From Sea Power to Cyber Power: Learning from the Past to Craft a Strategy for the Future

By Barcomb, Kris E. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2013 | Go to article overview

From Sea Power to Cyber Power: Learning from the Past to Craft a Strategy for the Future


Barcomb, Kris E., Joint Force Quarterly


Naval strength involves, unquestionably, the possession of strategic points.

--Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan saw the ocean for what it is. While it spans the globe and covers a predominant portion of the Earth, not all parts of it are equally important. Mahan offered a focused naval strategy in an era when America was struggling to define itself as either isolated from, or an integral part of, the larger international community. The force structure of the U.S. Navy hinged upon leaders deciding between protectionism and expansionism. Rather than simply a mechanism to defend the coasts, Mahan envisioned the Navy as a powerful means for promoting American economic prosperity. In one sense, his strategy allowed the Nation to achieve both objectives simultaneously. By projecting naval power at key points around the globe, Mahan's approach allowed for economic expansion and had the second-order effect of pushing conflict away from U.S. shores.

Cyberspace represents a similar challenge. The United States now faces a contemporary struggle between expansionism and protectionism in this domain. We can learn a great deal from Mahan's methodology for delineating and prioritizing the sea domain into actionable terms. Thus, this article identifies strategic categories in cyberspace by adopting Mahan's approach. In doing so, it seeks to identify similarities and differences between sea power and cyber power. The aim is to provide senior leaders with a better understanding of the salient aspects of cyberspace, offer insights for securing those points, and suggest a new paradigm for the proper role of the military in this domain. This tailored expansionist strategy for cyberspace should provide the United States with both economic growth and security akin to Mahan's approach to sea power a century ago.

A Mahanian Approach to Cyberspace

Mahan did not view the Navy as an end unto itself, but as a key component of the larger economic welfare of the Nation. He tied the very existence of the Navy to commerce when he wrote, "The necessity of a navy, in the restricted sense of the word, springs, therefore, from the existence of a peaceful shipping, and disappears with it." (1) Similarly, while cyberspace originated through U.S. Government investment, the domain owes its rapid expansion and modern character to commerce. In this sense, sea power and cyber power share a common objective. They both primarily exist to protect economic interests within their respective domains.

Two principles guided Mahan's analysis. First, Mahan looked for strategic points of convergence and concentration. He stated, "In general ... it will be found that by sea, as by land, useful strategic points will be where highways pass, and especially where they cross and converge." (2) As a result of his fore-sight and the willingness of key U.S. leaders to act on it, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, American influence secured the Hawaiian Islands, the Philippines, Guantanamo Bay, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal, to name a few. Despite both the realities and perceptions of the decentralized nature of cyberspace, careful inspection reveals several points of concentration.

Second, Mahan emphasized the need to minimize the total number of points considered important to communicate priorities and overcome resource constraints: "The search for and establishment of leading principles--always few--around which considerations of detail group themselves, will tend to reduce confusion of impression to simplicity and directness of thought, with consequent facility of comprehension." (3) In accordance with these two principles, this article identifies seven strategic points of concentration in cyberspace: operating systems (OSs), search engines, physical communications infrastructure, cloud computing, governance forums, cryptography, and Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6).

Each of these categories has unique challenges, and some are more established than others. …

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