Weekly Standard Online

The New Naval Strategy: A Mixed Bag

President, Yorktown Institute

In the middle of March, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard published a revised version of their 2007 paper, A Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century. The 2007 edition reflected the strong influence of 9/11, U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global campaign against Islamist jihadis. It suggested broadening the reach of U.S. seapower by cooperating with other navies; helping littoral states that might fail by providing them with military training; and bolstering such traditional naval missions as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Strikingly, the word “China” did not appear in the 2007 document. Unmentioned also was what kind of forces American seapower would need and how much they would cost. The same paper was silent about which large roles mattered most to national security and specifically to America’s sea services. Its descriptions of the important elements of naval power outpaced both prescriptions for what to do with it and the choices—about where to invest money and time for example—that good strategy demands.

The sea services’ March 2015 strategic paper is an improvement over its predecessor. It acknowledges—albeit gently—that China presents the U.S. with “challenges.” It notes that Russia’s military modernization, seizure of Crimea, and slow motion invasion of eastern Ukraine raise serious questions about European security. The paper’s discussion of increased maritime activity in the Arctic is more timely that its authors could have known: Three days after the revised strategic paper was published, Vladimir Putin ordered an impressively large snap military exercise in the Artic featuring 41 warships and 15 submarines.

The revised strategic paper also mentions ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terror groups.

Additional useful contributions of the just-published revision include a list of naval competencies that explain what, precisely, seapower accomplishes. Emphases on cyber warfare and on perfecting commanders’ knowledge of surrounding threats are additional healthy signs that the sea services’ leaders are leading. Other improvements over the 2007 maritime strategy include the desired number and type of ships; the old version omitted this fundamental element of strategy.

But the revised strategy is less clear about what to do with whatever ships it actually possesses in the face of multiplying threats. In this, it does the sea services no favors. Are the U.S.’s interest in stability from the Black Sea through the Eastern Mediterranean into the Persian Gulf strategically connected, and, if so, can American seapower coordinate its efforts in this large arc? The revised strategy explains the importance of forward presence. The forward presence of U.S. naval and amphibious forces in the West Pacific is essential to any hope of honoring our treaty obligations with several Asian states, and to convincing China that force will not achieve its goals. But is that it? Forward presence is not a strategy.

Strategy is supposed not only to set broad national goals but also to decide how to achieve them. If sequestration and defense budget cuts continue, where will the money come from to replace aging ships? Surely that’s needed to, for example, secure the flow of oil from the Middle East now that Iran sits astride the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz and—through its Houthis proxies—the mouth of the Red Sea. Also left unanswered is this: As Russia and ISIS seek territorial expansion, does seapower have a strategic role in affecting events on land today, and if so, what is it?

Talk of “strategy” is abundant these days. offers dozens of books on national security, military, and business strategies. There are dozens more available on the history of strategy, strategic thinking, strategic management, and strategic leadership. President Obama offers the administration’s strategy for addressing ISIS and Republicans say that it is either not a strategy or—pointing to the terror organization’s progress—that it is a strategic failure. The Obama administration’s public strategic documents, like those of most administrations that preceded it, are long on desiderata, short on how to achieve them, and shorter still on the military and financial details that ought to accompany any large plan. Jawboning leaves the impression that strategy is like the weather, a subject of talk only. This is wrong.

After World War One, Britain chose to defend the empire rather than develop such weapons as the tank and airplane on which the Germans based their plans for blitzkrieg and a second European war. Britain chose unwisely, but it was strategy. Britain made better strategic choices during the war itself. It bottled up the German High Seas fleet in the North Sea—turning it back at the 1916 Battle of Jutland—and preserved the Royal Navy’s global dominance while effectively closing off Germany’s window to international trade.

These are examples of deliberate strategic choices. The U.S. sea services’ revised strategy does not present alternate strategies, let along choose among them. For example, it lists sea control as a capability. It lists other capabilities as well, such as power projection, deterrence, maritime security, and all-domain access. It neither explains how these missions are related to the regions of the world that the document elsewhere lists as important to America’s maritime interests, nor does it state the capabilities that are required to carry them out.

The question of location is important—even, dare I say, strategic. It cannot be separated from intentions, objectives, missions, and capabilities. Does the U.S. “discourage (Chinese) aggression,” as the paper suggests, merely by forward presence? Or does serious strategizing oblige the Navy to address the rise of Chinese seapower that is explicitly intended to threaten the U.S. Navy and the American interests it protects?

The document has several audiences: the Chinese, who should be deterred by U.S. seapower; for U.S. naval commanders, officers, and crews who must plan and execute mission orders; for the American defense industry, which must provide the technical means to do so; and not least for Congress whose financial support depends on understanding what role American seapower expects to perform alone and together with other parts of the U.S. military.

China, the revised strategy admits, is expanding its navy and intimidating neighbors to assert territorial claims as it seeks to keep U.S. naval forces at a distance. China will concentrate its growing fleet in its littoral spaces. The PLA Navy will outnumber U.S. combatants in the near future, and eventually it will outnumber the U.S. Pacific Fleet, even if Congress pays to maintain the current size of the overall U.S. fleet, which is doubtful. That means that in a conflict, the U.S. would have to defeat China’s navy at sea either to stop its seaborne commerce or threaten Chinese targets ashore—or both. Doing so would require a shift in U.S. naval emphasis toward warfighting at sea and sea control after a long post-Cold War emphasis on power projection against opponents who could not fight back. This transition would influence what kinds of ships are built and what weapons they carry. But by sidestepping this central issue, the revised strategy avoids any such choices and in doing so avoids strategy’s fundamental questions.

But the Navy is constrained by an administration that does not see China as a strategic competitor. The language in the revised strategy reflects this. It notes applaudingly that, “China supports counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, conducts humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions enabled by its hospital ship, and participates in large-scale multinational naval exercises. As a signatory of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), China demonstrates its ability to embrace international norms, institutions, and standards of behavior commensurate with rising power status.” The final sentence in this happy litany sounds like a communique from Chinese maximum leader Xi Jinping’s office. It is nonsense as, for example, the Japanese, could report. They have been scrambling their fighters at all time records in response to Chinese incursions into Japan’s airspace. This is not a sign that China embraces international norms.

But it is the current administration’s narrative. And the Navy is obliged to recite and incorporate it. Making real strategic choices when large potential adversaries cannot be named is impossible. So while the recently published revised strategy is a significant improvement over its predecessor, it has a long and very important way to go. The prospects for continued bipartisan agreement on larger defense budgets are remote and they are remoter yet for substantive Defense Department reform that would provide the military badly needed resources. Strategy may not solve all problems. The lack of it will worsen them.