Asymmetric wars aren’t the type to end with a signature or on a specific date. Paul Watson understood its prolonged nature from the beginning of his anti-whaling campaign. An obvious student of guerrilla warfare, Sea Shepherd’s admiral reacted with caution after Japan’s whaling fleet prematurely returned home last season, allowing his crew to celebrate while he envisioned the next battle. Judging 2011’s season finale of Whale Wars, Watson knew Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) would only return with greater force.
Once Fisheries Minister Michihiko Kano announced a new hunting season and expanded security measures, Watson responded, "We are going to find them. We are going to block their slipway and we will see what they are going to do. Our tactics are always the same, which is that we are not going to hurt anybody, but we are certainly going to take the risks that are necessary to block them. That is the key to the whole thing; blocking their operation. If they cannot load whales, they cannot kill them."
30 million square miles Southern Ocean play host to one of Earth’s more fascinating asymmetric conflicts: modern fourth-generation warfare (4GW) based on a traditional foundation. On one side, a developed government possessing numerical and technological superiority, along with foreign allies. On the other, what began as a single boat captained by a charismatic and knowledgeable individual has morphed into three ships, all manned by ideologically-committed crews (100 are signed on for Operation Divine Wind). This whale war is predominantly political and humanitarian, rather than militarily oriented, and the conflict’s later stage has played out on Animal Planet, instilling a deep propaganda element.
The war offers a textbook study of 4GW’s unlimited qualities: a state actor and non-state actor battling in international waters.
For now the Southern Ocean, despite its rising intensity, has also remained non-lethal for humans. Watson is acutely sensitive to holding the moral high ground, a necessity for legitimate resistance, while Japan would come under overpowering scrutiny in the event of a casualty. However rising tensions are increasing the odds of misfortune. Kano scratched at this unease when announcing, "Japan aims to resume commercial whaling, and to that end, we need to continue research whaling... Japan will conduct the research whaling while strengthening measures against acts of sabotage, including dispatching Fisheries Agency escort ships.”
Armed protection on existing vessels won’t change the tactical equation in ships. Watson is less unlikely to attempt another boarding, but publicity is flowing in and the MV Nisshin Maru’s slipway represents his only hard objective. The real advantage will be gained in ships; the IRC’s fleet currently outnumbers Sea Shepherd five to three, a relative balance favoring Watson’s fleet. Kano openly admitted that “a patrol boat” (possible more than one) will be guarding the IRC’s fleet, leaving open the question of how it would actually respond to Sea Shepherd’s blocking maneuvers. “Extra ships” jockeying for positioning increases the odds of a collision.
Additional security measures (such as projectiles) likely buttress the first layer of countermeasures.
Professor Al Gillespie of Waikato University recently told New Zealand’s TV ONE that he doesn’t expect his government to send its own guarding vessels, as some sympathetic politicians have called for. Believing the stakes to be too high, Gillespie inadvertently spelled out the conflict’s basics: "It's not a good situation. What you have here is a non-governmental organization (Sea Shepherd) and Japan going head to head, both looking for as much publicity as they can get." Gillespie is correct in toning down expectations of state-on-state conflict between Japan and Australia/New Zealand, but also concedes the logical outcome: heightened tensions.
Tension equals friction and friction raises the odds of injury or death. This confluence of factors has spiked the uncertainty hanging over the Southern Ocean.
“They will have to kill us to prevent us from intervening once again,” Watson insisted, words that won’t be taken lightly by Japan. “We will undertake whatever risks to our lives will be required to stop this invasion of arrogant greed into what is an established sanctuary for the whales.”
Perhaps most importantly, adding Japanese military escorts ups the political stakes. A recent poll found that a majority of Japanese respondents supported whaling, a potential nationalist reaction to being cornered. Meanwhile Australia and New Zealand are pushing back in hopes of avoiding a confrontation in December. Building on political developments in Auckland, Australian Environmental Minister Tony Burke explicitly warned Japan, “There is no justification for continued whaling. Australia unequivocally condemns commercial whaling. We don't accept that this is scientific, it should not go ahead.”
While the Australia government is known for talking tough in public and softening behind the curtain, sustained escalation in the Southern Ocean will increase pressure for a legal solution that cuts through the IWC’s vote buying. The Japanese government insists on pursuing its interests, whether ideological or economic. Watson hopes to either politically, economically or morally bankrupt the government’s “research.” That, in the end, is Sea Shephard’s goal as the asymmetric combatant.
Japan should realize that it’s fighting a losing asymmetric war - adding more troops will only intensify the resistance and push recruits into Sea Shepherd. The government is roughly tied in political support and logistical capabilities, and is being encircled in the information sphere.
Whaling popularly may be holding inside Japan and Sea Shepherd has many international opponents, but more pressure is building on the state than non-state actor. Watson also reaches out to the Japanese personally, asking himself, “how a nation of such achievements in art and philosophy, technology, and genius allow itself to be smeared by a small handful of bloody-handed men with harpoons and spears? I do not know the answer, but I do know that my Japanese history lessons have taught me one thing and that is to be true to one’s duty and to serve with absolute loyalty and honor.”
Still attempting a semblance of a “hearts and minds” campaign inside Japan, Watson told its people that Sea Shepherd, “is not the enemy of Japan, but we are the enemy of the ugly cancer that clings to the flag of Japan like a stubborn limpet, and that cancer is Taiji and the whaling fleet that plunders the waters of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.”
An Eastern maxim of warfare advises that defeat is a state of mind. It’s doubtful that Sea Shepherd will concede before the IRC.