GEOPOLITICS

How to clear Suez Canal blockage – an action plan for tightening maritime choke points security

By J Brooks Spector 8 April 2021

A handout photo made available by the Suez Canal Authority, shows the Ever Given container ship which ran aground in the Suez Canal, Egypt, 25 March 2021. The Ever Given, a large container ship ran aground blocking passage of other ships and causing a traffic jam for cargo vessels. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Suez Canal Authority)

Although the massive container ship, the Ever Given, has now been freed from blocking the Suez Canal, imagine the damage to global commerce if five of the world’s most critical maritime choke points — the Suez and Panama Canals, and the Gibraltar, Malacca, and Hormuz Straits — were ALL blocked simultaneously by hostile forces or terror groups.

The following is what we hope is a preliminary draft of a pending National Security Council action memorandum being prepared and cleared across the appropriate parts of the US government, in response to the Suez Canal blockage. It was leaked to us secretly by a friend working in the government, but we can’t say who it was.

TOP SECRET — NO FOREIGN DISSEMINATION

DRAFT

To: Mr Jake Sullivan, National Security Advisor, The White House

CC: Principals at State, Defense, Homeland Security, CIA, Transportation, Justice, FBI….(others to be added)

From: NSC/International Threats Staff Team…

Subject: The Five Choke Points and Their Pivotal Role in the Global Economy and US National Security Planning

The problem

The recent blockage of the Suez Canal by an ultralarge container cargo vessel helps point out the extraordinary dangers to international commerce and a globalised supply chain network by the accidental or deliberate blockage of a group of key maritime choke points. New measures are urgently needed to coordinate strategies globally to prevent reoccurrences of such events, or, at the minimum, to mitigate their effects should such things occur in future.

Historical and strategic background

The recent navigation accident in which a massive container cargo ship, the Ever Given, blocked the Suez Canal for all traffic for over a week, should focus attention on the strategic and economic importance of that manmade waterway, together with a select number of other passageways. 

Most officials, even those with extensive experience in geopolitical analysis, at least until this incident occurred, paid only modest attention to the massive global impact of any disruption to the operations in a shortlist of maritime choke points. 

This is somewhat surprising, given the ideas promulgated at the end of the 19th century by American naval officer, Alfred T Mahan, and a feature of naval doctrine ever since. Over a hundred and twenty years ago, Mahan had written, “…it may safely be said that it is essential to the welfare of the whole country that the conditions of trade and commerce should remain, as far as possible, unaffected by an external war. In order to do this, the enemy must be kept not only out of our ports, but far away from our coasts.” 

Such justification for the relationship between maritime security and prosperity now clearly extends beyond the requirement for open seas from Mahan’s era. Given the vast expansion of international seaborne trade, including the multi-national character of supply chain manufacturing, and the massive scale of many of the vessels conducting the transport, concern about this network has become especially pertinent to the five choke points under current discussion.

For our purposes, the five key choke points we call special attention to are the Suez and Panama Canals, and the Straits of Hormuz, Gibraltar and Malacca. The two canals transect single nations to connect two ocean systems (Mediterranean to Red Sea/Indian Ocean and Caribbean/Atlantic to Pacific, respectively), while multiple nations face onto each of the three straits under discussion. Collectively, commercial passage through these five narrow stretches of water constitutes the preponderance of the total value of all global trade, a figure estimated at over 90% by value. 

This relative lack of thorough examination of global choke points by strategic analysts has been the case for some decades, even as international air transport safety and security gained much popular and governmental attention. A partial exception to this has been the recognised impact of the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz on the shipments of oil and LNG [liquefied natural gas] from Persian Gulf sources into global markets in which these discussions are entangled with the ongoing strategic (and potential military) confrontations between Iran and the US and Iran and the various Gulf states. 

In fact, just as has been true throughout human history, most international freight transport moves by sea. Such a feature of international trade extends back thousands of years to the seaborne trading lands of Mycenaean Greece, Crete, and Phoenicia.

The flow of oil and LNG from wellheads around the Persian Gulf via ULCCs (ultralarge crude carriers) and their equivalent for LNG, and the growing use of very large bulk carriers, vast purpose-built container ships carrying thousands of standardised containers such as the ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal, and the thorough dependence on such carriers for global trade, all contribute to the urgent need for an integrated choke point strategy by the US and its allies. 

Suez Canal traffic represents at least 12% of total global traffic, while transit through the Straits of Malacca is at least 30% of all global trade by value — including petroleum and LNG. In the case of the Straits of Malacca, the cargo is largely primary commodities headed to the major Northeast Asian industrial nations of China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, and manufactured goods heading from those countries to the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa through the same Straits. 

While American defence officials do pay attention in strategic planning to each of these choke points individually, there has been relatively less consideration of them as a connected system of strategic positions. For the Defense Department and US forces, strategic concerns about the Panama Canal are under the purview of the DOD’s Southern Command, while Gibraltar falls under the European Command (in tandem with the UK and Nato), Suez and Hormuz are the responsibility of Central Command, and Malacca is monitored by the Indo-Pacific Command. 

But no single, overall strategic office watches the interconnectedness of all of these choke points and the impact of any disruptions on global commerce and shipping. However, the recent Suez Canal incident, along with periodic ship attacks in or near the Strait of Hormuz have amply demonstrated the vulnerability of these points to possible acts of terrorism, the outbreak of actual military hostilities, or destructive acts of nature. Collectively, this makes a powerful case for proactive steps to protect these choke points and the global trading network they serve. 

The international body most closely connected to this question is the International Maritime Organization (IMO), an agency of the UN. However, the IMO defines its role as “the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine and atmospheric pollution by ships. IMO’s work supports the UN sustainable development goals.” 

However, regarding the Suez accident, the IMO’s Secretary-General, Kitack Lim, would only say he was “aware of the implications of the temporary closure of the canal, and I ask for patience from stakeholders across the supply chain as everyone works to ensure that the ship, its crew, its cargo and the environment remain protected. 

“I look forward to receiving information from the investigation into the incident so that IMO can act on any appropriate recommendations derived from the findings.” Absent in both the mission statement and the IMO’s secretary-general were any broader recognitions of the larger international security implications for such an incident, let alone deeper understanding of the threat to the global trading order such blockages could achieve.

Commenting on this event, RAND Corporation [the US think-tank focusing on international security affairs] senior engineer specialist Scott Savitz observed, “The recent spectacle of the hulking container ship wedged into the Suez Canal is a reminder of how vulnerable maritime transportation is to blocked choke points. While the Ever Given appears to have gotten stuck by accident, military planners must remember that such blockages can be inflicted on purpose….”

Noting that in many choke points around the world (like Suez and Panama) ships in transit are confined waterways no wider than the length of a large container ship, Savitz added, “An attacker could bribe a crew to deliberately sink one, run it aground, or crash it at a narrow point in the approaches to a port. Alternatively, electronic or cyberattacks against a ship’s control system could cause a channel-blocking accident. Clearing a blockship can take days or weeks, enough time for the other side to make military gains that are difficult to reverse. The trapped ships and submarines are also vulnerable to missile attack, having become a set of fixed targets.

“The best way to defend against such an attack is preventing the ship from getting close to the choke point, but massive commercial ships go through heavily trafficked waters—including those near military ports—all the time. It may be hard to discern hostile intent until relatively late — and even then, a large commercial ship is hard to stop, regardless of what weapons might be used. The ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal, for example, weighs 200,000 tons. It is as long as the Empire State Building is tall and covers an area greater than 15 football fields. Once such a ship has reached a narrow waterway, it can crash into fixed infrastructure, take aim at another ship, run aground, or scuttle itself by detonating explosives.… 

“…Emerging technologies can make blockship strategies more effective. As a 2013 RAND report noted, unmanned ships can conduct these types of attacks without putting military personnel at risk. The ships need not be technologically sophisticated; any rustbucket of a container ship or obsolete warship will do. It is becoming increasingly viable for even an antiquated ship to operate autonomously…. 

“…In recent days, the world saw how one large ship athwart a canal could impose massive costs on world commerce. Russia, likewise, demonstrated in Crimea how an obsolete warship can be. The fragility of maritime lifelines — and the ability to use unmanned ships, electronic warfare, and cyberattacks — may encourage the use of this tactic in future conflict and make it even more effective.” 

Some of this may sound like the plot of an extravagant Tom Clancy-style military thriller, except that with the Suez event only just the global rearview mirror, it is easy to imagine how devastating such an event like the Suez incident to the global economy could be, were it to be multiplied by a factor of four or five — including a blockage in the Panama Canal and the havoc to shipping in the three straits, if there was dangerous wreckage or stalled shipping adrift in them. 

Just the other day, The Washington Post reporting on the Suez aftermath, noted, “But for the global shipping industry, the saga isn’t over. While freeing the ship was a colossal effort, in some ways what happens next is the hard part, as experts reexamine fundamental assumptions about shipping and world trade.

“There are immediate questions under investigation and thorny issues of liability, but longer-term concerns loom. The canal has long been a geopolitical choke point. But the events of the past week have lent new weight to questions about whether the canal is too vulnerable in a world of changing weather, terrorism and other emergent threats.”

Action recommended

Precisely because every nation would be harmed by multiple blockages of some or all of the key chokepoints under consideration, addressing this question could become an important element in the Biden administration’s focus on rebuilding America’s active and positive participation in the institutions of the international community. The incident in the Suez Canal has thus become an opportunity to aim for achieving global consensus on the need to ensure the five major choke points (and perhaps others such as new shipping lanes along the Arctic Sea route being proposed by Russia) are more effectively patrolled and regulated by the international community to minimise risks and dangers. 

Addressing these concerns would be especially important given that there are issues in the event of another incident that can arise from the nature of ship ownership, responsibility for ship operations, flag of convenience usage, and complex liability and insurance issues, thereby making the normal processes of maritime legal arbitration that much more difficult. 

Sovereignty and territorial waters issues in areas where disputes continue to exist will similarly need thorough attention to ensure the regulation of the choke points is effectively managed without stepping into a minefield of conflicting territorial claims. In fact, an informal example of such cooperation has taken place in recent years with the commitment of naval elements from many different nations deployed in the Arabian Sea in order to combat piracy and hostage that was adversely affecting commercial shipping.

Accordingly, the Biden administration should call for an international meeting, hosted under the umbrella of the IMO, perhaps, but specifically designed to develop real mechanisms that can turn abstract questions into international realities. Uninterrupted global commerce is sufficiently important to every nation on the planet that even those nations whose leadership may be harbouring hostile intent towards the West and the US will still have an interest in engaging meaningfully on this issue, even if they do not yet agree on the need for further action. 

Such a conference and the resulting concrete outcomes may even contribute to the easing of some of the tensions between such nations and the US, even as it would also demonstrate the ability of nations such as China and Russia to work cooperatively with the United States, despite a climate of current discord at some levels.   

While the natural responsibility as the lead agency for such an effort is the Department of Transportation, given the question’s broad international dimensions, all other agencies with international responsibilities must also be key players in developing the administration’s approach.

Time frame

Given the importance of this question, this proposal should be included in the next major presidential address and the necessary international pre-consultations to lay the groundwork for such a conference should begin as quickly as possible.

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Just imagine if this actually came to pass! DM

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  • It has happened! For eight years, from June 1967 to June 1975. I turned out to be very good for South Africa. Many ships going round the Cape of Good Hope stopped on the South African coast for bunkers, victuals, spares, mail and sometimes repairs.

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