Securing maritime trade in faraway places

Another German Milblogger (or 'security policy' blogger) published a piece about how we should have more naval activity in the East to secure maritime trade. I had to mobilize my self-discipline and patience in order to not start a blog war. Seriously, this guy annoys me with his primitive bullocks.
Kudos to him for mastering the facade, the style, of a very serious person. At least he's got a 'serious' style. We diverged on this; he went with style, I went with substance and have my fun. Style is reserved for and added only when I get paid for writing stuff.

Anyways; the topic is about the role of navies in securing maritime trade in peacetime; the 'showing the flag', 'forward deployment' business. Back in imperial times, this was considered self-evident. Nowadays one might dare to task one's brain to think about whether it's a good idea. Most people trust primitive instincts instead.

First step: Vital trade

Think about how vital (and I mean "vital") maritime trade is for your country. Do this for the various routes (through Panama Canal, through Suez Canal, in Persian Gulf, through Strait of Gibraltar et cetera) separately to identify really vital maritime trade (if there's any)*.
And I mean vital. Let's assume the Suez Canal would be shut down as in 1956. Maritime shipping would need to go around Africa. Industry associations would complain about it and some corporations would make less profit, mabye our inflation would even rise by 0.x % and economic output would be reduced by 0.y%. That's not the symptoms of a vital trade route being cut. That's merely an annoyance. A scratch.
The same goes for when maritime trade becomes a bit more expensive or if trade needs to be re-routed from one harbour to another.

The description of vital maritime trade route being lost sounds more like 'Our powerplants are projected to run out of coal by summer. Power rationing can be expected during peak demand times.'

Many people who talk and write fast and loose about how navies should do this or that are using words such as "vital" inaccurately and prefer to produce strings of assertions without real foundations in order to sound alarming and 'serious'. Healthy, normal people don't run around and scream about problems, so most people assume that there's actually a problem if someone claims there's one with all the elements of alarm. Some people with an agenda exploit this.**

Back to the first step: It's also important to have basic competence in reading statistics.
For example, someone might claim that we trade XYZ billions € per year with an exotic country. The sum may look impressive, but how much of it is left for justifying a naval mission if a huge chunk is actually air freight?*** A large chunk of our trade is always services traded, and services surely don't get traded on container ships. Some more trade is inevitably import of raw material which could usually be imported from somewhere else about as easily. 
People with an agenda (and Im not focused on aforementioned blogger here) at times deliberately use the biggest figure available (which is correct, but irrelevant) in order to 'support' their case. And then there's usually nobody dissecting the argument and separating relevant from irrelevant, much less sanctioning the offender for misleading others intentionally.

You should be able to determine whether or not maritime trade on a certain shipping lane is actually vital for your country (or at least form a substantiated opinion about it). But it's laborious, requires thought and it's inevitable dependent on guesswork.

Step 2: Is the naval approach useful?

Next, think about whether tasking the navy makes sense. Yes, "think". This is not as self-evident as other milbloggers would assume. You're at Defence and Freedom here, after all. So "think".

Whatever threat to maritime trade exists, naval assets are not necessarily able to secure much trade. Think of Taiwan, for example. They have the scenario that mainland China may want to impose a naval blockade. Who's stpid enough to think that Taiwan's navy could do much about it if mainland China was serious? They would be hard-pressed to escort a single convoy out and in per month, and would likely not even accomplish this.
Likewise, Germany could not fool itself into thinking that it could secure its maritime trade through the Strait of Malacca if Malaysia and Indonesia decided to have an air/sea skirmish. A forward deployed frigate squadron wouldn't even be sent into the fray, no matter how much shipping goes through that strait in normal times. The shipping would simple have go use a longer route.

And then there are the gunboat diplomacy (re-branded into "showing the flag") nonsense talkers. I have a large, eight centimetre thick chronicle of the 20th century in my cupboard. I want to smash it repeatedly on the head of such nonsense talkers till they understand the uselessness of the Panthersprung and similar actions****. They obviously can't read history books by themselves. Nobody needs to see a ship to know that there's a navy somewhere. To show the flag is about killing time for seamen, not about accomplishing anything. Don't confuse it with warning shots. Sometimes showing the flag is even terminally stupid.

Step 3: Non-vital maritime trade with potential effectiveness of navies

There is a possibility that a navy (or navies) may actually be useful in securing maritime trade. The combination of this and non-vital maritime trade yields a modestly interesting scenario.
The way to go is then to look at costs and benefits. Is it reasonable to believe that the naval effort (minus the sunk costs such as procurement and normal operation of units which you already have) can pay off? Will the benefits be greater than the disadvantages?

This isn't only about additional kerosense costs and hundreds of private lifes ruined by separation of young couples for months. Foreign countries may get seriously antagonised if you keep patrolling just barely outside their territorial waters, after all. You may also need to accept shady deals with some dictator in order to secure some naval base somewhere.

Choose the action with the greatest advantage of benefits over costs, but beware of overoptimisim. It's better to err on the side of history which preferred non-violence.

- - - - -
Unsurprisingly, I'm too uninterested in the expeditionary bullocks to make a thorough calculation myself, and any such attempt to determine which trade is vital and which not, how much naval presence would cost additionally and what effects - beneficial and worrisome - it may have is bound to be dominated by guesswork anyway.

I did arrive at a conclusion, though. 
This conclusion is that we should not slavishly follow the obviously unsuccessful or excessively expensive approaches. We shouldn' use the classic Western approach in a world which changed a lot since the late 19th century.
The Royal Navy patrolled the Indian Ocean a lot with its cruisers when it had an empire to guard, but all this patrolling achieved little and there were actually no non-European navies in existence which could have secured the area.
Nowadays the strait of Malacca is an important bottleneck for maritime shipping. I suppose it's the responsibility of the countries in the region to secure it. I wouldn't want Chinese frigates to patrol the Baltic Sea in order to secure the export of Chinese wares to St. Petersburg, after all. Americans regularly like to see their navy patrolling along the territorial waters of distant countries many of them cannot find on a globe, but they also freak out when a fishing boat  shows the Chinese flag near Hawaii.
So why should we patrol in SE Asia?

The Northern Indian Ocean is India's backyard (Who'da thunk it?). They have a navy, and I think to secure maritime trade there is their job by default. Germany: Western Baltic Sea and German Bight. Russia: Eastern Baltic Sea. Spain: Strait of Gibraltar. Saudi-Arabia and Iran: Persian Gulf. Egypt: Red Sea. South Africa: Cape of Good Hope. Colombia and USA: Vicinity of the Panama Canal. Argentine and Chile: Cape Horn. Et cetera.
These responsibilities may be neglected, but that's no reason to go crazy and maintain a naval squadron in very distant waters for decades. Instead, diplomacy and cost/benefit analysis shall rule. Maybe the shit hits the fan sometime; then again, analyse and consider cost/benefit. Maybe the freighters can simply go a longer route.

The idea that "maritime trade => navy shall protect it => let's build an expeditionary navy and send it to the end of the world !" is primitive bullocks. It's not serious thinking; it's non-thinking. It's instinctive, a reflex. A failure of contribution to discussion.
But some people just seem to need this"power" thing. Maybe they're privately insecure and need to have something national to be proud about. Maybe they just need to have this idea that their tribe is strong.
We better don't let such people influence our allocation or national resources.


*: Greeting to my Hungarian readers.
**: They deserve to be treated like a child that yells "help" a hundred times a day.
***: Air freight has an enormous share of the value of exports of Germany, for example. German air freight trade was 4.3 million tons in 2012. That's 2% of tonnage, but 30% of goods trade value.
****: Or at least shut up, which would be the more likely the more passionate I'd be about applying the book.


  1. Nice try. Let's take a different look. What if the entrance to the German Bight is blocked or submarines go hunting merchantmen headed for Germany?
    This is the scenario under which a navy is in demand. Securing specific bottlenecks for sea traffic is rather a non-vital peacetime service. The sea lines of communication of Germany running through Hamburg and Rotterdam in the Netherlands narrow dwon to specific routes the closer they are to German ports. The question is, how far away from these ports does Germany want to set up a protected perimeter? The answer might change due to the threat level. Via the Prussian continental tradition and an abortive High Seas Fleet, Germany has been out of touch with many naval developments. The Netherlands, Denmark (geograpically) Spain and Italy (as military powers) are in a similar position such as Germany and highlight different approaches.
    Leaving the Eastern Baltic Sea to the Russians seems at odds with EU and NATO partners in the Baltic. Germany is forced to be capable to operate throughout the Baltic Sea and at least the whole length of the North Sea (such as they currently do). Additionally there's a permanent German naval presence in the Mediterranean on Sardinia and elsewhere. This current deployment does pretty well cover the most important sea lines of communication except the trans-Atlantic connections to the Americas and Africa.
    The anti-pirate mission off the Somali coast makes little sense except to establish a presence in the Western Indian Ocean for further use.


    1. Deci is a pure training base.

      Regarding the other points:
      "Germany: Western Baltic Sea and German Bight."

      And that's a police / coast guard job. The alliance would move its naval forces to where they're needed in wartime.

    2. Your points came across. Still Deci is a naval base.

      Germany is in the NATO and EU and must think in terms of common defence within both organizations. the Baltic, the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Western Indian Ocean have been integrated into the scope of these alliances (the seas around Africa are to a limited extent covered by EU partners with territories and the US covers the coats of the Americas). The Indo-Pacific region is, where the future big naval conflicts lie ahead and it's good to stay military out of that region, despite the strong economic ties. What is brewing there could easily be beyond the capabilities of the current European navies with all the shipbuilding capability.

      Let's make a difference between the naval security perimeter of alliances Germany is part of and the German tasks within these organizations. Is there a necessity for Germany to make greater contributions because the alliance's sea control suffers from a problem?
      This seems not the case, but NATO is unbalanced, blue water and amphibious assets are concentrated with the US component and provided to a very limited degree by European partners, who have equal use of blue water for sea lines of communication.
      Under these circumstances one can discuss a stronger blue water navy component by European states. Affordability is the main problem and as the pressing need does not yet occur, incentives for cooperative achievements are low.
      It's my opinion that in a few decades with ongoing economic growth, we will have several naval peer competitors on US navy level and the European nations will become an irrelevant backwater to maritime matters or press forward with integrated blue water developments. Currently, German aspirations in blue water naval context would make sense for playing a stronger supportive role in the ongoing number of US-wars of choice or for status enhancement if that helps in policy goals such as a permanent UN seat. By comparison, investing into the economic development in Europe might be a better choice worth the money in the current benign security environment.
      We Germans can toy with the idea of cooperating with the Italians, Spanish, UK and the French in developing a few suitable designs for a small common European core blue water naval capability that can be expanded as required.
      Such a blue water naval capability entails landings and aircraft operations from ships.
      To participate in development of a capability, it's not necessary to field a vast array of such vessels per participant nation nor have them show the flag in far away places.
      It's all about a blue water navy to provide the maximum capability to secure sea lines of communication (that include aircrafts flying over the sea and cables running underneath the sea)if required. This requirement would be a credible armed neutrality or even participation in major naval clashes that have not been seen since the carrier battles of the US and Imperial Japan. It very much depends on the prediction of naval developments in the Indo-Pacific, where a large, growing and wealthier part of humanity lives with lots of disputes and tensions that can boil into armed clashes. They do concentrate lots of expertise and running production of merchant fleets.

      Again, I suggest, you try to dissect what the economic and power growth in this region relative to Europe and North America means and how we are to handle it.
      My stance is there are likely to be a number of major wars over some nonsense territory in order to alleviate unrest that goes along with social tension due to the rapid economic development. The tools of war at the disposal of the new giants there will be staggering and they will negatively affect global traffic in this very important region. The best choice for Germany and Europe would be armed neutrality at sea and watch the horrors from a distance.