Note: This post is being updated the week of January 25, 2021.
In April, 2020, CNO Admiral Michael Gilday did something none of his predecessors had done in the previous 75 years. In Naval Doctrine Publication 1, he addressed “blockade” as a strategic principle. He said that, in addition to other strategic tasks, “… naval forces exist to: … [p]revent an adversary’s seaborne movement of commerce and military forces.” This “is offensive in nature because the attacker [that is, the Navy] chooses the times, places, and targets of attack. The ability to control or deny sea space may also be applied to conduct blockades [emphasis added] in wartime or as a means to control crises.” (p.21)
Admiral Gilday has broken a generations-long precedent. Blockade, roundly ignored and rejected by the Navy, now has official standing. Perhaps its appearance is a consequence of the shift in 2018 of the basis for DOD planning away from terror, toward great power competition. China and Russia, two potential adversaries, are great continental powers whose geography and growing trade dependence nonetheless makes them vulnerable to blockade. This post will address blockade vs Russia.
Because of globalization Russia has become dependent on use of the sea and so is vulnerable to strategic coercion from the sea.
In an Article 5 war, NATO should declare a complete blockade of Russia and enforce it through all available civil and military, primarily naval, means.
Blockade would deny Russia use of the world ocean for any purpose, military or civil, on a global scale.
Blockade aims to produce effects on Russia’s behavior at the level of Alliance strategy. That is the end sought. Enforcing blockade is a strategy for the employment of Alliance naval forces on behalf of blockade; it is a means to that end. Blockade and blockade enforcement (BE) are separate realms. They should be looked at independently and not be analytically conflated.
All Western navies, along with land-based military power, should enforce the blockade until Russia agrees to the restoration of the status quo ante.
Blockade does not threaten Russian territory nor the regime in Moscow and thus is consistent with NATO’s self-definition as a defensive alliance.
The US Navy and its NATO allies should assess 1) the strategic promise of blockade—its effects on Russia’s ability and willingness to wage war; and 2) the operational feasibility of blockade enforcement, simultaneously with other strategic tasks of the Alliance.
If blockade is judged likely to contribute toward deterring war or producing an acceptable outcome in war, blockade enforcement vs. Russia should be immediately adopted as a component of current strategic plans.
An important aspect of blockade is that it makes a possibly decisive contribution to the protection of Alliance SLOCs by tying up the Russian navy on defense. That is, it adds offensive to traditional defensive measures at sea.
This post will assess the potential of blockade enforced through naval and other military action in a war with Russia. Such a war must be considered as an urgent practical matter. Russia frequently makes ambiguous threats against its neighbors, especially NATO members on the Baltic Sea. NATO has undertaken major actions to reassure its members, as well as nonmembers in the Baltic region, that it is steadfast in support of Article 5 and is demonstrably capable of responding to its strictures.
It will be argued that NATO should add global blockade to whatever other measures it takes in response to Russian aggression. I am not drawing these recommendations from analysis of current Russian attitudes. I am arguing from the logic of today’s strategic situation as viewed by the US and its NATO allies. A detailed definition of blockade and blockade enforcement (BE) along with a critique of the attitudes of the US Navy toward them is provided in the Global Blockade vs. China post.
The departure point is recognition that the US and its allies in Europe and elsewhere possess global command of the sea. Specifically, today and for the foreseeable future, no nation can use the global commons except at the West’s sufferance. Other nations may be capable of using their local waters—perhaps, under contested circumstances—but not the world ocean on which international commerce depends.
This assumption of Western naval dominance is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which seem in the near term likely to shift further in favor of the West, as US building programs are implemented and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. But Russia has a naval building program too, as well as an inherited knack for technological innovation that surprised many analysts of the Soviet navy during the Cold War. Thus, this assumption must be subjected to searching analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.
As a result of the globalization of the world economy, even great continental powers like Russia have become dependent on the sea for their prosperity and for the economic growth that underwrites their military and international security designs.
The threat of denying access to the world ocean might not deter Russia from waging a ground war on its periphery where it enjoys local superiority. Indeed, as Michael Kofman has observed (email to the writer and others of August 27, 2020), the threat of economic loss has not been a primary consideration shaping Russia’s recent security policy. If it had been, Russia would not have annexed Crimea, fought a war in eastern Ukraine, nor perhaps intervened in Syria. In response to these actions the West has imposed (more or less predictable) economic sanctions, and Russia has shown itself willing and able to absorb the resulting losses in trade and financial service transactions.
However, whether this experience in itself can be extrapolated to the case of a global blockade imposed in an Article 5 war should remain an open question. The threat of economic loss might loom much larger in Russia’s strategic calculations. After all, the damage blockade would cause to Russia’s economy and its promise for future growth would be orders of magnitude greater than that heretofore caused by economic sanctions. Russia would be forced to forgo payoff from its heavy investments in LNG export infrastructure. Its plans to promote economic development through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would be thwarted. It could not engage the world economy on behalf of its aspirations as a great power.
Experts (academic and official) in the functioning of Russia’s economy and in international trade must provide thorough estimates of the consequences for Russia’s economy of being completely cut off from seaborne trade. Of equal importance would be assessments of the measures (including receipt of support from China), that Russia might take to compensate for the effects of blockade.
What Kind of a War with Russia
The occasion for war with Russia that is of greatest concern is the Russian threat to NATO allies on Russia’s western periphery. One scenario is particularly troubling: combined military-political-cyber-economic action where Russia’s specific means and immediate intentions are ambiguous. However, Russia’s overall objectives are nonetheless clear: to intimidate a NATO ally, neutralize it, loosen its ties to NATO, or drive it out of the Alliance entirely.
Blockade is an offensive action. It holds promise to contribute to the efficacy of NATO’s responses in this case and, perhaps, in other scenarios. Western naval thought, however, has been mainly defensive. It has centered on defending the sea lines of communications (SLOC) linking the US to its allies.
The possibility that Russia also may have its own “SLOC defense” problem may strike some as wishful thinking. However, viewed from the vantage point of the naval planner in Moscow, it is not the West’s defensive potential at sea but its offensive potential that is likely the greater concern. The first obligation of the strategic planner, regardless of nationality, is to defend own vulnerabilities, and Russia’s vulnerabilities at sea seem clear and growing.
The blockade concept is aimed at increasing the contribution that US and allied naval power can make to achieve national and Alliance defense goals, specifically: 1) to deter Russian aggression against a NATO member; 2) if necessary, to fight and terminate war on acceptable terms; and, 3) to provide the US NCA and NATO authorities with additional options to respond to crises where Russia’s threats and intentions may be ambiguous (e.g., hybrid warfare, “little green men,” etc.).
Proposed Actions vs. Russia
Blockade is not a substitute for action on the ground but is an additional, asymmetric measure. The US and its allies should make clear to Russia—through action and declaratory policy—that aggression will be met with blockade, regardless of the timing or shape of NATO’s response on the ground.
All types of naval forces would be employed, including offensive mine warfare. The carrier forces of Britain and France (whose missions in an Article 5 war are currently ill defined) would play a prominent role in European waters. They would be supported by the US Navy which would also execute BE in other theaters, the Arctic, and especially the Indo-Pacific. There it would likely be supported by Japan and Korea and possibly others.
The West must credibly threaten to deprive Russia of the use of the world ocean for a strategically meaningful period of time. Russia would face a choice between holding on to local gains on its periphery—for example, territory and/or the political compliance of NATO Baltic states—at the cost of being cut off from most of the world economy.
Many of blockade’s objectives might conceivably be achieved through peacetime economic sanctions. But if sanctions alone were successful, this war scenario would not arise. In addition, international economic sanctions would have no effect on the NSR, though sanctions would likely make use of the NSR yet more important to the Russians.
In an Article 5 war, commerce and other civil activities would cease in contested waters of the Baltic and Black Seas. These areas are not addressed here. In more distant waters, US and NATO forces and those of other allies would of course attack Russian naval ships wherever they are found, but they would be secondary targets. The main focus would be on non-military, economic assets: all ships of the merchant fleet, LNG carriers, fish factory ships and other fishers, and scientific research ships. (Russian ferries/cruise/passenger ships would be a special category to be safeguarded in all circumstances.)
This strategy might be seen as being in the mold of Allied blockades of Germany in the two world wars. However, it is both less and more than that. Less, because it is tailored to deal with conflict on a smaller scale against a relatively weak Russia (certainly as compared to its Soviet predecessor). More, because blockade would aim to affect the course and even the outcome of war as a whole.
Planning for blockade enforcement (BE) should be publicly discussed in US and NATO forums to enhance deterrent effects. Public knowledge will probably occur in any case because approval by NATO political councils will likely be required for such a departure from traditional NATO naval plans.
Further, BE can produce desirable effects in times of crisis. It’s long been obvious that if there should be an Article 5 war, NATO would close the Danish and Turkish straits to Russian ships by direct action. What is new is that in a period of severe crisis—a period of a fragile peace but not yet war—Russian civil ships would be permitted to exit the Baltic and Black Seas but would be marked and shadowed by NATO naval forces including land-based air. (Similar action would take place in other theaters.) This would send a message that they could be seized, sunk, or disabled if/when NATO chooses—an example of using BE to make a calibrated response to ambiguous Russian threats.
If war breaks out, Russian ships out on the world ocean would obviously not be permitted to return to Russia. For reasons advanced below, seizure would be superior to sinking them. The US Navy would take the lead in organizing and backing up NATO operations in European waters and in synchronizing NATO and US-national plans, including for operations, operational security, and geographic deconfliction. The USN would also take the lead in the Arctic and the Pacific and would deal with Russian maritime assets in other theaters.
NATO’s maritime thinking—while focused on Europe and the Atlantic—should not remain confined to traditional waters but should become globalized.
Historical Precedent and a Needed Weapon
Using forces at sea to answer threats and signal resolve ashore has a solid precedent in NATO’s history. During the Cold War NATO planned to do exactly that—under the rubric “Live Oak”—in response to Soviet pressure on the West’s enclave in Berlin. The figure below, a page from a declassified Live Oak document from 1965, shows the plan: If the Soviets made a serious but still low-level provocation against the city, SACLANT planned to declare “Marcon One” in which Bloc merchant ships would be closely shadowed.
If the Soviets escalated, “Marcon Two” would add Bloc naval ships to the action, with additional “Marcons” leading upwards toward a shooting war. Live Oak focused exclusively on European and Atlantic waters – though research may well reveal parallel US-only planning to deal with Soviet civil and naval ships in the Pacific. As noted, a 21st-century revival of Live Oak would be triggered by events in the European theater but would be global in the scope of its execution.
One of the great handicaps that blockade enforcement has faced in earlier eras, and indeed faces today, was and is the moral, psychological, and political damage that arises when the ships of third parties were sunk, whether accidentally or intentionally. This problem can be almost completely eliminated by the development of a new weapon ideally suited for BE: the propulsion disabler (PD). PDs are small, smart torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders without human casualties or significant damage to the rest of the ship. They deprive a ship of its mobility, rendering it a helpless burden on its owner. (See the Propulsion Disablers post.)
In a severe crisis, PDs would provide the US NCA and NATO decision makers with options lying between the binary choice of sinking the adversary’s ship or letting it sail on unimpeded. Existing technologies would seem to put PDs within reach. Their appearance would be provide an important advantage to blockade enforcement.
(Perhaps equally important, when PDs emerge in the hands of adversaries, they will almost certainly also pose a serious threat to the surface ships that play an out-sized role in the navies of the West.)
- Builds on Russia’s immutable geographic disadvantages in access to the world ocean.
- Poses a threat impossible for Russia to answer in kind, except with mines, likely to be used in any case.
- Provides an important strategic task for the carrier forces of the US, Britain and France: sweeping the seas of distant Russian civil assets and naval defenders, if any.
- Preserves the carriers as fleets-in-being that can compel the Russian navy to maintain a defensive stance, enforce Western terms for war termination, and be available to deal with the postwar world (see the Fleet-in-Being post).
- Exploits NATO naval forces likely to be underused because they currently are tailored mainly to protect transatlantic SLOCs. Whatever threat Russia might pose to the SLOCs of the North Atlantic—almost certainly small today and for the foreseeable future—would be deflected by further tying up Russian forces on the defense. This effect alone may well justify adopting blockade/BE. In short, BE adds offense to traditional SLOC defense (which can never be neglected, but should not constitute the be-all, end-all of NATO plans).
- Gives NATO’s new Joint Commands additional, strategically meaningful tasks.
- Shows that NATO is a military alliance of navies just as much as of armies and land-based air, that in the 21st century sea power can play more than an ancillary role in war with a continental power.
Imposing BE, Complicating Factors, Including Nuclear Escalation
In crisis, BE would present Russia with unfavorable choices at sea. Outside of the close-in Baltic and Black Seas, Russia can do little of threatening nature in more distant waters. Where Western and Russian ships might be in close proximity, as in the Mediterranean, Russia could hope to win some kind of repeat of the Cold War’s “battle of the first salvo.” However, if NATO’s crisis implementation of Live Oak had escalated to marking Russian naval ships, they would know they were facing heavy odds.
In any case, Russia would be unlikely to shoot at sea before it is ready and willing to do so ashore because: 1) their planners’ top priority is war on the ground; and 2), they know they would face a massive global response against all their civil and naval ships—a threat that the West will have made clear in advance.
On the other hand, in crisis, US and allied surface ships and naval air would be free to shadow Russian civil ships and, if necessary, naval ships in numbers calibrated in response to Russian actions ashore. The net effect would be preparations for a global blockade expressed in the unmistakable language of action. The Russians would likely take these preparations into account in deciding to cross (or not) the threshold into war. Russia would doubtless protest that such Western actions violate international law—to which the obvious response would be that Russia cannot appeal to the protection of international law when Russia itself is in marked violation of such law. An all too real case in point: Russia’s blocking of the Kerch Strait against Ukraine.
In war, Russian options to respond at sea would be limited. Naval escort of individual civil ships by surface ships or (more likely) submarines would be possible on a limited scale, but would be infeasible for the civil fleets at large. Defended convoys might be conceivable for the Northern Sea Route. More likely, however, Russia would shut down the NSR because of the lack of assets to defend it, especially south of the Bering Strait.
In addition to new LNG carriers, Russia’s significant assets at sea include a large merchant marine. Russia ranks second—after China—in the number of nationally-flagged (i.e., not flag of convenience) merchant ships. They are largely older container ships and bulk carriers, and have relatively small intrinsic value. However, they, like Russia’s fishing fleet (also the world’s second largest), are important earners of hard currency through service in cabotage and international hauling.
Note that ships which have been deprived of their mobility through attack by a propulsion disabler are vulnerable to seizure. Seizing Russia’s assets at sea would starkly symbolize its impotence on the world stage. Seized assets like LNG carriers might be put to use by the Alliance and could serve as bargaining chips in negotiations to terminate a conflict. Russian civil ships may be armed and resist seizure; however, Western forces would hold the tactical initiative and could enforce blockade at a pace commensurate with the course of the war elsewhere.
Whether loss of use of the world ocean would cause Russia to relinquish any NATO territory it may have gained is unknowable. No one should expect that blockade of Russia would by itself bring Russia to its knees. However, the situation might become dangerously volatile if the leadership in Moscow should regard holding onto seized territory as a sine qua non of the regime’s survival.
A second unknowable is whether, in response to a successful Western blockade, Russia might escalate to the nuclear level. This possibility must be taken seriously in light of the exaggerated prominence of nuclear weapons in Russia’s declaratory policy and propaganda—hardly unexpected from the party that sees itself inferior at the conventional level—but also because of Russia’s concrete development/deployment of weapons to deliver them. Russia recently announced that it reserves the right, under certain circumstances, to answer conventional strikes with nuclear weapons, further confirming their prominence in Russian defense plans. (Vladimir Isachenkov, “New Russian Policy Allows Use Of Atomic Weapons Against Non-Nuclear Strike” (Associated Press 02 JUN 20)
Because blockade’s effects arise from the sea and because nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage, a Russian nuclear answer to BE would very likely first be at sea. Russia might well proclaim that Western interdiction of its Northern Sea Route was little different from attacking the Transiberian Railway—both sovereign entities.
Because they are such a potent symbols of naval and national power, US CVSGs would be the likely targets of nuclear-armed cruise missiles launched by Russian submarine(s) from positions well outside territorial waters. (French and British carriers might be subject to similar Russian calculations.) Lacking symmetrical Russian targets at sea, the US would face extremely difficult decisions about its response.
Russia would probably recognize that it could not (nuclear) bomb its way out of blockade. That is, though it might inflict horrendous losses on the US and the navies of our allies, Russia could not prevent them from continuing to enforce embargo via submarine and mine warfare. So, Russia’s strategic position would be essentially unchanged, and it would face the possibility that the US might answer its nuclear strikes with strikes against Russian military, likely naval, targets ashore —widening a now-nuclear war to its own territory. At a minimum, Russia would face world opprobrium (perhaps a bit muted from its Chinese near-ally) as a consequence of its nuclear actions.
A decision to be the first to fire nuclear weapons would hardly be an easy one. Still, reckless, Hitlerian behavior by the leadership in Moscow cannot be ruled out. Indeed, rather than accepting what it regards as defeat from blockade, or any other Western actions, Russia might choose to fire tactical nuclear weapons at sea against Western naval forces for political reasons not related to military purpose. Russia could hope for a demonstration effect that might fracture the Alliance, causing some members to withdraw rather than face the prospect of further nuclear escalation.
These subjects are special—and probably the most likely—cases in the broader question of how the US and its allies would deal with Russian nuclear threats in war. These issues will have to be addressed, but they lie outside the scope of this post.
We need to remind ourselves that the first purpose of blockade is to contribute to deterrence of war. War might nonetheless come and be fought at the conventional level. If so, blockade is among the better, probably the most robust, of the options open to the West to strengthen its negotiating position for the restoration of the status quo ante. This last would define the minimal condition for “successful” war termination—and, because of nuclear arsenals—the likely maximal condition as well.
- Executing BE may not be feasible because of the large size and broad dispersal of Russia’s civil fleets and, in the near term, possible unreadiness of Western navies for the task.
- Immediate Russian reactions to blockade might be severe because of the humiliation the regime would face from being shown unable to defend sovereign Russian assets at sea. This effect would likely attenuate as the warring parties concentrate on the war on the ground.
- In the longer term, however, the severity of Russia’s reaction might intensify as Russian planners reckon the harmful effects on Russia’s economy of being cut off from world ocean-borne trade.
- Russian SSBNs might be sunk accidentally. This could cause Russia’s leaders to fear that the US intended to engage in strategic ASW to try to shift the intercontinental nuclear balance in its favor. (See the Strategic ASW post for why this would be an astonishingly bad idea). Every possible precaution should be taken to keep intercontinental nuclear forces out of play.
- Global blockade and blockade enforcement may be viewed as too radical or grandiose to be implemented by a fractious NATO and might be blocked by those NATO members who might see it as overly aggressive.
- Some may see US freedom of action as constrained by a closer linkage of US and NATO plans on a global scale. The USN may fear that operational security might become compromised.
- Third parties, especially the Chinese, may become involved if their commerce is interfered with or their ships become accidental targets. China cannot be allowed to negate the effects of a blockade. (A propulsion disabler weapon would be an ideal means to deal with blockade runners, under the Chinese or any other flag.) At the same time, China’s interests in unfettered seaborne commerce cannot be ignored entirely. Whatever the case, China can be expected to strongly denounce a global blockade against Russia not least because of its implications for a similar Chinese vulnerability. (See the Global Blockade vs. China post).
- The potency and ease of implementation of a global blockade may be misunderstood or “oversold” in US national planning processes perhaps within the Navy/JCS/OSD, but more likely outside it. This could lead to its premature use in an unfolding crisis. Preparations for global blockade should be recognized as a significant step toward war—to be taken only in extremis.
- Success (and perhaps sacrifice) at sea may lead some in the US to escalate the political terms demanded of Russia for ending the war. Some may argue that restoration of the status quo ante is insufficient. Having just demonstrated that global command of the sea can produce major strategic payoff, there may develop a temptation to further exploit it vs. Russia and expand its use to others. This prospect doubtless will have occurred to leaders in China.
War Termination and the Critical Role of China
If a global NATO blockade proved a growing success, would war termination be on the horizon? A series of interrelated questions must be answered. First, would the Russian economy in general face sharply negative growth? How specifically would its war economy be affected? Could autarkical measures show prospect of providing relief? Could external aid, especially from China (see below) permit Russia to fight on for a considerable period?
Second, to the degree there is economic distress, would that distress translate into internal political instability and/or external military vulnerability? Specialists in Russian economic and Russian security affairs, inside and outside the US government, must address these questions to determine the desirability of a blockade strategy. Not all appear answerable, but the range of uncertainty can probably be narrowed considerably. Russia specialists will need deep liaison with specialists on China.
Third, is China the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. Russia? Surely the answer must be Yes. China, whatever its specific interests in any Russia-West conflict, would be almost certain to follow classic balance-of-power practice: support Russia, and oppose the West. China would not wish to see Russia’s defeat at the hands of the West. It would then find itself alone facing a powerful and perhaps emboldened US superpower supported by allies in the Indo-Pacific who are neutral, if not hostile, vis-à-vis China.
Thus, China would almost certainly come to Russia’s aid. At a minimum it could easily provide a market and overland conduit for Russian grain and other exports. The remarkable development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) railroads, internal cargo handling “ports” like Khorgos on the China-Kazakhstan border, pipelines, fiberoptic cables, electrical power grids, etc.—make terrestrial commerce on a continental scale increasingly easy. Obviously China could be an overland supplier of needed goods and raw materials. (Iran might play similar roles through the Caspian.) Supplying Russia military equipment and advanced military technologies are well within China’s capabilities.
The three-way interaction between the West, Russia, and China raises a most important issue confronting strategic planners in the US: If neither Russia nor China would wish to allow the other to face defeat in a war with the West, US plans may have to encompass war, though not necessarily combat, with both parties simultaneously. This topic is taken up in more detail in the Global Blockade vs. China post.
More generally, analysis is likely to show that blockade/BE has substantial potential to augment deterrence of war with Russia, help manage a crisis that threatens Baltic states and others, and improve the chances that a war could be terminated on satisfactory terms. In addition, BE exploits heretofore underused Western sea power—for example the British and French carriers—freeing the US Navy for other tasks.
The strategic promise of blockade should be carefully assessed—should we do it? The operational feasibility of BE should be similarly scrutinized—can we do it, as well as possible other strategic tasks? As noted these are two quite separate categories of questions.
Ultimately, however, they will need to addressed simultaneously at the highest levels of planning. There will be a need for officially sanctioned studies and games done by teams of people who combine expertise in naval operations, international economics and trade, and deep knowledge of Russian (and Chinese) internal governance and national security policy.
If blockade is judged likely to produce strategic success and BE is deemed feasible, NATO should immediately and publicly revive Live Oak. The US and its allies should make blockade an important component of plans for defending the Alliance’s eastern members against Russia’s threats and possible aggressive actions. The US should add blockade of Russia to its twenty-first century Maritime Strategy.
Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, November 24, 2020