June 6, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Maritime Choke Points and Strategic Interruption
• Over one half of the world’s crude oil is transported via sea-lanes
• Almost 20% of the world’s oil transits the Strait of Hormuz
• Over 85% of China’s oil imports move through the Strait of Malacca
• However, oil isn’t the only major seaborne commodity; the effects of climate change and industrialized nations’ increasing foodstuffs importation continue to emphasize the strategic importance of the world’s nine primary maritime choke points
• The Arctic Sea represents an emerging maritime choke point.
Sir Walter Raleigh’s notion of the command of the seas certainly included choke points, where major maritime shipping routes are constricted by the geography of neighboring land masses. First articulated as a strategic concept by British Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fischer in the early part of the 20th century, these choke points are as important now to the Western industrialized nations as they were to Imperial Britain at the beginning of that century.
Globalization has made the uninterrupted flow of oil and goods upon the oceans of the world of paramount importance to the security and economic health of all industrial nations. Over one half of the world’s crude oil is transported via sea-lanes that can be disrupted during crisis or political instability at several key and vulnerable points, by either nation states or terrorist organizations.
The Ghost of Jackie Fisher
Fischer’s choke points were geographical features he believed vital for the Royal Navy’s ability to keep commerce flowing throughout the British Empire: the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandeb, Strait of Malacca, Gibraltar, Turkish/Bosporus Straits, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Today, the flow of crude oil and natural gas to Europe, Asia, and the United States is constrained at some point by one or more of these points. Almost 20% of the world’s oil transits the Strait of Hormuz every year. This area is every bit as important, if not more so, that it was in Fischer’s day. Any type of effective closure of the Hormuz would overcome the reserves in the oil market very quickly and thereby spike prices. Ships leaving Ras al-Tanura oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, from Kuwait, and from Iraq bound for Europe will pass through at least three choke points (Hormuz, Bab al-Mandeb and the Suez Canal) if using the quickest route to getting the product to the consumer in Europe. Ships bound for China, South Korea, and Japan will also transit at least two (Hormuz and Malacca) on the most direct and profitable route. Over 85% of oil imported into China will transit the Strait of Malacca and 45% of that amount will have been first shipped via Hormuz. Any disruption in this traffic due to the choke points being closed or even deemed a hazard due to a credible threat will have far-reaching economic and political repercussions. Shipments that have to be re-routed over thousands of miles can cost tens of thousands of dollars per day. Insurance rates that are raised for areas under threat or closed due to conflict can have long-term consequences for markets and economies, even if only for a brief period.
The Littoral Waters Are Key
The threats to maritime choke points can come from conventional conflicts or asymmetrical actions and threats. The Qaeda core under Bin Laden certainly understood and acted on this concept. Past maritime plots and attacks by al-Qaeda have focused on or near these points. The 2000 USS Cole and 2002 M/V Limburg attacks in Aden and just off the Yemeni coastal city of al-Mukullah, respectively, were not far from the Bab al-Mandeb. The 2002 Gibraltar Plot, as with the USS Cole and M/V Limburg attacks, was orchestrated by the Qaeda maritime planner Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri and focused on the choke point between Africa and Europe. The attack in 2010 against the M/V M. Star took place in the Strait of Hormuz. In each of these attacks the results were far from what was intended, due to the inherent technical difficulty in sinking a modern vessel, with improvised explosive devices.
In addition, attacking a vessel underway in open ocean presents logistical and technical issues beyond the abilities of terrorist organizations, at least to date. Conversely, as the vessel slows in constricted waters, target identification and tactical approach becomes easier for the terrorist operation. In places such as the Suez Canal, ships are sometimes motionless for long periods of time, waiting to pick up pilots, or holding in convoy for opposing traffic. Thus, for the terrorist, the choke point focuses the potential target into the littoral waters where it becomes easier prey to improvised water-borne IED.
Terrorism is not the only concern for these vital arteries of commerce. The Strait of Hormuz is of critical concern to the Iranian regime and viewed as a strategic interest and, thus, of paramount importance to the Iranians. In any potential conflict with the US, the Iranian Navy is vastly outclassed. In order to redress this imbalance, the Iranian Navy has an operational history of small boat swarm tactics that are routinely exercised against US Navy ships transiting the Hormuz. Conflict in the Strait and even limited success by the Iranian Navy will also reverberate throughout the world’s markets.
Some oil industry experts have forecasted that the world will rely less upon oil from the Persian Gulf in upcoming decades, which would mean fewer shipments of oil via some of the traditional choke points. However, oil is only one of the major commodities transported by sea. The effects of climate change and increasing seaborne importation of foodstuffs by the industrialized nations may ensure Fischer’s theory will remain valid for another century.
• The traditional maritime choke points will be of increased strategic interest and value over the next decade. Additionally, climate change has opened new routes through the Arctic’s waters that will create new choke points
• Both governments and terrorist groups will focus the struggle for security or control of these points into the littoral waters surrounding them.
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