Naval Forces Come Aground

By Lieutenant Alastair Cooper, Royal Australian Navy

The Reasons Why

The 21st century will not invalidate the current conceptions of maneuver based maritime warfare at the strategic and operational levels, but it will require them to accommodate fundamentally different static forms. The driving factor is the changing relationship between land and sea. In 1900 the sea was a global common; an infinite source of fish and a bottomless rubbish dump. Nations laid claim to only the most minimal portions of it—their three-nautical-mile territorial sea. Freedom of the high seas referred primarily to freedoms of navigation rather than to issues of resource use or the marine environment.

Almost 100 years later, our understanding is much different. The sea is a bountiful place, but our ability to harvest marine resources is much greater than the sea's ability to replace them. The collapse of some Atlantic fisheries and the aggressive targeting of Pacific Ocean fish stocks are eloquent testimony. Similarly, the seas are not unaffected by the enormous amount of pollution and waste dumped or washed into them. Land-based sources account for approximately 70% of all maritime pollution.

The seas are now known to be much more valuable than previously was realized. One result of this is that under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea most nations now lay claim to 12 nautical mile territorial seas and have sovereign rights to living and nonliving resources of the water column and sea bed out to 200 nautical miles, and in some cases more. The resources contained in their exclusive economic zones are centers of gravity that need to be taken into account when considering national defense strategy.

When current maritime strategy was formed people were only fleeting visitors to the maritime environment, and in relatively small numbers. Naval forces recognized that the natural state of the sea is to be uncontrolled, and that when it was necessary to exercise control that it was limited in time and space to what was operationally demanded. A larger and in some cases permanent human presence, however, will heighten national desires to exercise control over their territorial seas and exclusive economic zones, and naval forces more often will be required to obtain absolute control over them.

Nations do not have territory out to 200 nautical miles, but particularly if scarce or valuable resources are at stake, they may try to defend their sovereign rights in their exclusive economic zones with the same zeal with which they defend their territorial rights. The fundamental difference that this will make in maritime warfare is that naval forces will have to defend fixed assets in known areas. Oil and gas platforms and environmental features, as well as fisheries, will be objects of maritime warfare. The cod wars between Britain and Iceland and the disputes between Canada and the European Union are just the tip of what awaits us in the 21st century.

The Face of the Future

The current concern with littoral warfare is a useful trend, because it brings attention to the area where the overwhelming majority of people and the bulk of national infrastructure and resources are found: within 200 nautical miles of a coastline. What now must be acknowledged is that an increasing proportion of national resources and infrastructure are to be found on the maritime side of the coast. These offshore assets are static and could be the strategic center of gravity in a conflict. Naval forces need to understand potential vulnerabilities so that they can defend or exploit them as the circumstances demand.

Oil and gas platforms are the largest and most obvious examples. They are a relatively small number of discrete targets, and their locations may be found by such everyday means as the relevant charts for an area. Most nations probably have plans for their defense against terrorist attack, but these plans may be somewhat dusty given the lack of such strikes. It also is doubtful that a plan for defense against terrorist attack will be suited to defense against a determined enemy naval force.

Leaving out the potential for future specialized weapons, it seems that submarine-launched weapons, antiship missiles, and torpedoes in particular could be adapted easily to attack an oil and gas platform. Defense against such an attack would require advanced air and subsurface sensors and at least some form of point-defense weapon. The surveillance sensors would have to cover a very large area if they were to have a chance of detecting the attacking submarine prior to its strike. Point-defense weapons against torpedoes are an unknown quantity, and close-in weapon systems may not be 100% effective, even when they do hit the incoming missile.

A submarine may not even have to approach the platform; cutting the pipeline to shore or the embarkation point might be sufficient. And as technology allows for drilling in deeper waters, such pipelines are likely to be even longer.

The answers to these challenges are not conceptually difficult. Currently they would take up a great deal of the capability of most nations' naval forces, with the disadvantage that there would be no opportunity for anything other than tactical maneuver by the defending ships, which would make them potential targets as well. Even then the problem of positively identifying the aggressor may remain, and as the 1946 mining of the Corfu Channel demonstrated, this is not always possible. A permanent answer will require new concepts for operations and probably purpose-built systems.

The same principles may be extended to environmental features that directly support large sections of a nation's economy. The growth of tourism is one example. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef supports a tourist industry that is worth billions to the national economy. While it is not likely that an enemy could destroy the Barrier Reef completely, it might be possible to destroy discrete portions frequented by tourists or to scare tourists away. Marine pollution and climate changes pose other dangers to environmental features on which nations depend. All of these threats come with the question of what would be a suitable or acceptable response to such an attack, assuming that the aggressor could be identified. If one nation deliberately degrades another's tourist industry, is it acceptable to respond with conventional arms?

The fishing industry is where these new scenarios probably will first be played out. At the start of the century fishing fleets were almost exclusively comprised of small vessels operating close to their coasts. Besides their proximity to shelter, there were simply too many vessels for naval forces to be able to destroy a significant percentage of them. Today most fishing fleets are made up of smaller numbers of much larger vessels, often fishing far from their own territorial waters or exclusive economic zones. They are relatively easy to find and eminently susceptible to traditional naval forces. Fish species and the fishing vessels that follow them are relatively static in terms of naval warfare.

The main point is that naval forces once again are faced with a static warfare situation-the requirement to defend and hold ground.

It might seem that naval forces have faced similar challenges before. The defended sea lane concepts for transatlantic transport certainly had some of the same requirements, particularly to have very long range surveillance sensors. But there is one fundamental difference. The objects of static maritime warfare do not move or are not appreciably maneuverable. Ships in a defended area or sea lane are constantly moving and their paths are not always predictable. This greatly complicates an attacker's problem. Objects such as oil and gas platforms do not move in the same way, which gives an attacker the inestimable benefit of being able to choose the time, place, and method of attack.

In these terms the defender's task is proportionally harder, but it is not all one way. For example, the defender can restrict access to the area that may be the site of conflict, reducing the attacker's ability to overtly gain knowledge. A potential enemy may give up the element of surprise if observed reconnoitering the area. A defender also may prepare the area, placing fixed systems to assist in protecting the objects of the conflict.

The Coexistence of Warfare Forms

Static maritime warfare is new, but it is not completely alien. The joint structures in many armed forces should allow ready access to the land-warfare concepts that will provide the initial basis for static maritime warfare. They will not be completely adequate—the maritime environment is different from the land in many respects—so naval forces will have to modify them to suit their own needs, based on their own experience.

There are many changes under way in a wide range of military practices, but this is not the first time that large and rapid changes in military tactics, operations, or strategy have occurred. Writing of the period prior to and during the First World War, Paul Kennedy has noted that achieving military effectiveness is a complex process, requiring

that rare kind of imagination which enables men to plan not just for the exploitation of the existing state of their art but for its future developments also.

Naval forces must have the imagination to appreciate the birth of a new static form of warfare, but they also must realize that it will coexist with, not replace, traditional maneuver warfare.

Lieutenant Cooper , a seaman officer in the Royal Australian Navy and a graduate of the Australian Defense Force Academy, is undertaking the Principal Warfare Officer’s Course. He has served as research officer for the RAN’s Maritime Studies Program and as an officer of the watch in the guided-missile frigate HMAS Canberra .


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