The attributes of naval or maritime forces differ from that of land or air forces mostly due to the attributes of the environment in which they operate. So what are the attributes of the sea and how do those impact the attributes of naval forces?
Physical Attributes of the Sea
Size and connectivity
With some inland exceptions, all of the seas are connected and they are vast in size. The oceans have always been used as a medium for trade. True, the connectivity of the oceans can be constrained by geographic features or conflict, but man-made waterways like the Suez or Panama Canals can lessen the geographic separation just as climate change is opening up potential routes in the arctic regions (Speller, 2014, p. 17). At the end of the day, the ocean is the largest environment on the planet. Join the Navy; see the world…70% of it is covered in water.
With regard to the high seas, the surface of the ocean has no physical obstacles to impede travel or observation. Apart from those non-watery areas called land and man-made objects such as oil rigs, ships can generally travel where they please. Of course, there are the effects of waves and weather on vessels, but there are no geographical contours on the ocean and no defined routes. While trade routes present the most economical paths between two destinations, ships do not need to stringently follow these (Speller, 2014, p. 17-18). This sea is thus distinct from land routes which can be constrained by any number of geographical features and changing environmental conditions.
Humans are terrestrial creatures, and we cannot live or travel on or under the sea without the technology to do so. Thus, unlike on land, all activity at sea is based around platforms. Ships do not leave lasting footprints and no large human populations build static, permanent residences at sea. Militarily, navies have no need to defend or hold down an area of ocean in the same way that armies need to do on land. Presence on the sea is transitory (Speller, 2014, p. 18).
Economic Dimensions of the Sea
Humans have relied on fish and marine life for food since ancient times and humans still harvest about 20% of our daily protein from the oceans (Till, 2013, p. 7). Some 1 billion people today still get most of their protein from fish. The conservation of fish stocks, in addition to the problems of pollution, remains an issue to this day. The further exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the oceans adds new economic factors as does access and control of these resources (Speller, 2014, 18-19). Improvements in technology, lack of regulation, or inability to enforce regulations in certain areas could result in the over-exploitation of these resources and pose serious economic consequences in some sectors.
Ease of transporting goods
Possibly the biggest economic dimension of the sea is the transportation of goods across it. The first civilizations developed around rivers and the seas. Arguably, it all started around the Euphrates and Nile rivers some 7,000 – 8,000 years ago. Local trading systems rose up around the world from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. As time went on, regional and sea-based communities overlapped and interacted with each other. The fact is that waterways have served, and continue to serve as a medium for transportation and exchange of both goods and ideas (Till, 2013, p. 7). The use of shipping was arguably necessary for the expansion of cities in the ancient world since it allowed for greater increases in population than could be provided from local agricultural sources. Cities such as Athens and Rome benefited from sea trade with Rome importing some 85% of its annual 150,000 tons of grain by sea (Till, 2013, p. 19).
Moving heavy goods by sea has always been easier than by land or air. In fact, trade by sea is the most cost-efficient method for international trade with more than 90% of the world’s trade being carried aboard ships. In 1970, the number of goods traded by sea was around 2.6 billion tons. By 2005, it had risen to 7.12 billion tons and has carried on doing so. Effectively, the world economy rests on the ability of the over 70,000 merchant ships to move our goods. For perspective, a $700 TV from China can be transported to Europe for about $10 (Till, 2013, p. 8). Cargo ships can carry far heavier loads than planes, trains, or trucks. While aircraft can move goods much quicker, they can only carry a small fraction of what the average merchant ship can carry, and at a far higher cost. For comparison, some large container ships can carry between 11,000 to 15,000 standard 20-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) containers up to 14 tons each. A typical train in North America might carry 200-350 containers and a truck might carry one or two. An Antonov An-124 can carry a maximum load of only 120 tons (Speller, 2014, p. 19).
Overall, the ease of transporting goods and materials, not to mention the spread of ideas and culture, across the water may be the most important economic dimension. Our modern global economic systems rely upon it to get goods from point A to B. The amount has only increased throughout history and appears to be continuing to do so. Thus, it is within our political, economic, and military interests to ensure the sea remains a free medium that is open to commerce.
Political & Legal Dimensions of the Sea
Note: This section is not meant as legal advice or as an exhaustive overview of maritime law.
Sovereignty vs. freedom of the seas
Historically, political dominion over the seas has not always been the case. Geoffrey Till (2013) notes two caveats, first is that the sea was regarded as empty, challenging, and open to trade for hundreds of years. Only when warship technology had sufficiently advanced did control of the sea seem feasible. The Europeans possessed better warships, weaponry, more advanced tactics, and aggressive leadership which allowed them to prevail over larger, but technically inferior navies as they began colonizing other places. Secondly, some modern naval powers view dominion of the sea as a purely defensive strategy. The need to defend offshore areas, lines of communication, or their home territory from attack contrasts with the concepts espoused during the Age of Imperialism (p. 16).
Many countries have claimed sovereignty over their coastal waters in an effort to control and exploit the economic benefits on or under the sea. This is in contrast to the countries that argue against territorialization in favor of the principle of freedom of the seas. This principle essentially holds that the ocean is a politically free medium and open to all countries. Ships can go where they want without crossing any borders or infringing on any territory (Speller, 2014, p. 19-20). Of course, this does not mean that there are no laws at sea.
The law of the sea
While the high seas themselves are not governed by any state or domestic laws, activity at sea is covered by international laws. Both customary law (based on accepted practices) and treaty law (based on international treaties) apply on the high seas. Furthermore, there are laws relating to the use of the sea during peacetime, and the use of the sea in relation to armed conflict (Speller, 2014, p. 20).
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
In 1982 there was an attempt to codify the laws and governance of the seas. The result was the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One result was the larger enclosure of the oceans. According to UNCLOS, a country’s territorial waters are defined at 12 miles from shore, the contiguous zone is a further 12 miles beyond that, and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 miles from the shore where a country has the rights to explore and exploit the natural resources. Vessels have the right of “innocent passage” when transiting through another country’s territorial waters with some limitations. However, the sea beyond the 12-mile territorial waters is considered international waters and vessels can transit them unconstrained.
Despite these conventions, problems arise when neighboring countries claim jurisdiction over the same areas of water such as between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Additionally, some countries have claimed larger territorial waters beyond the established 12 miles and demanded prior notification of passage by foreign naval vessels. Such claims raise concerns with regard to foreign navies’ abilities to navigate freely. This is the reason why U.S. naval vessels periodically sail through contested waters as a way of exercising the right to do so (Speller, 2014, p. 20-21).
Since human activity at sea is governed by various laws, numerous government agencies throughout the world hold jurisdiction in both their respective territorial and international waters. The classic example of crime at sea is piracy. Regardless of time or place, any naval vessel can arrest suspected pirates and deliver them to their country for legal proceedings. The prosecution, on the other hand, is another story.
Military Dimensions of the Sea
Related to the aforementioned physical attribute of connectivity, the strategic importance of the sea is that it allows naval forces to strike a wide range of places and connect widely separated allies. Furthermore, as a medium of transportation, navies can seek to either permit or deny the movement of ships. This may explain why smaller countries/kingdoms throughout history have been able to prosper in light of their limited size and populations. By using the sea as strategic leverage, smaller powers can control trade or utilize the connected nature of the oceans to their advantage in naval warfare (Speller, 2014, p. 23).
Theorists, such as Nicholas Rodger, suggest that, rather than serving as a defensive barrier, the sea has actually provided an avenue for attack throughout history to forces that can use it. From Europe to China from the Dark Ages to modern times, pirates and raiders have used the sea to mount attacks on coastlines. The numerous coastal defenses built to counter these threats attest to the danger they represent. Colin Gray notes that “The continuity of the world’s seas and oceans translates into a global mobility and agility for maritime forces and for merchant shipping which can have no continental parallel” (as cited in Speller, 2014, p. 24).
In classical times, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Vikings used the sea strategically to conquer distant lands. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, European powers like the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British established far-reaching empires via exploration and colonization. The most famous example would be the British Empire which was maintained through its colonial possessions and the use of the Royal Navy (Till, 2013, p. 14-15). The connectivity of the oceans allowed European empires to derive maritime resources from maritime trade, which in turn could be used for naval purposes to establish maritime supremacy. Thus, resources, trade, and naval power supported each other in the era of empire-building (Till, 2013, p. 17).
Simply put, navies are a reflection of their country’s geographical location in relation to the surrounding waters and how trade and resources connect them together economically and physically.
Throughout history, finding anything at sea has been difficult, and it still is. Anything under the surface of the sea benefits from its opaqueness which is why submarines and mines are so stealthy and difficult to detect. While modern surveillance systems have made naval vessels easier to detect, they are still difficult to detect and track with accuracy due to their mobility and ability to control electronic emissions. Current commercial satellites cannot track a target that moves 400 nm in any direction over 24 hours. Military satellites have more advanced capabilities, but they would also be targets for anti-satellite weapons from an advanced state (Speller, 2014, p. 24-25). Despite its featureless nature, the sea is a vast expanse and naval vessels can use that to their advantage. Enemy ships may be just over the horizon or under the waves in any direction.
Naval battles and campaigns generally cover larger operational distances than land battles. Before Nelson caught up to the French at Trafalgar in 1805, his pursuit of them took him across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back again covering a period of 5 months. Similarly, Pearl Harbor is some 4,000 miles from Japan, yet the distance offered no protection from the Japanese surprise attack on 7 December 1941. The U.S. Navy would go on to develop an impressive fleet train which allowed it to sustain operations as it advanced across the Pacific. Even during the 1982 Falklands War, the British Royal Navy carried out operations in the South Atlantic some 8,000 miles from the U.K. and 3,800 miles from the nearest friendly airfield (Speller, 2014, p. 25). Hughes and Girrier (2018) note that a maritime theater can cover an area some ten times larger than that of a typical land campaign. Additionally, 80% of the planning of a modern naval campaign goes into the logistics of supplying vessels and airfields (p. 125). The scale of naval operations further relates to the vast and featureless properties of the environment. Land operations are constrained by more geographic features, both natural and man-made. Furthermore, most naval battles in history have some connection (even tenuously) to events on land. Naval fleets rarely sail out into the ocean just for the sake of shooting at each other over command of the sea.
By the nature of the platforms involved, naval battles tend to involve fewer individual units than land battles. While the platforms are manpower intensive, the amount of massed units is less than armies. Compare the fact that the U.S. Navy possesses some 200+ ships whereas a single heavy U.S. Army Brigade Combat Team has 800+ vehicles. Obviously, there’s a big difference in the size of the vehicles, but the point is that naval battles involve fewer individual units than land battles and occur over far less cluttered terrain. Thus, network-centric operations were first developed in navies. It also means that the loss of individual assets in naval battles has a greater economic impact since ships are more expensive and takes longer to replace (Speller, 2014, p. 25).
Terrain can provide protection and concealment in littoral areas. Similarly, congested shipping lanes in natural choke points like the Strait of Hormuz could be advantageous to fast attack craft hiding close to shore or among shipping traffic. However, on the high seas, there are no terrain features to conceal oneself in. True, poor weather can limit visibility and hinder detection to some degree, but it should not be relied on at critical moments. Traditionally, smaller navies rely on coastal waters and terrain to offset their numerical disadvantage, but this is rendered moot for them on the open ocean. Similarly, submarines can exploit the opaqueness of the underwater dimension to remain hidden. The geography of the ocean floor, salinity, thermal layers, and changing ambient noise provide submarines with a “terrain advantage” that is not present on the surface (Speller, 2014, p. 26).
As previously mentioned, navies do not rely on the physical occupation of the sea like armies do on land. There is nothing to dig into and fortify. Instead, navies operate on the sea to control or influence an area. Wayne Hughes and Robert Girrier (2018), note that “a navy is a means to the end of controlling an enemy land force. …rarely has the center of a military conflict been on the oceans or in the air” (p. 127). This refers back to the basic idea that naval battles are almost always connected, to some degree, to events on land.
Platforms & personnel
Since activity at sea is platform-based, various technical factors need to be considered to understand the military perspective. It should be cautioned against comparing the technological capability of vessels as an independent variable in naval conflict. A faster, better armored, or armed craft is not necessarily an indication of superiority. Intangible qualities like crew skill, morale, training, leadership, fighting doctrine, etc. can have major impacts on performance. Conversely, even the best crew will struggle with an inappropriate platform. Smaller, shallow-draft vessels that work well in coastal waters will be less suitable for operations on the high seas. Similarly, larger vessels designed for blue water operations are often ill-suited for operations close to shore.
It is also true that larger vessels are more adaptable than smaller vessels, generally speaking. Yet, they are also more expensive both to build and operate. Thus, navies often struggle with creating a “balanced fleet” which is suitable for a wide range of operations (Speller, 2014, p. 26-27).
The constant comparison of the technical capabilities of opposing navies continues to be a factor in naval analysis and decision-making. The Washington and London Naval Treaties in the 1920s and 30s attempted to curtail the arms race of countries building bigger, faster, more heavily armed, and armored battleships. Now, aircraft carriers, missiles, and networks have become the new metrics from which navies are compared. Yet, we must always consider the effects that less technical factors have on the performance of navies.
Command & leadership
Command and control in navies tend to be concentrated at higher levels than on land. At the tactical level, the differences between navies and armies can be very pronounced. Even aboard a single ship, the efforts of the crew are focused on the operation of the ship as a whole under the direction of the captain. No weapons are fired without specific orders, and with few exceptions, this control is not often delegated.
In contrast, an infantry commander must coordinate the individual soldiers to make singular contributions to their overall objective. Similarly, commanders in air forces must rely on the efforts of their pilots to accomplish their individual missions. The Royal Australian Navy explains that “the aim of leadership at sea is the moulding of the ship’s company and their ship as a fighting instrument, while on land and in the air leadership is focused on the individual as a fighting instrument,” (Speller, 2014, p. 27-28).
Technology & infrastructure
Building and operating warships require expertise, infrastructure, and support facilities. The British Royal Navy made extensive use of the many ports in its colonies throughout the empire to support it. The expansion of the U.S. Navy in WWII benefited from the tremendous industrial resources of America to maintain and operate its forces in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Even today, building and operating a first-rate navy requires access to advanced industrial and technological capabilities that are beyond the reach of most countries (Speller, 2014, p. 28).
Hughes and Girrier (2018) opine that the increasing technological and economic investment required to build ever-increasingly expensive warships is but one of the reasons for the decline in the frequency of naval battles since roughly the 18th century (p. 135). The traditional economic factors of production with regard to resources, labor, capital, and entrepreneurship still apply, and naval forces demand a lot from all of those factors.
Attributes of Naval Forces
So we’ve discussed the various dimensions and properties of the sea and how that factors into human activity on the ocean. Now, let’s look at the unique properties of navies.
Naval vessels possess what might be termed “strategic mobility.” Even while traveling at a modest speed of 15 knots, a ship can cover 360 nm a day. While aircraft are technically more mobile, faster, and possess great range (depending on the type of aircraft), a ship can sustain its mobility over extended periods of time and with a far heavier payload (Speller, 2019, p. 29).
Ships can carry far larger payloads than aircraft and move them over far greater distances than land forces. The strategic lift capacity of a navy is impressive. Of course, it depends on the type of vessel, but consider that a USAF C-5 Galaxy can lift up to two M1 Abrams main battle tanks, whereas a French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship can carry hundreds of troops and 60 armored vehicles (or 13 Leclerc tanks), in addition to its own landing craft and helicopters (Speller, 2014, p. 29).
Apart from smaller vessels that operate largely in coastal waters, most large warships can travel large distances (upwards of thousands of miles) and stay at sea for weeks or months. Endurance is extended by access to overseas ports or the ability to conduct underway replenishment (UNREP) (Speller, 2014, p. 29-30).
Poise and persistence
Naval forces can remain in theater for extended periods of time. Individual ships can stay on station for weeks. Given the resupply and rotation of units, a naval force can theoretically maintain its presence indefinitely. The presence of naval forces offshore and their persistence allows for diplomatic uses in trouble spots around the world. For example, a naval task force can deploy preemptively to international waters to remain out of sight, free of political sovereignty, and therefore poised to respond quickly to a crisis (Speller, 2014, p. 30). The classic practice of showing the flag by having ships sail near or into foreign ports sends a powerful message to people. A carrier strike group appearing off the coast is a way to send a diplomatic message to troublemakers that a naval force is poised and ready to respond if things turn ugly.
Versatility & flexibility
Large warships are designed to be multi-mission capable. They can perform humanitarian missions such as disaster relief, or carry out high-intensity warfighting. For example, a modern Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer is designed for anti-air, anti-surface, and anti-submarine operations to defend the fleet. However, they can also carry out land-attack missions and conduct counter-piracy and drug interdiction operations. Even larger vessels such as aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships have sophisticated command and control facilities, medical facilities, and accommodations. Their helicopters and landing craft provide them with the ability to rapidly move food and medical supplies ashore, and they can generate electricity and clean water. All useful capabilities for humanitarian missions and disaster relief (Speller, 2014, p. 30).
While modern warships are not armored to the sheer extent of a battleship in WWII, they are still difficult to sink and can withstand a significant amount of punishment before being rendered non-operational. Even in the age of missiles and smart munitions, a hit rarely equals a kill and a properly defended task force can mean the missiles never even reach their targets. What this means is that the loss of individual ships does not demonstrate that navies are any less resilient than land or air forces are to the loss of men or equipment. The Royal Navy task force in the Falklands in 1982 lost four ships to enemy air attacks but still had sufficient resilience to complete their mission (Speller, 2014, p. 30-31).
Limitations of Naval Forces
For all of their benefits and attributes, navies cannot solve every problem. Theorists and naval professionals have identified several limitations of naval forces.
Ability to influence events on land declines with distance
Generally speaking, the capacity of naval forces to influence events on land decreases the further away they are from shore. While naval aircraft can reach hundreds of miles inland, and cruise/ballistic missiles can reach thousands, most naval forces have a limited ability to influence events at the center of large continental landmasses (Speller, 2014, p. 31).
Naval vessels, as well as the infrastructure, are expensive to build, operate, and maintain. Large navies represent a significant investment of capital and the vessels are expected to have long service lives. Even smaller navies and vessels still come with a fairly expensive price tag (Speller, 2014, p. 31). Simply put, a respectable naval force is not built or operated on the cheap.
Transient physical presence when compared to land forces (but not air forces)
We’ve already mentioned the fact that naval presence is different from that on land. Even during a blockade, it is difficult to imagine why a naval force would want to physically “hold on” to an area of sea. There are no terrain features to dig into or limit mobility, and the physical presence of a vessel is ultimately transient. However, the effects of the presence of naval forces may last far longer (Speller, 2014, p. 31).
Superior mobility of mass, but slow speed when compared to aircraft
Naval forces have far larger mobility of mass, but they lack the speed of aircraft. Air forces may be able to respond to a crisis region in hours, whereas a sea-based force may take days or weeks to arrive. That being said, air forces and air-transported forces do not have the same sustainability as naval forces because they cannot bring their heavy equipment, fuel, support facilities, and logistics with them in large numbers. Even the very concept of the rapid deployment of forces presumes a high state of readiness and concentration near the points of departure, not to mention the appropriate reception facilities at the destinations. Thus, it has been noted that air and naval forces complement each other. For example, during Operation Desert Shield in 1990-91, most U.S. troops arrived in theater by air, but the rest of their equipment and logistics came by sea (Speller, 2014, p. 31-32).
In many ways, these limitations can be seen in studies of naval responses to issues such as modern piracy in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia. The adoption of best management practices aboard ships and on land, in addition to the naval presence, caused a drop in pirate activity. Furthermore, since there was no way that naval ships could individually escort every ship through the Gulf of Aden, authorities established an approved safety corridor for ships to transit through which allowed them to be on station to respond more effectively to pirate attacks.
The benefits of naval forces are somewhat more vague and different than that of land or air forces. Much of a navy’s strengths derive from the ocean environment itself. The ability to move large numbers of people, goods, and power across extended distances, and remain on station for long periods of time is one of the greatest benefits of naval forces. However, navies are expensive, slower than air forces, and do not necessarily influence events on land to the same degree that armies do. Like any military force, the use of a navy must be appropriate and efficiently coordinated with other forms of power, either military or political, to achieve a proper outcome.
Hughes, W.P. & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Speller, I. (2014). Understanding Naval Warfare. New York, NY: Routledge.
Till, G. (2013). Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Routledge.