Category Archives: Strategy

A New Maritime Strategy, Part 2 — A Theory Of Victory?

Read Part One here.

By Robert C. Rubel

In her recent CIMSEC post Congresswoman Elaine Luria called for the development of a new maritime strategy. Among its purposes would be the rationalization of Navy shipbuilding plans; linking force structure to the provisions of a strategy in a way similar to the relationship between the 1980s Maritime Strategy and its attendant 600 ship Navy. This is almost self-evidently a good idea, but there are difficult aspects to any such project, a key one being the role of a theory of victory in shaping it. Luria posits, quite reasonably, that what constitutes winning should be successful deterrence based on a clear capability to deny a fait accompli to any aggression by China, Russia, or other power. She uses a 2017 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) force structure study as an example of a fleet architecture that might fill the bill with some modifications.

That might prove sufficient, but there is the nagging problem of how the US might end a war if deterrence fails. In one sense that question is beyond the bounds of a peacetime strategy since the exact reasons for and particular circumstances of a war breaking out cannot be known in advance, and of course what happens in a war can have a huge effect on how it ends. That said, if deterrence is based on the assumption of a quick, decisive victory, it is precarious, especially if the government we seek to deter perceives that we are limited by that assumption. A useful theory of victory must thus extend beyond the repulse of an enemy’s initial thrust. 

A Royal Navy officer once asserted to this writer that the RN’s greatest strategic asset was its reputation for reckless persistence. Whether one buys this or not, the sentiment— that perceived irrationality has a deterrent effect—is worth considering.. Put another way, the perceived willingness of a country to continue fighting beyond the point at which a rational calculation suggests that it should yield might confound the potential attacker’s estimates of what it would take to win.

Theory describes capability and will as the constituent elements of deterrence, but will to enter into a fight is not the same thing as the will to see it to the bitter end, and historical opponents from Great Britain, to the Confederacy, to Japan, to bin Laden have underestimated America’s will in this regard, leading to ill-advised attacks. The will to persist must be an element of any deterrent strategy, and it must be supported by the unambiguous capability to do so. In general, American doctrine focuses on ending combat as quickly as possible, despite the  grinding, long term conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Deliberately trying to protract a conflict seems counter to US values, and yet the willingness to do so is precisely what “deep deterrence” requires and thus is a needed element of any theory of victory for a new maritime strategy.

It is one thing to assume the necessary political support for protracting a conflict would materialize – after all the American public has repeatedly supported long wars, from the Revolution to Afghanistan – but quite another to understand how conflict protraction fits into developing a strategy. For that we need to engage in some parsing of defeat mechanisms and the ways force might be used to achieve them. In military planning, developing lists of enemy options and own courses of action that are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, when possible, help to bound the problem, and we will try to do that with defeat mechanisms and uses of force.

There are essentially four ways an enemy can be brought to defeat. Their capital can be overrun and the country occupied, such as what happened in Germany in 1945 and Iraq in 2003. This is a maximal solution, and even then, as in the Iraq case, a lengthy insurgency followed. Perhaps a more desirable defeat mechanism is when the enemy government suffers internal collapse, as did the Italian Fascists in World War II. This greatly helps the victors establish a friendly government and legitimize and defend the victory.

A third mechanism is what we will call “checkmate”; the enemy, although still capable of resistance, decides that it no longer has a viable military strategy available and calls for terms. This is the ideal end state of maneuver warfare, including such transformation era concepts as shock and awe and rapid, decisive operations (RDO), not to mention network-centric warfare. The key characteristic of this defeat mechanism is that cooperative decision making by the enemy is required, but cannot be controlled. If the enemy is unaccountably stubborn – recklessly persistent – then the whole strategic edifice of maneuver warfare falls apart. The last defeat mechanism is exhaustion; the enemy’s force and/or political will has run out over the course of an attrition campaign of some sort. The US has suffered losses of this sort in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

When contemplating a war with China, we might hope for a checkmate based on the destruction of much of the PLAN, which might, in the ideal case, lead to the collapse of communist rule or at least the displacement of its war faction. Overrun is off the table, so the other mechanism available is exhaustion, which means that the US, in order to achieve deep deterrence, must contemplate engaging in a protracted war of attrition. While a checkmate is clearly the preferable path, any American strategy must entertain the potential need to exhaust the Chinese. This may be feasible even given China’s advantages in manpower and industrial capacity – the new strategy must explicitly deal with it.

Force must be used in one way or another to bring about one of the defeat mechanisms. In today’s world of weaponized information, force could take any number of forms, but regardless, can only be used in one of four ways. The first is definitive; that is, the use of force directly solves the problem without any need for the enemy to make a decision. Overrunning the enemy is one example. But defeat of the enemy fleet might be another. Taking away the enemy’s ability to move his army by sea or otherwise use the sea to his advantage might produce a checkmate. It did at Salamis and Lepanto and again in the English Channel in 1588. Modern examples in which a naval defeat ended a war are hard to come by, especially due to air power and missiles, but it at least removes a key strategic option for the enemy.

The capability to inflict a definitive naval defeat is central to the notion of deterrence by denial. That said, in the event of war, even after a defeat, the enemy might have options for some type of naval guerrilla warfare such as the German U-boat campaigns in both world wars. Usually any such effort requires some sort of sanctuary for a base as well as tactically. For the German U-boats, bomb proof submarine pens were the base sanctuary and the stealth of the U-boats constituted the tactical sanctuary. Mobile land-based anti-ship missile launchers and underground submarine bases might fill the bill for the Chinese. Moreover, if national policy forbids attacks on the Chinese mainland to avert escalation, PLAN ports might continue to support small craft or other types of attritional operations, forcing the USN to engage in some version of a protracted sea denial campaign.

The second way to use force is coercively. This is where deterrence by punishment comes in. There are problems with this use of force. What degree of destruction or threat would be sufficient to bring the enemy to terms? This use of force requires cooperative decision-making by the enemy; that is, the enemy has to decide to quit. The coercer is not in charge. Calculating in advance of a war what level of pain or threat would be sufficient to induce the enemy government to call for terms – something that could very well be politically or even physically fatal to its members – is an imponderable. Even the enemy would not know what would induce them to make terms. A strategy based on this use of force is inherently open-ended and could easily require the application of force in degree, kind, and duration beyond what the coercer is willing to or can generate. Thus coercion is a dangerous basis for deterrence.

The third use of force is catalytic. When Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel during Operation Desert Storm, there were no specific targets for them. Rather, he hoped to spur Israel into joining the war against him, which, he further calculated, would fracture the coalition. He was looking for second and third order effects. This way of using force is seductive; it promises effects out of proportion to the amount of force used. This was the tacit basis for the effects-based operations (EBO) doctrine of the 1990s and early 2000s. The problem is trying to calculate effects. In Saddam’s case it did not work and this is frequently the case. The 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and the 1940 Royal Air Force strike on Berlin each ended up having important catalytic effects in that they dislocated enemy strategy, but those effects were not the objectives of the raids; they were serendipitous. Rather, those raids reflected the fourth way to use force – expressively. 

The expressive use of force is not oriented on a particular military objective; it is simply meant to harm. Reprisals are a form of this use of force, as are operations whose objective is oriented on the domestic audience. The Doolittle Raid was of this sort, meant to increase American public morale. The fact that it ended up having beneficial catalytic effects – strengthening Yamamoto’s resolve to conduct the Midway operation – was unintended. Given the imponderables attending the calculation of coercion, deterrence by the threat of punishment is based on an expressive use of force and is thus of suspect effectiveness. It is simply an easy way out of a strategic planning conundrum. It is all too easy to fall into the “this will fix ‘em” trap in which expressive force is ascribed to have coercive effects. The author has seen this in actual operational planning.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the only rationally defensible basis for conventional deterrence in the Far East is an unambiguous ability to use definitive force; that is, sinking or damaging enough of a Chinese invasion fleet that its operation to seize Taiwan or close off the South China Sea is disrupted or defeated. But this is not enough. The US must also possess an unambiguous capability to fight a protracted struggle in the Chinese littoral. The end state of such a war cannot be predicted and thus cannot be part of the deterrence calculus; but a reputation for “reckless persistence” would make it harder for Chinese strategists to predict an end state, and it is more critical for the attacker to envision an end state than it is for the defender. An authoritarian regime is inherently insecure, which is why such regimes employ repression, so any military setback could end up having catalytic effects, optimally regime collapse. It is likely that at least some Chinese Communist Party leaders understand this (a PLA colonel once told the author that if the Party could not recover Taiwan, China would “fall apart”) and would hopefully inject caution into any strategic calculations.

We can now better illuminate Congresswoman Luria’s discussion of “what constitutes winning” as a component of a new strategy. While not fighting China would, in retrospect, constitute a win, that cannot be the basis for deterrence; if the Chinese perceived avoiding war at all costs to be America’s strategic goal it would be an incentive, not a deterrent. Rather, a clear ability and dogged intent to defend Taiwan and a free and open South China Sea must be the basis for a new strategy. This is rather simple, but as Clausewitz said, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Much has been written about the balance of forces in the East Asian littoral and that will not be rehashed here. But Congresswoman Luria’s call for a new strategy is a result of wanting the Navy to link its budget requests to strategy, so some additional consideration of the link between strategy and force structure is appropriate.

In a very real sense strategy is nothing more than problem solving, and for that to be successful one must accurately articulate the problem to be solved. In the present case, the problem is not how to deter China, it is how to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and deal with any follow-on moves by China; their “plan B or C.” This is a hard and threatening problem, but it is the one that must be solved. But it is not the whole problem. As discussed in part one of this series, the US must continue to exercise its command of the sea globally because there are threats to the world order in other regions and the US strategy is to defend the world order.

The Navy budget deals with its overall ability to support US grand strategy and so any new maritime strategy must be global. A key – perhaps the only – strategic principle is that the US must not risk its overall command of the sea during instances of its exercise, so whatever solution is adopted for the East Asian littoral must not violate that principle. This author and others have long advocated the use of smaller, cheaper missile firing vessels to solve the problem of disrupting Chinese naval aggression, and the Navy is moving that way, albeit too slowly and hesitantly. Congresswoman Luria’s advocacy of the CSBA force structure is a step in the right direction.

It is one thing to develop a contingent strategy to solve a particular warfare problem when it arises, and quite another to craft a systemic strategy meant to deal with a range of possibilities over the long term. The overall US maritime strategy of ringing Eurasia with sea power to defend the international order is an example of a systemic strategy, as was the 2007 Cooperative Strategy. The 1980s Maritime Strategy was contingent at heart – steps to counter a Soviet invasion of NATO – but it had systemic effects as the USN exercised portions of its planned execution and thereby intimidated the Soviets. It was the contingent aspects of the Maritime Strategy that linked well with Navy budget requests of the era. Similarly, a new strategy must have clear and practical contingent elements to it, but in this case there is a time element that must be dealt with. In the case of the 1980s Maritime Strategy, most of the 600 ship Navy already existed, and it took only a few years for the Navy to flesh out its desired fleet architecture. Today, especially if a new fleet architecture is needed, much more time would be required to achieve it. This is clearly reflected in the various future fleet proposals that forecast one or more decades to achieve the projected architecture and size. But geopolitical conditions are evolving much faster than that – Admiral Davidson, in his departing remarks as Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command asserted that China may invade Taiwan as early as 2027 – so a new strategy must have a phase that deals with the near term and another for the longer term because Navy budgets will have to include both near term fixes and funding for long lead time items.

Following the logic contained in the present discussion, a new strategy must first deal with how to defeat a Chinese attack in the short term and then how to deal with a protracted war in the long term, all the while maintaining and exercising global command of the sea. In a very real sense, part of “what constitutes winning” is the ability of the strategy to galvanize Congressional and public support for the kind of budgets needed to ensure its successful execution. This is what former Secretary of the Navy Lehman used the Maritime Strategy for. But there is another aspect just as critical: eliciting international support. This was the real success of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy, and the 2020 Tri-Service Maritime Strategy document repeatedly calls for greater international naval cooperation. The development process and wording of CS21 was calculated to elicit such support in the arena of maritime security, and it is worth considering a similar approach to a new strategy – making its development a widely collaborative project vice a small cadre of officers in a cipher-locked Pentagon office.

In the end “what constitutes winning” is a multi-faceted construct, parts of which are internal to the strategy – its content – and other parts external to it – the medium. In order to be successful, Navy strategists must take heed of the concept forwarded by the 60s communications guru Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. It will be perhaps the most complex strategy project the Navy has ever undertaken and simply relying on clever wording will be dangerously insufficient. Its development must be supported by wargaming (as both the Maritime Strategy and CS21 were) and extensive consultation, analysis and collaboration, both within DoD and externally with Congress, other Cabinet departments and perhaps internationally. In this writer’s opinion it can be done, but it will require intellectual and bureaucratic flexibility on the part of the Navy and a commitment on the part of the current and future Administrations to prioritize the rebuilding of the fleet.

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

Featured Image: Tokyo, September 2, 1945 — Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz signs the Instrument of Surrender as United States Representative, on board USS Missouri (BB-63). (U.S. Navy photo)

A New Maritime Strategy, Part 1 — The Real Issues

By Robert C. Rubel

 In a July CIMSEC article Congresswoman Elaine Luria called for the development of a new maritime strategy. A key reason she wrote the article was frustration with the Navy’s budget submission. She feels, as apparently do other members of Congress, that there is no valid strategy underpinning the Navy’s shipbuilding plan. She invokes the 1984 Maritime Strategy, with its attendant 600-ship Navy force structure as an example of the kind of effort the Navy should undertake. She also extols a 2017 Congressionally-mandated CSBA fleet architecture study that calls for the establishment of a fleet consisting of a deterrence force and a maneuver force. While I think that in general Congresswoman Luria has a good idea, and I agree with her that the onus falls on the Navy to develop such a strategy, it is important that the Navy “see the forest for the trees” in order to craft a viable strategy. In this article I will highlight potential issues with strategy development so that Navy leadership can determine an effective naval strategy.

Let’s start with trying to see the strategic aquarium water we have been swimming around in for the past three quarters of a century. As World War II was winding down Allied statesmen considered how a future world war might be averted. They decided upon the establishment of a global liberal trading order that leveled but regulated the economic playing field, using such institutions as the International Monetary Fund. Equal economic opportunity, they thought, would prevent what they saw as the causes of the world wars from again arising. But it soon became clear that the Soviet Union would play the spoiler, and so the Truman Administration ended up dispatching U.S. Navy forces around the world to keep the USSR and other authoritarian powers in check, support allies and friendly nations, and generally suppress strategic instability. This deployment became the US maritime strategy and has been constant ever since. Its goal is to preserve the global liberal trading order and its attendant political structure. Navy documents, including the vaunted 80s Maritime Strategy come and go, but only constitute subsets of the overall maritime strategy, which Samuel Huntington described in his 1954 Proceedings article “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy.” The constancy of this strategy has turned it into the “aquarium water” — the environment we swim in every day — without really seeing it as a strategy.

The second component of our aquarium water has been the virtually absolute American command of the sea. Ever since Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner wrote his landmark 1974 Naval War College Review article “Missions of the US Navy,” the term command of the sea has been regarded as obsolete, an artifact of the ages of sail and dreadnoughts; Turner’s term “sea control” has since been adopted as the basis for Navy strategizing. Like the US maritime strategy, American command of the sea has been so complete and unchallenged that it became a tacit assumption; invisible. But now, as China builds a contending navy, the term has reappeared in the Navy’s capstone doctrinal publication NDP-1 Naval Warfare. But even there, the concept has gathered so much dust that NDP-1 errs in its definition of it. It says that command of the sea is “the strategic condition of free and open access and usage of the seas necessary for our nation to flourish.”

This definition confuses cause and effect. A free and open ocean, a mare liberum, is a US policy that goes hand-in-hand with its support for a liberal trading order. American command of the sea makes the adoption of such a policy possible. Command of the sea, in reality, is a strength relationship among contending navies. The margin of superiority of the strongest is such that the others refuse to sail out and challenge it directly. The US Navy has enjoyed just such a dominant position since it defeated the last vestiges of the Imperial Japanese Navy at Leyte Gulf, and when seapower is hitting on all cylinders it becomes invisible.

The fall of the USSR did not end history, and a challenge to the global liberal trading order (a “rules-based order” according to the latest Tri-Service Maritime Strategy document) and its concomitant American command of the sea was bound to emerge sometime; that time is now. What America needs, and what Congresswoman Luria is asking for, is a strategy to deal with that challenge. With the actual current maritime strategy and its associated command of the sea now visible, we are in a better position to consider options.

It would be a mistake to assume that the US grand strategy, along with its component maritime strategy of supporting a liberal trading order will be a constant. President Trump, with his America First policy, seemed to be putting the rudder over a bit and steering away from the kinds of international commitments the traditional strategy entailed. Similarly, writers such as Prof. Barry Posen of MIT have proposed what amounts to a scaled down version of the strategy he calls “restraint.” The Biden Administration seems to have recommitted to the global system strategy even as it has withdrawn US troops from Afghanistan. This is all to say that despite the consistency of American grand strategy it cannot be taken for granted, and any significant change such as reverting to a trading bloc strategy, would have huge implications for the maritime component. That said, let’s for the moment assume that the US will attempt to maintain its strategy of supporting and defending the global liberal trading order and thus maintain some version of its global military deployment structure.

If we make that assumption, then American command of the sea comes into play in a big way. Two researchers, George Modelski and John Thompson, did an analysis of the relationship of seapower to global leadership from 1494 to 1993, using counts of major naval combatants as an available and objective data source. They identified five cycles of global war in which the winner achieved thereby command of the sea. The winners then exploited that command of the sea to enforce an international order congenial to their interests, precisely as the US has done since 1945. However, they also discovered that command of the sea was associated – naturally enough, if you think about it – with the concentration of naval power. That is, if you count up the major combatants of all the potential contenders for global leadership, if one nation has fifty percent or more of the total, then that nation has command of the sea. However, they found that when seapower “deconcentrated,” that is, the percentage of major combatants evened out among the contenders, global war followed. They do not assert a cause and effect relationship, but certainly found a correlation.

The point of this is that even during the 80s Maritime Strategy days, the US enjoyed unchallenged command of the sea, which provided the context within which that strategy played out. Going forward, retaining command of the sea is an issue, which means that despite the success of the 80s Maritime Strategy, its value as a paradigm is limited. China is on the verge of achieving functional “deconcentration” of global naval power and that implies a deterioration of deterrence. Congresswoman Luria cites the idea that winning consists of not having to fight China. If we ascribe relevance to the Modelski/Thompson study, then any US naval building program must consider what it would take to maintain a roughly fifty percent seapower advantage over China in order to preserve deterrence. Given China’s advantage in shipbuilding capacity, as well as the global advance of technology in areas like sensing and artificial intelligence, we ought to preface any strategy development effort by determining what a new basis for command of the sea would be. Congresswoman Luria kind of nibbles at the edges of this with her recommendations for things like missile-carrying merchant hulls, but a clear-eyed analysis of command is needed to develop a lucid and viable strategy.

Beyond finding a new basis for calculating command of the sea, the concept needs to be parsed to provide purchase for strategists to develop options. Command of the sea, particularly in peacetime, consists of two parts: maintenance and exercise. The Navy with command must retain its strength in peacetime and not demobilize. This is to dissuade others from getting into the game and also because command must be exercised; that is, the navy must be dispersed around the world to do all the things needed to support, defend, and enforce the desired world order. These elements form the criteria for judging required fleet size and architecture. The traditional Navy analysis process of gaming out approved DoD contingency scenarios and then adding up presence requirements does not adequately address the criteria. What would deter China is an imponderable, and here, Congresswoman Luria’s invoking of the tactical and operational defense is apt. The key operational benefit of command of the sea is the ability to use the sea for one’s own purposes and deny it to others. A modern missile and information-based ability to deny China’s navy the ability to support national aggression via the sea is tantamount to preserving command.

Command of the sea, deterrence-based as it is, reflects the old Roman principle that if you want peace, prepare for war. There is another principle associated with command of the sea that should figure prominently in new strategy development: do not risk maintenance of command when exercising it. What that means is that unless command of the sea is actually at stake in a particular operation or battle, the nation holding command should not risk the naval assets upon which command is based in its execution. Right now, using traditional measures of capital ships, the implication is that the US should not risk its aircraft carriers in the defense of Taiwan, which has no relevance to command of the sea, unless the US loses enough of its relevant naval force such that China senses an opportunity for a wider challenge. Here again, this implies that a new calculation of the basis for command of the sea is needed in order to develop a resilient fleet architecture and to inform risk calculations.

But there is another element to the exercise of command and that is global presence. The US has traditionally used aircraft carriers as the key presence platform due to their flexibility, power, and ability to be ready on arrival. Certainly, there will continue to be situations where sea-based air power is needed, but the advent of missiles and unmanned systems mean that carriers do not have to shoulder as much of the forward presence load. Professor Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School proposed what he called a “Bi-modal” navy that employs smaller, cheaper ships of various kinds for day-to-day presence, freeing up the carriers to concentrate on warfighting readiness. Today, the Navy’s carrier force is stretched to the breaking point with little prospect of increasing its size. A new fleet of presence-focused vessels would rationalize a new strategy focused on maintaining command of the sea in the face of China’s challenge.

By making an effort to see the strategic aquarium water we have been swimming in for the last seventy five years and picking apart the concept of command of the sea we have established a clearer and more practical context for developing a new subcomponent of the US maritime strategy. What remains is to offer some support for Congresswoman Luria’s assertion that the Navy should be the one to develop the strategy.

The Unified Command Plan, as structured in accordance with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, reserves the authority for operational strategy to the Combatant Commanders, while overall national military strategy is prepared by the Secretary of Defense. The Services are limited by law to raising, training, and equipping forces for use by the COCOMs. Thus the Navy has no business doing strategy, other than organizational strategy, like the current NAVPLAN put out by Admiral Gilday (the author of this article received a scolding from a former Undersecretary of the Navy for asserting that the Navy’s CS21 strategy had policy implications). But the UCP contains a genetic defect; it essentially sees the world as a collection of regions, all but ignoring the largest geopolitical terrain feature on the planet: the world ocean. Thus global coordination of military effort, if it occurs at all, takes place in the Joint Staff, which has no formal authority, or within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which is mostly concerned with procurement.

When the US military was very strong this arrangement sufficed; there was enough force to mete out to the individual COCOMs. But from time to time, strategic problems arose in which the unified world ocean became an issue, and nobody but the Navy either perceived them or was interested in solving them. The first was the naval force distribution problem in the late 1970s arising from a global Soviet threat. The collection of regional war plans assumed, in the aggregate, a total of 22 carrier battle groups would be available but the Navy only had 15. Admiral Hayward felt that plans to denude the Pacific of carriers to support the NATO Central Region would provide unnecessary strategic opportunities to the Soviets. So, the Navy took it upon itself to develop an operational maritime strategy that spanned COCOM areas of responsibility. In the end the Navy coordinated with the COCOMs but the concept would not have emerged if the Navy had not taken the initiative. After the 9/11 attacks maritime security of the homeland became a critical issue. After much gaming and thought the Navy realized that the only way to secure the shores of America was to somehow generate extensive global cooperation on maritime security. It embarked on a worldwide effort to court international cooperation, again crossing COCOM boundaries and in the end publishing what became known as CS21, which was successful in stimulating that cooperation.

Today, unity of the world ocean is again a strategic issue due to a reduced fleet size and an increasing Chinese fleet size. Command of the sea is a global concept, not a regional one. Command of the sea must be exercised globally to ensure a desired world order, and maintenance of command is a national, not a regional matter. Apart from any other considerations, when the Navy’s strength declines to a certain level – when it becomes a scarce asset strategically – its employment must be managed centrally, and there is no mechanism in the UCP for that to occur. The Navy, and its sister sea services, must be managed strategically on a global basis in the context of limited resources if command of the sea is to be maintained and effectively exercised without violating the key principles associated with it.

The upshot of all this is that a new maritime strategy – correctly called for by Congresswoman Luria – must not be some derivative of the 1980s strategy or even of the CSBA study, despite the good qualities of both – but a fundamentally re-thought approach based on a clear perception of both the overall US grand strategy context and its traditional maritime component and a clear understanding of command of the sea.

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

Featured Image: The Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Hobart (DDG 39), left, the frigate HMAS Arunta (FFH 151), the landing helicopter dock ship HMAS Canberra (L02), the fleet replenishment vessel HMAS Sirius (O 266), the U.S. Navy forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54), the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer JS Teruzuki (DD 116) and HMAS Stuart (FFH 153) steam into formation during a trilateral exercise. (U.S. Navy photo)

A Conversation with Steve Wills on the Decline of U.S. Navy Strategy

By Dmitry Filipoff

In this conversation on U.S. Navy strategy, Steve Wills discusses themes and lessons from his new book, Strategy Shelved: The Collapse of Cold War Naval Strategic PlanningFrom the effects of the Goldwater-Nichols act, to tensions between analysis and strategy offices in OPNAV, Wills discusses how Navy strategy and strategy development has changed over recent decades.

You point to several critical events that combined to affect Navy strategy: The passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Gulf War. How did these events affect Navy strategy and strategy development?

The Goldwater-Nichols Act changed the Navy’s strategic outlook at the institutional and individual level of experience. The shift to a focus on the regional commanders vice the services tended to change the Navy’s outlook from a global force to one focused on providing forces to land-based regional commanders. It is difficult to think globally about the size and composition of naval forces when the focus is on satisfying regional demands.

At the individual level, the Goldwater-Nichols Act focus on filling joint positions tended to draw rising young officers away to joint positions as they offered more upward mobility than service staffs. I think the most significant of these changes however was empowering the regional commanders (COCOMs) at the expense of Washington-based service chiefs and their staffs. The legislation turned upside down the traditional U.S. system of centralized planning and decentralized execution of military operations.

In its place today we have regional commanders doing their own strategies separate of their fellow leaders while the JCS is trying to manage operational and even tactical levels of war through measures like the Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC). In World War II, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernie King set strategy, but he and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall did not tell Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur how they should organize their forces or how they should fight in their theaters. Goldwater-Nichols is directly responsible for this unbalanced condition that is seriously damaging the ability of the U.S. to create global strategies for combating global rivals like China and Russia.

You reference the 1980s Maritime Strategy and the “…From the Sea” document as among the more influential Navy strategy products in recent decades. Among the many strategy documents referenced in the book, what made these stand out? How can we assess the influence and impact of a strategy document?

The 1980’s Maritime Strategy stood out for a number of reasons. It was directly tied to a specific Navy force structure (the 600-ship navy) unlike more recent strategies that do not have a specific ship requirement. The Maritime Strategy had broad, bipartisan support from Congress. It was also tied to the national strategy of containment and, if necessary, combat against the Soviet Union. Unlike most other strategic concepts, the Navy exercised Maritime Strategy concepts at sea in multiple regions as noted by former Navy Secretary John Lehman in his book Oceans Ventured.

Finally, the Maritime Strategy was easy to engage with whether the reader or recipient of the brief was a seasoned navy professional or a civilian with little naval knowledge. It included maps with specific forces and arrows depicting an outline of what the Navy planned to do, and when and most notably where it would act. Strategies since the 1980s Maritime Strategy have largely eschewed maps in favor of glossy images of ships and sailors doing their thing at sea. Nice, but not really helpful in explaining what the Navy is strategically trying to accomplish.

The 1992 “…From the Sea” white paper was not a strategy with maps and goals as was its 1980s predecessor, but was rather a white paper suggesting what concepts the Navy and the Marine Corps would employ in the post-Cold War era. Its central point that the Navy would be a supporting force for operations fought primarily on land around the Eurasian littoral became the central focus of the service for the next 25 years. In that regard, “…From the Sea” was more influential and long-lasting than the 1980s Maritime Strategy. The Navy’s primary focus since 1992 has been being a supporting force for conflicts with regional powers and non-state actors without significant naval forces of their own. Perhaps this is now why it has been challenging to get the service to return to a “war at sea” mentality where major combat operations would primarily be conducted against opponents with similar or even in some cases superior naval capabilities.

An important theme in the book is the evolving power differential between systems analysis and strategy. How did strategy development change when analysts were more influential than politico-military strategists, and vice versa? What should the analyst-strategist relationship look like?

I think the influence of different factions on the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) staff in terms of the creation of naval strategy matters a great deal. There was a relative balance between these two disciplines from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s until the advent of the Maritime Strategy and the 600-ship navy. The naval analyst discipline believed that the 600-ship navy was unsustainable in the long term and that the Maritime Strategy was too aggressive and dangerous in the face of the assumed Soviet threat. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins and Navy Secretary John Lehman did not agree and subsequently severely reduced the size and scope of naval analyses offices supporting the CNO’s staff.

When the Cold War ended and the Navy had no opponent around which to organize either by geography or threat, the naval analyses community returned in the guise of the OPNAV staff element producing the Navy’s annual budget input. In a world without notable opponents the only long-range strategy document turned out to be the budget and as a result the analyses community prospered while the strategy community declined to low levels of influence. As a result of this decline, and analyses’ domination of OPNAV for over three decades, it is challenging for the Navy to think in terms of threats and geographic requirements that current budget levels do not support. The analyses community in return has labeled any strategy document that strays beyond current funding as “unsustainable,” ignoring the fact that any one CNO or SECNAV might be able to secure that additional funding if the strategy is well-conceived and well-argued.

The right choice is often a balance between these two communities that allows for innovative strategy concepts to meet the threat, but balanced by budget limitations. It cannot be “all or nothing” as it has been since 1991.

As the Navy faced budget cuts after the end of the Cold War the preservation of diminishing force structure became an overriding priority. How did this focus on force structure assessment affect strategy development? 

That is an excellent question. Being so focused on the preservation of the newest force structure, the capabilities it provided for present-day operations, and the math needed to sustain that effort caused the Navy to often ignore evolving threats. If your strategy is based only on your budget, then why think further afield? Force structure assessments used to be tied to the threat, but without a notable threat like a major competitor, the force then becomes a set of capabilities the navy has to argue for and defend against the needs of other services. The strategy starts to become about how to beat the other services for more of the budget and not about meeting an outside challenge.

The U.S. now faces two major outside challengers (China and Russia) so the force structure assessment needs to again be tied to combating a threat rather than just preserving a capability in the face of interservice rivalry. Goldwater-Nichols did not get rid of service “parochialism;” instead it created what some have called a “tyranny of jointness” where getting the joint balance right is seen as more important that getting the right services the right equipment for the task.

The book examines decades of critical reorganizations of the OPNAV staff. How did these reorganizations strengthen or weaken Navy strategy development over the years?

Reorganizations of the OPNAV staff are the prerogative of the CNO and done to support what that officer wants to accomplish. In the absence of an opponent since 1991, those reorganizations have placed more power and emphasis on the Navy’s budgetary and warfare roles rather than strategy. It is also difficult to return to a culture of strategy development after decades of what naval historian Peter Haynes calls a “strategy of means” where the budget became the de facto navy strategy.

How would you assess the quality of Navy strategy and strategy development today? Are there areas that have room for improvement? 

The Navy has always had a dedicated core of strategy experts; both uniformed and civilian (government and think tank personnel). The events I describe in the book (the end of the Cold War, the Goldwater-Nichols provisions, and the outcomes of the First Gulf War) have tended to make it more difficult for strategists to gain the ear of senior leaders.

I think that situation is changing. The United States again faces peer rivals at sea in China and Russia. The Tri-Service Maritime Strategy signed by the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard late last year was a good first step toward crafting an effective global strategy to address those adversaries in peace and war. The Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School are educating more naval strategy experts. There are many more sources on naval and maritime strategy than in the past, including books by John Lehman, John Hattendorf, Peter Haynes, Seth Cropsey, Jerry Hendrix, and of course my mentor Peter Swartz, whose many CNA works on naval strategy are now available on the CNA website. CNA itself has never stopped working on navy strategy products and continues to advise OPNAV on maritime strategy issues. Other voices including members of Congress such as Elaine Luria and Mike Gallagher who have called on the naval services to better explain the strategy behind their POM requests. These are all positive changes.

There are of course challenges and the provisions of the Goldwater-Nichols Act still create roadblocks to the traditional naval means of organizing strategy and operations. Traditionally, the Navy and Marine Corps have engaged in centralized strategic planning, but decentralized execution of those plans at the operational and tactical levels of war. This is how the Cold War unfolded with an overall strategy of containment of the Soviet Union as a baseline for both the strategies of regional commanders and those of the services to deal with naval-specific issues.

The provisions of Goldwater-Nichols have changed this over time. In the absence of a peer opponent around which to organize a global strategy, regional combatant commanders plan their own strategies and demand forces to execute them independent in most cases of the needs of their peers or service providers of forces. Instead of centralized planning, the Joint Staff now seeks to tell operational forces how to fight through documents like the Joint Warfighting Concept. While this problem was not as acute in the period after the Cold War when the U.S. did not have active peer rivals, the current situation of two peer rivals again demands a return to traditional practice. The Goldwater-Nichols Act stands in the way of such a return.

The Navy once produced detailed strategies such as War Plan Orange for Pacific operations before the Second World War and the Maritime Strategy for potential operations in the 1980s. CIMSEC recently covered the 1980s Maritime Strategy process in excellent detail. While many leaders today believe that the Navy and Marine Corps should not be producing strategies, where is the alternative, centralized global plan for operations against China and/or Russia? The JCS and Joint Staff don’t do strategy products. Who does, other than civilian authorities who potentially change every four years?

In conclusion, while the Navy has made great strides in understanding how it used to do strategy and how it might do so in the future, structural barriers such as the Goldwater-Nichols provisions that empowered regional commanders are impeding the naval services from again creating strategy.

Steven Wills is a Research Analyst at CNA, a research organization in Arlington, VA, and an expert in U.S. Navy strategy and policy. He is a Ph.D. military historian from Ohio University and a retired surface warfare officer. These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of CNA or the U.S. Navy.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

Featured Image: CORAL SEA (July 19, 2021) A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), prepares for take-off aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), during Talisman Sabre. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. John Tetrault)

A New U.S. Navy Planning Model for Lower-Threshold Maritime Security Operations, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

By Andrew Norris

Navy Doctrine on Planning for Maritime Security Operations is Inadequate

“Military planning is essential to everything that naval forces do.”1 If the Navy intends to successfully conduct maritime security operations (MSOs), it needs to be able to effectively plan for them. That planning is particularly essential at the operational level—namely, the level of command linking tactical missions with national strategic guidance.2 Navy planning is conducted in accordance with doctrine, specifically the Navy Planning Process (NPP). This section, after discussing foundational issues such as the nature of operations in the maritime security realm, summarizes the NPP and identifies inadequacies in the particular component of the process most impacted by planning for maritime security missions: mission analysis, as informed by staff estimates.

1. The need for operational-level thinking and planning for MSOs

A tactical action or mission is one aimed at accomplishing a single major or minor tactical objective.3 An example of a tactical maritime security mission is carrying a law enforcement official from a partner nation aboard a U.S. warship on a single occasion to provide that official a means of enforcing his nation’s fisheries laws. Such a mission is individually useful to the United States in promoting a stable rules-based order at sea and in establishing itself as the “partner of choice” for that nation in an era of great power competition at sea. It is episodically useful to that partner nation as well in deterring or interdicting violators of its fisheries laws, therefore helping to preserve an important natural resource and source of national income, which enhances its stability.

The effect of such a mission is dramatically enhanced if it is conducted as part of a major operation or campaign as opposed to a one-off, “whack-a-mole” activity. Performing this activity as part of a campaign or major operation leads to concerted activities that are “proactive and anticipatory rather than simply reactive, and are issue-centered rather than incident-centered.”4 Both Till and Vego teach us that “operational warfare at sea is the only means of orchestrating and tying together naval tactical actions within a larger design that directly contributes to the objectives decided by strategy.”Vego brings this maxim into the maritime security realm, opining that operational-level thinking and concepts “are absolutely necessary for the most effective use of one’s combat forces not only in a high-intensity conventional war but also in operations short of war.”6 The need for operational-level thinking and planning holds true for lower-threshold MSOs as well.

2. How the U.S. Navy conducts operational-level planning

“The characteristics of today’s complex global environment have created the conditions where the U.S. Navy must be prepared for a wide range of dynamic situations;” furthermore, “the nature of modern naval operations—which must span from open ocean to deep inland—interlinks continuously with other services, countries, and means of national power, and it often places the lowest tactical commander in critical strategic roles, necessitating that a thorough planning process be used.”7 For these reasons and more, the Navy has created a formalized planning process, the NPP, that is optimized for planning at the operational level.8 The NPP is designed to ensure that the employment of forces is linked to objectives, and integrates naval operations with the actions of the joint force. Accordingly, the terminology, products, and concepts in the NPP are consistent with joint planning, joint doctrine, and are compatible with other services’ doctrine.9

To accomplish its purpose, the NPP establishes sequential, iterative procedures to, in turn, progressively analyze higher headquarters tasking(s); to craft a mission statement; to develop and analyze courses of action (COAs) against projected adversary COAs (in some cases adversaries could be forces of nature or other emerging non-military threats); to compare friendly COAs against the commander’s criteria and each other; to recommend a COA for decision; to refine the concept of operation; to prepare a plan or operation order (OPORD); and to transition the plan or order to subordinates tasked with its execution. The NPP organizes these procedures into six steps, shown in Figure 2 below, which provide commanders and their staffs a means to organize planning activities, transmit plans to subordinates, and share a critical common understanding of the mission. The result of the NPP is a military decision that can be translated into a directive such as an operation plan (OPLAN) or OPORD.10

Figure 2 – NPP depiction in NWP 5-01, 1-4

Military planning through utilization of the NPP is not a scientific or mechanistic process, but instead employs aspects of both science and art. The science involves such tangible aspects as disposition and number of ships, aircraft, weapons, supplies, and consumption rates, as well as the interplay of operational factors, such as time and space, that affect employment of the naval force. The art of military planning, on the other hand, is more conceptual. Operational art is defined as the cognitive approach by commanders and staffs—supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment—to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, means, and risk.11 Through the application of operational art, the commander and staff identify the objectives and outline the broad concept of operations (CONOPS).  

Dealing with the Unique Aspects of MSOs in the NPP

1. The unique aspects of MSOs

MSOs lie at the uncomfortable nexus between maritime law enforcement and naval warfare.12 According to Professor Till, operational art is not optimally employed to plan for the activities the world’s navies are actually having to conduct on a day-to-day basis, such as campaigns against piracy, narcotics or human smuggling and terrorism, patrols against human smuggling, or fishery protection.13 The reason for this, Professor Vego informs us, is that “[a]pplication of operational art in operations short of war is much more complicated than in high-intensity conventional war” due to a highly diverse and unpredictable operational environment, the dominant role of nonmilitary “force” factors in determining objectives, and human “space” predominating over geography.14 And, as we have seen, Professor Luke recognizes such a significant difference between MSOs and combat at sea that he felt the need to propose an entirely new theoretical paradigm, that of legitimacy, to reflect the unique “fundamentals and tenets that distinguish peacetime activities from warfare.”15 These unique fundamentals and tenets (which will be referred to as “factors” or “aspects”) include, as we have already seen, a “broad and growing array of legal regimes, treaties, and sources of authority that need to be fully appreciated, understood, and leveraged for success.”16

Figure 3 – Luke’s regime of authority for action perspective

This understanding of the fundamental uniqueness of MSOs is not solely the province of theorists; it is recognized in doctrine as well. Specifically, Appendix A of the NPP—the only section of the NPP that directly addresses maritime security operations—refers to the “many facets” of maritime security, and states that “each maritime security activity is unique.”17 As the following discussion will show, this doctrinal assertion is not complemented by guidance to planners on how to account for and accommodate the unique aspects of MSOs that are so critical for operational success.

2. Where those unique aspects are best dealt with in the NPP

The unique aspects of MSOs are best dealt with in the mission analysis phase of the planning process, as informed by relevant staff estimates. Mission analysis, as the first step of the NPP, is “the foundation for the entire planning process.”18 When performed correctly, it provides the who, what, when, where, and why for the planning staff, and makes the development of the how possible. A non-exclusive list of topics an effective mission analysis should address includes:

  1. The tasks the command must complete for the mission to be accomplished;
  2. The purpose of the mission and tasks assigned;
  3. The limitations that have been placed on our own forces’ actions;
  4. The forces/assets available to support the operation;
  5. Additional assets required to support the operation;
  6. Gaps of knowledge that inhibit planning; and
  7. The various risks.19

Mission analysis leads to the delivery of a briefing to the commander and subsequent commander’s planning guidance. The briefing ensures the commander and staff have a common understanding of the overall situation, mission, intent, and planning guidance that facilitates COA development (the how).

The more unique, ill-defined, and unfamiliar the situation being analyzed, the greater the need to more closely examine the problem before or in conjunction with mission analysis.20 This close examination is accomplished by means of staff estimates. An estimate is a detailed evaluation of how factors in a staff section’s functional area or subordinate commander’s warfare area potentially impact the operation or mission.21 The estimate consists of significant facts, events, and conclusions based on analyzed data.22 Staff estimates provide a current status and an assessment of the ability of the command to meet the requirements of the assigned mission while identifying shortfalls and potential issues, as well as strengths and advantages. Every functional staff area has a responsibility to create and maintain a staff estimate.23 Types of estimates generated by maritime staffs include but are not limited to: (1) operations estimate; (2) personnel estimate; (3) intelligence estimate; (4) logistics estimate; (5) communications estimate; (6) civil-military operations estimate; (7) information operations estimate; and (8) special staff estimates (e.g., legal, public affairs, medical).24 The legal estimate is especially critical to MSOs.25

3. Existing doctrine related to conducting mission analysis and crafting staff estimates in MSOs is inadequate

Although existing planning doctrine correctly identifies operations short of war as challenging, different, and unique, it does not provide much in the way of guidance to planners on how to deal with these qualities. NPP Appendix A.2.3., while stating that the NPP is “well suited to support all aspects of sea control and power projection,” acknowledges that some “minor accommodations” may have to be made to the NPP when planning MSOs due to the fact that “[m]ost maritime security operations will entail a requirement for cooperation with or subordination to a multinational partner or civil law enforcement body to ensure the process is compatible with the expectations of the partners.” Though Appendix A.2.3. provides some guidance on mechanisms for effecting such cooperation—reciprocal exchange of liaison officers to participate in planning for multinational operations, for example—it is entirely silent on the issues raised by such cooperation, and regarding exactly what “minor accommodations” need to be made to the mission analysis to account for such cooperation. As for the legal estimate, which Appendix A.2.3. identifies as being “especially critical to a maritime security operation” which will “drive the concept development as well as rules of engagement or rules for use of force,” there is no further guidance on what, specifically, should be considered to take into account the unique aspects of MSOs.26

The Stability Operations Manual provides a bit more guidance, though nothing that can be considered holistic or detailed.27 Since MSOs are a subset of stability operations overall, and since both MSOs and stability operations are maritime operations short of war, the manual’s guidance may be of some utility in conducting the mission analysis for MSOs. The manual specifies that issues such as whether involved nations are UNCLOS signatories, the existence of maritime territorial disputes, the identification of “appropriate public and private international maritime laws,” and important cultural and other considerations should all be considered during the mission analysis phase of stability operations.28 Though somewhat of an improvement from the very sparse guidance in the NPP, this list still only exists in anecdotal, not systematic form, and is unclear about why the listed items are important, and what about them should be the subject of mission analysis.

The Constraint-Restraint-Enabler-Imperative (C-R-E-I) Model Introduced and Explained

According to Professor Till, “[d]efective doctrine is quite clearly the high road to defeat [while] effective doctrine is a very significant force multiplier.”29 As this article established earlier, the U.S. Navy will be expected to successfully engage in day-to-day MSOs along the full spectrum of violence including, increasingly, lower-threshold constabulary operations. Such operations are complicated and unique, and need to be effectively planned at the operational level through employment of the NPP and its embedded operational art principles. However, guidance is sparse on exactly how planning for such unique operations is supposed to occur. The C-R-E-I model for crafting appropriate staff estimates as part of the mission analysis is meant to fill this lacuna. While it is impossible to set out a cookie-cutter list of every item that should be considered in the staff estimate for the planning of a maritime security operation, consideration of applicable constraints, restraints, enablers, and imperatives applicable to a particular MSO spans the universe of authority-based considerations that ultimately determine the legitimacy of such operations. The model is discussed below:

Constraints are obligations that prohibit an operation from occurring at all, or prohibit certain activities or outcomes during the course of an operation. Constraints may derive from international obligations a state has chosen to accept, or from domestic sources such as a constitution or legislative enactments. In the United States, a constitutionally-derived constraint is the Fifth Amendment’s admonition that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which serves as a direct prohibition against gathering evidence against a person through compulsive means such as torture. An example of a legislatively-derived constraint is the Posse Comitatus Act, which (along with derivative instructions and directives) prohibits the armed forces in the Department of Defense from directly engaging in law enforcement operations. As for constraints that derive from the international obligations to which a state chooses to subject itself, examples of relevance in the maritime security realm include the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits a nation from returning an individual to a nation where that individual would face a threat of loss of life or freedom, or of torture; the prohibition in UNCLOS Article 73(3) of criminal prosecution of individuals violating a fisheries law in a state’s EEZ; or the customary international law principle, embodied in UNCLOS Article 92(1), that flag states enjoy exclusive jurisdiction over their ships on the high seas—a principle that conversely constrains all other nations, absent unusual circumstances, from asserting any jurisdiction as a matter of right over a foreign vessel in that maritime zone.

Restraints are factors or conditions that limit the scope or range of permissible activities during a maritime security operation. They derive from the same sources as constraints. An example in the U.S. of a domestically-derived restraint is the reservation of authority within the Coast Guard chain of command, which manifests itself in the requirement that subordinate units must obtain a “statement of no objection” from higher authority before acting in certain circumstances.  A restraint that derives both from domestic and international sources is the limitation on the use of force for constabulary purposes to the minimum force reasonable and necessary under the circumstances to accomplish a law enforcement mission. Restraints that derive from the international law of the sea include the limitation embodied in UNCLOS Article 27 on criminal prosecution of vessels and crew engaged in innocent passage, and restrictions on the right of hot pursuit such as the requirement that it be continuous and uninterrupted, and the extinguishment of that right once the pursued vessel enters a foreign territorial sea.

Enablers: Perhaps the most important (in terms of mission success) of the four-part analytical framework for preparing the staff estimate for MSOs are enablers. Enablers promote the successful conduct of a maritime security operation, notwithstanding the challenges imposed by constraints, restraints, and imperatives. Like constraints and restraints (and, as we shall see, imperatives), enablers can derive from international or domestic sources. Examples of enablers at the international level include flag state consent to foreign law enforcement activities aboard a flagged vessel on the high seas, which may be provided on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis, or through standing consent memorialized in an international agreement; the declaration by a state of an EEZ, which is a necessary precursor for it to exercise its sovereign rights as set out in UNCLOS Article 56 and to enforce those rights as provided in UNCLOS Article 73; regional agreements that promote cooperative security measures such as the sharing of monitoring, control, and surveillance data or the establishment of regional intelligence fusion centers to combat transnational organized crime; bilateral agreements that enable direct law enforcement support such as the carriage of shipriders from one nation aboard an enforcement vessel of another nation; and extradition treaties to allow interdicted suspects to be repatriated to another nation for prosecution. An example of an enabler with both international and domestic components is adoption by both a flag state and a port state of generally accepted international regulations, procedures and practices such as those established by the SOLAS Convention, which enables authorities of the port state to conduct an examination of a foreign vessel in its internal waters to ensure its compliance with these standards. Domestic enablers include the enactment of legislation and regulations that authorize desired maritime activities; the establishment of domestic architecture that permits a law enforcement matter to be taken all the way from detection through prosecution (i.e. to achieve a “legal finish”); and the establishment and utilization of mechanisms to coordinate the activities of various government agencies or ministries to achieve a common, agreed-upon outcome.

Imperatives are obligations that mandate certain activities in the maritime realm. Examples of imperatives with both an international and a domestic component in the maritime realm include the obligation embodied in UNCLOS Article 98 to go to the assistance of persons lost or distressed at sea; the affirmative obligations of the flag state to “effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters” over ships flying its flag, as detailed in UNCLOS Article 94; the affirmative obligation in UNCLOS Article 61(2) on states to “ensure through proper conservation and management measures that the maintenance of the living resources in the exclusive economic zone is not endangered by over-exploitation;” the flag state’s obligation to ensure compliance by flagged vessels with conservation and management measures (CMMs) enacted by regional fisheries management organizations; the affirmative duty to cooperate in the suppression of illicit traffic by sea on signatories to the 1988 Vienna Drug Convention; and carrying out any affirmative obligations in UN Security Council resolutions.  

Explanations and Caveats

Users of the C-R-E-I Model must avoid unnecessary quibbles about the appropriate characterization of a particular factor of importance to an MSO. For example, reasonable minds may differ as to whether the rule that, “[t]he right of hot pursuit may be exercised only by warships or military aircraft, or other ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service and authorized to that effect”30 is a constraint or a restraint. The correct answer is that it does not matter. As long as utilization of the C-R-E-I model forces planners to identify, in a structured manner, the rule set regarding the type of vessels that may be used to engage in hot pursuit (assuming in this hypothetical that this is of significance to the intended MSO), then it has improved mission analysis and therefore the prospect for success of the intended MSO. 

While the identification and analysis of applicable constraints, restraints, enablers, and imperatives relating to an intended MSO is a vitally important function, it is only the first step. Such identification and analysis can also be used to shape an MSO by converting undesired constraints, restraints, and imperatives into enablers. For example, a constraint such as prohibition against boarding a foreign vessel on the high seas can turn into an enabler through advance consent by a flag state to the conduct of desired high seas activities in advance of an MSO. The point is that authority-based factors are not static or immutable, and in fact can and should be actively shaped into enablers to promote operational success.

Another point about the model is that it is authority-, not capability-based. Such matters as vessel and crew endurance, vessel speed and other capabilities, transit times, etc., are not unique to MSOs and are not directly addressed by this model. However, proper utilization of the model significantly impacts capabilities-based planning considerations. For example, limitations (constraints or restraints) inherent in the use of force regime applicable to an intended MSO that are exposed during mission analysis should drive commanders to ensure, not only that the crews of vessels that will participate in the MSO are properly and adequately trained, but also that the vessels and crews are properly equipped with the means to lawfully employ force if required. As another example, if mission analysis reveals that a partner nation has a domestic legal requirement (an imperative) that suspects must be brought before a magistrate within 24 hours of interdiction, the operational commander must ensure that assets employed in an intended MSO have the capacity to comply with that requirement, or else the “legal finish” to the operation may be jeopardized.

Finally, as a follow-up to proper training, while this model is conceived for operational-level commanders and planners, mission commanders must also be facile in their ability to identify, understand, and react to relevant constraints, restraints, enablers, and imperatives. This indicates the need for robust professional military education and continued pipeline training for mission commanders and their support personnel. That training and facility should include clear lines of communication from tactical commanders to operational commanders and their staffs. As Advantage at Sea reminds us, “[a]ctivities short of war can achieve strategic-level effects.”31 The consequences of tactical commanders failing to understand constraints, restraints, or imperatives they encounter, or failing to properly exploit enablers, are too dire not to demand facility with the C-R-E-I model at the tactical level as well.


The C-R-E-I model builds upon and endorses Professor Luke’s legitimacy theory for thinking about maritime operations short of war as being the only theoretical model that recognizes the essence of their uniqueness and singularity. It follows his linkage of legitimacy to authority (see Figure 3), but provides granularity to authority-based considerations by parsing them into constraints, restraints, enablers, and imperatives. It also “operationalizes” his theory by providing a concrete model for planners to employ during the stage of the planning process most suited to consideration of the unique features of MSOs: the mission analysis phase of the NPP. Without such a disciplined and systematic approach by planners more accustomed to planning for combat operations at sea, there is the ever-present “danger of warfighters falling back into doctrine designed for combat—‘heavy metal thinking’—in such things as peace operations where such thinking is not appropriate.”32

This failure of planning has numerous potential negative operational consequences, including, but not  limited to, legal challenges against aspects of the underlying operation that could impact the “legal finish.” Though admittedly not in the lower-threshold constabulary realm, federal lawsuits brought by aggrieved parties in United Nations Security Council (UNSC)-authorized interdiction actions are indicative of the nature of potential legal challenges across the spectrum of operations short of war. These include Tarros v. United States, in which the plaintiff sought damages related to the “blockage and diversion” of his vessel that occurred pursuant to UNSC. Resolutions 1970 (2011) and 1973 (2011), and Wu Tien Li-Shou v. United States, in which the plaintiff sought damages due to the wrongful death of his fishing vessel’s master and the negligent destruction of his vessel resulting from the rescue of a fishing vessel by U.S.-NATO forces enforcing UNSC Resolutions.33 Though these suits were unsuccessful, other challenges in European and international courts arising from lower-threshold constabulary operations have been successful, and serve as a harbinger of legal consequences that could result in improperly planned MSOs conducted with or on behalf of allies and partners.34

Beyond legal challenges, other potential consequences of improper planning for MSOs include career ramifications throughout the chain of command and ill will or even a diplomatic incident with an ally or partner. All of these potential consequences run counter to Advantage at Sea’s admonition to the Naval Service to “partner, persist, and prevail across the competition continuum,” and could lead to failure to achieve the strategic objective of prevailing in day-to-day competition. Adoption and application of the C-R-E-I model should ensure that thinking and analysis are properly focused on the “fundamentals and tenets that distinguish peacetime activities from warfare,” which will greatly enhance the prospects of success of the MSO being contemplated and, ultimately, of the strategy enunciated in Advantage at Sea.

Capt. (ret.) Andrew Norris works as a maritime legal and regulatory consultant, and has been retained to create and teach a new five-month maritime security and governance course for international officers at the U.S. Naval War College. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2016 after 22 years of service. Prior to attending law school and joining the Coast Guard, Capt. (ret.) Norris served in the U.S. Navy as a division officer aboard the USS KIDD (DDG-993) from 1985-1989. He can be reached at +1 (401) 871-7482 or

[1] Navy Warfare Publication (NWP) 5-01, Navy Planning (Ed. December 2013), 1-1.

[2] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century: Fourth Edition (New York: Routledge, 2018), 159-160.

[3] Milan Vego, “Operations Short of War and Operational Art,” Joint Forces Quarterly 98 (3rd Quarter 2020): 38-49, 43.

[4] Till, Seapower, 458.

[5] Till, Seapower, 162.

[6] Vego, “Operations Short of War,” 38.

[7] NWP 5-01, 1-2.

[8] “Optimized” does not mean “exclusively” – “Through the NPP, a commander can plan for, prepare, and execute operations from the operational through the tactical levels of war.” NWP 5-01, 1-4.

[9] NWP 5-01, 1-5 – 1-6.

[10] NWP 5-01, 1-4.

[11] NWP 5-01, 1-2.

[12] Kraska and Pedrozo, International Maritime Security Law, 2.

[13] Till, Seapower, 165.

[14] Vego, “Operations Short of War,” 44. Professor Vego also correctly advises that the process of determining the Desired End State in operations short of war is “far more complex and elusive” than in a high-intensity conventional war. Ibid.

[15] Ivan Luke, “Naval Operations in Peacetime: Not Just “Warfare Lite,” Naval War College Review 66, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 10-26, 15.

[16] Luke, “Naval Operations in Peacetime,” 11.

[17] NWP 5-01, Appendix A.2.3.

[18] NWP 5-01, 2-1.

[19] NWP 5-01, 2-2.

[20] Ibid.

[21] NWP 5-01, Appendix K-1.

[22] NWP 5-01, App. K.3.1

[23] NWP 5-01, 2.3.3.

[24] NWP 5-01, Appendix K.2.1.

[25] NWP 5-01, Appendix A.2.3.

[26] In fairness, Appendix N of NWP 5-01 does provide some further guidance for the legal estimate generally, but this guidance is generic to all operations and is not focused on the unique aspects of MSOs.

[27] MCIP 3-33.02/NWP 3-07/COMDTINST M3120.11, Stability Operations Manual (25 May 2012).

[28] Stability Operations Manual, 3-7 – 3-8.

[29] Till, Seapower, 123.

[30] The Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397 (UNCLOS), Article 111( 5.).

[31] Tri-Service Maritime Strategy “Advantage at Sea,” 17 December 2020, 6.

[32] Till, Seapower, 165.

[33] Tarros v. United States, 982 F. Supp. 2d 325, 327 (S.D.N.Y. 2013); Wu Tien Li-Shou v. United States, 997 F. Supp. 2d 307, 308–09 (D. Md. 2014), aff’d, 777 F.3d 175, 179 (4th Cir. 2015). These and more are discussed in Brian Wilson, “The Turtle Bay Pivot: : How the United Nations Security Council Is Reshaping Naval Pursuit of Nuclear Proliferators, Rogue States, and Pirates,” Emory International Law Review 33, issue 1 (2018): 1-90.

[34] See Brian Wilson, “Human Rights and Maritime Law Enforcement,” Stanford Journal of International Law 52, no. 2 (July 2016): 243-319.

Featured Image: Maritime Operational Planners Course at the U.S. Naval War College (Credit: