Super Highway: Parry’s Seapower Primer

October 23, 2014

“Countries often assess their opportunities and risks in relation to the sea in discreet, stove-piped terms. Thus, the naval aspect is addressed by defense; shipping and ports by Transport; energy by Energy (and Climate Change), Fishing by some vague Environment and Food ministry and so on.”

-Admiral Parry


So do those who study the maritime domain and security writ-large. Admiral Chris Parry’s new book, Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century, is a good grounding tool to “re-baseline” one’s perspective on the modern seas that other books do not provide. In the security dialogue we can find ourselves mining for good ideas, digging down the rabbit hole until we’ve lost sight of our surrounding picture.

Admiral Parry takes a broad brush to show the context of seapower commercially, politically, technologically, militarily, and environmentally. The chapters and many of their sub-sections can be uniquely enjoyed, read in any order or by themselves. The book is well-informed building material with which one can develop one’s own unique thesis & policy perspectives. However, it does have one core principle – the irreducible importance of the freedom of the seas – and two particularly unique insights: changing commercial seapower and climate change. These are worth exploring in greater depth.

Freedom of the Seas

The sea has much in common with the internet. It is an environment in which humans cannot yet live, except in a virtual or temporal sense. Both are used for global access, communication, business, and trade. Those elements that virtually over the internet by e-commerce pass in reality, to a large, very real and irreplaceable extend, by sea.

Throughout his book, Admiral Parry makes a point of explaining the importance of access and clarity of boundaries at sea. The internet analogy is especially apt for a populace for whom net neutrality and WIFI internet are base assumptions, bringing such incredible flexibility and opportunity. Among the many possibilities he lays out, free sea stands out as a core principle. He names several threats to the free sea: antagonistic resource competition, confusion as environments change, the ambition of nations like Russia and China combined with changing technologies, as well as our own “sea blindness.”

Sea blindness, a combination of a lack of perspective on the sea and a lack of appreciation of the price must one regularly pay for the freedom of that sea, is the subtle target of this book. In order to defend the freedom of the seas and combat the aforementioned stove-piping, Admiral Parry’s book educates the reader on sea power’s scale, importance, and many faces. This is a problem not only for defense thinkers, but for a people that largely assumes sea lines of communication to be open. The last “major”, using the term very loosely, threat to sea lines of communication was the Tanker Wars. Excluding that, piracy has been the only “shooting” gauge of our ability to secure the SLOC since WWII.

Changing Sea Power

The phrase Sea Control is usually defined in military terms, but increasingly in the twenty-first century, it is also likely to be expressed as the ability to gain and maintain access to the resources of the sea.

Admiral Parry does a fine job describing how human occupation of the seas is slowly becoming more permanent. While traditional observers may concern themselves with sea lines of communication, or the freedom of maneuver for military forces, more of the economy’s infrastructure in general is shifting into the seas.

The trend is one long in process. We’ve already been laying cables all across the sea floor for over a century and a half. Tiago Mauricio, a CSIS Pacific Forum fellow living in Japan, discusses at length the change in mentality some defense thinkers in Japan must face, realizing the vulnerability of isolate they would face from cable interference. At-sea oil derricks are already a global staple. With the increased interest and potential reliance on sea-mining, sea-steading, aquaculture, and power-generating infrastructure at sea – we may require a different way of thinking from the naval strategists who considered the sea primarily a transitory domain. The 90’s classic, Sea Quest, might be a bit too much – but maybe close.

Changing Seas

The climate has always changed and always will… In England, William I (The Conquerer) landed on the seashore and Pevensey in Sussex in 1066. He would find it difficult to do so today, as the place is 3km (2 miles) inland.

The opportunities we derive from our dominion over the sea are partnered with an important caveat: the sea’s dominion over us. Though the sea may change more slowly than our politics, technology, and economy, it has an inexorable motion in which mankind has little say. Admiral Parry brings this inevitability out.

In this light, the Department of Defense is not far off base with its assessment of climate change’s potential danger, but incorrect in focusing on the military nature of this danger. The military will merely conduct the same kinds of presence, engagement, support, deterrence, etc in environments that have changed. Ultimately, the requirement for that security will be generated by the failure to build adaptable infrastructure and legal frameworks.

Instability that would generate security threats can come from an inability or unwillingness to adapt to the historically inevitable change in our seas and climate. The Indus Valley civilization and ancient city of Angor Wat were brought low by climate change. If California is straining under a failure to build in resilience to shifts in its climate, “ weakly controlled societies facing resource stress,” have less a chance: sounds like a number of nations today that could destabilize their regions and require military action.

Instability would also be generated by an inability to adapt modern legal structures to the inevitably changing climate. China, in particular has shown a penchant for escalation over territorial issues. As both coasts and islands change, the status of territorial and resource claims could leave legal vacuums more dangerous than resource shortfalls.

How, Not What

In order to thrive in the twenty-first century, a country with an interest in the use of the sea needs to develop and implement a coherent maritime strategy – galvanizing the sea power of state and society.

Admiral Parry’s articulate description of seapower’s wealth of opportunity illustrates the likely list of those with an interest in using the sea: everyone. The spirit of the conclusion, as with the rest of the book, is more education than instruction: a primer on the proper way to seek a strategy, not what that strategy should ultimately be. The U.S. Navy in particular is very good at attacking operational and tactical problems, such as anti-access/area denial or anti-submarine warfare; Congressman Randy Forbes, however, questions that core strategic vision.

Admiral Parry starts one chapter with a quote from Seneca: “if a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.” More fundamental than wind, no ship will help him get there either. Ultimately, despite all the descriptions of maritime security, naval conflict, and new weaponry in the book– we’re faced with the fact that it’s all quite secondary if we haven’t decided what our objectives are.

Though some of those objectives will shift as our interface with the sea changes, and the sea itself changes – ultimately the sea will remain the greatest prize. Admiral Parry ends with a final question, “it was Britain in the 19th Century, the USA in the second half of the 20th Century and in the early 21st century. Whom should we trust with the trident of Neptune – and the scepter of the world – for the rest of this century?” His book has many of the basic tools necessary for understanding that question –but it’s left up to us to answer it.


Matthew Hipple is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, he is Director of the NEXTWAR blog for the Center for International Maritime Security. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government, he wishes they did. Follow him on twitter: @AmericaHipple.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery