OPINION | The nature of sea control and sea denial

Participants from the RIMPAC 2000 exercise establish a flotilla off the coast of Kauai
Participants from the RIMPAC 2000 exercise establish a flotilla off the coast of Kauai

The desire of sea control comes from awareness of the maritime dominance. Various human societies have created maritime civilisations through their access to maritime activities. Without maritime activities, no human society could have had the opportunity to produce maritime interests. If maritime interests that stem from these maritime activities may fully satisfy all the parties involved then there is naturally no ground for the occurrence of maritime struggle.

Nonetheless, the reality of maritime interest follows the same economic rule that limited production fails to satisfy unlimited demand. The competition for maritime dominance was accompanied by maritime struggles in various forms. Armed campaigns, commercial competitions, and diplomacy are accommodated into the integrated efforts of maritime struggles. The command of the sea is the final concept born from maritime struggles as the general goal for safeguarding maritime interests generated by maritime activities and all the associated dependence.

As for sea control, it is only a part of the concept included by the command of the sea concept since sea control is alternatively parallel with sea denial, another important approach within the command of the sea concept. We may define sea control as acquiring and securing the privilege to utilise the maritime space in the period of time as expected. Nonetheless, whether the adversaries and neutral parties may use the same maritime space at the same time is not necessarily the concern of sea control approach.

On the other hand, we may also define sea denial as excluding adversaries from utilising the maritime space in an expected period of time and place of choosing. Integrating these two aspects of sea control and sea denial together and their effects on the nature of choice can serve as a foundation for maritime operational design for earning command of the sea.

The nature of sea control

What is the objective of sea control? Can the sea itself be controllable? What is the exact essence of sea control? The maritime space is a medium for transportation and communication. Nonetheless, the realisation of sea lanes of communication might not be necessarily confined to the maritime space itself but the platforms for transportation in the maritime space.

The sea itself cannot not be explicitly controlled; neither can it be occupied like land. To exercise sea denial is essentially targeting the attempts or aspirations by other parties to exploit sea space. Basically, there are two different schemes, deterrence and compellence, to achieve sea denial. Deterrence is literally to force other parties not to take certain actions they would rather to do originally. On the other hand, compellence is actually to force other parties to take certain actions that they are not willing to do in the beginning.

The goal of sea denial is similar to exercising other forms of power that it may also manipulate others’ decisions and actions. It may adopt a deterrence scheme to discourage others to challenge the privilege of utilising the maritime space. Otherwise, should the deterrence scheme fail, it may also actively adopt compellence schemes to defend the privilege of using the maritime space within a period of time. The essential element is targeting the decisions and actions of those who attempt to challenge the privilege of utilising the maritime space, not the specific maritime space itself.

We also need to identify the causal relationship between freedom of navigation and sea control. To safeguard a sea lane of communication is to secure the maritime communication lines at the operational level in order to further support other strategic and operational manoeuvres. It is not always necessary to occupy specific maritime space to undermine or destroy maritime communication lines. This is different in nature compared to breaking communication lines or transportation networks on land which are often attained by destroying vital transportation nodes such as tunnels or bridges, or occupying physical space.

However, paralysing maritime transportation is executed by destroying the maritime platforms directly since it is relatively hard to “occupy” a maritime space unless one has truly uncontested maritime supremacy. The matter is to exercise sea control in order to terminate adversaries’ freedom of navigation, or vice versa, to eliminate adversaries’ freedom of navigation in order to achieve the status of sea control. Sea control and freedom of navigation, or alternatively known as safeguarding the sea lanes of communication, are both the ends and means of the command of the sea concept.

One should always recall that the value of maritime space is justified by its connectivity. To secure a maritime space by excluding the presence of other parties through sea denial but in the process also precluding substantial maritime activities (such as civilian commerce) can quickly become counterproductive. However, to dominate a maritime space of poor connectivity is like to occupy a desert none have interest in. To exercise sea control in a maritime space that an adversary rarely ever attempts to challenge can sometimes suggest the maritime space in question is perhaps not so important to a greater ambition of command of the seas.

There are many misperceptions about sea control. First, the sea control is only a means to secure the privilege of utilising the maritime space. And subsequently, the major utilisation of the maritime space is maritime transportation. We therefore may conclude that the freedom of navigation or the maritime communication lines should be the true purpose of sea control efforts. Second, the maritime space could not be occupied or controlled like land territories, though blockade operations can still be practical in a maritime campaign. Blockade operations are actually exercising a form of sea denial as a function of sea control.

Last but not the least, three major factors, force, space and timing, at the operational level are still interrelated in exercising sea control. The forces necessary for conducting a sea control scheme are decided by the scale of the maritime space and the length of duration expected by utilising the maritime activities there. Also, the size of the adversaries’ forces to challenge this privilege may also be the variable in the overall sea control formula. The process of sea control is always interactive.

Conclusion: can there only be one?

Human societies may divide land into different spheres of influence and draw borders, but will this become the case in the maritime space in an era of great power competition? The value of maritime activity is derived from its connectivity. Occupying or dominating a maritime space but disconnecting it from other parts of the global oceans is a misuse of power born from the historical experience of landpower applied to the maritime theatre.

Article reprinted with permission from the Center for International Maritime Security.