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USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz and their strike groups, November 12, 2017 (U.S. Navy)
(Photo credit: U.S. Navy)

Maritime Strategy in a New Era of Great Power Competition

Seth Cropsey & Bryan McGrath

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As a maritime nation, naval power is the U.S.’s most useful means of responding to distant crises, preventing them from harming our security or that of our allies and partners, and keeping geographically remote threats from metastasizing into conflicts that could approach our borders. A maritime defense demands a maritime strategy. As national resources are increasingly strained the need exists for a strategy that makes deliberate choices to connect ends (security) with means (money and the fleet it builds). This paper examines the need for a maritime strategy, discusses options, and offers recommendations for policy makers.

After several decades of unchallenged world leadership, the United States once again faces great power competition, this time featuring two other world powers. China and Russia increasingly bristle under the constraints of the post-World War II systems of global trade, finance, and governance largely created by the United States and its allies, systems that the United States has protected and sustained to the economic and security benefit of its citizens and the citizens of other nations. Both China and Russia are demonstrably improving the quality of their armed forces while simultaneously acting aggressively toward neighboring countries, some of which are US treaty allies. Additionally, both nations are turning their attention to naval operations far from their own coasts, operations designed to advance national interests that are often in tension with those of the United States.1

For the past several decades, US national security strategy has not had to contend with great powers. Instead, it has concerned itself primarily with building alliances designed to manage regional security more efficiently by proxy, while devoting increasingly more resources to homeland defense and intelligence aimed at stemming acts of terror by Islamic radical organizations and their followers. To the extent that the US position of leadership in the world was not threatened, this strategy was reasonable, if imperfectly pursued.

Such a strategy will no longer suffice in a world of great power competition, especially one in which powers of considerable—but unequal—strength are opposed. Unbalanced multi-polarity is an especially unstable condition, and the United States is not effectively postured to manage that instability. Henry Kissinger divides the concept of world order into two parts: a normative system that defines acceptable action, and a ‘balance of power’ arrangement that punishes the breach of such conventions.2 As the underlying balance of forces shifts, states with different ideas of international order gain the power to reshape the system. Thucydides’ ancient insight holds true – the rise in power of one actor threatens all others. Where such threat exists and if the balance of power between states or coalitions approaches equilibrium, a “Cold War” between competing ideological camps occurs.

In an unbalanced system, the stronger side is tempted to strike its weaker opponent while the balance of forces is favorable. Unbridled competition for supremacy defined Europe during its bloodiest periods. Europe’s 16th and 17th century religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and the global 20th century struggles between totalitarian ideologies and democracy both represent the natural end-state of unbalanced multipolar systems. Without norms to restrain states and force to uphold these norms, violence is very likely.

Today’s international system is moving toward unbalanced multi-polarity. Unfortunately, the United States is not currently prepared to manage such an international environment. If Americans want to preserve their nation’s secure and prosperous position as the world’s great power, the United States must begin now to prepare strategically for what it will inevitably face. Otherwise, it will ultimately be forced into an increasingly limited number of unattractive options to sustain its position of leadership.

There is little evidence that the people of the United States wish to see our position in the world diminished. The 2016 Presidential Election raised important questions about the degree to which globalization has served the interests of everyday Americans (and their perceptions thereof), while the two dominant US political parties have moved toward more protectionist policies, at least as articulated by their nominees. Opinion polling indicates the divided nature of the American public on issues like free trade and sustained foreign commitments.3 However, Americans remain cognizant of threats to the United States, and favor maintaining America’s position as a great power by sustaining a strong military.4 Moreover, it would be difficult to identify meaningful numbers of Americans who would sacrifice national security in favor of increased social spending, despite the continuing rise in non-discretionary spending in the federal budget. Americans understand that the US position of world leadership benefits the nation’s economy, its security, its allies, and the international order that has been the object of US foreign and defense policy for over a century. They know that their lives would be diminished if this position of global leadership were surrendered to an adversary or group of them. The paradox of the American experience is that the US is not simply a great power – it is an exceptional power, for which ideals count as much as strength. The American public, despite its aversion to foreign commitments, can rise to the occasion and respond to clear threats, as it has in both World Wars, the Cold War, and after September 11th. The job of the policymaker, therefore, is to ensure America remains a great power, so that when the occasion arises, it can act as an exceptional power.

It is critical then, for US political leaders to begin thinking more strategically about protecting and advancing America’s position in the face of growing great power competition. This monograph asserts that a strategy to support such a goal would necessarily be maritime in nature, leveraging this nation’s great geographical advantages in the service of its national power.

Sharing land borders with only two nations—both of whom are friendly to the United States—and separated from other great powers by vast oceans, the United States enjoys a security position quite unlike that of any other nation. For over a century, it has been the unspoken (but doggedly pursued) national security aim of the United States to ensure that no power rise to prominence in Asia or Europe so as to occupy a position there as dominant as the United States’ position in the Western Hemisphere. Were this to occur, not only could that nation then lock the United States out of the resources and activity of that region, but it could also then eventually turn its attention to challenging our position in the Western Hemisphere.5

Underlying this approach is the reality that most the world’s activity does not occur in our own hemisphere, but in Asia and Europe. American interests in these regions—political, diplomatic, economic, and military—are considerable and growing. Protecting and sustaining those interests must remain a priority of American policy, and maritime strategy is an effective tool in doing so.

Maritime strategy is a subset of grand strategy, and the relationship between the two is ably defined by Professor John B. Hattendorf of the Naval War College:

“In its broadest sense, grand strategy is the comprehensive direction of power to achieve particular national goals. Within those terms, maritime strategy is the direction of all aspects of national power that relate to a nation’s interests at sea. The navy serves this purpose, but maritime strategy is not purely a naval preserve. Maritime strategy involves the other functions of state power that include diplomacy; the safety and defence of merchant trade at sea; fishing; the exploitation, conservation, regulation and defence of the exclusive economic zone at sea; coastal defence; security of national borders; the protection of offshore islands; as well as participation in regional and world-wide concerns relating to the use of oceans, the skies over the oceans and the land under the seas.6

It is wholly appropriate for the world’s dominant naval power—separated from its widely-flung interests by thousands of miles of open ocean—to develop and execute coherent maritime strategy. In a time of re-emerging great power competition, it is essential. The nation’s current maritime strategy7 is, unfortunately, not up to the task. It focuses insufficiently on great power competition; it does not recognize the rise in importance of conventional forces in deterring great power war; it does not provide a theory of conventional deterrence appropriate to great powers and their likely objectives; it does not suggest a posture for naval forces that acts as an effective deterrent; its derived force structure is too small and short on effective logistic support; it does not place sufficient value on naval partnerships with geographically important nations which may not be traditional partners; and it is silent on the need for the nation to invest in a maritime industrial base that can enable an appropriate strategy.

This monograph urges new thinking about maritime strategy, a strategy compatible with the United States’ responsibilities as the leader of the free world, as well as the world’s premier political, military, economic, and diplomatic power. Such a strategy would seek to protect and sustain those leadership positions in the face of renewed great power competition, competition that largely subsumes other, lesser security concerns. There will be those who view this approach as a return to “Cold War” strategic thinking, and we do not shy from this comparison. The United States acted for decades as a coherent strategic actor when faced with expansionist Soviet totalitarianism, and it must act with equal coherence and resolve to contest China and Russia’s brands of aggressive mercantilism, regional expansion, and contempt for established global order.

There will be those who evaluate our suggestions in this paper and conclude that the nation cannot afford it, that the expense associated with moving to a maritime grand strategy would imbalance the traditional “ends, ways, means” approach to the making of strategy. And while the ends, ways, means approach is generally relevant to military and operational strategy, it is unsuited to the making of grand strategy for one very important reason. Unlike subordinate levels of strategy, grand strategy re-allocates, re-aligns, and re-orients a nation’s “means” to serve strategic “ends”. Military strategy starts with the proposition that there is a certain resource level available to pursue its ends. Grand strategy starts with the sum of the nation’s output capacity, and then determines how it can most effectively be allocated to the achievement of strategic goals.

Short of war itself, there is nothing in American history that causes strategic re-alignment more reliably than a change in Administration, and we wish to be part of that dialogue. We argue here for a new theory of deterrence, one that revises the Cold War approach in which the Soviet Union was deterred from large-scale conventional attack by the threat of nuclear escalation. Under that rubric, one could justifiably say that America’s conventional deterrent was dependent on its strategic deterrent. Today, the decapitating “bolt from the blue” strike is even more remote than it was in the Cold War, and to the extent that nuclear exchange between great powers is conceivable, it is far more likely to flow from conventional conflict that has gone awry. Therefore, to deter nuclear war, we must deter conventional war. No aspect of American military power will be more critical to deterring either nuclear or conventional super-power war than seapower.

American military power must be postured around the world in a more lethal stance, in which forces assigned can delay and deny China or Russia the fruits of limited aggression while raising the cost of trying, rather than (as today) offer some resistance before heavier forces are flowed from garrison or US seaports to reverse gains already made. These forces must be tailored to the regions in which they operate, reflecting sufficient capacity and the specific capabilities necessary to delay or deny the most likely objectives of aggression. The power-projection priority of US naval forces in the post-Cold War world must expand to a more balanced approach in which sea control is equally prioritized, following decades of relative inattention; and the requisite force structure must be planned and acquired to reflect this equality. While American military power can and will work to shape the operational environment, that shaping would be in support of the overall deterrence posture arrayed against China and Russia, and all peacetime pursuits would be subordinated.

A coherent maritime grand strategy would recognize the immense costs of preparing for great power competition, costs that must be consistently borne across decades to achieve the level of strength required to meet the challenge of deterring two major powers. The United States must re-order portions of the economy to achieve grand strategic ends, to include the promotion of industrial trades necessary to serve the maritime industrial base and other diminishing sectors of the defense industrial base. Political leadership must reinforce the symbiotic relationship between military strength and economic strength, and the multiple benefits to the nation of a sustained military build-up should be marshalled, articulated, and emphasized to build public support. The United States derives great benefit from the dollar’s use as the world’s reserve currency, a benefit sustained by the perception of the strength and stability of our government and our influence worldwide. Consumers and manufacturers in the US also benefit from the availability of affordable goods and raw materials that arrive in our ports across free seas guaranteed by our naval power.

A maritime grand strategy must include a re-assessment of our alliances and relationships, to include identifying and fostering those with significant geo-strategic impact, some of which are not currently considered to be militarily important. World trade routes, sea lanes, and maritime choke points all should have defining roles in our diplomacy and international relations.

The United States is a wealthy country, and the resources necessary to implement an effective maritime strategy are well within our reach. However, attaining and maintaining sufficient strength to support US great power goals requires political will, and that will must be matched with determined leadership that can articulate the benefits of action and the costs of inaction. History provides a useful example of a great maritime power that allowed short term fiscal policy to set it on a path to decline.

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