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From the North Atlantic to the South China Sea: Allied Maritime Strategy in the 21 Century

16 Apr 24

372 pages

Tim Benbow, King’s College London

This is the fourth volume in the Seapower Series from the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, which is providing a welcome perspective on maritime affairs from a country where strategic studies does sometimes struggle for attention. Given the shocking price of many books from academic publishers, it is all the more admirable that this one is available in electronic format for free (

The book seeks to reconsider Allied Maritime Strategy and, as the title suggests, its coverage is broad.  Section 1, ‘Fundamentals’, sets out some core points about maritime strategy.  Section 2, ‘Preparing for what?’ examines the range of threats and challenges facing maritime strategy and looks at different regions. Section 3, ‘Opportunities and Challenges’, covers specific themes such as deterrence at sea, the balance between high and low-end threats, the debates shaping the future of maritime force structures, and maritime intelligence. Section 4, ‘Planning, Preparation and Reality’, examines specific cases including the Falklands War, the role of exercises in deterrence, and the making of maritime strategy.  The list of contributors combines academic experts and practitioners including many names that will be familiar to Naval Review members, such as Sebastian Bruns and Jeremy Stöhs from Germany; James Bergeron, Sarandis Papadopoulos and Frank Hoffman from the US; Keith Blount, Deborah Sanders and Sidharth Kaushal from the UK; and the late James Goldrick from Australia (whose contribution demonstrates the clarity of thought and lucidity of writing that reminds us of what we are missing).

The eclectic range of topics covered in the 22 chapters reflects the editors’ core rationale for the volume, namely the challenges facing Western maritime strategy at a time when it is having to rediscover the possible need for warfighting in addition to, rather than instead of, conducting a wide range of maritime security tasks in complex circumstances. This sort of collection risks becoming a little disparate: it would have been helpful to have more of an introduction setting out the themes and what is going to be covered and then a fuller conclusion to draw together the threads that emerge – the ‘conclusion’ provided in the volume does a bit of the former but not the latter. Helpfully, each chapter provides copious references and a list of works cited, thereby giving plenty of tips for further reading for anyone who wishes to follow up any of the topics covered.

A number of key themes emerge. Most prominent among these is the breadth and interconnectedness of the challenges facing NATO maritime strategy. The need for navies to master both high-end warfighting and lower-level activity, including against non-state actors, is not new. What is more novel is the sheer scale of the threats posed by Russia and China both at the high end but also throughout a wide spectrum of confrontation and conflict, due to their ‘grey zone’ activity – the book draws attention to the important maritime dimensions of this phenomenon – at a time when the capabilities of non-state (or state proxy) actors are rising due to the proliferation of modern sensors and weapons. The West’s adversaries exploit our reliance on the sea but they too need to use it, while being vulnerable to pressure exerted from the sea, so it offers opportunities as well as threats. For example, Pic and Lasserre note the intertwining in the Arctic of traditional security issues (notably increasing Russian militarisation) and non-traditional (such as climate change) – and suggest that cooperating on the latter could help with the former. Advancing technology is disruptive in many areas, including further sharpening the trade-off between quantity and quality, albeit mitigated in part by the alliance. Yet it also offers many advantages, notably in intelligence and situational awareness – which is relevant across the spectrum of confrontation and can usefully be shared with non-alliance partners to boost their capacity.

While the book rightly focusses on Russia, it also highlights the importance of China.  European allies do not have the luxury of ignoring the latter as a security issue, or treating it solely as an economic opportunity, because of the direct challenges it presents and also the indirect impact of its increasing domination of US attention. Sanders notes the increasing importance of China as an economic and security actor in the Black Sea. Kaushal assesses the division of Chinese maritime strategy between defence within the first island chain and influence beyond it, while suggesting how both can be challenged by the alliance and, particularly, its local partners. Goldrick welcomes the naval involvement in the Indo-Pacific of European allies but is clear that their most useful contribution would be to take on something closer to their fair share of the defence of Europe to allow a greater US focus on the Indo-Pacific.

One valuable contribution of the book is to draw attention to NATO’s increasingly important northern, maritime flank. Here, the inter-relation of the different theatres (which has always been a more prominent feature of the maritime domain than the land or air) is made clear.  Pawlak argues that the Baltic needs to be understood alongside the other sub-theatres to which it is inherently related, the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. (He also refers to the ‘reverse Las Vegas rule’ – “what happens in the Baltic does not stay in the Baltic”).  Granholm adds the importance of the Skagerrak and Kattegat as the waters connecting the Baltic with the North Atlantic. The northern flank seems rightly to be an increasing focus for UK defence policy.

Any book focussed on contemporary debates is bound to become dated, with this one being written before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, it retains considerable value, not least in reminding us that several key security concerns (such as Russian intentions, the vulnerability of undersea cables, and the increasing integration into alliance activities of Sweden and Finland) predate that particular strategic shock. A follow-up volume would be timely. The book offers a stimulating summary of the challenges facing Allied maritime strategy and some suggestions as to the possible responses. Not least because it is available on open access, it is recommended, either to dip into or to read as a whole.