Is the U.S. Getting Outmaneuvered at Sea?

By Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.)

Admiral Stavridis (Ret.) was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he earned a PhD in international affairs.  He is currently Vice Chair, Global Affairs and Managing Director at The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis believes the Trump Administration fails to recognize the importance of our oceans.  In his new book Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, Stavridis is troubled by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and a proposed budget that boosts military spending, but does little to increase naval capabilities.

The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder talked with Stavridis, who previously served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander-Europe and is now Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, about why the seas are important and what challenges the U.S. faces on the waters.

The Cipher Brief: Your new book Sea Power was recently released. Why did you write this book? Why now?

Admiral James Stavridis: One, in today’s world, there’s a huge economic component. Ninty-five percent of the world’s goods are moving on these oceans. Two, our alliances, in so many cases, are overseas and also interwoven with maritime, military, and security activities. Three, the challenges that are arising today on the oceans from Russia and China – who are building big, new, powerful navies – as well as the potential, in the long-term, of terrorist operations in the maritime space. Fourth and finally, the environment. I’m deeply concerned about acidification of the oceans and the potential to lose our source of oxygen. Seventy percent of the world’s oxygen comes from photosynthesis in the sea.

So the oceans are under extreme pressure – geopolitically, economically, environmentally. I wanted to highlight that and get that issue on the global agenda.

TCB: Does this timing coincide purposefully with the new U.S. administration? For a number of the things you just mentioned, the Trump Administration seems to be in opposition – for example, by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, by not signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with our allies in the East.

Stavridis: To add to your thesis – denigrating our relationships with NATO and pushing away many of our non-NATO allies around the world. The short answer is yes. This is an administration that needs to look with a more responsible eye at important maritime issues. I hope the book will have some effect in that regard.

TCB: Can you talk a little bit about the specific threats from Russia and China expanding their sea capabilities?

Stavridis: Let’s back up 20 years ago. The Berlin Wall falls down, and Russia, which is the only other global Navy in the world besides the United States, puts their forces in mothballs, breaks up most of their ships. They go down to a very low base line of military and especially maritime capability. Twenty years ago, China is effectively operating a coastal Navy with very little significant blue water capability.

What is happening now is Russia and China are both increasing their defense budgets dramatically, and they’re both putting a great deal of money and technological attention into their fleets. Russia will add 100 ships to its fleet between now and the early 2020s. China’s military and maritime budget is growing equally rapidly. And they’re pushing out to operate in the blue water of the deep Pacific – something we’ve never seen before from China.

Both of these nations are not going to simply allow the world’s oceans to be big American lakes, which was the case two decades ago. We’ve got to face that and increase the number of ships we operate significantly.

It’s not only the challenge of Russia and China, but I am also very concerned about the potential for terrorist activity at sea, and I’ll give you two scenarios. One is the use of containers on big transport ships to move weapons of mass destruction. At the end of the day, [North Korean leader] Kim Jong un probably won’t launch a ballistic missile at us because we’ll know where it came from. But he might try and find a way to put one into a container and move it into Long Beach Harbor.

Secondly, these huge cruise ships are big lucrative targets. They’re not very well defended. You could see a USS Cole-style attack on one of them. At the really dark end of the spectrum, you could see terrorists actually trying to infiltrate a cruise and acting on a captive audience at sea.

TCB: It’s in everybody’s interest to combat this terror threat. So is it accurate to be thinking about strategic power at sea in an adversarial way? For example, should the U.S. be thinking, okay, Russia and China are our adversaries at sea, this is what we have to do in order to defend ourselves? Or should we be leaning more toward looking at ways to cooperate with these countries at sea?

Stavridis: I think the answer is both. And effectively we’re doing both right now. We cooperate with Russia and China in counter-piracy off the coast of East Africa. But that does not prevent us from having real geopolitical challenges with China in the South China Sea, where we challenge the international legal context of their artificial islands; nor does that piracy cooperation seem to be helping us in reducing conflict with Russia at sea, where their aircraft are buzzing our ships constantly. Unfortunately, we’re going to see the geopolitical challenge. The question is, can we at least do some cooperation against terrorism at sea, the way that we do now, marginally, against piracy at sea?

TCB: In your book, you talk a lot about the Arctic and the geostrategic importance of the Arctic in the coming years. What’s cooperation like right now between the U.S. and Russia in that region?

Stavridis: It’s not good. In fact, while we’re not in conflict, we are certainly in competition with Russia. There are some very small efforts: a few very small conversations about search and rescue, a little bit about navigation, and a little bit about science diplomacy. But by and large, what we’re seeing is a Russian military buildup in the Arctic. They’re putting more troops there, they’re operating more aggressively, they have many more icebreakers than we do. The United States only has essentially one ice breaker – a large one run by the U.S. Coast Guard. Russia has dozens. So we need to up our game, and we should try to find some ways to cooperate. But at the moment, cooperation is very small, and it is more likely trending toward competition. God forbid we should get into a conflict up there. That would be the ultimate cold war, pun intended.

TCB: Will the seas ever not be important? You mentioned trade and how 95 percent of global trade moves in the seas; but what about a world in 5, 10, 20 decades, where there isn’t trade of material objects because everything’s taking place in cyberspace – or where warfare shifts to war in space as opposed to on land and at sea. Do you ever foresee that future?

Stavridis: I do not. It would require a violation of the laws of physics in order to move the massive quantities of hydrocarbons, the massive quantities of food, the massive quantities of manufactured goods – those are going to move at sea. Therefore, there’s going to be vulnerabilities represented by their movement at sea. Certainly over the next century, there’s no conceivable scientific or technological advance that will significantly reduce the importance of the oceans.

TCB: You spent more than 30 years at sea over the course of your career, as opposed to most humans who are only familiar with land. What did you learn in that time?

Stavridis: First of all, I was very lucky to always have an office with an incredible view. I got to look out on the ocean, and I always say, when you look at the ocean, you’re looking at eternity. It helps you realize that we’re only put here on the earth for a brief period of time and to enjoy the beauty of the world around you. So I was lucky to spend a significant part of my life actually at sea. Understanding that important philosophical point is important.

Secondly, what I really saw was that the sea is one. We tend to think of it as the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Arctic – and they’re all different, but ultimately the oceans are all connected in a way that the land is not, because the oceans separate the land. Mariners who operate on the oceans of the world understand each other. There is a distinct culture to being a sailor, and that transcends a lot of the normal difference between people. I get Russian sailors, I get Chinese sailors. That doesn’t mean we won’t go to war with each other. But there is a community of the maritime world.

And then third and finally – and I think we undervalue this – I saw first-hand how important the oceans are to human development. The protein from fish, the hydrocarbons from deep seabed mining, the enormous movement of trade, the commercial value of the tourism industry, the huge ports on each coast. There’s 50,000 ships at sea every single day around the world, and probably three million people are at sea on any given day. What I saw as a mariner is that this watery world matters deeply and is underappreciated. That’s why I ended up writing the book.

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