Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

On Naval Power

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

On Naval Power

Article excerpt

All too often, the terms naval power and sea power are used interchangeably. But naval power, properly understood, refers to a direct and indirect source of military power at sea. Obviously, the main components of a naval power are the navy, coast guard, and marines/naval infantry and their shore establishment. The term sea power (coined in 1849) originally referred to a nation having a formidable naval strength. Today, this term's meaning is much broader; it now describes the entirety of the use of the sea by a nation. Specifically, a sea (or maritime) power comprises political, diplomatic, economic, and military aspects of sea use. (1) Naval power played an extremely important and often vital role in the lives of many maritime nations.


This scenario is not going to change in the future despite claims to the contrary by some influential thinkers. The threat of major conflict at sea might look distant or even unlikely today. Yet it would be unwise to exclude the possibility altogether. Very often, the fact that naval power might play an important part in conventional deterrence- or, in the case of blue water navies such as the U.S. Navy, in nuclear deterrence- is either overlooked or ignored. Navies, and coast guards in particular, perform important and diverse tasks in peacetime and in operations short of war.

The Threat

The range of threats in the maritime domain is broad. The conventional threats in peacetime include claims of the riparian states in regard to the boundaries of the economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and activities there, the extent of the territorial waters and the rights of innocent passage, and illicit fishing. Conventional threats include low-intensity conflict such as insurgencies and the possibility of a high-intensity conflict in various parts of the world, such as the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Korean Peninsula, or Taiwan Strait. In addition, unconventional threats in the maritime domain have dramatically increased in diversity and intensity since the early 1990s. They include transnational terrorism and criminal networks involved in illicit trafficking in narcotics, humans, and weapons. Piracy is a growing problem in some parts of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia and off the east and west coasts of Africa. The combination of transnational terrorism and piracy can seriously disrupt the flow of international commerce. The potential impact of such threats on world peace and the global economy is enormous. (2) There is also a growing danger to ports/bases and coastal facilities/installations from ballistic missiles fired by a rogue state or even transnational terrorist groups.

The threat to port security has increased significantly in the past few decades due to the proliferation of platforms and weapons that can be used against ships and port facilities/ installations. Uninterrupted maritime trade is one of the most critical factors for the prosperity of nations. The problem of security against terrorist attack is especially acute at ports located near strategic chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Gibraltar, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal. Large ports are especially vulnerable to various hostile acts because of the difficulties in providing full, around-the-clock protection. Currently, the greatest threat to the security of major ports is from terrorists, operating individually or in groups.


Navies can be employed in routine activities in peacetime, operations short of war, low-intensity conflict, and high-intensity conventional war (see table). Today and for the immediate future, naval forces will be predominantly employed in carrying out multiple and diverse tasks in what are arbitrarily called operations short of (regional) war. However, a navy, no matter how strong, cannot carry out all the tasks alone but needs to proceed in combination with other elements of naval power, such as a coast guard. …

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