A common defense for the ‘global commons’
The guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) launches Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles in response to increased Iranian-backed Houthi malign behavior in the Red Sea Jan. 12, 2024. As a part of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, Gravely is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to support maritime security and stability in the Middle East. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jonathan Word)

A common defense for the ‘global commons’

U.S. and British airstrikes against Houthi rebels based in Yemen – after weeks of Houthi drone, missile and speedboat attacks targeting international shipping in the Red Sea – have brought into focus how important it is for responsible powers to protect and defend what's known as the “global commons.” If America and its free world allies fail to play this role, the global commons – and indeed the globe – will be swallowed up by chaos.

Under assault. The “global commons” has been described as the “connective tissue” of the global economy – areas around and above the earth that don’t fall within any country’s jurisdiction but which all countries depend on to conduct commerce, communications and other activities essential to their survival. Enfolding the seas, the skies, space and cyberspace, the global commons is a “crucial enabler of international security and trade,” as a NATO report explains. “The architecture of the modern international system rests on a foundation of assured access to, and stability in, the commons.”

The crisis in the Red Sea (which under normal conditions carries 15% of global trade) offers a glimpse of what happens when instability limits access to the global commons: 18% of cargo traffic has been forced to reroute. Distance traveled for cargo ships has jumped by 25%. Insurance costs have skyrocketed. Civilian vessels of more than 50 nations – guilty of nothing more than conducting commerce – have come under threat. Cargo has been lost. The result: Costs for consumers, producers and shippers have spiked, all because of Iran-Houthi piracy.

This helps explain why throughout history, responsible nations – not unlike state troopers patrolling the highways – have worked to enforce rules of the road and maintain some semblance of order in the global commons. This effort began with navies enforcing norms of behavior in international waters and evolved, as mankind’s technologies evolved, to include international airspace, then outer space, then cyberspace.

All of these are under assault by an axis of tyrants and terrorists – led by China, Russia, Iran and their proxies – that either want to rewrite the rules or reject the rules altogether.

China. China is illegally claiming waters and islands in the South China Sea, building and militarizing manmade islands to bolster those claims, bullying allied ships in international and sovereign territorial waters, and salami-slicing its way to de facto control over a waterway that sustains a third of global trade. Beyond its neighborhood, China has used civilian vessels to disable undersea gas pipelines connecting Estonia and Finland and sever undersea communications cables connecting Estonia, Finland and Sweden; they’ve also cut (repeatedly) communications cables connecting Taiwan’s islands. Plus, China has disgorged an armada of civilian fishing vessels to plunder and despoil international and sovereign territorial waters.

In the skies, China has conducted numerous illegal intercepts in international airspace. China has declared an illegal air-defense identification zone above the East China Sea, ostensibly requiring that any aircraft flying through what is international airspace seek PRC permission to do so – and risk PRC interdiction for failing to do so. Beyond the atmosphere, reckless PRC anti-satellite (ASAT) tests have littered space with vast debris fields that threaten commercial satellite activity. One of Beijing’s ASAT tests created 3,000 pieces of deadly space debris.

Finally, in the newest domain of the global commons, China is conducting a cyber-siege of the free world: crashing Taiwan’s networks, harvesting intellectual property from free-market economies, hacking Japan’s defense systems, targeting British members of Parliament, using email networks to breach European and U.S. government agencies, gaining control over networks at U.S. defense-related agencies, launching “spear-phishing” attacks to steal innovations from U.S. firms, penetrating the Office of Personnel Management and compromising the data of 21.5 million Americans, stealing designs for U.S. weapons systems and erasing hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth every year.

Russia. Russia is engaged in nothing less than piracy throughout the Black Sea. Even before its 2022 assault on Ukraine, Russia was asserting illegal claims – and recklessly so – in the international waters of the Black Sea and Pacific Ocean. Like China, Russia is suspected of severing undersea cables linking the Norwegian mainland with satellite stations based on Arctic islands, as well as other undersea sabotage operations in and around the Arctic Circle. Russia also is attempting to restrict maritime activity in Arctic waters, while making outlandish claims over the Arctic region.

In the skies, Russia has attacked U.S. and British aircraft operating in international airspace. In space, Russia in 2021 tested a ground-launched ASAT weapon that “generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris,” U.S. Space Command reports.

Moscow has used cyberspace to penetrate the U.S. electrical grid, implanting malicious software and sleeper switches to allow Russia to disrupt service. In 2021, Colonial Pipeline, which administers the major fuel arteries serving much of the East Coast, was hit by a ransomware cyberattack from a Russia-based group called DarkSide. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains, “No cyber-group operates there without Moscow’s knowledge.” The attack triggered a spike in gasoline prices, gas-station closures and panic hoarding, as the food supply, livelihoods and freedom of movement of 100 million Americans were held hostage. That same year, ransomware attacks targeted meatpacking giant JBS. Again, the ripple effects were widespread. Plants were idled, meat prices jumped, livestock deliveries were delayed, slaughterhouses were forced to slow production, and restaurants and families faced higher retail prices. And again, a Russian hacking group was behind the attack. Finally, cyberattacks against hospitals in Oregon, New York and Nevada – all emanating from a group called Ryuk, which is tied to Russian intelligence – crippled their ability to deliver critical care.

Iran and North Korea. Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, constantly harasses vessels operating in the Persian Gulf, carries out other piratical activity in the Persian Gulf and aids Houthi piracy in the Red Sea. In cyberspace, Iranian cyberattacks have siphoned intellectual property from U.S. universities and companies. And Iran’s Shamoon computer virus destroyed 30,000 computers supporting the Saudi oil industry.

Both Iran and North Korea have asserted excessive, illegal claims beyond their territorial waters. North Korea unleashed cyberattacks against U.S. companies conducting COVID-19 research. North Korea’s WannaCry cyberattacks triggered chaos in Britain’s hospital system. And Pyongyang’s DarkSeoul attacks destroyed thousands of computers at South Korea’s largest banks and broadcasting companies.

Shared. The United States cannot defend the global commons alone. The global commons, by definition, is a global resource, and so there must be a common defense for the global commons. The good news is that responsible nations are coming together to shoulder this shared responsibility.

In response to the Iran-aided Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes, the United States and its allies have forged an ad hoc coalition known as Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) to protect – and quite literally shield – civilian cargo ships from latter-day piracy. Joining the United States in this escort and protection mission are Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Spain. In addition, India and Pakistan have sent warships to protect their own vessels.

Importantly, OPG operates under an already-existing multinational construct known as the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) – a 39-nation partnership that serves as an umbrella for several naval task forces focused on security, counterterrorism and counterpiracy in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and around the Horn of Africa.

Adm. James Stavridis (former military commander of NATO and former commander of U.S. European Command) pointed out months ago that OPG’s defensive mission is simply not enough to protect this swath of the global commons – and address this kind of threat. Thus, Stavridis called for “offensive action against verified Houthi targets at sea” and “strikes ashore at known Houthi infrastructure.”

That’s exactly what U.S. and British air and naval forces – with assistance from Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands – began in mid-January. The fact that the Pentagon recently gave these counterpiracy strikes a codename – Operation Poseidon Archer (OPA) – suggests they could go on for some time.

This sort of punitive and ultimately preventive military action, as Stavridis knows well, is very much in line with how America has defended and ensured freedom of the seas over the centuries. Indeed, America’s commitment to freedom of the seas dates to the earliest days of the republic: President Thomas Jefferson’s war on piracy – waged all the way “to the shores of Tripoli” – was in defense of freedom of the seas and, in a very real sense, in defense of the global commons. The hundreds of instances of U.S. military intervention that followed enfold dozens of operations focused on counterpiracy, freedom of the seas, freedom of transit and maritime encroachment.

Template. Efforts such as OPG, CMF and OPA provide a template not just for other at-risk sea lanes, but also for other domains of the global commons.

Regarding other at-risk sea lanes – especially in the Indo-Pacific – it’s not difficult to envision U.S., Indian, Japanese, Australian, British, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and EU naval assets forming another ad hoc taskforce dedicated to freedom of navigation in the South and East China seas. Indeed, from the Arctic Circle and South Pacific, to the Red Sea and Black Sea, to the Mediterranean and South China Sea, the free world could surge what Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, calls a “thousand-ship navy.” Deploying “the best capabilities of all freedom-loving navies of the world,” this navy of navies could promote and defend freedom of the seas on a regional basis.

Similarly, NATO’s Air Policing Mission, which relies on a rotating mix of air forces to secure at-risk alliance airspace, serves as a template for efforts to ensure freedom of over-flight in swaths of international airspace now in the crosshairs of China, Russia and Iran.

Similar partnerships are taking shape in space and cyberspace. More than 20 democracies enfolding five continents are part of the Artemis Accords, which promote the peaceful use and exploration of space. Some of those allies contribute to Operation Olympic Defender – a U.S.-led effort to extend the proven principles of deterrence into space.

In cyberspace, NATO’s cyber-defense center has made room for non-NATO members Australia, Austria, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Ukraine. The United States and its partners have even engaged in operations to deter, mitigate, prevent and punish misuse of cyberspace.

Costs. Protecting the global commons is a costly, endless task. But the years when there were no safe passageways in the global commons, when no one was willing or able to enforce rules of the road – the years of global war – remind us that averting our gaze is far more costly. 

The Red Sea crisis is yet another cautionary example of why America and its allies must not only defend the free world, but also protect the arteries that connect and sustain the free world.