June 1, 2007  

The maritime strategy we need

Strategy formulation requires an in-depth assessment of history, theory, future capabilities and threats, national policy, and the realities of international relations. Analyses of the post-Cold War American experience reveal trends relevant to maritime strategy.

First, the stark limitation of military power alone to resolve conflicts across the spectrum, from terrorism and insurgency to regional war, is obvious. Second, the erosion of a compelling American position of leadership and the failed illusion of democracy as a global force for stability limits the United States’ ability to influence international relations. Third, slowing U.S. economic growth, precarious national fiscal health and spiraling program costs continue to constrain force structure. Fourth, globalization is making commerce and information the coins of the realm, but areas that benefit least from them are rife with resource competition and potential extremist ranks. Fifth, U.S. conventional military supremacy spurred state and nonstate actors toward asymmetric capabilities and stratagems — including show-stopper weapons and technologies — putting America on the horns of a vulnerability dilemma. Finally, the ambiguous nature of nonstate adversaries and the plethora of nonmilitary targets available to them diminish the relevance of conventional forces, no matter how lethal or precise.

Applying these trends specifically to the maritime services yields the fundamental conclusion that naval power cannot be all things to all people. Yet, an unambiguous contemporary maritime strategy-force mismatch exists and provides compelling cause for decision-makers to balance commitments with available resources. At the same time, traditional naval niche capabilities suffer amid expanding missions. Hence, the long-held Mahanian theory is no longer wholly valid or appropriate. In fact, Julian Corbett’s theory now seems more fitting: prescribing a shift away from global sea control and maritime supremacy to an appreciation of the limitations of sea power and the naval role in limited (joint) wars alongside other aspects of national power.

The trends noted above can assist in establishing a set of revised assumptions that might help steer a course toward viable maritime strategy. Warning: The reader is advised to check the expansive American ego at the door.

• Proximate continental U.S. crises/threats will become more compelling.

• Increasing numbers of states will acquire weapons of mass destruction.

• Unilateral or small coalition wars will be the rule.

• Global powers have an equal stake in uninterrupted commerce.

• Geography/distance, energy demands and weakening regional support will make forward deployments increasingly costly.

• Neither forward defense nor technological developments will check most asymmetric threats to the homeland.

• Forward deployment commitments sustained at current levels will reduce overall military readiness.

• Maritime forces cannot adequately address most asymmetric threats.

• Navy force levels will be inadequate to address current and emerging missions.

• Global naval presence has only a limited ability to influence events.

• Global sea lines of communication (SLOC) security is unachievable.

Overlaying these assumptions onto maritime-related policy and strategy is useful. This process is critical, because merely accepting current guidance at face value does not necessarily provide new insights into strategy development. Although a plethora of recent maritime strategic plans and concepts of operations exists, most stated goals are either already well covered by previous strategy or are arguably unachievable. In fact, existing strategic terminology is far too expansive and absolute, seemingly designed to provide national decision-makers with unassailable global capabilities, perpetually open SLOCs and the ability to defeat decisively at any time the full spectrum of threats. These terms include dominance, supremacy, guarantee, global, persistent, comprehensive, etc. Almost a century ago, Corbett warned “to aim at a standard of naval strength or a strategic distribution which would make our trade absolutely invulnerable is to march to economic ruin.” Idealistic objectives are also inherently dangerous in strategy formulation because they do not provide coherent direction.

Although reassessments of the 1986 Maritime Strategy reveal that some of the key precepts remain valid, America’s position within the international environment has changed too much to accept them in aggregate. In fact, reality suggests that America neither can nor should attempt to follow Mahan’s global offensive principles. Corbett instead espoused in 1911 the strategic defensive, citing the fallacy of the oft-stated phrase, “If England were to lose command of the sea, it would be all over with her.” Corbett sought not to discount Mahanian principles, just to temper them in the light of reality — exactly what maritime strategy formulation needs today. SLOC security and sea control, for instance, remain as important as ever — especially in war — but Corbett’s stress on limited wars and localized effects rings true in the current era.

Assessments of recent operational concepts also probe their ability to serve as a holistic foundation for new maritime strategy. The “From the Sea” family of operational concepts leaned too far toward the littorals and missions inland, suggesting blue-water missions and major war at sea were outmoded concepts. This shift to influencing operations ashore was at least partly responsible for atrophied blue-water missions. Congressional criticisms focused on the apparent contradiction of shipbuilding programs churning out Cold War platforms amid the littoral focus of the 1990s. Additionally, Sea Power 21 remains a core Navy concept of operations but focuses too much on enabling capabilities to be genuinely strategic. Further, it fails to discuss strategic concepts such as attacks on enemy maritime trade, yet two world wars demonstrated the efficacy of such efforts. Similarly, the 2007 Coast Guard strategy has a limited ability to inform maritime strategy, primarily because it strays outside strategic discussion into operational capabilities and platform justification. Marine Corps Strategy 21’s emphasis on expeditionary maneuver warfare comes closest to describing a service’s role in the joint fight but stops short of integration into a larger maritime strategy. Intellectual integrity demands that strategists look beyond accepted dogma — or even policy guidance — for a way ahead.

Several recommendations flow from this analysis, which might assist in the formulation of a new maritime strategy. They surround three key strategic paradigm shifts: from offense to active defense, from forward presence/defense to an expeditionary and homeland focus, and from global primacy to national strength. The essential arguments surround missions of maritime engagement, strategic deterrence, maritime homeland defense, local SLOC security and sea control, expeditionary/crisis power projection, and maritime special operations. On the other hand, the related tenets of forward defense and global presence are called into question.

First, U.S. military and policymakers should consider discarding preconceptions that “U.S. primacy” is a given fact, a national goal or a precondition for international relations. Indeed, exactly what this ubiquitous term conveys in terms of national power is nebulous at best. Strategists should strike “primacy” and similar terms from U.S. strategy documents, if not because of impracticality, then due to the implied ethnocentrism and hubris. Although Washington can ostensibly claim contemporary primacy, this status commands little support at the United Nations, delivers no exceptional trade advantages and carries no decisive influence to bring conflicts to closure. As Andrew J. Bacevich notes, Operation Iraqi Freedom shows that “the sole superpower has been unable to defeat an insurgent force armed with small arms and improvised bombs.”Any strategy that espouses primacy is both fanciful and poisonous to dealings with other sovereign states. Hence the need to align a maritime strategy with a more achievable long-term national strategy, perhaps along the lines of the “offshore balancing” approach.

Second, the Navy should increase the strategic emphasis on U.S. continental security and defense, even at the expense of forward missions. In fact, most current U.S. strategy documents assert the principal need for homeland security and defense, yet the lion’s share of military capability operates far forward. Even if American maritime prowess is unchallenged overseas, it will come to naught if the vulnerabilities of the U.S. maritime approaches allow enemy access. Corbett warned against “so irretrievably separating your striking force from your home-defense force as to be in no position to meet your enemy if he was able to retort by acting on unlimited lines with a stroke at your heart.” Although such a shift may seem to turn the current maritime security paradigm on its head, aligning sufficient forces to safeguard the homeland would simply be in keeping with the ostensible priorities. Of course, continental priorities and home waters missions are a bitter pill for Navy leaders steeped in a culture of forward offensive operations.

Third, to balance the strategy-force mismatch, global naval commitments may have to decrease. Although forward presence offers advantages in crisis response and deterrence, the cost-benefit calculus of maintaining persistent peacetime presence is at issue. As Milan Vego argues, presence does not automatically garner sea control. Similarly, vis-à-vis conventional deterrence, the carrier silhouette on the horizon may send exactly the opposite message desired or may fail altogether to influence nonstate actors. For example, the August-October 1983 surge of a carrier battle group, amphibious ready group and a battleship off Beirut seems to have done nothing to prevent the Marine barracks suicide bombing and subsequent removal of the Marine peacekeeping contingent. The essence here is the degree of willingness to accept some risk with gapped presence — i.e., prudently applying presence where and when it can have the most effect.

Mitigating the impact of reduced Navy global presence is possible. Surge-ready strike groups could be more available by less frequent and briefer forward deployments. A few key forward basing hubs could support regional crisis response and occasional training or engagement deployments. Increasing the number of destroyer and submarine tenders by a few could mitigate long, undefended SLOCs in crisis and war. The smaller fleet size necessary to implement such a strategy could also reduce spending and focus needed funds on improving the smaller fleet’s readiness to conduct local, limited presence operations for engagement and partnerships and to develop asymmetric capabilities.

Fourth, America should embrace maritime partnerships, but only those that serve national interests. The “mutual interest, mutual contribution” premise should guide the Thousand-Ship Navy initiative, for example. Consider the inferences of an allied commander’s recent statement: “We consider it in our direct [national] interest that the U.S. Navy remains ready, capable, and relevant.” Partnerships that vouchsafe maritime commerce and security also do not have to be American-led or even have Navy participation. America has neither the time nor resources to build partnerships that are facile, too fragile to survive crises, or collectively beneficial yet taxing to few states. For instance, a U.S.-led coalition fleet secures the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz for global consumption, yet only a handful of nations absorb the risks and costs. Nations that benefit from unfettered maritime trade should share the burden proportionally. Although efficacious partnerships support U.S. theater security campaigns and strategic communications, few nations demonstrate the wherewithal and will to make significant contributions.

A related tenet is engagement to support international maritime regimes. The maritime strategy should support this goal, and Navy participation in international operations and exercises (linked to specific U.S. interests) could signify Washington’s credible backing. The maritime services have long supported such regimes — for instance, in freedom of navigation operations designed to support traditional law of the seas. Peaceful use of the maritime domain not only bolsters American interests, but also lessens the demand for naval forces in crises and war. International regimes facilitate collective cooperation efforts that indirectly buttress U.S. interests. Both hard and soft maritime power can directly support international maritime regimes — such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, and the Proliferation Security Initiative — and come at much less cost than forward deployments while enjoying compelling global legitimacy. Indeed, the 2007 Coast Guard strategy’s greatest strength is its call for engagement with institutions such as the International Maritime Organization.

Fifth, the Pentagon should preserve Navy niche capabilities in core warfare areas that support the joint fight and, in some cases, rebuild them. Existing naval capabilities can accomplish priority roles of maritime engagement, strategic deterrence, maritime homeland defense, local SLOC security and sea control, expeditionary/crisis power projection, and maritime special operations. Emerging capabilities, such as ballistic missile defense, should support these mission areas, but specifically in the maritime domain. Maritime patrol aircraft might also once again conduct missions primarily over water (especially anti-submarine warfare) in support of Navy and joint missions. Similarly, Naval Special Warfare elements could hone special operations skills focused on influencing events at sea and avoid extended inland commitments. Sustaining amphibious lift and Marine expeditionary capabilities to support lower intensity crises would also mean limiting their use as ground forces ashore. A back-to-basics approach could serve as a needed reality check on expanding naval missions alongside the shrinking force. Maritime strategy should objectively spell out naval power’s inherent limitations in influencing events deep inland for more than brief periods over limited areas.

The need to avoid the siren song of strategic formulation based on near-term political, military or budgetary imperatives needs additional emphasis. Simply put, the ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will pass. Recent Navy efforts to support more directly longer-term ground campaigns risk atrophying core capabilities and overextending its shrinking force. The claim that recurring, extended Marine deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are lowering amphibious readiness is a case in point. One chief of staff recently cautioned that the U.S. “cannot afford to become target-fixated on counterterrorism or insurgency, … cannot completely focus on Iraq or Afghanistan and forget about the potentially global complexities in competitions in the future for water, for food, for energy.” Finally, if the new maritime strategy justifies current platforms or programs, it will be stillborn. A key reason post-Cold War attempts to codify strategy have failed is short-term budgetary focus.

Grounding a revised maritime strategy too heavily on naval support for the Long War is also shortsighted. Although Navy units have contributed a great deal to the fight against terrorism, especially with operations against the Taliban in Operation Enduring Freedom, justifying force structure with or tying every Navy operation to the war on terrorism is disingenuous. The vast majority of these operations are conducted ashore by ground and special operations forces (SOF). Further, all signs point to an increasingly global, franchised terrorism threat that warships are not ideally suited to address. Recent carrier strike group (CSG) operations off Somalia stand as a poignant example of the limited ability of conventional naval power to prosecute terrorists. CSG reconnaissance and maritime interdiction operations did occur but were neither decisive nor — arguably — worth the cost of shifting these assets away from OEF/OIF missions. Another compelling example is the recent Philippine campaign against al-Qaida-associated extremists, where the most effective U.S. contribution came from a hospital ship and SOF advisers. As Frank Hoffman relates, “We face an essentially disaggregated enemy of networked cells, for which intelligence, law enforcement, public diplomacy, special operations forces and our moral standing as a free society are our best tools.” The question, then, is how maritime forces can better address asymmetric threats in the maritime domain while not compromising traditional missions.

Exaggerating other unconventional maritime threats such as piracy and smuggling also presents a danger. Although incidents make good headlines, the occasional maritime successes make for weak force structure or strategy justification; maritime responses are usually reactive and brief. Gray hulls can do little to prevent incidents of this type without significant, persistent presence. Maritime human smuggling, for instance, largely involves illegal migrants — a law enforcement vice security issue. As such, a lasting maritime strategy should focus on specific show-stopper threats and not localized security nuisances. The 1986 maritime strategy did not mention piracy, yet it was as much a problem then as now.

Strategists should also be careful not to equate asymmetric threats with terrorism alone. Indeed, naval leaders should plan strategically with the assumption that forces will be without the normal stream of information, communications, intelligence, targeting, navigation and logistics in the early days of the next major war. Adversaries since 1991 have pursued asymmetric capabilities and strategies, and America must develop plans and countermeasures as such. The new maritime strategy, then, should also consider U.S. asymmetric offenses, where commanders could make use of integrated unconventional capabilities and tactics to target enemy vulnerabilities. A recent analysis described this aspect of strategy: “The enemy would never know who, when or where we would strike next. … We would be gone from the scene before the enemy had any chance to find us. The impact? A classic turning of the tables.”

In summary, the enduring strategic relevance of several niche naval mission areas persists: maritime engagement, strategic deterrence, local SLOC security and sea control, and expeditionary/crisis power projection. Emphasizing maritime special operations as a unique mission area within the new maritime strategy is also critical, because it holds the greatest hope for addressing unconventional threats in the maritime domain. However, key qualifiers on these roles emphasize likely fiscal, geographic, political and military constraints in the new era. Sustaining warfare capabilities to support these mission areas will inherently provide naval forces ready to fight and win the nation’s wars at sea; however, naval leaders should be careful not to diminish core missions by excessive commitments outside the maritime domain. Finally, maritime homeland defense deserves more emphasis as an element within maritime strategy — again, perhaps even at the expense of global missions.

In the final analysis, a new maritime strategy should address the basic nature of the war itself, as Clausewitz asserted. The Cold War Soviet containment and deterrence paradigm is dead, yet elements of both strategic imperatives remain — an emergent China may well demand a degree of both. America is essentially in a defensive posture globally and has only a limited ability or will to prosecute the direst threats. Washington would do well to consider the warning signs of strategic overstretch when developing a new maritime strategy — any business-as-usual document will not pass intellectual muster or provide cogent advice to policymakers. Strategists, as Joseph Bouchard says, must “lay out fundamental principles of maritime power applicable to U.S. national security and defense strategy regardless of how they are defined by the administration currently in office.” Finally, although messages of downscaling or strategic overstretch may find little purchase with officials seeking re-election, the British national position of strength and its sustained maritime capabilities might serve as a successful historical model that offers a palatable way ahead.

The next maritime strategy must be more than just another list of unrealistic goals or a recap of contemporary national guidance. The greatest lesson since Sept. 11, 2001, should be that regardless of U.S. actions or intent, the world overwhelmingly perceives American hypocrisy, arrogance, unrestrained military force and moral self-righteousness as the major sources of world instability. It may be well advised to scale back global commitments, avoid idealistic missions and focus on ensuring America’s survival and health instead of everyone else’s. Realpolitik involves an objective view of the facts on the ground — without the myopia induced by moral superiority — and an unapologetic pursuit of national interests. Ignoring new political-military realities at best risks another decade of muddling through crises and war and, at worse, marching America down the road to ruin. As the past few military campaigns demonstrated, neither advanced technology nor brilliant generalship will carry the day absent coherent strategy. Sound strategy formulation now will inform both force structure and application decisions in the future — Washington can ill afford another decade without it.

Cmdr. John Patch is a qualified surface warfare and joint specialty officer and holds a Navy policy-strategy subspecialty. He is a naval intelligence officer assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.