President's Commentary: Security in the Maritime Realm

February 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

All elements of the military play a crucial role in maintaining peace and security, and all domains are challenged by a diverse set of adversaries. Given this understanding, the maritime domain faces unique challenges that could conceivably hamper efforts in other domains and areas of vital national interest. Necessary resources must be provided and appropriate capabilities developed.

One measure of national power is economic strength. The world has evolved into a global economy whereby international trade is a critical concern. About 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, and more than 90 percent of the world’s trade moves by sea. Consequently, the health of both the U.S. economy and the larger global economy are dependent on the uninterrupted flow of maritime commerce. The international sea lanes must remain open to freedom of navigation so this extensive international trade, which underpins the global economy, can continue free and unbroken. In geostrategic terms, the threat facing maritime stability and international economic stability is global and requires a broader and heightened U.S. maritime presence.

In the Indo-Pacific region, China—with its aggressive and lawless actions in the South China Sea—requires increased attention. While China is not yet an international maritime power, it is developing maritime military capabilities at an alarming pace with a growing ability to strongly influence commerce and the geopolitical environment in the increasingly contentious Indo-Pacific region.

This budding superpower has shown continuous and blatant disregard for international agreements, laws and longtime norms of conduct on the high seas. China has made and staked sovereign claims, often without basis in either a historical or legal context, of vast reaches of ocean far from its shores. It uses coercion, aggression and influence operations to shape the region’s geopolitical posture. 

Other threats pose a challenge to maritime peace and security as well. Reminiscent of the Cold War era, Russia has begun flexing its muscles again with new naval fleet construction and increasingly aggressive and threatening actions in the Baltic region, including unlawful ship seizures in the Sea of Azov/Black Sea area as well as the Eastern Mediterranean. Its aggressive behavior is of particular concern to the Baltic states.

Iran remains a belligerent maritime actor in the Persian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman region. And piracy provides a continuous challenge at strategic choke points around the world.

In our own hemisphere, we see the emergence of Russian and Chinese influence as they pursue political and military relationships with the countries of Central America and the southern hemisphere. One only has to recall Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s to get an appreciation for Russia’s strategic designs. Looking to the polar regions, it is evident that Russia and China have focused covetous eyes on these territories, and they are applying resources to shape their claims and rights. Further, sea-based drug and human trafficking continue to plague the world. A heightened capability to police these activities is a national security imperative.

Amidst this setting, the United States remains the single greatest guarantor of international maritime security. With the threat picture rapidly changing and new responses needed, shortcomings in naval forces must be eliminated and the maritime forces must quickly adapt to a dynamic and uncertain future.

To meet the current and reemerging threats, our naval forces need to expand the number of appropriately manned and autonomous ships, planes, submarines and supporting capabilities. Improvements that support maritime operations are not limited to surface or undersea realms. Maritime forces need investment in a C4ISR architecture that is diverse and resilient and that fosters varied means of information exchange among forces. We must develop anti-access/area-denial capabilities that ensure our forces can navigate and maneuver wherever and whenever needed. And, at the core of maritime forces, there must be a well-trained and highly skilled workforce.

We must reverse the recent quantitative decline in naval capability that has reduced the fleet to fewer than 290 ships. The current budgeted shipbuilding and aircraft program needs to be expanded. There must be a collective commitment from government and industry to improve and help our maritime forces grow and innovate.

Physical presence counts. An old mentor once said, “When it comes to national security, virtual presence equals literal absence.” Often, showing the flag aboard a U.S. naval combatant is enough to send a strong message and ease a tense situation.

Above all, the maritime services must have a consistently funded budget that meets national and maritime needs and priorities. The freedom of maritime navigation is what underpins global economic prosperity.

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