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Eventually Navies Take Over

I attended a “keynote” talk at a security conference a few years ago with this title as a key premise. You know how I love history, so I was excited. The speaker, a well-regarded mathematician, told us “eventually, navies take over” because they will “perform tight surveillance of sea lanes and ensure safety for commerce”.

That sounded counter-factual to me, given what history tells us about rigid empires trying to oppress and control markets. So while I enjoyed the topic I noted some curious issues with this presentation perspective.

Common sense tells me authorities have historically struggled to stem a shift to nimbler, lighter and more open commerce lanes. Authoritarian models struggle for good reasons. Shipping routes protected by a Navy basically are a high tax that does not scale well, requiring controversial forms of “investment”.

This comes up all the time in security history circles. A “security tax” becomes an increasing liability because scaling perimeters is hard (the same way castles could not scale to protect trade on land); an expensive perimeter-based model as it grows actually helps accelerate demise of the empire that wants to stay in power. Perhaps we even could say navies trying to take over is the last straw for an enterprise gasping to survive as cloud services roll-in…

Consider that the infamous Spanish navy “flota” model — a highly guarded and very large shipment — seems an expensive disaster waiting to happen. It’s failure is not in an inability to deliver stuff from point A to B. The failure is in sustainability; an inability to stop competitive markets from forming with superior solutions (like the British version that came later trying to prevent American encroachment). The flota was an increased cost to maintain a route, which obsoleted itself.

Back to the keynote presentation it pointed out an attacker (e.g. the British) could make a large haul. This seems an odd point to make. Such a large haul was the effect of the flota, the perimeter model. There was a giant load of assets to be attacked, because it was an annual batch job. The British could take a large haul if they won, by design.

In defense of the flota model, the frequency of failure was low over many years. If we measured success simply on whether some shipments were profitable then it looks a lot better. This seems to me like saying Blockbuster was a success so eventually video rental stores (brick-and-mortar) take over. It sounds like going backwards in time not forward. The Spanish had a couple hundred years of shipments that kept the monarchy running, which may impress us just like the height of Blockbuster sales. To put it in infosec terms, should we say a perimeter model eventually will take over because it was used by company X to protect its commerce?

On the other hand the 80-years and the 30-years wars that Spain lost puts the flota timeline in different perspective. Oppressive extraction and taxes to maintain a navy that was increasingly overstretched and vulnerable, a period of expensive wars and leaks…in relative terms, this was not exactly a long stretch of smooth sailing.

More to the point, in peacetime the navy simply could not build a large enough presence to police all the leaks to pervasive draconian top-down trading rules. People naturally smuggled and expanded around navies or when they were not watching. We saw British and Dutch trade routes emerge out of these failures. And in wartime a growth in privateers increased difficulty for navies to manage routes against competition because the navy itself was targeted. Thus in a long continuum it seems we move towards openness until closed works out a competitive advantage. Then openness cracks the model and out-competes until…and so on. If we look at this keynote’s lesson from a Spanish threat to “take over” what comes to mind is failure; otherwise wouldn’t you be reading this in Spanish?

Hopefully this also puts into context why by 1856 America refused to ban “letters of marque” (despite European nations doing so in the Paris Declaration). US leadership expressly stated it would never want or need a permanent/standing navy (it believed privateers would be its approach to any dispute with a European military). The young American country did not envision having its own standing navy perhaps because it saw no need for the relic of unsustainable and undesirable closed markets. The political winds changed quite a bit for the US in 1899 after dramatic defeats of Spain but that’s another topic.

The conference presentation also unfortunately used some patently misleading statements like “pirates that refused to align with a government…[were] eventually executed”. I took that to mean the presenter was saying a failure to choose to serve a nation, a single one at that, would be a terminal risk for any mercenary or pirate. And I don’t believe that to be true at all.

We know some pirates, perhaps many, avoided being forced into alignment through their career and then simply retired on terms they decided. Peter Easton, a famous example, bought himself land with a Duke’s title in France. Duke Easton’s story has no signs of coercion or being forced to align. It sounds far more like a retirement agreement of his choosing. The story of “Wife of Cheng” is another example. Would you call her story the alignment of a pirate with a government, or a government aligning with the pirate? She clearly refused to align and was not executed.

Cheng I Sao repelled attack after attack by both the Chinese navy and the many Portuguese and British bounty hunters brought in to help capture her. Then, in 1810, the Chinese government tried a different tactic — they offered her universal pirate amnesty in exchange for peace.

Cheng I Sao jumped at the opportunity and headed for the negotiating table. There, the pirate queen arranged what was, all told, a killer deal. Fewer than 400 of her men received any punishment, and a mere 126 were executed. The remaining pirates got to keep their booty and were offered military jobs.

Describing pirates’ options as binary alignment-or-be-executed is crazy when you also put it in frame of carrying dual or more allegiances. One of the most famous cases in American history involves ships switching flags to the side winning at sea in order to get a piece of the spoils on their return to the appropriate port. The situation, in brief, unfolded (pun not intended) when two American ships came upon an American ship defeating a British one. The two approaching ships switched to British flags, chased off the American, then took the British ship captive switched flags back to American and split the reward from America under “letters of marque”. Eventually in court the wronged American ship proved the situation and credit was restored. How many cases went unknown?

The presenter after his talk backed away from defending facts that were behind the conclusions. He said he just read navy history lightly and was throwing out ideas for a keynote, so I let it drop as he asked. Shame, really, because I had been tossing out some thoughts on this topic for a while and it seems like a good foundation for debate. Another point I would love to discuss some day in terms of cybersecurity is why so many navy sailors converted to being pirates (hint: more sailors died transporting slaves than slaves died en route).

My own talks on piracy and letters of marque were in London, Oct 2012, San Francisco, Feb 2013 and also Mexico City, Mar 2013. They didn’t generate much response so I did not push the topic further. Perhaps I should bring them back again or submit updates, given how some have been talking about national concerns with cyber to protect commerce.

If I did present on this topic again, I might start with an official record of discussion with President Nixon, February 8, 1974, 2:37–3:35 p.m. It makes me wonder if the idea “eventually navies take over” actually is a form of political persuasion, a politicized campaign, rather than any sort of prediction or careful reflection on history:

Dr. Gray: I am an old Army man. But the issue is not whether we have a Navy as good as the Soviet Union’s, but whether we have a Navy which can protect commerce of the world. This is our #1 strategic problem.

Adm. Anderson: Suppose someone put pressure on Japan. We couldn’t protect our lines to Japan or the U.S.-Japan shipping lanes.

The questions I should have asked the keynote speaker were not about historic accuracy or even the role of navies. Instead perhaps I should have gone straight to “do you believe in authoritarianism (e.g. fascism) as a valid solution to market risks”?

Posted in History, Sailing, Security.


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