In Cyberspace, No One Can Hear You Bluff

By Captain Tuan N. Pham, U.S. Navy

General Paul Nakasone – Commander, U.S. Cyber Command (USCC) and Director, National Security Agency (NSA) – asserts that “traditional military deterrence is binary in regard to conflict and a deterrence model…does not comport to cyberspace where much of the nefarious cyber activity plays out non-stop in an ambiguous strategic gray zone.” While this article is in agreement with the “futility of totally deterring adversaries from operating in cyberspace and instead actively disrupting those activities before they can inflict damage,” it takes the position of respectfully disagreeing that traditional deterrence is binary and the rules of traditional deterrence do not hold in cyberspace.

Deterrence centered around domain denial is neither desirable nor sustainable. Hindering access to cyberspace is not consistent with the enduring American values of individual liberty, free expression, and free markets. This encumbered access also runs counter to the U.S. national interest of protecting and promoting internet freedom to support the free flow of information that enhances international trade and commerce, fosters innovation, and strengthens both national and international security; and the universal right (global norm) of unfettered free access to and peaceful use of cyberspace for all. Restricting access to cyberspace is also not practical considering the cost to operate in cyberspace is modest, the barriers to entry low, and the ease of operating negligible. 

Deterrence, the “prevention of action by either the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the costs of action outweigh the perceived benefits,” is more complicated and nuanced than a simple binary response of yes or no. Deterrence can create a delay or pause for transitory maneuvering space to mitigate the effects of the threat action, or better yet, take preemptive or preventive measures to disrupt (neutralize) the threat action. Deterrence, like warfighting (war), involves universal and immutable “human nature” that does not change over time or across nationality, demographic, culture, geography, and domain. Rational actors choose to act or not to act based on fundamental “fear, honor, and interest (Thucydides)” and are deterred to act or not to act by real or perceived “capability, intent, and credibility (deterrent triad).” Additionally, as Henry Kissinger once noted, “deterrence is a product of capability, intent, and credibility and not a sum…if any one of them is zero, deterrence fails.” Washington accordingly must do more and do better to ensure each factor succeeds as an aggregate deterrent triad for increased integrated deterrence, decreased strategic risk, greater strategic alignment, and lesser likelihood of conflict across all the interconnected and contested domains.

Deterrence works best when it is clear, coherent, uniform, and complementary across the fluid competition continuum (steady state to crisis to conflict); expansive instruments of national power (diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement – DIMEFIL); and interconnected and contested domains (physical and nonphysical) for strategic consistency, operational agility, and tactical flexibility. Last year in an article titled “In Space, No One Can Hear You Bluff,” this author made the policy case for a more active space deterrence to better manage the growing threats to the vulnerable U.S. high-value space assets. This article makes the same policy case now for a more active cyber deterrence to better address the exigent factors of time, space, and force in cyberspace. An attack in cyberspace can come from anyone, occur anywhere, and happen anytime with no warning to react and no opportunity to respond – an increasing real risk as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine persists and President Putin becomes more impatient and desperate for victory while becoming at risk of dangerously perceiving a shift in U.S. policy from conflict containment (vertical and horizontal) to conflict escalation, or worse, regime change.

More Active Cyber Deterrence

Despite a considerable arsenal of sophisticated offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, American political and military systems still struggle at times with inconsistent strategic communications and a dogged credibility gap. The new deterrent framework in cyberspace must therefore focus more on communicating clear intent and building enduring credibility through redlines, deterrent language, and cross-domain options to impose further costs, deny added benefits, encourage greater restraints, and control more the narratives.


Declaratory redlines make clear the unwanted risks, costs, and consequences of specific actions. They are an important way to influence an adversary’s risk perception and rational calculus, lower the likelihood of misunderstanding, and encourage restraint. They also outline the conditions of and willingness to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage or destruction. U.S. policymakers should therefore “privately” reinforce to strategic competitors (and potential adversaries) the deterrent public statements contained therein the 2018 National Cyber Strategy (NCS), 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG), 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS), and (anticipated) forthcoming National Security Strategy (NSS). U.S. law enforcement officials should likewise continue to “publicly” warn cyber criminals of egregious illicit cyber acts. In doing so, they should make it clear to both state and non-state threat actors that any cyber attack or cyber act that threatens U.S. national security interests, U.S. economic prosperity, and U.S. political stability is unacceptable and will be met with severe and disproportionate consequences for them. If they attack or act, they should not expect a proportionate response. They should expect prompt and devastating force that will cause retaliatory damages much greater than what they intended to inflict. This clear warning should have the effect of causing malicious cyber actors to think twice before acting and consider that the real costs may be much greater than any intended benefits.

For cyber powers like China and Russia, it should be made unequivocally clear that any cyber attack on critical military space systems – missile warning, command and control of nuclear forces, and positioning, navigation, and timing – is an act of war and will be dealt with accordingly. Doing so interlocks the 2020 National Space Policy with the 2018 NCS, both of which acknowledge the imperative of and calls for improvements to space cybersecurity. Like any other increasingly digitized and networked critical infrastructure, space-based and ground-based space systems and their communication links are vulnerable to cyber attacks. A future space conflict will undoubtedly involve cyber attacks, and conversely, a future cyber conflict may also involve space attacks.

Policymakers should also declare a more assertive and explicit redline [for cyberspace] consistent with the extant public redline in the interconnected and contested space domain. The 2018 National Space Strategy and 2020 National Space Policy unambiguously declared that “any harmful interference with or attack upon critical components of our space [cyberspace] architecture that directly affects this vital interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.” The 2020 Defense Space Strategy forcefully reasserted the White House redline, stating that “the United States will deter aggression and attacks in space [cyberspace] and, if deterrence fails, be capable of winning wars that extend into space [cyberspace].”

Some may contend that redlines only work against rational state actors. Non-state actors are not always rational, confidently hiding behind their anonymities like some state actors hiding behind their notions of sovereignty, and consequently are not easily deterred by redlines. However, this article puts forth the argument that both actors are rational thinkers governed by rational thinking driven by varying nuances of elemental “fear, honor, and interest.” State actors are more impelled by power (statecraft), while non-state actors are more motivated by money (business). Both have pressure points (critical vulnerabilities) related to fear and interest that are predisposed to deterrent actions.

Others might argue that Chinese and Russian nefarious cyber activities below the threshold justifying a traditional military response persist unabated despite the best deterrent efforts by the United States and international community. So why and how would redlines deter these continued gray zone operations in cyberspace? The short answer is that redlines are not necessarily only intended to deter threat actors from operating in the gray zone but to also deter them from escalating beyond the gray zone. For now, Beijing and Moscow appear disinclined to escalate beyond the gray zone since they have perceived advantage in cyberspace and may not want to invite the increased strategic risk. Redlines help maintain the unsatisfying status quo.

Still others, like Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, argue that it is “never a good idea to publish destabilizing redlines because they inflame tensions, inadvertently provoke reactions, and back policymakers into corners.” While this article agrees that redlines should not be made if one is not able and willing to carry them out, it respectfully disagrees that they are inherently destabilizing. Instead, this author contends that “credible” redlines demonstrate stabilizing political will if the deterrent language is consistently followed up with deterrent action when called to do so as evidenced by contemporary history.

In 2012, the Obama Administration warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would draw U.S. retaliation. A year later, Washington did not follow through when Damascus disregarded that warning and launched chemical attacks on Syrian civilians. Although the reasons for President Obama’s policy change are complex, the net result was a perception that the administration backed down, and in deterrence, perception is reality. The Syrian regime did not believe the U.S. red line credible, despite the United States having more than enough DIMEFIL capabilities to threaten and undermine Syria’s national interests. When Syria again conducted chemical attacks on its citizens in 2017, Damascus encountered a much different U.S. response from the Trump administration. A U.S.-led coalition promptly launched punitive missile strikes against Syrian military targets and expanded U.S. military presence and activities in Syria. By the end of that year, President Trump released a new NSS, announcing that the United States would place U.S. national interests first and would not hesitate to protect and advance them. Washington followed up the bold words with bold actions through the maximum pressure campaigns against Pyongyang and Tehran, a trade war with Beijing, sanctions against Moscow, and the killing of Iranian General Soleimani. All in all, the say-do mismatch should be eschewed in favor of consistent words and actions, both of which matter in deterrence.

Deterrent Language

In cyberspace just like in space, offensive dominance scales up, which means “a power that strikes aggressively should be, in theory, able to get the upper hand, or at least get the greatest possible use of whatever offensive space [cyber] capabilities it has invested in.” There is therefore deterrent value to explicitly stating the willingness to use tactical cyber preemption and active cyber defense to keep all deterrent options on the table against all state and non-state actors that threaten U.S. national interests in cyberspace. Tactical cyber preemption employs cyber power to deny a specific outcome, by attacking potential or imminent cyber threats before they can be employed or disrupting possible or looming illicit cyber acts before they can be initiated. Active cyber defense is the interception and disruption of an imminent cyber attack before it reaches its intended target or a looming cyber act before it actualizes. When combined with proven offensive and defensive cyber capabilities and credible redlines, the threat of tactical cyber preemption and active cyber defense can give additional pause to a state actor contemplating a first cyber strike or a cyber criminal considering an illicit cyber act.

China, a strategic competitor (national security imperative) and major cyber threat to U.S. national interests, serves as a deterrent exemplar. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) warfighting doctrine favors surprise and deception when conditions warrant. Hence, the United States should take active steps to introduce elements of doubt and uncertainty into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) decision-making and discourage the PLA from acting on real or perceived advantageous political-military conditions. The CCP and PLA should be reminded of Sun Tzu’s famous dictum: “If not in the interests of the state, do not act…If you cannot succeed, do not use force.” In essence, this means not risking initiating a cyber conflict that one cannot win or that may result in a pyrrhic victory.

Some contend that cyber criminals are not easily deterred by deterrent language. Cyber criminals stay anonymous and nondescript in cyberspace, assured that they can overcome any cybersecurity measures while staying below the radar of state actors and avoiding state actions. Instead, the U.S. should take away their assurance by strengthening cybersecurity and operating more and deeper in “white (neutral)” cyberspace (persistent engagement) to increase the likelihood of attribution, disruption, and if needed, retaliation. This also necessitates encouraging and supporting the private sector to do the same by promoting, for example, more corporate cyber activities from the likes of Microsoft. Microsoft seizes domain servers used by hackers in China and leads industry-wide efforts to disrupt Russian cyber attacks. 

Cross-Domain Options

Responses need not be limited to the same domain as the provocation. They can occur in another domain or across multiple ones. The dilemma for the United States is where, when, and how best to deter, and if deterrence fails, where, when, and how best to respond. U.S. policymakers and defense planners should prepare a broad set of flexible and dynamic cross-domain responses to the threat of cyber attack or the cyber attack itself in accordance with the 2018 NCS, 2021 INSSG, 2022 NDS, and (anticipated) forthcoming NSS.

Some might contend that cross-domain actions are destabilizing and will escalate a crisis. This argument diminishes as Washington fully commits and prepares to respond in kind or over-respond to make a deterrent point. Future conflicts will be transnational, multi-functional, and multi-domain. Cross-domain deterrence is therefore the best policy option for the interconnected and contested battlespaces now and into the future.

Other still argue that cross-domain actions risk pushing state actors (and cyber powers) like China and Russia over an invisible red line drawn by “fear, honor, and interest.” To mitigate this strategic risk, the United States must retain escalation dominance, freedom of movement, and strategic initiative to impose its will on Beijing and Moscow. As Sun Tzu said, “the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” Washington should therefore holistically impose costs, deny benefits, encourage restraints, and control the narrative so that the only acceptable strategic calculus for Beijing and Moscow is to not initiate or escalate conflict in cyberspace.

Selective Disclosure

Selectively disclosing cyber capabilities and intent amplifies the deterrent effects of redlines, deterrent language, and cross-domain options. Decisions about what, when, how, and for how long to reveal or conceal play an important role in active cyber deterrence. In certain circumstances, cyber capabilities should be disclosed to targeted audiences to sow doubt and uncertainty, encourage restraint, and reassure allies and partners. In other circumstances, strategic ambiguity may be more advantageous with regards to the exact nature, scope, and extent of intended cyber actions. An adversary does not need to know what, how, when, and where the United States would act, only that it can and would do so. Nevertheless, the question of how Washington can gain the deterrent benefits of selective disclosure while maintaining operational and information security is a crucial one moving forward. Similarly, it is also worth thinking about how to selectively reveal or conceal cyber capabilities to induce favorable threat responses, such as the expenditure of resources on U.S. defensive efforts or countermeasures in cyberspace.

Strategic Deterrent Alignment

Like space deterrence, the character of cyber deterrence may change over time, but the nature of cyber deterrence remains constant. The United States should therefore strengthen the deterrent triad of capability, intent, and credibility by defining redlines, declaring a willingness to fight in cyberspace preemptively or preventively, and threatening to respond (or responding) proportionately or disproportionately not just in cyberspace but in any or all domains for strategic deterrent alignment across the fluid competition continuum, expansive instruments of national power, and interconnected and contested domains.

Captain Pham served at NSA and USCC (plank owner), and completed a fellowship at JHU/APL working on cyber and space issues. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Government or U.S. Navy.

Featured image by DKosig/Getty Images

Adam Smith Would Have Supported the Jones Act

By Michael D. Purzycki

Advocates of free trade often criticize the Jones Act as an unnecessary protectionist measure. Today, with inflation and supply chain weaknesses prominent in the news, the requirement for all cargo moving between American ports to be transported by U.S.-flagged ships strikes many as a senseless increaser of prices. Critics allege that the Jones Act makes intra-U.S. shipping “prohibitively expensive,”1 and call for “repeal or significant reform of this outdated law.”2 Why, they ask, should consumers pay higher prices so American sailors can protect jobs that foreign sailors could do just as well, for less money?

However, a strong case for the Jones Act can be found in the writing of one the first great advocates of the free market: Adam Smith. While he is remembered as the father of modern capitalism, he did not believe in market forces reigning supreme in every sector of the economy. One of the exceptions to his laissez-faire beliefs was the Navigation Acts, Britain’s equivalent of the Jones Act in Smith’s time, which he defended on national security grounds.

There is a lesson in Smith’s stance for the Jones Act’s critics. All sectors are not created equal – those that help support national security are different in importance, and different in the need for government intervention, from those that support private consumption. By giving American seafarers opportunities to practice their skills, the Jones Act helps the United States prepare for great power conflict. This is especially vital when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded the world how important NATO is to international security, and how vital it is for the U.S. to be ready to quickly defend its allies when they are attacked.

The Importance of the Merchant Marine

Passed in 1920, the Jones Act was intended to rectify a national security weakness that had emerged during World War I. As the Navy League has put it, “having realized the nation’s merchant fleet was not independently robust enough to neutralize German attacks,” Congress was determined not to allow such vulnerability in future conflicts.3 By making the transportation of cargo between domestic U.S. ports the preserve of American ships and their crews, it sought to give the U.S. Merchant Marine experience that would prove valuable during another major war.

If there were ever a situation in which the Merchant Marine proved its worth, it was World War II. Merchant mariners were the ones who brought American weapons, ammunition, and food to Britain in the face of Nazi U-boats. Their casualty rate was higher than any branch of the military, with 9,300 merchant mariners killed.4 But thanks to the Merchant Marine, when the Allies began to liberate Europe from Hitler, “[n]o Allied army was ever driven back from a hard-won beachhead for lack of supplies,” as TIME put it in 2016.5

Today, thanks to the Jones Act, the U.S. has “thousands of skilled mariners who, during surge sealift operations, can operate government-owned sealift vessels and provide supplemental crews on international fleet ships,” in the words of the Navy League.6 The act has endured for more than a century despite long-standing criticism from those whose belief in free trade trumps what value they might see in America’s sealift capability. For the sake of national and international security, it should be kept in place; however, many voices continue to clamor for its repeal.

When Free Trade Works

There are cases in which free trade makes geopolitical as well as economic sense. After World War II, the U.S. undertook the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan, helping to ensure they would not fall into the Soviet orbit during the Cold War. It did this not only through direct funding efforts like the Marshall Plan, but by opening the American market to European and Japanese exports, helping to revive industrial bases devastated by the war. As Robert D. Atkinson and Michael Lind noted in American Affairs in 2019, when West German and Japanese industries began to gain ground against their American competitors, “the U.S. government looked the other way (or in some cases, provided active support for these policies), in the interest of a unified alliance against the Soviet Union.”7 Pairing NATO and the U.S.-Japan alliance with economic growth across the Atlantic and Pacific tightened the links between the U.S. and its allies in the struggle against communism.

Similarly, had the United States ratified the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), today it would be standing at the head of a twelve-nation bloc making up 40% of the world’s GDP – including highly developed economies like Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Chile – while pointedly excluding China.8 The U.S. would be taking the lead in writing the rules of trade in the Pacific, rules serving the interests of American industries and workers rather than the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, since the U.S. abandoned the TPP, a successor agreement has emerged – one that China now seeks to join.9

The value of excluding China points to the need for a national security exception to free trade. While Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has understandably focused the world’s attention on eastern Europe, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a Chinese attack on Japan, is a continuous possibility. When conflict with rival great powers is on policymakers’ minds, sealift capability should be, too. If the U.S. cannot get its troops and their supplies to the front, it will be at a disadvantage. A country unable to protect its vital interests is a country unable to enjoy the benefits of international trade.

Can the U.S. Do Sealift?

Today, America’s ability to bring its forces and supplies to battle is far from certain. In January 2020, Rear Admiral Mark Buzby told the Surface Navy Association Symposium that, in a September 2019 exercise to test the Ready Reserve Force’s ability to sail on short notice, only about 40% of the vessels involved proved ready to leave port.10 This is a troubling statistic at a time when the U.S. may have to rapidly move personnel and equipment across the Atlantic to protect NATO allies from Putin’s forces.

Meanwhile, an October 2020 report by CNA on COVID-19’s effects on seafarers around the world, described “despair in the US Merchant Marine.” It was unclear whether Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) “Gangways Up” policy, keeping mariners on their ships to protect them from the pandemic, was truly “balancing the health of the fleet with the wellbeing of the mariners.”11 Mariners’ health should be factored into discussions of the Jones Act. If the crews who transport troops and equipment are not physically or mentally healthy, even vessels ready to set sail may not be of much use.

These vulnerabilities coincide with the relatively low priority the U.S. places on military sealift. At a February 2022 conference of the National Defense Industrial Association, Eric Labs, a naval analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, described sealift as the “black sheep” of shipbuilding.12 Even though sealift vessels move about 90% of Army and Marine Corps combat equipment and supplies, less than two percent of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is being allocated to sealift platforms.13 If low investment in vessels is paired with the U.S. undermining the crews needed to man those vessels, American sealift could be doubly weakened when the country needs it.

Britannia Ruled the Waves

When 17th century England sought to become the world’s preeminent sea power, it understood the importance of a nation’s hard power to its trade. Beginning in 1651, the Navigation Acts sought to ensure England had a robust maritime workforce. The first act, passed during England’s brief period as a commonwealth after the execution of King Charles I, read:

“…no Goods or Commodities whatsoever, of the Growth, Production or Manufacture of Asia, Africa or America, or of any part thereof…as well of the English Plantations as others, shall be Imported or brought into this Commonwealth of England, or into Ireland, or any other Lands, Islands, Plantations or Territories to this Commonwealth belonging, or in their Possession, in any other Ship or Ships, Vessel or Vessels whatsoever, but onely in such as do truly and without fraud belong onely to the People of this Commonwealth, or the Plantations thereof, as the Proprietors or right Owners thereof; and whereof the Master and Mariners are also for the most part of them, of the People of this Commonwealth”14

After the monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II continued the policy. The second Navigation Act, passed in the first year of his reign, stated:

“…noe Goods or Commodities whatsoever shall be Imported into or Exported out of any Lands Islelands Plantations or Territories to his Majesty belonging or in his possession or which may hereafter belong unto or be in the possession…in any other Ship or Ships Vessell or Vessells whatsoever but in such Ships or Vessells as doe truely and without fraude belong onely to the people of England…or are of the built of, and belonging to any of the said Lands Islands Plantations or Territories as the Proprietors and right Owners therof and wherof the Master and three fourthes of the Marriners at least are English.”15

This was, as James Fallows noted in a 1993 Atlantic article comparing different philosophies of trade, “blatantly protectionist legislation.”16 At first glance, these laws appear likely to alienate an advocate of the free market like Smith. And yet, the patron saint of capitalism supported them.

Smith’s National Security Exception

In his 1776 magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote:

“The defence of Great Britain, for example, depends very much upon the number of its sailors and shipping. The act of navigation, therefore, very properly endeavours to give the sailors and shipping of Great Britain the monopoly of the trade of their own country, in some cases, by absolute prohibitions, and in others, by heavy burdens upon the shipping of foreign countries.”17


“As defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.”18

There is a sense in which Smith’s position should not be especially surprising. His book is, after all, about the economic strength of nations, not individuals or corporations. Given his understanding of the need for geopolitical power to protect trade, it makes sense that he would favor British seafaring strength over market forces when the two conflicted.

America’s strength and prosperity, like Britain’s before it, has always depended on maritime power. Like the Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States Navy is the ultimate guarantor of its country’s preeminence on the world stage, both economically and politically. And like Smith’s Britain, today’s America requires a capable maritime workforce, one that can regularly exercise its skills, so it is prepared for war when the time comes.

Follow Smith’s Example

At a time of high inflation, it is understandable that consumers and their representatives would look for any possible way to lower prices. But quickly putting more money into people’s pockets is not the only aim of public policy with a maritime component. National security, including the ability of a country to win conflicts and protect its interests abroad, makes national prosperity possible in the long term – and conflicts like the current war in Ukraine show just how vulnerable economic forces are to the military power of America’s rivals.

As a superpower whose closest allies are oceans away, the U.S. must always be able to bring its troops and their supplies quickly across those oceans to its allies’ defense. The current threat of Russia, and the long-term threat of China, should focus policymakers’ attention on sealift capability. Keeping the Merchant Marine in good working order is in America’s interest, even if it raises prices a little. In the spirit of Adam Smith, and his nuanced understanding of markets and security, the U.S. should keep the Jones Act in place.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. In addition to CIMSEC, he has been published in Divergent Options, Merion West, the Washington Monthly, Wisdom of Crowds, Charged Affairs, Braver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at The views expressed here are his own.


1 The Editors. “Supply-Chain Crisis Isn’t Going Away.” National Review, December 15, 2021.

2 Grabow, Colin, and Inu Manak. “The Case against the Jones Act.” Cato Institute, June 2020.

3 Navy League of the United States. “China’s Use of Maritime for Global Power Demands a Strong Commitment to American Maritime.” November 2020.

4 Geroux, William. “The Merchant Marine Were the Unsung Heroes of World War II.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 27, 2016.

5 Geroux, William. “World War II Shows Why We Need the Merchant Marine.” TIME, April 21, 2016.

6 Navy League of the United States. “China’s Use of Maritime for Global Power Demands a Strong Commitment to American Maritime.” November 2020.

7 Atkinson, Robert D., and Michael Lind. “National Developmentalism: From Forgotten Tradition to New Consensus.” American Affairs, Summer 2019.

8 Granville, Kevin. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Accord Explained.” New York Times, July 26, 2016.

9 Reuters. “China applies to join Pacific trade pact to boost economic clout.” September 17, 2021.

10 Werner, Ben. “Test of Ready Reserve Force Exposes Need For Newer Ships, More People.” U.S. Naval Institute, January 16, 2020.

11 Tallis, Joshua, Cornell Overfield, Kevin Inks, and Cherie Rosenblum. “Adrift: COVID-19 and the Safety of Seafarers.” CNA, October 2020.

12 Harper, Jon. “Military Sealift Considered ‘Black Sheep’ of Shipbuilding Family.” National Defense, March 25, 2022.

13 Ibid

14 “An Act for increase of Shipping, and Encouragement of the Navigation of this Nation.”

15 “An Act for the Encourageing and increasing of Shipping and Navigation.”

16 Fallows, James. “How the World Works.” Atlantic, December 1993.

17 Smith, Adam. “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”

18 Ibid

Featured Image: A large banner bearing “Jones Act” is featured on a large container ship (Credit: Kendra Seymour).

20 Years of Naval Trends Guarantee a FY23 Shipbuilding Plan Failure

By Matthew Hipple

“About 300 ships, achieved in FY2018, will provide a force capable of… assuring access in any theater of operations, even in the face of new anti-access/area-denial strategies and technologies.” —Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels, June 2014

In 2014, before the scale of Chinese naval development was widely appreciated, the Navy reported to Congress a Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 near-term requirement of 300 ships for “conducting a large-scale naval campaign in one region while denying the objectives of an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.” In the time since, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) added more than 120 battleforce ships and countless maritime militia – while the U.S. Navy still remains short of the lapsed 300-ship goal, and 57 ships short of its current 355 ship requirement. In the past 20 years the Navy’s ideal battleforce goals have all exceeded 306, but the fleet has not broken 300 ships since 2003 (Figure 1).

Though glaring, the fleet’s numerical crisis is merely a symptom of the Navy’s 20-year institutional inability to overcome the pressures driving down fleet numbers and ship production. The nature of the financial, material, programmatic, institutional, historical, and political pressures suppressing fleet growth are up for debate – but the extrapolated results of these downward pressures are not, as seen in the Navy’s failure to meet the various Shipbuilding Plans. However, those missed shipbuilding plans also represent the Navy’s resistance to the significant pressures that would degrade or trade away the fleet.

Since 2016, even enshrining the 355-ship fleet in law only produced a net battleforce increase of 19 ships over seven years, a rate by which the Navy would gradually reach 355 ships by 2041. Unfortunately, the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan eliminates what upward pressure contributes to a modest improvement in fleet size trajectory. The FY23 Shipbuilding Plan proposes a 10-year drop in fleet numbers that deviates in spirit from every shipbuilding plan since 2012. During this dangerous decade, the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan returns the fleet to a size that precipitated the period of panic that inspired Congress to enshrine the 355-ship goal into law (Figure 2). The FY23 Long Range Shipbuilding Plan will miss the defunct, minimum goal of 300 ships by another decade, and is less likely to meet the Navy’s legal and operational 355-ship requirement

The FY23 Shipbuilding Plan’s change in course is doubly precarious as its dangerous decade fleet reduction also embraces the downward pressures the shipbuilding plans struggled to resist. This resistance is comparable to the navigational concept of “crabbing” – where a ship is driven at odd angles up a channel to resist currents driving it into danger. The Navy, with the wheel hard over to increase the size of the fleet, had only achieved marginal success. Driving with that downward current into a fleet reduction would be disastrous, and likely drive fleet numbers lower than anticipated.

In an attempt to assess the downward current and potential results of the reduction, we must assess the difference between the Navy’s ordered and true course for fleet size. As with a large ship, the Navy can take time to respond to rudder orders – so we extrapolate the impact of shipbuilding plans by looking to their effects five years in the future. The average gap between ordered and achieved battlefleet size over the last five years was roughly 10 ships. Integrating the precipitous drop from 2022 to 2023 and loosely projecting that magnitude of 50 ships over five years shows a battleforce of 275 ships or smaller (Figure 3).

During a decade that many U.S. Department of Defense leaders have characterized as particularly dangerous for deterrence of China, the conventional PLAN may outnumber the total USN by 50 percent. The United States nor its Navy would fight China alone – but the rapidly worsening margins remain a concern. The majority of U.S. allies in the region fall well within the PLA/N/AF’s collective weapons engagement zone, the PLAN retains significant mining stockpiles alongside fielding a vast maritime militia, and the PLAN benefits its regional focus with even greater numerical superiority compared to U.S. warships immediately present in WESTPAC. That the Navy has struggled to improve fleet growth in the face of such grave circumstances bode poorly for a post-FY23-reduction recovery.

Further, buried within the FY23 capacity gap is a lethality gap. To avoid the appearance of unfairness in comparison, we look at the FY17 Shipbuilding Plan which represents a conservative mid-point between the Obama and Trump administrations’ more robust FY15 and FY19 shipbuilding plans (Figure 4). Before the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan’s proposed courses of action begin to significantly deviate in 2032, battleforce shortages are primarily restored by support and logistics ships, with a smaller number of attack submarines. The strategic decision to shift resources to the long-neglected logistical tail is sound. Nonetheless, failing to fix cruiser modernization or increase production leaves this better-supported fleet gapped by a number of surface combatants that is roughly the equivalent of the forward deployed 7th Fleet at a time when the PLAN will exceed a battleforce of 420 ships.

Though the FY23 Shipbuilding Plan anticipates recovery in the early 2030’s, the signal to industry is an average ships-per-year rate lower than the FY19 Shipbuilding Plan and only marginally higher than the past decade of plans (Figure 5). Given the immediate downward trajectory planned by the Navy and the Navy’s track record of falling short of its plans, shipbuilders may be reticent to make the major capital and labor investments necessary to sustain the current industrial base, much less expand and modernize it.

Previously, the Navy’s shipbuilding plans made evolutionary progress (Figure 6). The Obama administration’s post-sequestration FY15 plan appropriately departed from the FY13/14 plans by increasing the fleet’s status-quo, pushing for a de-facto baseline of 310 ships. As the threat of the PLAN evolved and long-awaited silver-bullet technologies did not appear, the Trump administration’s FY19 plan replaced previous plans’ period of stability from 2031-40 with a fleet increase. In retrospect, both plans failed – but both plans applied necessary upward pressure and both ensured a minimum fleet size was retained. The FY23 plan will kill that pressure – and must be revised to improve on FY15 and FY19’s positive movement rather than embrace the false promises of divesting capacity today to gamble on solutions a decade or more away.

While the FY23 shipbuilding plan accepts a third gapped decade, the PLAN’s size, skill, and industrial base will continue to grow. With global commitments and the tyranny of distance, the United States faces a Port Arthur problem with being able to respond to the CCP’s maritime behemoth much like a split Russian fleet was defeated by Imperial Japan’s modernized and regionally-focused Navy. We must provide serious focus to the lagging Pacific Defense Initiative while the USN maximizes its efforts to retain working warships until replacements come online and the supporting maritime industries sufficiently expand. In developing replacements, the Navy must make clear commitments that signal to industry a sea change in ship demand that will justify the intensive investment needed for new and/or expanded shipyards, like the Lordstown-Lorain project – if not pursue new yards of the Navy’s own.

The time has passed for the resets and divestments of the past revisited by the FY23 shipbuilding plan. The currents ahead are strong, and the Navy must resist them rather than be driven up onto the shoals. Decline is a choice we must resist.

Matthew Hipple is an active duty naval officer and  former President of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS Ramage (DDG-61) in a floating dry dock at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia (USA), on 25 May 2012. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Sea Control 343 – 10 Years of CIMSEC with Sally DeBoer, Daniel Stefanus, and Dmitry Filipoff

By Jared Samuelson

The celebration of CIMSEC’s 10-year anniversary continues! Former presidents Sally DeBoer, Daniel Stefanus, and Director of Online Content Dmitry Filipoff join the podcast to celebrate the organization and reflect on their respective tenures.

Download Sea Control 343 – 10 Years of CIMSEC with Sally DeBoer, Daniel Stefanus, and Dmitry Filipoff

Jared Samuelson is Co-Host and Executive Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.