Shattered cities, smoldering tanks, mounting casualties, floods of refugees. The unfolding horrors of the war in Ukraine underscore the brutal costs of full-scale conflict—and the drive to try to win without having to go to such extremes. Insurgents, those who want to change the status quo, often have attempted this because they lacked the conventional military strength to engage their enemies in set-piece battle. For the counterinsurgents, those who want to preserve the status quo, the best response has been to adopt the unorthodox tactics of their adversaries and beat them at their own game.
Only, it is no game. It is a deadly serious conflict between opposing forces that is more than competition but less than all-out warfare. It is largely kept below the level of conventional warfighting to limit the costs of victory—or defeat. As the Ukraine war demonstrates, the costs of full-scale war can be as high as they are unpredictable.
Thus, victory in lower-level campaigns likely will define the future global order and in whose interest it is slanted. Accordingly, the great powers and others increasingly will resort in their deadly quarrels to indirect involvement, the empowerment and use of proxies, allied action, and the weaponization of public opinion, the law, and economic relations, all of which also are on display in the Ukraine war.
Coverage of the fighting in Ukraine naturally focuses on what is happening on land, but this must not obscure the crucial maritime dimension and the wider struggle for control of the international order. The world ocean frames the international order, because of its resources, its role as a medium of communication, its centrality to world trade, and, of course, the strategic opportunities it offers to shape outcomes ashore. The extent to which competing countries control what happens at sea makes it an increasing focus of strategic concern. It makes sense, therefore, when searching for guidance about how such sea-related conflicts are best fought, to look at what Sir Julian Corbett, one of the great masters of maritime thinking, has to say.
The Seven Years’ War
The first hundred pages of Corbett’s account of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) between Britain and France are a master class in how such operations should be conducted and show that resorting to the sneaky techniques of insurgency and counterinsurgency is far from new. Contemporary preoccupations now on display in Ukraine all make their appearance.
Both protagonists engaged in diplomatic campaigns to win allies. The French, wanting to defend their interests west of the Appalachian Mountains, needed allies to help threaten British interests in Europe and make major British movements in America impossible. The British needed to preempt and defeat any such effort. The situation in the disputed western lands was complicated, confused, and conducted in part by combinations of regular forces and local proxies, not always under the control of London or Paris but certainly supplied by them. All concerned were conducting campaigns always in danger of developing a momentum of their own and escalating into full-scale war, as indeed happened in 1756.
In implementing this grand strategy, both sides backed up their diplomatic efforts with the calculated and coordinated maneuver of their land and sea forces. The diplomats and warriors of the 18th century were well aware of the need to wield all the levers of national power in mutual support.1 Military responses were coordinated with, and supplemented by, diplomatic, political, commercial, and legal ones in strategies notable for their multidimensionality. On the British side, the conflict was directed from a special “secret committee” set up to respond to all contingencies.2
Naval movements were central to the campaign in what Corbett called the “marchland within which the frontier of peace and war existed but which could never be traced.” In this gray area of “hostile intercourse short of war,” both sides conducted “reprisals” ranging from the seizure of vessels illegally fishing to operations that were “scarcely if at all distinguishable from full hostility.”3 Success at this level could, he thought, enable a belligerent to seize the strategic initiative early and become “master of the game.” A contemporary example would be Russian fleet exercises in the Baltic and northeast Pacific and ambitious NATO exercises in the Arctic and the Mediterranean, such as Cold Response and Neptune Strike 22, respectively.
Since HMS Defender and HNLMS Evertsen’s challenge to Russian conceptions of their legal entitlement off the Crimea last year, NATO arguably has paid too little attention to maritime deterrence in the Black Sea. Hindsight suggests development of the Ukrainian navy’s sea denial capabilities should have been conducted with greater urgency, and that the slow decline in NATO ship visits to the Black Sea since 2014—and their absence in mid-February on the eve of war—transmitted the wrong message to Putin.4 The point, as Corbett wrote, is that it is wrong to think “the sole function of a fleet is to win battles at sea.”5 The fleet’s first purpose, he argued instead, is “to support or obstruct diplomatic effort.” Fleet deployments need to reflect that basic priority.
In 1756, economic interests both motivated and were an instrument of the French and British strategic efforts. The weaponization of sea-based trade is likewise a critical element of the Ukraine war. Although Putin has claimed Russia is not at war, he is nonetheless mounting a belligerent blockade of Ukraine to smash its capacity to sustain its war economy through exports and to prevent the West from supplying weaponry and humanitarian assistance by sea. In reprisal, the West is enforcing a sanctions regime on Russia, partly to weaken and punish and partly to deter future aggression. This far-reaching and perhaps potentially decisive campaign requires constant naval servicing around the world, helping to sustain the political understandings with bystanders that such sanctions campaigns require.
Although both sides in the Seven Years’ War came up with grand strategies that were notable for what Corbett called their “unscrupulousness,” international and domestic support depended in part on their winning the battle of the narrative. Neither side could afford to be seen as the aggressor. In this, for the British especially, journalists were a problem. “Even intentions and thoughts are guessed at and made public by those abominable writers of daily papers,” lamented the Earl of Albemarle.6 “Intelligencers” (spies) also were an important part of the information campaign, as was leveraging the power of international law, or at least the protagonists’ understanding of it. In both cases, it was less about what was right or wrong and more about what worked. In the Ukraine war, the battle of the narrative, both foreign and domestic, is clearly crucial to both sides.
Like Russia, China has demonstrated its willingness to use these sub- and low-kinetic means to secure its aims in its own multidimensional campaigns regarding Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. Just as seizing and fortifying one feature in the South China Sea makes taking others nearby much easier, nothing succeeds like success. These are insurgencies in that they seek to substantially change the established global order without resorting to conventional battle against the defenders of the status quo. Experience suggests that countering such insurgencies may well call for the liberal West to adopt the same tactics.
Directing such wide-ranging strategies today is not easy, especially for democracies less able than autocracies to commandeer and direct national resources. Moreover, the leaders of democracies have to be sensitive to election cycles and the vagaries of public opinion. Hence, the importance of the domestic battle of the narrative and the high susceptibility of liberal democracies to the kind of disinformation and “false flag” tactics considered and employed by Russia in Ukraine.7 Such actions in the information environment must be anticipated, prepared for, and effectively refuted throughout the planning and execution of military operations. So far the Ukrainians have shown themselves to be very good at this.
Many of the same considerations apply to the crucial task of winning the support of both allied and partner nations, as well as bystanders. Their sympathy or support provides diplomatic cover and material assistance, whether in the shape of extra resources or physical facilities near the theater of operations. Facilitating this is an essential force multiplier, even for a superpower with extensive resources of its own. Allies can be a nuisance, complicating issues and slowing decision-making, but as Winston Churchill famously observed during World War II, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”
Alliances are a major area of advantage for the United States. Apart from each other (to a limited but perhaps growing extent), Russia and China do not have allies, only clients.8 This underscores the importance of continual and well-resourced U.S. diplomatic engagement, which has a major maritime aspect even in such apparently terrestrial theaters as Ukraine. For the past five years the United States has not had an ambassador to ASEAN; given the attention Washington pays to events in the South China Sea, this is nothing short of bizarre. For the same reason, heavy involvement in maritime exercises, capacity building, ship visits, and reliable forward presence pays dividends in the long run, even if it partly inhibits warfighting readiness in the short term.
Such engagements, however, need to be sensitive to local concerns. Excessive rhetorical focus on liberal values, for example, can impede cooperation with necessary allies and partners, such as Vietnam or Duterte’s Philippines. The fact that most people seem to aspire to the values of the liberal West is a comforting strategic advantage in the longer term, but perhaps not one to be deployed on every occasion. Russia and China have fewer such inhibitions, giving them some advantage in the practice of the “unscrupulous” realpolitik of the Seven Years’ War. In any case, some of the United States’ leading allies take a less Manichean view of their conflict with Russia and China—which U.S. sailors and diplomats should bear in mind.
Moving down to the operational and tactical levels of analysis: The naval contribution must conform to the same precepts that apply on the political and strategic levels. This means accepting that successful campaigning in the shadows between peace and war requires a balanced approach toward servicing the differing requirements of sea control in peace and war. Just as an imaginative insurgent can, in the early stages of a terrestrial insurgency, achieve major strategic objectives without necessarily having the capacity to prevail in open conflict, so too can low-level maritime activity at sea seriously limit the other, stronger side’s ability to prevail. According to Corbett, this could be true even in wartime.
In some circumstances, an “uncommanded sea” could give a belligerent most of what it needs strategically. Were the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps able to control events on and around the first island chain, for example, the Chinese Navy’s operations within it would be seriously, and perhaps sufficiently, constrained. This raises the importance of the peacetime diplomatic and economic efforts that would be necessary to ensure these warfighting options—and the deterrence capacity they provide—are politically and militarily possible.
Adaptation and Adoption
Corbett did acknowledge that the capacity to prevail in war remains strategically beneficial in peacetime. Accordingly, he understood the professional navy’s urge to focus on developing warfighting skills. In today’s situation, he no doubt would support the revival of Western naval fighting power after a long period of relative neglect. His point, though, would be that this revival should not come at the cost of everything else navies have to offer. To deter, it is not always necessary to be able to win outright.
Instead, successful insurgents and counterinsurgents constantly adapt to the challenge of each other’s methods and often go on to adopt them. This was what both sides did in the bloody campaign between the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) and the Tamil Sea Tigers from 1984 to 2009. The latter based their operations outside the immediate theater and invested in clouds of small but deadly specialist craft that were able to hide within the fishing fleets that operate in the Palk Strait and Sri Lankan waters. Thus concealed, they could launch lethal ambushes on larger, more conventional SLN patrol boats, keep their fellow insurgents ashore supplied, and even attack SLN bases. Their success nearly wrested sea control from the navy’s hands and encouraged the Tamil diaspora to fund a dark fleet of merchant ships that supported the whole campaign afloat and ashore. A vigorous propaganda campaign that exploited the SLN’s mistakes, especially when they involved apparent atrocities against innocent fishermen, reinforced their narrative.
Only when the SLN radically shifted its approach was this insurgency campaign first contained, then defeated, and sea control regained. The SLN adopted the methods of its opponents, investing in better, more agile patrol boats and engaging in tactics that beat the insurgents at their own game. Alongside this, an intelligence effort facilitated the successful interception and capture of several of the all-important supply ships. Combined, these counterstrokes cut off the insurgents ashore from their sources of supply and eventually doomed them to a decisive if controversial defeat on land.
Another such low-level campaign is taking place in the Arabian Gulf and surrounding seas between specialist elements of the Israeli Navy and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). Neither side wants an all-out war. Both are exploiting the techniques of maritime insurgency for strategic advantage in campaigns marked by covert missile and limpet mine attacks on selected merchant ships, sabotage, and cyber operations against port facilities. “We are at war,” admitted the IRGC–aligned analyst Hossein Dalirian in March 2021, “but with the lights off.”9 Targets and attack methods appear carefully selected and legal complexities exploited, so that small actions can be calibrated to help shape large issues.
The same goes for China’s current campaigns over Taiwan and the East and South China Seas. In addition to displaying its growing naval power in impressive deployments and exercises, regular Chinese naval units operate in close combination with irregular paramilitary and coast guard forces, in a so-called cabbage strategy. Beijing skillfully interleaves and maneuvers different types of maritime forces to secure advantage over other claimants and external players. Large numbers of fishing and maritime militia boats, with their uncertain civilian or combatant status, multiply the difficulties faced by defending Southeast Asian navies and coast guards. Energetic, large, and well-armed China Coast Guard vessels can shoulder their victims aside, confident that behind them lurk stronger navy forces. Such efforts, coupled with industrial-scale development and the militarization of many South China Sea features, are transforming the facts on the ground, materially if not legally. These operations are conducted in close conformity with China’s “three warfares approach.” The same intermingling of military, paramilitary, political, and economic force can be seen in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
It is too soon to tell what conclusions President Xi will draw from the Ukraine war, but among them is likely a reminder that the outcome of full-throated military operations is surprisingly unpredictable and can be much more damaging than expected. If so, this could reinforce existing preferences for indirect and less risky approaches toward securing Beijing’s objectives over Taiwan. Should the United States wish to shape those objectives, and to resist systemic change in the global order, the distinctive character of both insurgency and counterinsurgency must be first understood and then applied. Some of the tactics and techniques of the insurgent may need to be adopted—perhaps by greater use of permanently deployed Coast Guard capabilities—and the battle of the narrative won. Above all, such operations need to be conducted within a supporting, multidimensional, and integrated framework of economic, diplomatic, legal, and informational effort—a point Corbett certainly would have emphasized.
1. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815 (London: Penguin, 2006), 260.
2. Julian S. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War: A Study in Combined Strategy (London: Longmans Green and Company, 1907), 32, 64.
3. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War, 24.
4. Alison Bath, “U.S. Navy and NATO Presence in the Black Sea Has Fallen since Russia Took Part of Ukraine, Figures Show,” Stars and Stripes, 28 January 2022.
5. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War, 3.
6. Corbett, 30.
7. Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. to Allege Russian Plot to Stage Attack as Pretext for Ukraine Invasion,” The Washington Post, 3 February 2022; and Julian Borger, “Moscow Planning ‘Graphic’ Fake Video to Justify Invasion, says U.S.,” The Guardian, 4 February 2022.
8. Vincent Ni, “‘Best It’s Ever Been’ Xi-Putin Summit to Show Ever Closer Ties as New Cold War Looms,” The Guardian, 4 February 2022.
9. Patrick Kingsley et al., “Israel’s Shadow War with Iran Moves Out to Sea,” New York Times, 26 March 2021.