Maritime Chokepoints and their Influence on World History
Why the closing of the Suez Canal means a lot?
“Yet, by 1706, instead of seeing the navy of France riding upon our coast, we sent every year a powerful fleet to insult theirs, superior to them not only in the ocean, but in the Mediterranean, forcing them entirely out of that sea by the mere sight of our Flag.”
On the impact of capturing Gibraltar
The Influence of Sea Power upon History
By Alfred T. Mahan
300 years ago, the War of Spanish Succession was to have a major impact on the history of Europe and the influence of British naval power. In return for being allowed to have a king from the Royal House of Bourbon, Spain ceded ownership of Gibraltar, which controlled the western entrance to the Mediterranean, to the British.
300 year later, Spain has a king from the Royal House of Bourbon, King Felipe VI, and Britain still controls Gibraltar. And, if anyone thinks that control of the Strait of Gibraltar does not mean anything in today’s modern world, they only must look back to 2019, when British Commandos launching from Gibraltar captured an Iranian tanker bringing oil to a Syrian refinery.
Alfred Mahan’s book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783 is considered the greatest book written on naval strategy. Kaiser Wilhelm ordered his naval officers to read it and it impacted Germany’s push to build a large surface fleet before WWI.
President Theodore Roosevelt read it and wrote to Mahan calling it a “naval classic.” As president, he used the principles in the book to reconfigure the American Navy to become a major naval power – the main reason one of the most powerful warships in the world, the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is named after him.
Ironically, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently in the South China Sea facing off against the Chinese navy, which also uses the naval principles of Mahan too.
The Influence of Sea Power upon History focused on how geography determined the commercial maritime influence and naval power of nations. And, with the shipping accident in the Suez Canal, we see how the geography of maritime chokepoints can seriously impact maritime shipping and projection of naval power.
It is estimated that 90% of the world’s trade is transported by sea and the major maritime link between Europe and Asia goes through the Suez Canal. In 2019, 19,000 ships carrying 1.25 billion tons of shipping went through the Suez Canal between Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal. 13% of the world’s trade is expected to be hampered by this accident. Ships that will have to head around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope will need an extra 15 days to make the trip.
But the Ever Given accident isn’t just a civilian maritime problem. It has caused a major problem for the US Navy, which has ordered a team of American naval personnel to travel to Egypt to help solve the problem.
At a time of increased tension between China and the US, the Suez blockage has seriously impacted the ability of the US to reinforce its fleet off China. The aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower is currently in the Mediterranean and was scheduled to transit the Suez to carry out exercises in the Arabian Sea. It was also tasked to be reinforcement in the South China Sea, if conditions called for it. Although the USS Ronald Reagan is stationed in Japan, the USS Eisenhower would be likely to arrive on station in the South China Sea before the Reagan could finish scheduled repairs and modernization and set sail.
For centuries, naval officers have known that controlling the oceans is too big a task. Therefore, control of the seas requires controlling chokepoints. Some of the critical ones are the Strait of Gibraltar, Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, English Channel, Malacca Strait, Strait of Bab al Mandab, and the Taiwan Strait.
There are several reasons why controlling one of these chokepoints is critical. First, it allows a nation to control maritime shipping – allowing the movement of friendly shipping, while restricting the shipping of the enemy. This has been the primary use of Gibraltar. Over the last 300 years, it has restricted commercial shipping of nations like France during the Napoleonic Wars.
Second, it allows a small naval force to stop the movement of an enemy naval force through the chokepoint. During WWII, the English Channel and the British Navy were able to prevent a German invasion of that island nation.
Finally, a chokepoint is an ideal place to carry out an amphibious invasion. In 1944, the Allies were able to use the narrow seas between France and England to launch the D-Day landings in Normandy.
The most important chokepoint in terms of commercial traffic is the Malacca Strait. It is the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans. 94,000 ships pass through the strait each year and it carries about 25% of the world’s traded goods. It carries about one quarter of the oil from the Middle East to Asian countries.
The amount of traffic also makes the strait highly congested. Near the south of the strait, the channel narrows to only 2.8 kilometers wide. On August 20th, 2017, the US Navy warship USS John McCain collided with the merchant ship Alnic MC, leading to the death of 10 American sailors. Eventually the blame was placed on the US ship and the lack of training of its bridge crew.
In terms of potential threat, there is nothing that is considered more critical than the Strait of Hormuz. It is the only passage to the open sea for several oil producing nations. 35% of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through the strait, of which 85% goes to Asian markets. There is currently new tension between Israel and Iran concerning several explosions onboard their shipping.
The Strait of Hormuz is currently patrolled by a multinational naval task force. Currently the French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle is the capital ship of the force.
Like the Suez Cannel, the Panama Canal is manmade and very vulnerable to breakdowns. In 2016, larger locks were built to allow larger shipping to transit the canal.
Although the Panama Canal remains a critical chokepoint, some ships from Asia stop at American Pacific ports and allow the cargo to be transported to the East Coast by rail.
The Taiwan Strait has been a historic strategic chokepoint. In WWII, Japanese maritime trade used it as a protected passage from the islands in the south and the Japanese Islands. Cutting the supply of oil and raw materials from its colonies of Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) was considered so important that America debated whether Taiwan or the Philippines should be invaded.
The Taiwan Strait remains of strategic importance as it would be the route of a Chinese amphibious assault against Taiwan.
The Bosporus separates Europe and Asia as well as the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It has a long history in terms of invasions between Europe and Asia. The ancient Greeks got their grain from Black Sea ports and the Persians invaded Greece across the Bosporus several times. Its importance caused Roman emperor Constantine the Great to establish Constantinople (Modern Istanbul) there. It was subject to the largest amphibious invasions during WWI (Gallipoli).
The Bosporus has been a long-term strategic goal of Russia as it has always been desirous of a warm water port that does not freeze in the winter.
The English Channel is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean and is the busiest shipping area in the world. Its narrowest point is the Strait of Dover, which is only 21 miles. It has been the “moat” that has protected England from invasion since the last successful invasion in 1066 by William the Conqueror. Since then, it has stopped the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and Hitler.
Gibraltar is the gate from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Much of the maritime traffic that goes through the Suez Canal transits the Strait of Gibraltar and goes to northern European ports like Hamburg.
As the capture of the Iranian oil tanker proved, Gibraltar still has strategic significance. It monitors Russian submarine movements in the Mediterranean by tracking submarines that leave the port of Murmansk and then transit the strait while submerged. It remains a Royal Navy port and is frequently used as a training area and a stopover for units, ships, and aircraft heading east of the Suez Canal.
There are hundreds of chokepoints for local and limited maritime traffic. However, an accident like that in the Suez Canal, or war can make anyone of them important.
One such chokepoint that only had importance for a couple of years in WWII was in the Solomon Islands. During the Battle of Guadalcanal and later amphibious landings by American Marines, the channel between the islands would be called “The Slot.” Allied and Japanese warships would battle regularly over control of these waters and so many ships would be sunk in the waters that it would later gain the name of “Iron Bottom Sound.”
So, while some chokepoints like the Strait of Gibraltar will remain chokepoints over the centuries, we can never be sure what the next critical piece of ocean will be.