Tag Archives: seapower

Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans

Admiral James Stavridis (ret.), Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. New York City: Columbia University Press, 2017, 384 pages. $18.00/hardcover.

By Chad Pillai

Since the dawn of civilization, the seas have been a part of the human story. It has shaped commerce, the spread of ideas, and even wars. When someone thinks of geography, they usually associate it with features on land and its impact on mankind. However, the seas and by extension the oceans have played a bigger role since they are nature’s super highways that have and continue to connect far flung landmasses and people together. Where the oceans have met the land, especially areas that present an opportunity to constrict movement, represent key terrain known as chokepoints for people and nations to control and benefit while denying others such privilege.

The private intelligence company known as Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR) recently published a report titled “The Geopolitics of Maritime Chokepoints” that states, “Area where geography constrict movement by land or water, known as chokepoints, has been fought over time immemorial…for most of history, commerce and military ambition were limited to small localities and confined regions. In these contexts, contested chokepoints usually meant points where roads or rivers narrowed enough to allow disruption by hostile actors…while land and riverine chokepoints are still relevant to business and military planners, maritime chokepoints have taken center stage in power politics.” This precise explanation on the importance of maritime chokepoints fits well with Admiral (Retired) James Stavridis’s new book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. While many cite Harold Mackinder, the twentieth century British geographer who coined the term “World Island” for Eurasia (and updated recently by Robert Kaplan as Afro-Eurasia) and the warnings associated with its dominance, the real maximum should be the nation that controls the seas and the chokepoints dominates the world. Since the end of WWII, the U.S. has been that nation.

Before I discuss Sea Power, I recommend all readers enjoy the book with a glass of scotch, or whatever libation suites them, a cigar, and a map of the world to visualize the geography and its associated history. Sea Power is part biography of Admiral Stavridis’s career in the Navy, part history of the world’s oceans influence on mankind, and part modern geopolitical analysis impacting foreign relations, global economics, and military strategy. In his opening chapter, Admiral Stravridis states his central thesis when he writes that “Some observers may not be interested in the geopolitics of the oceans, but they will haunt our policy and our choices in this turbulent twenty-first century. The oceans will matter deeply to every aspect of human endeavor.” Along those lines, George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR and GEOPOLITICAL FUTURES, and Jacob Shapiro, wrote that “Geopolitics is the supposition that all international relationships are based on the interaction between geography and power.” The oceans as geopolitical entities has shaped mankind’s quest for power and glory throughout the ages because they have served as the highways that have linked distant civilizations and made commerce both possible and profitable between them, which caused competition and friction that have led to war. To highlight the history and geopolitics of the oceans, Admiral Stavridis takes the reader on an oceanic voyage across the world by focusing the chapters on four oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic) and three seas (Mediterranean, South China Sea, and Caribbean).

The advantage the United States has, according to Admiral Stavridis, is that it can look at the oceans from a strategic sense by elaborating that “while the essence of sea power is the connective power of the unity of the oceans into a single global commons, there are historical, cultural, political, economic, and military reasons to think about each from a strategic perspective.” The United States grapples with an increasingly complex security environment described as contested norms and persistent disorder according to the Joint Operating Environment. It is being challenged to develop a strategy to maintain the world order it established post-WWII. Admiral Stavridis provides the reader with a chapter proposing “A Naval Strategy for the Twenty-First Century.” The central premise of the strategy is that the United States, the “World Island,” enjoys a geopolitical competitive advantage over challengers such as China and Russia. Their persistent vulnerabilities from lack of warm-water ports to being enclosed by island chains and chokepoints allows the U.S. and its allies and partners to, “contain powerful nations that have concentrated their use of forces ashore, ignoring the sea out of lack of interests, or an inability to see the force of the sea power argument, or simply because the lack the geography, character, and political will to exploit the oceans.”

The Russians and the Chinese are not standing idle though when it comes to sea power as both nations have increased their investment in their naval capabilities. As I wrote previously for CIMSEC, with China opening its first overseas base in Djibouti, the critical chokepoint at the mouth of the Red Sea and Russia’s active military engagement in Syria, both are setting the conditions to potentially counter U.S. influence in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf Region. As the Joint Force continues to develop the Multi-Domain Battle Concept, there is potential to utilize maritime geography to our advantage. This ranges from employing long-range land-based surface-to-sea missiles to hold Russian and Chinese naval forces at risk (a reversal of their A2/AD concepts), exploiting vulnerabilities in undersea cables, practicing “hybrid warfare—disruption and degradation with little overt engagement,” to the employment and aggregation of land forces from multiple locations to create complex dilemmas. Admiral Stavridis states that we should follow “Mahan’s advice to keep a weather eye on the rising power of both of these potential competitors at sea and maintain the ability to defeat both.”

The author had the privilege of attending a meeting between Admiral (Retired) James Stavridis, then the Supreme Allied Commander – Europe (SACEUR) and the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (CJCS) General Joseph Dunford, then Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. He also had the humorous privilege of being present at NATO HQ in Brussels when former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called the Stavridis as General Stavridis while doing his best to not look shocked or surprise. (Photo courtesy of Chad Pillai)

Throughout the book and especially in his final chapter on a twenty-first century naval strategy, Admiral Stavridis balances his approach by highlighting both the dangers and opportunities for the U.S. due to its unique geographical location and how its economic, military, and political might give it the means and opportunity to shape and influence the development of regional powers across the globe. The geopolitics of the oceans, its “supposition on geography and power” stated by George Friedman and Jacob Shapiro, ensure that the oceans will play a critical role in the national security decision-making of the U.S. and other global powers. Tim Marshall in his book Prisoners of Geography succulently reinforces this proposition when he wrote that, “as the twenty-first century progresses, the geographical factors that have shaped our history will mostly continue to determine our future.”

As an Army Strategist who studies the nature of war and character of war, I have a profound appreciation of the world’s oceans and their geopolitical significance. And while I may not root for Navy during Army-Navy football games, I know full well that America’s Army cannot win without America’s Navy.

Lieutenant Colonel Chad M. Pillai is an Army Strategist stationed at Macdill Air Force Base who has previously contributed to CIMSEC with the following articles: “Counter Influence Activities to U.S. posture in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf,” “India as the Pivotal Power of the 21st Century Security Order,” and “Bear, Dragon & Eagle: Russian, Chinese & U.S. Military Strategies.” He holds a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies (SAIS).

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government agency.

Featured Image: NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly captured this nighttime image of the Persian Gulf and Nile River, which empties into the Mediterranean amid the bright lights of Cairo and the Nile Delta. (Credit: NASA)

Naval Power in the 21st Century

The following essay is the third place finalist for CIMSEC’S 2017 Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest

By Matthew Lidz

The United States is a continental land power bridging the earth between two mighty oceans. Through our presence at home ports in both the Atlantic and Pacific and forward deployed forces in Asia and Europe we can rapidly project naval power to virtually any spot on the globe. Our naval forces deter threats, support economic growth, maintain global political stability and perform vital counterterrorism missions. These missions are essential to 21st century national security. 

Despite the myriad threats that face our nation in this complex and volatile world, it is difficult to build consensus for United States foreign policy. There are some that argue that we should withdraw to our borders and focus solely on our own interests. However, I argue that this instinct denies a fundamental truth of global security; security is achieved through engagement and not through isolation. 

As the United States was emerging from its tradition of isolationism in the late nineteenth century, President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, viewed the Navy as the big stick of American foreign policy. President Roosevelt recognized the ascendancy of America on the world stage and saw the Navy as an effective instrument through which we could visibly demonstrate our commitment to peace, protection, and prosperity.

If war is diplomacy by other means, then the intelligent, strategic use of naval power is a key instrument for both deterrence and war fighting. The presence of the U.S. Navy off a hostile coastline visibly demonstrates national resolve and, through their presence alone, may prevent future hostile attacks against the U.S. or its allies. Through its ability to launch operations with aviation assets and cruise missiles the Navy can strike deep and with lethal force into hostile territory without the need to commit ground troops to a protracted conflict.

90 percent of world trade travels via the seas.  Maintaining safe passage for international trade is in the vital economic interest of the United States and its allies. International Waters or the High Sea is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State.” The treaty also says “The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles.” To simplify, international waters are all waters that are 200 nautical miles outside a country’s exclusive economic zone. By maintaining a constant presence in the world’s shipping lanes, the United States Navy plays a critical role in ensuring free trade throughout the world.

I was born 18 months before the events of September 11, 2001. Like me, every member of my generation has no memory of life before September 11. The global war on terror was a constant presence in our collective consciousness and will continue to shape the world in which we take our place as adults. Maintaining a strong Navy is imperative for the continued economic and military security of the United States in the 21st century. The Navy’s abilities to project force, apply lethal force and deter threats are essential to the maintenance and protection of vital U.S. interests throughout the world.

Matthew Lidz is from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He is currently a freshman at the University of Richmond 

Works Cited

“Business.un.org.” United Nations. United Nations, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.

“Commodities: Latest Crude Oil Price & Chart.” NASDAQ.com. NASDAQ, Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.nasdaq.com/markets/crude-oil.aspx>.

Iata. “Search.” IATA – Price Analysis. International Air Transport Association, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.iata.org/publications/economics/fuel-monitor/Pages/price-analysis.aspx>.

Perlman, Howard. “How Much Water Is There On, In, and above the Earth?” How Much Water Is There on Earth, from the USGS Water Science School. United States Geological Survey, 2 Dec. 2016. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

Petty, Dan. “Navy.mil Home Page.” The US Navy — Fact File: Aircraft Carriers – CVN. United States Navy, 31 Jan. 2017. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=4200&tid=200&ct=4>.

Stavridis, James, and Frank Pandolfe. “From Sword to Shield: Naval Forces in the War on Terror.” Naval Forces in the War on Terror. The Naval Institute: Proceedings, 1 Aug. 2004. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. <http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,NI_Navy_0804,00.html>.

“United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” (2013): n. pag. United Nations. United Nations, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf>.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sep. 20, 2016) Sailors assigned to the forward-deployed Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) man a phone and distance line while conducting a replenishment-at-sea with the Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) during Valiant Shield 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christian Senyk/Released) 

Distributed Lethality: An Update

Ed. note: VADM Thomas S. Rowden, USN, provided this update from San Diego after his original article received the most votes in the run up to CIMSEC’s Forum for Authors and Readers (CFAR) of those pieces our readers wanted to see discussed in person.

Congratulations to everyone involved in CIMSEC, and thank you for all you have done to advance understanding and debate about Seapower, especially American Seapower. I am grateful to your readers for their interest in the piece I submitted earlier this year, “Surface Warfare: Taking the Offensive”, and I only wish my schedule had allowed me to join you for the “Forum for Authors and Readers” on February 26th [Ed note: videos online now]. Hopefully, this update will keep me in good standing among CIMSEC boosters.

We in the Surface Force are embarking upon a serious intellectual deep dive into the very nature of what we do and what we CAN do, an inquiry that seeks to capitalize upon the two of the most important attributes surface forces possess—mobility and persistence. Part of this inquiry is concerned with a concept we are developing known as “Distributed Lethality”, an idea that we were still forming when I wrote the piece above and referred to it as “dispersed” lethality. You can learn more about Distributed Lethality by reading about it in the January issue of Proceedings, or by watching the second half of my Surface Navy Association 2015 speech beginning at the 25:45 mark. Properly understood, Distributed Lethality combines an opportunistic and steady increase in unit lethality over time with innovative methods of operating those units together, the goal of which is to create a new range of operational problems for potential adversaries and hold numerous and diverse targets he values at risk. As I have written, increasing unit lethality without new and innovative operating patterns sub-optimizes the investment, while new and innovative operating patterns without enhanced unit lethality assumes unacceptable risk. Both activities are required for Distributed Lethality to have impact.

Working across the Surface Force—the Fleet, OPNAV, the Systems Commands, the training organizations, and ONR—we are looking at ways of getting more combat punch out of the platforms and payloads we already field by asking simple questions and then aggressively seeking answers. We are applying elements of the thinking of talented navalists like Captain Wayne Hughes and Captain Jeff Klein at the Naval Postgraduate School, CDR Phil Pournelle at OSD, and Dr. Jerry Hendrix at the Center for a New American Security to the real problems of resource constraints and evolving threats.

We are taking the long view on Distributed Lethality, aiming at a horizon of 2030 for our planning purposes but with steady progress from year to year and POM to POM. I spoke at SNA of this being a “generational” effort, and I meant it. There will not be a lot of splashy, overnight successes along the way; rather, there will a series of opportunistic capability upgrades where they make the most sense at the right times. But first, we must lay the intellectual groundwork for moving in this direction, and that is what will comprise much of the work we do in 2015.

A team of surface warriors across the enterprise is working hard to put meat on the bones of the articles and speeches made thus far, fleshing out the concepts and supporting concepts of Distributed Lethality, not to mention identifying the overarching concepts into which it must fold. Eventually, a small team will begin traveling to the numbered fleets and COCOMS to engage in a two-way dialogue designed to expose planners to what our thinking is, and to vest our concept development team with an updated appreciation of the operational factors most at play in the various areas of responsibility (AOR).

Additionally, we are working with the Naval War College to frame appropriate war-games and analytical venues to allow us to identify near-term, high-impact lethality upgrades and to ensure that our thinking is not in violent conflict with established methods of doing business. I frame the previous sentence the way I do because I am not ignorant to the possibility that what we are suggesting with Distributed Lethality could be potentially disruptive to current thinking about large scale maritime campaigns and war-at-sea. I honestly don’t think we would be doing our jobs very well if we weren’t constantly evaluating the status quo in search of more effective and efficient methods of delivering Seapower from the Surface Force. I hope CIMSEC readers would agree.

In the meantime, little victories are accumulating, and the logic behind Distributed Lethality becomes clearer. Earlier this month, Naval Air Systems Command and Raytheon conducted a test demonstration of a Tomahawk Block IV missile that received off-board guidance to intercept a moving surface target. Getting back into the over-the-horizon ASuW game is a central thrust of Distributed Lethality, and this interesting re-purposing of the Tomahawk is exactly the kind of opportunistic, straightforward capability upgrade that we seek. Think about the utility and flexibility of a Tomahawk sitting in a VLS cell that can strike fixed land-targets, moving land targets, or moving maritime targets. One missile, three very different targets. Apply that thinking across other munitions and projectiles, and we really begin to provide gritty operational problems to adversaries grown used to our defense crouch.

Before I close, let me once again reinforce the centrality of high value unit defense and Strike Group operations to Surface Warfare. Nothing we do in Distributed Lethality should be seen as taking away from our historic and necessary role in enabling naval power projection by helping to protect CVN’s and ARG’s. We start from the proposition that HVU operations and defense is our main mission, and then work to create operational problems with more lethal and distributed surface forces from there.  Our proposition is that the Surface Force can do more, and we’re going to take the time necessary to study and analyze that proposition in order to get it right.

Thanks again for the opportunity to provide this update, and keep up the great work. CIMSEC is establishing itself as an intellectual powerhouse in maritime matters, and I am proud to play a small part.

Vice Admiral Thomas S. Rowden is Commander, Naval Surface Forces. A native of Washington, D.C., and a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, VADM Rowden has served in a diverse range of sea and shore assignments.

Sea Control 9: Arctic Wastes and Tropical Shoals

Sea-ControlMatt, Chris, and Grant are joined by Caroline Troein from the Fletcher School’s Neptune Group. They talk about the Arctic, the European Defense burden, Typhoon Haiyan, China, the Hudson Center’s American Seapower event, as well as a smattering of other topics. Join us for Arctic Wastes and Tropical Shoals (Download).

Articles from last week:
Human Smuggling Across the Gulf of Aden (2013 Edition) (Mark Munson)
Germany Needs a Permanent Naval Presence in the Indian Ocean (Felix Seidler)
Avoid Change For Its Own Sake: Ground Force Unification (Chris Barber)
The Southern Mediterranean Immigration Crisis: a European Way Out (Matteo Quattrocchi)
How War With China Would Start: 99 Red Balloons (Matthew Hipple)
How Not To Go To War With China (Scott Cheney-Peters)


Sea Control comes out every Monday and is available on Itunes, Xbox Music, and Stitcher Stream Radio. Join us!