US GEOSTRATEGIST ALFRED THAYER MAHAN ON SEA POWER, SEA LINES (SLOCS) AND CHOKEPOINTS

The historical importance of trade and seapower are exemplified by emergence of global powers like Great Britain and the United States.

Referenced as “Clauswitz of the Sea”, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s views on naval strategy influenced seapower development of 20th century Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States. Mahan’s writings about the importance of successfully projecting worldwide offensive seapower played an important role in the victory of the United States in World War I1 and its current status as the world’s sole superpower.

One of Mahan’s admirers was President Theodore Roosevelt who frequently consulted Mahan on naval issues.

The essence of Mahan’s theory was that a nation could be strong only if it had enough seapower to control the seas against any threat. Historical Great Britain impressed Mahan as an example. One of the key associated issues of Mahan’s theory is that of strategic lines of communication.

In Mahan’s view there are

“. . .two classes of powers: those whose communication is by land, and those who depend upon the sea. The sea lines are the most numerous and easy, and they will probably be determinative of the course of trade.”

Mahan recognized the enormous value in lines of communication that would occur with the advent of the Panama Canal. The sea was a very important medium of commerce and the advent of the Canal adjoining two important SLOCs, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, was of incalculable value.

Mahan wrote:

“The very sound, commerce, brings with it a suggestion of the sea, for it is maritime commerce that has in all ages been most fruitful of wealth; and wealth is but the concrete expression of a nation’s energy of life, material and mental. The power, therefore, to insure these communications to one’s self, and to interrupt them for an adversary, affects the very root of a nation’s vigor, as in military operations it does the existence of an army, or as the free access to rain and sun – communications from without – does the life of a plant.”‘

Mahan’s key naval strategic questions were:

What is the true objective?

What are the points upon which it (the navy) should be concentrated?

Where are the establishment of depots of coal and supplies?

How are communications maintained between these depots and the home base?

What is the military value of commerce-destroying as a decisive or secondary
operation of war?

What is the system upon which commerce-destroying can be most efficiently conducted — whether by scattered cruisers or by holding in force some vital center through which commercial shipping must pass?

An assessment of a strategic kind would identify the ends, ways, and means to exploit SLOCs for military strategic success.

U. S. history, prior to and after Mahan, has shown the importance of commercedestroying.

The United Nations has supported an embargo against Iraq under Suddarn Hussein fully complied with a war ending treaty and he recognized the independence of Kuwait. This was enforced in part by U.S. naval forces. In the end, however, the occupation of Kuweit by Iraqi forces had to be ended in a war initiated by the United States, that ousted the occupation forces.

History in the view of Mahan has shown that travel and traffic by water have always been easier and cheaper than by land. Though there have been and are problems with piracy that is no longer a principal issue.

It is clear from Mahan’s writings that he puts a premium on naval power to guarantee the commercial development of a nation. Many of the key strategic SLOC issues postulated then are as important today, especially those associated with naval forces “holding in force some vital center (or chokepoint) through which commercial shipping must past.”

By examining the writings of Mahan, it could be discerned that the consequences for strategic oversight in addressing chokepoints are severe both nationally and internationally.

Mahan, recognized the geopolitical advantages, or disadvantages, of the United States and other nations relative to the SLOCs, both in war and peace. His theory and historical assessment serve as a great point of departure to examine what western seapowers and most importantly the United States learned from history and to what degree US policy follows Mahan.

This comment is mainly based on a paper by Lt. Colonel Reynolds B. Peele, Maritime Chokepoints: Key Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and Strategy (1997).

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