Ocean Power, Sovereign Power: The Fusion of the U.S. Navy and Drones in the Predator Empire

Ocean Power, Sovereign Power: The Fusion of the U.S. Navy and Drones in the Predator Empire

In this essay, a work-in-progress, I want to think through the symbiotic relationship between the ocean, the ship, and the drone. The argument will be that aircraft carriers are vital for producing and maintaining mobile spaces of sovereignty and exception, thereby multiplying empire’s baseworld.

Battle of Trafalgar, Turner, c1806

Turner’s c.1806 Battle of Trafalgar

An undeniable feature of our Earth is that it is covered in water. Across the cosmos, it’s still the only planet known to be covered by a stable body of water—72 percent of it to be precise. While the hydrosphere may play the single most important role for biological life, it has always played an important role in political life. The ocean connects faraway places and bridges disparate continents—a watery reminder that we share the same world. And in the history of humanity, it has been the ocean that has consistently provided a crucial medium for the exercise of power and violence.

It is therefore necessary to consider the ocean as an active agent in the service of empire.  Unlike maritime history, the seas do not figure prominently in the accounts of political geography. As Hasty and Peters argue, “Despite the fact that ours is a decidedly watery planet, the work of human geography has, until recently, been rather neglectful of the maritime realm” (Hasty & Peters, 2012, p. 660). Furthermore, the ship—central to the construction of maritime life and nautical worlds—is often alienated from historical narratives about empire, commerce, and piracy.  From the English East India Company to the British Empire, ships lie at the heart of multiple global events.

In the 18th century, the Royal Navy of the British Empire emerged as the unrivaled war machine of the seas; its mastery reaching its symbolic height in the wake of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, in which 27 British ships smashed 41 French and Spanish vessels without a single loss. Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the Navy saw little large-scale warfare, although by the end of the century the Imperial German Navy—strengthened by the nation’s industrial revolution—could now match the British force. German U-boats, like the dreadnoughts before, proved another “game changer” in the First World War, although their success was mitigated by a British convoy system.

At the start of the Second World War, the Royal Navy was still the largest in the world, despite a series of inter-war treaties that slowed down production of its capital ships (the largest, and most powerful vessels in the fleet).  In 1939, the Royal Navy had 332 ships, including 184 Destroyers, 66 Cruisers, 60 submarines, and 15 capital ships.  The German Navy relied almost exclusively on its submarines during the war, commanding a total of 250 by 1944. These U-boats often proved devastating: of the 800,000 officers and men enlisted the Royal Navy at the height of the war, 50,758 were killed by its end

After an economically bruising war, the British Empire crumbled, and all of its pre-war ships were scrapped. In the second half of the 20th century the role of the navy also changed, with ships becoming integrated more fully into land-based operations, as well as holding on to the role as symbols of “power projection” in economically important theatres. Navy-on-navy combat, aside from a few skirmishes (such as the Falkland’s War of 1982), is now largely uncommon.

USS Constitution

The USS Constitution battles with the HMS Guerriere in the 1812 war. Painting by Michel Felice Corne.

The U.S. Navy emerged in the 20th century as the global navy power and oceanic police force. Although there is some debate over the date of its actual founding, the Continental Navy, the predecessor to the U.S. Navy, was established in 1775. This decision came about despite considerable debate within the fledgling Continental Congress about the wisdom of challenging British ocean hegemony. In 1781, George Washington, who would later serve as the first U.S. president, wrote that “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious”. Centuries later, Washington’s wish was realized with a Navy that dwarfed any rival. In the year 2000, the U.S. fleet—comprised of 252 combat ships—weighed 3.2 million tons (a barometer often used for measuring the relative size of a navy). Lagging far behind in second place was Russia, with a little over 900,000 tons. These raw figures indicate a brute material advantage if nothing else.

As of June 2013, the U.S. Navy has 322,42 personnel on active duty, and 109,673 in reserve.  Additionally, there are 201,000 Navy Department civilian employees. Together then, there are well over half a million people attached to the U.S. Navy. In terms of ships, the U.S. Navy has 286 deployable battle force ships, and over 3,700 aircraft (which comprise the Carrier Air Wing).

Of particular importance is the Navy’s Carrier Strike Groups, and the “Nimitz-class” carriers in particular. The Nimitz-class is the designation for the modern group of aircraft carriers that came after the Enterprise class of 1961. According to the U.S. Navy, the carriers form the “centerepiece” of America’s naval forces. There are 10 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy, and they are the largest warships in the world, capable of lasting for 50 years with just one mid-life fuelling. First deployed in 1975 (the USSS Nimitz), and built by Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, they are powered by two nuclear reactors, can carry over 60 aircraft, and cost around $8.5 billion (or close to $40 billion across its life). These vessels are huge: over a 1,000 feet long, 252 feet wide, and capable of a speed of over 30 knots. They can also carry a crew of 3,000, sailors with 1,500 attached to the air wing—constituting a population of over 5,000 on-board.

USS Nimitz

USS Nimitz, near San Diego

There are approximately 20 large aircraft carriers in service in the world today (depending on how an aircraft carrier is defined)—and only the U.S. has more than 2. This is because carriers are astronomically expensive to build, maintain, and deploy. It was actually the Imperial Japanese Navy that first mounted a successful naval-launched air raid in 1914 against German forces in the First World War.  The Wakamiya began its life as a captured Russian freighter, and was retrofitted with four seaplanes. Since then, the strategic role of aircraft carriers has been central to military planning.

The aircraft carrier is important to the U.S. Navy for a number of reasons. In their words: “On any given day, aircraft carriers exercise the Navy core capabilities of power projection, forward presence, humanitarian assistance, deterrence, sea control and maritime security”. The aircraft carrier forms the capital ship of most navies, although unlike the capital ships of old, it is less directed at threats within the sea, as it is a vehicle for providing ground support. Throughout Operating Enduring Freedom in the landlocked nation of Afghanistan, there have been a number of Nimitz-class vessels in support of U.S. and coalition troops, including the USS Enterprise, the USS Carl Vinson, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the USS George Washington.

But “power projection”, “deterrence” and “maritime security” can be achieved with a range of smaller ships. The reason that aircraft carriers in particular are important is that they allow U.S. aerial power to travel in “denied” and “remote” areas. They thus enable U.S. sovereignty to move around the world horizontally, like other ships, only they then provide the platform for vertical forms of surveillance and strikes—without relying on allies or partners on the ground.  It is, in essence, a form of power that is totalizing—the full spectrum dominance of the atmosphere. Air power that once relied on established terrestrial infrastructures and logistical chains has become radically deterritorialized. As the U.S. Navy itself writes, “Because carriers operate in international waters, its aircraft do not need to secure landing rights on foreign soil”. As the U.S. Navy elsewhere expands on the same point:

“The carrier battle group, operating in international waters, does not need the permission of host countries for landing or overflight rights. Nor does it need to build or maintain bases in countries where our presence may cause political or other strains. Aircraft carriers are sovereign U.S. territory that steam anywhere in international waters – and most of the surface of the globe is water. This characteristic is not lost on our political decision-makers, who use Navy aircraft carriers as a powerful instrument of diplomacy, strengthening alliances or answering the fire bell of crisis”.

This quote is telling: the ocean, 70% of the earth’s surface, provides a medium for unilateral operations. Sovereignty follows the ship, which follows the ocean.

Underpinning this arrangement of mobile sovereignty is the idea of “international waters”. Another term for water outside of a national jurisdiction is the “high seas”, from the Latin mare liberum, meaning “free seas”. The majority of the ocean is international water, which is defined as the space outside of each country’s “exclusive economic zone” or EEZ. This is an area that extends 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coast, thereby going beyond the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters that surround a country. This was codified in 1982 with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which further imposes rules against environmental pollution. While a ship is within international waters, it is under the legal jurisdiction of the flag state (although this can be, controversially, overridden under the concept of “universal jurisdiction”). In short, sovereignty follows the ship.

International Waters

Dark blue areas indicate intentional waters; light blue indicates EEZs

The notion that the seas were essentially a lawless space stems from the “freedom of the seas” doctrine. In the 1600s, Dutch jurist Grotius responded to Spanish and Portuguese territorial claims to the ocean, which had blocked Dutch access to the East Indies trade route. He argued that: “the sea is called indifferently the property of no one (res nullius), or a common possession (res communis), or public property (res publica)”. The idea of a res nullius eventually caught on, especially where it served the whims of the ocean power involved. In President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”, a speech delivered to Congress to justify intervention in the First World War, freedom of the seas was one proposed outcome: “Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants”. The “freedom of the seas” doctrine was formalized in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, under Article 87(1), which states that: “The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked”. Crucial to the idea of an open sea is the idea of the sovereign status of ship. Article 92(1) states that “Ships shall sail under the flag of one State only and, save in exceptional cases expressly provided for in international treaties or in this Convention, shall be subject to its exclusive jurisdiction on the high seas”. Article 95 adds: “Warships on the high seas have complete immunity from the jurisdiction of any State other than the flag State”.

The system is not so much deterritorialized, as it is radically reterritorialized. Ships are mobile vessels of sovereignty, whose territorial integrity shall not, under most circumstances, be violated. The high seas do not erase sovereignty then; ships do not pass into a legal void 200 nautical miles off the coast; international waters instead provide the longitudinal and latitudinal conditions for a system of multiplied global sovereignties. Paradoxically then, freedom of the seas is guaranteed only through submission of each ship to an individual State—there is no “outside” to the UN, no zone of indiscernibility. This is undoubtedly the Hobbesian freedom of the Leviathan—a commonwealth of ships is created only through submission to a transcendent social contract, thus escaping the imagined horror that awaits each sailor in the anarchic waters of the “state of nature”. Of course, things are never as clear-cut as what appears on paper (and there are always “opaque zones of empire”), but the point should not be missed: the high seas guarantee safety to the metaphysical status of sovereignty and territory.

Nowhere was this more evident that with Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali terror suspect detained for two months aboard a U.S. Navy ship in 2011. He was captured in “international waters” while travelling between Yemen and Somalia. In many ways, the ship acted as a “floating Guantanamo Bay”.

Looked at from a different angle, the ship therefore radically extends a sovereign’s reach, with little friction from the ocean.

That is not to argue that the ocean is a “smooth space” that ships sail across. In fact, in many ways, the high seas are far more recalcitrant than terra firma. It is nearly impossible to dwell in situ for any length of time—the ocean suffocates, rusts, drowns. The ocean qua ocean is a hostile environment to human life. And the policing of the ocean by the U.S. Navy requires a vast infrastructure of repair, refuelling, and resupply that most nations simply cannot afford.

USS Ronald Reagan visits Apra Habor, Guam

USS Ronald Reagan visits Apra Harbor, Guam

Perhaps it is little wonder then that the U.S. has an established network of island bases for exactly these types of purposes. A network of island territories and “remote places” is key to understanding modern U.S. power (Nevins, 2011). Guam, Diego Garcia, and others sites like Guantanamo bay remind us that U.S. imperialism does not eschew territorial conquest. Island territories and a hegemonic navy means that the U.S. occupies an enormous, mobile, ocean territory—just like previous empires. While the U.S. has garnered considerable power from “deterritorialized” methods of economic gain, this can overlook the opaque, even invisible archipelagos of American empire. Speaking to this, (Davis, 2011, p. 216) writes: “…the focus on these deterritorialized methods overlooks the fact that contemporary imperialism is very dependent on a long history of colonial expansion across the North American continent and strategically placed external military colonies whose political statuses look a lot like the colonies of older forms of domination”.

I have elsewhere commented on the U.S.’ “baseworld”—a network of around 1,100 bases in every continent except Antarctica.

Although the U.S. has a global reach, this should not imply a homogenous infrastructure.  Like globalization, the expansion of American bases across the globe is intensely uneven—it exists as a network with key nodes: Naval ports, army bases, the White House, NSA Geolocation Cells, training centers and so on. What is more certain is that there are few places where U.S. surveillance or intervention of some sort is not possible—the planet, in the eyes of the Pentagon, is an inherently unstable mass, and requires a flexible, agile, and immanent responses. “Bases outside the continental United States are no longer for defending the regions of territory for the ally where the base is located. Instead, bases are now conceptualized as jumping off points for offensive operations or counterattacks” (Davis, 2011, pp. 216-217).

Davis lists three main types of U.S. base: Main Operating Bases (MOBs), Forward Operating Sites (FOSs) and Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs).  MOBs are the U.S. military’s permanently manned, well protected and well resourced bases. Attached to these in surrounding areas are slightly smaller Forward Operating Bases (FOBs)—secure, fortified military installations that can be used for an extended periods of time. On a smaller scale, FOSs (or Forward Operating Locations), also known as “lily pads”, such as Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, are “scalable” outposts that have a small skeletal staff that often rotates.  Smaller still are CSLs, which are usually the property of the host nation, with very little or no permanent U.S. military presence. Like CSLs, they can rapidly scaled up if the situation demands it, but for the most part, they exist to provide (diplomatic) cover to U.S. military presence, and are often run by private contractors.

The lily pad strategy enables the U.S. to strike anywhere, anytime.  This is what Davis describes as operational unilateralism. “In contrast to political unilateralism, a doctrine under the George W. Bush administration of waging war without the political agreement of the UN or significant allies, operational unilateralism is the ability of the military to strike quickly without any need for consultation with anyone – even the government of the territory from which they are launching the strike” (Davis, 2011, p. 220).  This has carried over into the Obama administration, which seeks to extend the geography of the network—even as foreign governments are becoming increasingly reluctant to consent to U.S. Status of Force agreements (SOFA) to train and deploy without permission.

So where, asks Davis, do you locate bases that enable operational unilateralism?  The answer is overseas territories such as Diego Garcia, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Guantanamo Bay, of course, remains the jewel in the crown of littoral exceptionalism. Indeed, it is “islands”, together with their extraterritorial status, that function as “fallbacks where the US is moving bases (and their associated bombing and training areas) which are not tolerated elsewhere in the world” (Davis, 2011, p. 221). Although never referred to as a colony, Guam, a “sovereign U.S. territory”, is set to receive 8,000 Marines from Okinawa and 9,000 of their dependents, as well as a new wharf to host a new aircraft carrier, a new missile defense site, and a center for the new Global Hawk program, to name just some of the infrastructural changes.

It was of course during the sunset decades of the British Empire that it pioneered this form of “network power” across islands and oceans: forging a global array of underwater communication cables, and a chain of coaling stations. As Oldenziel (2011, p. 16) argues “Expansion through control of the ocean—politicizing and militarizing ocean space—thus created a global system of international relations in which islands, peninsulas, and littoral spaces played a key geopolitical role”. She elsewhere writes,

“We need to understand that the US is an empire grounded in networks stretching across the globe and masked by islands. Technical nodes of global networks have been purposefully anchored in politically weak regimes on islands that are strategically constructed as empty to support the notion of a deterritorialized American power” p.34

And so we have a baseworld of over 1,000 military installations, island territories that function as colonies, black sites where the law stays at the front door, satellites high in the sky, and a NSA architecture that mines extraordinary amounts of data.

X-47B takes off from USS George H. W. Bush

X-47B takes off from USS George H.W. Bush

Undoubtedly, the next logical step for operational unilateralism is American lily pads that float on the oceans: aircraft carriers.  And so we come full circle. These aircraft carriers act as both Forward Operating Bases and Main Operating Bases. They provide a concrete extension to the U.S.’s already formidable baseworld, without any need for SOFAs or other forms of legal negotiation. Terra firma can be occupied, surveyed, dominated, and destroyed from oceanus. There are lots of reasons why this strategy is becoming ever more viable: the shift from large-scale counter-insurgency to “manhunting”, the shift from manned to unmanned technologies (which enables flight orbits days at time), and the enormous profits involved in the post-post-9/11 Revolution in Military Affairs. Of course, this naval strategy is relatively old news, and exceptionally costly. But change is afoot.

Drones are not particularly new technologies—they’ve been around for a long time: born in the twentieth century’s European wars, deployed en masse in Vietnam, and institutionalized in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But their enrolment in the U.S. Navy is relatively unique and still at an experimental stage. Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy’s X-47B made “history” when it landed on the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush near Virginia. The Northrop Grumman plane is actually being wound down, but represents a glimpse of the coming systems that the U.S. Navy will invest heavily in: computer-guided, semi-autonomous drones that do not require direct piloting.  Consider it a kind of “point-and-click” system.

Relatedly, the MQ-8 Fire Scout has been in development for a decade, and is an unmanned helicopter developed by the same military contractor. After procuring 30 of the “B” models, the Navy is set to order 30 “C” models, which could reach the Navy as soon as the fall of 2014. What makes these Fire Scouts a potential “game changer” is that they occupy much less space on a ship—meaning that they can be attached to smaller frigates, rather than hulking aircraft carriers. This obviates the need to use foreign bases for takeoffs and landings. Consider, by way of an example, the political fallout when it came to light that the CIA was using Shamshi base inside of Pakistan for its program of targeted killing; or the embarrassment caused when it was revealed earlier this year that the CIA has another drone base inside of Saudi Arabia.

Fire Scout unmanned helicopter

Fire Scout unmanned helicopter

The rush to the ocean baseworld needn’t been the rush to constructing gigantic carriers then, as long runways will soon be unnecessary. The future is much more likely to be a system whereby a central “mothership” (which DARPA is already building) communicates with a decentralized, networked armada of semi-autonomous ships, that each act as a platform for semi-autonomous drones to take off and land. By going smaller, the U.S. Navy will go further. DARPA has termed this new push TERN, for Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node. DARPA programme manager Daniel Patt, said: “It is like having a falcon return to the arm of any person equipped to receive it, instead of to the same static perch every time.” As the official website’s Tactical Technology Office states:

Current technologies, however, have their limitations. Helicopters are relatively limited in their distance and flight time. Fixed-wing manned and unmanned aircraft can fly farther and longer but require either aircraft carriers or large, fixed land bases with runways often longer than a mile. Moreover, establishing these bases or deploying carriers requires substantial financial, diplomatic and security commitments that are incompatible with rapid response.

To help overcome these challenges and expand DoD options, DARPA has launched the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program. Seeking to combine the strengths of both land- and sea-based approaches to supporting airborne assets, TERN envisions using smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft (UAVs). Named after the family of seabirds known for flight endurance – many species migrate thousands of miles each year – TERN aims to make it much easier, quicker and less expensive for DoD to deploy persistent ISR and strike capabilities almost anywhere in the world.

The U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Groups will thus be transformed, becoming the premier provider of “lily pads” that coordinate drone strikes across the globe, hold enemy combatants, and survey well beyond the littoral zones of an empire that has no sense of “frontier”, no sense of “homeland” or “battlefield”—only nodes on a single, homogenizing battlespace. After all, as DARPA duly notes, “Effective 21st-century warfare requires the ability to conduct airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike mobile targets anywhere, around the clock.” Anywhere, anytime, anyone.

Currently, the drone’s ability to open up “exceptional spaces” across the planet is limited to the ground base and the logistics that go with it. When DARPA, the U.S. military, Special Forces, the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI exploit the fact that 98% of the world’s land area rests within 900 nautical miles of the coast, the Predator Empire will be limitless. And the war will be everywhere.

Works cited

Davis, S. (2011). The U.S. military base network and contemporary colonialism: power projection, resitance and the quest for operational unilateralism. Political Geography, 30, 215-224.

Hasty, W., & Peters, K. (2012). The ship in geography and the geographies of ships. Geography Compass, 6 (11), 660-676.

Nevins, J. (2011). Remote places at the heart of empire. Political Geography, 30, 351-354.

Odenziel, R. in Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technolopolitics in the Global Cold War. Edited by Gabrielle Hecht. (2011), pp. 13-42.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons.

This entry was posted in History of Drones, Navy, Ocean Geopolitics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ocean Power, Sovereign Power: The Fusion of the U.S. Navy and Drones in the Predator Empire

  1. Katherine G. Sammler says:

    Hey Ian, I have some comments on this post, as it is tangential to my research on ocean, air, and space territories & sovereignty.

    Although the U.S. is unlikely to stay within the bounds of international or U.S. law it is worth noting:

    1) UNCLOS Part VII, Section 1 Article 88 – Reservation of the high seas for peaceful purposes. “The high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes.”

    I am not sure what this has meant for previous launches from aircraft carriers, if they have been from international waters or from within the EEZ of a sanctioning nation, or if the launch is considered peaceful and what happens afterwards is considered another affair.

    2) The U.S. has not signed or ratified the UNCLOS treaty.While supposedly the U.S. still operates within its confines, it is not bound nor expressly protected by its articles (although they still claim the largest EEZ and territorial waters in the world) . This allows considerable wiggle room which I think has a lot to do with deep seabed resources, but may be useful for other endeavors.

    You don’t have to respond to this, I am just trying to think some things through. I always enjoy your posts and especially the ocean ones.

    Best, Kate

  2. Pingback: The Final Frontier: Garrisoning Outer Space | Understanding Empire

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