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Establishing deterrence in a maritime century

My sole objective is PEACE…If you rub it in both at home and abroad, that you are ready for instant war with every unit of your strength in the first line, and intend to be first in, and hit your enemy in the belly, and kick him when he is down…then people will keep clear of you.

This is how Adm. Jackie Fisher, then First Sea Lord, justified the reorganisation of the Royal Navy in late 1904. It is an open question as to whether his understanding of deterrence turned out to be correct: despite the British Grand Fleet’s strength in 1914, Germany attacked Belgium and France. It is unclear whether this was because the Germans felt naval power, ultimately, would be supplementary to a European war or whether it was due to a failure to signal to the Germans His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s preparedness to uphold Belgian and French sovereignty.

What is clear is that the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) adopted a very different geostrategic posture after 1945. Unlike in 1914, Britain issued explicit security guarantees to its continental allies through the Dunkirk (1947) and Brussels (1948) treaties; a year later NATO was created with US and Canadian participation. The allies also had access to something they did not in 1914: atomic weapons. Not only could they now ‘hit their enemy’ more forcefully, but they could also threaten to punish an aggressor with ‘instant war’ – even total destruction. 

Once the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb in 1949, the allies feared they might disregard NATO security guarantees. Did the Kremlin really believe America and Britain would respond to a Soviet invasion of West Germany, for example, if it meant the devastation of New York City or London? For this reason, the UK and the US had to visibly ‘extend’ their nuclear systems over weaker European allies. They built large military bases in West Germany – for 50,000 British and 250,000 American troops, as well as their families – to deny the Soviets access to NATO territory. Additional armoured response forces created an interlocking escalatory ladder, which was further compounded in 1952 when Britain detonated its own atomic device. This created a near-perfect system of deterrence, which contained the Soviets and helped cause their collapse.

Today, in the 2020s, the geopolitical environment is very different to early Cold War Europe. With the rise of the Indo-Pacific, it is more extensive and dynamic. It is a broad space connected by sea and focused on the littoral underbelly of Eurasia. As noted in recent Australian, British and Japanese strategic reviews, it is becoming more contested and volatile. While Russia is attempting to invade an entire country on the Black Sea, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undertaken a massive naval build-up and an island-building spree in the South China Sea, where it has negated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (which it ratified in 1996) through illegitimate claims over waters surrounding its new islands.

Maritime democracies ought to be ready to ask some thorny questions. As in the Euro-Atlantic in the late 1940s, proactive measures can be taken to shape the Indo-Pacific, even in an era defined neither by peace nor war but by dynamic confrontation.

True, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – the PRC’s navy – is still weaker than the combined strength of the US Navy and Royal Navy, which operate 13 carrier strike groups and over 80 nuclear submarines between them. Japan, France, Italy, South Korea and Australia also maintain significant navies of their own, some of which are receiving more investment as their governments seek to counter the dramatic Chinese naval build-up. Equally, the PLAN still has a long way to go to exceed British and American technological wizardry and lacks the array of naval bases, air stations, and logistics facilities the UK and US have built across the Indo-Pacific. The US also has mutual defence alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia and Congress has legislated to assist Taiwan.

But the situation is changing. The PRC today acts less like the Soviet Union, which was an overextended terrestrial power when the Cold War began in 1949, but more like Germany in the early 20th century – haughty and imperious. With its Belt and Road and Global Security initiatives, it seems bent on global influence propelled through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia and underwritten by a globally postured two-ocean navy. What does this mean? As James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, recently remarked: ‘If we are left to draw our own conclusions, prudence dictates that we must assume the worst.’

Under these circumstances, maritime democracies ought to be ready to ask some thorny questions. As in the Euro-Atlantic in the late 1940s, proactive measures can be taken to shape the Indo-Pacific, even in an era defined neither by peace nor war but by dynamic confrontation. For example, how can the risk of a ‘vacuum war’ in the Indo-Pacific be reduced? In 1914 in Belgium, 1937 in China, 1939 in Poland, 2008 in Georgia, and 2014 and 2022 in Ukraine, aggressors tested the will of the custodians of the international order by probing at its weakest points. What does this mean for Taiwan? Likewise, if the maritime balance of power shifts further in the PLAN’s favour, might Beijing seize the opportunity to lash out at a solitary foreign offshore patrol vessel or frigate sent to uphold freedom of navigation to deter others from challenging its own claims?

Notwithstanding the recent establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS, the answer to these questions may not involve founding an ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’. But it should, surely, look at how the maritime democracies can create positive feedback loops to deter opportunism and aggression. 

In other words, how can the sophisticated escalatory ladder of the Euro-Atlantic be replicated in (or extended to) the Indo-Pacific? What force posture is required to ensure that forward-deployed naval assets, such as offshore patrol vessels and frigates, can be backed up with naval response forces and strike groups? How will these intersect with one another and with forward-deployed land- and air-based assets, with the maritime forces of allies and like-minded partners, and, ultimately, with the British and American CASD? How will this be signalled to rivals? And what is required to convince them that the deterrence system will instantly activate if they challenge it?

These are questions the custodians of the international order in the Indo-Pacific ought to begin grappling with. With AUKUS, Australia, the UK and the US have begun to provide an answer which will inevitably have to include additional military and non-military elements and more actors. What is certain is that maritime democracies ought to move faster to meet the demands of deterrence in a maritime century. Given their gaps in preparedness for systemic warfare, combined with the power of modern weapons, the risk of failure should be a powerful driver for steadfast action.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

Embedded image credit: LPhot Dan Rosenbaum (Open Government Licence v3.0 cropped)

This article formed part of our conference programme for the First Sea Lord’s Sea Power Conference 2023.

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