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Strategic Theater Yields Lessons

THE VAST WATERS of the Indian Ocean, stretching east from the shores of Africa to Australia and north to India, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia, provide an important sea route connecting critical regions of the world. Approximately five and a half times the size of the United States, the ocean is home to four major chokepoints for international maritime trade: the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab-el-Mandeb, and the Strait of Malacca. Thus, identifying trends in the region’s maritime conflicts is critical.

A new database that documents nearly 70 years of interstate naval conflicts in the strategic thoroughfare may now help analysts put future events in context. The Indian Ocean Naval Conflicts Database (IONCD), created by The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., tracks naval conflicts between states in the Indian Ocean from 1939 to 2007. It does not currently include data from 2008 and 2009 because of time constraints on the project.

The database is a work in progress, according to Justin De Rise, a former research assistant at The Nixon Center who compiled the IONCD. In the future, the center hopes to expand it to include more recent data, increase the geographic scope and expand the coding structure, which would include information about a conflict’s outcome, the number of ships involved, and the types of ordnance used.

The IONCD includes more than 700 incidents and is divided chronologically, beginning with World War II (1939-1945), the early Cold War (1946-1979), the Tanker War (1980-1989), the era of American unipolarity (1990-2001), and the 21st century (2002-2007). Each entry cites the states involved in the incident, the level of conflict, the start and end dates, and the location. It includes longitude and latitude and assigns a number between one and five that ranks the level of precision of the location.

Entries are listed in several formats. First, the location of each incident is displayed in Google Maps, providing a visual representation of where conflicts occurred. Users may click on the flag and read an incident’s description. Additional statistical information about each entry, listed by an internal reference number, is also included. Users may also download a master file containing all the information for each incident.

The database does not include incidents involving nonstate actors, such as pirates; air battles over water, which do not involve a naval vessel; or diplomatic threats without a maritime show of force.

The IONCD project grew out of the Correlates of War (COW), a comprehensive database of major interstate disputes from 1816 to 2001, De Rise explains. The COW database, which is currently supported by Penn State University, is a predominant conflict dataset founded in the 1960s. The database was used to provide political scientists a tool they could use to note correlations between the level of conflict and other factors, such as the type of regime of states involved in conflict or the levels of trade.

The IONCD is part of a larger effort to examine the increasing role that major Asian countries—particularly India, Pakistan, China, and Japan—are playing in the Middle East, says Geoffrey Kemp, director of The Nixon Center’s Regional Strategic Program.

Kemp and De Rise found that the COW was good for looking at major conflicts, but it did not give details about specific incidents. “It didn’t go down, for instance, in the Tanker War, to an Iraqi Mirage attacking a Norwegian tanker, that sort of thing,” De Rise says. “So we wanted something with another level of specificity and another level of nuance.”

Going down to the incident level allows the IONCD to more accurately trace a naval conflict. De Rise says the COW often provides an entry for a conflict but misses the naval dimension. De Rise cites the 1971 Bangladesh War as an example. The COW “records the conflict as being between India and Pakistan and taking place in the center of Bangladesh,” De Rise says. “But the COW completely excludes the two major naval campaigns of the war: In Operation Trident, the Indian navy [sank] a number of Pakistani ships off of Karachi, while India set up a crippling blockade in the Bay of Bengal that essentially forced Pakistan out of the war.”

The focus on naval incidents allows analysts to make judgments about a particular navy’s past operational strategies and tactics, which might have a bearing on future conflicts, De Rise says. The detailed account of American naval activities during the 1991 Gulf War highlights the effectiveness of U.S. maritime interdiction operations and the first use of sea-launched cruise missiles against Iraqi targets, De Rise notes.

“The value of this and all other databases is the ability to look at events over time in a systematic way,” says Scott Bennett, associate director of the COW. “Without well-organized central data, we don’t know whether some single event is part of a pattern, is new, is isolated, or is just par-for- the-course in some area. Given that conflicts are often long-running and violent engagements are sporadic, it is useful to have some perspective.”