This article originally featured on The Navalist and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.
By LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN and Professor Richard J. Harknett
The United States has been operating without a Grand Strategy for nearly 25 years. First, it was essentially on auto-pilot in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union (the grand strategic endstate of containment) and then post-9/11 it became tactically oriented in reacting to global terrorism. Over the past 16 years, a flux in the distribution of power internationally has begun as the United States has relied on coercive force in an attempt to manage terrorist capacity and its gap in power is not guaranteed to be sustained without a strategy to do so. Great powers rise and fall because, over time, they tend to choose policies which accelerate the balancing dynamic of other competing states. Today, while the United States remains the leading state in an imbalanced global system, traditional realist theory suggests that international systems tend toward balance and we should expect a turn to a multipolar world. The National Intelligence Council’s January 9th released quadrennial Global Trends Report suggests a similar conclusion.
This is not preordained, however, if U.S. policymakers were to return to leveraging true American strength. The United States is still a relatively young Great Power and can choose policies that can stretch its advantages. Thus, while actors will balance against it, the United States can remain preponderant for some period of time. This is because it enjoys its position as a foundational power, rather than a coercive power. The majority of the world benefits from the foundations that have been laid in the aftermath of the Second World War and, therefore, there is significant incentive to buy-in and work within the current American-led incentive structure–most states are rewarded by the imbalance and thus it is not the driving force that traditional analysis suggests. This gap in power is tolerable to a majority of state and non-state actors because it is leveragable by them.
However, perpetuating an imbalanced system where the U.S. remains the foundational power will not sit well with actors like China, Russia, Iran and a few other revisionist actors. Indeed they are all working hard to challenge the current system to make their own rules and pursue their own interests.
Yet the incoming administration may have an opportunity to fundamentally reorient the pieces on the grand strategic chessboard, and perhaps retain a position of strength that has been ebbing over the past few years. It appears that the President and his team are open to a different view of Russia as a great power. They seem amenable to Mr. Putin’s realist view of the world, and his naked pursuit of Russian interests.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s comments about Communist China, and his apparent willingness to rethink America’s “one-China” policy seem to indicate that on some instinctual level, Mr. Trump considers the PRC to be a greater threat than Russia. On that matter, he is probably correct. Russia is essentially a vulnerable great power heading in the wrong direction. Communist China, on the other hand, while facing its own internal inconsistencies, has the capacity to challenge the United States in terms of economic, military and political power.
Quite simply then, the new Administration may be in a position to reverse the realignment of the Nixon era (but in Nixonian fashion) and enter into a tacit alignment with Russia as a geopolitical balance against Communist China, thereby sustaining the imbalanced system. There are a number of reasons why this might be advantageous to both the United States and Russia, but we should acknowledge up front that it will not come without significant cost. And this is not the mere “reset” that was recently attempted. In geopolitical terms, this is effectively bringing Russia into the western orbit.
The core unknown is whether Russia can be a satisfied great power in an imbalanced system? The answer is possibly yes, if its status is based on seats at the table of global governance, it is convinced that it is not susceptible to outside aggression or collapse, and that its particular form of domestic governance can persist.
Russia is a weakening great power on its current course demographically and economically. A new relationship would have to emphasize that there is a fundamental benefit to Russia of leveraging U.S. foundational power, rather than risking the cost of opposing U.S. coercive power. Russia should understand that challenging that coercive power would lead to its swifter demise. It lost the first Cold War and the U.S. can actively isolate it again and turn the energy (oil price) weapon against it if the Russians want to challenge the U.S. This is not a containment for containment sake argument, but rather an invitation to Russia to become a western power coupled with a hard power argument of the consequences that would follow from not accepting the invitation. What needs to be made clear is that the Russian hope of undermining western institutional legitimacy will not be tolerated anymore, but that there is an alternative to competition. This is a “tough love” message, but one in which Mr. Trump and his Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson may be uniquely qualified to deliver.
In order for this to happen, Mr. Trump will have to convince Mr. Putin that Russia has a “losing hand” as it were, and that Communist China is a greater long term threat to Russia than the United States or the west. Russia is currently under severe economic sanctions from the west due to its invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, and while Mr. Putin remains popular for now, even he knows that the Russian people will not tolerate for long growing economic depravity. Mr. Trump can effectively say, “I can get you out of this mess.”
And indeed there is growing concern even within Russia of China’s overt interest in the sparsely populated, but resource rich Siberian expanse. The Russian people are intimately familiar with several thousand years of history, to include numerous invasions from the Asian steppe hordes. Of course in recent history, Communist China attacked the Soviet Union in 1969. Russia is beginning to note the frequency with which Communist China now talks of reclaiming the territory lost during its “Century of Humiliation” – much of that territory being taken by Imperial Russia. (This includes the city of Vladivostok which was ceded to Russia by Imperial China in 1858.)
Can a Trump Administration conduct a strategic realignment with Russia? While the West will be under pressure to “negotiate a deal” likely involving forswearing further NATO expansion or the integration of former Soviet states into the EU, it should resist this temptation. Remember, Russia has a losing hand in this relationship, and is contracting both demographically and economically. Rather, Mr. Trump has to convince Mr. Putin that any lifting of sanctions will be followed by American investment which would effectively “stop the bleeding” in Russia. However, there would be no rollback on NATO – the Baltics and Eastern Europe are not going to be discarded. One clear question is the motivations of Mr. Putin: does he want Russia to retain global recognition as a great power and will cut a deal to do so, or is he too much a product of his KGB legacy and sees the “West” as an unremitting enemy with which no deal is safe? He will recall promises of the 1990s that were not kept, so trust building will be essential. The choice of Mr. Tillerson as Secretary of State could be critical in establishing that trust.
For the United States, bringing Russia into a Western orbit could provide significant advantages. First, it diverts the PRC’s attention back to its 2,600 mile long border with Russia. This will require the PRC to reconsider its reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), perhaps away from building a power projection force back to a land-oriented border protection. And the PLA still relies largely upon Russian designed and supplied military equipment, which would hopefully be curtailed or stopped.
Second, it advances the goals of the United States relative to India and Vietnam, who also maintain a friendly relationship with Russia and heavily relies on Russia as a military supplier. India has historically been non-aligned, though friendly to the former Soviet Union/Russia. A rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia relieves a source of tension with Vietnam and India, and opens the door for an alignment between the world’s two most populous democracies and a former war enemy of China.
Third, it does permit the U.S. and Russia to resume and enhance counter-terrorism relationships. It may even open opportunities for the United States and Russia to conduct joint operations in the Middle East against ISIS. To be clear, Russian insistence that the Assad regime remain in power would have to be dropped. However, the U.S. and Russia can probably find a mutually acceptable third party to rule in Syria over time
As of yet, there is no evidence that the incoming Administration is thinking along these lines. It would require a deft bit of diplomacy and “deal making” to convince Russia to throw its lot in with the United States as opposed to remaining the junior partner to the PRC (whether or not Russia realizes it is the junior partner is an open question). However, the warm words exchanged between the incoming Trump team and the Kremlin may be an opportunity. How unsubstantiated reports of deeper campaign Trump-Kremlin ties will impact moving forward is unknown, but in a world in which perception is reality, a President Trump would now have to pursue such a realignment strategy more openly than Nixon did with China. If they could pull it off, future relations with Communist China could look very different than the current trajectory it is on right now.
To quote Star Trek VI, there is an old Vulcan proverb that “Only Nixon could go to China.” Well, perhaps “only Trump could go to Russia.” We shall see if he can seize this opportunity.
LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is a Cryptologic Warfare Officer assigned to the staff of U.S. Cyber Command. He holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Central Florida and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
Professor Richard J. Harknett is the former Scholar-in-Residence at U.S. Cyber Command and currently an inaugural Fulbright Scholar in Cyber studies at University of Oxford, United Kingdom. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or U.S. Cyber Command. The authors offer an academic-based explanation for possible policy change, rather than personal advocacy or rejection of any possible policies.
Barry Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, Director of the MIT Security Studies Program, and serves on the Executive Committee of Seminar XXI. Currently on leave, he is presently serving as the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Center for the 2016-2017 term. In his most recent book, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2015), Dr. Posen critiques Liberal Hegemony, the intellectual foundation of current U.S. grand strategy. He presents a bold new vision, a Grand Strategy of Restraint, as an alternative to Liberal Hegemony, and argues that the U.S. ought to focus on pursuing its security through an emphasis on command of the commons, a strategy with a considerable maritime component. CIMSEC spoke with Dr. Posen to get his take on how his arguments can be applied to the world’s emerging strategic defense dilemmas.
Q: Many have suggested that the U.S. is lacking a coherent strategy, including incoming Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has testified that the U.S. is suffering from “strategic atrophy.” To what extent do you agree with such statements? Is it that the U.S. lacks strategic vision, or that the chaotic nature of the world makes the pursuit of any set strategic goals a fruitless exercise?
A: The United States has had the same strategy since the end of the Cold War. That strategy is Liberal Hegemony. It has two purposes: preserve to the extent possible the immediate post Cold War U.S. power and influence advantage relative to other nation states (dubbed the “unipolar moment”) and promote the spread of democratic forms of governance, market economies, and the rule of law—both within societies and at the level of the international system. This is a revolutionary strategy: it is meant to ensure U.S. security by transforming international politics.
These goals are very ambitious, and confront many moving targets. First, the economic and technological bases for power are diffusing to other countries and to groups, making it inherently difficult to preserve U.S. power and influence relative to them. Second, other peoples may not wish to emulate our forms of governance and economic organization. Nationalism is a strong force, making societies resistant to external tutelage. In some places, there simply is no obvious path to a liberal future. The Middle East is perhaps the most obvious example. There is a strong tension between the preservation of U.S. interests, power, and the spread of democracy. Indeed, there is not even sufficient cause-effect understandings about how to construct democracies.
Q: The U.S. identifies its adversaries in a 4+1 construct: revisionist regional powers such as China and Russia, rogue states that make wild threats and are pursuing or have pursued weapons of mass destruction such as Iran and North Korea, and the condition of widespread extremism and insurgent conflict. Under a Grand Strategy of Restraint, what would be the priorities among these threats?
A: The U.S. needs to think about what are the main threats to its safety, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and to its ability to generate sufficient power to defend these. If China or Russia were to establish hegemony in their regions, that would be a problem for the U.S. Russia is not powerful enough to do so in Europe. China may grow to be powerful enough to do so in Asia. So China is the main problem, though a full court press of containment seems premature.
“Rogue” states are not major problems for U.S. security; they may be problems for U.S. allies and if those allies lack the power to deal with them, then the U.S. can lend a hand. Extremism can be a problem, when it manifests itself in terrorist organizations with global ambitions. But this threat cannot be addressed as we have tried to address it, by reforming societies at the source. Instead the best the U.S. can do is keep pressure on such groups to divert their energies to their own defense, and to put defensive barriers between them and the U.S. This will not stop every problem, but efforts to go to the source, as attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to create new terrorists as fast as the U.S. eliminates old ones.
Q: What is the force structure that a Strategy of Restraint recommends?
A: Restraint focuses U.S. security efforts on the most important threats to U.S. security. And it chooses military forces that are most appropriate to address those threats. Though ‘terrorists of global reach’ are a threat to U.S. safety, the chosen remedy of the last fifteen years—sending large numbers of ground forces to democratize and reform riven societies at gunpoint has proven wildly expensive and largely ineffective. Restraint cuts the ground forces that have been employed for this purpose. Restraint does oppose other great powers who might try to establish hegemony in Eurasia. To maintain the capability to act in Asia, the U.S. must retain command of the sea, and of course sufficient command of air and of space to be able to move forces across the ocean, should that become necessary.
At this time, the most survivable warship in the U.S. inventory is the nuclear attack submarine. When forward deployed, it makes a critical contribution to blocking other great powers access to the open oceans. The aircraft carrier provides a mobile, strategic reserve, to assist threatened allies, and to help sustain command of the air over the open oceans. That said, the carrier is increasingly vulnerable to a range of weapon systems deployed ashore. Thus, in wars with peer competitors, carrier forces must be used in strength and also with care. Except against much weaker states, they can no longer be viewed as airfields that can simply linger offshore for extended periods. U.S. strategic decision makers—civilian and military—must confront the strong possibility that in a serious conflict, some carriers will be lost. The U.S. began WW2 with six carriers; by the end of 1942 four were sunk; and two were badly damaged. Command of the sea does not come cheap.
Q: How important is it for the U.S. to assert itself in the South China Sea? What strategic interests and precedents are at stake? What is the value of freedom of navigation operations there and what other means can the U.S. employ to shape the environment?
A: The U.S. relies on the sea to access the rest of the world, not just for trade, but more importantly to ensure against the rise of a continental hegemon. Thus the U.S. should protect freedom of the seas. States are tempted to bootstrap historical claims and the fine print of the Convention on the Law of the Sea to assert control over quite a lot of sea space. The U.S. should ratify the Convention and continue to assert its right to sail in those waters where others’ claims seem beyond what the Convention allows.
Q: You severely criticize “buck-passing diplomacy” by U.S. allies in your book. Yet there are partners who have been working well with the U.S. (e.g. Singapore) or that the U.S. could be doing more with (e.g. Australia). How can the U.S. better leverage security relationships with such prospective partners? Are there any lessons the U.S. can learn from these relationships that can be applied to the U.S.’s relationships with less forthcoming partners?
A: Most U.S. allies invest much smaller shares of GDP in defense than does the U.S. This arises from their confidence that the U.S. will defend them, and perhaps also their true doubts about the imminence of security threats. They may complain about those threats, but they may not be as concerned as they pretend to be. Australia is one of the allies that under-invests. To the extent that some allies do more than others, this arises from either their proximity to threats, or their history of having been abandoned, or nearly abandoned by past protectors.
There are three lessons for the U.S. First, when your allies tell you they are frightened, ask them what they intend to do about it before offering to solve the problem for them. If the answer is not much, then do not rush to address the problem. Second, make burden sharing a central issue of alliance diplomacy. Third, remind allies that the U.S. is inherently a very secure country. And the U.S. retains command of the sea. We have more options than they do. They need to earn our support.
Q: Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, suggested that the U.S. provide less security to allies unless they paid more, and hinted that Japan, South Korea, and other countries, should acquire nuclear weapons. If Donald Trump sustains pressure on U.S. allies to increase burden sharing, how may these alliances evolve?
A: Eliciting a more equitable sharing of defense burdens requires a strategy. If the President simply sends an irate tweet every now and then, he will accomplish very little.
There are two ways this can go. First, the President can complain and at the same time unilaterally reduce U.S. military contributions to the alliance. If the U.S. simply disengages, my prediction is that U.S. allies, who are quite rich, will learn to defend themselves. But the process could be rocky. This could include getting nuclear weapons. We may wish for prudential reasons to attempt serious reform first. Or, the U.S. can make burden sharing a central issue in the alliances, hinting that our contributions depend on theirs.
The President and U.S. cabinet officials and diplomats must communicate regularly and publicly with allies on this issue. The alliances must set actual concrete military goals. Many of these should be public. The performance of allies must be assessed in public. The Congress must hold hearings on the matter. The press needs to be induced to cover the issue. The allies need to be made to believe that this is very, very serious. If they value U.S. help, they must show that they care about their own defense. They must be made to believe that without evidence to this effect, the alliances will fray, and they will find themselves on their own. Few people remember that this is what the U.S. did with NATO in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It did not work perfectly, but it worked better than anything attempted in recent years.
Q: In the conclusion of your book, you remark that change can happen through one of three ways. The Strategy of Restraint could be adopted through astute politicians listening to proponents of the Strategy of Restraint and having a “eureka” moment; through crisis; or through incremental changes. Is Trump’s election more like a “eureka” moment, or just the first step in a longer process of redirecting U.S. security policy?
A: It is very difficult to read the actual foreign policy orientation of the Trump administration. It does not look to me as if this is a ‘eureka’ moment for the “Restraint” strategy. Instead, this looks a bit like hegemony without liberalism. President-elect Trump has promised to increase U.S. military spending. This is not consistent with Restraint. His appointees seem to be people who wish to militarily confront those states and groups who challenge the U.S. in any way. China and Iran seem to be at the head of the list. Some of his appointees seem hostile to Russia as well. The President-elect seems to wish to do something more aggressive vis-a-vis Al Qaeda and ISIL than the outgoing administration. It is hard to see how this many military confrontations would be consistent with Restraint. With this many under-thought confrontations underway, it is likely that one or more will go awry. The costs will mount, and future administrations will find they have even less public support for a forward grand strategy. This is how I imagine the U.S. could ultimately shift to a more restrained grand strategy.
Barry Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, Director of the MIT Security Studies Program, and serves on the Executive Committee of Seminar XXI. He is presently serving as the Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Center.
Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.
Featured Image: CAMP FUJI, Japan (Nov. 4, 2016) MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft return after a long-range raid from Combined Arms Training Center, Camp Fuji, Japan to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa as part of Blue Chromite 2017, Nov. 4, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sergeant Major Michael Cato/released)
On December 15th 2016, the Chinese Navy seized an American unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operating in international waters off the Western coast of the Philippines. TheUSNS Bowditch, an unarmed T-AGS class hydro-graphic survey ship, was being shadowed by a People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) salvage vessel identified as a Dalang-III class (ASR-510).
The UUV had surfaced as part of a pre-programmed instruction, and sent a radio signal marking it’s position for pick-up. As the Bowditch was preparing to recover the drone from the water, a small boat crew from the Dalang III raced in and plucked the unmanned vessel. The incident occurred approximately 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic, Luzon.
While the exact type of drone is unknown, there have been several instances of U.S. NavySlocum Gliderssnagged in local fishermens’ nets or washed ashore on beaches in the Philippines. This type of drone is not weaponized, and is used to collect a variety of environmental readings such as water temperature and salinity, to improve forecasting accuracy of extreme weather such as typhoons. The UUV uses wave movement to propel itself without any on-board engines, with an endurance time of months. The Department of Defense estimates the seized drone’s value to be around $150,000.
The crew of the Bowditch immediately contacted the PLAN vessel on bridge-to-bridge radio asking for the return of the drone. The PLAN vessel reportedly acknowledged the message, but then stopped responding and sailed away with the UUV. On Friday the 16th, the U.S. State Department issued a formal protest, or demarche, with the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs, demanding an immediate return of the drone. At the time of this article’s publication, the Chinese government has not responded.
Motivations behind the seizure are unclear, but tensions between the two nations have recently increased over President-Elect Donald Trump’sconversationwith Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in what Beijing considers a blatant disregard of the standing One-China Policy. It could also have been a quick riposte to undermine Head of Pacific Command U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris’recent commentsthat the US is “ready to confront [China] when we must.”
Notably, the Philippines has chosen to remain silent over the incident. While traditionally a U.S. ally, the election of President Rodrigo Duterte has brought a deterioration of relations between Manila and Washington. Thanks in no small part to Duterte’s bloody prosecution of an Anti-Drug war punctuated by high civilian casualties and accusations of extra-judicial killings, a large multi-million dollar U.S aid package was just withdrawn this week – prompting the volatile President to threatenabrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. The Philippine Department of National Defense indicates they had no idea that the incident was ongoing; highlighting the enormous capability gap the Philippines has regarding Maritime Domain Awareness. The Philippine government became aware via communications from the U.S. State Department to their embassy in Washington D.C.
Coupled with Duterte’s increasingly close orbit of China following last month’s visit to Beijing, the United States could potentially find itself without bases that would ease the mission of maintaining a robust presence in the South China Sea. Recent analysis shows China has expanded militarizationof their Spratly Island outposts by placing what appear to be defensive anti-aircraft and close-in weapon systems on Hughes and Gaven reefs, while fortifications have sprouted on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs; the latter group are in close proximity to other claimant outposts in the region.
Taken together, China appears to be using it’s famous “Salami-slicing” techniques to slowly ratchet up its presence and capabilities within the region without crossing any significant “bright lines” leading to a military confrontation. The UUV seizure is consistent with opportunistic interference of U. .Navy operations while striking propoganda points with regional states. Notably, the unresponsiveness of Philippines to an international incident within their EEZ tells a tale that the U.S. cannot count upon its traditional ally going forward to assist in the presence mission.
Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.
Featured Image: Slocum Ocean Glider. (University of South Florida)
The incoming Trump administration has called for a 350-ship navy as one of its core defense goals. This number is a good start for adding capability to the U.S. Navy after nearly two decades of force structure reductions. The call for 350 ships, however, is not enough. Such a call must be supported by a new global maritime strategy that draws inspiration from the 1980s Maritime Strategy created to oppose the Soviet Union on a global maritime battlespace. Any ship count by itself is prone to criticism on the grounds of cost or capability. The 1980s Maritime Strategy offers an example on how to intertwine strategy and necessary fleet strength in order to achieve a desired capability that supports national military strategy. The incoming Trump administration should follow the 1980s blueprint in its quest for a U.S. Navy capable of meeting present and future threats.
Calling for more ships alone in the absence of a defined strategy guiding their employment is not enough. There were several fleet strength analyses done in the 1970s to determine the best fleet size that could be sustained within a given budget. CNOs Admiral James Holloway and Admiral Thomas Hayward, and Navy Secretary Graham Claytor and his deputy R. James Woolsey, analyzed fleets ranging in size from 400-1000 ships. The results of their work all tended to center around 580 ships. At the same time, Admiral Hayward was experimenting with new naval strategy concepts as the Pacific Fleet commander to take a global fight to the Soviet Union rather than just shepherd parts and supplies across the Atlantic in support of NATO; a mission the Navy described as hauling “ash and trash.” Neither concept — whether larger fleet size or new strategy –was likely to go far by itself. Any ship number was open to financial or capability criticism from analysts or members of Congress asking, “won’t 550 ships or 540 ships work just as well and at less cost than 580 vessels?” Likewise, new naval strategy concepts have been previously dismissed by Congressional budget analysts as not reflective of financial reality. The label of “not cost constrained” was enough to limit the influence of new strategic concepts to wargames and think tank discussions rather than actual application.
Navy Secretary John Lehman famously combined these ideas: a global naval strategy and a specific number of ships at a reasonable cost required to achieve their purpose. Lehman’s June 1985 presentation to the House Seapower Subcommittee stated that the 600-ship navy had to be affordable as well as meet strategic requirements. Affordability was to be achieved through more competition among industry providers, more efficiency within the Navy Department, and decentralization of Defense bureaucracy as a means of achieving these goals. High technology should be exploited, but not at the expense of what Lehman called, “Research and Development Rainbows” that created a situation where, “perfect became the enemy of good enough.” There was also an expectation that fleet operational tempo would be decreased.
The 1980s Maritime Strategy, combined with an effective 600-ship navy that could be purchased at reasonable cost, proved to be a stable foundation of effort for the naval services in the 1980s. Fleet strength neared 600 ships by the end of the decade and the Maritime Strategy saw multiple updates that made it in the words of one of its authors, “more joint, more allied and with more forces and explanation in support of its purpose.” How sustainable the 600-ship goal would have been past the 1980s is open to interpretation, but the basic premise of Lehman’s argument was enough to convince Congress of its efficacy while the legislative body was still in a hawkish Cold War military expansion mindset. In 1985, Congressman Charles Bennett (D-FL) of the House Seapower and Strategic and Critical Materials subcommittee wrote to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-WI) and stated, “The subcommittee finds that the maritime strategy is, in fact, a proper naval component to national-level military strategy, and that the 600-ship navy as currently described is a reasonable and balanced approach to meeting the force structure requirements of that strategy.”
It is debatable whether the Maritime Strategy or the 600-ship goal would have done so well as separate entities. There were plenty of influential opponents to both including former CIA director and naval analyst Admiral Stansfield Turner, former Carter administration Undersecretary of Defense for Policy“Blowtorch” Bob Komer, and renowned University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer. Despite the efforts of these individuals and others, the Maritime Strategy and the 600-ship navy endured until the collapse of the Soviet Union consigned both to the past in a post-Cold War era without a peer competitor.
The Current Strategic Foundation
The holiday from history of the last 25 years is over and it is time to get back to the business of properly preparing for global great power competition. A Trump administration 350-ship navy could be part of the process by which the U.S. operates in the new, post-Cold War world. Numbers alone, however, are vulnerable to cuts by analysts seeking the lowest common denominator navy. Likewise, naval strategies without specific ship counts and powerful civilian and uniformed leaders to explain them to Congress also tend to run aground on the shoals of Congressional analyses offices. As naval historian CAPT Peter Haynes, USN (ret) has suggested, “A strategy without a resource plan isn’t one.” Congress does not always understand or support naval strategy, and instead talks in terms of platform numbers and line items. The legislature will, however, support a given number if good strategic arguments are leveled in its support. Any new ship count proposed by the incoming Trump administration must be accompanied by a strong, well-articulated global maritime strategy.
Solid foundations already exist on which to construct a new maritime strategy. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson’s “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” is the first step in that process. More than a mission statement, but less than a full strategy, it commands the Navy to:
“Make our best initial assessment of the environment, formulate a way ahead, and move out. But as we move, we will continually assess the environment, to ensure that it responds in a way that is consistent with achieving our goals. Where necessary, we will make adjustments, challenging ourselves to approach the limits of performance.”
CNOs have written such documents in the past. Admiral Kelso’s first foray into the post-Cold War era was entitled, “The Way Ahead,” a document co-authored with Marine Corps Commandant General Alfred Gray and endorsed by Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett. It had a similar goal to Admiral Richardson’s guidance in that it exhorted its readers to, “maintain maritime superiority well into the 21st century,” and to accomplish this through, “our full range of skill and knowledge as practitioners of the art of naval warfare.” Finally, it suggested that, “The old excuse—‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it’— no longer will do. We must work to shape and guide the forces of change in the direction that best serves the needs of our nation.” Clearly the “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” and “The Way Ahead” both serve to inform the Navy that while the mission remains much the same, new challenges await and old methods of doing business may not work. The Navy must be able to adjust and do so boldly.
The current Navy “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower”(CS21R) is a strong step toward a maritime strategy with operational warfighting components, a key element of the success of the 1980s Maritime Strategy. This document and its 2007 predecessor (CS21) both sought to describe the global commitment required by the U.S. to secure the global commons for safe and free trade. The 2015 version gave more detailed descriptions of force structure, specific forward locations required to achieve U.S. and Allied goals, and explicitly identified key competitors such as Russia and China.
What is required now is “the next step.” This new document should be a global maritime strategy that in the words of former U.S. Naval War College Dean of Naval Warfare CAPT Robert C “Barney” Rubel, USN (ret) would serve as “A contingent warfighting doctrine,” that proposes how the U.S. Navy will combat the “4+1” cohort of current and potential opponents across a global battle space.” The 1980s Maritime Strategy performed this role and laid out specific strategic and operational goals for U.S. Navy, Joint, and Allied forces in a global war against the Soviet Union, and all the phases of conflict leading to that eventuality. The Maritime Strategy cited national military strategy, regional command war plans, and specific Presidential national security directives as its core principles. It cited specific geographic objectives, Allied strategy, and specific war aims across the full spectrum of potential conflict with the Soviet Union. Later versions of the Maritime Strategy included contingency plans for operations against regional opponents that might not be mere Soviet surrogates. The level of detail within the 1980s Maritime Strategy crystalized the role of naval forces within the joint force, justified naval power within higher-level national security guidance, provided clear and consistent operational goals to guide war planning, and was unabashedly offensive in taking the fight to the enemy. These specific traits should animate the next maritime strategy.
Integrating the Joint Force
Such a strategic undertaking will likely be more challenging in the present era. The 1980s Maritime Strategy was largely produced before the passage of the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 that decreed all U.S. military operations were to be “joint” in character. While the Maritime Strategy was joint in design and execution and its drafting team included members from the other services in the latter 1980s, it was the frequent target of interservice criticism that accused the Navy of “going it alone” in its plan to wage global war against the Soviets. A new maritime strategy must be a joint one, but the other services must also recognize the differences between the 1980s and the present. There are no longer any large U.S. ground force formations deployed on hostile borders needing resupply as in the 1980s. While the seat of purpose may be on land and Eisenhower may have once proclaimed the end of separate ground, sea and air warfare in the future, those paradigms may be shifting. The existence of predominantely maritime hotspots such as the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, and the waters of Yemen warrants innovative thinking in employing the joint force with specific attention on incorporating ground forces in maritime conflict.
Employment of U.S. ground forces is more likely to be part of a larger maritime operation as suggested by British strategist Sir Julian Corbett and more bluntly stated by British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey who famously suggested that the British Army, “should be projectile to be fired by the Royal Navy.” PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris has suggested the U.S. Army can support operations in the Pacific region by fielding land-based anti-ship missiles, a powerful capability that Russia and China already field in abundance and in forward locations. This image of U.S. Army coastal artillery “on steroids” would need to be balanced with larger national strategic needs that require an effective expeditionary ground warfare capability that includes both Army and Marine Corps units when needed. This changed vision of ground operations as auxiliary to war at sea must be considered in a new joint maritime strategy.
Strengthening Operational Alliances
Today’s opponents are a more diverse and capable group requiring an allied vice just a U.S. response. A 21st century maritime strategy would no doubt be a more complex document than its 1980s-era predecessor. The 1980s strategy dealt essentially with one opponent (the Soviet Union), while its 21st century cousin would have to assess multiple combinations of the 4+1 group across several different continuum of conflict. Different sets of active opponents would require differing desired outcomes and end states, as well as preparing for widely varying contingencies. The urgency of the threats posed by the U.S. 4+1 list of opponents might not also have the same urgency across allies and partners.
Still, there is great potential for global maritime strategic action. The recent US/UK/Japanese Trilaterial Maritime Talks resulted in an agreement where these three maritime powers, “Recognized this opportunity to strengthen maritime contributions for achieving mutually desired strategic effects,” (emphasis added). The United States and the United Kingdom already share one of the closest military relationships of any two independent sovereign states, where only British officers may fly F-18 Super Hornet strike missions and the Royal Navy’s “Perisher” submarine training course is the only non-U.S. curriculum eligible for qualifying U.S. Navy submarine commanders. This relationship might further develop in terms of global strategic cooperation with Britain and perhaps France providing a rotational aircraft carrier presence in support of a global Allied maritime strategy. The UK’s Royal Navy has already made a step in this direction with the opening of HMS Juffair, a naval installation in the Kingdom of Bahrain that marks the return of British naval installations in the Middle East after an absence of four decades.
No one state can effectively maintain the command of the commons necessary for free trade over maritime highways, and nothing will increase force structure faster than building meaningful operational relationships with allies. Maritime security was recognized as a global concern a decade ago in the U.S. 2007 Cooperative Maritime Strategy and general concepts like the “1000 ship navy” must evolve into operational and tactically competent formations.
The Global Maritime Partnerships initiative focused on performing constabulary missions such as maritime security, counterpiracy, and drug interdiction with a broad set of partners irrespective of capability. While undoubtedly valuable, this line of effort was devised in a time when great power competition was not so marked and partnership with less capable navies would not come at the expense of conventional deterrence. The emphasis should now shift towards honing high-end warfighting capabilities by strengthening interoperability with treaty allies. This could be accomplished through more frequent and complex joint exercises, technology transfers, wargaming, and increasing the proportion of officers from allied nations in international resident programs. This push for greater interoperability will support the incoming administration’s intent to increase allied burden sharing while still demonstrating tangible American commitment to alliances. These cooperative steps cited here are hopefully the first of many leading to the return of unified Allied maritime commands such as the Cold War-era Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).
Navy Secretary John Lehman described strategy as, “The logical set of allocations and priorities that guide how the Navy Department spends its money and trains its people.” Lehman and the maritime strategy authors campaigned vigorously and effectively to further its goals and meet its requirements. Lehman published widely on the Maritime Strategy in print and defended it in media outlets. Uniformed officers took on critics and published extensive works on its genesis and evolution. These efforts continue into the present day long after Admiral Kelso retired the Maritime Strategy. A new document will likewise require an aggressive and comprehensive communications campaign across multiple formats including print, video, and digital outlets. It must educate a global audience and key decision makers on 21st century strategic geography, how naval power contributes to the national interest, and the need to protect the world-wide maritime trade routes that sustain not only U.S. but global economic prosperity and security.
Keeping it Affordable
The leadership of the 1980s navy was fortunate in that much of the technological advancement needed for the 600-ship navy such as the AEGIS system had been completed in the previous decade. Most of the 600-ship navy building programs had commenced before the passage of the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, enabling the service to have greater control and less bureaucratic interference in its overall maritime design. Recent defense reform efforts have identified excessive bureaucracy as an impediment to cost effective military platforms.
An expansion of the fleet today will be more challenging in that many fields of technological advance are still struggling toward maturity. The naval service has been somewhat neglected over the last 25 years in terms of maintenance and operational costs. Assessments such as the Balisle report of 2010 andmore recent examinations suggest the situation may not immediately improve. In addition, many new technologies and concepts such as electric drives, modular systems, greater automation and smaller crews remain operationally immature to a degree. Other emerging systems such as directed energy weapons and railguns are on the cusp of operational capability, but will require more funding and testing in order to join the fleet’s future arsenal. A new Maritime Strategy and associated force will need to navigate a series of choices from among these capabilities and decide which are “R&D rainbows” not worth producing, and which can become operational parts of the strategy-supporting force structure.
One of the most persistent claims leveled against the 1980s Maritime Strategy was that it was not “cost constrained” and assumed that a large and complex naval force could be sustained with limited funding. The Strategy and Assessments divisions of the OPNAV staff have been arguing this point for nearly half a century. Strategists argue for the importance of geography, history, and international relations as primary determinents for the development of successful naval policy. Their preferred force structures such as the 600-ship Navy of the 1980s respond directly to threat assessments and the geographic conditions that shape them. The analysis community often responds by suggesting that national resources do not support what the strategists wish to accomplish. They have advocated a policy of force structure and capability management over time as the best means of achieving a force that spends only what is absolutely required to achieve those goals. The 30-year shipbuilding plan is a product of this effort. The combined strategist/analyst composition of the newly formed N50 Strategy Division will serve as an excellent vehicle for wedding a new strategy to a new ship count and subsequently updated shipbuilding plan.
The election of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States represents a break with past policies as did that of Ronald W. Reagan in 1980 and offers the Navy an opportunity to make a fresh argument for a global warfighting strategy. Past U.S. joint force constructs that emphasized ground forces over naval forces are not as relevant as they were during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at their heights. The present strategic situation suggests that the time is right for the U.S. Navy to come forward with a modern successor to the 1980s Maritime Strategy. The price tag for this endeavor will also have to be acceptable to the legislature and the public. The Navy must decide which of its emerging technologies and capabilities will be part of the strategy-supporting force and which will be cancelled or relegated to limited experimentation. The OPNAV staff is better organized now than in past decades to articulate and advance such a strategy. A 350-ship navy might be the right size to accomplish this goal, but it must have a strategy in close cooperation in order to convince Congress that 350 ships or even greater numbers are required. The incoming Trump administration should demand a global naval strategy to accompany its proposed increase in fleet strength in order to achieve its goal of a superior U.S. Navy.
Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD candidate in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941.
Featured Image: 161014-N-OI810-449 WATERS SURROUNDING THE KOREAN PENINSULA (Oct. 14, 2016) The Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), steams in formation with ships from Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) and the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) during Exercise Invincible Spirit. Invincible Spirit is a bilateral exercise conducted with the ROKN in the waters near the Korean Peninsula, consisting of routine operations in support of maritime counter-special operating forces and integrated maritime operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke/Released)