This blog aims to contribute to understanding the history of the US Navy during the Cold War and to draw lessons from that and earlier periods for the current era of great power competition. I welcome your comments and follows.

Strategic ASW in 2021 – A Stunningly Bad Idea

Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China

Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia

Propulsion Disablers – A Game-Changing Opportunity and Possible Mortal Threat

Fleet-in-Being – The 17th Century Calls Out to the 21st Century

CNA’s Open Source Analysis of Soviet Military Writings

I’m examining and evaluating some of the major components of what might together constitute a 21st century Maritime Strategy. I’m a political scientist who worked at the Center for Naval Analyses (now known as CNA) from 1969 to 1999, with a group that supported and critiqued ONI and OPNAV planners in what was then Op-06. Our main effort was devoted to the analysis of the Soviet military press. We had some success, as described in my “The Return of Great Power Competition: Cold War Lessons about Strategic Anti-Submarine Warfare and Defense of Sea Lines of Communication,” Naval War College Review, Vol 73, No 3 (Summer 2020)  pp 1-27. I served as the director of the group from 1974 to 1989. The job mainly involved trying not to get in the way of my talented and dedicated colleagues. With James McConnell, I was co-editor of, and a contributor to, Soviet Naval Diplomacy (Pergamon Press, 1979). I retired as a Captain in the Naval Reserve after service in Naval Intelligence.

While I am much in debt to Peter Swartz and Steve Wills—both currently at CNA—and former CNA-ers Bruce Powers and Tom Anger, the ideas expressed are my own. I offer these think pieces for critique and commentary. Each addresses a strategic mission of the Navy, cast at the level of using the Navy (and USMC) as a whole. The aim is not to win battles but to win wars. Specifically, to support the nation’s peacetime diplomacy and to deter—or, if unavoidable, to fight—a war with Russia or China and to deal with the “post-war” world. I approach these subjects via the logic of the strategic situation as seen from the US point of view. Any references to Russian or Chinese attitudes are drawn entirely from secondary sources. My focus is today. Future forces are rarely addressed. Posts typically open with a statement of purpose, definition of terms, and descriptions of assumptions, followed by outlines of possible actions and assessments of their pros and cons and concluding with a section on war termination.

This blog is actually a family effort. My daughter Kathy provides highly informed editorial and technical assistance—without which there wouldn’t be a Clio.

Stay tuned for more and please follow to be notified when I post updates.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, January 11, 2021


About the Author

I’m a political scientist who worked at the Center for Naval Analyses (now known as CNA) 1969-99 with a group that supported and critiqued ONI and OPNAV planners and analyzed the Soviet military press. I directed the group 1974-89. I retired as a Captain in the Naval Reserve after service in Naval Intelligence. This blog aims to contribute to an understanding of the history of the US Navy in the Cold War, to draw lessons from that and earlier periods for the current era, and to conjecture about possible future developments for which history may provide no guide.

For a number of years after I retired I did not closely follow the literature relating to the Navy’s strategic thinking. I only returned to it in 2017 when preparing a talk about CNA’s work on the Soviet navy as part CNA’s 75th anniversary. I was frankly appalled to find that ideas about SLOC protection and strategic ASW had marched zombie-like out of the Cold War and were being taken seriously in what was dubbed a new era of great power competition.

I felt a professional and personal obligation to re-enter the public discussion of these matters. CNA’s analysis from the early 1970s had shown that the Soviet navy had zero intent to attack Western SLOCs, and CNA had been close to the center of the thinking that gave rise to strategic ASW. Today, Russia has even less interest in threatening Western SLOCs on the high seas than did the Soviets. Today, strategic ASW is such a stunningly bad idea that by speaking out I hope to help banish it from polite strategic discussion.

I recognize that I am stepping into the midst of a fast-moving debate that has produced a substantial body of literature that continues to grow. I hope to contribute to it if I can.

Bradford Dismukes

Propulsion Disablers – A Game-Changing Opportunity and Possible Mortal Threat


Propulsion disablers (PDs) are small torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders. The purpose of this essay is to describe: 1) the strategic, operational and tactical opportunities that PDs offer the US Navy; and, 2) the threat that PDs will likely pose to Navy surface ships. Submarines are not addressed.

Origins of the PD Idea

The PD concept has arisen purely to meet a strategic need. PDs appear to be an ideal weapon to implement a blockade strategy, sketched out below under “Opportunities for Use of PDs by the US and Allies” and are detailed in the posts Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia and Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China. The PD is a child of strategic thinking, not technological development. The propulsion disablement idea has been around in principle for a long time. I first encountered it during the Cold War. The crisis intermingling between Sixth Fleet and the Fifth Eskadra led many to wonder: why don’t we have a way to put our opponent’s ships out of action short of sinking them? What’s new today is the technical possibility of actually doing that. The idea that PDs might also threaten US surface ships is born of a simple maxim: if I can do it to him, he can probably do it to me, so I should think hard about my defenses.


It is assumed that production of PDs is technically feasible today, or in the foreseeable future, by the US and by its adversaries. Because the pace of innovation in the current era is so rapid, no attempt is made to estimate how quickly effective PDs might arrive (nor is the writer remotely capable of offering an opinion on that subject). However, their eventual appearance seems nearly certain and because of their attractiveness, the interval is likely to be short. The most likely form falls under the USN’s category of an underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV).

Naval ships depend on their mobility to employ their reason for being—their lethality. Depriving a ship of its mobility has essentially the same result as sinking it: the ship loses its lethality against targets beyond the range of onboard weapons. It also makes the ship a stationary target, vulnerable to seizure.

If a PD can deprive a ship of its mobility with minimal—ideally zero—damage to the platform itself or its crew, there would be military and unprecedented political consequences:

Capabilities and Employment Concepts

  • Unlike sinking, there would be no irreversible loss of an asset that expresses national sovereignty. Thus, there might be a clouded, ambiguous casus belli. In a situation where a PD was delivered by stealthy means, it might not be possible to identify with certainty the state or even non-state actor that “fired” it.
  • Although PDs are inherently less violent than torpedoes, they are not benign. A ship, naval or civil, helpless before an unforgiving sea would present its owner (and the disabling party) with complex choices that need careful analysis. The owner would first be concerned with rescuing the crew and then with recovering the ship and cargo, if any, but might lack the means to do either or may simply choose not to. In that case, those tasks would fall to the disabler who, as a matter of moral, political, and possibly legal obligation, could not be indifferent to the fate of those he has put at risk. In any case, disposing of, say, many tens or even hundreds of disabled or seized ships would have to be part of a blockader’s plans. The adversary’s ships (perhaps not all) would have to be towed to safe harbor, their crews interned, or repatriated, and cargoes seized or returned to their rightful owners (assuming the ship’s or other documentation permits the owner(s) to be identified). This would be likely be a lengthy and resource consuming process. (I am indebted to K.J. Moore for raising the problem posed by disabled ships. He is of course not responsible for my treatment of the matter.)
  • In a severe crisis or in war the propulsion disabler might be viewed as a qualitatively new form of warfare at sea not yet seen in the modern era. The world at large is rapidly being transformed by robotics and ever-growing computational power. It is obvious that navies are caught up in this vast transformation of human activity. One of its plausible long-term manifestations may well be many thousands of small, distributed, unmanned drone PDs challenging the dominance of the relatively few hundreds of manned warships that comprise established power on the surface of the sea today.

The Navy has long had in place a wide variety of UUV programs guided by Master Plans dating from the 2000’s. However, as publicly described, these plans do not give priority to PDs nor to defense against them. Existing technologies (e.g., miniaturization, computing power, extended battery storage, exotic propulsion means, etc.) and, critically, a warhead a small fraction of the size of torpedoes designed to sink ships—all suggest that a PD UUV would be small. (Many might be carried in the space occupied by a 3,000-pound torpedo.) It would also be passive, difficult to detect and capable of considerable range in both mobility and target detection, especially of large surface ships. PDs would also be smart. Based on a library of the sonic signatures of the adversary’s naval and civil ships, collected in peacetime, PDs could distinguish between an enemy ship and those of third parties, and between categories of enemy shipping, allowing excluded targets like ferries, passenger ships, and the like to be avoided.

Emerging technologies are likely to enhance such capabilities, while efforts to reduce or mask the detectable signatures of traditional big ships are less likely to keep pace. PDs would mainly be delivered by air or submarine, though surface ships could also be armed with them for use in offensive blockade. A highly likely use would be as the warhead for stationary mines. Aircraft might deliver PDs against many enemy civil ships fairly rapidly over a wide area. Because of their size, it cannot be excluded that small numbers of PDs could be delivered by cruise or ballistic missiles. In the latter case, the missile would not have to hit its target—the golfer’s hole-in-one—it would only have to hit the green or just the frog’s hair. Submarines might deliver many tens of PDs from modules already under development for other uses, or of new specialized types.

PDs might be employed singly against civil ships, e.g., container ships, tankers, LNG carriers, etc. Against warships they might be employed singly, depending on their stealth, or perhaps in swarms. Swarms would seek to saturate defenses, overwhelm countermeasures, and increase the probability that multi-screw ships could be completely disabled.

Opportunities for Use of PDs by the US and Allies

PD devices have potential for offensive use versus China, Russia, and lesser adversaries. PD capability would provide useful payoff at all levels of planning: at the tactical level in acute crisis, where threats might be ambiguous, the US NCA would not face a binary choice between sinking the adversary’s ship or letting it sail on. Deprived of its mobility, a PD-ed ship becomes a helpless, floating hulk to be seized or left for the adversary to deal with.

PDs would also be ideally suited for blockade enforcement. (see the posts Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China and Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia). Runners could be disabled, and blockade-breaking defeated, with an as-yet-unspecified level of violation of the owning state’s sovereignty.

This is no minor matter. Enforcing blockades has been fraught with moral, legal, and political problems. The propulsion disabler would likely transform blockade operations. Consider the historical example of Lusitania. An artist’s rendering of her sinking is below. This picture would have looked very different if she’d been hit not by a German torpedo but by a German PD. Lusitania was a British-flagged ship but had aboard several hundred US citizens, many of whom were among the 1200 who lost their lives when she went down. As a result of those unprecedented losses, American public opinion turned against Germany and stayed decisively so until the US entered World War I two years later. If she had been PD-ed, Lusitania would have gone dead in the water, then likely be towed to Liverpool, and the war might have taken a different direction.

Sinking of the Lusitania. Engraving by Norman Wilkinson
The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915

PDs likely will reshape naval warfare. No one needs reminding that throughout history new weapons have changed the ways navies have been employed. The propulsion disabler may prove to be such a weapon, both to use in blockade enforcement on offense, and—of equal importance—for the navies of the United States and its allies to defend against.

These observations are obviously hypothetical, used here to illustrate a point: a propulsion disabler would have given a radically new dimension to the submarine war against the SLOC a hundred years ago, just as it would change blockade enforcement today. There is little reason to expect that the PD will remain hypothetical. Whether the US fields one or not, adversaries almost certainly will.

At the operational level in war, PDs might prove almost as effective as torpedoes in defeating the enemy because they would render target ships essentially useless and burden the enemy with retrieving ships and crews. At the strategic level mass use of PDs could yield considerable leverage. Consider the case of a hypothetical war with China: if a half-dozen Chinese warships and several dozen civil ships were disabled, the rest might then be kept in port, producing the effects of a successful blockade.

China’s vulnerability to blockade has not yet been thoroughly analyzed, but the nation is already highly dependent on seaborne importation of hydrocarbons, raw materials, and even foodstuffs, production for exports dominate its economy, and it has made great investments in ship-building and other industries that depend on use of the sea. (see the post Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China. PDs are not a sine qua non of a design for strategic blockade, but their low cost, widespread deployability—air, surface, and subsurface—and likely efficiency would make them a highly desirable component.

The Threat PDs May Pose to USN Surface Ships

The first obligation of the planner is to defend his own vulnerabilities. Our adversaries are surely as aware of the merits of PDs as are students of naval warfare in the West. They may be capable of producing large numbers of PDs from home-grown robotic and computer technologies, as well as strength in mass production of modern electronic devices. These factors suggest this potential should be taken seriously.

It remains to be seen whether PDs will prove to be just a new form of undersea threat to be answered with traditional ASW measures, or whether they may be transformative. It is hard to imagine an asymmetric capability more attractive to China or Russia: a fairly simple, inexpensive way, possibly difficult to defend against, to neutralize the surface ships of the world’s most powerful navy. Nor one where the disparity in costs were so great: many thousands of PDs produced at a fraction of the cost of a carrier strike group and whatever may be prove necessary for its defense against PDs.

Possible Scenarios for Use of PDs by Adversaries

Consider three cases involving China:
(1) In peace, China successfully uses a PD against a US warship on a Freedom of Navigation operation near a Chinese-claimed area of the South China Sea. China denies all responsibility. The US searches for an appropriate response and is preoccupied with retrieving the ship.
(2) In a crisis at the brink of war, the Chinese do not fire explosives at an approaching CVSG. Rather they use PDs against the carrier. A successful attack would be a US nightmare: 110,000 tons of useless steel, drifting helplessly and displaying US impotence on worldwide television screens—a scene repeated over weeks until the ship can be towed away for repair—assuming China does not PD the tug. On the grounds of prudence, the US withholds commitment of the rest of the carrier force.
(3) In war, PDs will likely find a place in a mix with kinetic and explosive weapons. They may be the weapon of choice because of their unprecedented military advantage: putting ships out of action and at the same time forcing the opponent to deal (or not) with his disabled ships.

Suggested Actions

  • Develop PD capabilities for offensive uses as outlined here. Just as important, give counter-PD a high priority in Navy planning for the defense of the carriers and the rest of the surface Navy.
  • Direct the Intelligence Community to search for signs of PD development in all of our adversaries’ actions, including in their open military writings.
  • Ensure that intra-Navy research and analysis addresses PD/counter-PD. (See the note below on some relevant Navy efforts.) The Navy should also request the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate to similarly adjust its focus. The JNLWD’s “Strategic Plan, 2016-2025” includes a category “Stop Large Vessels.” But the category had no content in 2018, and the Directorate’s general perspective is offensive with little corresponding concern about defending against an adversary’s non-lethal weapons.
  • Suggest to OSD national options to respond if a US Navy ship (or perhaps even a civil ship or ships of allies) were PD-ed. This should be done as a precautionary minimum to avoid being caught flatfooted by a surprise PD attack. Even today it may be possible that the Chinese could produce a primitive PD warhead for a stationary mine placed on the perimeter of claimed territorial waters. Should evidence come to light that an adversary has or may soon possess operational PD capabilities, policy decisions on the matter would be urgent and mandatory.
  • Assess the international and domestic (if any) legal implications of PDs and take legal and policy actions as necessary.


The US should develop and field PDs with as little fanfare as possible. It seems highly likely that our adversaries will do so independent of US action. Even if that likelihood is estimated to be small today, the probability of the eventual appearance of PDs is high, and the possible consequences of their introduction could prove revolutionary. This combination of probability and consequence dictates a serious need to think through immediate and long-term measures both to exploit PDs on offense and counter them on defense.

Note: Currently a wide variety of Navy UUV efforts are underway, including some recent and soon-to-be-deployed hardware. None is focused on PD/counter-PD, as far as I have seen in information publicly available. The Coast Guard has shown specific interest in using a small torpedo—the Surface Ship Torpedo Defense (SSTD) currently being evaluated—for what is a PD in all but name. Employment of swarms of small underwater devices is in early stages of technical evaluation of their feasibility independent of a conception for their tactical use.

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, January 15, 2021

Strategic ASW in 2021 – A Stunningly Bad Idea


To assess the desirability of strategic ASW as a wartime mission of the Navy today and for the foreseeable future. The mission is defined as attacking Russian SSBNs to alter the intercontinental nuclear balance in the favor of the US on behalf of larger purposes. During the Cold War these strategic purposes included: 1) SLOC protection—by forcing the Russian GPF navy to stay tied up defending SSBNs; 2) reducing the overall strength of a possible Russian nuclear attack on the US and so protecting the US proper; and/or, 3) to gain strategic leverage to affect the course of the war on the ground.

This is not a theoretical issue. In 2018, a Navy spokesman let it be known that, in a war with Russia, the Navy intends to use its submarines “to deny bastions to the Russians,” on behalf of “defending the homeland,” presumably meaning to destroy Russian SLBMs and so reduce the weight of a Russian intercontinental nuclear strike.* The homeland defense objective was repeated in March 2020: An SSN exercise in the Arctic was described as needed “to maintain readiness and capability to defend the homeland when called upon,” according to Rear Adm. Butch Dollaga, Commander, Undersea Warfighting Development Center. Note that the comments in 2018 were offhand remarks during a Q&A at a public conference. The situation in 2020 was quite different. RADM Dollaga was speaking officially to the world via the the Navy’s Office of Public Affairs.

What threat to the US homeland that might emerge from the Arctic was left unnamed. Russian submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed in the Arctic (and Sea of Okhotsk) are the only plausible candidates.

Beyond these (barely) veiled “announcements,” little is known about today’s private Navy thinking regarding strategic ASW. During the Cold War the mission was an explicit component of the (recently declassified) National Security Decision Directive 238, September 2, 1986, signed by President Reagan (NSDD 238 1986-CIA-RDP01M00147R000100130003-0.pdf, p.17). NSDD 238 incorporates one of the defining features of the “Maritime Strategy” which was publicly described by CNO Adm. James Watkins in the Proceedings in January 1986. Strategic ASW presumably disappeared when the strategy was officially retired in the mid-1990s. It is not mentioned in any of the documents reflecting current Navy strategic thinking reviewed by Tangredi in 2019 (Sam J. Tangredi, “Running Silent and Algorithmic: The U.S. Navy Strategic Vision in 2019,” Naval War College Review, Vol .72, No. 2 (2019).)”


It must be assumed that the strategic ASW idea is being entertained in parts of the Navy’s system of strategic planning. Whether the Navy possesses the capabilities to execute the mission is not known. The Navy spokesmen named did not address the matter, nor will this writer. It is nonetheless true that the Navy has acquired forces uniquely tailored for Arctic operations, and, as will be addressed below, exercises them regularly.**

It is theoretically possible that, with or without actual capabilities to execute, the Navy thinks it’s a good idea to talk up the mission in the hopes that doing so will force Russian planners to intensify their concern with the security of the SSBN force and make war plans that amount to keeping their GPF navy hunkered down in a strategic defensive crouch.

Such a stratagem—a military ploy—suffers from three serious shortcomings. First, it is entirely unnecessary. The Russian GPF navy, like that of its Soviet predecessors, has long been committed to defend its SSBNs in a wartime force employment scheme that blends smoothly with its mission to defend the homeland against attack from the sea. Second, to this inherently defensive proclivity, one must add the fleet-in-being effect. The fact that the US possesses a force of 60-plus of the quietest SSNs in the world means that prudent Russian planners can never relax their commitment to defense no matter what the US actually plans to do with its submarines. I will venture that, while the Russians pay attention to what the US says about its strategic intentions, US words cause little change in Russia’s plans. Third, “playing” with a matter as serious as the intercontinental nuclear balance must be ruled off limits. Serious, responsible planners don’t toy with an issue where the survival of the nation would be literally at stake. Other, lesser shortcomings are taken up below.

Whatever the case, strategic ASW will always be a possibility as long as SSBNs exist. The problems it raises must be recognized and dealt with via the actions suggested here or otherwise. It is one of those rare missions where failure would be a far better outcome than success.

The Logic of Strategic ASW in the Current Era

Although the mission is to be carried out with conventional weapons, its consequences are mainly nuclear. Let’s look at three likely effects of prosecuting the mission and the policy actions implied for each.

Intercontinental Nuclear War

Is a strategic ASW campaign a sensible choice? The answer is an unqualified No. The logic of the Cold War cannot be extrapolated to the situation vis-à-vis Russia today, or in the foreseeable future. A particularly misguided idea is that a successful ASW campaign would significantly reduce the damage the US would suffer should there be an intercontinental nuclear exchange. “Defending the homeland” through strategic ASW, as Navy spokesmen have suggested, is simply impossible. SLBMs comprise a relatively small fraction of Russian intercontinental strike power. Even if the entire SSBN fleet were eliminated, a huge strike potential would remain in Russian ICBMs ashore, and only a small fraction of that would be more than capable of destroying the US as a nation.

(Indeed, Michael Kofman has wondered aloud why the Soviets in the past and Russia today ever built an SSBN force to serve as a strategic nuclear reserve when they had ample rail and road-mobile ICBMs that could serve that purpose. Kofman,”The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy,” March 12, 2020 ) (This same conclusion was reached by Michael MccGwire during the Cold War.)

In addition, a strategic ASW campaign could destabilize the longstanding, stable intercontinental nuclear relationship. The Russians might reasonably conclude that US willingness to attack the most secure components of their triad—missiles the US knows are the ultimate guarantors of the Russian state, missiles whose principal targets are the cities of the United States—must presage dire intent: regime change in Moscow, seizure of Russian territory, or even a disarming nuclear first strike. This last, backed up by air and missile defense of US territory against Russian retaliation, would mean that the US contemplates fighting a nuclear war. This idea was correctly rejected as a lethally dangerous impossibility during the Cold War. It makes no more sense today.

Strategic ASW is a grave step. It can only be justified if undertaken on behalf of the defense of a value deemed vital to the survival of the US as an independent nation. During the Cold War the US saw the prevention of Soviet dominance of Western Europe as exactly such a vital interest. The US committed itself to escalate to the use of nuclear weapons on behalf of that goal—first at the tactical battlefield level, then at the theater level, and ultimately at the intercontinental nuclear level.

The logic of strategic ASW during the Cold War—which a number of US strategic thinkers strongly rejected at the time—was simple: Faced with possible defeat on the ground at the conventional level, the US planned to engage in strategic ASW to gain leverage over the Soviets, avoid nuclear escalation, or add to its strategic effect. Strategic ASW was indirectly endorsed by US allies in NATO for obvious reason: It reinforced the US commitment to the Alliance by showing that the US was willing to put its territory immediately at the same, or even greater, level of nuclear risk that its allies in Europe already faced.

Today, no US interest of comparable magnitude has been identified that would justify the risks to the nation entailed by strategic ASW. Moreover, no threat to any such interest has been identified or foreseen. On the contrary, while Russia enjoys local conventional superiority on the ground along its immediate periphery, it is the West that has the greater overall potential at the conventional level, especially at sea. Indeed, Russian strategists are likely well aware that Russia can use the world ocean only at the sufferance of the US and its allies (see the Global Blockade vs. Russia post).

The general conventional superiority of the West, particularly at sea, in and of itself, is a powerful reason for the West to avoid any actions that push the Russians in the direction of nuclear use. Threat of escalation is a common feature of Russian strategic declarations and seems hardly unexpected from the party that knows itself inferior in conventional capabilities.

During the Cold War, however, two arguments were made in favor of executing strategic ASW. First, it was said that by attacking Soviet SSBNs the US would tie down the GPF navy on the defensive and thus protect Western SLOCs. But protect against what threat? It is now generally recognized that the Soviet navy never in its seventy-year history had any intention of attacking Western SLOCs on the high seas and indeed was not up to that mission if it had been ordered to execute it.

As noted, the “fleet-in-being”effect of the US SSN force obliged Soviet planners to hold their GPF navy in a defensive stance under essentially all circumstances. If SLOC defense were the goal, actually executing strategic ASW to achieve it would have been superfluous—pointlessly putting at risk irreplaceable naval assets.

Second, some in the US argued that attacks on Soviet SSBNs would not have had immediate escalatory effects because Soviet planners expected them. This last is almost certainly true but says little about how the Soviets might have responded to a generally successful US campaign, especially if success came fairly quickly. The “use-them-or-lose-them” decision would have been extremely fraught for the Soviets. In August 1991, the Soviets conveyed to the world that they were capable of the “use them” option when, reportedly, a Delta IV launched all sixteen of its missiles in less than four minutes.

However, if missiles in the nuclear reserve were fired early, then the reserve would have failed to fulfill its reason for being, vitiating the broader Soviet design for war. Launching reserve nuclear missiles is not like committing a reserve battalion of tanks. If the missiles were fired at their presumed targets—US cities—the result would be an answering salvo of US missiles against Soviet cities. Acknowledging that the Soviets would not have been surprised when they found their SSBNs under attack says nothing about how they might actually have responded.

Suggested actions: Careful analysis of probable Russian calculations must be completed before reaching a decision about the desirability of the strategic ASW mission—or the absence thereof. Such analysis should be carried out at a level within the government commensurate with the potentially catastrophic national impact of its results. This is a case where conventional war only has nuclear consequences. Perhaps an assessment akin to the Nuclear Posture Review would seem appropriate. It is obvious that decisions of such gravity for the nation should not be made by one of the military services on its own, especially where within the Navy its submarine service is uniquely central to Navy decision-making regarding the mission.**

NPR-level assessment of strategic ASW is not an idle possibility. There are other reasons to reconsider the NPR itself. Technological advances in long-range precision-guided conventional strike weapons dictate that, if a future NPR is to meet that document’s stated purposes, its scope must widen. The NPR needs to address conventional weapons whose use can directly affect the nuclear balance. That balance specifically means not just the numbers and performance parameters of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. It also includes the early warning and command and control systems on which their effective use depends. To this increasingly complex conventional-nuclear nexus, we must also take note that our Russian ‘great power competitor,” has made clear that Russia envisions that attacks by conventional weapons on its strategic forces (as just defined) or against its critical governmental infrastructure will be answered with nuclear weapons. (Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia Warns It Will See Any Incoming Missile As Nuclear” (ASSOCIATED PRESS 09 AUG 20) … Thus strategic ASW might take its place in a new conventional-cum-nuclear category in a revised remit for the NPR.

During the Cold War the Navy introduced the concept of strategic ASW, first through intensely private planning but, after a fairly short interval, quite publicly. It has now put strategic ASW back into the public domain today. Thus far, it appears to be acting on its own. Saying things like “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy” (based on a GAO report reflecting strong Navy input) does not suffice. As far as can be inferred from information in the public domain, nothing suggests that the JCS, OSD, or the National Security Council have approved, much less ordered, the Navy to voice strategic ASW intentions and to exercise forces in preparation to execute the mission.

A strategic ASW campaign would put the survival of the nation directly at risk. The national decision-making process should be fully engaged. The NCA should issue explicit directions to the Navy on what to do, and not do, regarding strategic ASW vis-à-vis the Russians and generically for the long-term future of a mission that will likely be a potential as long as SSBNs are a factor in naval planning.

If the NCA’s decision goes against strategic ASW, then the mission should, at a minimum, be held in abeyance. That decision should become the object of national declaratory policy and of military-to-military diplomacy with the Russians.

Words should be accompanied by deeds. For over 30 years the Navy has been acquiring capabilities for anti-SSBN operations in the Arctic. Much of the cost of the most expensive class of attack submarines ever purchased, the Seawolf class, was owed to giving it unprecedented capacity to operate under-ice and also in shallow waters, both areas where Soviet SSBNs were estimated likely to conceal themselves. Seawolf and later classes with similar capabilities are in the Navy’s active inventory. The message of strategic ASW intent they bespeak cannot be changed. The same is not true however of Navy operations. Those that can be construed as active preparations for strategic ASW should be reviewed and adjusted accordingly. A leading example: The Navy should suspend, modify or even end its ICEX operations, a long-running biennial exercise under Arctic ice.

One of the high points of ICEX 2018 was to practice and display improving capabilities to fire torpedoes under Arctic ice. Under-ice torpedoes are uniquely target-specific weapons. Their only conceivable targets would be Russian submarines, obviously including Russian SSBNs. This reality is doubtless not lost on Russian navy planners. (There was no mention of under-ice torpedos in any of the public affairs materials connected with ICEX 2020, just completed in March. It would be surprising if they were not fired and if the Russians did not detect such firings.)

A decision if, when, and how to modify, at least, ICEX should itself be subjected to careful analysis. It could be argued that if the US is moving toward “giving up” a strategic capability, it should seek some “concession” of comparable strategic weight from the Russian side. Possibly. But it does not seem logical to continue to develop capabilities like under-ice torpedoes that you never will want to use. Never is used here advisedly. It is up to proponents of the strategic ASW mission to articulate the circumstances, if any, under which it might be executed.

Equally important, potential discussions with Russia regarding the near-inviolability of the SSBNs of both sides in war might afford an opportunity to engage with Russia in a cooperative mode. I can think of no other area—certainly not one of comparable importance—in the naval sphere where such a thing might be possible. Competition dominates Navy thinking – as it does my own.

On this score, there is one, entirely hypothetical, strategic case to consider: that US SSBNs become detectable and so subject to Russian attack. In addition to mounting a defense of its own SSBNs, the US would want to be able to answer in kind. (Note that this would not be “strategic ASW” at US initiative.) Thus the possible need for under-ice torpedoes would arise. But if very quiet, essentially stationary US SSBNs on patrol had become detectable—presumably by non-acoustic means—would not the same Russian detection systems be brought to bear on US SSNs moving forward to fire under-ice torpedoes?

Possible radical breakthroughs in submarine detection would obviously transform naval warfare. Whether to continue to develop and exercise under-ice torpedoes as a hedge against a breakthrough in submarine detection and so be needed in the hypothetical scenario described here should be analyzed carefully and a deliberate decision made.

In any case, it is theoretically possible that under-ice torpedoes are needed for purposes other than strategic ASW. If so, those purposes should be articulated and evaluated in light of their inescapable strategic ASW implications. If, despite the logic and evidence adduced above, the NCA should decide that strategic ASW is desirable, then the Navy should be prepared to address, and answer with confidence, two questions that arise should execution of the mission become successful: First, would it lead to tactical nuclear war at sea?; and/or, second, would it have undesirable nuclear ecological consequences of unknown scale?

Tactical Nuclear War at Sea

The Russians would be highly unlikely to accept the loss of their SSBN force at the hands of US conventional strategic ASW forces without resort to use of their tactical nuclear ASW weapons. They, like their Soviet predecessors, have many such weapons in their arsenal,*** and the threshold for their use is relatively low for at least two reasons: 1) in contrast to their use ashore, nuclear weapons fired at sea produce no immediate collateral damage; and 2) the Russians have placed great emphasis on their readiness to go nuclear in response to Western conventional superiority. The US no longer possesses nuclear ASW weapons and so could not answer in kind at sea, even if it wanted to. It would be unlikely to have reason to escalate ashore.

Independent of these military factors, the Russians could reasonably expect their decision to use nuclear weapons at sea to have a powerful demonstration effect on their adversaries, perhaps producing a fracture in the Western alliance. Some states might choose to fight on, but others might wish to withdraw from a  war that has turned nuclear. The ranks of the latter would likely be larger if the US is viewed as taking actions at sea, on a unilateral basis, that lead to nuclear escalation. (For further argument on this point see the post Global Blockade vs. Russia.)

Suggested Actions: The Intelligence Community should be directed to estimate the capabilities for, and the likelihood of, the use of Russian nuclear ASW weapons in a campaign to defend SSBNs. The Navy itself should evaluate its readiness to fight a strategic ASW campaign in a tactical nuclear environment with existing conventional ordnance or, if deemed necessary, a new generation of US nuclear ASW weapons.

Further, policy analysis should focus on the expected effects on the West should the Russians cross the nuclear threshold at sea in a variety of scenarios of war ashore. The course of war ashore is likely to be an important, if not the dominant, factor in determining the decisions of the Alliance—primarily the US NCA—regarding responses at sea and ashore. The degree of endorsement of US strategic ASW plans by allies should be assessed and, if need be, sought in advance.

Nuclear Ecological Damage

A successful campaign to kill Russian SSBNs would result in unavoidable and possibly catastrophic damage to the environment. At a minimum it would leave the sea floors of the Arctic Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk, and adjacent Pacific waters littered with large amounts of radioactive material from nuclear reactors and from the many megaton-scale missile warheads that would be destroyed or damaged. (The amount of radioactivity released would depend the losses on both sides and on the number of Russian SSBNs sunk. A typical Russian SSBN carries between 100 and 200 individual nuclear warheads. Thus sinking even one or two could produce considerable loose radioactive material.) In a worst case, a missile warhead might detonate resulting in the vaporization of the considerable volume of nuclear materials in other warheads if not their detonations as well. The intensity of the radiation and the area of its dispersal could be large. Immediate effects on US territory in Alaska and on allies like Canada, Norway, the UK, Japan, and Korea might be severe. Should longer term contamination of the global ocean follow, the continental US itself could be threatened.

During the Cold War, ecological damage of this kind was a lesser included case in the nuclear Armageddon that confronted the world. Today, there are no issues at stake between the US and Russia that are remotely comparable to those vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. (Indeed, some students of US national security policy regard Russia as a minor “regional” annoyance compared to the emerging strategic competition between the US and China.) Possible ecological damage is no longer a lesser included case. It is fully case on its own.

Suggested actions: Review existing studies or initiate new studies of the ecological consequences of even a moderately successful campaign against Russian SSBNs, including estimates of the probability that attacks might detonate strategic nuclear warheads. The aim would be to verify that a strategic ASW campaign would not be environmentally self-defeating: a 21st century update of the Pyrrhic victory concept—gaining sea control of waters that can no longer be used by humans.

The Navy must study these environmental questions internally and be able to answer them satisfactorily in public. Such questions would seem certain arise in the Congress from Alaska’s delegation, for example, or from private parties with deep commercial commitments in the Arctic like Exxon-Mobil. They will also likely come from close allies who may fear exposure to toxic waters. Indeed, it will be surprising if US critics abroad, who have long charged that the US is indifferent to the fate of its allies in war, do not pick up this line of argument. The specter of apocalyptic damage to the world ocean will likely be raised.


The weight of fact and logic means that strategic ASW in the new era is simply a stunningly bad idea. A carefully managed relinquishing of the mission may offer the opportunity for useful cooperative exchanges with Russia, if not formal arms control agreements.


*Jeffrey Barker, deputy branch head for Policy and Posture in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Op 515B) in remarks delivered Dec. 4, 2018, at a forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, entitled “The Arctic and US National Security.” The Forum was streamed in real time and is available from the Center as a Webcast. Mr. Barker’s remarks were not a part of his prepared presentation. In Part 1, starting at 2h 9m, during Q&A, Mr. Barker observed that the purpose of bastion denial was “So that the Russians don’t have bastions to operate from—defending the homeland.” And “what we [the Navy] are doing [strategic ASW] aligns with the National Security Strategy.” First reported by Richard R. Burgess, “Navy Must Be Agile But Sustainable,” Sea Power Magazine, 04 Dec 18. To confirm the enduring persistence of the strategic ASW idea in 2019 see Magnus Nordenman, The New Battle for the Atlantic, Emerging Naval Competition with Russia in the Far North, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD, 2019), p. 201. The point is repeated in Admiral, USN, James Foggo’s, highlights of Nordenman’s book found in “The Fourth Battle of the Atlantic, the Nordics and the Direct Defense Challenge,” 08/17/2019, SLDinfo.com.

** The exact process through which strategic ASW was officially approved by the NCA is open to some uncertainty for future historians to resolve. That the Navy initiated the mission is not.

*** Wikipedia “R-29RM ‘Shtil’’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-29RM_Shtil

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, November 24, 2020

Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. China

Introductory Note

Advantage at Sea (AS) is a combined statement released on December 17, 2020 and signed by the CNO, Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard Commandant. Mainly focused on capabilities and operational concepts, it provides the most recent articulation of the strategic intentions of what is now designated the “Naval Service.”


The unprecedented changes in geopolitics brought by globalization have made China dependent on unfettered use of the sea and so vulnerable to coercion from the sea.

Should there be war, the US, joined by its allies, should employ a sea-based strategy of military-economic warfare against China.

Its immediate aims would be to attack the adversary’s economy and defend those of the US, its allies, and important neutrals.

To achieve these goals the strategy would 1) through military action prevent China from using the world ocean for any purpose (designated “blockade);” and 2) mobilize all the civil instruments of the power of the US and its allies (diplomatic, commercial, financial, communications) to attack China’s war economy and political cohesion.

Its ultimate aim would be to reduce close to zero China’s ability and willingness to wage war.

Blockade is not an alternative or substitute for other uses of the forces of the Navy and Marine Corps. It is a complement, employed on a global scale, in a war with China (and/or in wars in other regions the US national defense strategy is framed to defend).

For the Navy/USMC, blockade operates at the fundamental level of Huntington’s “strategic concept.” It is the most robust strategic option available. It operates across all scenarios irrespective of the war’s stakes or geographic scope.

Blockade continues to provide the US a position of strength for dealing with a “postwar” world. It would underpin US war termination strategies as long as the US can enforce it.

Blockade takes advantage of China’s geographic disadvantages in accessing the world ocean and requires that planning encompass military exploitation of island and other land choke points as well as operations at sea.

The Navy/USMC should assess 1) the likely effects on China’s behavior of a strategy of sea-based military-economic warfare; 2) the operational feasibility of blockade—specifically to deprive China any use of the world ocean—and 3) the coordination of naval blockade with the civil components of national power.

If a sea-based strategy of military-economic warfare is judged likely to contribute to deterring war with China or producing an acceptable outcome in war, it should 1) be incorporated into the National Defense Strategy; and 2) naval blockade in a war vs. China (and/or other adversaries) should be quietly, deliberately incorporated into a 21st-century Maritime Strategy.

No authoritative estimates of the effect of military-economic warfare vs. China exist in the public domain. Assessments of the desirability of blockade cannot usefully go forward without them.


This post assesses the potential of naval blockade as the principal component of a US national strategy of military-economic warfare in a war with China. Such a war is entirely hypothetical. We are obliged to think about it even though its consequences would be calamitous, and the US should do everything in its power to avoid it. I strongly endorse this point, as does every other analyst who has commented in the public domain.

Let’s first define terms, look at the place of blockade among other strategic tasks, and then examine its characteristics in the twenty-first century.

Blockade in a National Strategy of Military-Economic Warfare

Globalization has made China, a great continental power, dependent on the use of the sea. China is thus vulnerable to coercion from the sea. In a war with China, the US, with the help of its allies and friends, should wage a sea-based military-economic campaign against China. This would be a national strategy, employing all elements of national power. Its leading military component would be primarily naval because the main military action would be enforcing a global maritime blockade of China. The immediate aim would be to cut off China from everything except what it can access via its land borders and through cyberspace—and these would inhibited as much as possible. A larger aim would be to reduce close to zero China’s ability and willingness to wage war. The ultimate objective would be to exploit the resulting coercive effects in negotiations for war termination.

Military-economic warfare requires that naval blockade and the non-naval, civil aspects be assessed in tandem. The civil elements are primarily economic in nature – commerce, finance, communications, global manufacturing and global agriculture/fisheries. Their exploitation aims at 1) crippling the adversary’s economy (some see possible disruption of the adversary’s social order and political cohesion); while 2) defending that of the US and its allies and 3) minimizing negative effects on the world economy, especially on important neutral states. Diplomatic-information actions are of equal weight. Their aim is to inhibit blockade-busting states, cement and enlarge the pro-US coalition of allies and friends, and maintain popular support, both at home and abroad, for blockade and other war efforts.

The experience of Britain before and in the initial months of the First World War showed that blockading a great continental power has costly domestic and international consequences that may be mitigated but not avoided entirely. Blockade in the twenty-first century is unlikely to produce desired results without a simultaneous, effective civil counterpart. If getting the civil components right is not a decisive determinant, it is likely a sine qua non for the success of a strategy of military-economic coercion.

The remarkable parallels between America’s position vis-à-vis China today with that of Britain vs. Germany 120 years ago makes highly relevant the story of the Royal Navy’s foray into a distinctly non-naval, civil realm of national planning. Nicholas A. Lambert (Planning Armageddon – British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2012) shows how in the decades before the First World War Britain’s navy 1) analyzed and understood that the nation’s ability to exploit its international commercial and financial dominance to attack Germany’s economy and protect that of Britain would be necessary complements to the military enforcement of blockade; and 2) initiated national planning to produce such effects.

Unfortunately, the costs to Britain, to its allies, and especially to neutrals like the United States, of implementing these plans meant that, when war came, they were fairly quickly modified or abandoned entirely. This sharply reduced the coercive effects of blockade on Germany. The implications of this striking historical precedent for US planning today are taken up below. (I’m indebted to John Rodgaard for pointing out the relevance of Lambert, and to Lambert himself, to whom this new posting is much indebted. More recently Lambert has extrapolated from his historical work to provide commentary on the possible role of cyberspace in a strategy of military-economic warfare today. See his “Brits-Krieg: The Strategy of Economic Warfare,” George Perkovich and Ariel E. Levite, eds., Understanding Cyber Conflict: Fourteen Analogies (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017).)

Blockade is Robust but not Singular

It is imperative to recognize that blockade is not an alternative to other forms of military action at sea. In a big war between the two great powers many of blockade’s effects would unavoidably arise from the nature of the strategic relationship between the US and China. Would the US be the first great seapower not to prevent its continental adversary from using the sea? Would the US choose not to attack its adversary’s principal maritime vulnerability? In a war where the US is shooting at Chinese naval ships, would it allow that nation’s merchant ships to sail wherever they wish? Would China and its friends even send merchant ships out of port and into the combat zone?

Blockade would for the Navy and Marine Corps operate at the level of Huntington’s “strategic concept.” This can be confirmed by noting that blockade appears likely to produce strategic effect regardless of scenario—regardless of the war’s geographic scope or the stakes over which it is being fought.

In this sense it is the most robust of any strategy currently being considered. In addition to its utility in support of peacetime diplomacy, in prewar crisis and in war itself, it provides important strategic options for dealing with adversaries and erstwhile allies in the war termination and postwar phases. Adversaries would doubtless take this reality into account in their decision whether to stop fighting. This is especially so should combat be moving toward an indecisive outcome.

Blockade exploits China’s geographic disadvantages. As Holmes has noted: “Commerce has oriented China toward the sea. Yet it faces potential barricades from occupants of the first island chain.” (James R. Holmes, A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy, Naval Institute Press (Annapolis, MD, 2019), p. 34) That same geography is marked by chokepoints where blockaders may focus their efforts – both with the Navy’s forces at sea and the Marine Corps’ land/amphibious power. (See the advocacy and critique of the latter in Dustin League and Dan Justice, Sink ‘Em All: Envisioning Marine Corps Maritime Interdiction,” CIMSEC June 8, 2020.) 8, 2020.)

Characteristics of Blockade in the Twenty-first Century

(These descriptions lie at the level of strategic concept – the broad employment of all forces and means. Operations, tactics, platforms, weapons, CSIR, logistics, etc., are the province of warfighters.)

There should be no limits on the geographic scope and nature of blockade enforcement actions. The US and its allies would employ an exhaustive mix of military and civil action. All Chinese seaborne trade as well as all oceanic air traffic would be interdicted. Maritime states whose geography might permit them to help China circumvent such interdictions would become targets of US diplomacy and, if necessary military action, including interdiction of their seaborne trade. (Continental states on China’s western border are addressed separately below.)

China would also be deprived of access to the new “blue economy”—marine energy, deep-sea mining, bio-prospecting, etc.—that some see as a bright new economic-ecologic frontier. And China would be similarly deprived of access to any of its assets lying beyond its land borders. The Maritime Silk Road of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be shut down. Submarine communication cables lying on the seabed that connect China with the rest of the world would be severed.

With the cooperation of the host countries, the US and its allies would sequestrate all Chinese-owned properties in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This last would be a post-colonial version of the Allies’ seizure during World War I of Germany’s colonies, German East Africa, German Southwest Africa, and Cameroon. Chinese-owned factories and agricultural enterprises would continue to operate but exclusively for the benefit of the host country. Chinese construction projects might be continued, where possible, under Western aegis.

Finally, blockade would involve severance of China’s financial and technological links with the world. The US and its allies would force China to rely on indigenous means to compete for technological superiority.

Blockade would utilize advanced technologies and make maximum use of propulsion disablers (see the Propulsion Disablers post). Requirements for board and search would be minimized. No Chinese ship would be allowed to sail. If a library of sonic signatures of China’s naval and civil ships of all types can be collected over time in peace, it would probably allow differentiation with reasonable confidence of enemy ships from those of third parties in war. The latter would be put on notice that if they enter US exclusion zones, they too would be subject to PD attack.

Blockade would present China with the twin problems of loss of the cargoes of interdicted ships and of retrieval of disabled ships and their crews. The US and allies would seize disabled ships to be towed to safe harbor. Non-Chinese nationals among their crews would be returned to their home countries and cargoes belonging to third parties would be returned to their rightful owners—as much as seized ships’ documentation would allow. Given the size and dispersal of China’s merchant and ocean-going fishing fleets, and the large number of third-party ships involved in trade with China, this would be a resource-challenging task, particularly in the initial period.

Blockade in Navy Thinking

(Readers whose interest is mainly in the strategic assessment of blockade are invited to fast-forward over this section to Military Assumptions below.)

In April, 2020, CNO Admiral Michael Gilday did something none of his predecessors had done since at least 1945. In Naval Doctrine Publication 1, he addressed “blockade” as a strategic principle. He said “In broad theoretical terms, naval forces exist [along with other strategic tasks] to: … Prevent an adversary’s seaborne movement of commerce and military forces.” This strategic task falls under the category of sea denial, which “is offensive in nature because the attacker [that is, the US and allied navies] 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)

It is not yet known how deeply this unprecedented pronouncement may affect Navy planning. Though the Navy is a famously hierarchical institution, it sometimes speaks with several voices about its strategic intentions.

Will “blockade” will be revived out of ancient history and take on a new meaning in the 21st century. Advantage at Sea (17 Dec 2020) “Advantage at Sea” (AS) https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/Press-Releases/display-pressreleases/Article/2449829/navy-marine-corps-and-coast-guard-release-maritime-strategy suggests the answer is No, or at least Not Yet. (AS is a combined statement, signed by the CNO, Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard Commandant. It provides the most recent articulation of the strategic intentions of what is now designated the “Naval Service.”)

My first work in the strategy business involved applying basic, long-established content analysis techniques to the Soviet military press to drawn conclusions about the Soviets’ true strategic beliefs and intentions. My colleagues and I at CNA enjoyed some success. I’m using the same techniques here to try to understand what AS really means. Prominence and frequency of mention are almost always reliable indications of the writer(s)’ priorities. “Sea control” is AS’s most frequently used term dealing with strategic objectives. “Sea control” carries a lot of weight from the start. It appears twice in the one-page “Foreword,” signed by the three Service chiefs. Between “sea control” and “sea denial,” “control” is by a large margin the preferred goal (the term appears six times in the two pages (pp. 13-14) devoted to wartime force employment). To underline the point, the Glossary (p.27) defines “Sea denial” as what can be achieved with “a force that may be insufficient to ensure the use of the sea by one’s own forces [repeating the phrase just used to define “Sea control”.]

There is nothing wrong with setting as your strategic goal a plan to achieve sea control and to acquire a force with the needed capabilities. But it must surely be wrong to ignore what might be a lesser, but still strategically meaningful goal. AS provides a case where (as Gorshkov is often quoted as saying) the best is the enemy of the good. Exploiting capabilities for sea denial—specifically through naval blockade in a strategy of military-economic warfare—could yield genuine strategic payoff. But AS does not address it because sea control is its be all, end all.

The AS document focuses on naval/military capabilities and operations, understandably in view of its objective. Its attention to the larger purposes those operations might serve is generally stated; e.g., “to deny enemy objectives, destroy enemy forces, and compel war termination”; or “to project power in support of Joint Force efforts.” (P. 13-14) But it does mention (once) that action at sea might “impose … economic costs on our adversaries” (p.13, emphasis added), but only as one of several organic consequences arising from fighting at sea, not as an objective sought.

Overall conclusion about AS: “Sea control” is the goal. “Sea denial” is an also-ran. Plans to exploit it—as does blockade—seem unlikely to be gain much traction soon.

This conclusion is supported by the Navy’s earlier behavior. As far as can be seen from the public record, Navy planners are not doing the ground work necessary to evaluate blockade as a strategic option. To date, public descriptions of the China (and Russia) research programs at analytical organizations that support the Navy, like CNA and the Naval War College, indicate they are not addressing the likely effects on China of a US campaign of military-economic coercion. Presumably that is because the Navy has not asked them to do so, or, independently, they have concluded that such research would find no interested audience.

Given the many decades right up to today across which the Navy has ignored blockade, it may well be that the Navy will continue to ignore it. That is, the Navy will effectively answer yes to the rhetorical questions posed earlier. If so, I respectfully suggest it will likely find its cherished, and quite valid, claim to intellectual rigor difficult to maintain. One possible consequence will be that its other strategic arguments and justifications will be viewed with skepticism.

Prior to the promulgation of NDP-1, blockade had never had official standing. (In contrast, blockade’s desirability and feasibility have been the subject of lively public discussion. The work of Collins, Hammes, Mirsky, Vescovo, Sand, and Suarez* will be cited here.) Blockade had never been mentioned in the Navy’s official statements of its strategic purposes in war versus China—or anyone else. At the Joint level, blockade did not appear as an entry in the June 2020 DOD Dictionary of Military Terms. This is an amazing development. Think of it: protecting or attacking seaborne commerce, one of the main reasons that navies came into existence millennia ago, had disappeared from the 21st-century strategic discourse of the US Navy. The possibly decisive role in war of attacking the enemy’s commerce was an important theme addressed by Mahan (see next).

A review of the seven documents seen by Tangredi**as expressing recent Navy strategic thought shows that none addressed the concept. Among the seven, “How We Fight” ***is by far the most principled. It deserves brief attention as a reflection of Navy thinking. The work describes itself as “not [sic] about hardware, platforms or systems.” (p.2). Thus it is about why and how to use such physical means. It is compelling because, like the Maritime Strategy of the mid-1980s, it looks exclusively at how to use existing forces. It does not address the acquisition of force for the future. (Later we will look at the current vs. future issue more closely.)

“How We Fight” offers a well-known but still magisterial quote (p.26) from Mahan to make the point about navies and international commerce: “It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys…that strikes down the money power of a nation; it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea that drives the enemy’s flag from it… and by controlling the great common, closes the highway by which commerce moves to and from the enemy’s shore. This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies.”

In strategic terms Mahan provides a portal that can be entered from the defensive or from the offensive side. “How We Fight” chooses only strategic defense: The US Navy is to guarantee that the US and its allies have access to overseas raw materials and markets by defending against threats to that access and against threats to the transit on the sea of the resulting commerce. Offense, in which the Navy threatens adversaries’ access and transit is not taken up. This is puzzling because Mahan’s formulation 1) seems to emphasize the offense, “closing the highway,” and 2) the US Navy is the only navy on the planet with a reasonable claim to Mahanian “great[ness].”

Blockade was not mentioned in the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, nor in any publicly available Navy planning documents from earlier in the Cold War. I will hazard that the Navy has not thought about blockade as a strategic use of forces since 1945. This seems remarkable given the immense success during World War II of the US submarine blockade of Japan and the mining of Japan’s coastal waters, not to mention subsequent successful “blockades” like the quarantine of Cuba in 1962 or the mining of North Vietnamese ports in 1972.

For generations of Navy thinkers blockade is, at most, a historical concept. (Till points out that the US is not alone in this regard: “attack and/or protection of merchant shipping …” “hardly appears in many formulations of maritime doctrine around the world….”)****

Why Has the Navy Ignored Blockade?

Explanations by outsiders regarding why blockade has been officially ignored necessarily have a speculative tone. Many seem plausible. Let’s look at six, along with a few words of critique on each.

First, it may be that US actions taken at sea against China’s A2/AD are expected to produce the effects of blockade enforcement. China’s ports would be closed and its merchant fleet would be unlikely to sail because of the risk of hostile action. Third parties, perhaps under protest, seem likely to respect US wartime exclusion zones. However, this kind of inadvertent blockade would lack the complementary civil dimensions that are likely crucial to success. Thus it would be be far less effective, and much more subject to undesirable side effects, than one that had been planned in advance. If you are going to end up doing blockade, even if that hadn’t been your main intention, you would want to organize all your resources to do it to best effect.

Second, it may be, as Till has noted, blockade is not viewed as “military action.” Seizing or sinking merchant ships is not the kind of self-defined “fighting” the Navy was created to do (see for example Adm, USN, Scott H. Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” Proceedings 144/5/1,383 (May 2018), pp. 28–33. In a rough vernacular, we didn’t buy the F-35 to shoot at containerships. It may also be that the US Navy, whose history is steeped in defending SLOCs, does not easily conceive of itself as attacking them. Instead, the Navy’s post-Cold War experience with blockade, e.g., Maritime Interception Operations, shows that its execution ties forces to a specific geographic area for open-ended periods. It is a burdensome, resource-absorbing chore better assigned to allies or the US Coast Guard.

Blockade has a rich history. In addition to Till (pp. 238-41 and chap.13), see Lance Davis and Stanley Engerman, Naval Blockades in War and Peace: An Economic History since 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Bruce Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (eds), Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805-2005 (London: Routledge 2006). Blockade should not be rejected today because it is seen as insufficiently warrior-like. Navy planners, warriors all, rightly pride themselves on intellectual rigor and “fighting smart.” Blockade is “fighting smart.”

Third, Collins has raised a deeper issue: that consideration of blockade enforcement as a strategic option might divert attention from, and thus undercut arguments for, the need to acquire larger, more robust forces to overcome China A2/AD barriers. In the crude terminology of inter-service competition, blockade is not viewed as a “force-builder.” Indeed, critics of the Navy might argue that blockade implies the opposite: that the United States already possesses decisive naval superiority and has little need to acquire further naval capabilities. (This obviously would not be the case should the national strategy encompass sea-based military-economic warfare.)

The Collins’ articles point to a problem that is rarely acknowledged. Within the bureaucratic structure of Navy planning lies the inherent possibility that plans for the employment of existing forces may be colored by the desire to craft the most effective rationale for procurement of future forces. At the flag level the same offices are responsible for making and articulating the justifications for both kinds of decisions. The result is neither illogical nor surprising. Armed conflict with a major opponent is not viewed as imminent, but the struggle for the Navy’s share of the national defense budget definitely is going on right now. Indeed, the task of acquiring adequate forces constantly demands the attention of the Navy’s leaders and likely has done so throughout their careers. If the rationale for use of current forces is in tension with that for acquisition of future forces, the leadership is inclined to favor advancing the rationale for future forces.

But the force procurement future should not dictate the force employment present. To the degree there may be a current-versus-future dilemma, I respectfully suggest that the leadership’s first obligation should be to best use the existing Navy that the nation has provided and its predecessors have shaped. The crucial priority today is to underwrite diplomacy and deter aggression by adversaries through being ready to fight a war and, if war nonetheless comes, terminate it successfully. Those seeing things otherwise would seem to have an obligation to articulate why. That means, specifically, to explain why you choose not to blockade—not to attack your adversary’s long standing, enduring and possibly decisive vulnerability. (At the same time planning the acquisition of future forces must be pursued. It is naval strategy of perhaps an even more demanding sort, as Till argues in the final chapter 14, “Generating Maritime Power,” added to his 4th edition, 2018.)

Fourth, articulating plans for blockade enforcement today may not only compete with the rational for future force requirements. It also competes for today’s Navy planning and training resources. There is only so much time, and you cannot plan for everything. It’s an open question whether the Navy planning system has sufficient bandwidth to deal with anti-A2/AD and with blockade enforcement simultaneously. After all, planning only for anti-A2/AD itself is today seen as an incomplete work in progress, not just within the Navy, but also outside it in the Joint arena. If planning resources are limited, so too is training time. To the degree that preparing for blockade takes time away from preparing for anti-A2/AD or other missions, hard choices must be made. Little wonder that a major “new” strategic task like blockade has been given short shrift.

Fifth, as currently articulated, the national strategy is at best neutral in addressing the strategic uses of sea. In fact, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) of 2018 (only a summary is publicly available) is based on land warfare-centric language. (This point has been made by Tangredi.) It is devoid of structure or terminology to permit consideration of the use of seapower to affect the course and possibly the outcome of a major war—which is exactly what blockade in support of military-economic warfare would aim to accomplish. It may be that an unreceptive National Defense Strategy has inhibited Navy thinking at levels of broad strategy like blockade in the past – and possibly today.

Today, it is not at all clear that blockade would find a receptive hearing in the Joint arena and beyond. It will be necessary to reconfigure the NDS to encompass the expression of seapower’s strategic utility. But for one of the Services to effect a change in the NDS has in turn been made more difficult by the passage in 1986 of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The Act had the effect of shifting responsibility for strategic planning upward to the national level and reducing the influence of the Services in shaping it. (I’m indebted to Steve Wills for this point which he addresses in Steven T. Wills, Strategy Shelved, the Collapse of Naval Cold War Strategic Planning (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, forthcoming).)

Facing an uphill fight, the Navy/Marine Corps would need a well thought out plan to affect the strategy. They would first have to be completely convinced of the desirability of military-economic warfare as a strategic concept and of the feasibility of enforcing a global blockade. (Obviously, credible authoritative assessments of the vulnerability (or not) of China (and Russia) to military-economic warfare would also be a sine qua non.)

Because blockade would be an component of a broader national strategy, it would be deeply affected by the actions of the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce (and specialized entities like the Office of US Trade Representative and the Inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS)). In the current NDS, the Department of Defense describes itself as providing support to these other parts of the Executive Branch. This is a welcome perspective. But in the case of blockade it’s just as much the other way around. Military blockade needs to be supported by a strong civil counterpart. Here, the Navy/USMC should take the initiative to cultivate deep liaison and coordinate inter-agency plans.

Military-economic warfare, supported by naval blockade, would more likely be encompassed in a future US national strategy if it is seen as endorsed by allies and friends and accepted by neutrals. Indeed, many lines of US financial and commercial action require parallel actions by allies. Responsibility for coordination in these civil fields lies elsewhere in the Executive Branch. For blockade, per se, military-to-military (mainly, navy-to-navy) diplomacy would take the lead.

Sixth and finally, how to best use the total force for blockade is problematic. Blockade would put heavy demands on the already overstretched submarine and SEAL forces. At the same time the roles that the carriers and amphibious forces might play have been questioned by some. But this is not an issue unique to blockade. It is one that Navy and Marine Corps planners are wrestling with today in all big war scenarios.

In the case of blockade, in fact, the roles of these major forces seem clear. The ability of the Marine Corps to control the land at critical choke points would be a source of considerable leverage in enforcing blockade. And US carriers would provide the key capabilities needed to sweep the seas of enemy civil ships of all types as well as any naval forces that might try to protect them. (These observations apply to existing forces. If blockade should become part of a national strategy, its implications for forces needed in the future would obviously arise. Such needs would not likely be small—that is, blockade could become a “force builder,” though perhaps not for a force whose shape today’s leadership would prefer.)

Obviously, a war with China could occasion a host of third-party threats to allies of the US. Assuming the surface Navy is able to operate in waters relatively near China (and Russia), the carriers and amphibs/USMC could provide an urgent and highly useful response—e.g., to North Korea’s threat to the South, Russia’s aggression against NATO members or others on its western periphery, Iranian moves in the Mideast.

A reasonable assumption for US war planners is that a war with China would be a world war—either from the start, or likely becoming so if combat becomes prolonged. US carriers and amphibious forces provide exactly the capabilities needed to deter hostile actions by other parties or respond to them.

Military Assumptions

It is assumed that the US and its allies possess global naval dominance—meaning the capability to deny any other nation the use of the world ocean. This assumption is based on a broad reading of current relative naval capabilities, which, for the near term, seem likely to shift further in favor of the West as current US building programs are implemented and the military budgets of allies in Europe and the Pacific increase. (This says nothing about longer term force requirements.)

In local waters near China, China may or may not be able to prevent the US from achieving control, should it seek to. But the US can almost certainly deny China control even of waters near China. For example, China might try to express its “sovereignty” over the South China Sea by drilling oil wells there. But China would not be able to move any recovered oil to the mainland if the US chose to prevent that action. Similarly, if China were to seize Taiwan, the US might harass or even interdict sea communications with the mainland.

However, the balance of forces is rarely static. China’s naval capabilities are improving at an accelerating rate. This assumption must be subjected to searching and continuing analysis, as do the politico-economic assumptions that follow.

Politico-Economic Assumptions

(Before addressing this topic I must observe that all existing treatments of “blockade”—including this one—are heavy on intuitive logic but woefully short on fact and data. Serious assessment cannot go forward without searching, expert analyses of the likely effects on China and China’s probable reactions to a campaign of sea-based military-economic coercion. Only slightly less important would be assessments of how such a global campaign against China would affect the world economy. In particular we need estimates of how neutral nations, especially in the regions given priority in the NDS, might react. China would almost certainly deploy its substantial financial-commercial clout to entice/coerce neutral nations to oppose the US, if not actively join the Chinese side.)

Blockade would likely have direct and far-reaching consequences for China. The nation is already heavily dependent on seaborne import of energy, raw materials, and even foodstuffs. As for imports, the effects of blockade must be evaluated in light of their totality—fuel, raw materials, manufactured components, foodstuffs—not fuel alone (as is creatively analyzed by Collins and Murray (2008), and Collins (2018)).

In any case, it is not imports that are the first, or likely key, mechanism of blockade’s coercive effect. Rather, it is exports. Trade dominates China’s economy, accounting for over half of China’s GDP in 2012, according to the CIA Fact Book, cited by Hammes. The remarkable, decades-long growth of China’s economy has been driven by export of manufactured goods. Much of its economy is structured to produce and sell exports, many as intermediate products in global supply chains or as end products tailored exclusively for Western customers. Depriving China of its exports, as well as imports, would have a strong disruptive effect.

Reliance on sea-borne trade is the main source of China’s vulnerability. However trade does not tell the whole story. China has made immense investments in its merchant and fishing fleets and in its ship-building and port operation industries. Even if trade somehow became unimportant to China, the nation would almost certainly continue to pursue economic reward from operations requiring access to the world ocean. It simply has sunk huge sums and has placed outsized hopes in industries which have no meaning if China is cut off from the sea.

State-owned COSCO Shipping company describes itself as the world’s largest, with over 1,000 ocean-going ships. To this, one must consider China’s fishing fleet which is unquestionably by far the world’s largest. In sum, the monetary value of trade transactions alone, important as it is, does not capture all of China’s needs for unfettered use of the sea.

Regarding China’s vulnerability, more important than the lucubration’s of Western analysts are the views expressed by the Chinese themselves. In 2003, President Hu Jintao acknowledged that China faced a “Malacca dilemma,” alluding to its broad dependence on imports of oil from the Gulf and its inability to defend that vulnerability. Experts on China can give informed explanations for President Hu’s admission. It may be as prosaic as an acknowledgment of an obvious and undeniable fact. More recently, The Economist (July 6, 2019, p. 47) quotes “Hu Bo, a prominent naval strategist at Peking University…” as saying “…it would be a ‘suicide mission’ for China to take any actions that might provoke a blockade….” (Mr. Hu is Director of the Center for Maritime Strategy Studies and Research Professor at the Institute of Ocean Research, Peking University and more recently director, South China Sea Strategic Probing Initiative.)

It’s intriguing but probably impossible to know what President Hu and professor Hu think of Westerners’ views that China is not vulnerable to coercion from the sea, or, if China might be, such effects would be too slow to have strategic utility in war. As noted, this latter possibility, also expressed by Collins, suggests a difference in planning horizons: US— short and eager; Chinese—long and patient. Adoption of blockade—widely believed (without thorough, authoritative analysis) as likely to be slow-acting— would indicate that the US is itself patient, steadfast, and willing to stay the course on behalf the goals it seeks in war—most likely the restoration of the status quo ante.

How Would China’s Navy React to Blockade?

Before moving on to the nature of a possible war with China and proposed actions that the US might take against it, we have to look at a highly pertinent question: What effect would US adoption of blockade have on China’s naval building plans?

Dooley has asked whether China may be historically unique among nascent/maturing maritime powers in that it has produced a huge merchant fleet but thus far not a navy to guard it. (Howard J. Dooley, “The Great Leap Outward: China’s Maritime Renaissance,” The Journal of East Asian Affairs, vol. 26, no. 1, 2012, pp. 53–76. JSTOR.)

Eventually China will likely choose to acquire naval forces it regards as sufficient for that purpose. It may be too early to know whether that decision has already been taken. Knowledgeable analysts like Michael McDevitt have speculated that China might acquire a navy comparable to that of Imperial Japan which in the 1930s and 1940’s challenged America’s. (Michael McDevitt (Radm, USN, ret.) “China’s Far Seas’ Navy: The Implications of the “Open Seas Protection” Mission,” A Paper for the “China as a Maritime Power” Conference, CNA Building, Arlington, Virginia, revised and updated April 2016, pp. 4-5.)

Regretfully, we may be looking at a classic expression of the security dilemma. If the US adopts a blockade strategy vs. China, that action would likely trigger China’s obvious reaction: acquisition of a “great” navy to counter the US—with resulting bad relations, if not an occasion for war, with America. Though China’s naval building programs might require years to achieve something approaching parity with the US, it is hardly too early to consider how to avoid adding a naval arms race to the many issues that have contributed to the downward slide of US relations with China over at least the last five years.

It must be added that, even if the US should formally eschew blockade, the situation would not necessarily change for the better. China’s planners, following the universal dictate that their first obligation is to defend the nation’s vulnerabilities—independent of any specific threat that may arise—will likely build a great navy for that purpose. (Here we find yet another reason of why the relations between the great powers always tend to be “tragic,” as John Mearsheimer argues in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (NY: W.W. Norton, 2001).

What Kind of War with China?

Hammes and Mirsky underline that the determinants of the desirability and the details of blockade against China would be dictated by the nature of the war to be deterred/fought: the stakes in contention, plus the alignment of regional powers in the fight. I offer an alternative view. Because blockade is to operate in a new globalized world where even the great continental powers may be vulnerable to coercion from the sea, blockade is in fact quite robust across essentially all types of war between the US and China. And, as has been noted, of great utility in the war termination and postwar phases.

It is nonetheless useful to examine several specific scenarios to understand better how blockade might work in concert with other uses of the seapower of the US and its allies. What scenarios? As this is written in the fall of 2020, it is difficult to see beyond two issues that might lead to war between China and the US: 1) the security and sovereignty of Taiwan; and, 2) China’s territorial claims to waters and islands in the South and East China Seas.

Taiwan is the big case that requires planning for a major US response. Such a conflict would likely have a fairly discernible binary outcome: Either Taiwan remains independent or it is absorbed into China. The US would be unlikely to accept the latter because of the democratic ideals of self-determination that underpin America’s security policy as well as reasons of raw realpolitik. Such stakes mean that whatever else the US does in response, it should be prepared to impose a full global blockade against China and keep it in force until China agrees to the restoration at or near the status quo ante.

Perhaps the most difficult for the US to deal with would be a Chinese blockade of Taiwan undertaken to bring a breakaway province back and restore the nation’s integrity. (The parallels with the Union blockade of the Confederacy—and the role of outside powers regarding it—are striking.) In principle, even in this case, the US could mount a (counter-)blockade against China. The obvious problem is that international and indeed domestic political support for US military action against China would be weaker and the well-being of the Taiwanese people would be at stake.

The second issue, China’s territorial claims to extensive areas of the world ocean, is more complicated because the stakes that may be in contention are ill-defined. It is difficult to specify in advance what would constitute victory or defeat: who wins or loses what. Purely for purposes of illustration, I will posit here that war with China could arise as a result of aggressive Chinese military actions to assert sovereignty over contested islands or waters. In this case, something less than all-out blockade might be employed—its extent and duration calibrated to meet the possibly ambiguous circumstances at hand.

Proposed Actions vs. China

These actions have the same general shape as those against Russia (see the Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia post.) However, because of China’s sense of deep historical grievance against the West, public characterization of blockade vs. China should be as carefully crafted as possible to minimize the danger that China could claim, to its own people and to regional neighbors, that it is being “bullied” by a US antagonist who is over-exploiting a position of strength.

There are a number of other important differences. In contrast to Russia, China can achieve its possible military objectives only by controlling the seas along its periphery. While the US always has, and likely would pursue, the option of seeking to deny Chinese forces such control, blockade, as it is used here, is a sea denial strategy focused broadly on the world ocean, from China’s most distant trading partners right up to China’s home waters.

Hammes, Mirsky and Collins distinguish between near and far blockade. Global blockade being addressed here, at the strategic level, and does not make that distinction, though at the operational and tactical levels it is quite valid. In addition, blockade would deny China ability to exploit any territorial gains it might achieve and thus subsumes Deterrence through Denial as proposed by Erickson.*

A second difference is the minimal involvement of US and allied ground forces. In the Taiwan case there would be land areas to be fought over if the US chooses to deploy “tripwire” forces on Taiwanese soil. In any case, blockade in defense of Taiwan might nonetheless result in war on the ground elsewhere. (See below under discussions of “Cons” and “War Termination.”) In the second case, assertions of Chinese sovereignty over areas of the sea, the contest would be solely at sea—though obviously land-based air and missiles would play a role.

Finally, there would be no NATO-like framework for military and political cooperation with Indo-Pacific friends and allies of the US, who may have conflicting interests in the issues at stake. The review of pros and cons that follows here will focus mainly on the second scenario, assertions of Chinese sovereignty over areas at sea.

Blockade – Pros

  • Blockade would take advantage of China’s immutable geographic disadvantages in accessing the global commons.
  • It would minimize exposure of US surface forces when entering Chinese A2/AD zones. Surface forces would be used for blockade in more distant areas while action nearer China would be executed mainly by SSNs and mines.
  • In executing blockade the US would hold the initiative at both the tactical and the operational—that is, theater-wide—levels. Individual Chinese ships could be shadowed, disabled, seized, or sunk. These would be tactical/operational decisions made in light of the broader strategic context. There would be little reason for urgency arising from the prosecution of blockade itself.
  • Blockade uses the existing capabilities of the Navy. Upgrades in ISR (see below), improved Special Forces or other capabilities for ship seizure would be needed. Otherwise blockade might require relatively little in immediate additional expenditures.
  • Blockade would be a powerful coalition builder. US allies, Japan and Korea, would likely contribute, and friendly nations like India might well join in. As in times past, contributions by allies would be a great force multiplier, freeing US forces for other missions.
  • Blockade is an asymmetric response that would be difficult for China to answer, forcing it to face a difficult choice: Desist from aggressive military action or incur vast immediate economic costs and forgo longer term payoff from major overseas investments befitting a global great power.
  • As in the Russia case, many of these goals might be sought through economic sanctions alone. But a shooting-war would mean that economic sanctions had proved ineffective. In any case, the underlying threat of blockade might magnify the seriousness of security-related economic sanctions and, potentially, increase their efficacy.

Blockade – Cons

  • Blockade may be judged too difficult to carry out. US ISR may not be up to the task of locating and identifying the myriad ships in the Chinese merchant and fishing fleets.
  • The task of marshaling and coordinating US and allied forces for a global interdiction campaign could be extremely challenging because of the many ports from which China’s imports originate, the large oceanic areas, and the thousands of potential targets involved.
  • As in case of Russia, the civil dimensions of a strategy of military-economic warfare may lie beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to control; negative international and domestic consequences may combine to render naval blockade nugatory, as they did for Britain in the first World War. This topic is in earnest need of expert assessment.
  • If analysis shows military-economic warfare, underwritten by naval blockade, could yield the promise suggested here, US strategic thinking may come to center too much on it and other conflictual dimensions of relations with China and so let cooperative possibilities atrophy. If possible, blockade should be kept in the background of US declaratory policy and US-Chinese military-to-military diplomacy. In short, if you think you have a genuine advantage, underplay it. Speak softly whilst you carry a big stick.
  • As in the Russia case, blockade vs. China might become oversold in US national security planning processes—its promise inflated and its risks understated.
  • The most dangerous—and today hypothetical—possibility is that the US NCA decides to exploit the threat or actual implementation of blockade on behalf of interests that are mainly economic in nature. Disentangling security from economic interests in the US relationship with China would become even more problematical than it is already. Whatever the case, China can be sure to label blockade a “gangster” strategy.

War Termination and the Critical Role of Russia

War Termination is a phase of planning that we do not give the attention that it demands. We should not conceive of war strategies, much less go into war, without having thought through how it might end. Given that the warring parties possess nuclear arsenals, unconditional surrender is a highly unlikely and highly dangerous objective. Considerable thought needs to be devoted to choosing and articulating war termination plans. No strategy is complete without them.

China’s internal measures to minimize blockade’s effects on its economy might be successful enough to prolong China’s war effort beyond the period of time the US and its allies wished to continue the fight. (External support, mainly from Russia is taken up in a separate section below.) In the case of defending Taiwan, I believe that for the US that period might be quite prolonged. In addition, regardless of the war’s specific issues, if the US should suffer significant losses, say several strike groups, powerful momentum is likely to arise within the US domestic political system to fight on as long as it takes to avenge and justify such losses. (Similar sentiments for identical reasons would likely arise within China.)

Thus, planning must encompass a long war during which global blockade of China is likely to have growing effects on China’s behavior. If so, would war termination be on the horizon? As noted, the answer must come from China specialists in close consultation with specialists in Russian affairs.

The Role of Russia

The China-Russia relationship is likely the critical variable in the war termination equation vs. China. Note that this is probably true whether the war termination question arises as a result of blockade or any other US actions versus China. However, blockade is the most vulnerable to Russian counteraction. Mirsky terms Russia the “swing state” in this regard, the state whose actions can determine blockade’s success or failure.

The US-China-Russia triangle may well be the cosmic issue confronting geo-strategists in the first half of this century, if not beyond. It will doubtless take many unforeseen turns as the years unfold. These comments on this overarching matter are confined the particular case of a US blockade in a war with China today.

As a result of classic balance of power reasoning, Russia would be highly likely to come to China’s aid to forestall its defeat. A war between the US and China would be a strategic gift to Russia that would surpass even the gift given to Iran by the US invasion of Iraq. It would put Russia in the “catbird’s seat” (to continue with folksy idiom). Russia’s own interests would be advanced by prolonging a US-China war which obviously would sap the strength of both warring parties. Russia might in effect determine the length of the conflict. By metering its material support for China, it would seek to ensure that the war has no victor.

Russia’s leaders would recognize that a US-China war presents it with a difficult balancing act. If America emerged the victor, Russia would find itself facing alone an unrivaled and likely emboldened superpower. On the other hand, if China gained the upper hand, it might find might find itself once again in vassalage to its far more powerful Chinese neighbor—just as it was for several centuries to their Mongol predecessors in medieval times.

Regardless of how it attempts shape the war’s final outcome, immediately Russia would likely seek handsome profit from selling China fuel and foodstuffs, both of which it has in abundance. Russia and other former Soviet states would be a market for Chinese exports. In return, Russia might well demand that China provide it high tech weapons and similar products with military potential.

Movement of goods in both directions has been eased considerably over the last decades. Through the BRI, China is steadily improving the network of transport connections—road, rail, cable, internal cargo ports like Khorgos, pipeline, and electrical power grid—that connect it with Russia. (The Power of Siberia pipeline opened October 2019 is a telling example.) Finally, It cannot be ruled out that, while the US is preoccupied with China, Russia might move aggressively in its own sphere.

Russia’s support could possibly prop up China’s economy for a lengthy period. The importance of the Russia-China dynamic dictates that policy statements, propaganda, and other public communications of both the Russians and the Chinese should be carefully analyzed for signs that the two continental powers may be overcoming their Cold War mistrust to move toward something approaching or even constituting an alliance.

Today, some see that, in response to the pressure of the West’s economic sanctions, a relatively weak Russia (GDP around one-eighth that of China’s) is being drawn, perhaps reluctantly, into China’s economic and technological orbit. That either nation might go war with the US seems certain to accelerate this trend toward its logical conclusion.

Beyond economic and political support to China, it is conceivable that Russia might help China through covert military action, especially undersea operations, including mine warfare, in the Pacific. Guarding against such possibilities would absorb US forces. The US should frame US declaratory policy toward Russia and draw the boundaries of exclusion zones accordingly.

Other states like North Korea and Iran might seek to take advantage of a US-China war to advance toward their own security goals. Such actions would increase stress on US forces and indirectly aid China. The obvious focus of blockade against China would be China itself. However, war between great powers can have unknowable consequences. Thus, decisions regarding forward commitment of US and allied naval forces should be made with an eye toward fleet-in-being (see the Fleet-in-Being post) and other conservative principles. Pyrrhic victory would mean ignominy for the victor.

China’s Unilateral Options

China possesses the capability to respond to blockade with military measures at the conventional level on its own. It would have strong reasons to do so. These are rooted in China’s historical grievances against the West. They play an important role in growing nationalist sentiment in China’s population at large, sentiment that is stoked and exploited by the regime. The regime does so as a matter of calculated self interest, but that does not mean that it may not eventually become the captive of its own propaganda.

US planning must take account of the potency of Chinese nationalism. For example, US strikes on Chinese territory seem certain to generate popular support for the regime, perhaps more than enough to compensate for any loss of support which the hardships that blockade itself might generate. I am not commenting on the military need of such strikes, but intuitively, that need would have to be imperative in view of the negative political consequences that US strikes would have on the Chinese body politic. Here too is a question that China specialists must address in the context of blockade and other possible strategic uses of the Navy, including anti-A2/AD.

Similarly, the regime would likely view as a threat to its hold on power any moves that might be seen as capitulation to the US. Rational Chinese strategists, as well as more passionate Chinese nationalists, might fear that accepting defeat at the hands of blockade would turn China into a maritime vassal of a US-led alliance.

Responding to Blockade

China does have other options. With respect to blockade enforcement per se, China might choose a counter-campaign: a war of attrition at sea. China might withhold the high-value units of its civil fleets, accept attrition to the large numbers of remaining, less valuable units, and hope to inflict unacceptable losses on the attackers. It might bank on its US opponent’s impatience and unwillingness to accept losses of its own.

Emblem of the People’s Liberation Army

Beyond this, China make take radical measures These might seem unlikely today However, we do have the precedent of China’s intervention in the Korea War. And, after all, our departure point is already a war between the US and China. If blockade is hurting China badly and the pain seems destined to get worse, China might well choose to invade Taiwan (if it had not already done so) and underwrite a North Korean invasion of the South. (This assumes the Kim regime had not already mounted one.)

China could thus bring its greatest military asset, the PLA, into play. It could hope for quick victories on both fronts—especially if the US had not prepared for these eventualities. The result might be the loss of both Taipei and Seoul. Faced with the continuing ability of the US to deny it use of the world ocean, China might choose to ignore the blockade and take a historic step in the redrawing of the geopolitical map.

Despite its huge investments in industries that depend on use of the sea, it is conceivable that, with or without Taiwan in its orbit, China might basically turn its back on the global ocean. It might coerce its immediate Southeast Asian neighbors to become submissive states and, with its junior partner Russia, dominate MacKinder’s Eurasian “World Island.” The US would find itself leading the many fractious states of the “Rimlands,” and dominating the oceans that connect it with them. In this speculative scenario the fabled Chinese long view of history would lead China to plan to marshal the resources of the world island and in due course turn again toward the sea to reclaim China’s rightful place at the top of the international order.


Whether such tectonic changes may or may not lie in an unforeseeable future, US strategy must be shaped to deal with China in the world of today. If it is to include military-economic warfare, enforced by naval blockade, plans for its implementation must be made in close inter-agency coordination between Defense and other Executive Departments—State, Treasury, Commerce, etc. Like the Royal Navy before World War I, the US Navy should take the initiative (as far as it is able) in mobilizing the nation’s civil components to make military blockade and the strategy it supports a success.

Similarly, the military and political success of blockade will depend on the actions of allies, friends and neutrals. Effective military and non-military diplomacy will be crucial. Dealing with potentially hostile “blockade busters,” like Myanmar, will require careful thought. Nations like India who would not wish to see China victorious might contribute significantly to policing blockade in ocean areas under their sway. The interests of Japan and Korea, today major trading partners with China, must be taken seriously into account.

Blockade, in support of a national strategy of military-economic coercion, would operate at a national, Huntingtonian, level. It would be robust across all plausible scenarios. Its reach would extend to the war termination and postwar phases. It might be implemented at relatively low risk, at likely low economic costs, and with existing forces – and it would provide powerful arguments for more numerous, more effective naval forces in the future. It is not an alternative but a complement to anti-A2/AD, if the latter is pursued. At this time, blockade would be difficult for China to answer.

Blockade would also face a daunting roster of cons, and the Navy has historically ignored it. Official recognition of blockade as a strategic task (April 2020) may mean change is afoot. That remains to be seen. The recently published document Advantage at Sea (December 2020) indicates traditional Navy attitudes toward blockade prevail. If the Navy fails to take account of the changes brought by globalization, it may well continue to ignore blockade. It is respectfully suggested that would be a great mistake.

Further assessment of a strategy of military-economic warfare cannot go forward without expert analyses of its likely effects on China (and, almost as important, on the rest of the world, including the US itself.) For reasons that seem difficult to explain, these assessments have heretofore been lacking. The strategic promise of the strategy should be carefully estimated—should we do it? The operational feasibility of blockade should be similarly scrutinized—can we do it – and also do the other things we may want to do?

If military-economic warfare is judged likely to produce success vs. China, it should be incorporated into the National Security and the National Defense Strategies, and blockade made a part of a 21st century Maritime Strategy—slowly, deliberately, without fanfare.

Note: Many of the ideas expressed in this post will also appear in Bradford Dismukes, “US Naval Relations with Russia and China during the Vietnam War: What the U.S. did Then and Should do Now,” a chapter in a forthcoming edited book from the proceedings of a conference entitled The Naval War in Vietnam: Vietnamese and American Perspectives Conference, 6-7 February 2020, at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. The publisher will be the Naval War College Press


*Sean Mirsky, “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 36, no. 3 (February 2013), available at carnegieendowmentorg/; T X Hammes, “Off-shore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” Strategic Forum, no. 278 (June 2012), available at wwwdticmil/; Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray, “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, no 2 (Spring 2008), Gabriel B. Collins, “A Maritime Oil Blockade – Tactically Tempting But Strategically Flawed,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Spring, 2018); Lieutenant Matthew Conners, US Navy, “Blockade the First Island Chain” Proceedings, Vol. 145/6/1,396 (June 2019); Victor Vescovo “Deterring the Dragon …From (Under) the Sea,” Proceedings,Vol. 140 (February 2014); Erik Sand, “Desperate Measures: The Effects of Economic Isolation on Warring Powers,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 3 Issue 2 (Spring, 2020); Matthew Suarez, “Going to War with China? Ignore Corbett. Dust Off Mahan!,” Proceedings, Vol. 146/12/1,414 (December 2020)

**Sam J. Tangredi, “Running Silent and Algorithmic: The U.S. Navy Strategic Vision in 2019,” Naval War College Review, Vol .72, No. 2 (2019).

***How We Fight: Handbook for the Naval Warfighter, No author. Foreword by Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, Chief of Naval Operations. Publisher: US Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, 2015.

****Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge, 2018), p. 245.

*****Andrew Erickson, “China’s Naval Modernization: Implications and Recommendations,” Dec. 11, 2013

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, January 11, 2021

CNA’s Open Source Analysis of Soviet Military Writings

Explanatory Note: CNA’s Soviet navy studies program in the 1970s and 80s analyzed the traditional bodies of evidence, classified and unclassified, including Soviet naval operations, exercises, building programs, etc. But its main focus was on analyzing open source Soviet military writings. I was a team member and the program’s director from 1973 to 1982. The program’s work and successes are described in my “The Return of Great Power Competition: Cold War Lessons about Strategic Anti-Submarine Warfare and Defense of Sea Lines of Communication” Naval War College Review, Summer 2020, forthcoming. As I note in the post, open source writings yielded conclusions about Soviet strategic intentions eight years before the Intelligence Community reached identical conclusions drawn from traditional intelligence sources. Jamie McConnell and Bob Weinland were lead analysts. Others making important contributions were Susan Clarke, Mary Fitzgerald, Ken Kennedy, Hung Nguyen, Charlie Petersen, Richard Remnek, Abe Shulsky, Lauren Van Meter, and Barry Blechman (work published later as a Brookings Institution monograph).

This post describes the methodologies used at CNA during the Cold War. Its aim is to illuminate techniques that proved successful then with the hope that they may have something useful to say to analysts today. A conclusion suggests several measures that might inform open source work in the future.

FULL POST – CNA’s Open Source Analysis of Soviet Military Writings

 Analysts at CNA drew on all the standard sources of information, classified and unclassified, to infer the Soviet navy’s strategic purposes—building programs, operations, exercises, organizational structure, etc. But the major focus of effort was on interpretation of open source Soviet military writings. Analysts examined the adversary’s public statements at two levels: at the level of capabilities and tactics, taking their often revealing statements at face value; at the strategic level, reading what they say and inferring their true beliefs and intentions.

 For the big strategic questions open source writings provided the best and earliest answers. The experience of the Cold War showed that insights into Soviet planning at the strategic level rarely came from any other source—the 1980-81 SCI breakthrough being the momentous exception. Interpreting the Soviets at the strategic level relied on a variety of content analysis techniques long used in various fields of the social sciences: frequency of mention of a topic usually indicated its importance. Absence of reference to a salient topic could also signal importance. Imputing to your adversary plans to do something that he has never contemplated could suggest your own intentions. For example, the Soviets said that when the US Navy deployed the Trident SSBN, it intended to use its ASW forces to defend Trident against possible attack. Using these relatively simple techniques, a close reading of the Soviet military press in 1971-73 showed that the Soviets were seriously concerned about the possible vulnerability of their SSBNs and were intent on defending them—the so-called “pro-SSBN” mission.1

 Two other, more subtle, techniques yielded deeper strategic meaning: pure linguistic interpretation of the Soviet military vocabulary and inferences drawn from the byzantine forms of expression commonly used in Soviet military discourse. In the latter, the Soviets rarely stated an important point; they only implied it.2 Linguistic interpretation was central to James McConnell’s exegesis of the Gorshkov articles (1972-73) in Morskoy sbornik. This interpretation gave a larger strategic meaning to “pro-SSBN.”

 The single English word “defense” is rendered in Russian by two words: zashchita (защи́та) and oborona (оборона). McConnell detected in Gorshkov and in other authoritative Soviet writers that zashchita defense tasks were assigned by the General Staff, roughly equivalent to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The land-based missiles of the Strategic Rocket Forces were for zashchita (defense) to fight and win a war. Oborona  defense tasks, on the other hand, were assigned by the Defense Council, the highest political body dealing with defense, the equivalent of the US National Security Council. The missiles of the Soviet Navy—to be withheld from initial strikes, as described above—were for oborona (defense) to achieve the war’s political goals. This linguistic difference was highly indicative of the role of SSBNs as a strategic reserve.3

 Yet there was more evidence of this role to be found in analysis of the byzantine forms that often marked Soviet writings. Metaphor and (ostensibly) historical analogy were used to express an idea with real contemporary meaning. This form of exposition was presumably meant to communicate a message transparently to an internal audience, but obscured to outsiders. The most telling example, also from McConnell, was Gorshkov’s treatment of the Royal Navy’s Admiral Jellicoe in World War I. With one exception, the Battle of Jutland, Jellicoe did not commit the British Grand Fleet to battle. Instead the Fleet was held back as a “strategic reserve” in protected “bastions” at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, while a world war raged on hundreds of miles to the south.

In the ensuing 40 years every Soviet naval historian, without fail, had excoriated Jellicoe. They said he should have come forward, destroyed the German navy, and help turn the tide (quite implausibly) in a frozen land war. Then, suddenly in 1973, Gorshkov reverses this assessment of Jellicoe: Jellicoe, he said, was right! He made the correct decision. Maintaining the Grand Fleet as a strategic reserve was wise because possessing a reserve of strategic power can be decisive in determining the outcome of a war. In other words, Gorshkov was saying, Jellicoe was smart to have his reserve. And I’ve got mine.

This mode Soviet expression was surely byzantine. In this sense it was similar to the alien idea it expressed—using a navy to protect a strategic nuclear reserve. It was alien to the modes of expression of US strategic thinking, yet its proper interpretation did yield a valid insight of considerable strategic utility. But it was not recognized as valid at the time. This was not a new problem. The Intelligence Community has had a blind spot to conclusions drawn from open sources from the earliest days of work in the field. Consider some cases where accurate conclusions were ignored or rejected:

  • World War II – Alexander George and others in the US and Britain analyzed Nazi war propaganda and drew valid forecasts of important German moves like the V1 and the V2 missiles and their tank offensive at Kursk. Their results were generally ignored, as George documented in a doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago.4
  • Korean War – Open source work forecast Chinese intervention if the US moved north.
  • Cold War – Besides CNA’s, important open source work of others were also ignored or rejected. Robert Herrick’s case was the most notable.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this rather dismal record, since the late 1990s, open source work has expanded, its status has been elevated, and, presumably, its conclusions are used more widely by the Intelligence Community today. The establishment of the National Open Source Center and the office of Assistant National Intelligence Director for Open Source bear witness to these advances.

The experience of the Cold War suggests several measures that could be adopted or enhanced across the discipline as whole to improve the quality and strengthen the utility of open source work. First, analysts should study systematically the phenomenon of “disinformation.” Disinformation is difficult, if not impossible, for any large organization to inject into its planning documents, except perhaps for the briefest periods. The simple reason is that you cannot lie to your own people without engendering confusion if not chaos. But detecting and guarding against disinformation is always an obligation both to avoid being tricked and, especially, so the open source analyst can assuage doubts about the reliability of open source work that many of its consumers harbor. The latter are usually convinced that they themselves would never publicly reveal their own true beliefs and intentions to their adversaries and are similarly convinced that their (secretive and duplicitous) adversaries follow the same dictate. Open source analysts have to be able to explain cogently how they reached their conclusions. In other words, analysts must be able to show that their techniques work not just in practice but also in theory.

 Second, analysts must make sure that conclusions drawn from open source work are properly protected. Just because the sources being analyzing are unclassified that does not mean the conclusions drawn are unclassified as well. Analysts need to be self-policing. For example, they should weigh carefully the desirability of putting into the public domain, most especially via the Internet, important conclusions bearing on important issues.

 Third, open source analysis would benefit from a general accounting of which of its many techniques are efficacious and which are less so. This would seem especially important where, today or in the future, some “analysts” on the internet may in fact be bogus, intent on misleading or confusing genuine academic debate. A record of systematic assessment of the discipline would also aid in the integration of open source work with other established sources of intelligence to produce genuinely “all source” intelligence. NIEs that do not include a healthy measure of evidence drawn from open sources are unlikely to be as accurate nor as substantial as they could be.


1. Hattendorf, citing Dismukes, “Evolving Wartime Missions of the Soviet General Purpose Force Navy,” (Secret) June, 1973 (Center for Naval Analyses 001061, p.16). John B. Hattendorf, The Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977–1986, Newport Paper 19 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2004), chapter 2 (first published in a classified version as Newport Paper 6, 1989)

2. James M. McConnell, with Susan Clark and Mary Fitzgerald, “Analyzing the Soviet Military Press – Spot Report No. 1: The Irrelevance Today of Sokolovskiy’s Book Military Strategy,” Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, CRM 35-85 (May, 1985)

3. For a quite accessible account of McConnell’s methods and findings see Steven Walt, “Analysts in War and Peace” Professional Paper 458, (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 1987) 4. Alexander George, Propaganda Analysis (Chicago, IL: Row, Peterson and Company, 1959)

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, November 24, 2020

Fleet-in-Being – The 17th Century Calls Out to the 21st Century


To investigate the relevance of the fleet-in-being concept in US Navy planning for the new era of great power competition and to evaluate its possible place with respect to other strategic missions in a range of scenarios for future war.

Defining Terms

Fleet-in-being is defined as withholding the main force from battle to pose a threat to an adversary.* The aim is to tie up their forces in a defensive posture and prevent their use for other tasks. First adopted by the Royal Navy in the late 17th century—it has, for obvious reasons, been employed by the weaker side. But it has also been used by the stronger navy if its offensive commitment seemed unlikely to affect the course of the war as a whole and/or because the potential loss of forces might have catastrophic consequences. Admiral Jellicoe’s decision to withhold the Grand Fleet during the First World War is the celebrated example of the latter. Jellicoe was popularly recognized as the man who could lose the war in an afternoon.

Jellicoe’s withholding decision was famously—to students of Soviet naval strategy—praised by Admiral Gorshkov in the series of articles in Morskoy sbornik entitled “Navies in War and Peace” (1972-73). Gorshkov was not so much writing history as making a veiled “announcement” that the Soviet Union had adopted a withholding strategy, not to fire but to keep SLBMs as a strategic nuclear reserve protected by the GPF navy. Gorshkov, however, was more the bona fide historian when he also praised the ability of naval forces in-being to favorably affect the course of postwar negotiations with defeated enemies and for dealing with “erstwhile allies.” Gorshkov lamented the Tsarist navy’s inferiority at the end of the Crimean war, which obliged Russia to accept the unfavorable terms of the Treaty of Paris. This he saw as an example of the political utility of—in this case, British and French—naval forces as fleets-in-being.


Defense Secretary James Mattis announced in January 2018 that henceforth great power competition would constitute the basis for US defense planning. This historic change has dictated a review of the Navy’s experience during the Cold War in search of lessons relevant to the new era: Which strategic tasks should be carried forward unchanged (e.g., SLOC protection), which might need to be radically modified (e.g., early forward commitment of the carrier force), and which should be held in abeyance or even abandoned entirely (e.g., strategic ASW).

Review of recent experience is not enough. The Navy must also consider historical concepts for the employment of naval power that played little or no role in its thinking during the Cold War. The fleet-in-being, along with the global blockade concept, is a leading example.

What Kind of War

The shape that war may take in the 21st century gives reason to reconsider the fleet-in-being concept. Clausewitz tells us “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking.” While it is impossible to foresee the future, it is nonetheless necessary to specify “the kind of war”—the range of strategic scenarios—that Navy planning must address.

World War II and the Cold War involved great land powers with ground forces engaged or squared off on a continental scale. There could be war in the 21st century of similar dimensions. It might have geopolitically tectonic consequences or even existential ones because of the arsenal of nuclear weapons possessed by the sides.

Equally, if not perhaps more, likely is a “small” war even with powerful peer competitors like China or Russia. Such a war, fought over relatively small stakes, might come about by accident, misunderstanding, or miscalculation. It is fairly easy to envision a small war where the importance of the issue at stake becomes magnified by nationalist sentiments.

Indeed, future-minded historians like Y.N. Harari have already speculated that a variety of emerging technological and economic factors—leaving aside human stupidity—make war between the great powers on a continental scale less and less likely.** This line of thinking does not mean a big war is impossible. It simply means that Navy strategic thinking should also encompass the possibility of small wars whose outcomes fall short of decisive victory: either stalemate, or perhaps a “victory” by one side that leaves the other with accumulated grievances and revanchist impulses. Thus arises the possibility of a small war leading to a series of small wars.


The primary advantage of the fleet-in-being strategy is its high efficiency—defined, like the concept in physics from which it arises – as the ratio of the useful effect on the adversary’s behavior compared to the effort expended. If you possess the ability to attack, you do not have to attack. The sheer existence of that ability—perhaps enhanced through deployment, maneuver and deception—forces your adversary to prepare to counter, precluding other damaging actions.

Thus, fleet-in-being holds considerable promise to meet SLOC protection needs. The existence of powerful offensive forces, both surface and subsurface, can tie down enemy forces in a defensive posture. The existence of the US submarine force alone seems nearly guaranteed to keep the Russian sub force close to home defending SSBN bastions. Put yourself at the desk of the prudent naval planner in Moscow. Would you send your submarines forward, leaving undefended your homeland and the SSBNs that guarantee its survival?

Fleet-in-being fits well with a blockade strategy (see the posts Global Blockade vs. Russia and Global Blockade vs. China). In that strategy the carrier force would be assigned the task of sweeping the adversary’s naval and civil ships off the world’s oceans. Thus the force would have a strategically important task that makes it unavailable for immediate forward commitment, in effect preserving the carriers as a fleet-in-being.

Finally, fleet-in-being is a strategy that has powerful effects on the adversary’s behavior but nonetheless conserves forces for commitment later in the war, attacking when conditions for success are favorable, negotiating a ceasefire from a position of strength, and dealing with the postwar world. It may be well suited to the kinds of wars—big and small—that Navy planning should confront. Big wars are examined below under “cons.”

In small wars, as outlined earlier, pyrrhic victory would carry ignominy. The advantages accruing to the side that emerges with a strong fleet-in-being are obvious.

Moreover, a “small” war could easily become a big one should US losses be unexpectedly large—say, the thousands of casualties involved in the loss of one or even several CVSGs, not to speak of the great psychological impact the loss of such prominent symbols of national sovereignty would entail. The political momentum within the US of demands for revenge or compensation could transform a conflict over a relatively small stake into something much larger and more difficult to contain. It would be a tragic irony if Navy actions aimed at winning a small war contributed to or even triggered a massive escalation of hostilities.

Some may find consideration of such possibilities distasteful or even defeatist. However, sentiment should not cloud thinking about how to deal with possible cold realities. This scenario seems plausible and provides another reason to commit battle forces forward in as careful and calibrated a manner as the vicissitudes of war allow.


It is probably fair to say that the idea of withholding superior forces from battle has found little, if any, favor in the Navy’s strategic thinking in the modern era. Indeed, starting with Midway, offense was the dominant ethos of the Pacific campaigns of the Second World War. Along with its Cold War predecessors, the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s emphasized the forward commitment of the carrier force.

Fleet-in-being violates the offensive essence of the Navy. Many ask “what’s the Navy for in war if we are not going to use it?” In this case “using” means shooting at somebody or something. If you’re not doing that, you’re somehow not using your Navy.

This view seems misguided, ahistorical, and blind to the psychology of the adversary. Here, the dual-hatted warrior-strategist lets the first dominate the second. The Navy’s number one service to the nation is to be: to exist as a highly trained, powerful fighting force. This widely recognized capability protects the nation from attack from the sea and underpins the national security strategy of forward engagement through a system of alliances. This system depends on being able to use the seas connecting us with allies and projecting power ashore where needed. This peacetime expression of the Navy’s raison d’être is intensified when routine forward presence of forces is augmented in response to crisis.

In times of peace and of crisis the world takes notice—finds credible the inherent threat that the US Navy signifies. Allies, neutrals, and especially adversaries, make their long term plans and their immediate politico-military moves in light of their perception of this peacetime reality.

The notion that when peace turns to crisis and crisis to war the Navy must immediately start shooting, otherwise the adversary would find its inherent threat to do so incredible does not seem logical. Indeed, the fact of war would likely magnify the adversary’s concern with the threat the Navy poses. That is the psychological mechanism of the fleet-in-being’s effects on the adversary. Coupled with the two reasons for Jellicoe’s withholding—commitment forward would not have affected the course of the war and possible loss of naval superiority would likely have meant loss of the war as a whole—this is why the strategic case for fleet-in-being trumps, must hold in check, the warrior’s urge to go to battle.

Fleet-in-being is a universal effect. It knows no nationality. US planners would take it into account, perhaps without giving it that name. Consider the hypothetical of a US war with China. Navy planners would obviously focus maximum effort against the Chinese military. But they could not ignore Russia’s Pacific Fleet, particularly its submarines. These would pose a threat of covert action to the forces and infrastructure of the US and its allies. Forces would have to be allocated to deal with that potential whether or not Russia attempted such action. This allocation would likely be a permanent feature of the war. Indeed, a war with China would have to be fought with the danger of Russia’s overt intervention always in mind.

Fleet-in-being is in obvious conflict with the early forward commitment of the carriers that, as noted, was a principal feature of Navy thinking during the Cold War. In a big war in the future, decisions regarding the forward commitment of carrier tactical aviation should be based, as before, on assessments of the adversary’s expected responses to tacair strikes on its territory, and the contribution that carrier tacair might be expected to make on the course of the war.

To these, fleet-in-being considerations should be given equal weight. (I am indebted to Michael Kofman for pointing out that the Navy could have considered fleet-in-being options during the Cold War. As a Cold Warrior myself I can report that the idea never came up as far as I was ever aware. Quite the contrary, attack, and the earlier the better, dominated.)

Finally, historically, British naval leaders who adopted a fleet-in-being strategy, whether successful or not, often did not then fare well in the nation’s postwar political processes.*** Whether such history might affect today’s leadership of the Navy is unknowable.


Fleet-in-being is a concept that deserves careful consideration as the Navy thinks through strategies for future war, both big or small. It seems well suited to “small wars” that appear plausible, even with a peer competitor. Fleet-in-being complements a global blockade strategy should it be pursued.

The concept is in clear tension with the early forward commitment of the carriers that was the hallmark of the 1980s-era Maritime Strategy. A decision to commit the carriers forward need not be made simply because attack is their raison d’être—the mission that they have trained for and are eminently ready to carry out.

The dilemma that the Navy should consider is exactly the one that Jellicoe faced: My forces are the most powerful in the world. They are highly trained and eager to go to battle. But will their commitment at some particular point be likely to affect the course of the war as a whole? If not, why commit? Or, will their potential losses result in unsought escalation of the conflict, pyrrhic victory, or worse? History has yielded a favorable judgment on Jellicoe’s decision. Twenty-first century strategic thinking should take history’s judgment of fleet-in-being into account.


*See John B. Hattendorf, “The Idea of a ‘Fleet in Being’ in Historical Perspective,” Naval War College Review (Winter 2014). For a general assessment see Geoffrey Till’s magisterial Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century (4th ed.) (London: Routledge 2018).

**Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Ideas for the 21st Century (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2018), pp. 69-72.

***Hattendorf, p. 167

Bradford Dismukes, San Francisco, November 24, 2020

Blockade: Military-Economic Warfare vs. Russia

Note: This post is being updated the week of January 25, 2021.

Introductory Note

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.

Military Assumptions

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.

Politico-Economic Assumptions

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.)

Blockade/BE Pros

  • 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.

Blockade/BE Cons

  • 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

%d bloggers like this: