The Siege of Famagusta, Cyrpus, 1570-1571
In 2020, the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps (USMC) published Force Design 2030, announcing an abrupt shift in the Corps’ operational direction. In response to China’s increasingly-aggressive posture in the Pacific, the commandant directed a new focus on Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), which “creates a more resilient forward force posture that circumvents the efforts and obviates the investments of aspiring peer competitors employing long-range precision fires directed at dislodging US forces dependent upon legacy bases, fixed infrastructure, and large targetable platforms.” This suggests placing Marines on Pacific islands and building up Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, such as air defenses and precision weapons, aimed at restricting Chinese maritime expansion.
Unfortunately for the Marines who will occupy those islands, history presents numerous examples of fortified archipelagos being overrun by a larger, land-based power. From the Peloponnesian War to the US Marines’ own island-hopping campaign in World War II, isolated island garrisons never have the stopping power their commanders intend. One example of such failure stands out in particular – the Ottoman-Venetian wars for control of the Eastern Mediterranean that lasted for three centuries.
Founded in the early 5th century on a series of defensible lagoons by Roman citizens fleeing Germanic invaders, Venice was ideally positioned to establish itself as a commercial center. It is located at the northern edge of the Adriatic Sea, the body of water separating the Italian peninsula from the Balkans. As the Byzantine Empire’s power ebbed and the Frankish kingdoms faced internal squabbles, the Venetian mercantilist oligarchy found themselves in a unique and advantageous position. The city lacked the military muscle (and religious capital with the pope) to expand west into Italy at the expense of rival, Catholic city-states. Land to the east, on the other hand, promised access to long-forgotten trade routes, and was ripe for the picking as the Byzantines remained mired in perpetual warfare on their Eastern borders.
The Byzantine Empire circa 1080
Then in the year 1095, an irresistible opportunity for expansion presented itself. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire requested help from Pope Urban II in the form of Western mercenaries to help retake Anatolia from the Seljuk Turk raiders who had settled there. Urban responded with the now-famous First Crusade, a religiously-driven war of reconquest aimed at driving the Muslims from Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. Venice offered its seafaring capability in service of this endeavor, shuttling thousands of Western troops to the east as well as providing the naval might and logistical support the crusaders needed to seize the coastal bastions of the Levant. In return, they received a privileged trading status with the Byzantine Empire, establishing a network of far-flung commercial outposts that directly linked Western Europe to the Orient for the first time in a millennium. Venice, of course, acquired a vast sum of wealth in the process.
The Venetian relationship with the Byzantines took a turn for the worse in the infamous Fourth Crusade, as pro and anti-Western factions within the Byzantine Empire warred over the riches Venetian merchants were acquiring at their perceived expense. This internal strife culminated in the slaughter of Venetian merchants within Constantinople in 1184. In response, the Venetians sacked the city while on crusade twenty years later. After the partitioning of the Byzantine Empire, Venice was given control over substantial lands in the Balkans in addition to key Mediterranean islands such as Crete, Euboea, and Corfu.
The Eastern Mediterranean circa 1500.
It is important to emphasize that Venice did not operate as a typical state throughout this period of expansion. Its modern equivalent would be of New York City existing as an independent political entity, run by a few powerful CEOs, each with a private, mercenary army akin to Blackwater. When these islands fell into the hands of the Venetian “CEOs,” their seaborne infantry-for-hire was quick to extort the local population. This immediately created a divide between rulers and ruled that had not existed under Byzantine control and would undermine future defensive efforts.
By contrast, the Ottoman Empire developed along the lines of a traditional, militaristic, autocratic state. Beginning as vassals of the crumbling remnants of the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans quickly turned the tables on their former employers. No longer content with their status as garrison commanders, Turkish warlords soon discovered the decrepit Byzantines were unable to prevent them from simply seizing the land they had been contracted to protect. Culminating in their victories at the epic battles of Kosovo Polje and Nicopolis in 1389 and 1396, respectively, Ottoman commanders won a series of stunning military victories against several confederations of Christian powers. They cemented their position as the dominant power of the Eastern Mediterranean by the mid-15th century. This trajectory put them on a direct collision course with the ambitious Venetians, whose island hold-outs controlled vital trade lanes and naval harbors.
Unfortunately for the Venetians, their ambitions exceeded their capacity to project power. Their possessions were a series of tiny, disparate island chains and coastal fastnesses, linked only by the Venetian fleet’s tenuous control of the sea. Despite lacking the manpower and territory needed to muster a superpower-status military, Venetian control went unchallenged by the Byzantine Empire and various Arab sultanates, as they lacked the military might or political focus to dispute it. The Venetians would soon find out, however, that the Turks were a different adversary altogether. As the Ottoman state gobbled up the sophisticated but crumbling empires of the east, their expertise in warfare and access to resources quickly outpaced all adversaries. Their efficient bureaucracy and tax system were inherited from the Byzantines, their fighting tactics and composite bows from the steppe, their technology from China and Persia, and their culture and medicine from the Arabs. Logistical trains, multiethnic mobilizations, amphibious assaults, scientifically-executed sieges, and military discipline became the hallmarks of their martial style. Island-hopping campaigns that far exceeded the capabilities of their nomadic ancestors became routine drills for Ottoman commanders of the age.
The Ottoman-Venetian Wars
The Ottomans and Venetians fought a total of seven wars, beginning in 1463 and ending in 1718. The Ottomans won all but the sixth, and their losses from that war were erased in the seventh. The Turkish juggernaut conquered the Crimean colonies, the Dodecanese archipelago, Cyprus, Crete, Rhodes, the Morea, Corfu, and Dalmatia from the outnumbered and wavering Venetians throughout the centuries. The Ottomans could transport fresh levies from all corners of their empire, focusing them on a single, tiny island that was isolated and cut off from any relief. The Venetians had to rely on a far smaller pool of manpower, while contending with their ruling class’s financial interests - interests that were not always aligned with the resolute defense of the empire.
The wealth of Venice came from its control of trade lanes – trade lanes that were now only accessible through the goodwill of the Ottomans. Political power in Venice derived from wealth, wealth from trade with the east, and trade with the east from merchant fleets protected by mercenary ships. If Venetian political elites believed that war with the Ottomans would reduce their profits, they would vote against it regardless of whether or not that conflict was in the strategic interest of the city itself. As they relied upon trade with the supposed enemy for their wealth and power, they were just as likely to side with the Ottomans as they were with their fellow Venetians. This is to say nothing of their support for the Turks over fellow Christian coalitions, in return for Ottoman permission to continue their trading. Even when the council managed to convince a majority of these merchant-princes that war with the Turks was necessary, having a substantial minority undermining their every effort hardly fostered the ideal environment to prosecute a war.
The Ottoman Empire at its height circa 1683
In hindsight, observers can see the clear mismatch in powers that was less evident to contemporaries. While the Ottomans drew on vast reserves of wealth and manpower from Ukraine to Morocco, the Venetians were forced to depend on privately-contracted mercenaries, militia, and unreliable allies. The Ottoman sultan, “God’s Shadow on Earth,” exercised complete command over a massive bureaucracy built on the old Roman model. Meanwhile, the Venetian merchants, many of whom were dependent on Ottoman trade for their wealth and status, had to pass any resolutions through one another before taking action in defense of their empire. To compound these troubles, the Ottoman war machine landing on Venetian-occupied shores often found a welcoming populace of Orthodox Christians and Muslims who had been mistreated by their Venetian overlords.
The Republic of Venice would not regain its former holdings. To re-storm these coastal forts would require a price in gold and lives that the Venetians would never possess the means or will to pay. The republic was dissolved by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, exactly 1100 years after its founding. The Ottomans would strive to maintain their dominance as incessant wars and rebellions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East sapped the empire to its breaking point. The Ottoman Empire was formally dissolved after World War I in 1922.
Of course, the comparison between the Ottoman-Venetian Wars and the maneuverings of current geopolitical adversaries are not exact. While more laborious than those of a despotic regime, the military deliberations of the United States are far more expedient than those of the Venetians. Moreover, the United States possesses a vast, land-based society and utterly dominant military, neither of which the Venetians ever enjoyed. The paradigm, however, remains constant – a vast, eastern, land-based, autocracy that has finished consolidating its power, now eyeing a waning commercial power’s isolated maritime outposts sitting tantalizingly close to its home waters. Sound familiar?
Like the Venetians, the United States is embroiled with internal struggles that derail decisive action. The United States and China are interwoven in commerce to the greatest degree ever seen between two potential enemies. Global corporations based in the US, such as Apple and Nike, have outsourced virtually all of their labor to China, dramatically increasing their profits as a result. This level of profit plays a huge role in American law-making and thus American war-making. The squabbling merchants of the Venetian oligarchy have not disappeared – they merely traded silk for iPhones and galleys for destroyers.
The likeness between the Ottomans and Chinese is equally obvious. The direction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is universally understood as final. There is no delaying process of having to convince disagreeable factions of a particular course of action. Disobeying a mandate from Xi Jinping would be as unthinkable to the Chinese today as disobeying Allah’s lawgiver would be to an Ottoman subject 500 years ago. In addition, the Chinese possess that “quality all of its own” – virtually limitless manpower with its whopping 1.4 billion citizens. The man-made Chinese islands in the South China Sea evoke distant memories of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II’s hordes of conscripted laborers putting his entire fleet on log rollers and dragging them overland around the Golden Horn.
US EABs in the Pacific
If examples from history abound of this type of losing strategy, why then do we pursue it? What has changed in the calculations of leadership that make them believe our island chains will be harder to overwhelm than those of the Venetians? Theorists and strategists have determined that long-range precision fires will make the difference. The EABO handbook states “In the era of long-range precision weapons, the tactical maritime defense is the stronger form of battle and the greatest challenge to sea control need not come from the sea itself.”
The entire EABO strategy depends on the specific factors of technology that have supposedly changed warfare entirely. Rarely do we see examples in history of the side daring the enemy to storm its fortifications to emerge victorious. Rather, we typically see the side that seizes the initiative, exploits weaknesses, encourages ingenuity, and pursues the offense win. In fact, this very presupposition that the advantage now lies in the defense would negate any mobility afforded to our Marines at these EABs, as the Chinese would be able to pick off any ships attempting to transit these waters at a safe distance. The EABO strategy is betting that the emergence of long-range precision fire technology has overturned these timeless precepts of warfare, and the lives of all the Marines who would be trapped on those island bases hang in the balance.
The immediate question is “Where would the EABs go?” The likely answer is “Within the territorial limits of friendly nations adjacent to likely Chinese expansion aims.” This puts Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines on a list of nations roughly from north to south as ideal hosts for these bases. Like Venice’s old empire, however, these bases hardly provide optimal points upon which to rest a national defense strategy.
Modern Day East Asia
In 2019, the Vietnamese released a defense white paper known as the “four-no’s and one-depend.” These include “no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases, and no using force or threatening to use force in international relations.” But, ‘depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries.’” While Chinese and Vietnamese enmity are historically high, Vietnam is unlikely to cast its lot with the United States. It shares a border with China. The US sits thousands of miles away and has recently shown a half-hearted commitment to foreign military operations. The relationship between the United States and the Philippines, meanwhile, has come under intense pressure, leading the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to warn the US that it should not depend upon access to the Philippines for its national defense strategy. The Ottoman success at Cyprus and failure at Malta hinged largely on support, or lack thereof, from the islanders. It should thus come as little surprise to an American military steeped in counter-insurgency doctrine for fifty years that the support of a local population is imperative.
This leaves Taiwan and Japan. The US commitment to Taiwan, a democracy with a population the size of Australia’s and the 18th largest economy in the world, has been lackluster at best, not even recognizing Taiwan as a legitimate country. There seems to be little chance for the US to put a full EAB on Taiwanese soil before even recognizing its territorial legitimacy, mixed messages from the White House concerning American commitment to Taiwan's defense notwithstanding. Japan, then, would be the location for these EABs, and General Berger has said as much. This raises questions over Japan’s legitimate concerns in the coming conflict. If the Japanese alone are the ones supporting these bases, why should they face the brunt of Chinese economic, and possibly military, pressure over Taiwan or the Spratleys?
In addition, these bases would lie in the shadow of the enemy against whom they are designed to operate. Just as the Ottomans were able to concentrate their vast reserves of manpower and resources on tiny targets only a few miles off their shores, such as Rhodes and Crete, the Chinese will be able to bring to bear their advantage in quantity and focus on US EABs. Taiwan is 80 miles from China at the narrowest point, and over 5,000 miles from Hawaii, with Hawaii being 2,000 miles from the mainland of the US. The other potential EAB locations lay at similar distances. The basic arithmetic of resupply and reinforcement does not favor the disaggregated maritime outposts in any war, be it the seven Ottoman and Venetian wars or a possible US-China conflict.
Countries of the Pacific
Other Challenges to the US EAB Approach
Let us address a more unexplored Achilles heel of this strategy, one that has doomed American expeditionary efforts for over two decades – the public’s support of a war in relation to the friendly casualties it produces. After the Ottomans captured the garrison commander of the Venetian citadel of Famagusta, Marco Antonio Bragadin, they flayed him alive and stuffed the skin full of straw. Venetians heard the news with impotent terror from their lagoon, 2,000 miles away. While such barbarism is unlikely from the CCP (out of pragmatism, not any moral sense), what kind of impotent terror could they instill in Americans watching a surrounded EAB on live TV and social media, as a few thousand Marines were left to their fate? What would that do to the political calculations of the administration? Does any serious observer believe that Americans would decline the return of their sons in favor of winning the conflict, as the Romans did against Pyrrhus?
We must also consider the state of the US Navy. As the Cold War wound down, more than half of all ships in the US surface fleet were decommissioned, leading to a dramatic drop in fleet readiness. The remaining ships are aging and becoming harder to maintain, with fewer ships entering service than leaving it. The Venetians lacked the dominant fleet necessary to protect their outposts, and the US will too if it continues on its current trajectory.
With these historical warnings in mind, what potential solutions can we extrapolate from Venice’s ultimate defeat? First, to maintain a maritime empire, the fleet must be dominant. Notice that the British controlled, from their tiny island, an empire that spanned the globe, and we are not discussing their defeat to a land-based empire like Napoleonic France. A dominant fleet transforms isolated island garrisons into offensively-oriented A2/AD units. Second, Venice held on to its possessions for so long through astute diplomacy. The US would do well to emulate Venice’s soft-power approach by combatting Chinese aggression through channels such as the World Trade Organization and protectionary economic practices like divestments and tariffs.
Finally, we must ask “Are the Marines the right force for the job?” For most of American military history, “Marines” and “naval infantry” have been synonymous terms. If an EAB strategy is to succeed, we must decouple these terms. Garrisons of “naval infantry” supported by a dominant fleet, stationed in host nations deeply supportive of the EABs’ mission and capable of establishing interlocking fields of A2/AD capabilities, would directly support American interests in containing Chinese expansion. The US Marines, by contrast, are a shock force whose traditions have been honed on German-style storm-trooper tactics and who have spent the better part of their history fighting small, brutal, unconventional wars. They are not a good fit for the EAB mission set.
Author Bio: Captain James Michael is a career Marine infantry officer and has deployed to Afghanistan, Japan, and Korea. He recently left the Marine Corps and is currently pursuing his goals in mixed martial arts.
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