On offensive neorealism and the role of space

This paper is theoretically built on offensive neorealism as elaborated by Mearsheimer (2001). The core assumptions and principles of this theory are articulated below. Firstly, states are the key actors in international politics. The primary interest of states is their survival. States live in an anarchical environment; therefore they have to fear for their survival and relative power, since there is no higher authority able to defend a victim of an aggression. States can never be sure about the (namely future) intentions of other states, meaning that there is a permanent possibility of war and physical annihilation. It follows, then, that states should care about the power they possess. It is possible to claim with some simplification that, ceteris paribus, an increase of power causes an increase in security. Therefore, calculated and prudent power maximization is the best strategy in this environment (see Mearsheimer 2001). It follows that the world according to offensive neorealism is a place where great powers perpetually struggle over scarce security (see Hamilton, Rathburn 2013), and where the potential for conflict or even war is omnipresent. In offensive neorealism, as well as in defensive neorealism, weaker states try to check potential hegemons via balancing coalitions. However, in stark contrast to defensive neorealism (represented by Waltz 1979 or Walt 1987), balancing is quite often ineffective since it is infested with the very same problems as other collective actions (Mearsheimer 2001). The most important implication is that states have no guarantee that-if attacked-they will find help.

Nevertheless, offensive neorealism is, in the case of this chapter, supplemented with geopolitical logic, which I would like to present in the following paragraphs. Generally, we can say that there are three factors determining the geopolitical situation in a region:

  • (i) the balance of power (the distribution of capabilities within the region and possibly the presence of an extra-regional great-power);
  • (ii) the geographical configuration of a region; and,
  • (iii) technology.

The first two points will be discussed in the following chapters, but for now I would like to discuss the main implications of the interplay among different geographical contexts and military technology. Technology affects the actual meaning of geographical configurations through its ability to both modify the capability of military forces to exploit opportunities by terrain or broader geographical configurations, and also through different limitations exposed in specific geographical contexts. With respect to the considered region and the fact that the rest of the analysis deals with the upper-strategic level, I focus namely on the issues of power projection on land and at sea (for a brief summary see table 1) and problems of seaborne operations.

Generally it is possible to say that military operations on land are manpower intensive and the role of technology is significantly limited by terrain and vegetation cover (see Biddle 2004). Given this, power disparities among nations are relatively unimportant. A smart plan combined with superior tactical skills are more determinative (for a victory) than sheer numbers or technology (see Biddle 2004). It is possible to say that power projection on land may be cheap if there are no significant adversaries. Nevertheless, it may be extremely problematic if there are competent-even if they are weaker-adversaries. This is demonstrated by the fact that land warfare is warfare by a large number of relatively independent and evenly distributed small units (on modern tactics see Biddle 2004, Nikitin 1982 etc.). It follows that the destruction of several units may not be sufficient for a quick overall victory, unless there is a smart plan concerning how to exploit some partial tactical success.

The sea is, on the other hand, a very different environment. It does not offer plentiful opportunities for cover and concealment (one exception being submarines). Furthermore, the sea demands that ships be relatively large, which further reduces chances for concealment through the smart use of terrain. It follows that sea warfare is extremely influenced by technology and thus it is a rather capital-intensive kind of warfare. Thus, technological and economical disparities among nations can co-determine the winner of a conflict. On the other hand, a sea environment is surprisingly conductive for power projection. Once a nation has built a superior navy, it is possible to project power across large masses of open sea. Large ships are big enough to operate for weeks without logistical help. From previous statements it is easy to deduce that naval warfare is usually determined by a relatively small number of highly sophisticated and tightly cooperating units (see Gray 1999).

This description of sea warfare could lead us to conclude that large masses of water are not in fact obstacles for power projection-a result which contradicts the central claim of Mearsheimer (2001). Nevertheless, the problem with power projection across sea is indeed present. However, to better understand the issue it is a good to distinguish (i) the open sea, (ii) the sea shore and (iii) land. On the open sea, the power projection is quite easy for the superior navy. The problems emerge as we move toward the shore. Here, diesel submarines and other ships, land based aircrafts, and anti-naval guided rockets can operate. As we move into the coastal waters (say within 30-50 miles from a shore), a defender has the opportunity to engage his artillery and attack helicopters. Finally, at a short distance from beaches, a defender can employ fire from tanks, mortars, anti-tank weapons, and anvariety of small infantry weapons. The land-based defender has several advantages over an approaching sea-based attacker. The defender can disperse and conceal his units. If some units are destroyed it does not necessarily mean destruction of one’s general capability to defend the homeland. On the other hand, the attacker has no choice but to concentrate his aircrafts on the deck of one or a few ships. Therefore his vulnerability is paramount. Finally, the attacker, if he wants to penetrate the shore and attack and conquer land targets, has to find a place to disembark. The problem is that quite often these places (which are appropriate for a massive seaborne operation) are rare, thus it is not difficult to prepare a strong defense. Given that the attacker has to concentrate his forces, he is extremely vulnerable, unless he is significantly stronger than the defender (see also Mearhseimer 2001).

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