With my new American Sea Power article coming out soon, I thought it would be worthwhile to post my opening remarks from American Sea Power Project Panel at the Defense Forum Washington last December.
In my article, “Sea Control and Command of the Sea Remain Essential,“ I emphasized the continuing relevance of sea control and command of the sea as concepts. I challenged readers to think about them more broadly, to revisit what we mean by them, and not stay wedded to interpretations that are all too often narrow in scope.
In his article, Dr. Lambert pointed out that Alfred Thayer Mahan emphasized the importance of naval power in a globalized economy, but Dr. Lambert also noted that what Mahan is best remembered for is an emphasis on decisive clashes between battle fleets. That’s unfortunate, and I believe that, over the years, we have made the same mistake with how we think about sea control and command of the sea. We’ve become too tactical. We think about them too narrowly. We need to return to a global, strategic perspective.
For Command of the Sea, I used Dr. Rubel’s definition—that it is a “strength relationship in which the weaker navy elects not to directly contest the stronger.” I am sure he will say more about that, but the key factor in his analysis, building off George Modelski and William R. Thompson’s book Sea Power in Global Politics—is that Command of the Sea must be considered in global terms. A global perspective is essential for considering the size and strength of navies… and what they have the potential to do.
The Navy’s potential for action is where Sea Control comes into play. I used Julian Corbett’s definition. He said Sea Control is the ability to “control the maritime communications of all parties concerned.” I cited the Battle of Ormoc Bay, fought on the night of 2 December 1944, to illustrate the challenge of exerting Sea Control. Even after the significant victory at Leyte Gulf the previous October, exerting sea control around the island of Leyte was a challenge. One of the three US Navy destroyers that entered Ormoc Bay that night was lost. The others failed to destroy the Japanese reinforcement convoy they sought. There will be similar challenges in the future and the Navy must be prepared for them.
But it must also be prepared to think differently. Corbett’s definition of sea control is especially valuable because it is extensive. “Maritime communications” can mean anything that flows on or below the sea. I pointed out examples of Sea Control that fit with this definition and that involve more than battles with combatant ships. One example was undersea cables. Historically, one method of exerting sea control was to cut an enemy’s undersea communication lines, and—if possible—force their communications to pass through your own. There are famous examples from the Spanish-American War and World War I. The number of undersea cables has grown significantly since. How might the Navy exploit that fact? How will it protect those cables upon which the global economic system depends?
Another great example of Sea Control comes from Dr. Lambert, whose book Planning Armageddon showed that before World War I, the Royal Navy extended the concept of Sea Control to the flow of credit through the global banking network. His analysis explains how the Royal Navy planned to combine Command of the Sea with control over the global trading system to collapse the German economy. As Dr. Lambert explained, the plan failed, arguably because it was working too well, and because the impact on other nations—especially neutral countries like the United States—was too great. However, the broader point is well made. Sea Control is about much more than shipping. It’s about the flow of goods and services more generally. It’s a means for combining military and economic power to unlock new strategic alternatives. What alternatives should the Navy be considering in the 21st century?
Finally, I tried to build on Andrew Lambert’s thesis—from his book Seapower States—that the liberal, democratic ideas which link together the world’s vibrant democracies and freedom of the seas are inextricably entwined. According to Andrew Lambert, Command of the Sea, as achieved by the United States and its Allies over the past 80 years, has supported the spread of open, free-market ideas and contributed to the world we enjoy today. That is a world it is in the interests of the United States to maintain, and these terms—command of the sea and sea control—give us useful frames for how to do that. They remain very relevant.