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Navy ‘indispensable power instrument in the hands of policy-makers’
Author: Francois Vreÿ & Mark Blaine
Published: 23/11/2020

Navies must be seen as indispensable power instruments in the hands of policy-makers to successfully negotiate and secure the shifting naval and maritime security landscapes of the 21st century, write Prof Francois Vreÿ & Captain Mark Blaine (Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa) in a recent opinion piece for Cape Times.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Francois Vreÿ & Mark Blaine*

In a world that constantly changes, military forces must keep in step and adapt to remain relevant instruments of policy. Navies are no exception and pressures for adaptations to better defend maritime territories are a constant feature of what naval forces face in the early 21st century. Given the indisputable importance of the oceans amidst threats from state and non-state actors operating at sea, navies have a critical role to play in the overall security architectures aimed at securing the maritime interests of countries through awareness, policing, enforcement and maritime defence when required.

Navies remain primary instruments of military coercion operating on and from the sea. Second only to land warfare in its theoretical underpinnings, naval warfighting developed over centuries and rests on an established theory of naval warfare, roles and tasks that enable them to be much more than mere warfighting organisations. In this vein, 21st-century navies must react to multiple political demands to do more than just warfighting and these pressures compel them to respond.

Navies react in different ways to what their foes and policy-makers demand. As opposed to shedding warfighting roles as proposed by some, they show flexibility and rather migrate along their roles and tasks to keep in step with changes and demands in their operating environments. Some large navies execute several roles simultaneously, smaller navies change in a sequential way between warfighting and secondary roles while several navies prefer to dedicate their resources largely to roles other than warfighting.

Navies also tend to adapt to changes in their environment rather than shedding 'old' and assuming 'new' roles and tasks. In the case of China for example, a large naval militia augments the Chinese navy (PLAN) with certain naval tasks executed by civilian vessels when required. In the case of Iran, the traditional Iranian Navy features alongside a smaller, but independent naval force (the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Navy) geared for asymmetric warfare in the Persian Gulf. Sri Lanka, in fighting the Tamil insurgents, and countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea off West and Central Africa show how navies choose to respond to threats below the warfighting level to protect their maritime and national interests by fighting asymmetrically or turning to policing and enforcing the rule of law.

While narratives for slashing warfighting roles continue to pressure decisions about navies, a more nuanced reality underpins their contemporary roles. Although their operating environments change, decisions about their tasks and roles tend to shift along a spectrum that includes cooperation with other maritime agencies to address non-traditional maritime security threats below the level of naval warfare. As one of the more flexible instruments of military coercion, navies have evolved over time to ply their trade over this shifting landscape of maritime threats and vulnerabilities, rather than heed calls to reject the old and assume new roles.

It should be mentioned that not all navies are organised and equipped to respond successfully to ever-changing maritime threats. They rather dedicate their organisational culture and assets to address the rise and decline of maritime threats and vulnerabilities. Modern blue water navies from China, the USA, Japan, Russia and the EU for example simultaneously conduct policing, diplomatic and simulated warfighting postures off Africa and in the South China Sea. The small Sri Lankan navy demonstrated early in the 21st century how a navy can sequentially migrate between traditional and non-traditional roles and tasks when national interests are threatened by insurgents operating at and from the sea. The Gulf of Guinea, in turn, exemplifies how navies cooperate with multiple state and non-state agencies across local regions to mitigate a growing maritime threat landscape comprising non-traditional maritime threats that collectively endanger national and regional security and, more specifically, human security.

It's clear that navies remain an important coercive power instrument for governments to ensure they can use the oceans as a safe and secure landscape for transportation and extracting living and non-living resources. We've reached a point where opposing navies are no longer the only or even most dangerous threat for navies to respond to.  Powerful and armed non-state actors are also part of the modern maritime threat spectrum and decision-makers must empower their navies to adapt, build partnerships and strengthen capacities to keep the world's oceans safe and secure. The collective outcome is one of role migration, rather than a stark rejection of traditional naval tasks and roles amidst a policy and security environment calling for multiple naval contributions.

Overall, navies must be seen as indispensable power instruments in the hands of policy-makers, and policy tools that offer more than warfighting capabilities to successfully negotiate and secure the shifting naval and maritime security landscapes of the 21st century.

*Prof Francois Vreÿ & Captain Mark Blaine are affiliated with the Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa at Stellenbosch University. This article is based on their chapter in Global Challenges in Maritime Security: An Introduction (2020).