Paper by: Ben Williams Master of IR Nov. 2009.

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Q. Critique the claim: the factor of strategic depth is irrelevant in the 21st Century.
INTRODUCTION: Whoever commands the sea commands the trade; whoever commands the trade commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself - Sir Walter Raleigh 1616i. The claim that strategic depth is no longer relevant to strategic thinking and military planning in the 21st Century overstates the ability of technology to overcome geography and is fundamentally flawed. Globalisation, and massive technological advances, that have aided and abetted the integration and liberalisation of the world have changed many of the key dynamics driving the IR system of today. In many ways, the shrunken world has had major impacts on strategic planning and notions of defence but it has not overcome the primacy of strategic geography. In times of `liberal peace many can be lulled to thinking there is strategic depth everywhere and geography has limited applicability in a world of instant communication and fast transport. We will canvass the basic thinking behind `strategic depth and critique the claims of the irrelevance of geography to strategy and show that in defence planning (and especially when conflict looms) geography is still vital. We will finish by assessing how Mahan s theories of the primacy of Sea Power of some 100 years ago have been influenced and enhanced by advances in technology. The primacy of the `littoral zone and constabulary operations in defence of key SLOC s1, transnational regimes and the `Global Commons are becoming central to military and strategic planning going forwards. Whilst strategic geography has indeed changed in this new century, to herald the end of `strategic depth specifically and geo-strategy generally misses key dynamics of contemporary IR. Strategic geography is a foundation block of international and security affairs and refers to the way geography impacts on state economic, political, military and cultural power as well as behaviour. Geography is one facet of a statesreal politik that can t be changed and has a huge impact on almost every facet of state action. Geographic location dictates the neighbours one has and the geostrategic environment of the region in which one lives. A states security and wealth as well its prestige or power is, in large part, dictated by the location and nature of: neighbours; resources; transit points; and powerful states; and that s just in peace-time! In conflict, geography and terrain becomes even more vital and Australian experiences in Gallipoli and Kokoda illustrate the crucial role of geography, terrain and weather in both military strategy and tactical operations. `Strategic depth or the ability to place ones key assets and resources beyond the reach of opponents has been part of military thinking for millenniaii. In many respects, this remains a crucial element of strategic

Sea-Lines-Communications (SLOC s) broadly refers to key infrastructure of global maritime trade and communication and is central to modern strategic geography. Key SLOC s are trade routes and seaways; harbours and cargo facilities; deep sea cables and communications infrastructure; geogr aphic choke points; focal points are more man -made vital hubs of transit such as Singapore Harbour.


and tactical planning and some new security challenges (be it cyberspace, satellites or ICBM s) are bringing this concept into the 21st century and changing what depth can mean. FOUNDATIONS PRINCIPLES and DEFINITIONS: Many of the key concepts of strategic geography were developed in (realist) continental Europe where state-centric alliances and trench warfare were the predominant conflicts or in Cold War America where MAD and Russian aggression was overlaid on every strategic question. The `Heartland Theory of Mackinderiiiand the Realist thinkingiv of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Morgenthau and even Kissinger or Waltz were honed in periods where the Silk Road and trans-continental passages were vitalv. A terrestrial notion of powersaw the resources and mass of the Eurasian continent as vital as equally match states battled for European supremacy through alliances. Mackinder stated that control of the Heartland translated to control of the world and he referred to the huge tract of land in central Asia/Europe. In contrast, seeing the naval might of every modern empire, be it Pax Romania, PaxBritannia and now PaxAmericanawhere control of key waterways equates with global power, Mahan suggested Sea Power was the essential determinant of global success. A `Sea Power nation would always triumph over `Continental powers in conflict primarily due to flexibility of troop deployment and the ability to take the fight to the enemy i.e. to deny him strategic depth by taking forces close to his key assets. As maritime military technology advanced the importance of Sea Power raised immeasurably leading Mahanvi to call an end to the primacy of the Heartland with his theory of Sea Power and challenge the supremacy of Continental thinking in IR.This has been borne out by the military history of the last 100 years and is more salient than ever2 and is overwhelming when coupled with Air Power to support maritime platforms. Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 21st Century, the destiny of the world will be decided in its waters. Alfred T. Mahan (1907) STRATEGIC DEPTH: Still a Key to Security As alluded to, generally strategic depth can be described as the distance of ones key assets from an adversary s ability to affect or attack those assets. Battlefield Generals use the notion when considering tactical deployments but this developed into strategic affairs and long-term national planning especially the location of key installations. Building on Mackinder and other Continentalists ,Cold War strategic planners were obsessed with strategic depth and the use of buffer zones and arms races to reach further into adversaries territory reflect this.Vital state interests such as key industrial sites, population centres, capitals and seats of governance and even vital resources or infrastructure were considered and sited by their depth . The constant goal was to place key assets with sufficient `strategic depth to make attack by adversaries difficult, and to

The `Sea Power of Mahan and `Heartland of Mackinder have been cornerstones of strategic thinking for 100 years and st this paper suggests elements of thes e approaches have been out-dated by the new technology and integration of the 21 Century global polity. But, crucially, it will stress that whilst the strategic environment has changed, the primacy of geography remains and with some modernisation Mahan s work still has much to offer. Critiques suggesting concepts such as `strategic depth are now irrelevant must be challenged for they place too much credo in the power of technology. Mahan s theory had a broad notion of Sea Power in mind with a specifi c emphasis on commercial shipping as well as traditional military might. Given the liberalised global economy of today, it appears Mahan s idea of control of the waterways through military means during conflict and with merchant vessels in peace -time is directly applicable today. Given the liberal peace and the deep integration of the global economy, exercising soft power is vital in a competitive global polity. The `Sea Power of today reflects a broad Mahanian notion where it refers to much more t han just vessels capable of attacking other ships: it refers to shipping and harbour facilities; to the ability to extract resources at sea (e nergy and fisheries); and to a broad oceanic and amphibious military dimension that covers the land/sea nexus (littoral) that is so crucial to strategic affairs today. Particularly, the ability of modern Sea Power to affect the `littoral zone , makes it mo re important than ever (when coupled with air support); entirely consistent with Mahan s thinking.

arm oneself such that attacking the vital military and industrial resources of foes was possible. For serious and sustained military campaigns supply, logistics and resources are imperative (even determinants of outcomes) and strategic depth protects such crucial assets by removing them from the hot zone or outside theatres of conflict. Where physical distance or depth is lacking tunnels, bunkers, re-enforced concrete, subterranean cuts, hollow mountains have all been harnessed by military planners seeking depth by alternative means. It is true that modern rocketry, satellite guidance and ICBM s have reduced the strategic depth of almost everything on `Battlefield Earth but in practice it is has not removed it entirelyvii. It can also be said that inside the ever-expanding liberal peace of the global community everything has depth , given war between many states is almost inconceivable due to the levels of interdependence and the costs to both parties making strategic depth irrelevantviii. This may be true of threats from most state actors at present but overlooks not only rogue states such as North Korea or Iran attacking the (Western-led) core of IR but also neglects `al-Qaedism and other non-state threats. It also ignores the numerous and bloody (low-tech) intra-state wars and insurgencies where sophisticated weapons are not the norm. As a new (Chinese) super-power looms many states are re-assessing their military position and massive investments are being made in platforms that deny such depth by both China and the other nations of the Asia-Pacificix. As we saw, Mahan s theory of Sea Power is firmly rooted in the principles of strategic geography and strategic depth is one such factor. The importance of `Sea Power is as great as ever and the statistics about the importance of key focal, choke points and SLOC s are overwhelming. With 70% of total global trade,waterways are vital with the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz and Canals of Panama and Suez being of critical importance to the food and energy security of many nations. On land, the `littoral zone isnow key to individual states and to the global economy; with 80% of global wealth and 70% of populations residing in this strip of key ground some 150km inland extending out to Sea 100km. 3So much military investment has gone into ocean-borne platforms that states have the ability to affect both the sea and the `littoral zone without even placing troops ashore. Aircraft carriers, submarines and amphibious craft capable of rapid troop deployment are critical as they reduce the strategic depth of enemies and deny buffers (of space or time). Great Powers exercise these depth-denying assets to project their power into the littoral zone and the heart of most nations and most states are investing heavily in such platforms. In recognising the importance of the `littoral and denying an opponent depth states are using Air/Sea Power combinations to take the fight to an opponent and thus triggering security dilemmas due to the offensive nature of such a strategy. The geographic principal of strategic depth is thus influencing individual strategy but also drives geo-politics and arms racesx. Strategic depth still has tactical relevance as well because placing assets inland (beyond the `littoral ) and then `hardening them at least forces an opponent to deploy conventional boots on the ground . Location and construction can thus create strategic depth by denying the effectiveness of opponent s weapons. In many cases, smaller states don t have the option of placing vital assets out of the `littoral but for countries at the heart of global security such as North Korea strategic depth remains a central consideration.

Mahan s notion of controlling the seas leading to control of the world could even be shrunk to say `control the littoral and you control that state . The world s oceans are far more significant transit ways than the Heartland and its over -land passages; the control of the continent itself is less significant than before. The massive energy reserves and resources locked up in the Heartland mean it has not become irrelevant by any means, but the specific circumstances of a globalised world that has evolved in the last 25 years have propelled Sea Power to the fore of geo-economics and politics. The urbanisation and industrialisation that globalisation brings has made the littoral zone so important that it is a key vulnerability of advanced societies. Industrial heartlands, population centres, transport and the resources of fish and energy are all contained in this 250km strip on the land/sea cusp. By definition almost, liberal societies lack depth as they are open , trading and coastal and are hence vulnerable to the attack of these key SLOC s and focal points .


A look at the threat from North Korea and Iran in the Appendices that follow is instructive in showing `strategic depth is still very much a factor in these most serious of global security threats. In many respects, both Iran and North Korea s posture as states outside the `normal community of IR is only possible because of geography and strategic depth in particularxi. The axis-of-evil that President Bush tagged in the post-911 turmoil involved only one country who had little such depth to buffer them against US powerthat their invasion was actually easy. Its no coincidence that Iraq was the one state the US did attack as they were by far the most vulnerable. Just as the strategy of these states strategy is facilitated by geography, the non-state threats of Islamic extremism and terrorism are also made possible by the mountainous sanctuary of tribal Afghanistan and Pakistan and the depth they provide. We will finish by canvassing some new dimensions to strategic depth and geo-strategy that the new century and huge technological advances are delivering. CASE STUDY: North Korea and Iran Strategic Depth Appendix 1. North Korea has very militarised national outlook with strategic and tactical planning being pursued by all arms of government: the military-first policy xii. Strategic depth has played a major role in North Korea being able to pursue such isolationist, insular and belligerent national posture and serves as an excellent case-study of strategic depth in the 21st Century. Pyongyang is very much aware of the `strategic depth that its mountainous terrain and climate affords it and their`fortress mentality allows them to focus on defending their few vulnerable points. Many of the advanced guidance and munitions systems of the US and core powers are severely hampered by such rugged terrain and severe climate making precision munitions largely unreliable. This leaves the alternative of a large-scale more conventional ground invasion which places the invading troops at substantial disadvantage given the 1.2m standing army of NK are trained in exploiting the physical terrain. The massive undersea mountains that surround North Korea make its oceanic operational environment very difficult and is prime submarine territory for assets versed in the areas complex geography. North Korea also hardens their key facilities and makes use of vast subterranean storage facilities to add strategic depth where guided munitions would otherwise prevail. North Korea s physical terrain and coastline afford them a significant buffer against aggression and their strategy and assets reflect this. The East coast particularly is subject to such massive currents and tides that the huge US naval fleet that resides at Okinawa is largely impotent when it comes to breaching the `littoral zone of NK for any meaningful time or purpose. The South and East China Seas and ports such as Kaohsiung and Pusan in South Korea are so important to g lobal trade that NK can reap havoc with little effort by exploiting lack of depth. This is a perfect illustration of how strategic geography provides depth to combatants and how these physical realities impact not just on the policy or strategy of states but also on the military possibilities pursuable.Again, in Iran we see `strategic depth is a major factor in limiting the US and Israel s attempts to curb Tehran s military and nuclear ambitionsxiii. If Israel could reliably destroy Iran s nuclear facilities as they did with Saddam s in the 1980 s many argue they already would have. Iran s ability to shut the Straits of Hormuz (and the 40% of Western oil that flows through there daily) with rudimentary gun-boats as a response looms as a cost too high. The lack of strategic depth of those shipping lines is central to the strategic affairs of this region and the wider world whilst affording Iran a significant security dividend. These illustrations in the realist `state-centric' paradigm show the continued importance of `strategic depth as a factor in the military affairs of states this century. CASE STUDY: Non-State Actors and Strategic Depth Appendix 2.

As well as still applying to the state sphere, strategic depth is applicable to non-state actors and liberal considerations as well. The Taliban and al-Qaeda is largely able to conduct such disruptive actions because of the strategic depth of their bases in The Stan . Politically, culturally, economicallyand geographically these groups are out-of-reach of even the most powerful militaries.

US drone strikes are really the only option they have against Pakistani targets and geography and terrain is central to this.The increased use of remote control vehicles and heavy bombs is recognition that depth is still a very important and practical challenge. Somali pirates are capitalising on the routes of global maritime trade and groups a diverse as MEND, Abu Sayyaf and FARC are all afforded significant `strategic depth by the terrain in which they operate. Advantageous geography allows guerrilla and non-conventional forces the ability to engage much more powerful conventional armed forces. Historically, non-state actors have used strategic geography as much as state armies and, given the central role of Islamic terrorism today, this suggests depthcontinues to have a major impact on global security affairs. ----------------------------------------------------------New Depth and Security in the 21st Century Strategic depth is not just distance but can also refer to time or to other factors that buffer states key assets e.g. guidance jamming devices create depth . States still harden their facilities and place them underground or in positions where missile attack is difficult. NATO and its expansion have appeared to back National Missile Defence (NMD) to provide the depth or buffer that the states of Eastern Europe used to. Advanced computer firewalls or even sub-networks detached from the World Wide Web will provide new dimensions of `strategic depth and back-up or satellite lines-ofcommunication will also attempt to over-come the tyranny of geography and guard against the negatives of the deep integration of cyber-space.Strategic depth also can be re-evaluated in light of the new transnational threats of piracy, terrorism, rogue states, pandemic disease or complex interdependence on trade and investment . The more one detaches from the global politicaleconomy, the more detached from the benefits of the `liberal peace xiv. Should new pandemics or destructive PC-worms such as Blaster emerge, however, the integration and lack of depth or buffers becomes a liability. Strategic planners must balance integration with some measure of strategic depth by buffering ones key assets; a tricky task in an interdependent world. The new security environment is shifting away from traditional inter-state conflict to a broader more diffuse and nebulous mix that includes transnational threats and non-state actors such as terrorist groups, pirates or rogue and failing states.In a globalised post-CW world, liberalised trade has integrated the economies and entwined destinies of states like never before. The global economy is very dependent on key physical assets broadly termed Sea-Lines-of-Communication (SLOC s) and focal and choke points particularly. These key geographic points will need to be defended as they will be attractive targets for both rogue states and non-state actors such as pirates and terrorists seeking to disrupt the global status quo. A smooth functioning global economy (with goods and capital flowing freely around the planet) is a public good from which all states benefit4. The `strategic depth of these vital assets from potential adversaries remains a key consideration even if these new adversaries are non-state groups. This is geography again being shown to be central to the security concerns of individuals, states and the world in general. A look at the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, Trans-Carpathian railway and Somali coast illustrates these new challenges where these Global Public Goods that many depend on are vulnerable to exploitation or damage . The geography of North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan show that in inter-state conflict geography still sets parameters and defines the possible; it also has significant impacts on non-state and transnational threats. As Muraviev often states geography is the mother of strategy ; and this

Likewise, the `Global Commons of the environment and bio -sphere and international norms or regimes such as anti piracy and the International-Law-of-the-Sea are `public goods that all states depend on. Incre asingly, constabulary operations in defence of these vital assets or regimes are key planks of strategic and defence planning; a new era of global co-operation to counter this transnational (neo-liberal) security challenge will be vital.


paper resides firmly in this tradition5.Whilst modern tools such as bunker-busters or satellite delivery have largely overcome strategic depth in some cases; new depth will be provided by cyber-attack, EMP and jamming technologies as well as NMD-shields which will again limit ones foes ability to affect ones vital infrastructure, resources, population, wealth and military.

CONCLUSION: Geography is still a vital feature of IR and strategic depth a major factor in the security of states, assets and the broader environment of geo-economics, politics and the `Global Commons . Whilst strategic depth has become somewhat irrelevant for state-state conflict in largely peaceful Europe, the pursuit of NMD is recognition the denial of such depth that (liberal) integration has heralded comes with significant risks. The global economy and `littoral zones of most states are vital and vulnerable. Technology has denied strategic depthto the littoral especially and technologies like NMD are attempting to re-instate the depth that other technology has deprived. For states such as North Korea and Iran and for groups such as the Taliban, al Qaeda and pirates `strategic depth remains a key feature of how they are able to maintain positions of aggression in asymmetric circumstances (with AQ it is against basically the whole world). Geography is still vital and technology has not rendered broad geo-strategy or the specific notion of strategic depthirrelevant; in many respects it is as vital as ever and must be factored into all strategic and military tactical planning into this new century.

Sir Walter Raleigh, (1616) Historie of the Worldequoted in Robert D. Heinl, Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1966), 288. ii Tangredi, S. Sea Power Theory and Practice in Baylis, J. et al (Eds). (2002) Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies , New York: Oxford University Press. Ch. 2. iii MACKINDER, H.J. (1962) The Geographical Pivot of History, in MACKINDER, H.J. Democratic Ideals and Reality , N.Y.: Norton & Company, pp241-264. iv Kapstein, E. and Mastanduno, M. (Eds) (1999) Uni-polar Politics: realism and state strategies after the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, Chapter 2 Realism. v Waltz, K. (1979) Theory of International Politics New York: McGraw-Hill. Introduction pp 3 -34. vi MAHAN, Alfred Thayer (1890) The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783,Boston: Little, Brown. vii Tangredi, S. (2002) Maritime Power in a Flat World Washington DC: National Defence University Press, Intro and Ch 3. viii Doyle, M. (1997) Ways of War and Peace, New York: Norton. Part Two: Liberalism. ix Baylis, J. et al (Eds.) (2002) Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies , Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, Intro. x Grygiel, J. (2006). Great Powers and Geopolitical Change, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp 23-34.


Klein, J. (2007) Maritime Strategy Should Heed U.S. and UK Classics in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 133 (4): 67±69.

xii xiii

Smith, H. (1999)Korea: it s time for a strategy Canberra, Australia: Asia-Pacific Press pp 1 -6. ALAM, Shah The Changing Paradigm of Iranian Foreign Policy , Strategic Analysis, 24 no. 9, December 2000, pp1629-1653.

A broadening of the security paradigm to include Human Security is layered with geo -strategic considerations and geography and resources have much to say here as well. Its not just military and security affairs that are informed by geography, the dynamics of peace and development affairs are equally as influenced by physical factors. With the climate challenges that loom over the geo-strategic environment, again physical environments and geography will be vital. States will lose territory to rising seas, new resources will become essential (benefiting some and costing others) and areas of rainforest or carbon-sinks will rise as new (global) public goods that will need to be valued and defended. This new challenge will mean that strategic depth will be considered in new respects and placing sites away from violent weather will be another layer of complexity .


Slater, D. (2006) Geo-politics and the Post -Colonial: rethinking north -south relations, Oxford, U.K: Blackwell Publishing. Ch 2 and 3.


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