Monday, January 11, 2010

'Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers'

This review appeared originally in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, September 9, 1987.

Global Naval Strategy Not Confined to Superpowers

Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers, by Rear Adm. J. R. Hill, Croom Hill, London, 247 pp.
Discussions of maritime strategy in the the nuclear age often neglect the role of the medium powers except in the context of their alliances with the superpowers. What is omitted is the notion that medium powers have interests and military reach that do not fit into the moral conceptualization of the East-West struggle.

In this concise book, British naval officer and theorist J. R. Hill has provided the standards by which medium powers — he isolates Australia, Brazil, France, India, Israel, and Japan as examples, although there are others — may assess their maritime interests and capabilities. Much of what he says has relevance for the planning of the superpowers, China, and smaller powers as well. For instance, he derides those military and civilian planners who insist on having a threat scenario to plan, arguing instead that they should define and categorize the nation’s interests.

These are in addition to the normally reckoned vital interests of territorial integrity and political independence.

It is important to make assessments of threats to these interests by degree, and not just absolutely, and to respond to threats proportionately. In another context Hill asks, “Does it really matter to India that one Indian tanker is bombed at Kharg Island? Would it matter if all Indian tankers going to Kharg Island were singled out for bombing?” In other words, “Which interests are to be regarded as vital?”

On the question of alliances, Hill admits himself to be something of a Gaullist in his thinking, believing that a loosening of the NATO alliance would both strengthen — through increased flexibility — the alliance itself and allow for firmer and more independent action on the part of alliance members when defending their interests outside the scope of alliance responsibility.

Hill argues that perhaps the British insistence, since at least 1966, that all military and naval strategic planning be done exclusively in an alliance context, with solely the Soviet threat in mind, hampered the effort to resecure the Falklands in 1982 and could have been disastrous, were it not for even worse planning in Buenos Aires.

These are the general points of Hill’s book. He leads up to them with an extensive discussion of modes and models for the use of maritime power.

He notes the distinction between “sea-use” and “sea-denial” strategies, concepts that are linked yet different. He notes the applicability of the international laws of the sea and draws attention to the uncertain future attached to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, due to the unwillingness of the United States, the United Kingdom, and West Germany to sign it.

He discusses changing technologies in submarine and anti-submarine warfare and the advances in space-based surveillance and the effect these may have on medium- power strategies.

In a brief discussion of anti-missile defenses, he slyly expresses doubts about the United States Strategic Defense Initiative — though not in so many words.

Hill concludes his study by discounting both the fashionable view of the early 1970s that the world had become multipolar and the up-and-coming view of the 1980s that there will be no role for medium powers at sea in the future because of overwhelming superpower dominance. While “superpower at sea” will continue, he says, “the mutual constraints on it will also increase and the pressure needed to pull its trigger will be correspondingly greater.”

Meanwhile, as the resources available to the superpowers increase, so will those available to the small and medium powers. “Handy” weapons systems will “increase in number and effectiveness, often at manageable cost.” Therefore, the medium powers’ capacity “to take independent action in support of their interests at sea will not significantly diminish” — and, I might add, may actually be enhanced.

Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers makes a useful addition to the growing shelf of books on naval strategy.

Richard Sincere, a Washington-based policy analyst, is currently pursuing post-graduate studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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