Category Archives: Strategy

Peter Swartz on Creating Maritime Strategy, Pt. 1: Tactics and Creators

Captain Peter Swartz (ret.) served over 27 years as a U.S. Navy officer, mainly as a specialist in strategy, plans, and policy. Swartz subsequently joined the Center for Naval Analyses and continued to support the analysis and development of Navy strategy, serving there full-time for more than 25 years. A heedful student of history and an industrious researcher and analyst, Swartz is a venerable authority on Navy strategy.

In a 2019 oral history taken by Ryan Peeks and Justin Blanton of the Naval History and Heritage Command, Swartz discussed the trajectory and highlights of his career, including the development of the historic 1986 Maritime Strategy. Excerpts from this oral history will be republished with permission on CIMSEC in three parts, and will focus on the development of both the 1986 Maritime Strategy and the Navy’s community of strategists.

In Part One, Swartz discusses how various groups viewed their roles as creators of the strategy, and how emerging tactics and technology were feeding into strategy development.

Peeks: …the [1986] Maritime Strategy has meant and means different things to different people. Could you explain what the Maritime Strategy was from your perspective, and the goals and intentions of its framers?

Swartz: That’s a fair and important question. The Maritime Strategy was a lot bigger than me and it was a lot bigger than what I saw and what I did, and I know a lot more about it now looking back at it and having talked to people than I knew at the time…So yes, it meant different things to different people, I think.

What did it mean to me and the people I was around? We were trying to educate the officer corps, we were targeting the Navy. We were living off the 1978 event that happened in the Carter administration, when Randy Jayne, a very distinguished U.S. Air Force combat veteran fighter pilot with a Ph.D., an Air National Guardsman, and a director for defense programs in the Carter Office of Management and Budget, got up in front of a whole room full of admirals at a Current Strategy Forum in Newport and read them the riot act for not having their act together and not knowing what they were doing. And, Navy consultant John Lehman was sitting in the audience. He writes about this in his book Command of the Seas. He said to himself, “Boy, this outfit’s in trouble. The admirals are all sitting on their hands and putting up with this.”

Well, I’ll tell you, Lieutenant Commander Swartz never had travel money to go to Newport, but he and Lieutenant Commander Stark and Lieutenant Commander Dur and Commander Mauz and all our colleagues in OP-60 were sitting back in their trenches in the Pentagon hearing the reports and reading—oh, there were reporters there, so this was in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post—we were reading the reports and saying, “You’ve got to be kidding me! We know the answer! If we had been there, we would have stood up and just stuffed our rhetorical fists right down his throat and told him the Navy has its act together: “Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to do it!” So, based on that experience, which, as you can see, is still very vivid in my mind, and it was vivid in somebody else’s mind whom I didn’t even know at the time, John Lehman’s, right? I mean, it was quite an event, and reading the press reports, it was quite an event.

I wanted to educate Navy officers so that they wouldn’t sit on their hands when they were being attacked by some goddamn Air Force guy masquerading as a civilian and taking money away from the Navy that should have been spent to enable the nation’s naval power because we were doing good stuff.

My other objective was to deter the Soviets. So, how much do you tell the Soviets about the strategy? Well, enough to give them pause and not enough to give away secrets, and that was always a problem and an issue. But, what I was trying to do with those two things, which were sometimes antithetical, because if you’re trying to educate the Navy officer corps you want to tell them the way it really is, and if you’re trying to deter the Soviets, there’s some things you want to keep from them or try to bluff them on.

Admiral Small’s objective [was] related but different: He was trying to get the Secretary off OPNAV’s back and to have strategy really drive the POM, which for me, as you could tell, was sort of one of the many things that I thought I had to do, but I would say that was central to him. He was a great man, the VCNO. John Lehman and he didn’t get along on programmatic issues, but on strategy they were aligned.

[Admirals] Lyons and Mustin wanted to scare the crap out of the Soviets, and make sure they knew that if they came outside they’d die. They believed that and that’s what they wanted to do, and there were lots of people who worked for them who wanted to do that, too.

The submarine force said: “We’re doing this anyway, we were always going to do this. There’s nothing in here that’s new. What’s new is people talking about it. You’re not supposed to talk about any of this stuff.”

I think for most people in the Navy it was a sensible approach on how you use the U.S. Navy’s offensive power to deter and defeat the Soviets. But that wasn’t very different from Holloway or Zumwalt—it was different from Zumwalt regarding the need for more big carriers—but it wasn’t very different from Holloway or others: “I’ve got this aircraft carrier. It’s loaded with all these airplanes, new airplanes now, I got F-14s, right? And new weapons, right? I’ve got Phoenix. And I’m not going to let the Soviets get anywhere near close to an aircraft carrier, with that, and therefore our A-6s are going to knock the crap out of anything that we want.”

And then, of course, what did the Maritime Strategy mean to the Army? It was all programmatic. It was bureaucratic infighting. It was the Navy “trying to take money from me. It’s Navy’s turn now that Carter is out.” They never could rise above—I never found anybody—[Colonel] Harry Summers, I guess, maybe toward the end of his life, an exception—I never found anybody in the Army who thought otherwise. Some in the Air Force got it, some didn’t. Some were more like the Army. Certainly everybody at PACAF [Pacific Air Force] got it. PACAF had no meaning outside the Maritime Strategy. The whole rest of the Air Force was focused on…nukes and the Fulda Gap, except they weren’t concerned with the ground operation, they were going to go strike.

And then there were a whole bunch of people who thought the Navy was wrong and so they thought the Maritime Strategy was evil: John Mearsheimer, Barry Posen, academics like that, Ambassador Bob Komer, the retired, unreconstructed Carterite. Ron Kurth, famous excellent Russia expert and Navy admiral said, “Peter, we’re never going to fight the Soviets, what the hell? What we’re doing is steaming around the world doing this and doing that and putting out fires, and that’s where we’ve got to put our money and our focus and our brains to, not this. This isn’t going to happen.” I had to respond, “Yes, sir, but the policy says that a big war with the Soviets is what we are directed to program and budget for, not a small-wars Navy”—kind of the same era we’re in today, right?

So yeah, it meant different things to different people. It was much bigger than what we in OP-603 were doing. There were other nodes that thought they were doing the Maritime Strategy and that they were the center. The way I tell the story, this is sounding very, very OP-60 centric, right? Well, that’s how I looked at it.

But, if you were talking to SSG (Strategic Studies Group) alumni, especially from the first couple of SSGs (Bob Murray, John Hanley, Bill Owens, Art Cebrowski, Skip Armstrong, Mike McDevitt, et cetera), they’d all tell you that the main seat of development of the Maritime Strategy was in the SSG. The SSG was trooping around and talking to all the four-stars all around the world and socializing these ideas, and I was keeping in touch with them—and Stan [Weeks] before me was keeping in touch with them—to know what it was that they were doing, but they thought they were the centerpiece.

And, years later, I got to sit down with alumni of the old ATP, the Advanced Technology Panel, super secret. They knew that they were the Maritime Strategy, and that what we were doing at the “Secret” level and even the TS [TOP SECRET] level in the war plans was—to them—fiction and PR: “What we are doing with the new intel, real-world operations that you can’t know anything about and real-world plans that you don’t know anything about. That’s the Maritime Strategy. And it probably will never really be declassified what the Maritime Strategy really was about.” So, if Alf Andreasen were sitting here, he would say something like that. [Captain] Dave Rosenberg, who’s written that highly classified history, would sit and nod and say, “Okay, that’s enough, you can’t say anymore.” Former DNI [Director of Naval Intelligence] Rear Admiral Tom Brooks would sit and smile and not say anything…

Peeks: …if you could talk about it at the unclass [unclassified] level—what role did then-recent developments in policy, technology tactics, intelligence, or other fields have in the development of the Maritime Strategy?

Swartz: There was great effect…because four years before, during the Carter administration, the technology was falling in to place, the tactics were starting to fall in to place, but there were lots of people, especially in the Navy, who didn’t think we could pull this off: “We’re going to die. You know if we do this we’re dead, we can’t do this.” That’s not the way it felt in the ’80s because, as John Lehman points out in his latest book, the Carter administration didn’t slow down putting new systems into the fleet. They slowed down some, like Trident—but what they did do was they cut way back on the quantity of what was actually purchased.

But we now had F-14s and a guy like Art Cebrowski, who shows up in the SSG, has just come from an F-14 Navy for the first time in his life, alongside a guy like Bill Owens, who has just had command of a Los Angeles-class [attack submarine, SSN-688]. Well, there never used to be a Los Angeles-class and he had command of one. He had a very different mindset about what he could do with a submarine than the guys that had been there before, who had had command of diesel boats or the earlier classes of nuclear attack submarines. So, it was a lot of stuff that came in: The LHDs came into the fleet. A lot of stuff came into the fleet in the ’70s, and guys were rolling back in to OPNAV and back into other positions having just had command or served on these things. Commander Mike McDevitt had just come back from a Spruance [DD-963]. Well, there hadn’t been a Spruance before and he could do ASW things that he couldn’t have done before on an ASW ship (with Jay Prout as his XO, my colleague and Stan Weeks’s in OP-603).

So, we knew each other and we had this recent experience (not me, yeah, I had a new class of pencil!), but they had this recent experience of this stuff coming in and there was a lot of it, the new systems that came in in the ’70s. The Nimitz-class carrier came in in the ’70s. It was hard to remember how new it was… And, the Nimitz was quite a thing compared to what had come before, I mean the endurance and sortie rate and so on that you could do with it. And, we were on the cusp of new systems: Tomahawk, AEGIS, VLS, whew! And they were just coming in, not when I was writing, but they were coming to the fleet right afterwards, but you could taste it then.

And so you were mentally on a roll and that very, very positive attitude about the hardware that you had or were about to get, plus Reagan and Lehman saying, “Well, I’m not going to buy just two of them, I’m going to buy 16. I’m not going to buy five of these, I’m going to buy eight, right?” Wow, grand opportunity! I get a Spruance or an LHD or a whatever, a Nimitz [CVN-68], whatever, so this was heavy stuff. So, that’s on the system side and I believe that had an effect.

Tactics: Well, okay, the air battles: What are we going to do about all those Backfires coming at the fleet? Well, we got the hardware, but what are the tactics? So Outer Air Battle, the development of all that. Chainsaw and other tactics. CNA (Center for Naval Analyses) was heavily involved in that. And, strike warfare. The creation of the Super-CAG [carrier air wing commander] and Strike University [now Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center] were part of this. New kinds of fighter and strike tactics, and a new place to hone those strike tactics, Strike U, copying off TOPGUN [former U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, now part of Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center]. TOPGUN itself was still pretty new then, too, in those days.

We were also looking at the Air Force and the Army, and they were doing some neat stuff. Army had AirLand Battle and so there was a revolution going on in the Army, and Air Force had introduced AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System], and AWACS was cleaning up the battlefield. AWACS was terrific, and we were using AWACS, the Air Force AWACS, and we had our own new E-2Cs.

The Marines were using the Maritime Strategy to illustrate why they needed the systems they wanted, especially the V-22, the LCAC [landing craft, air cushion] and the AAAV [advanced amphibious assault vehicle]. LCAC came in. The V-22 eventually came in. AAAV proved an acquisition disaster. They were pushing for all that, because what they wanted was more reach in their amphibious assaults, which were part of the strategy.

Under-ice operations by the submarines: Not a new idea—again, if I had a submarine officer here, he’d say, “Peter, I was practicing under ice in 1957,” or whenever. But, they were doing it and they were honing it, and we had stopped building submarines with under-ice capability because we wanted the speed (that was the Los Angeles class). And then, as the strategy kicked in, then the reverse happened: The program started being driven by the strategy and the improved Los Angeles class was invented, this time with an under-ice capability.

So, back to tactics: I guess there were general tactical principles, like Attack-at-Source (“Why am I hitting the Backfire? Why aren’t I hitting the Kola [Peninsula] where the Backfire flies from?” “We’re not allowed to.” “But, if I were allowed to, could I? And shouldn’t they know that I could if I would?”) So there were issues there: Shooting the archers, not the arrows. Yes, Phalanx is fine, but if you’re busy trying to stop the missile as it’s coming right at you and it’s feet away, it would have been much better to have knocked out the Backfire 300 miles away and that’s why you’ve got the F-14 and the tankers and the E-2Cs to help. Cover and deception: You couldn’t do any of this if you couldn’t trick them. If they knew where you were—I mean naval warfare, much of what it’s about, is finding the guy, and so we didn’t want to be found. So, there was tremendous development in things that we can’t talk about here, but electronics, jamming systems on ships, systems on aircraft, special kinds of aircraft, decoys, and so on were all part of that. SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] using electronic means.

All of that was developed and, by developing it, it gave us a shot at pulling off the strategy. E.g.: You’re briefing the strategy. This guy in the audience says, “I just came from the fleet. We just figured out how to do that. We can do that.” Instead of all sitting there, going, “That’s OP-60 baloney, Peter, we can’t do that,” which is what it would have sounded like in years previous.

And then the submariners: The constant bottom-up pressure for a forward offensive strategy by the submariners, who didn’t give a damn about the Carter administration or this or that or the other. This is my view of them. I’m not accusing them of treason. They had a submarine and its job was to go as far forward as possible and kill everything it could find, especially other submarines, and that was going to include boomers [ballistic missile submarines], whether or not the policy was to kill boomers or not kill boomers or whatever. How the hell were you going to differentiate, anyway? And, Soviet boomers had attack capabilities, too. The practice of ASW, of their submarine tactics, had just continued right through all of this.

So, the interrelationship between the development of the technology, the development of the tactics, and the development of the strategy was there. They were feeding each other.

Peter Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy captain, a former CNA Research Program Director, and currently an adjunct Principal Research Scientist at CNA. Most of his Navy assignments related to strategy, policy and allied engagement, including two tours as an advisor with the South Vietnamese Navy; helping set up the Navy’s Zumwalt-era intercultural relations program; coordinating Navy staff talks with key European allied navies; helping conceptualize, draft and disseminate the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s; directing the US Mission to NATO’s operations division as the Berlin Wall was coming down; and serving as Special Assistant to CJCS General Colin Powell during the First Gulf War.  At CNA he primarily focused on analyzing U.S. Navy and Marine Corps strategy and policy, including their historical roots. In 2020 a Festschrift was published  in his honor (Conceptualizing Naval and Maritime Strategy) by several of his colleagues, and the Naval Historical Foundation awarded him its Commodore Dudley Knox Lifetime Achievement medal.

Ryan Peeks is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, and the author of Aircraft Carrier Requirements and Strategy, 1977-2001.

Justin Blanton is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Featured Image: October 29, 1984. An F/A-14A Tomcat aircraft from Fighter Squadron 21 takes off from the aircraft carrier USS CONSTELLATION (CV 64) during Fleet Exercise 85. (Photo via the U.S. National Archives)

A New Arctic Strategy for an Emerging Maritime Domain

By Joshua Tallis

Coming on the heels of the new tri-service maritime strategy (“Advantage at Sea), the Department of the Navy has now released an updated framework for the Arctic region— “A Blue Arctic: A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic.” The document is a marked improvement on the brisk 2019 Navy version. It is particularly innovative (as strategies go) in including the Marine Corps in a “Blue/Green” approach to the region and in its navigation of cooperative themes in a moment dominated by great power competition. Yet it also has room for growth, in particular on how to connect loftier concepts with operational realities.

As the title implies, the strategy leans into framing the Arctic as “blue” (as opposed to “white”). The “Blue Arctic” conceit is likely to be among the document’s most enduring legacies. Coming on the tail end of a Trump presidency, the strategy may not be officially in force for long. As a result, its rhetorical contributions could outlast any specific policy proposals. On that score, the Blue Arctic push might be a success. Given the realities of climate change, the real novelty that the Navy, Marine Corps, and US policymakers must wrestle with in the Arctic’s future is how rapidly its maritime character is changing. It makes sense to grapple with that reality directly, and to give it a moniker that the bureaucracy can grab hold of.

That maritime focus does not displace the long-term role of aerospace defense in the Arctic, as attested by the enduring US-Canada partnership through the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Yet going back to documents from the Obama administration, like the 2016 implementation framework for the 2013 national strategy, it was clear (via tasking to the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that the maritime angle was rising in importance. Similarly, the Blue Arctic framing well highlights emerging challenges—climate change is the central factor reshaping Arctic geopolitics. Coming with an opening seascape is the greater likelihood for accidents at sea and the prospect of miscalculation that accompanies rival navies operating near one another. So, as a framework for thinking about what is strategically salient in the Arctic today, the Blue Arctic is a helpful construct.

Similarly innovative is the strategy’s authorship. Although the document is not fully tri-service like its recent partner, it is notable as the first modern joint Navy/Marine Corps Arctic strategy. This is not just a bureaucratic feat. The Marine Corps has long-standing operational requirements in the Arctic—as evinced by High North amphibious exercises off Alaska and Norway. 

Integrating Navy and Marine Corps operations is part of a bigger trend, as seen in the commandant’s planning guidance and the release of new operational concepts like Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations and Littoral Operations in Contested Environments (LOCE). Some of these, particularly LOCE, also feature in the Arctic strategy. Yet considering those operational concepts were developed for a potential crisis in the Pacific theater, their reapplication to the Arctic warrants some further scrutiny.

Where the document is at its best, however, is in the focus on the US’s objectives in the Arctic. The document should be lauded—in a moment dominated by great power competition—for foregrounding stability, governance, and peace as the main political objectives guiding US engagement in the Arctic. The invocation of peace through strength is vague and opens the potential for a more confrontational approach to the Arctic, but it does not require that interpretation.

This pivot to stability can also be seen, if subtly, in the document’s treatment of Russia and China. The Department of Defense’s 2019 Arctic strategy, by comparison, references Russia and China in near equal measure. The new Department of the Navy strategy leans slightly more to Russia, which makes sense for an Arctic document. Qualitatively, the document probably also does better differentiating between the two countries compared to the DOD document. That is most evident in its treatment of the theme of cooperation with Russia, where feasible. The strategy is shy about saying so out loud sometimes, but such is evidently the subtext behind the “new partners” section on page 16, for example.

The recent Air Force and the Space Force Arctic strategy offers another useful comparison. That document is forward leaning on the theme of cooperation—but mostly in the context of allies and partners (it names Greenland and Thule frequently to reinforce the Arctic equities of the two services). The Navy/Marine Corps strategy names names too, but with a savvy eye towards domestic readers. Alaska is an obvious hallmark of US Arctic strategies and the Alaska delegation is the key constituency on the Hill for Arctic products. But the Navy document also elevates Maine to new heights, likely given the state’s burgeoning economic emphasis on ties to Greenland and Senator King’s co-chairing of the Arctic caucus.

The move to focus on stability and engagement is not a full pivot from competition. In fact, as in the new tri-service maritime strategy, day-to-day competition is a notable undercurrent throughout the Arctic document. As I’ve written previously, the question of what it means to compete day-to-day for maritime services can be split along two axes: positional and political competition. 

Positional competition means posturing forces to deter a conflict or, failing that, creating the conditions for success in the event of a fight. That boils down to a persistent need for basing, access, and allies. 

Political competition is about continued US security and economic leadership of an international order that reflects its interests and values. That invites a competition over global agenda setting, defending maritime norms, and not strictly a perspective on winning the big fight. 

The new Arctic framework hints strongly at political competition when it talks about the need to compete in “a way that protects vital national interests and preserves regional security without undermining trust and triggering conflict.” That is, I believe, the right approach, and those responsible for implementing the strategy should look to the new tri-service document for its extended treatment of the idea of day-to-day competition.

Presence typically rhymes with competition for the Navy, and it is no surprise that the strategy emphasizes that issue at length. As others have noted, the strategy takes a big picture view of the Arctic as one space for policy-making (a circumpolar perspective). That is understandable for a document that lives at the high altitude of strategy, but it challenges building connective tissue between the idea of presence and specific operational recommendations on where presence is most useful to pursue stability, peace, or rule of law. Strategy is ultimately about helping shape hard choices on the application of finite resources, and when it comes to where presence is most needed, an implementation framework is particularly critical to help translate the broad (and standardly Navy) idea into practice.

Then there is the question of presence with what? In the Arctic, that question has implications for whether the Navy buys different kinds of assets (ice hardened vessels?) or how it plans to compete day-to-day in an austere domain. Submarines commonly operate in the Arctic, but they are high demand, low density assets and are famously bad at overt signaling (by design). Aircraft carriers have gone north (see exercises Northern Edge or Trident Juncture) but are even scarcer and can be quite provocative. Destroyers are versatile platforms but constrained in operational range by the presence of ice in some regions at some times of year. Because service strategies can most directly influence service activities—staffing, training, and equipping the fleet—the issue of platforms is also one that an implementation plan should tackle directly.

There is a lot more to the new blueprint. It laudably addresses the need to plug data gaps for issues of weather modeling, for example, and it emphasizes the role of the professional military education complex in better preparing future military leaders for the Arctic’s political and strategic character. Yet its greatest innovations may be the ones that require the least digging. The subtle but evident broadening of cooperation, to occasionally include Russia, is a key feature of addressing stability in the Arctic and managing China’s rise. Most evidently, the framework clearly stakes a claim to the Arctic as fundamentally maritime and littoral. Following on that geography, it invites the Navy and Marine Corps to collaborate strategically where so far they have mostly done so operationally. That marriage necessitates more critical analysis about how Blue/Green operational ideas translate to the Arctic, but the underlying shift the framework represents is a notable achievement in its own right.

Dr. Joshua Tallis is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University specializing in maritime security, polar affairs, and naval strategy. He is the author of the 2019 book, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity. The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of CNA or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Scientist carrying equipment on ice in front of RV Polarstern during the MOSAiC expedition in September 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Tri-Service Maritime Strategy: Reading Between the Lines

By Robert C. Rubel

The Navy routinely publishes capstone documents that serve as top-level policy statements and guidance for the Service. Some are either directly titled maritime strategies or are at least referred to as such, implying that they describe ways that naval forces will be used to achieve national objectives. In truth this cannot be the case because the Navy has no authority to determine such ways; that is the province of the joint chain of command that runs from the President through the Secretary of Defense down to the Unified Combatant Commanders, bypassing both the Joint Staff and the Services. If the Navy has no authority to engage in such strategizing, why issue such documents, the latest of which is entitled “Advantage at Sea” but is commonly called the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy (TSMS)?

The widely accepted strategic syllogism is ends/ways/means; strategy specifically constituting the ways. As previously stated, developing ways in which the means – the military forces – can be used to achieve the ends – national security objectives – is the business of the joint chain of command. The Services are tasked to provide the means, so any top-down document the Navy issues must be somehow connected to that responsibility. The context in which such documents are issued is commonly resource scarcity, which means that in some way the document either outlines a way for the Service to deal with that scarcity or pleads for more resources. When internally focused, the documents tend to be straightforward guidance for adapting the Service to existing conditions. When externally focused, the actual Service strategy is to get what it wants by publishing a “strategy” document that it hopes will influence its target outside audience, be it Congress, the American public, potential adversaries or friendly countries. This desire to achieve influence via a public document appears to be behind the TSMS thus requiring us to read between its lines to infer the underlying ways.

Strategies can be thought of as solutions to problems, and the TSMS contains a formal problem statement that says China’s and Russia’s “revisionist approaches” in the maritime domain threaten U.S. interests, undermine alliances, and threaten the global order. Moreover, their aggressive naval growth and modernization are eroding U.S. military superiority. Left unchecked this will leave the Naval Services unprepared to ensure U.S. advantage at sea (this last printed in bold). There are a couple of ways to read this, one being that the Naval Services must check gray zone operations, which, as discussed, is outside Service authority. The second is that Chinese and Russian naval growth, at least in relative terms, must be checked. Presumably this is the real problem that must be solved, a view supported by the paragraph preceding the problem statement, which lists challenges to building additional capacity, including increased costs and developmental timelines of systems and weapons, and continuing budget pressures; in other words, resource scarcity.

From all this we can infer that the basic strategy behind TSMS is to publish a strategy document to add to the momentum for building a bigger fleet that was created by the Secretary of Defense’s Battle Force 2045 plan. As such, a key element of the pleading purpose of the document is to articulate a persuasive utility argument – why the nation should invest more in its Naval Services – and the TSMS is full of such language. 

But the document also contains a more novel and dramatic element; it asserts that the three Naval Services will more closely integrate their efforts. In the face of resource scarcity it makes sense to try and find efficiencies and synergies, and to the extent that this is the motivation behind this part of the problem solution it is a brilliant move.

However, a close reading of the TSMS reveals a somewhat more problematic motivation and strategy. The document clearly colors outside the lines of Service authority by asserting the Naval Services will more aggressively confront Chinese and Russian gray zone operations even at the cost of incurring greater risk. In several places the document mentions the advantage the unique authorities possessed by the Coast Guard brings to the table. This implies that an underlying deal with the Department of Homeland Security has been reached to empower some anti-gray zone operational strategy. One hopes the relevant combatant commanders have been consulted, but in any case it seems to be an end run around joint authority and also appears to preempt policy making by the incoming Biden Administration. Aggressive and even risky forward naval maneuvers to intimidate an adversary was a key provision of the 1980s Maritime Strategy, which the TSMS seems to echo, but the times and the adversaries are different, and one wonders if such a frontal assault strategy is appropriate in current conditions. The document itself might be intended as a means of such intimidation since it articulates how U.S. naval forces would be successful in confronting and defeating the enemy, including the implication that U.S. forces either have or shortly will possess hypersonic weapons.

Beyond the motivations and underlying strategies just mentioned there seems to be a third element in the TSMS: relationships with allies. In a number of places the document calls for increased cooperation with international navies, especially at the higher levels on the spectrum of conflict. This echoes language in the 2015 Cooperative Strategy, but absent some kind of underlying strategy for achieving it, the words are only boilerplate. But giving the TSMS writing team credit for strategic thinking, such language can be interpreted as a move to counteract the Trump Administration’s confrontational approach to allies and partners. This echoes but is not the same as the approach taken by the 2007 Cooperative Strategy. That document portrayed the US on the strategic defensive and emphasized the peacetime uses of seapower to allay the suspicions of other nations concerning U.S. intentions due to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That document was a part of an underlying strategy of courting international cooperation on maritime security that also involved extensive international consultation during strategy development and bringing international officers into the process. The document itself did not directly spell out any of this.

The TSMS appears to be anticipating a more internationalist policy and approach by the Biden Administration, but simply calling for more cooperation, especially in warfighting, is not an actual strategy for securing it, and other than envisioning increased exercises, the document gives us little indication of how it will be achieved. In fact, more aggressive confrontation of Chinese and Russian gray zone operations, or even their international naval engagement activities and perhaps instances of gunboat diplomacy, might serve to alarm potential partners and allies who do not want to be dragged into conflict by the U.S. In any case it is all a policy matter above the pay grade of the Services, so in the best case the TSMS will serve as an educational document for those duly authorized to make and implement such policies.

There is one element of the TSMS that is puzzling and harder to decode. On the one hand it calls for emphasizing future warfighting readiness over near term demand. On the other hand, the document calls for robust forward presence as well as conducting large fleet exercises. It is not clear how the Services will square this circle. Besides, the combatant commanders call the shots on what forces will be deployed where. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, who had also previously served as Undersecretary of the Navy, attempted to establish a “supply-side” approach to force deployment and was unsuccessful. While integration of the Naval Services to achieve efficiencies is laudable, it is not clear that this in itself will relieve the pressure to send forces forward.

Finally, the TSMS may be a tool for mending organizational discontinuities within the Navy. For decades the resources directorate, N8, has operated in an insular manner, repelling any attempts by the strategy office, which had been in the N3/5 directorate but which now resides within the N7 directorate, to influence the Navy’s programming. N8 relies on a numerical, computer-based analysis process called campaign analysis to determine what kinds of ships should be built, what kinds of weapons procured, etc. The more qualitative ideas coming out of the strategy process cannot be easily accommodated by the campaign analysis process and have been therefore largely disregarded. The TSMS, in addition to calling not only for a new fleet design but also a new integrated Naval Analytic Master Plan, seems to be aiming to break the logjam between the two directorates – a good thing. However, it should be noted that the team that penned the TSMS was likely composed of N7 folks and it remains to be seen what effect the document will have on the flow of influence from strategy to programming.

The intent here is not to critique the TSMS, although I have done a little of that, but rather, understanding the true nature of strategy documents issued by the Navy, to divine the intent behind it. The Navy has not had a formal strategy process, most capstone documents being the products of an ad hoc effort, so it is never a routine occurrence when one is issued. Thus it is a worthwhile exercise to try and read between the lines of a new document. Hopefully this exercise will be of use to readers.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.

FEATURED IMAGE: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Nov. 2, 2012) A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter prepares to land on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). For prudent planning, the Navy has begun to preposition Wasp, USS San Antonio (LPD 17) and USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) for primary assistance in the affected North East region if required by FEMA following the devastation brought on by Hurricane Sandy. San Antonio and Carter Hall got underway Oct. 31 from Norfolk, Va., and began transiting north to the affected areas on Nov. 1. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Markus Castaneda/Released) 121102-N-WI365-326

How Good Order at Sea is Central to Winning Strategic Competition

By Josh Tallis


The United States sea services—the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—are regularly underway and forward-deployed, carrying out routine activities and exercises daily. These activities are technically demanding, expensive, and occasionally dangerous. Consequently, the services face pressure to explain how their typical activities at sea support national strategy, which today means answering how the sea services compete, day-to-day, in an era of strategic competition with great powers. In other words, do the regular functions of the sea services figure in U.S. national strategy, and if not, what must they do to adapt to competition? In so answering that question, we can gain a deeper insight into what it means to compete more fundamentally in the modern era.

Policy implications for how the sea services must adapt to competition with great power rivals should begin with a concept of where day-to-day activities intersect with national strategy. The sea services require a defined strategic objective of day-to-day competition, which this article argues is U.S. leadership of the international order. This framing has operational and strategic ramifications. Operationally, it means that “smaller” maritime missions are now some of the sea services’ most important functions. Strategically, this is an important observation, as despite being a longstanding part of Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard history, maritime security infrequently drives or derives logically from overarching strategic concepts. The services must therefore adapt to meet the strategic challenges of competition. This means rethinking core aspects of Navy and Marine Corps policy and the Coast Guard’s operational priorities. It also augurs an even broader need for creative thinking about how the U.S. should incorporate lesser adversaries (e.g., Iran, North Korea, and non-state actors) into the context of competition with great power rivals, something that is particularly absent in contemporary strategy.

“Winning” the Competition

Defining the strategic objective of competition is foundational to our understanding of the day-to-day functions of U.S. sea services. If victory is the objective, what constitutes victory? And if the sea services seek to win, what are they trying to win? In exploring the definition of victory, we obtain a clearer understanding of the nature of the competition. Two different theories of victory are emerging. They rely on complimentary concepts but fundamentally represent different underlying visions of success.

One theory of victory is positional. Positional success is deterring conflict or, failing that, creating conditions for success in the event of a conflict. With victory understood in that largely operational context, competition would seem a matter of geographic positioning of U.S. assets, which would result in contests over access, basing, postures, and capable allies. U.S.-China contestation over key terrain such as Djibouti or the Philippines offer examples of this positional battle.

The other theory of victory is political. Political success is continued U.S. security and economic leadership of an international order that reflects U.S. values. With victory understood in that geostrategic context, competition becomes a matter of global agenda setting, which would result in competition over the international order, its character, its values, and its norms. U.S. contestation of Russian sovereignty claims in the Northern Sea Route, or Chinese claims over territoriality in the South China Sea, represent competition on this political plane.

Although both the positional and political theories of victory represent necessary activities on the part of the military, they offer competing visions of the role of U.S. sea services in day-to-day competition. Is it to deter conflict—imposing costs on adversaries—or to win without fighting—building a political order that offers sufficient benefits to make revisions difficult or undesirable? The positional vision is ultimately about deterring and preparing for conflict, not competition. As a result, the political theory of victory is more important when evaluating U.S. sea services and their role in day-to-day competition.

This conclusion is rooted in the very concept of strategic competition. If the present is an era defined by competition between great powers, what makes a power great? No theoretical architecture in U.S. strategy answers this question, but one particularly instructive definition offered scholars such as Nick Bisley and Bear Braumoeller is that great power status reflects a state’s outsized stake in, and effect on, the international order. If the order is central to what makes powers great, then great power competition is more than just a matter of conflict, it is political—it is a battle over the order.

“Winning” the Global Order

If we understand the nature of day-to-day competition with great powers to be a political, not positional, contest, how might the sea services identify barriers to victory? We can think about threats to the international order in two buckets—order defense and order maintenance.

First, the order could collapse abruptly, likely through a violent overthrow of the existing order. And if great powers are those with an outsized effect on the order, great powers are then the likeliest candidates to force a violent reversal of the prevailing order. In other words, the first type of threat to the international order is a great power war, a risk for which the sea services spend significant resources deterring and preparing to defeat.

The second threat relates to the order’s long-term health. An order can erode, through lack of proactive maintenance on the part of its steward, and it can corrode, through the persistent malign activities of both large and small actors. U.S. strategists are often concerned with avoiding a total collapse of the system (defending the order). Yet day-to-day competition is a function of understanding how to sustain the United States’ position in, and the character of, the existing system over a long time horizon and against subtle threats. It is about avoiding death by a thousand cuts, policing norms and ensuring the credibility of the institutions and rules that benefit the U.S. and its partners.

Vessels, including Chinese maritime militia vessels, at Thitu Island in the South China Sea, December 18, 2019. [Click to Expand] (CSIS/AMTI/MAXAR Technologies)
The Rule of Law and Day-to-Day Competition

Credibility is an operative word when describing competition over the international order. The current, U.S.-led order is successful in part because association with it is somewhat voluntary—states aspire to join its commercial and political structures because an American security umbrella and predictable economic rules create a largely safe, stable, and prosperous dynamic. The desirability of participating in that structure is partially contingent on U.S. credibility sustaining certain core commitments, many of them stemming from the sea. These obligations—ensuring freedom of navigation, enforcing international norms, enforcing multilateral sanctions, containing terrorism and piracy—represent fundamental maritime security tasks that promote the maintenance and success of the order. The low-end maritime security missions that bolster U.S. credibility as capable of enforcing core security and economic norms are central to day-to-day competition.

Rescue swimmers and aircrewmen from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., conduct hoist training evolutions June 23, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell)

The objective of maritime security (or, good order at sea) is to sustain and enforce the rule of law, to promote the mutual gains that encourage nations to trust in and rely on the United States, and to protect the legitimate uses of global commons that keep the world prosperous and safe from major conflict. To maintain the U.S. position at the helm of the international order is to pursue maritime security. To fail to pursue maritime security is to concede rulemaking and rule breaking to competitors, creating a less desirable and beneficial order and thus facilitating its erosion or corrosion. Countries that fall further from the U.S.-led order will have China (and to a lesser extent, Russia) to turn to as partners in facilitating the construction of robust alternatives.

The Sea Services as Unique Instruments of Competition

The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are not just a part of maintaining the international order, they are critical to it. The ability to deliver dynamic, calibrated coercion or reassurance without a large footprint is a longstanding benefit of seapower. Each force (and the Navy in particular) has historically served as primary levers in the pursuit of good order at and from the sea because they provide policymakers with unique coercive and diplomatic tools. As one CNA report remarks of the Navy, the force has “almost always been involved in smaller-scale contingencies (SSC) and operations other than war (OOTW). For long stretches, these operations were all that the Navy did.” Even as strategic competition has reinvigorated attention to great power wars, the missions that U.S. leaders pursue in practice reflect a reality that is equally if not more concerned with the maintenance of the U.S.-led order (e.g., freedom of navigation operations, presence operations, sanctions enforcement, counterterrorism, and capacity building).

There is little evidence that great power competition will disrupt policymakers’ use of the sea services in pursuit of order maintenance. Such are core functions for the Coast Guard. And for the Navy and Marine Corps, the forces historically balanced small-scale missions with preparations for conflict. That these operations did not produce a substantial effect on strategy is what should concern us today. Despite being a dominant part of naval history, maritime security is often pursued as an annex to strategy, not logically derived from it. Policymakers can help avoid that mistake in this era, which begins by understanding good order at sea as central to, not an appendage of, great power competition.

Implications for the Sea Services and Strategy

This assessment yields implications for Navy and Marine Corps policy, Coast Guard priorities, and U.S. strategy. First, the Navy and Marine Corps must reflect the rising strategic prominence of day-to-day competitive tasks in their policies. Decisions over where the sister services station forces, what the Navy buys to deploy those forces, and what both services do with the platforms they send forward should all include some assessment of their impact on day-to-day competition. In practice that should mean a more dispersed fleet to compete effectively in more places at once. It should also mean an increase in the number of smaller platforms the Navy fields (including with embarked Marines), designed to support maritime security missions in African, Latin American, and Indian Ocean waters. The forces should also operationally prioritize, to a much greater extent than they do currently, low-end missions, affording them a place of prominence in internal decisions regarding force allocation, readiness, and external communications about what they are doing and why.

Second, the Coast Guard does (and should continue to) play an integral role in reinforcing good order at sea and compliance with international norms. It is uniquely situated to do so regarding key issues in day-to-day-day competition such as maintaining rule of law, including through fisheries enforcement and promoting U.S. sovereignty in the Arctic. The Coast Guard will also continue to serve as an agent of U.S. law enforcement, and thus cannot always act strictly with an eye toward maintenance of the international order in a time of strategic competition. Yet the Coast Guard must make hard choices where those obligations conflict (i.e., system maintenance versus other constabulary duties), and policymakers must evaluate whether certain tasks optimally utilize a limited national resource to maximal effect in defense of core security and economic norms. Counter-drug missions in the Caribbean offer one such example. They consume high levels of Coast Guard resources, are doubtless important to its law enforcement functions, but represent a Sisyphean effort that may not optimally use finite assets in defense of the most important norms in the international order. That is the type of policy prioritization balance facing the Coast Guard in day-to-day competition.

Finally, despite emphases on China and Russia, the National Defense Strategy maintains the need for continued attention to Iran, North Korea, and terrorists, but at levels that do not hold U.S. forces hostage. U.S. strategy must therefore reflect how actors that are not great powers can undermine its ability to compete successfully with primary rivals. Even if only major powers can overthrow a global order, actors up and down the power spectrum can corrode an order so that it becomes less desirable. The result of such corrosion may not be a wholesale replacement of the order, but its weakening or fracturing. And since great powers are those with the most to benefit—and the greatest ability to capture incremental improvements—from such degradation, China and Russia stand to gain even when North Korea, Iran, pirates, or terrorists strain the order’s credibility. Thus, more than just great powers can influence the outcome of day-to-day competition. The sea services should deliberately incorporate lesser powers into their policies of great power competition to ensure that risks emanating from lesser powers neither overtake the focus on great powers nor disappear entirely in their wake.


Great power competition is not only about preparing for conflict, but also includes sustained, day-to-day competition regarding who most shapes the structure of the international order. The U.S. sea services—the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—are uniquely positioned to wage this competition. They have historically served as tools for preserving rule of law at and from the sea in the past.

What is required now is for the sea services to articulate a clear theory of victory in the era of strategic competition, to recognize the relationship between competition and the small tasks that uphold the international order, and to prioritize policies and operations that reinforce the order upon which U.S. security and prosperity rests. In the process, a focus on the international order underscores the role of lesser adversaries as spoilers in strategic competition, whose malign actions can corrode the credibility of U.S. leadership to the benefit of China and Russia.

Whether combatting corrosion of the order by great powers or lesser adversaries, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard policy must adapt in order to prioritize, resource, and meet the demands of low-end missions in an era of great powers. Only then, as a function of preserving good order at sea, might the sea services achieve their measure of victory in this global competition.

Dr. Joshua Tallis is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University specializing in maritime security, polar affairs, and naval strategy. He is the author of the 2019 book, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers, and Maritime Insecurity and the recent CNA report, Maritime Security and Great Power Competition: Maintaining the U.S.-led International Order, from which this article is partially derived. The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of CNA or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: SAN DIEGO (March 3, 2017) USS Jackson (LCS 6) is pierside during sunset. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Miranda V. Williams/Released)