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The ‘icebreaker-gap’ – how US icebreakers are assigned new, symbolic roles as part of an escalating military competition in the Arctic

By Lin A. Mortensgaard & Kristian Søby Kristensen, Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen

Under construction: “The largest icebreaker in the world”

In the high summer of 2020 U.S. President Donald J. Trump suddenly spoke enthusiastically about icebreakers: 

we have, under construction right now, the largest icebreaker in the world.  And we’re going to be trying to get, if we can, an extra 10 icebreakers.  We only have one.  Russia has 40; we have one. 

The remarks on icebreakers came as part of a list of new defense acquisitions which the president claimed to have secured funding for – almost singlehandedly – with the aim of rebuilding “the entire United States military”.

But why are icebreakers counted as a defense item, when their main tasks are civilian in character? Icebreakers are primarily used in support of research efforts and infrastructure access at the poles, as well as search and rescue missions in ice-covered waters. 

If icebreakers are mostly used for civilian purposes, why does it matter how many icebreakers Russia has? Why must the US icebreakers be the largest “in the world”? Was Trump just being his own competitive self, making sure America is also first when it comes to icebreakers? Or is this escalating ‘icebreaker-race’ a symptom of something larger and longer-lasting than President Trump?

The answer is a cocktail of the particular geographic and climatic aspects unique to the Arctic region, and growing global geopolitical rivalry.

Operating in polar climates (still) requires icebreakers

Only a handful of states have active icebreakers at their disposal, including the United States, Russia, China, Canada and Finland. The largest and most powerful fleets belong to Russia, Canada and Finland. A common denominator for these three states is that they have ice-covered coastal areas at high latitudes.

Russia and Canada, in particular, have extensive Arctic coastlines inhabited by their own citizens, and with a variety of icebreaking needs. Russia also envisions a booming economic development in its Arctic territories, based on oil and natural gas deposits in the Russian Arctic, as well as maritime traffic through the Northern Sea Route. This also requires a significant number of icebreakers.

The US and China each have two semi-functioning icebreakers (in the US recently renamed “polar security cutters”), which are engaged in missions both in the Arctic and the Antarctic.

What is clear from the above is that icebreakers serve important functions at the highest latitudes of the globe – i.e. in the cold, ice and snow-covered areas of the Arctic and the Antarctic. They are indispensable for breaking and maintaining sea lanes at both poles. They are the only vessels that can clear passages through meters of thick sea ice, even though they sometimes struggle to do so.

Despite the fact that accelerating climate change is causing dramatically diminishing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean (and also affects the maritime areas surrounding the Antarctic continent), icebreaking is still necessary for operating at the poles.   

The Arctic and the Antarctic: ‘At opposite poles’ politically

Distinguishing the Arctic from the Antarctic region are two important, and interconnected, aspects: geography and politics. In catchy terms, the Arctic is “an ocean surrounded by continents, while the Antarctic is continent surrounded by oceans”. These geographical differences matter for how politics play out at the poles.

Antarctica is uninhabited, apart from a small number of scientists, and governed by the Antarctic Treaty System of 1959, which set aside prior territorial claims, and established the continent as a site full of scientific endeavors and free of military activity and installations. For the time being, this peaceful political configuration is intact.

The Arctic, on the other hand, is not uninhabited, but home to almost four million people who live in the eight Arctic states. It is governed by a number of international agreements, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and a number of inter-state cooperative agreements, negotiated under the auspices of the region’s most prominent intergovernmental forum, The Arctic Council.

Large parts of the seabed and subsoil of the Arctic Ocean are claimed by one or more of the Arctic States, under article 76 of UNCLOS. And importantly, there is no treaty prohibiting military activity or installations in the Arctic.     

Great power competition enters the Arctic

Global rivalry between the US and China is brewing – a rivalry that also involves Russia. This great power competition is increasingly affecting political dynamics in many parts of the world, including the Arctic region, which is – despite decades of peaceful cooperation following the end of the cold war – not bound by any Antarctic-like treaties, shielding it from security politics.

In the past couple of years, the US has been increasingly turning its attention to the Arctic diplomatically, economically and militarily. However, many argue that the US is a little late to the Arctic party in terms of political attention, resource allocation and strategic direction from the top levels of government.

Proclaiming Russia’s Arctic behavior “aggressive” and warning against China’s Arctic intentions ahead of the Arctic Council meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, in 2019, the US view on the Arctic, however, took a defining turn, ignited by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  

The US now sees itself in a great power competition also in the Arctic, but finds itself lagging behind especially Russia in terms of Arctic military infrastructure, training, and equipment. And this is where icebreakers re-enter the story.

The icebreakers, being not only operationally necessary to the polar regions, but to some extent also symbolic of the challenges inherent to the polar climates, suddenly become an effective vehicle for showcasing arctic capabilities and ‘arcticness’. In this way, icebreakers – despite their mostly civilian tasks – are drawn into the Arctic chapter of a growing great power competition, which is increasingly military in character.

In this competition, the clearest sign of the icebreakers being assigned an important symbolic role, extending beyond their practical functions, is the widespread talk of a growing “icebreaker-gap”. The echo of the cold war missile-gap is anything but accidental. President Trump’s enthusiasm for icebreakers should be seen in light of this; constructing more American icebreakers is to compete with Russia and China in the Arctic.  

Symbolically breaking the US into the Arctic

With icebreakers being particular to the polar regions, the North Atlantic witnessing heightened geopolitical tensions, and the US-Russia-China geopolitical rivalries starting to infiltrate the Arctic, icebreakers become ripe for taking on new symbolic ‘assignments’ in the Arctic.

The icebreakers are being re-assigned as symbols of US hard-power in the Arctic, despite their institutional home being the US Coast Guard, and their practical functions mostly being in search and rescue missions, or in supporting roles to polar research.

In this way, icebreakers are taking on two very different types of assignments – one practical, the other symbolic. Recently President Putin has also begun subscribing to the idea of an icebreaker-race by directly linking Russian superiority in the Arctic with presence in the form of a “unique icebreaker fleet”, which must also be strengthened and updated.

Despite not being very good at war, icebreakers are increasingly drawn into an escalating military competition in the Arctic. The icebreakers – both existing ones and the ones ‘under construction’ – are tasked with symbolically breaking the US into the region, and the icebreakers themselves become an important symbolic parameter of what it means to be a present, competitive, engaged and strong Arctic power.     

For a PDF of the commentary, please click here

Lin A. Mortensgaard is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. Lin focuses on defence and security dynamics in the Arctic and North Atlantic. She has published on Securitization Theory and on knowledge-production
and (un)knowns in and relating to the Arctic region.

Dr. Kristian Søby Kristensen is Senior Researcher and Deputy Director at the Center for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. He is interested in topics like war, security and strategy, as well as European and transatlantic defense and security policy – especially if focused on the Arctic Region

SafeSeas holds Ideaslab

For a number of years the SafeSeas network has been holding bi-annual events at which ongoing or planned research projects are discussed. These so-called Ideaslabs have the primary purpose to discuss, explore and advance early ideas for maritime security related research.

At the winter 2020 ideaslab, held on the 3rd of December, four ideas were discussed. Felix Mallin, National University of Singapore, introduced a range of ideas why we need to take a critical stance towards the idea of the blue economy, and argued for the need to pay more attention of how participates in blue economy debates and benefits from it.

Katja Lidskov Jacobsen, University of Copenhagen, introduced her work on capacity building for maritime security. Drawing on some of the first insights of the AMARIS project, she called for particular attention to the dark side and potential negative impacts of current capacity building initiatives.

Kristian Søby Kristensen and Lin Alexandra Mortensgaard, both University of Copenhagen, introduced their work on the politics of icebreakers. They argued that the status given to icebreakers as a tool for foreign policy and strategy in particular in relation to the Arctic region is puzzling.

The last presentation was by Christian Bueger and Tobias Liebetrau. Presenting the first insights of the ongoing project on submarine data cables, they argued that current research pays insufficient attention to the broader questions of the geopolitics and security of the global cable infrastructures.

The next ideaslab will be held in Spring 2021.

Presentation at G7 meeting

The G7++ Friends of the Gulf of Guinea is the most important global forum to coordinate the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea region. At this years plenary meeting Prof. Bueger, one of the directors of SafeSeas gave a presentation on December 3rd on how academic research can inform counter-piracy operations.

Taking the work of SafeSeas members, and in particular, the AMARIS project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, as a starting point, Bueger argued that there are three principle ways of how practitioners can draw on academic research:

  1. Providing a better understanding of what the problem of piracy actually is by contextualising it, comparing it, and offering insights on structures, change and root causes.
  2. By analysing what works and what doesn’t and laying out new alternative actions not previously considered.
  3. In being directly part of the response, through awareness raising measures, science diplomacy or training and education activities

Debate on promises of blue criminology

Blue criminology provides an alternative perspective on the sea. It argues that the sea presents a particular environment characterized by fluidity, complexity and legal pluralism, and the complicated land-sea relation. The ocean environment also implies specific forms of harm caused by criminals.

Understanding these conditions and different forms of blue crime is the agenda of blue criminology. Safeseas directors Prof Christian Bueger and Prof Tim Edmunds presented the outline of the agenda of blue criminology at a recent event hosted by the Center for Blue Governance at the University of Portsmouth on 25.11.2020.

What is blue criminology?

Bueger and Edmunds define blue criminology as follows:

“blue criminology is the trans-disciplinary field that studies illicit activities in the maritime domain and its consequences for security, order, the environment and economy. As a field, blue criminology integrates insights from disciplines as diverse as the sociology and anthropology of crime and policing, logistics and infrastructure studies, marine geography, migration studies, security studies, international law, international relations and other disciplines concerned with the ocean and marine environment.”

For Bueger and Edmunds, blue criminology has three major concerns:

“It is firstly interested in the social, economic and political conditions that lead to blue crimes; secondly, with the motivations, organisations and practices of carrying out such crimes, thirdly, with the practical responses to such activities through legal, security, policing, economic or other instruments and the larger political effects of such measures for order.”

Conceptualizing blue crime

Blue crime is the core concept of blue criminology. The concept of blue crime was discussed in detail by Bueger and Edmunds in an article published in Marine Policy in September 2020. Providing a detailed conceptual discussion, they are argue to distinguish crimes according to the harm they cause and how they relate to the sea. Accordingly they argue to distinguish three types:

  1. Crimes against mobility. In this category crime targets what moves at sea and causes harm in the transport, fishing or tourism industry, the infrastructures that they required, but also among other users of the sea. Different expressions of maritime piracy are paradigmatic here, but we also need to consider port security, or marine cyber security.
  2. Criminal flows. In these kinds of crimes the sea is used as a transit space, while the harm is not caused directly at sea, but where populations are most often the target. Different forms of smuggling people and illicit goods are part of this category.
  3. Environmental crimes. This category again differs as here the harm is caused at sea. It is the environment that suffers, and the effects on human populations can be long term or indirect, as when an act of deliberate pollution destroys the habitat of a coastline.

Studying interlinkages

One of the core task of blue criminology is to understand how such crimes interlink, mutually enable each other, thrive under the same conditions, or are committed by the same perpetrators. The point is to develop more holistic analyses of such crimes.

Yet the goal is also to understand how responses to such crimes inter-relate out of an analytical but also practical interest.

Blue criminology brings the considerable degree of fragmentation and complexity of institutional responses to the fore. Overlap and competition between respondents are the consequences. One of the goal of blue criminology is hence to understand these difficulties and identify areas in which better synergies can be achieved.

Participation in IFC Maritime Security Webinar

The Information Fusion Centre (IFC) based in Singapore is one of the most important international hubs for sharing information on the maritime domain. It enhances the global understanding what issues at sea need attention.

One element of this work are frequent events for maritime stakeholders and an interested public. On the 25th of November, SafeSeas Director Prof. Christian Bueger gave a presentation, in the IFC’s new 3 day online format, the 2020 Maritime Security Webinar.

At the seminar Bueger provided an overview of maritime information sharing initiatives and discussed the numerous challenges these face drawing on an recent article on the subject.

New exploratory project on submarine data cables

Submarine data cables are one of the most important critical infrastructures of the digital age. Surprisingly little is known about how the cable network works, how it is governed and what kind of politics it entails.

In a new exploratory research project funded by the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science, SafeSeas members study the cable network focusing on the cases of Denmark and South Africa. The project is a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen, the Institute for Security Studies (Pretoria), and the SafeSeas network. It runs from 2021 to 2022 and is led by Prof. Christian Bueger, with Dr. Tobias Liebetrau (University of Copenhagen) and Mr. Tim Walker (ISS) as the core team.

Drawing on contemporary debates on the politics and security of infrastructures in this project we connect debates on cyber space and ocean space. We investigates how cables are governed and protected, their geopolitical and socio-technical relations and how cable infrastructure become objects of governance.

What the Nave Andromeda incident tells us about UK maritime security

Scott Edwards & Tim Edmunds

On October 25th at around 10am, just off the coast of the Isle of Wight, seven stowaways turned violent and threatened the crew of the Nave Andromeda, sparking concerns of a hijacking and intervention by the coastguard and police. A three-mile exclusion zone was put into effect around the ship for 10 hours, before the Navy’s Special Boat Service (SBS) boarded the ship and detained the stowaways.

Much of the reporting has revolved around the intervention of the SBS in this incident. But it should also encourage us to reflect more widely on the implications for UK maritime security.  

Maritime security in home waters

What maritime security risks does the UK face in its own waters? In this case, the stowaways’ actions seemed to have resulted from their attempts to claim asylum in the UK being frustrated by the crew’s actions to detain them prior to the ship entering the Port of Southampton.

Initially however, the seizure sparked concerns about maritime terrorism, including potentially the use of the tanker to cause damage to UK ports or inflict an environmental catastrophe off the British coast. Fears centred on the ship containing significant quantities of oil that could in theory facilitate such an attack, though this was later dismissed.

Such concerns are indicative of a wider set of maritime security risks, challenges and demands in UK waters.

A potential terrorist incident at sea remains perhaps the foremost of these. In particular, the spectre of a mass casualty ‘Mumbai style’ attack on a ferry or cruise liner looms large in the worst-case scenarios of UK maritime security planners.

Other risks include criminal or state-based threats to submarine cables and other maritime infrastructures, smuggling and trafficking of various sorts, as well as demands to protect and police fishing grounds and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the maintenance of public order at sea – for example in the event of clashes between rival fishing boats, the blockade of a port – and the need to ensure maritime safety and to protect lives at sea.


To what extent is the UK prepared for such challenges? On this occasion the crew quickly secured themselves in the ship’s citadel, an action which was followed by a swift, well-coordinated and effective maritime security response. This involved multiple agencies including the police, coastguard and Navy, and culminated in an SBS boarding action which was able to take control of the ship quickly and bloodlessly.

But was the UK also lucky in this case? The stowaways appear to have been relatively compliant beyond the initial reports of violence. The incident took place close to shore and in Channel waters, where response times are short and key assets close to hand. The SBS has its headquarters at Poole – only a few miles from the site of the hijacking. Hampshire police is one of the best equipped and most active maritime forces in the country. Maritime domain awareness, surveillance and coordination capacities are at their strongest off the south coast.

Not all the UK’s maritime spaces are so well served.

Beyond seablindess

These events highlight the importance of the UK’s maritime spaces, and the challenges that these can present for security policy and practice.

In Britain, we have become accustomed to thinking of the seas off our coasts as safe and well-ordered spaces for commerce, transportation and leisure. For the most part, and at most times, this remains the case.

Yet the Nave Andromeda incident is not the only one in recent months that suggests this benign picture may be partial at best. The increase in asylum seekers risking their lives to cross to the UK in small boats has highlighted challenges of maritime border management, search and rescue and people smuggling by sea. Major drug seizures in ports highlight the importance of maritime routes to drug traffickers. And Brexit is likely to place new demands on the UK to police and manage its fishing grounds and other maritime resources.

Different maritime risks can be linked – or have the potential to escalate – in ways that are not always easy to appreciate or predict. In this case the problem of stowaways on board became a more serious challenge and, initially at least – raised concerns over of a potential terrorist threat. It is plausible that similar chains of events might end less happily in future.

Migration and security

Maritime security cannot be considered in isolation from other policy areas. The Nave Andromeda case, similar to the rise in small boats crossing the Channel, proved fundamentally to be a problem of migration, human tragedy and desperation, as much as it was one of maritime security.

These are issues that cannot be addressed by maritime security responses alone. As we have argued elsewhere in the context of the small boats crisis, migration issues are ultimately best served by migration policy.

In the case of the UK, the restriction of legal migration options such as the refugee resettlement scheme and obstacles in more traditional migration routes due to COVID-19 controls, have encouraged desperate asylum seekers to opt for risky maritime crossings in order to reach the UK.

Any long-term solution to these challenges must be found in an effective and humane migration policy rather than in policing the consequences of its absence.

Building capacity

None of this means that the UK can ignore the demands of maritime security. Outside of the Channel and certain other areas of strategic priority – such as coastal nuclear power stations or military installations – maritime security capacities are more fragmented and inconsistent.

If it had taken place elsewhere, the Nave Andromeda incident may have proved more difficult to manage.

Certainly, stowaways pose problems for ports beyond the Channel too, and this also applies to other potential maritime risks too, including those with far graver potential consequences than a last ditch bid for asylum by desperate migrants.

Either way, the UK cannot afford to be ‘seablind’ in its own waters. There needs to be a proper recognition of maritime security in future policy and resourcing decisions, including in the government’s ongoing Integrated Review.

Importantly, such efforts must include not only the Navy and marines, but other key maritime security and governance agencies too. These include the police, coastguard, Border Force and Marine Management Organisations, as well as the mechanisms and processes through which these organisations train and coordinate with each other.

Future responses

The Nave Andromeda incident demonstrated how the UK can respond effectively to a maritime security crisis when it occurs. But this should not stop the government from reflecting hard on the implications of this this case for maritime security more widely and ensuring that responses to potentially more serious incidents in future are just as successful.

For a PDF of this commentary, click here

This article originally put the time of the incident mistakenly as 10pm, rather than 10am, and has been amended

Book on Capacity Building for Maritime Security published

How can countries step up their maritime security? How can they better tackle challenges, such as illegal fishing, marine piracy or smuggling? How can the international community better assist countries with weaker capacities?

A major new book authored by the SafeSeas team addresses these and related questions. The book draws on an 18 months research project that has collated the experience in the Western Indian Ocean.

The book provides an overview of the challenges linked to maritime security capacity building. It offers a framework for evaluating and studying gaps, needs and progress in developing maritime security responses. Seven countries are studied in detail: Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, Kenya, Seychelles, Djibouti, and Somalia.

The book complements the best practice toolkit for maritime security capacity building published earlier. It is a must read for anyone interested in maritime security, how to best organize responses, and how to deliver capacity building. It is a major new source for those engaged in improving maritime security, ocean governance, but also provides new analytical thinking for the scholarly debate.

The book is available via the Publisher’s website. You can also contact the SafeSeas team, to obtain a sample chapter.

Maritime Security and the Anthropocene

SafeSeas Director Christian Bueger gave a talk on the challenges that the anthropocene, climate change and biodiversity loss pose for maritime security at the conference of the NATO Maritime Security Centre of Excellence 2020 conference on September 16th.

In the talk Bueger revisited what changes the anthropocene imply and what that means for maritime security forces. He argued that the anthropocene implies changing patterns of blue crime, more difficult working conditions for maritime security forces as well as a broader spectrum of tasks.

The video of the presentation is available here.

Video – Blue Crimes: Rethinking the Maritime Security Agenda

Christian Bueger (SafeSeas/Uni of Copenhagen)

Timothy Edmunds (SafeSeas/Uni of Bristol), Jason Eligh (Global Initiative), Maria Damanaki (ex-EU Marine Commissioner), Cathy Haenlein (RUSI) & Alan Cole (UNODC GMCP) featured in our latest event.

The event discussed the blue crime concept, drawing upon a paper written by Tim and Christian. Read the paper related to the event here: