ocean areas independent of geographic chokepoints. The missile age added over-the-horizon, ship-killing weapons, with anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) marking the ultimate long-range strike capability.

Holding a chokepoint serves two fundamental purposes, one rooted in sea control and the other in sea denial. The sea denial case, often a strategy of the weaker navy, holds that by controlling the chokepoint, an adversary cannot access the seas on its opposite side. As Vego points out, this is often part of a larger, major defensive joint/combined operation and maybe one of several elements of a national defensive strategy to either bottle up an opponent’s naval force in its own narrow seas, or prevent an opponent’s naval force from entering a narrow sea where it could threaten the defending nation’s territory.7 In the sea control case, control of the chokepoint theoretically allows one to use their naval forces at the time and manner of their choosing within the chokepoint and in the seas controlled by the strait. That is to say, if a nation controls a chokepoint, naval forces and maritime trade can pass through that chokepoint freely at the discretion of the nation that controls it.8

In the current maritime threat environment, controlling the land and water in the vicinity of the chokepoint no longer represents the exclusive manner to control it. The focus on strategic chokepoints may have held when the range of weapons was barely over the horizon, but today an adversary no longer has to control the geographic entrance to strategically important seas to deny their use. Space-based sensors and long-range missile firepower allow an adversary to effectively close, or at least threaten closure of, geographic chokepoints without the traditional need to hold the immediate surrounding land or seas. “Holding” a geographic chokepoint no longer guarantees the use of the seas on either side, nor does it ensure safe passage through the chokepoint itself. Therefore, the U.S. Navy would be better served to focus more broadly on its ability to control or deny strategic seas than the strategic chokepoints of ages past.

Changing Economic Value of Chokepoints

Another element that gives a chokepoint strategic value is the volume of trade transiting the strait. Traditionally, blockades and maritime trade warfare have used control of chokepoints to great strategic effect. Britain’s control of the Dover Straits, combined with the North Sea Mine Barrage, closed all maritime trade to Germany during World War I and contributed to the fall of the Kaiser’s government in 1918. During World War II, the failure of the Axis powers to seize the Suez allowed Great Britain to continue using the canal for resupply of its empire. Would such action have the same strategic effects today?

Vertical and horizontal charts showing locations and densities of mine fields of the North Sea Mine barrage, issued in November and December 1918, after the fields were completed. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Today, high trade volume certainly gives a strait economic value because these chokepoints often represent the shortest route from manufacturer to market and thus the cheapest transportation cost. But is controlling trade through a strait a viable strategic goal? Chris McMahon argues that maritime trade warfare is ineffective in today’s global economy. Among the many reasons he presents, he notes that the closing of chokepoints has no real impact on global trade.9 One of the most-often mentioned strategic chokepoints is the Strait of Malacca because it handles so much of the world’s maritime traffic. But how would closing the Strait of Malacca affect global trade? It would impact Singapore’s role in the global shipping market, certainly. But would the global shipping network be severely burdened by having to transit the Sunda Strait or the Lombok Strait? Would there be a cost increase, yes, but once the market adjusts for the increased cost, shipping will find a way to make it work. 

Consider the wave of piracy off the Horn of Africa in the early 2000s, an area often discussed as a strategic chokepoint because of the volume of trade passing through the Arabian Sea. Shipping companies dealt with the insecurity of that maritime region in one of three ways – accept the risk and charge accordingly, arm themselves against pirates, or re-route ships around the Cape of Good Hope at increased cost and charge accordingly. In each case, maritime trade continued. Lord Fisher mentioned the Suez Canal as one of the keys to the world, but it has been closed on five occasions since it opened in 1869, including for eight years between 1967 and 1975. During that most recent closure, the cost of shipping around the Cape of Good Hope was markedly higher than the Suez route but presented no serious economic hardship to global consumers. Rerouting Pacific trade for a closed Strait of Malacca would have a similar minimal effect on the cost of global trade.10

Chokepoints Can Be Superseded

The demise of the strategic value of chokepoints is revealed by looking at some traditional strategic chokepoints of the past. One of Fisher’s keys to the world, British control of the Straits of Dover, seemingly kept Hilter’s Kriegsmarine bottled-up in the North Sea, much as it had the Kaiserliche Marine three decades before. But Germany negated the British advantage by conquering France and establishing bases in Brittany, unfettered by the Straits of Dover. To be sure, the straits still impeded access to merchant shipping and warship transit to the German homeland, but control of the strategic strait did not mean control of the German U-boats. Chokepoints can be bypassed.

During the Cold War, the water between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom – the so-called GIUK Gap – was a strategic chokepoint because Soviet ballistic-missile submarines had to pass through that gap to threaten the United States. The later development of longer-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles meant the submarines could remain in the Arctic to launch these weapons, thus limiting the strategic value of the GIUK Gap as a chokepoint. Chokepoints can be outranged.

The GIUK gap and major regional military bases. (Heritage Foundation)

Today, a resurgent China lays claim to the South China Sea (SCS) as its own internal waters. As discussed above, the Strait of Malacca has traditionally been a key to control of the SCS and, therefore, strategically important for trade between Europe and Asia. But the Strait of Malacca is not the only access route to the SCS, which can also be accessed through the much larger Luzon Strait and numerous passages through the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The PRC recognizes this and has adopted control mechanisms that do not depend on control of the chokepoints, but instead focuses on long-range anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) weapons and redundant fortified islands within the SCS.11

China’s A2/AD strategy in the SCS is important for two reasons. First, the assumption that physical control of a chokepoint guarantees use of the chokepoint is invalid in the face of PRC A2/AD weapons and sensors. Although the United States and its partner states may possess the land on either side of the Strait of Malacca, and have sufficient naval forces to patrol the strait, the PRC could nonetheless prevent free transit of the Strait of Malacca using ASBM and long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). Furthermore, these long-range weapons based on the Chinese mainland or in the central SCS can contest the other straits leading into the SCS. Conversely, the reduced reliance of predictable trade routes for maritime traffic – both merchant and military – means they can easily bypass the Strait of Malacca if it were to be “controlled” by an opposing power.12 Chokepoints can be replaced.


The question then should not be “what are today’s strategic chokepoints?” but instead, “what are today’s strategic seas?” Control of chokepoints is only one of the ways to control a sea. Vego writes that there are two primary arenas of naval conflict: open ocean and narrow seas. While many characteristics differentiate the open ocean from the narrow sea, the predominant one is proximity to land.13 In narrow seas, the land influences many aspects of naval warfare, from the ability of naval vessels to maneuver to the threat from land-based weapons. As one moves further out to sea, maneuver space opens up and land-based threats dissipate, or so it would stand to reason.

The ability of naval forces to operate freely on the open ocean outside the threat of land-based weapons, whether missiles or aircraft, is greatly diminishing in the current threat environment. This, in turn, means an expansion of the areas previously considered narrow seas – even if not in all aspects. If the narrow seas have now broadened to cover a much higher portion of the world’s oceans, then the restrictive chokepoints once seen as strategic lose much of their relevance. 

There may be operationally compelling reasons to control a chokepoint, but their strategic value is greatly diminished in an era of space-based sensors and proliferating long-range missiles. Control of a chokepoint no longer means the “keys to the world” as it did in Admiral Fisher’s day. Expending the time and force to control a chokepoint will likely not result in the strategic advantage sought, and worse, could fix forces to a geographic location when mobility is operationally necessary. The U.S. would be better served exercising more agile and dynamic mechanisms of strategic sea control and sea denial rather than focusing on the obsolete idea of strategic chokepoints.

Captain Jamie McGrath (ret.), retired from the U.S. Navy after 29 years as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer. He now serves as a Deputy Commandant of Cadets at Virginia Tech and as an adjunct professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s College of Distance Education. Passionate about using history to inform today, his area of focus is U.S. naval history, 1919 to 1945, with emphasis on the interwar period. He holds a Bachelor’s in History from Virginia Tech, a Master’s in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and a Master’s in Military History from Norwich University.


1. Quoted in Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice (Rutledge: London, 2016), 188.

2. Milan Vego, Maritime Strategy and Sea Control: Theory and Practice (Rutledge: London, 2016), 2.

3. James Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Military Strategy of the United States of America (US Department of Defense: Washington, DC, 2018), 1.

4. Ibid., 7.

5. Ibid.

6. Milan Vego, Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice (Rutledge: London, 2017), 1.

7. Vego, Sea Denial, 301.

8. Vego, Sea Control, 188-9.

9. Christopher J. McMahon, “Maritime Trade Warfare,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 70: No. 3 (Summer 2017), 29-34.

10. Ibid., 29-30.

11. Naval War College Professor James Holmes argues that considering PRC sea power, their entire military must be considered and not just the PLAN, see James Holmes, “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” United States Naval Institute Proceedings (June 2018). https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2018/june/visualize-chinese-sea-power

12. McMahon, “Maritime Trade Warfare,” 29-30.

13. Vego, Sea Control, 18-20.

Featured Image: August 6, 1988, Egypt: An aerial port bow view of the aircraft carrier USS FORRESTAL (CV 59) transiting the Suez canal. A formation of crewmen spells out”108″on the bow to signify that the ship has been at sea for 108 consecutive days. (Photo by PH2 Buckner, USN/U.S. National Archives)

Competition and Neutrality of Southeast Asian States in Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Shang-su Wu

Due to their central location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime Southeast Asian countries have increasingly important roles in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Initiative. Despite some constraints, such as the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to coordinate its membership’s defenses, these regional states and their relatively weak but growing navies, with a home field advantage, matter in terms of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. Based on their non-alliance tradition and economic interests with China, Southeast Asian countries would not join FOIP, but engagement between them would be crucial for the strategy connecting the two oceans.

Geographically, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are the most relevant to control of the critical straits, whilst other coastal states, such as Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have a potential influence over adjacent sea lines of communication (SLOCs). These Southeast Asian countries are not militarily or economically equivalent with any member of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India), or China, and it is unlikely that these relatively weak countries could challenge the rights of passage under the United Nation Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, while their naval and air bases are strategically important for securing nearby SLOCs, the physical capture of such locations appears politically and militarily infeasible nowadays.

Politically, it would be very difficult for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass any resolution authorizing any power to conquer one or more Southeast Asian countries, as a veto would be expected from other permanent UNSC members. Although hybrid warfare, such as a Crimea-style invasion, could not be excluded, lack of similar historical and ethnic linkages could make such operations more uncertain, if not unlikely. In addition, unlike some “trouble-maker” countries that challenge existing international norms, Southeast Asian countries generally remain neutral, taking modest positions which keep them from becoming legitimate targets in the international community.

Militarily, force projection in Southeast Asia is already a certain challenge for most aggressors, and to secure control over local populations could be even more difficult. For example, territorial defense with grassroots organizations prepared by the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) would provide systematic resistance during and after conventional warfare in cases such as Sunda, Lombok, Makassar, and other Straits in the Indonesian Archipelago. Securing control of the Malacca Strait is further complicated since it falls under the control of three countries. Given that conquering the islands at chokepoints in key straits would be difficult, the roles of maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP need to be discussed in various scenarios.

Scenarios, Positions and Policies

The potential maritime conflicts between sea powers in the Indo-Pacific region can be categorized into three scenarios: major conflict, tight confrontation, and peacetime. A major conflict between China and the U.S., and perhaps its allies, would only likely impact Southeast Asia if China is able to maintain sea control over the first island chain. If Beijing loses the first battles or cannot retain sea control over the specific disputed area, its dream of sea power could vanish and make Southeast Asia strategically less important. In contrast, if China is able to gain the upper hand over the U.S. or another Quad member in a first-round exchange, this could force the latter to choose between preparing for the next battle or blockading the key straits in Southeast Asia, aside from negotiating for peace. In a blockade, there is no doubt as to the importance of the maritime Southeast Asian states along the straits. Another scenario is a major Indo-Sino conflict shifting from land borders to the maritim domain, where Southeast Asia is an inevitable chokepoint for both navies. In a scenario of tight confrontation where aircraft and vessels of China and the Quad members follow each other with occasional provocations, the relatively narrow sea passes in Southeast Asia are convenient for such tailing operations. During peacetime, the straits in Southeast Asia still provide critical locations for surveillance and deterrence.

Southeast Asian countries would have three political positions in the face of such scenarios: strict neutrality, loose neutrality, and aligning with one side. Loose neutrality would be the common practice in the region, evidenced in all maritime Southeast Asian countries’ policies and participation in the non-alliance movement. Although the Philippines and Thailand retain their defense treaties with the U.S., their current policies are notably different. During the previous Aquino administration between 2010 and 2016, Manila was probably seen as pro-Washington due to countering Beijing’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, but President Duterte has replaced these policies with Beijing-friendly ones. In contrast to the common practice, strict neutrality and alignment with one side would be less favorable options for Southeast Asian countries during peacetime or even in crises of tight confrontation due to different concerns. Strict neutrality does not fit the complicated inter-state competition overshadowing the era of globalization, but alignment would present risk for being on a loser’s side.

Under these loosely neutral positions, each Southeast Asian country may have certain policies favoring a specific power. Arms procurements and intelligence sharing would represent relatively implicit policies showing their preferences or linkage. Joint exercises, foreign military presence, and deployments are clearer indicators.

The Regional Military Capacity

Thanks to decades of economic growth, maritime Southeast Asian countries have significantly modernized their navies and other related forces, which have strategic values for two main reasons. Firstly, as an overt invasion of Southeast Asian countries is unlikely, their military capacity is unlikely to be fully neutralized. As a result, their specific capabilities, particularly submarines and other sea denial means, can deter potential aggressors. Secondly, despite inferior quantity and perhaps quality, regional militaries have home field advantages, such as theater familiarity and shorter LOCs.

Several characteristics appear when examining Southeast Asian naval modernization. Firstly, the naval modernization among regional states is diverse on both national and asset level. On the national level, some countries, like Singapore, are comprehensively armed, and some others, such as Brunei, are at best partially equipped. On the asset level, vessels and aircraft in the same classes may have differing performances due to different designs and costs. For example, some regional frigates are armed with layered defense against anti-ship missiles, but some have only a single system of short-ranged surface-to-air missiles (SAM) without any additional margin.

Secondly, despite the diverse practices, regional countries take a balanced fleet approach and invest in both sea control and sea denial capabilities. The level of distribution between sea control, such as major surface combatants, and sea denial, such as submarines and fast attack craft (FAC), depends on each country’s strategic circumstances. The balanced fleet approach weakens the capacity of Southeast Asian navies in conventional warfare against a stronger adversary, as most ships remain vulnerable in the face of superior firepower and are unlikely to achieve their sea control mission during wartime. However, the regional navies have to deal with peacetime missions, such as counter piracy and maritime territorial control, where large surface platforms are essential. In other words, the balanced fleet approach reflects the compromise between the needs of peacetime and wartime.

Thirdly, regional submarines provide a vital deterrence by denial capability. Southeast Asian submarines within their home waters, despite their small numbers, relatively little experiences, and less sophisticated technologies, would still pose a credible threat to intruding sea powers. An external sea power may have the capacity to absorb some losses, but these losses would stretch limited expeditionary capabilities, damage its national pride, and possibly affect domestic political decision making. Striking the home bases of these submarines would be an effective measure to lower their operational sustainability, but it would significantly escalate the situation during a crisis and threaten whatever argument for legitimacy the invader was trying to use to justify their actions.

There are some drawbacks in regional naval modernization. Although more and more capable surface combatants are joining the service, a great portion of the fleets have weak air defense and anti-submarine capabilities which makes them vulnerable to modern anti-ship missiles and submarines. Maritime patrol aircraft would provide the main method of surveillance, but are vulnerable and unable to conduct patrols in a hostile air space. Without maritime patrol aircraft, these regional navies would have limited surveillance capacity. Southeast Asian states possess fighters with airborne sea strike capability, and they may be able to respond to challenges from a ski-jump aircraft carrier with limited capacity and support. However, as all these fighters belong to air forces which focus and train for more missions than maritime operations, their jointness with navies would be limited. Due to these drawbacks plus the issue of relatively inferior quantity, maritime Southeast Asian countries have little room for escalation.

Gaining Support

The traditional methods of formal alliance may not successfully work with maritime Southeast Asian countries under the present context. Trade, investment, and other economic ties with China would constrain the willingness and likelihood of direct participation by maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP Initiative. Moreover, Beijing is also endeavoring to develop and deepen security ties in the region, evidenced in arms deals, personnel exchanges, joint exercises, and other forms of interactions. However, it is possible to gain the contribution of regional countries to the FOIP Initiative, under their loose neutrality position. As maritime Southeast Asian countries have relatively less experiences in various military capabilities, the militaries of Quad members with rich operational experiences could provide more interaction based on the existing foundation.

Intertwined interests would be another significant motive for supporting the FOIP. Given their maritime interests and territory, Southeast Asian countries are likely to further expand their maritime capacity and the Quad members can supply proper assets and technologies to fill their existing shortfalls, while arms deals with logistical and training packages provide another channel to strengthen military-to-military relations. Last but not least, the Quad members, with their combined market share dwarfing China’s, should build up economic ties with maritime Southeast Asian countries. It would not be easy for regional countries to formally participate in the FOIP, but their cooperation or other positive responses would be the core of a strategy across the two oceans.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Featured Image: Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore (Wikimedia Commons)