Tuesday, 1 October 2013

September 2013 Thoughts: Sea Power

From Trafalgar and Waterloo to the first German war the British navy was supreme upon the seas. Our sea-power during the greater part of the nineteenth century equalled that of all other nations put together. Did we misuse that power? On the contrary, there never were so few warships afloat. History, which has been my guide and inspiration, will show the future ages that the control of the seas which the British held so long was used not for the exercise of warlike ambition, but to keep the peace, to suppress the slave trade and to make the seas safe for the commerce of all nations. All our ports, even our own coastwise trade, were opened to the entry and competition of men and good from every land.

Winston S. Churchill, London, May, 1946

Sea Power is an encompassing phrase, all too often commentators will use it to describe the raw naval/military potential of a nation – but in a world where international relations encompasses soft power as well as hard power how can Sea Power be so one dimensional? Even Mahan, who stated the history of sea power was “largely a military history”, issued a qualified statement with the word largely. The truth in fact is that Sea Power certainly isn’t so mono-polar; it includes not only the war fighting potential of a nations naval forces, but their diplomatic potential, the economic potential of its & other merchant ships traversing the world laden with goods, and perhaps most importantly it includes the succour which a nation may extract from that sea, both water & seabed, which comes under that nations jurisdiction. All these things are now part of Sea Power, and they must be in balance otherwise a nation could find itself weak at a time of crucial necessity.

This is itself a very Corbettian view, in that no longer is control of the sea the epitome of sea power, but what can be done with/from the sea when it is controlled. The important thing though is that both of these parts are as important as each other; without the ability to control the sea (at the least in a local sense) nothing can be done with/from it. Control of the sea allows the utilisation of the sea in peace time for actions such as gathering food (fishing or harvesting seaweed), collecting energy (directly by wave, tidal or wind power; or indirectly by the extraction of natural gas, oil, coal or uranium[1]) or amassing resources (mining the sea floor or underneath it) – none of this can be overstated in their importance to a nation’s economy. It’s because of that importance that disputes over the extents of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ)[2] are so contentious; it’s also the reason that naval conventional deterrence is rising[3] as a required capability for many nations. However, deterrence comes in many levels and the equipment/diplomatic commitments required by each nation depend upon the level of sea power it itself requires/desires and the level it feels it receives/can accept from any alliances. For example a nation for which it’s EEZ is concentrated in one area could well focus upon sea denial systems such as Diesel/AIP Submarines (SSKs[4]) supported by land based aircraft and missile boats to provide the military part of the ‘sea power’ they require. In comparison a nation with a diffused EEZ, will need aircraft carriers to provide ‘organic’ air power to support any operation[5], amphibious ships to bring along land forces[6], auxiliaries for logistics to provide the global reach, major escorts and nuclear submarines (SSNs & perhaps SSGNs[7]) – all necessary to protect and project sea power on a global scale[8].

It’s not only a nation’s EEZ which determines their requirements; the world is increasingly interconnected, or put another way, globalised. This means that the trade routes which crisscross the world moving everything from energy & raw materials to completed multi-component products, and which depends upon the “freedom of the sea’s” for that movement are of massive importance. Something accentuated by the fact that the ships which carry all this are growing bigger as their owners seek economies of scale; some modern ships carry as much as a convoy of 50 ships did in the Second World War[9]. This is great for companies, terrible for countries as it means that the impact of disruption (or even worse, destruction) of the practically never ending conveyor belt like flow of ships would at the minimum be devastating economically – in the case of energy supplies it could be literally life and death for millions[10]. This brings in another version of sea power, a nation which is unable to protect its trade is a weak sea power; protection of this trade requires presences and is the principle role of escorts during ‘peace-time’[11]. Even this is variable, as major exporting nations require less strength as the onus is on the importing nations which need the goods to protect the trade – of course the nations which are most exposed are those nations which are trading nations, both major importers & exporters as for them the movement of goods is a foundation which if undermined would cause their economy to crumble. Protection of this has been the traditional role of the Royal Navy, and is exemplified in its Prayer which states: “that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth and her dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions”.

The final factor affecting a nation’s sea power is their diplomatic commitments/support; again a nation higher up the status level can expect more support but, in turn, more is expected more of it. These alliances and the status they bring can deliver a certain level of insulation from events, as well as false feels of greater security – false because the greater security is dependent upon the idea that other nations will protect their interests; which they will as long as those interests coincide with their own and they do not have other commitments for their forces. An excellent example is the reliance European nations have developed upon America for defence; and the fact those nations seem to have perceived this as being more technological reliance[12] and are now reacting as such is interesting. As whilst seeking to be self-sufficient in an armaments is a very sensible strategic notion for any nation[13] - the fact is that the most important thing America has done for those nations is allowed them to focus on Europe, it’s America which to be fair pushed for decolonisation, which has had to take on the role the colonial powers had up till that point fulfilled of global stabilisation. It took up a mantle which whilst previously had had a lead nation, Great Britain, had been a collective work rather than a single nation’s responsibility. The great prosperity of the modern world, recession & all is based upon stability – conflict disrupts that, unstable regimes disrupt that, any problems disrupt that and for the last half a century it has been America’s job to deal with it. America though cannot afford to shoulder this burden indefinitely, neither should it be expected to; the Pacific Pivot whatever it’s end result is an example of the rebalancing it is having to do as it has to focus on protecting once more its own interests. For European nations this means that they will have to consider their interests, their role in the world and the security as their own responsibility[14]; and more than likely, although it could take decades to break the current cycle, adjust spending on defence to fit.

Sea Power is global power, the sea is the medium by which all people are brought together, and can reach other – even before the undersea cables that are the truest foundation of modern communications ran along its bed the sea was the global information super highway where cultures met and where discoveries were passed along. It has been a constant throughout the passage of the recorded history of humanity[15]; the only change has been the evolution in both how people use it, and the capability with which people make use of it.

In summary Sea Power is not just about fighting high level wars. It is about daily political commitments, flexibility, potentiality, capability and manoeuvrability: whether hard or soft; economic, political or military it is about the things that the sea offers a government, a nation, a people in terms of options and resources. However what they get out from it depends entirely upon what they are willing to put in. Having started with his words, and for all his humanity, it seems sensible to make use of another quote from Churchill; which sums up eloquently what Sea Power can do for a nation.

We have never lived at anybody’s mercy. We have never lived upon the good pleasure of any Continental nation in regard to our fundamental requirements. We have never entrusted the home defence of this country to any foreign power. We have never asked for any help from anyone. We have given help to many, but to make good the security of our own island we have asked for help from none.

Winston S. Churchill, Commons, March 8, 1934

Further Reading:                             

[11] although with counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, national & international emergencies, anti-smuggling, presence/showing-the-flag and various other contingencies which spring up, the phrase ‘peace-time’ looks more & more misleading
[12] Whilst it certainly provided volume for NATO’s force structure, the fact is the American armed forces were mostly valued for their high-tech/high –value units such as Patriot air defence batteries; hence why many NATO countries do not actually have their own equivalent systems to defend their forces.
[13] Which of course Europe is not; making the idea of a European Defence Industry just as much of strategic misnomer – however recent focus on procuring missiles from MBDA rather than buying from the Standard Missile company; buying Sylver VLS rather than MK 41.
[14] For the UK this will include 14 Overseas Territories, of which 12 are islands and not all have airfields but they do all have EEZs around them with the potential economic & strategic benefits/requirements.
[15] And more than likely the unrecorded and pre-history of humanity

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