Tag Archives: U.S. Navy

A Thoroughly Efficient Navy for the 21st Century, Pt.1

By David Tier

America has grown weary of the post-9/11 wars. Long, drawn-out conflicts have worn down American resolve and left many defense officials nostalgic for “the good-old days” when adversaries were easier to describe and devoted military efforts toward preparing for conventional warfare. Seizing an opportunity, the U.S. Navy has capitalized on growing disillusionment and sought to exaggerate the military challenges posed by an ascendant China for parochial benefit in terms of gaining larger budgets and greater quantities of more expensive ships. The Navy should consider an external strategy review that accounts for efficiency as an aspect of its operating concept. This article reviews America’s current naval strategy and is divided into two parts. Part 1, below, analyzes U.S. naval defense strategy in light of 21st Century national defense threats. Part 2 will recommend changes to the Navy’s force structure to gain significant cost savings while still satisfying America’s naval defense requirements. 


In 1987, William W. Kaufmann analyzed U.S. Navy force requirements and determined that the Navy sought to procure a force much larger than necessary to meet realistic Cold War-era force projection demands.His review dissected the Navy’s threat assessments and his work was used as a successful tool to stunt the Navy’s attempts at inducing greater budgets. Today, in much the same way as then, we see the Navy favor approaches like AirSea Battle and “sea-basing” that counter anti-access/area-denial strategies but are anchored in conventional warfare concepts that discount the less-sophisticated threats more likely to challenge our nation. The attention and resources diverted from chasing terrorists on land will almost surely have negative consequences for the U.S., while the challenge of using naval power to forcefully gain access into contested regions will likely not be necessary, or perhaps even suicidal if tried. Despite implications to the contrary of the Navy’s parochial interests, naval officers should advise America’s leaders that the danger of being denied military access to a theater of operation is manageable and that the threat of terrorism is the greater national security problem. To do otherwise puts American interests at greater risk. This article explores the Navy’s missions in the context of the current strategic environment, proposes adjustments to its missions to align with its national defense role, analyzes the number of platforms and capabilities required to counter projected threats, and recommends reallocating budget to reduce excessive capacity in the Navy’s force projection mission in favor of sustaining the Army and Marines’ counterinsurgency capability.

The Navy’s Missions

Throughout its nearly 70-year history, the Department of Defense has struggled to build a joint force portfolio that distributed resources in proportion to priorities established in the national defense strategy. However, intra-service politics often hampered efforts to cross-level in line with the strategy and each Service wound-up with nearly equal budgets instead. There have been a couple of noteworthy exceptions to this strategy-to-resources mismatch, however. The Eisenhower Administration’s policy of “massive retaliation” emphasized the role of nuclear forces over conventional, whereby the Air Force and Navy benefitted from budget increases at the expense of the Army. The Kennedy Administration reversed Eisenhower’s course with its “flexible response” policy, which sought to improve the Army’s ability to withstand a conventional attack in Europe as well as to develop counterinsurgency forces.

The military strategies that followed these policy changes gave birth to a principle that the U.S. should maintain capability to simultaneously fight at least two major regional wars. The U.S. maintained this defense strategy for decades and only recently sought to scale back. Still, not all was smooth sailing in the Defense Department, as defense analysts noted the need to curb budget waste that resulted from factors ranging from Congressional pork barrel projects to misplaced Service priorities. Kaufmann observed that the Navy had drifted off course in his 1987 analysis titled, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy.

At the time the Navy sought a 622-ship fleet cruising with 15 aircraft carriers, and submitted budget requests based on a vision articulated in 1986’s The Maritime Strategy. Overseen by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins, the document went so far as to envision decisive warfare against the Soviet Navy called “Carrying the Fight to the Enemy,” which advocated using naval power to attack the flanks of the Soviet Union during the course of a potential war.2 The Maritime Strategy persuaded defense planners of the need for a large Navy to accomplish this end.3 Although the Navy advertised its conclusions to justify necessary means to accomplish assigned missions, outsiders viewed it as a parochial argument intended to gain force structure.

Kaufmann deconstructed the Navy’s approach and determined that a naval attack against the Soviet Union would incur losses that outweighed the value of the strikes, or might even be suicidal.4 In his analysis of the maritime threats, he observed an overstated stated need for aircraft carriers, and proposed force reductions that would have substantially curbed Navy carrier-building. 

Like The Maritime Strategy, the Navy’s 2015 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower is similarly off course. Section III of the document, titled “Seapower in Support of National Security,” overstates the need to achieve “all domain access” and to project power. It conditions the reader to expect that inflated anti-access threats imply that the most prudent solution is to apply brute force of naval power. One must examine the Navy’s purpose and missions within the context of today’s strategic security environment to establish a baseline for more reasonable Navy force requirements.

Notwithstanding the national defense strategy’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the Navy’s enduring missions in priority sequence are:

1. Protect the U.S. and deter enemy attack, particularly from seaborne threats
2. Secure economic sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to support national livelihood
3. Deny an adversary the use of the sea for military advantage
4. Secure military SLOCs to ensure access to distant theaters of operation, and enable military transport vessels safe transit to discharge their matériel in support of joint operations inland from the sea
5. Project forces that can attack adversary interests on land in support of other combat operations

Some may argue that these missions omit important tasks that the Navy is required to perform and others may argue that they are incorrectly prioritized. However, these arguments do not hold water. Although there is no mission listed above to provide “presence,” humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or establish maritime superiority, these missions can be accomplished with the same assets needed for the other missions described, or otherwise derived from a combination of them. Forces conducting the first mission could assist humanitarian relief efforts and, in effect, the second, third, and fourth missions combine to describe graduating levels of sea superiority. No further forces would be necessary to accomplish these other missions. A close examination of the five listed missions can help identify and determine the capabilities required of America’s Navy.

Reconsidering Threats and Missions

First, protecting the nation from attack is the purview of all armed forces. Military threats to the U.S. are the primary reason America should procure military capability. Naturally, the Navy’s portion of this mission should focus on seaborne threats and, to an extent overlapping with the Air Force, threats overflying the sea. The primary maritime military threat to the United States today is the threat of ballistic missile submarines operating within firing range of American shores. There is no real threat of an amphibious attack against the U.S. There is also no serious threat of any enemy carrier or surface strike group threatening American territory, nor will there be any in the foreseeable future. The threat of submarine-launched missiles however, particularly nuclear ballistic missiles, should be the number one priority for the Navy to defeat. Therefore, the capability to detect, track, and destroy “boomers,” and even intercepting their missiles, should be the Navy’s primary focus. This places a premium on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) platforms such as long-range patrol aircraft, attack submarines, ASW helicopter-equipped surface action groups, and ballistic missile defense systems such as Aegis-equipped ships. Although fixed-wing ASW aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier also perform well in this role, aircraft carriers are not optimally employed in ASW and are an inefficient means to address this threat. Likewise, nuclear deterrence through deployment of U.S. ballistic missile submarines is an important capability for the Navy to maintain as part of the strategic deterrence triad. In conjunction with the other legs, it helps discourage enemy attacks against the U.S. by providing a credible second-strike threat.

Second, securing SLOCs to enable global maritime traffic and foiling an enemy’s attempt to blockade the U.S. is a vital maritime mission that ensures the nation’s way of life can continue despite attempts to wage war against it. This mission does not include protecting traffic in or through an active theater of war, but requires a capability for the Navy to establish safe lanes of transit from the territorial waters of the U.S. to the territorial waters of major international shipping ports around the globe. The primary military threat that sea-going commercial traffic might encounter would be attack submarines, although land-based long-range attack aircraft, and, to a lesser extent, surface groups or small water craft, could pose a threat. Accordingly, these threats require the Navy to maintain a transoceanic ASW capability, defensive anti-air warfare (AAW) capability, and the capability to defend against smaller surface threats. These are largely the same capabilities required in the first mission above, and greater numbers of the same types of assets can effectively be used for this second purpose. 

The third mission for the Navy is to deny, or at least inhibit, enemy use of the sea for military advantage. An enemy must not be able to outflank land forces using maritime maneuver. This is where the need for sea-based fixed-wing attack and air-intercept aircraft makes their first appearance, as the Navy needs a limited strike and air combat capability to prevent an enemy from gaining localized sea control. America’s potential adversaries, however, do not furnish a strong blue-water capability that threatens to overturn the Navy’s long-established control of the sea. Even the most vaunted projected maritime threat, the People’s Liberation Army Navy of China (PLAN), will possibly field three aircraft carriers in the coming years, 85 ocean-going surface combatants, and nine nuclear-powered attack submarines.Although this may sound like a substantial challenge at first glance, a closer look assuages concern about blue water contests with the Navy. In a potential war against the U.S., the PLAN would not survive beyond the reach of land-based air cover since the Navy’s attack submarines would almost assuredly destroy their task forces on the open seas, and even be a significant threat for PLAN forces in their home waters. Furthermore, the Air Force’s long-range bombers would severely hamper Chinese maritime freedom of maneuver outside of the East and South China Seas. Therefore, only a few cruise missile-equipped ships, and possibly a single aircraft carrier with multi-role fixed-wing aircraft would be necessary to accomplish this third mission per theater of war. Even the amphibious assault ship-based U.S. Marine Corps attack aircraft may sufficiently address this role. A joint task force of attack submarines, amphibious assault ships, and Air Force strike aircraft could fulfill this task, thus lessening the demand for supercarriers. 

The fourth mission for the Navy is to secure SLOCs into a theater of war, which necessitates a stronger offensive capability. This mission includes the possibility of forcefully gaining access to contested theaters and, combined with the second and third, accounts for the Navy’s desired capability of sea control as articulated in the Navy’s vision statement, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.6 The AirSea Battle concept envisions the most challenging aspect of this fourth mission. AirSea Battle considers a worst-case scenario where the Navy must escort military transports into the full weight of sophisticated enemy defenses—within ample range of the enemy’s inventory of attack aircraft, cruise missiles, attack submarines, and mines. However, there are only a few locations in the world where Navy forces would have to confront this most challenging task by themselves, and only one current location where this is even conceivable: the South China Sea. Regardless, even the worst-case scenario there would probably require no more naval forces than required during Operation Desert Storm or in the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom where the Navy deployed six aircraft carriers in each instance.7 Although this may seemingly vindicate the Navy’s need to maintain a double-digit number of carriers, we must be realistic about the threat faced. Admittedly, the challenge to escort convoys would substantially increase as task forces approached theaters of war but the chance that regional partners would not allow greater basing access assumed in some studies is overly pessimistic. This, combined with the low likelihood that a severe South China Sea problem would actually occur, reduces the challenges posed.

From a different perspective, consider more pessimistic accounts such that there were no bases in the region from which American forces could launch attacks, no allies contributing meaningful forces to assist the cause, and an enemy force that actually developed into the great adversary it is predicted to become. Were six carriers required in both wars against Iraq that sought to eject entrenched forces from an occupied country or force regime change as the 1991 and 2003 military missions respectively, or was that overkill? Couldn’t four carriers have accomplished the more limited objective of simply “gaining access” to that theater?  Self-serving parochial aspects aside, the Navy should recognize that overselling the capability to execute a highly-contested South China Sea mission under the worst circumstances promises to divert resources that could be employed against other, more likely threats, such as transnational terrorism.

The Navy has encountered difficulties persuading defense planners of the full narrative for its fifth mission—power projection—since the end of the Cold War. The Navy should indeed maintain a capability to project power into distant theaters of operation since there is great value in an ability to assail an enemy in as many ways as possible. The main problem with the Navy’s approach, however, is that it single-mindedly envisions large carrier strike groups for this role. Carrier strike groups should, at best, only be one part of a comprehensive package that could be accomplished by guided missile-capable attack submarines alone or with surface combatants, and possibly to a greater degree, by long-range bombers and tactical aircraft controlled by the Air Force. This is a joint, overlapping mission set. Because the power projection argument has lost favor in recent years, the Navy has sought a different narrative to justify its service size. Hence, the AirSea Battle concept was born.


This examination has identified, prioritized, and placed limiting stipulations on five core missions the Navy must accomplish. Next, an examination of the Navy’s present forces it has to carry out these missions, particularly its aircraft carriers, will help determine if there is excess capability it could reduce in favor of other national defense interests. 

David Tier is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and serves as a strategic plans and policy officer. He holds a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, has served three combat tours of duty in Iraq, served a tour of duty in the Pentagon, and has authored several articles. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or any of their components.


1. William W. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987), 123.

2. Admiral James D. Watkins, The Maritime Strategy, (Annapolis, MD.: US Naval Institute Proceedings Supplement, January 1986), 9-13; John B. Hattendorf, Ph.D., Peter M. Swartz and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, (Newport, R.I.:  Naval War College Press, 2008), 221.

3. Hattendorf, Swartz, and Eds., U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s, 204.

4. Kaufmann, A Thoroughly Efficient Navy, 102-104.

5. Kenji, Minemura, “China to start construction of 1st aircraft carriers next year,” The Asahi Shimbun, December 31, 2008, available online at http://web.archive.org/web/20090526192305/http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200812310046.html, accessed on October 16, 2014.

6. Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, March 2015, 22.

7. U.S. Navy Captain (Ret.) Marty Erdossy, “Why Does The United States Only Have Eleven Aircraft Carriers?” Forbes.com, available online at http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2012/07/17/why-does-the-united-states-only-have-eleven-aircraft-carriers/, accessed on October 16, 2014.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (May 3, 2017) Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) observe the guided-missile destroyers USS Sampson (DDG 102), USS Halsey (DDG 97), USS Preble (DDG 86) and guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) during a Group Sail training unit exercise with the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Spencer Roberts/Released)

Davy Jones Isn’t Done with Us Yet

The following essay is the second place finalist for CIMSEC’S 2017 Commodore John Barry Maritime Security Scholarship Contest

By Chris Rielage

Cheaper, deadlier A2/AD weapons make a strong Navy a necessity, not a luxury.

The broad reasons for having a strong Navy remain the same as in past generations: the Navy protects U.S. trade; projects power from our isolated continent; and through ship deployments and port calls, adds weight to our diplomatic efforts. While these missions remain constant, the nature of piracy and area denial will evolve rapidly: weapons are becoming more capable and widespread, and the rise of unmanned ships will shift the focus of piracy and blockades from crews to cargo and hulls. If the U.S. intends to maintain open trade and a peaceful world order, it will need a Navy prepared to confront these changes.

New Weapons

On October 1 2016, the former HSV-2 Swift was hit and nearly sunk off Yemen by an anti-ship missile fired by Houthi rebels. Though the actions of a U.S. task force, led by the USS Mason and USS Ponce, over the following month prevented the rebels from blocking the passage, it ended up exchanging further fire with the Houthi three different times. While this particular incident ended well, the mere fact that a non-state actor had the resources, training, and will to use anti-ship cruise missiles to try and block a vital strait represents a shift in naval warfare.

While those particular missiles were likely provided by Iran, other, more threatening weapons are available on the free market. For example, a major Russian arms manufacturer offers the Club-K missile system: a matched set of four Kalibr anti-ship cruise missiles, a modern and widely used design, ready to launch in a standard 40-foot shipping container. This class of weapons can allow their users to threaten major surface vessels for as little as $10-20 million.

These types of deadlier, cheaper, and more independent weapons are the future of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technology. Once limited to great powers, serious area denial capability will soon be open to any minor power with ready cash. These new actors need not even invest in extensive systems; using a few Club-K-like systems hidden among more mundane shipping, they would be able to threaten wide areas with relatively few actual weapons.

The intelligence needed to target these weapons effectively is also growing more widespread. Since detailed and up-to-date shipping information, based on public AIS data, can be pulled from the internet, initial-stage targeting is a relatively simple matter. Additionally, firms like IHS Jane’s track military deployments and provide detailed analysis of satellite imagery to their customers. As launch prices drop below $1000 per pound and electronics further shrink, satellites are likely to become even more open to small actors. The French Spirale system, for example, recently demonstrated a ballistic missile detection network with only two 120 kg orbiters. As launch technology continues to mature, led by private firms like SpaceX and Blue Origins, it is only a matter of time before satellite surveillance networks come within the reach of small nations and powerful non-state actors.

In other words, the resource threshold to blockade or interfere with sea lanes is going down. Weapons are becoming cheaper, better hidden, and less dependent on a large infrastructure. The required intelligence is cheaper, and in many cases, freely available. This evolution comes at a particularly bad time, as sea lanes are becoming both more vital and more vulnerable.

New Weaknesses

The long-term, multi-century shift towards globalization continues relatively unabated. In the year 1600, the entire annual sum of trade between Scandinavia and the Baltic region was about 90,000 tons, spread out over a thousand freighters; in 1940, moving that same mass of cargo required only nine Liberty Ships, while today, the same amount of goods would barely half-fill a Chinamax.

It is worth addressing, while protectionism and insularity are popular buzzwords, they don’t reflect a realistic long-term approach. With the unique exception of North Korea, economic insularity has always proven temporary throughout history. The global economy is not shaped like a chain, but a spiderweb; trade will continue organically even if individual nations are removed from the network.

As resources move over the sea, they naturally tend to travel through dangerous areas, because of cost and time concerns. Shipping routes have always been dictated by geography; this is why Iran could threaten fuel routes during the Tanker Wars in the 1980s, why Somali pirates have been such a priority, and why control of the First Island Chain is such a concern for China and its competitors. The future will be no different. Whether the waters off the Middle East, or unstable portions of East Asia and Central America, the most popular sea lanes and bottlenecks are in the most dangerous areas of the world.

Unlike in the past, though, freighters of the future may have no crew to protect the ship or to be ransomed. Though automated container ships may seem far off, building drone or autonomous ships is simpler and cheaper than self-driving cars. While the unmanned ships will have to deal with the same problems, like corrosion and storms, that mariners have always confronted, the sea is an environment with few of the obstacles, such as pedestrians and speeding neighbors, that make land vehicles so difficult to automate. This will lead to a different model of piracy and blockades. With no crew to capture or ransom, there will be less incentive not to simply liquidate cargoes or destroy vessels.

Globalization will only continue in the long-run, sending more riches over the sea. Shipping lanes will take the same dangerous courses they always have, and ships will have no crew to protect them. While the potential reward to blockading or interfering with sea lanes will go up, the fact that drone ships have no crew to endanger will vastly simplify the process of doing so.

New Challenges

Up until now, commerce raiding (or its illegal twin, piracy) had to be one of three things: 1) limited in scope, like Confederate raiders or the Emden; 2) coastal, as in Somalia or Indonesia; or 3) carefully targeted, like the English hunts for Spanish treasure galleons. Proper blockades could only be accomplished by major powers with large, professional navies. In the near future, that will no longer be the case.

Any nation, from North Korea to South Sudan, will have the resources to institute an effective blockade; if Yemen is any example, even rebels and non-state actors could have power over sea lanes. However, these small A2/AD forces will always have fewer resources than the peer-level A2/AD we face in Russia and China. As the USS Ponce and USS Mason proved in October, U.S. task forces can defeat them. However, if current trends of fleet readiness and ship numbers continue, that edge will not last long; we will simply run out of ships to send. If we intend to maintain superiority, the U.S. will need to be deliberate about building a better Navy, soon.

Chris Rielage is an incoming midshipman at Stanford University.


LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack.” USNI News, 12 Oct. 2016, news.usni.org/2016/10/11/uss-mason-fired-3-missiles-to-defend-from-yemen-cruise-missiles-attack. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Stott, Michael. “Deadly New Russian Weapon Hides in Shipping Container.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 26 Apr. 2010, www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-weapon-idUSTRE63P2XB20100426. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

LaGrone, Sam. “USS Mason ‘Appears to Have Come Under Attack’.” USNI News, 15 Oct. 2016, news.usni.org/2016/10/15/cno-richardson-uss-mason-attacked-cruise-missiles-off-yemen. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Kramer, Herbert J. “SPIRALE.” EoPortal Directory – Satellite Missions, 2012, directory.eoportal.org/web/eoportal/satellite-missions/s/spirale. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Jane’s Satellite Imagery Analysis. IHS Markit, www.ihs.com/products/janes-satellite-imagery-analysis.html. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Großmann, Harald. “Perspectives for Maritime Trade – Cargo Shipping and Port Economics.” Maritime Trade and Transport Logistics, hdl.handle.net/10419/102539. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

Featured Image: Battle of the Chesapeake (Wikimedia Commons)

The Middle Way: A Balanced Approach to Growing America’s Navy


By Riley Jones

During the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump made the size and strength of America’s naval force a key aspect of his defense platform, arguing that the fleet should be increased in order to give policy-makers a diverse array of options to deal with threats and emergencies.1 Others stress that the size of the Navy is completely sufficient to deal with any and all potentialities, particularly given the fact that the United States currently possesses the only 10 nuclear-powered supercarriers in the world; this advantage precludes any serious challenge from the likes of near-peer competitors and ensures American dominance of the seas for the foreseeable future.2 However, these extremes fail to recognize the realities of a constrained and competitive national budgetary environment and the growing inadequacies of the current fleet to deal with limited-scope challenges from rising near-peer states. The United States Navy should adopt an intermediate approach to growing the fleet in order to maintain a favorable balance of power while also making efficient use of limited budgetary resources.

Critics of a proposed buildup in naval forces often focus on the current advantage that the United States enjoys over every other nation, particularly the fact that all supercarriers are currently American. They note that America possesses an overwhelming dominance in terms of “carriers, nuclear submarines, naval aviation, surface firepower, assault ships, missiles and logistics.”3 However, they fail to take into account what the most likely conflicts with China and other near-peers like Russia would look like. Carl von Clausewitz distinguished between warfare waged in order to obtain the complete annihilation of the enemy’s military capability and warfare waged in order to shift and renegotiate the balance of power between two sides.4

An engagement with China, for example, would likely be limited in scope and not involve either side seeking the total or even significant destruction of the other’s military force, let alone the use of nuclear weapons.5 During such an engagement, there would be a focus from the enemy on the deployment of anti-access, area-denial weaponry to push American carriers out of aircraft range of the mainland and immediate coastal waters, as well as potential sea lanes; this would deny America the ability to rapidly retaliate, leaving U.S. allies without key air defenses and vulnerable to a blockade by Chinese forces.6

Those who wish to maintain the current status quo in naval forces or even implement a reduction also fail to realize the dangers of the current operational tempo to the long-term health of the fleet. In order to ensure three supercarriers are on deployment continuously throughout the world, it is necessary to maintain a fleet of twelve, as for each carrier on assignment, three are heading to replace it or are training, returning home from deployment, and undergoing maintenance, yet the Navy has been deferring maintenance and lengthening deployments in order to accomplish the same mission with only 10 carriers.7

Conversely, some argue that the United States must engage in a drastic naval build-up. President Trump’s current proposal includes an increase in the number of carriers to 12 and of the total ships to 350.8 Such a force, he maintains, is necessary for the United States to be able to meet any rising security threats across the globe and to continue to ensure the freedom of the seas. Rear Admiral Thomas Moore stated that the Navy is “an 11 carrier Navy in a 15 carrier world.”9 While aircraft carriers, as outlined previously, are rightfully integral to America’s vision for its navy, there is a danger in building such an expansively large force.

The first is the danger of spreading resources too thin and exacerbating current budgetary instability. The Ford-class aircraft carries costs upwards of $10 billion per ship, while the Virginia-class attack submarine and littoral combat ships have price tags of $3 billion and $500 million respectively.10 The Defense Department must already compete for funding and such a large increase in the naval force would result in even greater budget deficits or cuts to domestic spending, neither of which are tenable in the long-term. These unpopular solutions may reduce political support for the continuance of such a large force in the future and the additional maintenance of non-vital vessels will prevent investment in technologies that will ultimately allow the United States to counter measures such as anti-access, area denial.11

Second, growing the fleet more than necessary to maintain America’s ability to field three carriers and project power across the world would be seen by near-peers as a sign of aggression, likely to cause an escalation of tensions. While maintenance of naval capability may be seen as the United States holding ground and taking a primarily defensive posture in relation to its role in world affairs, a large build-up of naval forces will be depicted as aggressive because it would enable the United States to, in their view, become more involved in world affairs.12 Naval forces are difficult to classify as either offensive or defensive in nature because of their mobility and the differing nature of naval warfare regarding territorial possession, but an increase beyond the current strategy of three deployed carriers would exacerbate tensions because of the perception that the United States was seeking to further tip the balance of power in its favor, rather than maintain its current advantage.13 Much like those who would maintain or shrink the force, proponents of such a large growth ignore the reality that an engagement would have a “limited aim” which would not be the total defeat of opposing forces, but to maintain the balance of power for America and, for our enemies, to encourage a retreat of American forces.14 We should therefor prepare our forces to be able to dominate in this “trial of strength” with our competitors so that they conclude challenging the status quo the United States maintains is too costly for them.15

Riley Jones is a junior at Indiana University from Marion, Indiana. He is studying Political Science and Anthropology with a minor in German. After graduation, he hopes to serve his nation as a United States Marine Corps Officer.


Donnelly, Thomas. “You Say You Want a Revolution?” American Enterprise Institute, March 15, 2017. https://www.aei.org/publication/you-say-you-want-a-revolution/.

Easterbrook, Gregg., “Our Navy is Big Enough,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html?_r=0.

Friedberg, Aaron L., Ross, Robert S., “Here Be Dragons: Is China a Military Threat?” The National Interest, 103. September/October 2009.

Kraig, Michael R., “Military Planning for East Asia: A Clausewitzian Approach,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2017.

Larter, David B., “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades,” Navy Times, November 15, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships.

Levy, Jack S., “The Offensive/Defensive Balance of Military Technology,” in Conflict After the Cold War. ed. Richard K. Betts (Columbia University, Pearson Press. 2012). p. 444

McGrath, Bryan., Eaglen, Mackenzie., “America’s Navy needs 12 carriers and 3 hubs,” American Enterprise Institute, March 11, 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/americas-navy-needs-12-carriers-and-3-hubs/.

Shear, Michael D., “Touring Warship, Trump Pushes Plan to Expand Military,” New York Times, March 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/us/politics/trump-navy-warship-military-spending.html.

1. David B. Larter, “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades,” Navy Times, November 15, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships.

2. Gregg Easterbrook, “Our Navy is Big Enough,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html?_r=0.

3. Gregg Easterbrook, “Our Navy is Big Enough,” New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/09/opinion/our-navy-is-big-enough.html?_r=0.

4. Michael R. Kraig, “Military Planning for East Asia: A Clausewitzian Approach,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2017. p. 102.

5. Aaron L. Friedberg, Robert S. Ross, “Here Be Dragons: Is China a Military Threat?” The National Interest, 103. September/October 2009. p. 22

6. Ibid. p. 23

7. Bryan McGrath, Mackenzie Eaglen, “America’s Navy needs 12 carriers and 3 hubs,” American Enterprise Institute, March 11, 2014, https://www.aei.org/publication/americas-navy-needs-12-carriers-and-3-hubs/.

8. Michael D. Shear, “Touring Warship, Trump Pushes Plan to Expand Military,” New York Times, March 2, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/02/us/politics/trump-navy-warship-military-spending.html.

9. David B. Larter, “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades,” Navy Times, November 15, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/articles/donald-trumps-navy-bigger-fleet-more-sailors-350-ships.

10. Ibid.

11. Thomas Donnelly. “You Say You Want a Revolution?” American Enterprise Institute, March 15, 2017. https://www.aei.org/publication/you-say-you-want-a-revolution/.

12. Jack S. Levy, “The Offensive/Defensive Balance of Military Technology,” in Conflict After the Cold War. ed. Richard K. Betts (Columbia University, Pearson Press. 2012). p. 444

13. Ibid., 446

14. Michael R. Kraig, “Military Planning for East Asia: A Clausewitzian Approach,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2017. p. 102

15. Ibid. 120

Featured Image: ARABIAN GULF: Sailors on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike) participate in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk to increase awareness for suicide prevention. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Casey J. Hopkins)

The Leader’s Bookshelf by Admiral James Stavridis & R. Manning Ancell

By Christopher Nelson

The Leader’s Bookshelf  by Admiral James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell. U.S. Naval Institute Press. 288pp. $29.95.

The Leader’s Bookshelf by ADM James S. Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell/US Naval Institute Press

“Reading has the power not only to demolish time and span the ages, but also the capacity to make one feel more human — human meaning at one with humanity — and possibly less savage.”


“After owning books, almost the next best thing is talking about them.”


Some years ago I met Admiral Jim Stavridis. The conversation, while short, turned to books. If I recall, it was in Stuttgart, Germany, sometime around 2010 or 2011. Because he was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the U.S. European Commander (EUCOM), he had to divide his time between two locations: his NATO headquarters located near Mons, Belgium and his EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. At the time, I worked in the intelligence directorate at EUCOM when we heard he was coming by to meet the staff. 

It was a gray, overcast afternoon when he arrived. He promptly made his way down a long line of officers and enlisted, each of them posed to shake his hand and say a few words. I had only a few seconds to make a connectionto say something interesting or ask him a question. But this I knew: I loved books; he loved books; and while standing there, I thought of something he wrote that might prove that I, like him, believed that books are essential to our profession, if not our lives.

Months prior, he had written one of his regular blog posts. In it, he said that his wife noticed that his love of books and his growing library had evolved into a “gentle madness.” That phrasea “gentle madness”refers to a wonderful book by author Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes’ bookA Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books  is a long, discursive work: one part discussion of historic book culture in America and Britain, the other full of profiles of quirky and dedicated book lovers and collectors. 

When the admiral finally reached me, I mentioned the blog post and the book. His eyes lit up and he said something about few people knowing the reference. He then told me he owned 4,000 books. Surprised, I said something about wanting a library that large. He then simply said, “You’ll get there.” The conviction in his voice floored me. I believed him. And he was right. I’m getting there (the featured image of this post is a picture of my library; today I have around 2,000 titles, give or take).

Fast forward a few years and, no surprise, the admiral’s library has grown. Stavridis, in the introduction to the entertaining The Leader’s Bookshelf, says that he has in his “house today… more than four thousand books.” His wife, Laura, “has spent far too much of her life packing and unpacking them in postings all around the world.”

Adm. James Stavridis, center, browses through the Naval War College’s bookstore, October 2012. (U.S. Naval War College)

Stavridis and his co-author, R. Manning Ancell, have written a book that is somewhat similar to Richard Puryear’s fine booknow unfortunately out of printAmerican Admiralship: The Moral Imperatives of Command. Puryear interviewed 150 four star admirals on a variety of topics. One of those topics was the importance of reading. And like Puryear, Stavridis and Ancell take a similar path. In The Leader’s Bookshelf, they interviewed 200 four-star generals and flag officers, and from those discussions, they determined the 50 books that “stood out most…with top military readers.”

Using no particular scientific method, they rank ordered the books in descending order by the number of mentions. Thus, the first book on the list, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), was mentioned most often. While the last on the list, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything by Dov Seidman, was mentioned least frequently.

For each title, there is a short essay by a senior officer as to why they choose the book, followed by a quote from the book, a biography of the author, then a summary of the book by either Stavridis or Ancell, concluding with a few sentences about why the book is important for leaders today.  

For folks that regularly follow the reading lists that are published by the Chief of Naval Operations or the other services, there are, unfortunately, few surprises. The regularly cited titles appear: Anton Myer’s Once an Eagle, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Clausewitz’s On War, John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, E.B. Potter’s Nimitz, and the always popular Steven Pressfield with his Gates of Fire. They all made the cut.

While there is nothing wrong with the oldies but goodies, it was refreshing to see some unusualor rather, some outliersfind a place in the top 50. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court makes a showing as does Norman Mclean’s A River Runs Through It. In fact, General Stan McChrystal is the senior officer that recommended Twain’s satirical novel about a man from the 19th century, Hank Morgan, traveling back in time to King Arthur’s court.

The Leader’s Bookshelf, I confess, would be ho-hum if not for the additional essays that Stavridis and Ancell add to the book. It is these essays on publishing, reading lists, and building a personal library, that raise this book from mediocrity to must have. And here, Robert Ancell pulls his weight, adding a nice cherry on top with an interview with General Mattis. 

Mattis beats Stavridis in the book department. With some 7,000 titles on his shelves, he probably is the best read military leaderretired or activeout there. In the interview, Mattis mentions books that apply to each level of war. Of note, he recommends Lucas Phillips’ book The Greatest Raid of All. A book about a British raid that shattered the Nazi’s dry docks at Saint-Nazaire, France during World War II, preventing the Germans from using the docks for large battleships for the duration of the war. The raid resulted in no less than five Victoria Crosses. I had never heard of the book nor the raid. It is these little-known reading recommendations that make books like this exciting. You simply do not know what you might find.

Ironically, the only criticismor rather, observationI have about the book is that senior officers still do not carve out enough time to read. And this in a book in which one of the early essays is about “Making Time for Reading.”  

In one essay, a senior officer admits that while working in the Joint Staff that he only read one book in a year. One book! While another, in her recommendation, wrote only two sentences to praise the workand even then those two sentences were footnoted. Sigh.  

Nonetheless, The Leader’s Bookshelf will appeal to all types: The newbie looking for a good book to read and the bibliomaniac who may have read all 49 on the list and owns each first edition, but unaware, or didn’t realize there was just one more interesting title out there.  

But alas, there always is.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is an intelligence officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The views here are his own.

Featured Image: A picture of the author’s personal library. Courtesy of Christopher Nelson.