Command of the Sea
James R. Holmes discusses the concept that “no one commands the sea in peacetime, command is a phenomenon that only happens in wartime.”
Command of the Sea by Non-Traditional Means
By James R. Holmes, The Diplomat
Last week a colleague from our department objected to my telling a group of reservists that the United States and its coalition partners have commanded the sea vis-à-vis al Qaeda and its affiliates since the 9/11 attacks eleven years ago. His argument, as best as I could make out, is that no one commands the sea in peacetime, especially in a conflict against a non-state antagonist like al Qaeda. U.S. forces may enjoy untrammeled use of the commons to project power onto foreign shores, but the nature of a globalized system of trade and commerce rules out efforts to interrupt salafists’ use of the commons. Command is a phenomenon that only happens in wartime.
This is worth replying to because it exposes the ambiguities and dilemmas involved in using sea power in conflicts spanning the war/peace divide. One theoretical point and one practical point. First, sea-power theory. Sir Julian Corbett makes the commonsense point that an uncommanded sea is the norm. No nation or coalition can afford to post sentinels—ships, aircraft, unmanned vehicles—at close intervals throughout the world’s oceans and seas to squelch challenges to the globalized order. The seas and skies are so vast as to defy blanket coverage. In this sense, no armed force ever commands the sea—either in peacetime or wartime.
So is the idea of command trivial or moot? Nope. Corbett insists that “permanent general control” of the sea—a rose by another name—is, and typically should be, the wartime goal for a dominant……[access full article]