Maritime Chokepoints and Littorals

Maritime Chokepoints and Littorals

“Force is never more operative than when it is known to exist but is not brandished.”

                                                                     -Alfred Thayer Mahan

USS Petrel in action, 1898

In recent weeks, the TECOM Warfighting Society has, on several occasions, discussed the implications of Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE) and Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations (EABO) with several officers of our Pacific allies’ military organizations.  In touching on concerns about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, one officer emphasized the necessity of persistent US/Partner presence in the region’s littorals and maritime chokepoints.  The question the officer posed to TWS was one for the Naval Forces writ large:  Do you want to be moving toward a flashpoint once the fight begins or do you want to be there to prevent it from touching off?  For the United States, freedom of navigation has been a key policy component in our national strategic documents since the early days of our Republic; a seminal question in the French Naval War, War of the Barbary Pirates and War of 1812.  Later, Mahan defined this as one of the reasons for the existence of naval power.  For the United States’ Pacific Allies and partners, freedom of navigation is a matter of economic survival.

In his 2019 publication Sailing True North:  Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, Admiral James Stavridis touches on Mahan and his influence upon Naval History.  Mahan’s admonition to “…establish a global network of bases (the coaling stations of the time) which allow the fleet to operate with impunity anywhere in the world; maintain a technologically advanced fleet (making the shift from sail to coal and eventually from coal to oil as rapidly as possible); and-above all-possess the ability to control the sea at will…”[1] still influences navies in our era’s return to great power competition.  Admiral Stavridis points out that the People Liberation Army Navy “…has been diligently translating and reading [Mahan’s] works in recent years.” [2]

We are once again having these conversation about key maritime terrain, but instead of merely providing, as Mahan wrote, “…resting places for [fleets], where they can coal and repair…” [3] the US, its allies, and partners must look at key maritime terrain-predominantly in the littorals, that must be retained in order to effect sea control-or at the very least, deny an adversary the ability to operate with impunity.  The sea floor beneath the littorals of the world are strewn with the hulks of wooden, iron, and steel vessels; The English Channel, the Virginia Capes, Trafalgar, Malta, Jutland, Midway, Savo Island, Leyte Gulf. 

How do we define key maritime terrain in the littorals of the 21st century?  What is the importance of maritime chokepoints?  What does the proliferation of spaced-based ISR mean for deception in these areas? What must that terrain-the ability to hold and operate from it-provide for a fleet in a broader maritime campaign?  How do we determine at what phase in a conflict terrain must be occupied and with what force to provide what capability?  Must a naval force control chokepoints and the littorals physically with ground forces or multi-dimensionally? What other questions should we be asking about chokepoints and key terrain?  What about the Bering Straits, the Bab-el-Mendeb, the Straits of Hormuz, the Icelandic and Norwegian Seas, the Davis Straight?

[1]  Stavridis, James. Sailing True North:  Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, Penguin, NewYork, 2019. p. 103.

[2] ibid. 109.

[3] ibid. 104.