Since the time of the Greeks and the Persians clashing in the Mediterranean, sea power has determined world power. To an extent that is often underappreciated, it still does, says Admiral James Stavridis (USN Retd.), one of the U.S. Navy's most decorated naval officers.
Stavridis is the author of Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, published by Penguin Press in June. Stavridis takes readers with him on a tour of the world’s most important bodies of water highlighting how the geography of the oceans has shaped the destiny of nations and how it will shape the future.
The book is a naval history offering fresh insight into great naval engagements from the battles of Salamis and Lepanto through to Trafalgar, the Battle of the Atlantic, and the submarine conflicts of the Cold War. It also discusses the likely sites of the U.S.' next major naval conflicts, particularly the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea.
Stavridis is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who spent over 35 years on active service in the Navy. He commanded destroyers and a carrier strike group in combat and served for seven years as a four-star admiral, including nearly four years as the first Navy officer chosen as Supreme Allied Commander for Global Operations at NATO. After retiring from the Navy he was named the dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 2013. He has written articles on global security issues for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Atlantic.
Issues covered in the book include:
• Russia’s military presents a significant threat. Following a period of decline, the nation has since developed its submarine capability, expanding the number, technology, and operational reach of all their submarines. The U.S. would be wise to keep an eye on this potential competitor’s increasing power and maintain the capabilities necessary to defeat it, if need be.
• There is a real danger of ISIS invading Europe through the Mediterranean’s southern border, either by infiltration of illegal migrant boats or through the use of small crafts that many smugglers and drug runners depend upon. To protect allies and prepare for conflict, the U.S. should consider increasing the size of the Sixth Fleet, which is based out of Italy, and keeping a permanently deployed flotilla of at least ten ships to the Mediterranean, as opposed to the current two or three.
• Cooperation with NATO can guarantee reliable and immediate access to bases and logistic support all around the periphery of Europe and up into the Arctic. The current administration’s flip-flopping opinion of NATO and its members has the damaging possibility of alienating the U.S. and weakening our maritime network.
• Unbeknownst to the majority of the public, 99 percent of the world’s daily international telecommunications occur via commercial fiber optic cables at the bottom of the world’s oceans. These 285 cables could be the site of informational warfare in coming years; both individual nations and international organizations should collectively be thinking through disaster scenarios in preparation.
• 95 percent of global trade moves by sea. It is imperative the U.S. see itself as a maritime nation, and thus work to enforce an understanding of the oceans as an open global commons. The president should sign the U.N.’s Law of the Sea treaty, allowing safe passage and transit of the seas without piracy, political interference, or natural barriers.
• The U.S. must also understand the oceans as an important component in our military efforts. To prosper and lead in this century, the U.S. needs a coherent national strategy that capitalizes on geographical power and national character, while recognizing the potential of the oceans.
• China has made aggressive efforts in the past several years to gain territorial ownership of the South China Sea. They are on track to double defense spending by 2020 and have illegally constructed nearly three thousand acres of artificial islands in the region in a bid to gain dominance of the waters.
• The current presidential administration has withdrawn the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which did not include China), dampening the hope for stronger allegiances between the U.S. and nations surrounding the South China Sea, including Japan, Australia and Vietnam. The future of bilateral trade agreements is, at the moment, ambiguous at best.
• The development of cyber capabilities has affected how operational and strategic decisions are made at sea. The electronic mapping of the ocean has altered not only navigational processes, but also how combat is conducted. The vast expanses of the ocean no longer provide a natural hiding place for ships, and virtually all naval weapons today depend on guidance obtained at least in part from GPS systems.
• The oceans have been termed by some “the biggest crime scene in the world.” The smuggling of narcotics is common, and the fight to control it is more complicated than one might expect. To effectively handle the illegal trade, the U.S. must focus its efforts on more than interception during transit. Though important, interdiction must be supported by crop eradication in source countries as well as an improvement of drug treatment programs in countries where demand exists.
• Piracy has cost the global transportation network an estimated $15 to $20 billion, due to increased insurance premiums, ransoms, legal fees, embedded security guards on the ships, inefficient routing to avoid highly pirated zones, additional lookouts, technology and equipment on ships to prevent attacks and national expenses in sending warships and operational staffs to oversee global counterpiracy operations. Though piracy has decreased in recent years, continued international cooperation is a necessity to stave off such criminal activity.
• Environmental degradation is the biggest act of criminal behavior being practiced on the high seas. Oil pollution, the dumping of plastics and garbage directly into the sea, exploitation of the sea’s natural resources, and rising water levels as a result of global warming are all expected to increase in coming years, threatening the health of oceans and their plants and animals. There must be renewed support of the worldwide pledge made in 2010 to safeguard at least 10 percent of the world’s oceans as protected reserves by 2020 (as of now, only two percent have been so designated).
• The Indian Ocean has the potential to see much conflict in coming years. Less domesticated than the Atlantic and Pacific, the Indian Ocean has witnessed tensions rise between China and India, as China continues to expand its commercial and influence and basing throughout the Indian Ocean littoral; piratical activity along the East African littoral and throughout the western Indonesian archipelago; and warfare between the Sunnis and the Shi’a in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. How the geopolitics of the Indian Oceans unfolds will be a crucial vector for the overall trends of twenty-first-century geopolitics.
• By 2040, there will be an open passage to the Arctic Ocean for essentially 12 months of the year. This ease in accessibility is already drawing international attention to the resource-rich ocean. The Arctic holds great promise. I covers an estimated nearly 15 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the gas, and a possible trillion dollars in metals but also great peril as the enormity of its resources could lead to tension and danger among vying nations.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.