Equilibrium: Issue #3

🌊 Where have naval convoys gone?

To the Global Energy Security Community,

Thank you for your continued readership and interest in the critical conversations we hope to spark with the third issue of Equilibrium as we continue to present “Energy in Context.”

This newsletter comes to you just before the beginning of our 2024 Global Energy Security Talks in Tokyo. Each topic covered in this issue is related to speakers, panels, and exercises we will present to the attendees of GEST 24.

Our first piece is written by Commander Jimmy Drennan. In this piece, we build on the topic of maritime security we brought you in the previous Equilibrium issue—this time focusing on the Pacific as Commander Drennan highlights the challenges the United States and its allies would face moving logistics in a hypothetical Pacific conflict.

Next, Milena Rodban discusses the threats to physical energy infrastructure presented by cyber vulnerabilities. Finally, Jon-Michael Murray highlights the bureaucratic and regulatory roadblocks that hinder progress in expanding American nuclear power production capability.

Because this issue is meant to present a teaser of some of the topics for GEST 24, we are also including a brief overview of the event itself. For those attending, we hope this gets you excited to kick off three days of dialogue and connection with other energy security-focused experts.

For those who are not attending, we hope this illustrates the kind of world-class conversations that GEST facilitates. We hope to see you at GEST 25.

– Mike Nelson

Where Have All the Convoys Gone?

By Jimmy Drennan 

American warships escort merchant vessels across the Pacific in World War II.

When the Houthis expanded their attacks on merchant shipping in the waters around Yemen in late 2023, several concerned nations responded quickly to try to restore freedom of navigation through the Red Sea. The situation seemed ideal for the return of naval convoys – large concentrations of merchant vessels escorted by warships. A busy shipping lane was threatened by a known adversary. But images of World War II-style convoys, or even like the ones seen during the Iran-Iraq Tanker War of the 1980s, have not surfaced. Why not?

A Different Ballgame

Convoys have historically been effective and still could be, yet various factors keep them on the shelf today and likely in the future. Even in the tailor-made situation in the contested Red Sea shipping lanes, the evolution of naval warfare technology, the politics and economics of the global shipping industry, and the state of western shipbuilding all play a part in preventing their use.

If convoys aren't being used in the Middle East today, there's even less chance of them being employed in a future conflict in the Pacific. The operational energy requirements of the Pacific – including protecting energy infrastructure such as shipping, ports, power grids, and natural resources – become immensely complicated by the region’s vast waterspace and latticework geopolitics. Energy security involves much more than escorting shipping, and belligerents will undoubtedly target all aspects of U.S. and allied infrastructure to influence the outcome of a future conflict.

There are two fundamental reasons for navies to secure energy infrastructure: (1) to fuel their nation's economy, which the US aimed to do with Operation EARNEST WILL – the American protection of Kuwaiti-owned tankers to keep oil flowing from the Persian Gulf from 1987-88; and (2) to fuel their war-making effort, as was the case in World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic when America led the Allied effort to resupply a beleaguered Britain.

In a conflict, the failure of either aim could spell defeat. If a government can't provide power to its population, the political will to fight will evaporate. If a military can't fuel its engines, its campaign will stall. 

Keeping the Lights On

Protecting economic interests involves maintaining the flow of commerce. But during a conflict short of war, warships will likely provide "zone defense" and “man-to-man defense;” the cost of convoys will simply be too high for both navies and shipping companies. Merchants won't accept delays incurred while waiting for escorts, and if the risk is too high, they will redirect vessels to the next most economical route, like many are now doing around the Cape of Good Hope due to the challenged Red Sea route.

Similarly, the US Navy and its partners and allies will not have enough ships for dedicated escort duty throughout the massive Western Pacific. Relatively few ships will be forced to defend broad stretches of sea lanes, and a war-time shipbuilding surge will likely occur too late if a conflict ends quickly. In the interim, navies will rely on the increasing range and capabilities of their sensors, interceptors, and unmanned systems to counter the expanding range and capabilities of air, surface, and subsurface weapons. This dynamic is seen today around Yemen, as guided missile destroyers provide area defense against anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack drones.

The challenge, unfortunately, will extend beyond the Pacific Ocean. Key chokepoints, such as the Panama and Suez Canals, must be protected to prevent disruption to energy supply chains. China could leverage its extensive stake in the global shipping industry to delay or frustrate American energy shipments, potentially by influencing countries that host Chinese-owned ports and terminals. Additionally, it could attempt to shut down seaports with cyber-attacks on critical equipment such as cranes or shipboard steering systems. This problem, of course, goes both ways, and the US and its allies will be able to hold China's energy supply similarly at risk.

The US relies on a patchwork of multilateral and bilateral agreements to oppose the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarianism. Bringing these diverse partners together in the name of energy security would be a herculean effort. We see this today, where even NATO could not achieve unity of effort for maritime security in the Middle East.

To protect international shipping from the Houthis, the US established Operation PROSPERITY GUARDIAN with more than 20 partners, while the EU separately established Operation ASPIDES. In 2019, the US and EU also established parallel constructs to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Asian nations' interests will be even more divergent, and they will most likely prioritize escorting their own shipping on a case-by-case basis, as some countries are doing now in the Red Sea.

The US found a way around this problem in the Tanker War by reflagging Kuwaiti tankers and escorting them through the Persian Gulf using self-defense rules of engagement. The strategy had some success, but it is unlikely to be replicated any time soon. The Reagan Administration's decision to convert foreign vessels to domestic ones faced congressional opposition from both parties. Today, in an era when Congress often feels excluded from the decision to use military force, such a move would be extremely unpopular.

Reflagged Kuwaiti tankers transit the Persian Gulf escorted by the US Navy.

Keeping the Engines Running

If a conflict between the US and China escalated to war, the appeal of naval convoys may be more nostalgic than practical. For one, securing energy infrastructure will not be a "Point A to Point B" problem, like in the Battle of the Atlantic.

There are 30 nations scattered across thousands of islands and approximately 30 million square miles in the Western Pacific, and China will hold US allies' infrastructure at risk. As David Alman points out at War on the Rocks, "It is very possible future maritime conflict in the Pacific would be dominated by the battle to resupply forward allies."

Further, the need to defend their power grids and seaports will spread allied navies even thinner. The Ukraine War demonstrates the enduring value of power plants, electrical substations, refineries, undersea pipelines, bridges, and freight terminals as targets in warfare.

Just as legacy energy infrastructure has always been a strategically important target, the global transition to renewable energy sources will likely produce new targets that must be defended. Rare earth metals are vital in technologies like solar panels, batteries for electric vehicles, wind turbines, nuclear fusion, and more. The race is on to mine these resources from the seabed, particularly in the Pacific. The economic potential of deep-sea mining is one reason economic exclusion zones (EEZ) are so hotly contested in the Western Pacific.

For example, China claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, which extends from their shores far beyond the 12 nautical mile limit prescribed in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and contains the EEZs of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. These countries are sitting atop untold quantities of increasingly valuable natural resources. As deep-sea mining operations mature, they will become critical links in a new energy supply chain and, therefore, critical infrastructure to defend.

If Not Convoys, Then What?

There is no panacea for securing energy infrastructure during a conflict in the Pacific. Naval convoys may be in the mix, but they will not be sufficient alone. Investments will be required in everything from technical solutions (e.g., lower-cost alternatives to defeating drone attacks) to political initiatives (e.g., ratifying UNCLOS to better support partners on the world stage against Chinese territorial encroachment).

On 29 January 2024, a bipartisan, bicameral group of 19 lawmakers wrote an open letter to President Biden calling for strategic reinvestment in our maritime interests and, specifically, for the creation of an interagency maritime policy coordinator who would report to the President.

Such a coordinator, combined with a comprehensive national maritime strategy, would be a good start in preparing for the defense of energy infrastructure in the Pacific. Such investments – in technology, policy, and positions – might be a viable combination to replace the convoys of the past. 

The statements and views expressed here do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the United States Navy, or U.S. Central Command.

Jimmy Drennan is a retiring Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy and former President of the Center for International Maritime Security.

Your exclusive guide to the Global Energy Security Talks (GEST) 2024 - Tokyo

As the May issue of Equilibrium arrives in your inboxes, the Global Energy Security Institute (GESI) team is in Tokyo preparing to host GEST 2024. This year’s GEST comes at a time of unprecedented challenge to the security of global energy production, transportation, and distribution due to rising demand, wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, and a host of other factors.

The community of energy, policy, and security experts and professionals represented at GEST have a lot to cover, with the goal of building shared awareness and creative thinking about how to advise and navigate in such an environment.

Protecting Power: Cyber Threats to Energy Infrastructure

By Milena Rodban

Cybersecurity threats to physical infrastructure are evolving rapidly in a deteriorating global operating environment characterized by increasing nation-state conflicts, organized cybercrime, and extremist groups targeting critical infrastructure for asymmetric advantage. This is particularly true for the energy sector, a national critical function as designated by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). As a result, an increasing number of regulations are levied to improve cybersecurity, given the high number of possible attack vectors and entities seeking to exploit them.

Several of the energy sector’s key characteristics make it particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks with physical consequences. Decentralized infrastructure, the use of digitally connected and remote industrial controls, the burden of legacy software and hardware, and a shortage of cybersecurity talent in the field complicate the challenge. Already threatened by the destructive forces of climate change, extensive regulation, and the high costs of investment in the energy transition to renewables, the imperative to improve cybersecurity constitutes yet another competing priority for the energy sector, which cannot be ignored.

The Challenges of Expanding Deployment of Nuclear Energy

By Jon-Michael Murray

The path to significantly expanding nuclear energy in the United States is neither clear nor easy. Plant Vogtle Unit 4 in Georgia entered commercial operation at the end of April of 2024, capping the end of the first two new nuclear power deployments in the U.S. in decades, coming in at a total cost of over $31 billion and many years past schedule. Analyses have pointed to various factors as the drivers of such overruns, such as inherent difficulties with first-of-a-kind projects, starting construction with incomplete designs, and poor project management practices.

All these are valid, but they are only proximate causes. To overcome investment risk and make it possible to deploy and rapidly build out nuclear energy in the U.S., the policy and regulatory issues underlying most of the nuclear industry’s dysfunction must also be examined. The first step should be to examine licensing and oversight at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Thanks for reading this edition of Equilibrium, and we look forward to seeing you at GEST 24!

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