Navalism, limited war, and American strategy

Intervention and military force are legitimate tools of the state interest. While I have written many posts arguing against poorly thought-out present-day American interventions overseas, I have also consistently defended the legal precedent for many U.S. interventions, and noted that these trends are far more persistent in U.S. history than many other opponents of modern doctrines of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility to Protect are often willing to acknowledge. Recovering our understanding of limited interventions in defense of U.S. interests and adapting the U.S. policy planning and military capability to undertake them is a critical task – one which makes avoiding unnecessary, distorting, and draining interventions all the more important.

As is easily apparent from even a brief overview of American military interventions, the United States engaged frequently in limited, expeditionary actions to protect the lives of American citizens and U.S. interests abroad. While many of these interventions were undoubtedly imperial in nature, in many cases they were far more limited in scope and intent than the supposedly post-imperial actions the United States and other Western powers pursue today. Here, though, it is important to distinguish actions where the U.S. was directly concerned with gaining territory from the protection of U.S. interests.

As outlined in Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton explained something of a core rationale in American geopolitics. The preservation of an open, liberal society was necessitated by the exclusion of potential military rivals from an American sphere of interest. American union was necessary both to prevent each state or grouping of states, without a sovereign federal authority, from sacrificing their liberty in the compelling interest of achieving safety from each others potential military threat. Hamilton saw the development of a maritime-centric U.S. military, under the auspices of a federal government, as a critical task for U.S. national security. For, without it, the U.S. would find itself in a dangerous neighborhood, and more likely in need of a strong army: Continue reading

Everybody wants to rule the waves

The discussion of the “security of the commons” approach, as Lalwani and Shifrinson articulated it, has turned into a genuine debate, with Bryan McGrath of Information Dissemination jumping into the fray. For what it’s worth, I offered my own thoughts on the mental traps which a concern with “the commons” writ large often stumbles into. On a related subject, anyone with an interest in the debate about maritime strategy ought read Walter MacDougall’s piece in FPRI (and not just because I have a soft spot for anything delving into obscure geopolitical theory).

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Castex and the illusion of mastery

Being the backward-looking IR recalcitrant that I am, it should surprise nobody that I have been intermittently making my way through the English translation (abridged, and the only one available to my knowledge) of Raoul Castex’s Théories stratégiques. In the midst of the past few months’ discussion of sovereignty, maritime power, and the global commons, this passage stood out:

In peacetime, the sea is free for everyone. In war, it belongs to the strongest, who will chase both his enemy and any unfriendly neutrals from it as far as he is militarily and politically able… We can conclude with Richelieu’s observation that “of all the sovereigns’ domains, it is the sea on which they make the greatest claims, but the place which the rights of each are least clear. The true title to naval domination is force, not reason.”

[and in Castex’s note to that remark:] And we can be sure that, in the next war, the Americans, ready to fight to defend the freedom of their own commerce when they are neutral, will brutally uphold the other point of view when they are belligerents. Humanitarian imperialism is always problematic.

This was written during the 1930s by a Frenchman, yet many aspects of the critique echo in modern times. First of all, it is a reminder of ostensibly neutral concepts, such as freedom of the seas, are frequently viewed as polemical attempts at domination by foreign powers – particularly when they are Western, or as the continental Europeans would have it, Anglo-Saxon. After all, the doctrine of freedom of the seas seeks the neutralization of all the world’s oceans, in peace and in war. The idea of the sea as a blank, separate space for austere naval engagement is far from dead in the American political consciousness. What goes unremembered, of course, is how many times the maritime empires have launched a war or been dragged into one on the basis of a maritime incident. Continue reading

Maritime realism and the geopolitics of the “Middle Sea”

Robert Kaplan has a new piece out in Foreign Policy today about the South China Sea, the West Pacific generally, and the return of naval power and realist thought to the center stage of international politics. It’s a worth a read if only because Kaplan is unfortunately one of the few public intellectual types who has attempted to engage the question of maritime power. The crux of the argument is that the 21st century’s geopolitical stage will be much more maritime than continental, as was the case in the past, and one in which the US must increasingly submit to the exigencies of a realist few of great power politics. I broadly agree with these two sentiments. The devil, and the critical takeaways, however, are in the details.

East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception. The Western Pacific will return military affairs to the narrow realm of defense experts. This is not merely because we are dealing with a naval realm, in which civilians are not present. It is also because of the nature of the states themselves in East Asia, which, like China, may be strongly authoritarian but in most cases are not tyrannical or deeply inhumane.

There is an important relationship here between geography, military technology and capability, and international morality, that I have attempted to address in previous posts. To summarize simply, the arbiter of the moral and normative activity within a state rests with its governing political power. The arbiter of power control is, in Wylie’s phrase, the “man on the scene with the gun.” The ability of an offshore state to put men on the scene with guns is power projection. The ability to project power is dependent on maritime-aerial superiority, which for an offshore power is fundamentally naval superiority.

However, Kaplan has perhaps an unduly sanitized and rationalized vision of naval warfare means for the broader political context. While the naval realm is more purely military, since humans are creature of the land, not the sea. Yet naval power has always been a combination of civilian – especially commercial – and military power. Mahan acknowledged as much in his triad of sea power as the combination of not just fleets, but friendly ports and maritime commerce.  This inter-linking is obvious today. The growth of the Chinese shipbuilding industry has played a vital role in advocating for the expansion of the PLAN, and Chinese attempts to extend influence beyond the South China Sea into the Indian are coming as civilian ports such as Gwadar and Hambantoa, whose militarization is a possibility but not an inevitability. I’ll speak more of this unheeded connection between the domestic and naval sphere later. Continue reading

Diesel Boats Forever!…or ever?

This post is a sort of extension of David Trombly’s excellent and thought provoking post Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance.

This post caught my eye for several reasons, not the least of which is that in another life I rode submarines (ballistic missile subs: USS VON STEUBEN (SSBN-632) and the commissioning crew of USS PENNSYLVANIA (SSBN-735)). Another is I attended on behalf of a former employer in 2001/2002 an industry day event soliciting interest in the US production of diesel electric submarines for the use of Taiwan (Republic of China, or ROC). US production was authorized (see background: here) because the ROC was having difficulty purchasing through European diesel boat manufacturers. Germany, Sweden, and France have proven platforms, as do the Russians and their KILO class. All of these nations export submarines, but few want to antagonize the ROC’s increasingly global neighbor China.

The industry day event was well attended, but as I sat there I had little confidence there would ever be a diesel electric submarine produced in a US shipyard. Here’s why: the US Navy is heavily vested in nuclear powered submarines which are incredibly expensive, with the most modern VIRGINIA Class coming in at around $2B a copy. When compared to modern diesel boats which run between $200-$300M, Big Navy understandably wants to avoid any possible comparisons—or for the question even to be raised. The industry event was more a public show of supporting Congress and the president than a serious inquiry, and nothing more than slides were produced (which is often the case in Washington, btw).

The USN is overextended by almost any measure, our national shipbuilding infrastructure is perhaps at its lowest point and our Fleet has less ships (about 283) than any time since WWI. We have about 70 submarines (18 OHIO Class of which 4 are guided missile submarines, 7 VA Class, 3 SEAWOLF, and about 43 older Los Angeles Class). These boats spend about half their time deployed, which drives up maintenance costs and cost to crew separated from family [the OHIO Class ships rotate crews about every 90 days] Our submarines are built exclusively in Groton, CT, and Newport News, VA. We have naval shipyards for heavy modifications, nuclear refueling/overhauls in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Bremerton, and Pearl Harbor (though I don’t believe Portsmouth or Pearl are authorized refueling facilities).

In this environment of increased op-tempo, and low numbers of ships/boats we have continuing challenges to the maritime domain, including China’s increasingly muscular approach in the South China sea and that age old naval scourge, piracy. (H/T Feral Jundi at Facebook)

These realities, combined with an ally in need (and perhaps many more potential customers) seem to form a perfect storm of need for a small fleet of stealthy, American-made diesel electric submarines. If the Obama administration wanted to strengthen it bonafides in East Asia and with the American public, it would reengage on the Taiwan submarine issue and this time, instead of a deal neither side could abide (our side the very thought and insane requirements, their side appropriating the funds). If Taiwan is willing to pay for R&D, allow the building shipyard to keep the design, and find an American suitor, that all translates into that three letter word Joe Biden is so fond of: jobs. Jobs that would have little to no reliance on the increasingly precarious federal government and shrinking defense budgets. Taiwan and the region would gain stealthy deterrents to potential Chinese mischief, the US could invigorate a fairly inbred shipbuilding industry with new talent, new ideas, and new competition, and maybe, just maybe we could build a few boats for those missions too mundane or cost-prohibitive for our nuke boats (like the piracy problem for a starter).

Postscript: As a former nuclear navy submariner, I am intimately familiar of the many positives nuke boats offer (I once spent 82 days submerged). My musing here is not a call for replacement, but rather to point out yet again (see this analysis), that our navy should have room for both in our increasingly complex world.

Please read my exchange with David at the Fear, Honor, and Interest post, as some innovative ideas not included in this post are presented.

This is cross posted from