Remarks delivered at “Limes” Maritime Festival, Trieste, September 18, 2021.
The organizers have asked me to appraise the U.S. strategic perspective on the Mediterranean Sea. Simple: the Mediterranean remains critical to U.S. strategy, as it has been since the presidency of Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago. In fact, the U.S. Navy’s very first foreign station was in the middle sea during the age of the Barbary States.
But the nature of its importance has changed in recent decades. Setting and enforcing priorities is what strategy is all about. Three U.S. presidential administrations representing both major political parties have now affirmed that the Indo-Pacific is the “priority theater” for U.S. military and maritime strategy. That means the Indo-Pacific has the first claim on U.S. military and naval resources. As a corollary, the Mediterranean and Atlantic have been demoted to secondary status on America’s list of strategic priorities.
That does not mean we are abandoning these waters, however. Sometimes policy debates involving geography take a comical turn. That was the case when the Obama administration announced its “pivot” to Asia in 2012, setting loose much consternation in European capitals and much weeping and gnashing of teeth among Europhiles in the United States. Europhiles almost instantly took to claiming that Washington was “turning its back” on Europe to refocus policy energy and resources on the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Not so. If you look at the world from the right perspective, it becomes clear that such claims are simply not true. It may appear that way on a Mercator map of the world that centers on North America, as many of ours do. In fact, it does appear that way: Europe lies to the far right of the map, East Asia to the far left. It appears you have to perform an about-face to shift from looking toward London or Rome to looking toward Beijing or Tokyo.
But look at this polar projection dating from World War II. This map tells a very different – and truer – story about U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and its rigors. It comes from mid-1941, before U.S. entry into the war but after we had instituted the Lend-Lease program to the Allies. It shows the routes transports had to take to resupply friendly countries around the world. I have highlighted these routes in red to make them stand out. The map shows just how far naval and air forces must travel from our east and west coasts to deploy to the Indo-Pacific. It also visually underscores just how valuable the Mediterranean sea route is. Between Italy to the north and the German Army in North Africa, the Axis had closed the Mediterranean to surface traffic by 1941. That meant that when the United States did enter the war, shipping originating on the U.S. east coast had to skirt all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Indian Ocean.
That is a big deal. Taking away the Mediterranean sea lane adds something like 5,000 kilometers to a sea voyage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, depending on the route taken. Not only does that extra distance take extra time, it forces ships to traverse potentially contested geographic space while consuming extra fuel, food, and other resources, wearying crews, and imposing wear-and-tear on hulls. In other words, the permanent importance of the Mediterranean sea lane was illustrated through its absence through 1943, when Allied forces finally turned the German Army out of North Africa.
So the United States has not turned its back on Europe, and compelling geopolitical interests make it unlikely we ever will. But it is probably fair to say that we now look at the Mediterranean as a transit route to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean more than a strategic body of water in its own right. It’s an enabler for efforts we deem important elsewhere in the world. Accordingly, we have deflected our gaze a few degrees to the south, from continental Europe to the Mediterranean corridor to the Indian Ocean.
There is cause for concern in the middle sea. We have to worry about “narrow seas” along the Mediterranean-Red Sea route, including Gibraltar, the Strait of Sicily, and of course the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb Strait. It is fairly easy for a coastal state to encumber or block passage through narrow maritime defiles such as these. Even crude weaponry such as sea mines can make things tough on a modern navy in confined waters. I have seen it happen.
But coastal states, and even some substate actors, are also harnessing far more advanced armaments to extend their sway. No longer is the sea a safe sanctuary for our navies, as we talked ourselves into believing it was after the Cold War. Access to important waters is increasingly in danger as precision munitions proliferate around the globe. These fall under the rubric of “anti-access/area denial,” Western shorthand for using shore- and sea-based firepower to hamper the movements of naval and merchant ships. Anti-access defenses strike at ships closing in on the defended zone from far away, while area denial means striking at ships already in your vicinity to keep them from massing at the scene of battle and prevailing.
Typically a state pursuing an anti-access strategy uses shore-based missiles, small missile-armed surface ships and submarines, and land-based missile-armed aircraft to strike at hostile forces at sea and supplement the power of its battle fleet. As you can tell, missiles are the common theme in anti-access and area denial. These are low-cost weapons that can take out high-cost ships. That’s a good exchange ratio for the defender.
Now, fashioning a new slogan, anti-access/area denial, did not bring an entirely new phenomenon into being. In fact, our anti-access conundrum has been a long time in the making. The first naval battle in the missile age took place in the Mediterranean Sea half a century ago. Egyptian naval forces sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx anti-ship missiles in October 1967, demonstrating the hazards surface navies confront when operating in near-shore waters. That battle provided some inkling of what was to come.
Soviet maritime strategy had a Mediterranean component during the Cold War, especially by the 1970s when the Soviet Navy had become a serious fighting force. Soviet strategy envisioned using the navy in concert with land-based air power to push Western forces back from Eastern Bloc shores. Soviet strategists called this buffer zone their “blue belt of defense.” Apart from cushioning against amphibious attack, the blue belt also aimed at creating a safe haven for Soviet ballistic-missile submarines – the core of Soviet nuclear deterrence. Fending off Western navies from the Eastern Mediterranean was likewise part of the blue-belt strategy.
Collapsing Moscow’s offshore “bastions” became a major goal of U.S. maritime strategy during the 1980s, the Cold War’s endgame, as did commanding the Mediterranean Sea. It is worth noting that Gaeta, Italy, was formerly home to a U.S. aircraft-carrier task force as part of our Sixth Fleet. Then as now, carriers were the centerpiece of U.S. naval power. Permanently stationing such a priceless asset in Italy shows how seriously Washington took the access problem in the Mediterranean.
So there is precedent of decades’ standing for coastal powers’ trying to ward off powerful navies from their offshore waters, including in the Mediterranean Sea, and for dominant naval powers’ trying to reassert control of these waters.
But high technology has exacerbated the problem. Since the mid-1990s China has pioneered anti-access defenses as its way of keeping U.S. reinforcements from steaming across the Pacific from Hawaii or our west coast to unite with naval and air forces already in the region. If successful, anti-access would keep the U.S. military from concentrating superior combat power at the time and place of battle – and improve China’s chances of prevailing over a stronger United States in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, or elsewhere.
But the Pacific Ocean is a vast, mostly empty theater. Mediterranean geography has situated missile-armed states with capable navies and air forces in close proximity to one another around the shorelines of a relatively narrow sea. In these cramped confines, anti-access zones will almost certainly overlap, if indeed they do not already. It is becoming simple for coastal states to threaten one another’s ships riding the high seas.
This map illustrates the problem brought about by long-range precision weapons. The circles shown here depict the firing ranges of anti-ship missiles currently in use. It is important to note that these are not actual missile emplacements. But they could be. These missiles could be adapted to launch from trucks, making them highly mobile. The red circles are for Turkish Atmaca missiles stationed along the Anatolian coast, in North Cyprus, and along the Libyan coast. The blue circle is for Russian SS-N-27 “Sizzler” missiles stationed in the Syrian port of Tartus. The white circles represent the reach of U.S.-built SM-6 missiles stationed in Sicily and Crete. As you can see, missiles are coming to overshadow much of the Eastern Mediterranean. Ships cannot transit these waters without being in peril.
But again, shore-fired missiles are just one element of the anti-access problem, troublesome though they are. Now imagine aircraft, surface ships, and submarines, all bearing similar weapons, operating in Mediterranean waters and skies. And imagine swinging a similar circle around each one of these craft to indicate the range of its missiles. The clutter would be fierce! The vacant spaces beyond reach of shore missile batteries could vanish – giving rise to truly stifling operating conditions for seafarers and aviators.
Having looked at what potential foes are doing in the anti-access realm, we should ask why they are doing it. First, they crave safety from Western power projection from the sea, much as the Soviet Union sought to sheath itself in a blue belt of defense. Second, they want to control the sea for themselves, using it as a medium for projecting power ashore. Third, they covet offshore resources, including fish and undersea gas and oil. Exerting military control of their offshore exclusive economic zones – and in some cases cementing control of waters claimed by others – has become a high priority.
Things are not as bad in the Mediterranean, where coastal powers can push back against bullying from their peers, as they are in the South China Sea, Asia’s “Mediterranean,” where Southeast Asian powers cannot push back against a domineering China with any real hope of success. But there is at least a low-grade contest over maritime jurisdiction in the middle sea.
So coastal states oppose foreign access for a variety of reasons. How do we in the West assure our access, safeguarding freedom of the sea – a core principle of international law? First, by recognizing that we have a problem. History did not end with the fall of the Soviet Union, however much we wanted to believe it had. Western command of the sea is not a birthright. We must rebuild the habit of looking at our surroundings – including our nautical surroundings – through the eyes of a strategist.
Second, by keeping our alliances strong, and by convincing adversaries, our alliances will not fragment under duress. We can do this, in part, by showing one another and our adversaries that we have what Nassim Taleb calls “skin in the game,” or unshakeable commitment to our common cause. This is happening to a heartening extent. It has long been commonplace for NATO navies to operate in multinational formations. For example, right now the British carrier Queen Elizabeth is operating in the Pacific in company with a Dutch frigate and an American destroyer along with its own Royal Navy escorts.
But allied integration is much more intimate these days, and that’s a good thing. Strikingly, most of the Queen Elizabeth’s complement of F-35 stealth fighters come from . . . the U.S. Marine Corps! Think about the political implications of merging crews. If some foe were to attack the carrier, it would have picked a fight with the United States as well as Britain. That’s what you call skin in the game. Or, the Italian carrier Cavour recently operated out of Norfolk, Virginia, to earn certification to fly F-35s. I would not be surprised to see a U.S.-Italian deployment similar to the Anglo-American deployment in the future. Few hostile powers would delude themselves that they could attack a truly multinational force without facing the combined wrath of the nations constituting it.
So minor tactical or administrative measures like lending a foreign navy an aircraft squadron can deliver major political benefits. The more indivisible we can make our alliances, the better our chances of deterring conflict – and the better equipped we will be to fight if forced to it.
Third, by working tirelessly to crack the anti-access/area-denial problem. For now it appears that anti-access defenders have the upper hand over navies, but that could change. Military affairs is the story of constant interaction and one-upsmanship between contenders. Defeating anti-access is largely a matter of technological progress. For example, “directed-energy” weapons such as high-powered lasers are beginning to join fleets. Once engineers boost their power output enough, shipping will stand a much better chance of warding off missile attack. Our freedom of movement will improve.
We should also ponder operational concepts that help us withstand anti-access weaponry. We probably can’t adopt the approach the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are taking in the Western Pacific, which envisions breaking down fleets made up of a few large, expensive ships we can’t afford to lose in combat into fleets of small, plentiful, cheap ships that we can afford to lose a few of. But the principle stands: we must seek out ways to make our navies more resilient in the face of the challenges before us.
But fourth, we should also think ahead to nightmare scenarios. It may be that navies do not regain the advantage over anti-access and area-denial defenses any time soon. What then? The map makes navigation through the Mediterranean look like a grim prospect considering the armaments being put in place. It could become a no-man’s land during a war of all against all; in peacetime it may be that coastal states will confront a kind of conventional mutual assured destruction. That is, deterrence may come from the knowledge that if we attack another state’s shipping, our own shipping will likely be sent to the bottom as well. We must not shy away from contemplating such a future and how to manage it.
So: I have painted a rather dark picture for you today, and deliberately so. The hour is late – we must accelerate our common effort to prepare for a future full of danger and opportunity.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.