Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett indisputably both viewed geopolitics through the lens of maritime strategies, and the apparent success of such strategies in two 20th-century world wars largely leaves assumptions of their preeminence critically unexamined in Western politico-military thought.
It would be prudent, however, for Western strategists to dust off and reconsider a third geopolitical luminary, Halford Mackinder. In particular, they should examine China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) outside the maritime-strategy blinders implicit in commentary focused on the Maritime Silk Road component of the BRI, by which is inferred an evolving Chinese adoption of a maritime strategy. For, if the assumed supremacy of Western maritime strategy is misplaced, then there are critical implications for its use as a geopolitical foundation and for the structuring of forces and plans around it.
Mackinder (and intellectually related scholars such as Rudolf Kjellén, Dimitri Kitsikis, and Asanga Abeyagoonasekera) examined geopolitics through a continental lens, reflected in terms of references such as “heartland,” “world island,” and “intermediate region.” Mackinder (and his contemporary, Kjellén) believed that developing international land transportation modalities reduced the advantages of the sea powers and argued that the pivot of global political power was control of the Eurasian land mass.
As Zbigniew Brzezinski observed in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard:
A power that dominates “Eurasia” would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over “Eurasia” would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in “Eurasia,” and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. “Eurasia” accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.
Or, in Mackinder’s words: “Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
Examined from this frame of reference, the BRI should be understood as much more than its typical characterizations, such as benign infrastructure development with a focus on real assets, development of large unified markets, or an engine of economic development and trade. Rather, it should be understood as the central aspect of a long-range Chinese plan to implement a Eurasian continental grand strategy. Its aims are to secure interior lines of communication and resource access to insulate China from the execution of a maritime strategy; co-opt facilities’ access and supplant maritime nations’ influence along those sea lines of communication most critical to their survival; and exclude hostile powers from access to areas necessary to effectively project power from the sea. It is a plan that has the potential to effectively counter maritime strategies, critically weaken those dependent on such strategies, and fundamentally change the balance of power and world order.
—CDR Phillip Keuhlen, USN (Ret.)
In Today’s globalized economy, the size and reach of a nation’s navy gives that nation a proportional influence on the shape of the global economy. Given that, the United States needs to consider the makeup of its own future naval force and evaluate what level of influence it can expect from that makeup. Of chief concern is how the Navy plans to use the platforms in which it invests so heavily (littoral combat ships [LCSs], Gerald R. Ford–class carriers, etc.) to execute a modern naval blockade of countries such as China, Russia, or Iran.
Presence in a shipping lane or off a port is one thing, but that presence is useless without the ability to project force. Take the LCS, for example. It obviously was conceived, designed, and built at a time when the ability to maintain blue-water sea control was not the priority; getting in and executing precision action from the littorals was. Now that LCS is here to stay, we need to find a way to use it in the broader context of sea control. The important distinction here is that sea control is not synonymous with sea supremacy; it is simply the ability to control one or more sea lanes.
The concept of a traditional carrier strike group (CSG) also seems outmoded to this problem. While a CSG’s air power clearly can affect the success of a modern blockade, that amount of power so closely concentrated would surely draw a massive amount of attention and targeting. This is where the concept of light carriers could be so effective, both in cost and operational art.
The idea would be to develop a light or escort carrier from an amphibious assault ship (LHD) hull. France’s Charles de Gaulle, carrying one or two squadrons of fighter/attack aircraft, could be a great model. She is similar in length and displacement to the USS Wasp (LHD-1)—although about twice the beam—but that gives her an angled flight deck and two catapults forward. With a new, similar U.S. design, escorted by one or two cruisers or destroyers, this “CSG-light” would be a powerful fighting force produced at a much lower cost than the Gerald R. Fords.
This inevitably leads to the discussion of full-spectrum operations in support of a blockade. The Navy of Mahan’s day clearly did not need to worry about electronic warfare, cruise or ballistic missiles, or even aircraft, for that matter. However, these capabilities are simply tools to employ within the larger context of a blockade plan: using the softer parts of hard power to maximize the effect of your harder parts of soft power. That’s not to say a blockade gets established without the loss of some units; that’s a given when considering using that tactic against a force such as China, Russia, or Iran—but effective use of these tools is designed to limit those losses.
At the end of the day, the effectiveness of any blockade is not actually tied to the physical presence of the blockade at all. Using diplomatic and economic levers of power to establish, grow, and mature international economic alliances is really what will force the capitulation of the country being blockaded. Any action against a global power such as China needs to be a full-court press. Given that China clearly has the numerical advantage in munitions, platforms, and people, our ability to attrite their forces through hard and soft power is going to be critical. Coordinating with partner nations to isolate China from export markets is another huge part of the puzzle. Any blockade must be two-pronged: one on the delivery end, and one on the receiving end.
—LCDR Tom Danner, USN