Evolving threats in the maritime domain underscore the importance of security forces being eyes and ears to ensure the safety of merchant shipping and safe supply chain routes, and “partnerships are absolutely critical” to maintain free seas, naval leaders from the U.S. and Sweden said.
While 90 percent of the world’s trade travels on the ocean, “closer to 100 percent of the world’s information flows on the seabed in conjunction with satellites and that is something that is a gray zone area” vulnerable to “hybrid activity where it is difficult to point fingers,” U.S. Second Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis said at an American Enterprise Institute webinar last week on maritime gray zone threats.
“Then the activity on the sea and above the sea, the classic activity: There is a maritime code in which you operate in international waters,” he added. “At times other nation-states will not adhere to that code, and along hybrid lines will not adhere to that code. The Russians, the Chinese, terrorist groups, little green men on the surface of the ocean if you like, but that is where we are really focusing, and it is getting busier and busier with strategic lines of communication.”
Royal Swedish Navy Chief Ewa Skoog Haslum stressed that it is an “international security concern” to protect shipping as it’s easy for bad actors “to hamper or harass” merchant vessels without surveillance.
Presence is critical, Lewis agreed, and partners “have to work together to maintain freedom of the seas, to be able to maintain those trade routes over the global surface.”
“In spite of what we’re going through right now it’s a much healthier environment globally than we’ve ever lived in, and that is because of partnerships that stem from the alliance in maintaining that safety,” he said. “… The most powerful part of any command starts with the trust and the relationships that you build with your partners.”
Skoog Haslum said “high readiness” is also critical “and always thinking about ‘what if'” in the physical and cyber realms — “so we will have to start thinking different scenarios, which are maybe not normal scenarios for us military organizations” and partner civilian agencies.
Lewis said one thing the U.S. can learn from partners such as Sweden and Norway is the value of operating in the spirit of a seagoing nation. By Sweden embracing its maritime culture the country “has continued to not only survive, but to get better and better all the time and become more and more relevant on the world stage — there’s a lot to be learned from that.”
“They are very much maritime nations and still singing sea shanties all of the time… when we lose global positioning or we lose exquisite communications or satellite communications, whereas we see in higher latitudes that is very difficult to maintain, even when we lose line of sight electronic communications or digital capability it goes back to a visual world, a world in which we need to rely upon our senses of our eyes and our ears and our five senses,” he said.
“And more and more as the electromagnetic spectrum is infringed upon and manipulated by nefarious actors the more we have to be able to rely upon those what I would call mission orders — the way to operate tactically, operationally, and strategically on intent where you have very young operators, young civilians who understand what they are seeing and know how to report it and know how to defend themselves, if you like,” the admiral continued. “That is something that I think we all could educate our entire societies on the threat that exists, an existential threat to our way of life.”
“That is what I think we owe to our entire societies is understanding what all of this means and what it means to the threat of our way of life, our families, and our livelihood that is more at risk than we care to admit. Cyber attacks, for example… it is very scary how little is known about that. It is scary how little people know about what they are seeing on the horizon.”
Skoog Haslum said embracing greater interdependence and cooperation between government and industry can help drive home how dependent nations are on secure sea lines.
“We need to cooperate even more and we need to train,” she said. “We don’t have that much Swedish merchant vessels any longer. It’s about 100 of them. So the most vessels trafficking the Baltic Sea is international ones and we need to cooperate together with those companies as well.”
Lewis said that while the Russians are “certainly within their international rights” to operate in the Arctic, “reinvigorating their military capability in the Arctic… to try to make it a militarily contested zone” is “not in the common interest of the other Arctic nations and what we cannot allow to happen.”
“In order to maintain a free and open Arctic and high North, we’ve got to be able — we have to be present there,” he said. “We have to be operating professionally and we have to do so with our partners, which fortunately, our partners, the Arctic nations — all but one are true partners, and we know who that one is.”