The risks of failing to see the sea

Staff Columnist

“The West suffers from a dangerous general ignorance of maritime and naval affairs.

By  Elizabeth Braw    ( The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2018)

“This week some 50,000 men and women from 31 countries will conduct an enormous military exercise in and around Norway, called Trident Juncture 18, it will be one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s largest exercises since the end of the Cold War.  Europe’s roads have seen a procession of military convoys in recent weeks, but few Europeans have noticed the journey of 65 naval vessels, including an aircraft carrier, to Norwegian waters.

To its detriment, the West suffers from what is sometimes called  “sea blindness – a general ignorance of maritime and naval affairs.  Even the United Kingdom’s famous Royal Navy needs a team to travel the country illuminating the public about what it does.  “I always thought sea blindness particularly bad in Germany, so it was painful to discover  that it exists even in a seafaring nation like Britain ,”  retired Vice Adm. Hans-Joachim Stricker, a former commander of the German fleet, told me.”

More:  “The public-awareness tours are in the Royal Navy’s interest.  It’s been decades since a Western  country has been embroiled in an all-out naval battle on the open ocean.  This has bred complacency.  Many Britons question whether the Royal Navy needs the two aircraft carriers it recently acquired at a cost of some 6.2 billion Lbs. ($8.1  billion, when Britain could easily piggyback on the U.S. Navy’s capabilities.

Though the general public may have a hard time imagining it , the risk of naval warfare remains real.  This year the Chinese navy was disinvited from the U.S.- hosted Rim of the Pacific Exercise due to Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea.  Earlier this month, a U.S. ship conducting a freedom-of-navigation operation near the Spratlys had what the Navy called ‘an  unsafe encounter’ with a Chinese warship.

The Royal Navy itself received a stern warning  from Beijing in September after one of its ships approached  an island China now labels  its own.  In May the French navy sent an assault ship to patrol the Spratly reefs that China has surreptitiously turned into islands and is outfitting with missiles.  The stakes are high, but most of us don’t take any notice.

Intense commercial activity    80% of the world’s trade volume travels by sea  –makes waterways into targets.   The Baltic Sea which connects Russia with several NATO member states as well as Sweden and Finland, could be another flashpoint.  ‘During the Cold War, the Baltic Sea was an area of confrontation, with about half the countries with Baltic Sea shorelines belonging to the Warsaw Pact’ Adm. Stricter noted.  In the Baltic Sea today , hundreds of daily voyages transport goods such as Swedish iron and Finnish gas.  A Russian-led consortium has just begun construction of its Nord-stream 2 pipeline, which will cross the Baltic Sea and come ashore in Germany.”

More, still:  “Most Swedes are blissfully unaware  of what  happens in the Baltic  Sea’ retired Gen  Sverker Goranson, supreme commander of Sweden’s armed forces from 2009 to 2015, told me.’  The Swedish economy  is completely dependent on trade, including the Baltic  Sea’s  enormous flow of goods.  But in the past four years, our security environment has changed’

That’s putting it diplomatically.  Russia, joined by the Chinese navy, this April carried out amajor exercise in the Baltic Sea.  Part of it, in the Baltic Sea, Part of it , including  live-fire missiles testing, took place within Latvia’s exclusive economic zone.  Sweden had to restrict civilian air traffic.  Two months later, 22 NATO countries and partners conducted their own Baltic Sea exercise.

It’s possible that Russia could disrupt NATO in the Baltic Sea, without any of its soldiers setting foot on NATO soil.  ‘It’s vital to a country to have a strong navy and air force, because that’s where the action  begins’,  Gen. Goranson said. All the ships transporting our daily necessities need protection, too.

Despite the risks, there’s an obvious reason for Western sea blindness:  While most people have seen soldiers or perhaps some army jeeps, few have encountered frigates. Out of sight, navies are out of mind.  But we indulge our sea blindness at our own risk,  Precisely because we depend on the oceans,  we should pay closer attention to their security.”

(Ms. Braw directs the Modern Deterrance program at the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.)

Your Correspondent:  Peter O’Connor, USN, retired

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