Military Strategy

HMCS Charlottetown transits the Mediterranean Sea to join NATO’s Standing Naval Maritime Group 1 in March 2011 as part of the Canadian military’s contribution to the Government’s response to the conflict in Libya.

DND photo HS2011-E001-006 by Corporal Chris Ringius

HMCS Charlottetown transits the Mediterranean Sea to join NATO’s Standing Naval Maritime Group 1 in March 2011 as part of the Canadian military’s contribution to the Government’s response to the conflict in Libya.

Strategic Trust and Cooperation in this Maritime Century

by Paul Maddison

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Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison, CMM, MSM, CD, has been a sailor for more than three decades. He has held a host of both sea and shore appointments, and is currently the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy. Since assuming this appointment in July 2011, Admiral Maddison has been very active in promoting his “One Navy” vision along the following key lines: Purpose (the role of the RCN as a treasured national institution for a maritime nation in a maritime century), Platforms (the renewal of the fleet as ignited by the Government’s National Shipbuilding and Procurement Strategy), People (our dedicated sailors and their families), and Pride (a legacy of naval service to Canada).

Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison

DND photo

Vice-Admiral Paul Maddison

Shortly after taking command of the Royal Canadian Navy last year, I attended the International Sea Symposium at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, for what remains the largest-ever gathering of heads of international navies. I was privileged to be offered the opportunity to speak at that Symposium to well over 100 of my fellow naval leaders, and chose as my key message a theme captured in the title of this article. I have since offered this message to other international audiences, including hemispheric naval leaders at the most recent Inter-American Naval Conference, and during a return visit to Newport at the invitation of the College President. On this latter occasion, I added a second theme in my address to several hundred future leaders from the American services and partner navies from around the world, relating to ‘anticipatory transformation’ centred on my view of future maritime operations in the contested littorals. What follows, reproduced below, was originally published in the Autumn 2012 edition of the Naval War College Review.1

~ P.A. Maddison
Commander Royal Canadian Navy

The Battle Network

Courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy strategy Leadmark.

The Battle Network

The Future Joint Operating Environment

While the underlying and very human nature of conflict will not change, the means of warfare will certainly continue to evolve both ashore and at sea. Over the past 20 years, operations ashore have been conducted against adversaries that have learned with increasing effectiveness to blend all forms of violence—ranging from the purely criminal, through the irregular, to the conventional—to political purpose, while using superior knowledge of their local physical, social, and cultural terrains to fight from a position of maximum relative advantage.

Such adversaries have not yet mastered the maritime domain to the extent required to challenge modern navies. However, the trend towards improved capabilities and competence at sea is clearly evident in some notable successes throughout the past decade: the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000; the attack by Al-Qaeda on the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002; Hezbollah’s attack on the Israeli corvette Hanit using a variant of the silkworm anti-ship missile in 2006; and terrorist attacks launched at Mumbai, in 2008, from the sea.

In addition, certain states have already demonstrated the capacity to orchestrate the actions of maritime non-state actors as a means of leveraging their own conventional and asymmetric capabilities. Given the disruptive synergies involved in using such proxies, and the perceived benefits of plausible deniability, these states may continue to see strong incentives to improve their irregular maritime forces.

Accordingly, we must be prepared now, and as part of future coalitions, to be confronted both at sea and ashore by a wider range of potential threats and challenges than we have ever dealt with before, in addition to the ever-latent but rising potential of state-on-state conflict at sea that has been our traditional focus in naval warfare.

Such operations will take place in a highly complex, politically ambiguous, and legally constrained environment, more often than not in that relatively narrow zone astride the world’s coastlines where the vast majority of humanity resides—the littorals. This is where the consequences of massive social change and disruption are already beginning to play out, as we are witnessing today in the Middle East and elsewhere. The contested littorals are where the future sea–land–air–special operations joint force must be prepared to counter, not only irregular or state-centred threats and challenges, but also to be prepared to confront both at the same time.

Across the width and depth of a littoral theatre, joint and combined forces ashore will be engaged, often simultaneously, in operations designed not only to defeat our adversaries, but also to favourably influence populations and protect them, while also creating the conditions for other agencies and partners to restore civil services and governance.

Given how closely coupled the actions of a joint force will be in the littoral context, naval forces in the future, including Canada’s, are likely to play a much greater role in supporting these influence, combat and stability operations ashore.

The Information Grid

Courtesy of Defence Research and Development Canada

The Information Grid

I foresee, for example, that a far greater emphasis will need to be directed towards influence activities prior to the onset of combat operations, as well as during them. Indeed, such activities, which some have termed “the battle of the strategic narrative,” will be central to all future campaigning—essential, not only for the purposes of isolating the adversary in political, economic, and military terms, but also for establishing and maintaining the legitimacy of intervention among the domestic and international communities, as well as with populations within the theatre of operations.

Maritime forces will play a key role in such diplomatic and influence activities; not only in supporting forces ashore, but also through the finely calibrated supportive and deterrent effects they create by their operational manoeuvre offshore.

The complex and dynamic inter-relationships between influence, combat, and stabilization activities may lead to new and more adaptive approaches to campaign planning, as well as more flexible command organizations at the tactical and operational levels, both at sea and ashore. Fighting forces themselves will undoubtedly become much more extensively networked to meet the demands of a highly cluttered, confused, complex, and legally constrained battlespace.

Such trends are likely to increase the role played by maritime forces—and not solely those of the major naval powers—in contributing towards combat operations ashore. Such contributions include: the insertion, support, sustainment, and extraction of special operations forces; joint intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance preparations from the sea; the provision of joint and tactical maritime supporting fires from the sea; and the protection of forces and populations ashore from an extension of a naval formation’s force-level defensive capabilities.

HMCS Charlottetown provides protection during Operation Unified Protector as the Belgian mine hunter, M923 Narcis, conducts mine countermeasure operations in Misratah harbour off the coast of Libya in May 2011.

DND photo HS2011-E011-001 by Corporal Chris Ringius

HMCS Charlottetown provides protection during Operation Unified Protector as the Belgian mine hunter, M923 Narcis, conducts mine countermeasure operations in Misratah harbour off the coast of Libya in May 2011.

All these joint actions will be greatly enhanced by the ability of maritime forces to manoeuvre operationally once sea control is achieved—that is to say, to use their inherent mobility for strategic and operational as well as tactical advantage—by placing an adversary’s forces at risk along exposed flanks, and by using deception to present operational dilemmas to the adversary.

Finally, the logic of joint seabasing is likely to become more compelling in an increasingly urbanized littoral environment, as ways are sought to reduce a joint and combined force’s footprint ashore, as well as its associated force protection liabilities. This will also require such seabases to be defended in depth from adversaries at sea as well as attacks launched from ashore.

Few joint campaigns are likely to be possible without achieving sea control: that ability to control events which derives from a capacity for decisive action on, above, and below the surface of the sea.

Achieving sea control in a contested littoral will require extensive intelligence preparations at the strategic and operational levels, as well as detailed and ongoing environmental analysis to predict and compensate for the complex atmospheric, topographic, and hydrographic effects upon maritime weapons and sensors, whose performance in coming decades will need to be substantially improved to deal with clutter and background noise from human activity that is orders of magnitude greater inshore than far at sea.

Future maritime adversaries will attempt to exploit their initial advantage of local knowledge by challenging maritime forces with a range of conventional, irregular, and high-end asymmetric threats. Such adversaries will initially seek to avoid engaging the maritime force to its strengths, working all levers at their disposal to indirectly deny access through political action or popular will. Mines and submarines will certainly remain their most effective means for delaying or denying access to a joint force, given the significant resources and level of effort required to address these particular threats.

In more openly hostile situations, the enemy may launch ‘swarming’ attacks, using relatively unsophisticated but very fast and highly manoeuvrable speed boats in large numbers, armed with optically sighted hand-held weapons. Others will employ shore-based rocket artillery, as we witnessed off Libya, and some—such as Hezbollah demonstrated in 2006—may have access to subsonic but capable anti-ship missiles that can be launched from commercial vehicles ashore.

An increasing number of adversaries in the future will be able to complement such capabilities with highly advanced weapons launched at sea and from ashore, including hypersonic anti-ship missiles and very fast super-cavitating torpedoes. In addition to such ‘kinetic’ weapons, some adversaries will have also developed advanced weapons that operate through their effects upon maritime sensors, as well as those that target key network nodes in physical or cyberspace to impair the performance of our battle networks.

Engagements may well be fought in proximity with an adversary’s non-conventional, irregular, and asymmetric elements, and fought at range when an adversary attempts to bring high-end capabilities to bear. A sophisticated adversary will undoubtedly attempt both concurrently. Engagements may develop suddenly and be conducted with intensity along multiple lines of attacks at sea and from ashore, followed by attempts to disengage into the littoral background.

In the face of such an adversary, maritime warfare will need to emphasize offensive action, enabled through extensive preparations to counter an adversary’s expected actions; by thwarting how the adversary would prefer to fight; and by eliminating or neutralizing an adversary’s capabilities before they can be brought into action. Maritime warfare will require fully integrated offensive and defensive joint action across all physical dimensions in the maritime domain—from the seabed to space—as well as full use of the electromagnetic and informational environments.

HMCS Charlottetown’s boarding party conducts a search of a dhow boat while a Sea King helicopter provides cover in the Gulf of Aden while participating in Operation Artemis during May 2012.

DND photo HS2012-0071-562 by Lieutenant (N) Darren Puttock

HMCS Charlottetown’s boarding party conducts a search of a dhow boat while a Sea King helicopter provides cover in the Gulf of Aden while participating in Operation Artemis during May 2012.

Many observers, I believe, will look back at NATO’s Libya campaign as the prototype air-sea battle of the 21st Century, even as we anticipate the littorals in the future being contested by much more formidable maritime adversaries than HMCS Charlottetown faced last year.

Charlottetown was the first Canadian ship to come under hostile fire since the Korean conflict. But what was she doing so close to shore that caused her to be fired upon by Gadhafi’s shore-based rocket artillery?

At that juncture of the Libyan civil war, the port town of Misratah had become a crucial battleground between the rebels and forces still loyal to the former Libyan dictator. NATO minesweepers were operating to keep the port open for resupply, as well as to evacuate civilians, while Charlottetown protected them from attacks by small, fast boats manned by Gadhafi’s maritime Special Forces.

But Charlottetown’s efforts went further than that. She played a key role in keeping the city from falling under the control of Gadhafi’s ground forces, where the safety of its citizens hung in the balance. Using special resources that required her to operate close inshore, Charlottetown was able to identify and locate the enemy’s manoeuvre forces to guide the delivery of highly accurate NATO air-strikes against them.

Her ability to achieve these effects at sea and ashore was based, not solely on the ship’s physical capabilities or fitted systems, but rather in how her sensors, weapons, and communications systems were ‘plugged into’ a larger information grid shared by all NATO assets.

In Charlottetown’s case, that grid served to greatly extend the ship’s sensing horizon. It provided the ship’s captain and his combat team with a highly tailored and all-source intelligence and surveillance picture,  and permitted him to pass the high-quality information being acquired on targets ashore to NATO’s air-strike planners.

As a result, such operations in the future will require far more than the bringing together of a coalition at the time of crisis—they will require ever-higher degrees of interoperability to effect a merging of allied and coalition maritime forces at the technical, tactical, and doctrinal levels, as well as a degree of understanding, confidence and trust among warfare commanders that is achieved only through years of working closely with one another.

As part of their NATO presence patrol in the Indian Ocean in 2007, an away team from HMCS Toronto meets with a group of Yemini shark fishermen at their dhow some 60 kilometres offshore.

DND photo IS2007-7710 by Master Corporal Kevin Paul

As part of their NATO presence patrol in the Indian Ocean in 2007, an away team from HMCS Toronto meets with a group of Yemini shark fishermen at their dhow some 60 kilometres offshore.

Strategic Cooperation

And that brings me to the imperative for strategic cooperation—an imperative that is tagged by a sense of urgency due, I believe, to the fact that we may very well be on the cusp of historic and momentous change in the global maritime domain.

Today’s rules-based maritime order sits upon a delicate balance between two central and essentially competing ideas that have existed in a state of constructive tension for some 500 years, since they were first disputed by the English and the Dutch in the 17th Century:

  • The first—mare liberum—the idea that the seas cannot be made sovereign and hence are free for all to use; and
  • The second—mare clausum—the idea that the seas can be made sovereign to the limits of effective state control.

This delicate balance was achieved, not in bloodshed, but rather, through an unprecedented degree of international consultation and collaboration in the closing decades of the 20th Century. The result was a unique global convergence of maritime interests that was codified within the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Convention was forged out of a compelling need to reconcile the economic and national interests of the world’s coastal states with the traditional defence and security interests of the great maritime powers. That makes the 1982 Convention among the crowning achievements of international law, but what made it possible was the fact that both the maritime powers and the coastal states risked suffering equally from the perpetuation of an unregulated, disputed, and unstable maritime order.

Whether or not that international consensus will continue to hold in the face of building pressures on coastal states, both large and small, is one of the abiding strategic issues of this 21st Century.

HMCS Summerside sails past an iceberg in the Davis Strait during Operation Nanook 2011.

DND photo HS2011-H003-091 by Corporal Rick Ayer

HMCS Summerside sails past an iceberg in the Davis Strait during Operation Nanook 2011.

To understand why, we need only look to the Arctic, where we are likely to see more change in the coming three decades than has occurred since Europeans first arrived in Greenland.

Visitors to Canada today very quickly come to realize that the Arctic plays a major role in our national psyche. “The true north strong and free” resonates as much for Canadians when they sing their national anthem, as do the words “the rockets red glare” for Americans. And yet, few Canadians have directly witnessed our High North’s abiding beauty, or experienced its climatic extremes.

Canada’s Arctic Archipelago is one of the world’s largest, and it is a very long way from anywhere. The Northwest Passage, for example, is further from the homes of our east and west coast fleets in Halifax and Victoria than are London and Tokyo respectively.

The Arctic’s physical and social geography make it undisputedly a maritime theatre. There is not now, nor is there likely to be, an explosion of road and rail connections to drive forward and sustain development of the High North, as was the case in the 19th and 20th Centuries with the great movement of settlers into the west of North America.

Northern communities, as they develop, will be connected to the south largely by air and sea. They will be supplied and sustained by ship, not by rail car, and only briefly each year by 18-wheelers when ice roads permit their hazard-filled travel northwards across the tundra in the western portion of the region.

Canada’s High North is an ocean space, a vast archipelago enveloped in an oceanic icefield that both defines and dominates the environment. But unlike any other ocean space in the world, it is virtually inaccessible but for a short season in the late summer and early fall. Even then, the sea ice within the Arctic Archipelago becomes, at best, partially navigable by vessels that are specially designed to operate within it.

For much of the remainder of the year, winter retains the High North in an icy grip. Nowhere else on earth, with the exception of Antarctica, is less forgiving to the unprepared. Despite its surreal and almost alien beauty, the Arctic brooks no mistake, leaves little margin for error, and so demands exceptional forethought and planning in order to work and to survive there.

HMCS Corner Brook in relatively close proximity to an iceberg during Operation Nanook 2007.

DND photo HS2007-G025-006 by Master Corporal Blake Rodgers

HMCS Corner Brook in relatively close proximity to an iceberg during Operation Nanook 2007.

For these reasons, it is a truly strategic decision to not just look north, but to go there—but go there we most assuredly will, as Canada’s Government hastens the delivery of joint sea, land, and air capabilities that will permit the Canadian Forces to operate in the north persistently, effectively, and safely during a gradually lengthening navigable season.

For the Royal Canadian Navy, these investments include the new Arctic / Offshore Patrol Ships, as well as a deep-water berthing and fuelling facility in Nanisivik at the top of Baffin Island near the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage, as well as unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles, all supported by a wide-area surveillance system, from seabed to space.

Nonetheless, the prospects of commercially viable sea passage across the Arctic Basin—connecting the rich economies of northern Europe and Asia—is perhaps still decades off. But as the navigable season gradually extends in length, recent and anticipated improvements in extraction technologies may eventually make Arctic seabed resources commercially exploitable, with prospects of greatly increased ‘destination’ shipping going in and out of the Arctic, rather than through it.

And the economic stakes are potentially enormous. Believed to be awaiting each of the five Arctic coastal states in their offshore estates are precious inheritances for decades to come—vast energy and mineral reserves that have been already discovered or are believed to lie in the Arctic Basin and its periphery.

All of this will eventually bring new and unprecedented levels of human activity in the high North, and with it increased risks of marine incident and environmental accident.

That is one of the key reasons why the Canadian Forces is in the North today, along with other federal agencies, to begin mastering the competencies we will eventually need to operate successfully in the high North – and by that I mean within the sea ice of the Canadian archipelago itself, rather than to the limit of the ice-edge that today resides far to the south in the Davis Strait.

Rendering of a concept design of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada (2009)

Rendering of a concept design of the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship

There is much, and in my view, misplaced attention drawn to disagreements in the North—the status of the Northwest Passage being one—and insufficient attention being paid to the extensive international cooperation that actually takes place.

Canada’s relations with our northern neighbours are very positive. From an institutional perspective, northern issues are systematically being addressed through the Arctic Council, as attested by the Search and Rescue Treaty recently concluded by the member states.

Canada is cooperating on the scientific work required to delineate the extent of our continental shelf with the US and Denmark, and it is contributing towards similar multi-national efforts with Russia and Norway as well. Direct military cooperation is also evident in the invitations Canada has extended to its northern neighbours to observe and participate in its annual northern maritime security exercises.

In short, despite a range of factors that have emerged to deepen the economic, political, and legal stakes at issue in the Arctic, the intensification of ocean politics in that region has been moderated thus far by strategic cooperation.

Although the Arctic states, including Canada, hold to different interpretations regarding the various provisions of UNCLOS, none of these positions appear to be incompatible with the logic that underpins the convention itself. From the geopolitical perspective, strategic cooperation aligns with the core long-term national interests of each of the Arctic coastal states, as it reinforces the 1982 Convention from which they each stand so much to gain.

Elsewhere in the world, intensifying ocean politics have been met by significant inter-state tension and confrontation. Nowhere is this more apparent right now than in the Asia-Pacific. The South China Sea in particular, much like the Arctic Basin, is a region rich in seabed resources. Yet, unlike the Arctic, its importance to global commerce is real today rather than emergent tomorrow. To the southwest, it is served by one of the world’s most important maritime transit ways—the Malacca Strait—through which passes a substantial portion of global maritime commerce, including much of the oil and gas resources upon which regional economies depend.

From the legal perspective, the region is overlaid with multiple and largely overlapping territorial claims, especially by the states that enclose the South China Sea, a factor that has, for the most part, defied diplomatic and legal efforts at resolution. Many observers suggest that future solutions, however distant their prospects, will be political rather than legal in nature, adding complexities at the geopolitical level.

In this context, China has identified its maritime claims in the South China Sea as a core national interest, at a time when ocean policy has become increasingly central to the Sino-American relationship in two crucial respects: first, in relation to the United States as an Asia-Pacific power that is vested deeply in regional stability and security; and second, in relation to the role played by the United States as the world’s pre-eminent maritime power. In both instances, how China and the United States approach their differences in ocean policy will be crucial to the trajectory of the 21st Century.

China is not alone in making such claims. That it does so may simply signal the need for a new international dialogue concerning adjustments to be achieved between coastal states’ needs for regulation and stewardship of their ocean approaches, and the international community’s rights of free movement and access.

That alone would be a development of cardinal importance to the global system. However, it may also portend something even more profound, should the international consensus through which the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea was derived begin to unravel, and with it, the period of relative stability in ocean politics that the convention has achieved.

HMCS Athabaskan leads this formation, followed by HMCS Montréal (left), then HMCS Charlottetown (centre) and HMCS Fredericton (right) during a Task Group exercise conducted in the Atlantic Ocean in 2010.

DND photo HS2010-T003-018 by Corporal Johanie Mahew.

HMCS Athabaskan leads this formation, followed by HMCS Montréal (left), then HMCS Charlottetown (centre) and HMCS Fredericton (right) during a Task Group exercise conducted in the Atlantic Ocean in 2010.

The consequences of such an unravelling would be enormous, and potentially could lead to a far darker world than the one we now inhabit. This is not a future to which I believe any of us would want to aspire, but rather one in which I and my fellow naval officers, guided by strategic trust, should be prepared to stand against, for the common vital interest of our nations, and for the greater good of all.

There are areas where we and other like-minded navies are already working towards that greater good. In the Caribbean Basin and the Pacific approaches to Central and South America, a range of nations from the Americas and Europe are cooperating effectively to stem the flow of narcotics at sea through the auspices of the Joint Interagency Task Force South.

Off the Horn of Africa, we have witnessed, since 2008, a largely spontaneous but nonetheless remarkable assembly of naval power to suppress piracy, while the international community continues to seek more enduring solutions.


In other words, navies are not only a means of military action, employed in pursuit of national interests as states interpret them. They are also the principal guarantor of good order in that wide common upon which men may pass in all directions, as the great American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan described it. Every naval officer, as first and foremost a professional mariner, understands that our oceans remain crucial to sustaining life on this planet.

Each one of us understands that the ocean’s riches are crucial to the future of all coastal states, many of which are struggling to secure a better life for their citizens. Each one of us understands how a regulated ocean commons underpins the global economy, upon which our prosperity, and indeed, our very way of life, depends.

This is the point at which national self-interest and common global interest converge fully. I am speaking of choices that are ours to make, today’s leaders and the leaders of tomorrow, that requires strategic trust to be established and sustained among pragmatic, determined men and women of action. I believe it to be within our collective grasp to realize its great purpose. Indeed, there may be no higher purpose. All we need to do is resolve ourselves to achieve it.


Rendering of a concept design of the Canadian Surface Combatant ship

BMT Fleet Technology Ltd. 

Rendering of a concept design of the Canadian Surface Combatant ship



  1. Editor’s Note. Passages added specifically for the CMJ readership in this issue are indicated by use of italicized text.