The Human Domain – From the Sea

November 19, 2013
US-Canada Combined Ops

Gary E. Weir, et al., You Cannot Surge Trust: Combined Naval Operations of the Royal Australian Navy, Canadian Navy, Royal Navy, and United States Navy, 1991-2003 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2013)


The “human domain” of war has become a rallying cry of sorts for America’s landpower forces. From official white papers to senior leaders’ speeches to media reports, the idea that ground forces have a singular and unique interaction with the human domain is now a commonly held view among those interested in the conduct and planning for war. But this line of reasoning suggests that seapower and airpower forces are something like a group of computer jockeys whose considerations don’t extend any further than steel and circuit boards.

Of course, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. The impact of naval forces on the lives and decisions of people ashore has been demonstrated for centuries, from blockades to bombardment of port cities.  Now, the human dimensions of naval operations are ably illustrated in a new book from Naval History and Heritage Command entitled You Cannot Surge Trust (available for free download).  A collection of essays written by historians from Australia, Canada, Britain, and the U.S., the volume delves into the myriad of tasks and purposes served by maritime operations in the last decade of the 20th century.

In recent years the focus of military leaders generally, and naval officers particularly, has been on the importance of partnerships and of interoperability. You Cannot Surge Trust helps to demonstrate exactly what those amorphous ideas mean for the ships spread across the world’s oceans.  One might think that achieving interoperable forces would be easy, given that the navies in question all derive from the same tradition of the British Royal Navy and share a common language.  However, as the essays in this book demonstrate, the human domain makes things trickier than that.

The book begins with a discussion by Dr. Sarandis Papadopoulos on how modern navies plan for and conduct military operations outside the context of war.  Commonly called maritime security operations, these operations other than war are a fundamental purpose of navies globally, and the United States Navy specifically.  For naval forces there are operations required both in peace and war.  Papadopoulos helps the reader to begin to understand the foundational role played by navies in most of the military operations that occurred during the period studied.

The body of the book is made up of seven chapters that detail different elements of the operations conducted by the coalition navies in the Arabian Gulf following the end of Operation Desert Storm, Operation Sharp Guard off of Yugoslavia, Operation Stabilise in East Timor, and Operation Enduring Freedom.  The essays offer incredibly well-researched contemporary histories of these events, typically at the operational level, and from both open source and de-classified records in the archives of navies under study.  Overall the contributions from around the world are excellent.

In the interest of educating non-navalists it may have been helpful to offer an example of the tactical realities of maritime security operations, since boardings at sea are difficult missions which are not commonly understood.  Personally, I would have loved a few more details of the capture of M/V Lido II and the armed standoff with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s naval forces during Sharp Guard, but I also understand the effort to confine the book’s historical discussions to the operational level.

The one oddity in the structure of the book is the final chapter on the Canadian Navy.  Robert Caldwell offers a wide-ranging and detailed analysis of Canadian naval affairs over the period.  However, the rest of the book is broken up by operation rather than each service having a single chapter dedicated to over a decade’s worth of operations.  The chapter is well done, but seems out of place with the structure of the rest of the book.

The two chapters on East Timor are particularly interesting because Operation Stabilise has received less attention here in the U.S., presumably because it was an Australian led operation.  The chapters by Dr. David Sterns and Papadopoulos illustrate how vital the enablers which naval forces provide are for military operations other than war.  This is particularly true in a maritime theater like the Asia-Pacific. A relatively small but tense mission, Operation Stabilise shows the central role that maritime forces play in today’s crisis response operations, from the overwhelming importance of maritime logistics and offshore helicopter basing and refueling, to the use of sea-based U.S. Marine Corps helicopters to conduct the rapid insertion of Australian Army troops along border outposts, to the information and intelligence capabilities that naval forces bring to any joint/coalition operation.

Captain Henry Hendrix, Director of Naval History and Heritage Command and a noted historian in his own right, makes an important point in the book’s foreword that “the challenges faced by coalition forces during the 1991-2005 period are not so different from those who sailed before.”  From the American Revolution through the World Wars to today, coalition operations have played a role in the vast majority of our nation’s naval wars.  From counter-piracy operations with the Royal Navy in the Caribbean in the 1820’s to efforts with coalition forces off the Horn of Africa in the 21st-century, partnerships have also played an important part in naval operations conducted during relative peace or in the name of maritime security.

In the preface of the book, lead researcher Dr. Gary Weir lays out the purpose of the contributors explicitly when he says “we designed this study to remind policymakers, strategists, and operators living in the 21st-century coalition world of the very human nature of combined operations.”  Dr. Weir and the historians who contributed to this volume are on the mark.  Their book helps us take the first steps down a path to reminding both seapower and landpower thinkers that all forms of military operations take place within the human domain.  After all, as Clausewitz said, war is “an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”  Whether drinking tea, enforcing a blockade, or striking a key communications node, the opponent’s will can be impacted in a number of ways.  Picking how best to do it is, after all, the point of strategy.


BJ Armstrong is a naval aviator and a research student with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.  He is studying maritime security operations and naval irregular warfare in the Age of Sail.  He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute and his book, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era, was released in June 2013.  The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery