Last week a colleague from our department objected to my telling a group of reservists that the United States and its coalition partners have commanded the sea vis-à-vis al Qaeda and its affiliates since the 9/11 attacks eleven years ago. His argument, as best as I could make out, is that no one commands the sea in peacetime, especially in a conflict against a non-state antagonist like al Qaeda. U.S. forces may enjoy untrammeled use of the commons to project power onto foreign shores, but the nature of a globalized system of trade and commerce rules out efforts to interrupt salafists’ use of the commons. Command is a phenomenon that only happens in wartime.
This is worth replying to because it exposes the ambiguities and dilemmas involved in using sea power in conflicts spanning the war/peace divide. One theoretical point and one practical point. First, sea-power theory. Sir Julian Corbett makes the commonsense point that an uncommanded sea is the norm. No nation or coalition can afford to post sentinels—ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles—at close intervals throughout the world’s oceans and seas to squelch challenges to the globalized order. The seas and skies are so vast as to defy blanket coverage. In this sense, no armed force ever commands the sea—either in peacetime or wartime.
So is the idea of command trivial or moot? Nope. Corbett insists that “permanent general control” of the sea—a rose by another name—is, and typically should be, the wartime goal for a dominant navy like the Royal Navy of his day, or for the U.S. Navy today. Nine times out of ten, he notes, the Mahanian vision of seeking out and destroying the enemy fleet at the outset of war is “sound and applicable.” It constitutes the surest route to unfettered use of the sea. “By general and permanent control,” explains the British historian,Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
"…we do not mean that the enemy can do nothing, but that he cannot interfere with our maritime trade and overseas operations so seriously as to affect the issue of the war, and that he cannot carry on his own trade and operations except at such risk and hazard as to remove them from the field of practical strategy. In other words, it means that the enemy can no longer attack our lines of communication effectively, and that he cannot use or defend his own."
In pragmatic terms, then, the navy that attains permanent general control can use the shipping lanes while preventing its opponent from using them in any meaningful way. The act of fighting for command is unnecessary. If a fleet engagement takes place, the victor commands the sea by definition; if one of the antagonists refuses to fight, the other can exploit command temporarily until the battle is joined; and if one of the antagonists lacks the wherewithal to contest control of the sea, command falls to its opponent by default. The U.S. Navy and its allies will rule until the Al Qaeda Navy takes to the seven seas.
Indeed, peacetime command is the most perfect form of maritime command. What was the Pax Britannica, or what is the Pax Americana, if not an age when no one could challenge the leading navy and no one saw any pressing need to do so? With no one to contest permanent general control, Corbett’s “flotilla” of light craft not meant for major battles—frigates, cutters, and other law-enforcement-like vessels—can exploit command, keeping good order at sea with little fear of interference.
Second, the practical dimension. This is not peacetime. Just ask Congress, which authorized the use of military force against al Qaeda and kindred groups, or NATO, which invoked Article 5 of its founding covenant for the first time after 9/11. Article 5 prescribes measures for responding to an “armed attack” on one or more of the allies. It is meant for wartime.
Al Qaeda & Co. have doubtless turned the liberal maritime order to their advantage in this armed struggle. Militants can try to secrete bomb-making materials or other logistical support in shipping containers ferried by freighters from seaport to seaport. If so, isn’t the enemy making use of his sea lines of communication, and isn’t the U.S. Navy powerless to prevent it?
Not really. Since 9/11, governments and international bodies have launched a boatload of initiatives designed to thwart illicit use of the system of trade and commerce. Some of these initiatives bear names like Proliferation Security Initiative and Container Security Initiative. Others have the blessing of the UN Security Council. In 2004 the Security Council directed member states to enact effective export controls. The sanctions authorizing searches of ships bound to and from North Korea also come to mind.
To varying degrees, moreover, international compacts like the Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea Convention and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea grant authority for multinational efforts to break the supply chain connecting sellers, middlemen, and buyers of unconventional weaponry, the delivery systems for doomsday weapons (usually ballistic missiles), and associated hardware and substances.
True, navies aren’t blockading al Qaeda as traditionally understood. But they are working alongside law enforcement, intelligence services, and foreign partners to interdict the enemy’s use of the commons. In effect these constitute non-naval arms of coalition sea power. Call it command of the sea by non-traditional means.