war on the rocks

The Fisher Model in the 21st Century

November 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted in response to our call for papers on “roles and missions.”

A key conundrum facing maritime powers such as the United States is how to project power ashore in contested waters. The maritime doctrines of major naval powers such as the U.S. Navy’s Joint Access Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC) assume the need for a navy to assume a power projection role, even as a spectrum of anti-access threats make the level of consistent sea control needed to project and support power from the sea unlikely. In regions such as East Asia, the U.S. military faces the challenge of projecting power in the face of increasingly capable cruise and ballistic missile threats which currently preclude effective deployment within a 400 to 600 kilometer radius of the Chinese coast. This range will likely extend much further as the reach of the People’s Liberation Army’s radar, space, and subsurface surveillance network expands. We find a similar situation in the Black Sea and the Baltics, where a combination of shore-, surface-, and subsurface-based cruise missiles such as the hypersonic Zircon and the KH-35 allow a cash-strapped Russian navy to not only substantially raise the risks of effective naval deployments by outside powers but, increasingly, to project power from within what amounts to the conventional equivalent of a maritime bastion. In conjunction with the threat posed by ever proliferating missile arsenals, a cornucopia of tools such as “smart mines” and aerial, surface, and subsurface unmanned vehicle swarms are likely to give capable defenders an even wider list of options with which to hold surface forces at risk.

Yet despite this, the warfighting concepts of services such as the U.S. Marine Corps remain heavily focused on projecting forward deployed forces into a contested urbanized littoral. Documents such as the Navy/Marine Corps’ Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and the Marine Corps Operating Concept, then, place onerous burdens on a navy already likely to struggle with the task of loitering in contested waters. To be sure there are good strategic reasons to seek this ideal. War at sea, as Julian Corbett once quipped, matters only as much as it can affect events on the land. Estimates hold that coastal areas will be home to percent of 68 percent of the world’s population by 2050 along with the lion’s share of its economic capacity. Control of the littorals will therefore be a vital mission of sea-based forces. Yet, the logic of technology seems to militate against the effective control of these littorals. Maritime powers face a contradiction between the difficulty of loitering in contested “anti-access bubbles” and the strategic imperative of projecting power ashore in order to exert control over the urbanized littorals that will become increasingly important as the century progresses. The resolution of this contradiction will likely then be the core objective of draft concepts such as the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations as they reach maturity.

A solution to this dilemma can be found in a strategic concept outlined by Adm. Sir John Fisher at the turn of the 20th century. Confronting the challenge of both protecting home waters and policing the British empire, Fisher identified the differentiation between threats as the key to cutting the Gordian knot. In home waters, against a strong opponent, Fisher reasoned that Britain’s goals were fundamentally negative — the aim being to deny stretches of sea to a powerful rival such as Germany rather than projecting power from the sea against a powerful continental power. Elsewhere, the roles were reversed — Britain could contemplate both command of key choke points and the projection of power ashore in colonial wars. The concept that Fisher outlined, dubbed flotilla defense, would have seen it adopt an asymmetric approach based on cordons of torpedo boats and submarines close to home, allowing it to concentrate its heavy capital ships overseas in support of expeditionary operations. Effectively, this was an extension of what Liddell Hart dubbed a fundamentally British way of war — attempting to absorb the blow at low cost in core regions and, where possible, shifting burdens to allies while improving Britain’s position vis-à-vis an adversary’s colonial and trade network — thereby exerting indirect pressure on the adversary.

Today the United States faces a similar dual-threat environment. At the core of the international system (those regions inhabited by powerful peer competitors) the United States would struggle to project power from the sea but also has little need to. As scholars such as Michael Beckley note, the status quo power in these regions has significant advantages precisely because of the defense-dominated nature of these regions. An anti-access network of shore-based missiles and submarines, forged with allies, would prove sufficient to deny rivals the levels of sea control needed to achieve substantial territorial revisions. By contrast, areas farther afield which are the home waters of a rival great power such as the straits of Hormuz, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, are the regions in which expeditionary forces backed by carrier strike groups will have their greatest value. American strategists stand to gain a great deal by turning to the model offered by Fisher: seeking sea denial in core regions and maritime preponderance at the periphery. This is the optimal course of action for a maritime power facing a dual-track threat environment.

The Promises and Pitfalls of Anti-Access Area Denial

Anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) bubbles preclude the effective deployment of superior western naval and expeditionary forces. These have emerged as a strategy of choice for peer competitors such as China and Russia. At first blush, this seems to portend a major shift in global maritime power. Yet upon closer inspection, a more ambiguous picture emerges: The same technologies that keep the U.S. Navy out of contested waters also precludes their effective command by peer competitors. As the status quo power in regions such as East Asia and the Black Sea, the United States does not need sea control per se (which is only necessary to achieve some subsequent goal such as an amphibious landing). Rather, it has the fundamentally negative aim of denying command to a rival. By the same token, it is not enough for revisionist rivals to simply shut American carrier groups out. They need to subsequently exploit the window opportunity that shutting out the U.S. Navy creates with their own surface vessels in order to achieve some particular strategic aim (such as a Chinese amphibious landing in Taiwan or a Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, for example).

Herein lies the problem for would-be revisionists, however. The same technologies that make it possible for them to deny effective sea control to the United States also empowers their smaller neighbors to do the same to them. As has been demonstrated in these pages and elsewhere, the likelihood of a People’s Liberation Army-Navy amphibious force making it unscathed across the Taiwan straits in the face of withering fire from Taiwan’s shore-based Hsiun Feng missile series, sea mines, and submarine fleet are extremely slim. Moreover, to tip the balance further still, the United States needs only to unleash its quiet and capable attack submarines or utilize standoff capabilities at a safe distance from platforms such as the Ohio class submarine rather than projecting surface forces into the conflict. Nor, it should be said, are blockades and “hybrid tactics” of much use as substitutes. Close blockades require the blockading party to achieve effective local sea command around blockaded ports in order to check ships for contraband — a task rendered impossible by the same capabilities that render an amphibious landing an exercise in futility. Alternatively, while the People’s Liberation Army-Navy could opt for an indiscriminate blockade utilizing shore-based missiles, the coercive record of such blockades is poor, as demonstrated by the Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, U.S. efforts to build credible missile defense capabilities and reroute regional shipping through safe, distant sea lanes can undercut the effectiveness of these blockades further still. Finally, so called hybrid tactics, relying on civilian vessels backed by military craft depend, in the final instance, on the credibility of the threat posed by the military component. If a side does not have the conventional preponderance to back up its civilian vessels with overwhelming force, they can be intercepted by the defending nation’s coast guard and naval forces relatively easily.  The same pattern that plays out in Taiwan is even more acute in regions such as the South China Sea where the procurement of anti-ship missiles and Kilo-class submarines by nations such as Vietnam raise serious questions about the credibility of any Chinese military threat to the region.

A similar dynamic is playing out in the Black Sea. For all the talk of the Black Sea being a Russian lake, the question of what strategic use Russia could put its military position in the Black Sea to is rarely raised. Take for example the recent furnishing of the Black Sea Fleet with an amphibious landing craft meant as replacements for the French Mistral order that was suspended following the annexation of Crimea. The use of such ships in a regional contingency relies not only on the absence of a larger surface force, but their capacity to safely operate in the Black Sea. This could easily be denied should local actors hone their abilities in the domains of mine warfare and develop credible shore-based missile and submarine forces. Small regional powers do not have to defeat the Black Sea fleet outright-merely to deny it the capacity to loiter safely for long enough to support operations ashore. The same principle holds for operations such as Russia’s hybrid blockade of Ukraine’s ports in the Sea of Azov — a blockade effective only insofar as it has not been challenged by Ukrainian civilian and military vessels. This sort of blockade would be easier to disrupt than maintain. Local investment in a credible coastal defense force backed by a robust anti-access net would be more than sufficient to deny an opponent the capacity to maintain a continuous at sea blockade. Moreover, here as elsewhere, limited U.S. naval intervention in the form of standoff or submarine capabilities coupled with efforts to redirect and protect shipping through safer ports are sufficient to tip the scales further towards the defender.

Geography and technology in core regions, then, favor the defender, not the revisionist. Like Fisher’s Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps do not need power projection — a lofty goal. But they do need to be able to ensure that another power cannot do so. As such, building up a rampart of partners with the capacity to invest in coastal defense vessels, shore-based missiles, naval mines, and submarines is the most important thing the United States could do in strategic littorals.

In this context, the American role might revolve around the minimal aim of delivering intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and convening training exercises. Given the relatively low costs of many of anti-access tools, which enable even relatively small states to build a credible capacity for sea denial, building partner capabilities may obviate the need for any U.S. involvement beyond the level of intelligence and reconnaissance provision. However, should it need to commit directly, America’s reportedly planned withdrawal from the INF Treaty will leave Washington free to invest in shore-based intermediate-range missiles of its own. As such, the addition of American capabilities in this domain, as well as in the realm of integrated air and missile defense could further stiffen allies and partners. Finally, the United States can tilt a conflict in core regions further in its partners’ favor at a low cost through tools such as attack submarines or long-range strike capabilities deployed from out of theater.

This framework would give the U.S. Army a bigger role in certain aspects of defense ( such as manning shore based missiles) — thereby obviating some of the budgetary strains placed on the U.S Navy which would limit itself to augmenting this denial strategy. Selectively forward positioning assets such as shore-based missiles in peacetime to make up capability deficits in those areas where allied resolve or capabilities might fall short, coupled with efforts to tip the balance with attack submarines and long-range fires from platforms such as guided missile submarines loitering at a safe distance from the battlefield would suffice to achieve the aim of denial.

By way of an example, in a conflict involving the South China Sea or the Taiwan straits, modern anti-ship missiles such as the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile launched from platforms such as submarines or bombers could be effective against a PLA surface force from well within the waters bounded by the so called “second island chain” — obviating the need to project platforms into the littoral combat zones of the first island chain. Similarly, in the absence of an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty commitment, there is no technological barrier to the development of a land based anti-ship weapon with a 1000-kilometer range, potentially covering broad swathes of a theater. For example, such weapons would make it possible to augment already formidable Taiwanese anti-ship fires from positions on Luzon or Okinawa. Given that favorable cost ratios will ensure that local anti-access capabilities are likely to be robust, this will require only very selective and limited forward positioning to tip the balance further or to plaster specific chinks in a local actor’s armor.  Limited forms of force projection aside, the framework would by and large eschew the amphibious power projection role that both the Navy and Marines envision for the more modest task of denying an opponent the fruits of sea command and shifting the burdens of local defense to local powers to the extent possible.

Opportunities for Power Projection on the Periphery

If the Fisher model opted for a cheap defensive posture at or near the home waters of great powers, this logic was inverted at the periphery. In regions where the likely opponent was a weaker local power or a great power operating at some distance from home, the Royal Navy could concentrate in force against weaker naval forces to achieve decisive results. If home waters were the anvil in Fisher’s model, the periphery of the international system was where the navy would take the offensive — closing off chokepoints to hostile shipping, mounting expeditionary operations against an opponents’ vital trading hub, and, more generally, exerting all manner of indirect pressure against a rival. This of course is in keeping with the “British Way in Warfare” — burden shifting to allies at the epicenter of a conflict and exerting pressure from the margins — all while improving one’s long term strategic position by quiet colonial expansion in vital resource rich regions.

Of course, much has changed in world politics since Fisher’s time, but the central dynamic he identified still exists. America’s peer competitors may marshal substantial power close to home, but they will struggle to protect extended maritime networks. While ports such as Djibouti, Hambantota, and Gwadar are at present “places not bases” this may well change and with it, their status as legitimate targets. Thus, for example a recent article published by the U.S. Naval Institute considers as its hypothetical scenario a western amphibious operation against a Chinese-held port in Djibouti. Similarly, Russia maintains a hub in the eastern Mediterranean at Latika that is likely to become ever more vital to its middle eastern presence as time progresses. Here, however, peer competitors are operating at a substantial distance and while they can deploy anti-access capabilities locally, these are unlikely to be of the magnitude seen in their home waters.

Were a Fisher model adopted, U.S carrier and expeditionary forces in the eastern Mediterranean and Indian oceans and in the gulf would be augmented, subject to the availability of facilities with carrier and expeditionary forces now freed from the task of operating in core regions such as East Asia — further tilting the imbalance in favor of power projection. As such, in a prospective conventional war the navy and marines could put their conceptual frameworks of projecting power ashore in contested littorals to much better use in these regions — for example, mounting amphibious assaults to take strategic ports either on a permanent basis, or as bargaining chips to deescalate a conflict. Alternatively, in a contingency involving a regional power with a less well-developed anti-access system such as Iran, the rebalancing of carrier strike groups and expeditionary forces to the gulf would allow the U.S. Navy a degree of absolute preponderance sufficient to rapidly degrade Iran’s anti-access network. Indeed, a surge in the carrier and expeditionary capabilities allocated to the Fifth Fleet would allow it to contemplate more ambitious missions consistent with the littoral warfare vision, such as seizing the Iranian-held Persian Gulf islands which sustain Iran’s fleet of missile boats or should strategic imperatives dictate it, mounting amphibious operations against the mainland, perhaps in support of Arab separatists in Khuzestan.

The Fisher Model For the 21st Century

In an award-winning tale on how America lost a fictitious Indo-Pacific war in 2025, the author identified competing demands between Central Command and Pacific Command as a core source of failure and (to the chagrin of some) seemed to suggest by omission that the role of amphibious forces such as the Marines had waned. The short story erred not in its conclusions but in its core premises — namely that there is necessarily a fundamental trade-off between American security needs in different regions or that if amphibious power projection is infeasible it is, in some cases, by extension irrelevant to the outcome of a great power war (although in fairness this was an inference drawn by commentators rather than an explicitly stated claim).

In truth, retreating from power projection in some regions reinforces the Navy and Marines’ capacity to achieve this mission elsewhere — which in turn reinforces deterrence in the backyards of great powers which must consider the safety of their own vulnerable overseas strategic outposts. Rather than viewing the dilemma in all or nothing terms, strategists would do well to take heed of Fisher’s careful differentiation between core and peripheral missions, and the ways in which the two prongs of a dual-track approach reinforce one another. A shift to a more modest posture in some regions would in fact enhance the U.S Navy and Marine Corps’ capacity for a more forward-leaning role in other key areas of the world. Their success in achieving their power projection missions in these regions will in turn reinforce the deterrent effect of credible denial capabilities at the core of the international system. As a quote attributed to Sun Tzu advises: “You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.”


Sidharth Kaushal is a research fellow for seapower at the Royal United Services Institute and has written on various aspects of maritime strategy both for edited volumes and various journals. He is in the process of completing his PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erwin Miciano