Sea Power and Air Power. Some thoughts about the future



This paper is part of the project Military Thinking in the 21st Century and more precisely the seminar arranged by the Royal Academy of War Sciences on 14 – 16 May, 2014. Regarding the subjects of naval and air power, the Academy asked the following questions:

“What purposes will sea power serve in the 21st Century? Will naval presence and power projection remain pre-eminent, or will access-denial anti-access make power projection increasingly difficult? Is even a new contest between major fleets on the horizon?

Has airpower finally come of age, fulfilling the prophecies of Douhet and others? Or are conflicts still decided on the ground, albeit with assistance from the air? »

As the author is a retired naval officer, this paper will concentrate on the naval part of the question.

Naval power and air power have some similar aspects but they also have some important differences. Both kinds of power are pursued in an environment where man needs technical equipment to survive, move and work. Governments are situated on land where its citizens live most of their lives even if many of them, more or less frequently, take to the sea or travel by air. Indeed, as the French strategist Admiral Castex (1878-1968) put it: “Sea power is mainly interesting according to the extent it contributes to victory on land; it does not secure victory by its own except in exceptional cases.”[2] The same could be said about air power.

Another resemblance is that, according to classic theory, control of the domain – sea or air, respectively – has to be secured as a precondition to other operations in or from this domain. A third resemblance is the absence of natural frontiers.

There is no clear line between the two kinds of power. Air power constitutes an important part of maritime power. On the other hand, naval power is often part and parcel of air power as it offers theatre-wide and local air defense, air control[3] and projection of power with cruise missiles and carrier-based aircraft.

Finally, both air power and sea power are dependent on space-based assets for surveillance and communication as well as on cyberspace i.a. for their important data-links.

There are also important differences. The most important is perhaps that sea power, or maritime power as we say today, is a vast subject of which naval issues are just a part. A navy is bipolar as it is both part of the maritime world and part of the Joint Force. It has standing missions as presence and keeping good order at sea. Air power, however, is basically military in its scope.

Maritime Power

What is maritime power?

Mahan has given us the classic definition of naval strategy:]”Naval strategy has indeed for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.”[4] He never defines sea power but he gives us the elements of which it consists: “I. Geographical Position. II. Physical Conformation, including, as connected therewith,] natural productions and climate. III. Extent of Territory. IV. Number of Population. V. Character of the People. VI. Character of the Government, including therein the national institutions.” [5]

Today, the maritime arena is of vital interest. Maritimization of politics and economy is perhaps the most important factor of globalization, in turn the most important contemporary trend.

Traditionally, naval warfare has focused on the protection and attack on the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). Corbett famously wrote that “Command of the sea, therefore, means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory. The difference is fundamental.”[6] Today, however, the sea itself, including the seabed, is increasingly important. Oil, gas, pipelines, fish farms, and other resources within the seabed, as well as wind, tide, and wave powered electrical generators, are all assets that require safety and security. A modern definition of maritime power must, hence, encompass all these aspects.


Power, in turn, cannot be restricted to hard power but must also include soft power and smart power.[7] Furthermore, power in itself cannot accomplish anything. To make use of power, there is a need for political will and leadership in order to achieve a designated political project.


Power is translated into political objectives through strategy. We can now adapt Mahan’s definition of naval strategy into the following: maritime strategy has for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the maritime power of a country and to achieve political objectives through the use of this maritime power.

The quest for maritime strategy

A modern maritime strategy must, as we have seen, be a comprehensive strategy. It has to draw on a number of strategies – or policies – of the state like industrial strategy, financial strategy, diplomatic strategy and strategy of defense. These relations are reciprocal: an efficient maritime industry depends on the existence of an industrial strategy which emphasizes the maritime aspects; in return the maritime industry will give impetus to the industrial strategy and will feed the financial strategy. The strategy of defense must give the military part of maritime strategy a high priority and gets an important strategic tool in return. It is quite obvious that all this requires a general political will that gives priority to the maritime aspects – a grand strategy with a maritime focus.

A maritime strategy could be seen as composed by three sets of strategies: a strategy of wealth, a strategy of means and a naval strategy. A strategy of wealth regards the exploitation of the richness existing at sea: the transport of goods, the exploitation of gas and oil etc. A strategy of means regards the conception and construction of the means needed: ships, platforms and the like. Naval strategy finally is the strategy of action in the maritime field. Naval strategy uses maritime forces to achieve its objectives.

Naval strategy

Maritime forces[8], in cooperation with other military forces, have five basic strategic missions:

  • Knowledge and anticipation. This is very broad mission that forms the basis for all other actions. It encompasses missions like oceanology and hydrography, intelligence and surveillance. The latter mission should lead to the creation of a Recognized Maritime Picture (RMP), basically answering the question: who does what and where?
  • Prevention by the creation of a favorable strategic situation – changing the status quo in our favor. This could be done by wisely using persuasion and coercion. Naval diplomacy plays a very important role in this regard.
  • Deterrence which very much looks like prevention. The difference is that while prevention is offensive, deterrence is defensive. It strives to keep the status quo. For countries having the capacity, nuclear forces serves as the ultimate deterrence. But these forces cannot handle threats against our interests at lower threat levels – they are important but not sufficient.
  • Protection. This mission encompasses the classic mission of protection of SLOCs. But today it must be much wider as there are much more to be protected like ports and all sorts of infrastructure at sea.
  • Intervention, finally, is also very broad. At the lower end, it covers interventions against smugglers, Search and Rescue (SAR). Generally, it is also a question of keeping good order at sea to borrow a term from Geoffrey Till. On the high end, there are missions like interventions against enemy assets at sea as well as projection of power.

Maritime forces strive to achieve these missions basically through four modes of action: fight against enemy forces including blockade, attack and defense of communications, projection of power and presence.

The fight against enemy forces aims at giving us the liberty to use the sea while denying this liberty to the enemy or, in short to achieve a reasonable degree of sea control. We write “reasonable” because control of the sea can never be total in time and space. To sea control, we need to add control of space and of cyberspace.

Castex has very well formulated what sea control means: “Depending on whether you have control of the sea, you can or you cannot:

  • In an offensive mode, intercept the maritime communications of the enemy and attack his territory by the sea;
  • In a defensive mode, guarantee your own communications and interdict the enemy from attacking your own territory by the sea”. [9]

The term power projection is usually preferred before “attack his territory”. This implies that forces at sea projects power – forces, ammunition etc. – against targets in land. The term was coined by Richild Grivel in his book De la guerre maritime avant et depuis les nouvelles inventions from 1869, and was influenced by the Crimean war – one of the biggest operations of power projection in history.[10]

Presence, finally, is the basic naval mission in peace and crisis. Presence means creating influence. The posture of the naval force decides whether this influence is positive/offensive or negative/defensive.

Some thoughts about the future

Let us finally address the questions initially posed.

What purposes will sea power serve in the 21st Century?

Sea power will basically serve the same purposes in this century as it “always” has: further own interests at sea in peace, crisis and war as well as negating the interests of adversaries. The formula given by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) still contains basic truths: “whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” [11] Today, however, control of the sea is not just about trade but also about the resources of the sea, the possibilities for power projection and maritime diplomacy. The adversary is not just an enemy in time of war, but also the forces of chaos: pirates, mafias, rogue states etc.

There are two major reasons to why maritime power today is so important. The first one is stems from the fact that today’s globalized world is dependent on the sea for transport and resources – what we call maritimization. The second is the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This right, together with the abilities of modern navies, gives maritime power a unique strategic mobility. However, countries like China strives to negate this right through a process known as territorialization of the sea – basically extending its sovereignty out on the high seas, which traditionally and legally are res communis (belong to all mankind). As this right is upheld by maritime powers like the USA and the EU, this is a fundamental cause of conflict.

Will naval presence and power projection remain pre-eminent, or will access-denial anti-access make power projection increasingly difficult?

Power projection is a vast subject. It encompasses attacks on assets on land through artillery, missiles, aircraft and troops. To these “traditional” missions, one can add: C4ISTAR[12], air defense including against ballistic missiles but also evacuation of wounded (MEDEVAC) and threatened citizens. But land also projects power towards the sea. There is a balance between the influence of land upon the sea and, vice versa, the influence of the sea on land. This is well described by Castex: « The influence of maritime power in the crisis of this world is dependent on the air-land force it is able to deploy and the influence of the land power is at the same time measured by the naval-air force it is able to put into the balance.” [13]

In “pentagonese” one talks about Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) and Counter A2/AD, respectively.[14] This aspect is particularly pertinent between China and USA. China strives to control the near seas and to keep the US out, while the US wants to be able to project power against the Chinese mainland. These two adverse strategies contain, however, a much broader concept than just applying military force: it’s about diplomacy, control of space and cyberspace and so on. It is quite possible that these two strategies will have a profound importance for the development of high-end naval capacity. Generally, technology will give the land power increased strategic reach over the sea while the reverse is at least as true.

In a more general sense, the two preeminent naval assets – the capital ships in traditional parlance – are the nuclear powered attack submarine with its long range cruise missiles and the aircraft carrier with its air wing.

Both systems are highly mobile both strategically and operationally. They can extend naval power well into land and thereby influence the decision makers of (potential) adversaries. A carrier air wing is a more flexible instrument than cruise missiles of a submarine but there is, evidently, an important difference in cost of the platform. But there is also a fundamental difference in how influence is created. The submarine builds on its stealth and, hence, its capability to create uncertainty and strike surprisingly. The carrier on the other hand builds on the visibility of its presence, which is enhanced by gesticulation with its air wing.

Presence, finally, is the basic mode of action of any maritime power. Without presence, no strategic or operational effect can be created nor in peace nor in crisis and war. Without presence the five strategic missions enumerated above cannot be carried out.

Is even a new contest between major fleets on the horizon?

A fleet-to-fleet action like Jutland 1916 or Leyte Gulf in 1944 is highly unlikely. But the likelihood for a maritime contest between major maritime powers like USA, China, and India is at the very least not unlikely. Such a contest will use all maritime forces both at sea and based on land and will make heavy use of space and cyberspace. Within such a struggle, there will, of course, be naval engagements – ship against ship – of various importance.

Naval engagements on a lesser scale are, on the other hand, quite common as states try to extend their influence and reduce the influence of adversaries. The struggle for and against the freedom of navigation in the China seas is one example. Russian pressure on, below and above the Baltic Sea is another. One should also not forget the permanent missions of maritime forces like keeping good order at sea, search and rescue, and fight against trafficking and pirates.

Air Power

The other question was: Has airpower finally come of age, fulfilling the prophecies of Douhet and others? Or are conflicts still decided on the ground, albeit with assistance from the air?

What is Air Power?

Air power is a more limited concept than maritime power; basically it is about influencing the outcome of a conflict in our favor while limiting the influence of the adversary’s air power. To this one should add the industry, research, infrastructure etc. that is needed to acquire, train and use air power. So far, there is no difference between air and maritime power. But unlikely the latter, air power is not normally seen to encompass the civilian use of the air for economical and other reasons. Unlike maritime power, air power does not create wealth.

A problem with the definition of air power is that the use of the air is an integral part of both terrestrial strategy and maritime power. But there is also “pure” air power or strategic air power which is not tactically a part of another arena. According to the “founding fathers” of air power, strategic air power should be able to win wars all by itself. For the Italian general Douhet, air power would create such terrible damages that the war would quickly be won: first cities should be bombed with explosives to create ruins, then with fire bombs to create fires, and finally with gas in order to halt any attempts to fight the fires for a long time and to kill the maximum people. In that way, Douhet assures, large areas can be completely destroyed by a fairly limited amount of explosives.[15]

The American colonel John Warden III is a representative of more modern thinking. His idea was to paralyze the enemy by attacking his vital functions – the leadership of the state, basic functions of society like electricity supply, infrastructure, population and deployed forces.[16] Paralyze is to be achieved simultaneously by physical destruction and destruction of moral. [17]

Has Air Power come of age?

So far, air power has played a very important role but by itself, it has not achieved the success hoped for by these enthusiasts. Operation Allied Force against Serbia became a success when Milosevic understood that there was no hope for Russian aid. In operation United Protector against Gadhafi, attack helicopters based at sea and rebel ground forces played a decisive role. Against the weak air defense of Iraq during operation Iraqi Freedom 2003, the allies had to use 1440 missions and 400 missiles type HARM.[18] No one seems to believe that the “alliance” can win over Daech[19] with air power alone.

From these experiences one could perhaps propose a more modest definition of strategic air power: the main purpose of strategic air power is to project power in order to influence the adversary’s decision makers and to generally create favorable conditions for own forces while negating the fighting power of the adversary.

During the conflicts of the last 25 years, Western air power has been deployed over enemy territory where it has enjoyed air supremacy thanks to weak adversaries and a high capacity for Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD). This “happy” situation seems, however, to become history. This is for several reasons. One is the extremely high cost of the most modern aircrafts like F-22. Another is the development of air defense weapons, in particular missiles. A third reason is the ground threat against air bases on foreign territory. A fourth reason stems from western dependence of datalinks and, hence, vulnerability for cyber-attacks.[20]

Drones have played an ever more important role in recent conflicts. They are now more or less indispensable for land warfare and, soon at least, for naval warfare. Drones are also extremely important for ISTAR at the operational and tactical level. We will see them in a direct combat role when UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) become operational. But it is not clear – at least not to this author – if this development will change the very concept of air power.

To conclude – air power is an extremely important part of any strategy but it cannot win wars by itself. In that way, it has not “come of age”.

Final thoughts

The aircraft carrier, loosely discussed above, represents the strategic junction between naval power and air power. Europe has, however, today just one real carrier: the French Charles de Gaulle. The new British Queen Elisabeth and Prince of Wales are, hence, of vital strategic importance not only for Great Britain but for Europe – regardless if we are talking about NATO-Europe or EU-Europe. Why is it so? There are several reasons:

  1. War is back in Europe and its southern and southeastern borders are in turmoil. The time for rearmament is now.
  2. A question of strategic standing. All major navies, in particular those of the UN Security Council, have or are in the way of acquiring carriers.
  3. Aircraft carriers offer a very important asset for cooperation with the USA that will stay a vital ally for Europe.
  4. Thanks to the building of these carriers, Europe has an industrial and operational knowledge that has taken decades to acquire. But such knowledge disappears quickly.
  5. An aircraft carrier is the tool for naval diplomacy par excellence. Even a stupid dictator understands the threat posed by a carrier group on the horizon.
  6. Cruise missiles from submarines and frigates are important. But an aircraft is more flexible than a missile, it can strike at a greater distance and more often (one missile=one strike!), and it has greater capacity for the avoidance of collateral damage.
  7. Effective control of the airspace during a power projection operation requires air power, which often can only be based at sea.
  8. A carrier group offers unmatched strategic mobility and flexibility.

But what about vulnerability? All military systems are of course vulnerable, so are aircraft carriers. But an aircraft carrier is a rather tough target to seriously damage. Furthermore, it has always an impressive escort. Finally, at least American and French carriers have nuclear arms on board. It is impossible for an outsider to know but, arguable, they are part of those vital interests that are “protected” by the nuclear deterrent – a part of the sanctuary.


This short article has only touched on the two vast subjects that are sea power and air power. We have not discussed the use of smaller ships – just the very high end. We have not really discussed missions of maritime forces in keeping good order at sea or in support of diplomacy. Just to mention a few omissions. Air power is even less discussed. We have completely left out air diplomacy and the strategic role of transport aircraft. We have not discussed the balance between the defensive and the offensive in air warfare. And so forth.

But, as general Lucien Poirier (1918-2013) used to say: The strategic construction site is never closed.



[1] This article is based on a forthcoming book: Lars Wedin, Stratégie maritime, stratégie navale. La modernité de Castex, Paris, NUVIS éditions, 2015.

[2] Amiral [Raoul], Castex, Théories stratégiques, Paris, Institut de Stratégie Comparée and Économica, 1997. Vol I. P. 81.

[3] During operation Unified Protector against the forces of Gadhafi in Libya (2011), frigates type Horizon have played the role of C2 Primary Unit in the Air Tasking Order (ATO),

[4] A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660 – 1783, London, Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1889(?). P. 23.

[5] Mahan,  The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660 – 1783, op.cit. p. 29.

[6] Sir Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. London, Conway Maritime Press 1972 [1911]. P. 90.

[7] C.f. Joseph S. Nye, The Future of Power, New York, Public affairs, 2011. Pp. 20-21.

[8] Maritime forces are all forces that have a vocation to act on the sea: navy, possible coast guard, maritime air based on land and so forth.

[9] Castex, Théories stratégiques, op.cit. Tome V, p. 87.

[10] Michel Depeyre, Entre Vent et eau. Un siècle d’hésitations tactiques et stratégiques 1790-1890, Paris, Économica and Institut de Stratégie Comparée, 2003. P. 486.

[11] Quoted in Coutau-Bégarie, Hervé. Traité de Stratégie, Paris, Économica and Institut de Stratégie Comparée, 1999. S. 481.

[12] Command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance.

[13]Quoted in Coutau-Bégarie, Traité de stratégie, op.cit.,p.. 247. In French one uses the terms force aero-terrestre and aero-navale respectively.

[14] See, Sam J. Tangredi, Anti-Access Warfare. Countering A2/AD strategies, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2013.

[15] [Guilio] Douhet, La Guerre de l’air, Présentation de M Étienne Riché, préface du général Tulasne, Paris, Journal « Les Ailes », 1932. P.56.

[16] John A. Warden III, « L’ennemi en tant que système », Stratégique No 59, Paris, Institut de Stratégie Comparée. P.28.

[17] Warden « L’ennemi en tant que système », op.cit. p.9.

[18] AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) is a missile fired against air defense radars.

[19] Often called IS for « Islamic State » – it is, however, NOT a state even if wants to be one.

[20] See Corentin Brustlein, Étienne de Durand, Élie Tenenbaum, La suprématie aérienne en péril. Menaces et contre-stratégies à l’horizon 2030, Paris, Centre d’études stratégiques aérospatiales. La documentation Française, 2014