Category Archives: Strategy

A New U.S. Navy Planning Model for Lower-Threshold Maritime Security Operations, Part 1

By Andrew Norris


The new U.S. tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, which refers to the three maritime services (Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) collectively as the single Naval Service, largely focuses on great power competition at sea against peer or near-peer competitors.1 However, although the Naval Service has to be configured and trained to prevail in high-intensity armed conflict, unless and until such conflict occurs, this competition at sea will play itself out through interactions short of war across what the strategy refers to as the “competition continuum.” By increasingly and successfully engaging in activities short of war against maritime competitors and other malign actors, the Naval Service will accomplish a central pillar of Advantage at Sea, which is to “prevail in day-to-day competition.”

In addition to being built, equipped, manned, and trained to compete in operations short of war, the Naval Service also has to be able to plan for campaigns and major operations in this space to ensure the most effective and efficient employment of scarce resources—not only to achieve the United States’ strategic goals, but also to assist allies and partners in achieving their own goals and objectives. This ability to plan at the operational level will increasingly include operations at the lower, “constabulary” end of the competition continuum (see Figure 1), an area of far less familiarity to the U.S. Navy than to the U.S. Coast Guard. Operations at this level, which promote a rules-based international order at sea, are “increasingly being seen as a crucial enabler for global peace and security, and therefore something that should command the attention of naval planners everywhere.”2

This article asserts that the U.S. Navy will increasingly be called upon to operate in the constabulary end of activities short of war and proposes a 4-part constraints, restraints, enablers, and imperatives (C-R-E-I) analytical model for preparing the staff estimate to inform the mission analysis phase of the Navy Planning Process (NPP),3 when utilized to plan for such activities. In doing so, it builds upon the scholarship of Professors Milan Vego and Ivan Luke of the U.S. Naval War College.

Professor Vego, in his recent article “Operations Short of War and Operational Art,” discusses the precepts of operational art (which are embedded into the NPP) as they apply to operations short of war.4 While a masterful Vego product as always, the article’s focus on operations at the higher end of the spectrum of violence involving the kinetic application of military force to achieve higher end political objectives—such as Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999), Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2001-2002), and Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya (2011)—leaves unaddressed the question of how operational art, as embedded in the NPP, needs to be adapted to account for the unique aspects of maritime operations with a constabulary derivation. This article attempts to fill that void.

The other theoretical inspiration for this article is Professor Luke’s approach to understanding operations short of combat at sea, as set out in his article “Naval Operations in Peacetime: Not Just ‘Warfare Lite’.”5 His underlying thesis is that:

[t]he things the U.S. Navy and other navies of the world are doing in peacetime today are fundamentally distinct from naval warfare, and they are important enough to demand an expanded naval theory that incorporates their unique aspects. Continued reliance on naval warfare theory alone puts the [U.S.] Navy at risk of not doing its best to meet the challenges of, or not capitalizing on the opportunities present in, the maritime domain today.

In recognition of the “broad and growing array of legal regimes, treaties, and sources of authority that need to be fully appreciated, understood, and leveraged” to achieve success in operations short of armed conflict, Professor Luke proposes a theory of legitimacy as being more appropriate than the theory of naval warfare to such operations.6 This article endorses the centrality of legitimacy, grounded on underlying authority, as a unifying theoretical construct of the authority mechanism for success of operations short of armed conflict, and “operationalizes” it by providing a mechanism—constraints, restraints, enablers, and imperatives—for thoroughly accounting for the factors that collectively constitute the authority and legitimacy of an intended operation.

Before arriving at the proposed analytical model, this article will first discuss operations short of war on the competition continuum and distinguish between those with an armed force derivation and those with a constabulary derivation. It will then demonstrate how the Naval Service, and most importantly, the Navy, will increasingly be called upon to perform lower threshold constabulary missions as part of the day-to-day competition in the maritime domain. It will then examine the need to perform those missions as part of a campaign or major operation, instead of haphazardly and situationally in response to malign activities at sea.

It will conclude by reviewing the Navy Planning Process overall, by identifying mission analysis (as informed by staff estimates) as the proper place to account for the “unique aspects” of operations short of war, and by demonstrating the inadequacy of existing doctrine to guide proper mission analysis for such operations. It is in the context of this discussion that the 4-part analytical tool will be presented and discussed.

Operations Short of War Defined and Discussed

1. Maritime security operations versus operations short of war

Professor Luke uses the term “operations short of armed conflict” to denote “naval operations in peacetime;” other commentators such as Professor Vego use the term “operations short of war.” As we have seen, Advantage at Sea, by defining the competition continuum to include day-to-day competition, competition in crisis, and competition in conflict, and by using terms such as “war” and “destroying enemy forces” to illustrate what competition in conflict means, implies that operations not rising to the level of conflict are operations short of “war.” The NPP and a host of official U.S. government products use the term “maritime security” synonymously with “operations short of war.”7 While Professor Till also employs the term “maritime security,” which he equates to the term “good order at sea,” to describe such operations, he acknowledges their ambiguity, and states that such terms must be used with caution.8

The bottom line is that a hodgepodge of terms are in common use to describe maritime operations short of war. While some may dispute the equivalency, for purposes of consistency, this article will use the terms “maritime security operations (MSOs)” and “operations short of war” interchangeably to refer to all operations short of “combat operations”—which is another term used in Advantage at Sea to denote operations during conflict.

Figure 1 – Till’s Depiction of MSOs Arrayed Along a Spectrum of Violence (Click to expand)

2. Maritime security operations with a law enforcement versus an armed force derivation

In addition to settling on consistent terminology amongst a welter of options, this article also distinguishes between higher-threshold maritime security operations that have an armed force derivation and a political-military purpose, and lower-threshold9 maritime security operations that have a law enforcement derivation and typically a constabulary purpose. The former must be conducted by members of the armed forces of a state operating from a warship10 and are governed by the law of armed conflict. In the latter, the use of force is governed by rules for the use of force deriving from human rights law, and operations may be undertaken not only by “warships or military aircraft,” but also by “other ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service and authorized to that effect.”11

The U.S. Navy will increasingly be expected to perform lower-threshold MSOs

According to Advantage at Sea, the Naval Service will partner, persist, and prevail across the competition continuum, employing Integrated All-Domain Naval Power through five lines of effort:

  • Advance global maritime security and governance, which means operating with allies, partners, other U.S. agencies, and multinational groups12 to maintain a free and open maritime environment, and to uphold the norms underpinning our shared security and prosperity.
  • Strengthen alliances and partnerships, with the ultimate aim of modifying bad behavior in the maritime domain.
  • Confront and expose malign behavior by rivals, with the ultimate aim of holding them accountable to the same standards by which others abide.
  • Expand information and decision advantage, which provides superiority in coordinating, distributing, and maneuvering our forces while simultaneously removing adversary leaders’ sense of control, inducing doubt and increased caution in crisis and conflict.
  • Deploy and sustain combat-credible forces, which enables all lines of effort, deters potential adversaries from escalating into conflict, and ensures that naval and joint forces will defeat adversary forces should they choose the path of war.

As can be seen, though prevailing in the event of war is and always will be a core objective of the Naval Service, the lines of effort largely and properly focus on activities at the lower end of the competition continuum as the best means for prevailing in day-to-day competition. Effective competition at this level upholds the rules-based order, denies our rivals’ use of incremental coercion, and creates the space for American diplomatic, political, economic, and technological advantages to prevail over the long term.13 In short, it helps achieve the aim of line of effort 1, which is the promotion of maritime security and good maritime governance.

Examples provided in Advantage at Sea of “activities short of war” conducted by Navy and Coast Guard ships as part of day-to-day competition include:

  • freedom of navigation operations globally to challenge excessive and illegal maritime claims;
  • Coast Guard cutters and law enforcement detachments aboard Navy and allied ships exercising unique authorities to counter terrorism, weapons proliferation, transnational crime, and piracy;
  • enforcing sanctions through maritime interdiction operations, often as part of international task forces;14
  • crucial peacetime missions, including responding to disasters, preserving maritime security, safeguarding global commerce, protecting human life, and extending American influence; and
  • underwriting the use of global waterways to achieve national security objectives through diplomacy, law enforcement, economic statecraft, and, when required, force.

Such activities support day-to-day competition in a diverse threat environment that includes potential adversaries such as Russia and China, but also additional state competitors, violent extremists, and criminal organizations, all of which exploit weak governance at sea, corruption ashore, and gaps in maritime domain awareness. Furthermore, “[p]iracy, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and other illicit acts leave governments vulnerable to coercion. Climate change threatens coastal nations with rising sea levels, depleted fish stocks, and more severe weather. Competition over offshore resources, including protein, energy, and minerals, is leading to tension and conflict. Receding Arctic sea ice is opening the region to growing maritime activity and increased competition.”15 These forces and trends create vulnerabilities for adversaries to exploit, corrode the rule of law, and generate instability that can erupt into crisis in any theater.16

If, as Advantage at Sea posits, the Naval Service will be called upon on a day-to-day basis to conduct operations short of war, the traditional functions assigned to the Coast Guard and Navy, respectively, as depicted in Figure 1, will become more integrated and homogenized.17 The Coast Guard will increasingly be called upon to conduct MSOs in the political-military realm, such as freedom of navigation operations, sanctions enforcement through maritime interdiction operations (often as part of international task forces), and providing specialized capabilities, to include Port Security Units or Advanced Interdiction Teams to augment operations in theater.18 The Navy, by contrast, will increasingly be called upon to conduct operations in the lower-threshold, “softer” constabulary realm. We know this to be so because: (1) Advantage at Sea and other strategic documents tell us so, and (2) as by far the largest seagoing service in an era of ever-shrinking platforms available to “employ All-Domain Naval Power to prevail across the competition continuum,” no other realistic alternative exists.19

For a variety of structural and other reasons, adaptation by the Navy to operate in the constabulary realm is much more challenging than the adaptation necessary by the Coast Guard to conduct higher-threshold political-military operations.20 Principal among the many challenges is the fact, as Professor Luke identifies, that legitimacy of operations short of war is the ultimate “measure” of their lawfulness. Legitimacy brings into play the vista of “legal regimes, treaties, and sources of authority that need to be fully appreciated, understood, and leveraged,” both individually and interrelatedly, to ensure the success of a contemplated lower-threshold operation. The unique nature of operations at this level, and the Navy’s capacity to adequately plan for them, is the subject of the next section in part 2 of this article.

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

[2] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century: Fourth Edition (New York: Routledge, 2018), 97.

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

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

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

[6] See Figure 3, Appendix, in part 2 of this article.

[7] See, e.g., the mission statement of the State Department’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs (; Presidential Policy Directive (PPD)-8 (Maritime Security) and the underlying National Strategy for Maritime Security; and the 2019 Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement Act (or Maritime SAFE Act), a component of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

[8] Professor Christian Bueger at the University of Copenhagen eponymously devotes an entire article to the issue of “What is Marine Security,” Marine Policy 53 (2015) 159–164.

[9] References to “threshold” and “spectrum” refer to the spectrum of violence as depicted in Figure 1, which also equates to the spectrum of activities across the competition continuum in Advantage at Sea.

[10] Article 29 of The Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397 (UNCLOS) defines a “warship” as “a ship belonging to the armed forces of a State bearing the external marks distinguishing such ships of its nationality, under the command of an officer duly commissioned by the government of the State and whose name appears in the appropriate service list or its equivalent, and manned by a crew which is under regular armed forces discipline.”

[11] UNCLOS, Article 111.

[12] In general, “naval, coast guard, marine police, coastal and maritime forces are joined by ground and air elements of the joint armed forces, other departments and agencies, including oceanographic and fisheries services, the intelligence community, and international partners” to conduct maritime security operations.” James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, International Maritime Security Law (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2013), 3.

[13] Advantage at Sea, 10.

[14] While forward-looking overall, in this respect, Advantage At Sea reflects existing realities: “Over the past decade, the Security Council has authorized the naval pursuit of rogue states, nuclear proliferators, pirates, and migrant smugglers with unparalleled frequency. From 1946 to 2007, the Security Council adopted approximately thirty-six resolutions with a direct or indirect impact in the maritime environment. In the following decade, from 2008 to 2017, the Security Council approved more than fifty such resolutions. What previously occurred about once every 1.7 years at [the United Nations] for six decades—the adoption of a resolution with a direct or indirect maritime impact—now is routine, transpiring every 2.5 months.” 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.

[15] Advantage at Sea, 5.

[16] Advantage at Sea, 5.

[17] For an excellent analysis of U.S. Navy versus U.S. Coast Guard functions, see Odom J.G. (2019) The United States. In: Bowers I., Koh S. (eds) Grey and White Hulls. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

[18] Advantage at Sea, 13-14.

[19] Advantage at Sea implicitly recognizes this by its reference to the Coast Guard integrating its unique authorities—law enforcement, fisheries protection, marine safety, and maritime security—with Navy and Marine Corps capabilities (including the availability of assets) as a means of providing options to joint force commanders for cooperation and competition. Advantage at Sea, 7.

[20] The Coast Guard always has a focus toward higher threshold operations since, by law, it can be and has been (most recently, during World War Two) subsumed by the Navy in times of war. Thus, for example, the Coast Guard Atlantic and Pacific Area commanders continuously exist within DOD as Commander, Coast Guard Defense Force (CGDEFOR) East and West, respectively; federal law requires the Coast Guard to engage in training and planning of reserve strength and facilities as is necessary to insure an organized, manned, and equipped Coast Guard when it is required for wartime operation in the Navy; and Coast Guard doctrine recognizes the need to employ its authorities to support National Defense Strategy (NDS) objectives. See Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022.

Featured Image: May 2, 2021 – USCGC Hamilton (WMSL 753) and Georgian coast guard vessels Ochamchire (P 23) and Dioskuria (P 25) conduct underway maneuvers in the Black Sea. Hamilton is on a routine deployment in the U.S. Sixth Fleet area of operations in support of U.S. national interests and security in Europe and Africa. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard)

A New U.S. Maritime Strategy

By Representative Elaine Luria

This article outlines the path that led to the U.S. Navy’s current strategic deficit and proposes a framework for a new maritime strategy, one that I believe should be immediately developed along with the corresponding force structure assessment. With a modest 5% additional investment in the Navy over the next five years, 90% of the changes required by this strategy can be achieved.

The Death of Naval Strategy

The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 effectively ended U.S. naval strategy. Through this legislation, Congress affirmed its authority to step in and “right the ship” after a series of well-publicized military failures, which at the time seemed to lay squarely on the shoulders of the services’ inability to work together without service-specific parochial interests getting in the way. 

The Goldwater-Nichols Act affirmed and strengthened the role of Secretary of Defense and greatly expanded the power of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, effectively removing the Service Chiefs and Secretaries from any role in the operational chain of command and from any advisory role to the President. They were relegated to budget warriors – and the Navy was a ship not under command. 

The Act also sought to increase the caliber of officers in joint positions and required that all officers serve in a joint tour as a prerequisite for promotion to flag or general rank. As a result, the services realigned officer career paths to meet these new joint timelines. Each service had to align to statutory promotion boards, which ultimately drove the career path of each officer, resulting in officers moving as quickly as possible from one milestone tour to another. No longer could an officer afford to spend multiple tours on Navy staffs learning the craft of strategy. Strategy was only for the Joint Staff—only for the Chairman.

The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)—the only service chief with “Operations” in his title— had a unique role since the position’s establishment in 1915. The official role of the CNO was codified in 1947 under General Order 5 as “(a) command[er] of the Operating Forces, (b) principal naval advisor to the President and the Secretary [of the Navy].” The ink had barely dried on the General Order, when forces in Congress and the White House set about to further the trends in unification of the armed forces. Over the next 20 years in a series of laws, the role of the CNO in operational matters was fully removed and by the 1970s, then-CNO, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, was convinced that the Navy “was confused about its justification for existence.” 

Thomas Hone noted in his book, Power and Change, that “OPNAV [the CNO’s staff] is a loose confederation, not an operational organization.” It was, however, not until 1978, when CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward, fresh off a tour as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, translated Zumwalt’s criticisms into real change. Hayward was convinced the Navy needed to be revitalized, strategically and tactically – simply put, the Navy needed a strategy around which to plan and program. As professor John Hattendorf of the Naval War College observed, “Hayward sought to change…from a budget battle to an analysis of the strategic issues of a global maritime power.” In 1981, Navy Secretary John Lehman built on Hayward’s Sea Strike concept to establish the goal of a 600-ship Navy, which he very nearly reached before leaving office.

Then came Goldwater-Nichols. One cannot deny that the Act has been successful in more fully integrating the services into a Joint Force, however, one cannot overlook the deleterious effects on strategy and procurement in the individual services that have resulted. As I wrote in Look to the 1980s to Inform the Fleet of Today, the Navy does not have, and has not had, a maritime strategy for the past 30 years. Moreover, the past 30 years have seen failures in ship class after ship class, resulting in a lost generation of shipbuilding. 

As “budget warriors,” many CNOs since the late 1980s have attempted to leave their mark on the service, and some have—for better or worse. However, it is precisely because the Navy has lacked a strategy that the success or failure of the Navy has relied solely on the strength of the CNO or Navy Secretary’s personality. As I noted in my article, Secretary Lehman’s bullish approach: “first strategy, then requirements, then the POM, then budget,” stands in stark contrast to the budget-driven Navy leadership of subsequent decades. 

What is, and is not, a Maritime Strategy?

A strategy is the military means to accomplish political ends – or as often quoted from Clausewitz, “a continuation of politics with other means.” 

This year, like many others, military leaders reiterated in repeated testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that they are “prepared to compete globally and fight and win the nation’s wars…” However, when asked what “win” means, the same leaders seem befuddled. The Chief of Staff of the Army recently testified that “winning with China means not fighting China.” I happen to agree with him, except, that was not the question—which is precisely the problem. We cannot define what “winning” means. When one cannot define winning, one cannot write a strategy.

What does winning with China look like? Numerous naval strategists including Sir Julian Corbett have argued that war cannot be won by naval (or air) action alone. Similarly, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, recently testified that “decisive outcomes in war are ultimately achieved on land…” Does this mean that we cannot have a decisive outcome with China without a ground invasion of the mainland? 

Today, the military rise of China threatens the balance of power globally and as Thucydides noted – the rise in power of one actor threatens all others. This is not to say that China—or any other country—does not have the right to defend itself, but that a country that does not share the ideals of a free, democratic world is disrupting international norms. As with the destabilizing actions of Russia, if not properly managed, China’s actions could be misinterpreted and lead to unintended conflict. 

It is precisely this ambiguity that drives the Navy’s need for a new global maritime strategy – and a complementary national maritime strategy that includes the full range of commercial maritime activities, domestic shipbuilding and repair, and Maritime law enforcement activities. The need is especially critical when defense resources are strained amid competing priorities from non-defense spending and among the services themselves. This naval strategy should be developed by naval leaders, not by the Joint Staff nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. defense planning strategy has been a variation of a two-front war policy. Today’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls for the Armed Forces to be capable of “defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.” By placing offense (defeating aggression) as the primary capability of our forces, it constrains thinking in the offense-defense balance of military strategy and has resulted in maintaining a large standing army and Cold War-era battle tactics as the preferred methods of training and equipping our forces.

Today’s “Maritime Strategy”

In the 1984 Maritime Strategy, “winning” meant keeping the conflict to a conventional war and supporting ground forces in driving the Soviets back to their own borders. This is the “deny and punish” approach still employed today. The Navy developed the strategy on the assumption, backed by intelligence, that any conflict with the Soviets would quickly engulf much of the globe. This required the Navy to be present and ready in three key regions simultaneously, instead of the “swing strategy” preferred by the Joint Staff. 

The Navy developed a maritime strategy based on a three-front conflict and centered it around the carrier battle group. The strategy did not consider limitations in maintenance, training, or employment. It was assumed every ship would be available in conflict and that the number needed was 600. 

If the same construct were applied to our force today using the current NDS, the Navy could simply use the Indo-Pacific Command Commander’s most demanding contingency to determine the number and type of ships required for the whole Navy. This resultant force structure would be well below the 355-ship requirement, even when accounting for “opportunistic aggression elsewhere,” and would likely fall below 250 total ships.

So, how did the Navy develop its current Battle Force 2045 plan that calls for somewhere between 382 to 446 manned ships and 143 to 242 large, unmanned vessels? 

Instead of starting with a single contingency, or multiple contingencies, the Navy made assumptions about force development, force generation, and force employment to drive their final assessment. The range of ships presented in Battle Force 2045 came about not from a global maritime strategy, but instead, three different studies were simply coalesced into a single force structure assessment, and the resulting force requirements present a range based on the final product of each study.

As a 2019 RAND Corporation study on defense planning noted, “different assumptions and types of guidance can produce very different results in the process.” In other words, our assumptions greatly drive outcomes. Combatant Commanders (CCDR) develop contingency plans to combat specific scenarios in their theater while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, through the Joint Staff, is tasked with global strategic planning. The study concluded that “a common assumption is that the plans and programs of the defense planning process should be strategy-driven, but the final size and shape of the force are highly budget-influenced. When operating in that realm, defense planners do not have a reliable way of estimating—or quantifying—risk” (emphasis added).

Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, that the Joint Staff force planning process, the process that translates strategy into the forces we need, is deeply flawed and guided much more by parochial interests vice national interest. She goes on to say “the current process is antithetical to the kind of competing of ideas and innovation that the Department [of Defense] really needs…”

When a force structure assessment begins by using inputs like force generation and employment to counter specific scenarios, the output will always be dependent on current force employment constructs. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan uses a 5:1 model, where five ships result in one deployed. For example, if one wanted 100 ships deployed around the globe annually (the Navy’s traditional deployment rate), the force structure required would be 500 ships. However, if the force generation model is changed to 4:1, the total force would require only 400 ships. Further, if the force generation model was a forward deployed naval force (FDNF) model where ships are available two-thirds of the time (3:2), the force structure assessment addressing the same threat would only require 150 total ships. These force generation models are critical assumptions that drive the force structures used in defense planning.

In a seminal article, “Cruising for a Bruising: Maritime Competition in an Anti-Access Age,” Naval War College Professors Jonathan D. Caverley and Peter Dombrowski, note “the most likely location for great-power friction is at sea.” Many scholars have written about the balance of power that affects competition on land, especially over the last 20 years, but much less has been written about maritime competition and the offense-defense balance on the oceans. However, a truth remains, “when offense has the advantage, the security dilemma grows more acute, arms races grow more intense, and war grows more likely.” 

Naval platforms are ideally suited to provide a flexible deterrent option, however, Barry R. Posen and Jack Snyder postulate that the U.S. military is offensively minded, and one can see this through public testimony and statements of our military leaders. The defense side of “offense-defense” is often thought of as a natural output of a strong offense. This was true in the 1980s Maritime Strategy that envisioned an exclusively offensive plan and is what Caverley and Dombrowski refer to as the “Cult of the Offensive…” They argue that even if the Navy could instantly develop the fleet of the future, the doctrine of power projection would still dominate the thinking.

In the 1984 Maritime Strategy, the deterrent role was ancillary from the demand-based wartime strategy that resulted in the 600-ship requirement. In that strategy, deterrence was an output of force structure, and it articulated the requirement for a peacetime presence to fill deterrent roles, reduce response times, and provide policymakers with naval crisis-response options. One-third of the ships needed for wartime missions in each theater would always notionally be forward deployed under the strategy. However, by 1987, the 600-ship requirement was exclusively tied to a deterrent presence model. Vice Admiral Hank Mustin testified that dropping below the 15-carrier requirement would necessitate a discussion of “what [region] do you want to give up?”

Deterrence as a Strategy

I agree with many of today’s military leaders that war is not inevitable, but to conclude that the only way to win in the face of malign or belligerent nations is not to go to war is naïve at best, and is not grounded in a strategy that uses deterrence as its first principle. 

It would be better to acknowledge that we are not going to conduct a land campaign against China, so in conventional thinking, the U.S. cannot “win” a war, however, much as with nuclear war, deterrence should be considered “winning.” When military leaders use language like “fight and win,” it downplays the primary objective of deterrence and ultimately may shape force structure and force employment in the wrong direction. 

A deterrence strategy should not be a byproduct of an offensive strategy. According to a 2017 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) study, in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, “the U.S. Navy pursued a deterrence posture that relied on modest levels of forward deployed forces that were smaller representations of the larger force. To avoid instability caused by regional powers, deterrence was premised on the promise of punishment that would arrive with follow-on forces.” Bryan Clark, testifying about the study in 2017, affirmed “the emergence of great power competition is going to put the onus on us to deter conflict with those great powers.” 

Each contingency plan has a phase of deterrence, or what the Navy terms “presence,” day-to-day requirements for ships at sea. In the past 20 years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated the Navy’s power projection requirements and structural cracks in our force generation and employment models have been revealed. Many ships have deployed back-to-back with maintenance truncated, only to have future maintenance availabilities extended to double or more of their original length, requiring another ship to deploy in their place. The Navy has tried to “reset” this cycle on several occasions, only to be told that they must surge again to meet emergent requirements. 

Today, the combined CCDR day-to-day requirements for all theaters would require 150 more ships than are presently in the fleet. Moreover, although the Navy can provide flexible strike options without the need for overflight consideration, the last two decades of war have shown that our Navy is not adequately sized using current force employment models to provide this enduring capability.

The inherent mobility of a navy provides a deterrent when present, but when removed it reminds enemies—and allies alike—of the unfixed nature of a mobile force, and could create the incorrect perception that an opening exists for aggression. Case in point is the recent deployment of the forward-based carrier Ronald Reagan from Japan to the Middle East. A ship can only be in one place at one time, therefore, political decisions or CCDR requests can also take away the deterrent that was present yesterday. 

The same is not true for forward based ground troops. During the past twenty years, the Army did not lower the troop levels in Korea or Germany to deploy them to Iraq and Afghanistan—but that is precisely what the Navy did with its own force posture commitments. Naval forces that otherwise would have been present in the Mediterranean, Western Pacific, and North Atlantic have instead persistently been deployed to the Middle East, leaving a massive presence gap that China has exploited.

A New Maritime Strategy

The same 2017 CSBA study cited earlier provides a compelling model for developing a new maritime strategy. This study proposes a revolution in naval strategy and presence. This new “deterrent strategy” would organize forces into distinct Deterrence Forces and Maneuver Forces, with each having separate force structures and missions. The study suggested that the Navy should “focus on sustaining an effective posture for conventional deterrence rather than an efficient presence to meet near-term operational needs.” 

The Deterrence Forces

Much has been written over the past 70 years about the actual success of deterrent strategies, but many believe it is a strategy worth pursuing. Deterrence cannot be measured in real time and although it is the cornerstone of our National Defense from nuclear to conventional conflict, there is no way to accurately measure its success or failure. Only in retrospect can we know that our strategy of deterrence has worked – and it has clearly worked in nuclear conflict, but not always in conventional conflict. 

In a deterrent strategy, the commitment of the defender, in this case the U.S., must be resolute and unwavering. As Robert Jervis noted, “perceptions are the dominant variable in deterrence success or failure.” Bruce Russett concluded that deterrence fails “when the attacker decides that the defender’s threat is not likely to be fulfilled.” This does not mean that the U.S. must respond to every provocation, as it often did during the Cold War, but as Michael J. Mazarr noted, “successful deterrence typically involves…taking steps to demonstrate both the capability and determination to fulfill a threat.” It is this capability and determination that may have led Michèle Flournoy to state that if the U.S. had the capability to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan…” 

The Navy and Marine Corps by their inherent construct are uniquely positioned to provide both general (ongoing, persistent) and immediate (short-term, urgent) deterrent forces. In a 2020 article, Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay stated that “One of the defining characteristics of a naval force is its special role in projecting power. Navies enable countries to influence politics in more places, more decisively, farther from home.” The article provides an in-depth discussion of the role of naval power and identifies actions that demonstrate resolve and capability, and that make room for adversaries to reach bargains, rather than conflict. This is precisely the reason the U.S. Navy should be persistently present on the high seas around the globe. This deterrent presence cannot simply be the byproduct of the current Navy global presence construct. It must be intentional, persistent, and tailored to the individual theater.

The CSBA study provides a detailed proposal of the composition and deployment locations of the deterrence force, and although I do not agree with the entirety of the force structure or locations outlined in the study, the overarching concept it defines is valid and should be considered as a foundation of a new maritime strategy. 

In this construct, the Deterrence Force consists primarily of forward deployed naval forces, with a force generation model that produces a full year of deployed ship presence for every two ships, which is 2.5 times what we achieve today through purely rotational forces. The study’s force construct provides for a mix of low- and high-end forces, including unmanned surface and sub-surface vehicles. Carrier strike groups would not be part of Deterrence Forces.

The Maneuver Forces

While the Deterrence Force is the first line of defense preventing near-peer competitors from achieving a fait accompli, the Maneuver Force arrives to conduct sustained warfare, and will be augmented by the remainder of CONUS-based rotational forces when they arrive later.

In the CSBA study the Maneuver Forces are deployed on a more traditional, rotational model such as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) and are centered exclusively on carrier strike groups. The study provides for two carrier strike groups deployed continuously, but independent from current global force management plans. Instead, these forces “will need to be prepared for a wider range of possible operational environments, more potential adversaries, a larger number of alliance relationships, and a higher likelihood of being faced with high-intensity sustained combat.” In the study, the Maneuver Forces consist of multi-carrier task groups not assigned to a particular region, but free to move between theaters conducting major exercises, experimenting with tactics, and operating with allies. 

Next Steps

The Navy should develop a maritime strategy and corresponding force structure based on the Deterrence and Maneuver Force construct outlined in the CSBA study, make changes to operating models as rapidly as possible, and make their intentions widely known. 

The 2017 CSBA study makes a strong case for adoption of this new operating model and for making significant changes to future naval forces. We simply cannot continue to use the same outdated approach to conventional deterrence and expect to successfully deter peer competitors. The study concludes that:

“This [current] approach to conventional deterrence will likely not work against the potential great power aggressors of the 2030s, who are likely to seek the ability to achieve a quick, decisive victory over adversaries. Efforts to reverse the results of aggression would require a much larger conflict and would likely have global consequences that would create international pressure to reach a quick settlement. To be deterred in the 2030s, aggressors must be presented with the possibility that their goals will be denied or that the immediate costs to pursue them will be prohibitively high.”

The conundrum we face today is that there is no time to waste in developing this new strategy and method of operations. The CSBA study calls for significant investment in new platforms and overseas basing that are both costly and time consuming. 

Many of the force changes proposed in the study would take decades to achieve and proposals such as basing forces in Vietnam and the Philippines are unlikely to materialize. However, force employment and generation can be changed quickly, and existing infrastructure and basing agreements can be rapidly leveraged to achieve the goals of this strategy.

In order to quickly establish the Deterrence Force, I differ somewhat from the CSBA study in the proposed locations for these units and believe that we must take advantage of locations where we currently conduct routine operations and have existing infrastructure. These forces could be postured in a sweeping arc encircling China, from Djibouti to Diego Garcia to Singapore to Guam to Japan, very similar to the Akhromeyev Map. This would include standing up the First Fleet in Singapore, as proposed by the former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite. We should work with allies in the region on increasingly-coordinated operations and extend and strengthen our compacts with island nations, such the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, who have expressed a willingness to work closely with the U.S. to reject Chinese influence.

In the Mediterranean and European theater, deterrent forces should be based in Souda Bay, Spain, and Norway to counter Russian malign efforts in the region, with additional forces stationed in Alaska. This would also be a deterrent force poised to respond in the Arctic.

For the Maneuver Force, a slightly different approach than that discussed in the CSBA study is achievable today. Operating these maneuver forces using a FDNF CONUS-based model would position one carrier strike group on each coast, with the remainder of the carriers operating in a rotational model (such as OFRP) until it is their turn to rotate into the FDNF model. Additionally, the Japan-based FDNF carrier would remain on its current cycle. The two FDNF CONUS carriers would then split the globe and operate as maneuver forces in a regional model vice specific allocation to a combatant commander. 

Finally, I propose that by using existing platforms we can achieve most of the deterrent effect of this strategy in the next five years. We should increase DDG procurement to four per year (two per yard per year), rapidly ramp-up and expand the FFG program to a second production yard, modify current platforms such as the MK VI patrol boat with missile launchers, field the Naval Strike Missile on LCS, and convert commercial vessels to large VLS magazines. Additionally, while the Marine Corps fully develops its Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concept, they could begin testing the concept using the LCS and EPF platforms. I postulate that this deterrence effect can be gained for as little as a 5% increase in the current Navy budget ($10B) per year. Much as John Lehman wrote in discussing the development of the 1984 Maritime Strategy, 90 percent of the deterrent power of this buildup could be achieved in the first year. This was done by publicly declaring and explaining the strategy, especially its naval component, and taking actions that left no doubt among friend and foe that it would be achieved.


The United States has a unique role in history. Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath wrote in 2017, “the paradox of the American experience is that the U.S. is not simply a great power – it is an exceptional power, for which ideals count as much as strength.” It is this exceptional power – and responsibility – that requires exceptional thinking by the political and military leaders of our nation. This global maritime strategy can work, but the Navy will have to overcome substantial barriers to change in the Joint Staff, Combatant Commands, amongst the Services, and within the National Security Council and Congress. However, one cannot argue with a good plan. All we need is the plan and a few champions on Capitol Hill.

Representative Elaine Luria is a 20-year Navy veteran who represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District and serves as the Vice-Chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Featured image: PERSIAN GULF (April 7, 2007) – Guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68) conducts normal underway operations as part of Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) Carrier Strike Group. Anzio is on a scheduled deployment in support of Maritime Security Operations (MSO). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Angel Contreras)

The U.S. Military In Competition: Supporting Effort One

By Ryan Ratcliffe

“Ultimate excellence lies…in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.” Sun Tzu

“America is back,” proclaimed President Joe Biden in his first address to the Department of State. “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” he continued, declaring that the United States would repair its alliances and reengage the world to confront global challenges. Speaking to the department that had recently published its comprehensive assessment of relations with China and called for a revival of U.S. foreign policy, the President’s words were likely well received. 

Designed to serve as a modern-day “long telegram,” The Elements of the China Challenge reveals the Chinese Communist Party’s aim to revise world order, highlighting many of the Party’s malign and coercive activities designed to achieve its subversive ambitions. The authors of this seminal work, the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, conclude by calling for the United States to refashion its foreign policy around the principles of freedom and to reserve the use of military force for when all other measures have failed. 

Diplomacy will certainly be fundamental in addressing the China challenge, but returning it to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy will not occur overnight. Decades of systemic decline have reduced U.S. diplomatic capacity and left the military as the more prolific instrument of national power. Therefore, until the Department of State completes the transformation it requires and returns to primacy, the Department of Defense will need to shoulder some of the burden in answering the China challenge. One such element that the Department of Defense should assist with is countering actions in the gray zone. 

The gray zone is the “contested arena somewhere between routine statecraft and open warfare,” and it includes actions taken to achieve relative geopolitical gains without triggering escalation. So, despite the U.S. military’s preeminence as a joint fighting force (or, more likely, as a testament to it), state actors like the Chinese Communist Party are pursuing and achieving success in the gray zone. These revisionist actors purposefully avoid armed conflict in an effort to evade the lethal arm of U.S. foreign policy, challenging traditional assumptions of strategic deterrence. Left unchecked, these gray zone victories will gradually amass into a direct threat to U.S. national security; this makes it well within the military’s purview to orient on the gray zone. 

To help counter the gray zone strategy the Chinese Communist Party regularly uses, the U.S. military should consider non-traditional approaches to competition. Such creative military support would buy U.S. diplomacy time to rebuild its capacity for securing freedom, while still avoiding armed conflict. This article offers a framework for achieving this non-traditional support from the U.S. military: First, the United States should leverage its military manpower to legally support non-military competition activities. Second, the U.S. military should establish a forward-deployed headquarters to command and control the military’s involvement in competition. Finally, the senior military officer in this competition-focused headquarters should be charged with synchronizing operations in the information environment.

Providing Military Support to Competition

Although there are many definitions, competition is generally viewed as fundamental to international relations. To effectively compete, though, one must develop a thorough understanding of the competition. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the pinnacle of Sun Tzu’s “win without fighting” maxim is not determining the fate of a battle before it is fought; the true measure of excellence is to never even do battle because one’s aims were wholly achieved without conflict.

Recognizing that its competitors seek to achieve their revisionist aims below the threshold of armed conflict, the U.S. military must adapt its deterrence strategies to counter illegal gray zone operations. Deterrence by denial, defined as elevating the probability of operational failure, likely has a greater chance of succeeding in the gray zone than deterrence by punishment, such as taking retaliatory action. To effect deterrence by denial in the gray zone, the U.S. military should enable its interagency and international partners to counter the illicit activity that often underpins gray zone strategies.

Countering malign behavior has many faces: U.S. allies upholding their own sovereignty, partner nations protecting their economic livelihood, and the U.S. government imposing economic sanctions are all examples of ways to achieve competition’s strategic ends. In spite of their critical role in opposing illicit gray zone activities, though, the agencies that confront malign behavior often lack the manpower to reach the point of taking action. Manning shortfalls, exacerbated by the expansive size of the Indo-Pacific, leave the U.S. military’s interagency and international partners unable to muster adequate back-end support for their efforts, such as maintaining robust intelligence pictures or gathering actionable evidence of malign activity.

The U.S. Department of Defense, on the other hand, is more adequately manned for the task of competing in the Indo-Pacific. For example, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command alone has approximately 375,000 military and civilian personnel assigned to its area of responsibility. In contrast, the U.S. Department of State employs only 70,000 individuals throughout the world, and the New Zealand Defence Force is just over 15,000 strong. So, while the U.S. military’s interagency and international partners lack the manpower to identify and track gray zone activity, nearly two decades of asymmetric conflict has left the U.S. military manned, trained, and equipped to provide precisely the type of back-end intelligence and logistical support its partners require. Any manpower that the U.S. military contributes to these partners is likely to have outsized impacts on their ability to compete and counter gray zone actions.

It should be clarified that supporting competition cannot detract from the U.S. military’s lethality, a unique capability it alone provides. Therefore, like any effective strategy, efforts to counter gray zone operations should be focused on the most important and attainable objectives. Careful consideration should be given to preserving the “means” of the U.S. military to protect national security: its combat power. However, supporting competition and retaining combat power are not mutually exclusive. For example, many of the skills required to perform maritime governance, such as fusing multi-source intelligence data or finding and fixing maritime vessels, directly translate to combat operations. Activities supporting competition can and should be used to build operator proficiency, while simultaneously contributing to deterrence by demonstrating credible military power in the region.

A Competition-Focused Command

To synchronize the U.S. military’s support to competition and maintain awareness of the collective risk acceptance, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command should consider establishing a competition-focused headquarters west of the International Date Line. This headquarters would provide the unity of command required to develop the foreign, joint, and diplomatic partnerships needed to compete with a state actor seeking to undermine regional stability. 

Some will view a headquarters west of the International Date Line as incurring too much risk of escalation, but the opposite is more likely true. The U.S. military will be unable to deter illicit gray zone activities without accepting some risk, as a willingness to accept risk demonstrates commitment to one’s adversary. Accepting greater risk does not mean the United States should condone or take wanton action, though, as disparate or conflicting actions could elevate the risk of unintentional or inadvertent escalation. Instead, risk acceptance should be carefully considered for the confluence of the U.S. military’s efforts to support competition. Establishing a forward headquarters, then, directly addresses the issue of risk: it would demonstrate commitment to the United States’ competitors while maintaining a complete picture of the military’s support to competition, thereby decreasing the risk of escalation.

The ideal structure for this organization would be a Combined Joint Interagency Task Force (CJIATF) led by a senior civilian, with a 3-star general or flag officer serving as deputy, and possessing a cabinet of experienced foreign policy advisors and liaison officers. To ensure a “forward mindset”, the CJIATF should be positioned in Guam, Australia, or Palau, and staffed by a mix of deployed and permanent personnel. Such a construct will provide responsive command and control for regional competition, increasing the U.S. military’s ability to support competition while freeing other units to maintain their focus on conventional mission sets and traditional strategic deterrence.

There are many factors that make a CJIATF the ideal choice to serve as the nexus of military support to competition. First, joint task forces provide a “single mission focus” with the ability to “integrate forces…in a dynamic and challenging political environment.” They also foster “de facto interdependence” through an environment of mutual reliance on their members’ contributions. The “combined” and “interagency” modifiers emphasize the need to include a wide variety of partners within this joint task force—partners that should range from U.S. government agencies to a host of international liaison officers.

To effectively navigate the complex requirements of providing military support to external entities, the CJIATF should employ a blend of traditional and novel concepts. For example, the “by, with, and through” approach translates well to competition. Although more commonly associated with armed conflict, this approach offers an outline for orchestrating interagency and international cooperation: The CJIATF strives for actions performed by its partners, with the support of U.S. forces, and through a legal and diplomatic framework. Such an approach would allow the U.S. military to support a wide range of partner actions, while still abiding by international law and applicable U.S. Code. 

Competition demands exactly the kind of interagency and international cooperation that a joint task force promotes. As the stakes of competition continue to rise with tensions following suit, detailed integration between the military, government agencies, and partner nations remains the best hope for diminishing the risk of conflict. Avoiding conflict while preserving the rules-based international order should be considered success in today’s competition, and a CJIATF is uniquely capable of supporting this objective.

Information-Related Synchronization

In addition to enabling partner actions, the CJIATF will need to grapple with the fact that all competition efforts are inexorably tied to the information environment. Instant communication and weaponized social media offer ample opportunity for competitive exploitation, and they present considerable risk of inadvertent escalation. Additionally, misinformation and deep fakes now offer low-cost means to wreak societal havoc with ambiguous attribution. 

Despite some documented success, the United States has struggled to develop a unified understanding of information operations. Difficulty preventing exploitation, such as Russian interference in U.S. elections or Chinese industrial espionage, creates a perception of information vulnerability—a setback the United States must rectify. To fix this, consideration of information operations needs to move from garrison staff, academia, and think tanks to the operational realm. The role of every warfighter has changed: You are no longer simply “doing land operations, you’re doing an information operation in the land domain.” 

The connection between competition and information makes the CJIATF’s responsibilities inherently information-centric. Therefore, in addition to enabling its partners to compete, the CJIATF must also synchronize information operations in support of competition. This focus on gaining advantage in the battle for information dominance makes the CJIATF’s senior military officer a logical choice to serve as the first Joint Force Information Component Commander (JFICC).

The JFICC is a novel approach to the battle-tested functional component commander construct. Commanders designate a subordinate functional component commander to establish unity of command and unity of effort for operations in a specific domain (i.e., there are normally separate component commanders for operations on land, at sea, in the air, etc.). This type of domain-specific synchronization is precisely what the United States needs to overcome its previous setbacks in the information environment. Additionally, operations can have significant effects in the information environment regardless of the domain they are executed in, and the inverse is also true: Actions in the information environment can have real-world impacts in physical domains

To manage this cross-domain interaction, the JFICC needs to synchronize the projected effects of all efforts in the region. This robust requirement, combined with the move towards all-domain operations, means the JFICC must be able to deploy their information-related capabilities as a demonstrable force, in line with the forces operating in the other domains. They will then need the authority and capacity to mass this force in support of decisive action. Designating the CJIATF commander as the JFICC directly addresses this requirement by placing “the responsibility and authority for execution of the decisive [information] tasks under a commander vice under a staff officer.”

Although it is non-doctrinal for a joint force commander to serve as a functional component commander, there is some precedent for this: A Special Operations Joint Task Force commander may also serve as the Joint Force Special Operations Component Commander. Comparing special operations forces with information-related capabilities turns out to be rather effective, as neither “own” physical battlespace, neither historically have a dedicated service component, and both often operate below the level of armed conflict.

Any future JFICC will likely be faced with an extraordinarily complex all-domain problem, and will be able to directly impact national strategic objectives. Experience is the best teacher, and the U.S. military should capitalize on the opportunity to advance its ability to operate in the information environment by employing the first JFICC below the threshold of armed conflict. Doing so will provide valuable insight into the dyad of operating in the physical domain and information environment simultaneously—a fundamental challenge of all-domain operations. 

Competition is Not a Nine-to-Five Job

To realize its strategic aims, the United States must make a concerted effort to align its means and ways to achieve its ends, building upon its strengths while improving its deficiencies. Supporting interagency and international partners where command and control resides with a new headquarters commanded by a novel functional component commander presents formidable challenges, but it is precisely the economy-of-force option the United States needs to better compete now. This structure aligns with strategic guidance from the highest levels of the U.S. Government, and it could eventually serve as an example for other theaters to emulate, such as U.S. Africa Command.

Finally, a subtle but crucial aspect of implementing this construct is that it acknowledges the gray zone operating environment for what it is: a contest of wills without violence. Left unchecked, these gray zone strategies could lead to a Tzu-esque defeat of the rules-based international order before Clausewitzian force is ever used. With this recognition, the U.S. military must shift its approach to competition from a “nine-to-five” business model and begin applying effort commensurate with traditional military operations.

Utilizing the U.S. military to support competition will likely be difficult and often uncomfortable. Additionally, establishing another forward-deployed headquarters will require both personal sacrifice and significant monetary commitment, and appointing a new functional component commander will challenge traditional military thought. There is, however, something much worse than these changes: failure to levy the existing force against today’s challenges with the hope that tomorrow’s force will be more capable of achieving success. Hope is not a viable course of action when national security is at stake.

As put forth in The Elements of the China Challenge, the United States needs to mobilize the global forces who ascribe to the existing world order and are willing to defend it, keeping one aim in mind: securing freedom. The forward-mindset and combined, interagency nature of this supporting approach will do exactly that: ensure the United States’ efforts align with and support the strategic interests of its partners in the Indo-Pacific. This paradigm shift could be the rallying cry that unites a constellation of allies and partners to form the whole-of-society approach this contest will require. The time for action is now; the world order we know depends on it.

 Major Ryan “Bevo” Ratcliffe is an EA-6B Electronic Countermeasures Officer and a Forward Air Controller in the United States Marine Corps, currently assigned to I MEF Information Group. He will begin pursuing a Master of International Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in August 2021.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.

Featured image: A JH-7 fighter bomber attached to a naval aviation brigade under the PLA Northern Theater Command taxies on the runway with drogue parachute during a flight training exercise in early January, 2021. ( by Duan Yanbing)

A Tale of Two Seas: The Caribbean and South China Sea in Great Power Perspective

By Akshat Patel

The South China Sea is to China as the Caribbean Sea is to the United States. Just as the United States repeatedly thwarted European powers from the Caribbean throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, China intends to thwart an American presence in the South China Sea in this century.1 In 1962, the ambitions of two superpowers reached a crescendo in the form of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Along the same lines, the ambitions of two of today’s great powers are resulting in skirmishes across the South China Sea. In the same way that the clash in the Caribbean was a deciding factor in who the victor of the Cold War would be, American maritime superiority will be decided in large part by who the reigning power in the South China Sea will be.

The parallels between Soviet-U.S. relations vis-à-vis the Caribbean and China-U.S. relations vis-à-vis the South China Sea are as striking as they are instructive. The Red Navy’s mistakes in its transatlantic ventures serve as salutary course corrections for the U.S. Navy’s transpacific undertakings today.

Then, as Now

By the twentieth century, the United States had established itself as the dominant power in the Americas. Politically stable and economically vibrant, the United States overshadowed the smaller republics of the Caribbean. Blessed with two adjacent oceans and two peaceful neighbors, the United States was virtually immune to a land-based invasion. The only way for a foreign power to establish a foothold in the American hemisphere was through the Caribbean. While “the Caribbean was the natural maritime extension of the continental United States, it was also the part of America’s security environment most vulnerable to European attack,” notes Robert Kaplan, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.2

In October of 1962, the Soviet Union attempted to exploit this potential American vulnerability through Cuba. The Soviets wanted to establish a naval base and station land-based nuclear missiles on the island nation. President Kennedy ordered an embargo around Cuba to expunge Soviet ambitions from the Caribbean and compelled Khrushchev to blink in the ultimate staring contest. In exchange for withdrawing nuclear missiles from Cuba, the Soviets extracted a public promise to not invade Cuba and a private promise to withdraw American nuclear missiles from Turkey.3 Both sides avoided direct conflict by reaching an agreement that neither desired. The Soviets surrendered their Caribbean aspirations and the United States surrendered its Cuban advances. 

China enjoys many of the same benefits of geography as the United States. Surrounded by natural barriers to aggression such as frigid Siberia, the Gobi Desert, the impenetrable Himalayas, and the lush forests of Vietnam and Laos, China is largely shielded from terrestrial attack. Just like the United States, China’s vulnerability is to the southeast. Not only do most Chinese live near the coast, but the South China Sea serves as their primary economic lifeline.4 The straits of Malacca, Makassar, Sunda, and Luzon all pour into the South China Basin and control both China’s energy supplies from the Middle East and its exports to the West.5 Just as the Caribbean is littered with small island nations eclipsed by a colossal United States, the South China Sea is peppered with littoral states over which China casts a large shadow.

The fallout over control of an American sea of 1.5 million square miles foreshadowed the rest of that great-power competition – the Cold War. Similarly, the contest for an Asian sea of comparable proportions will act as a bellwether for the great-power competition taking place today. Five claimants occupy almost 70 different atolls and have built more than 90 different outposts in the South China Sea.6 With 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands, 7 in the Spratly Islands, and 3,200 acres of newly constructed land, China is by far the most aggressive player in the area.7 Malaysian, Philippine, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese maritime claims have been brushed to the wayside while China charges forward to secure its “blue national soil.”8 China is aware of its vulnerability to the southeast and stands to gain immensely by shielding against it. By turning the South China Sea into a Chinese enclave, Beijing would not only safeguard the lives and livelihood of its citizens, but would also create a strategic disadvantage for the United States. The South China Sea is a conduit linking the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and Chinese control of that critical juncture would jeopardize American maritime dominance. Lucrative global trade routes would cease to be international common grounds and the redoubts of allied nations would fall under a Chinese penumbra. American merchants would be subject to harassment by the Chinese coast guard and the U.S. Navy would no longer be able to crisscross the Indo-Pacific theater with impunity.

To circumvent China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea, American naval policy is rightly learning from Soviet efforts. By maintaining naval bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam while simultaneously encouraging a naval buildup in Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, the United States is building a multilateral coalition to check Chinese forays into the Pacific.9 As the Soviet Union attempted to tamp down American influence in the Americas through Cuba, the United States is curbing Chinese influence in Asia through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations.

Empowering the Right Platform

When Che Guevara expressed concern at the Soviet gambit in the Caribbean, Soviet Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky replied, “There will be no big reaction from the U.S. side.”10 The Soviet defense minister expected little retaliation from the United States because, as he viewed it, he was exercising soft power by bringing Cuba into the fold. As the term “Cold War” reminds us, neither side was ever interested in a full-fledged, direct, violent conflict; instead, the Cold War was a great-power competition in which both sides tried to undermine the other through maximum power projection while suffering minimal losses. To project this power, the Soviets wanted to permanently station an entire fleet in the Caribbean: two cruisers, four destroyers, eleven diesel electric submarines, and two submarine tenders.11 But, at the last minute, the Soviets changed their plans. Instead, they sent forth four covert Foxtrot-class diesel submarines as the vanguard of the Red Fleet.12

The reigning Soviet naval doctrine prioritized submarines over surface ships. In 1956, Khrushchev stated that “submarines were the most suitable naval weapon and they would receive emphasis in the future development of the Soviet Navy.”13 As a result, new construction of major surface vessels was virtually terminated under his premiership.14 According to a 2017 CIA analysis of the Soviet Navy, “Khrushchev declared surface naval forces…no longer useful and predicted they would soon become obsolete.”15 Motivated by advances in technology, the Soviets wanted to reduce overall military manpower and costs by replacing a large surface fleet with a more effective, smaller submarine fleet.16 In other words, they prioritized a denser more capable force over a more numerous, less capable one.

By attempting a transatlantic overture to the Caribbean, the Soviets made the right geopolitical decision. By sending submarines, they made the wrong tactical decision. Submarines are mobile, undersea intelligence gatherers packed with brutish lethality. They are about “sheer aggression,” not power projection.17 They are best suited to spy and wreak havoc, not as conspicuous icons of power. By deploying covert submarines to the Caribbean, the Soviets were guaranteed to alarm Americans and provoke a strong response. President Kennedy ordered a maximum Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) effort to track and surface the submarines.18 The Soviets were not harmlessly posturing by deploying submarines within sailing distance of Florida while simultaneously stationing land based nuclear missiles at America’s doorstep. They were committing an act of belligerence that the Unites States met with force. The Atlantic Fleet mobilized to detect and ferret out the furtive aggressors. As Defense Minister Malinovsky’s comment suggests, the bold step to Cuba was never supposed to culminate into the hair-raising crisis that it did. His intention was to assert Soviet dominance without causing an international scene. This is exactly the United States’ objective in the South China Sea today.

To maintain American primacy in the South China Sea, Chinese maritime ambitions must be curtailed without devolving into the grand standoff that occurred in the Caribbean. Submarines should not be the U.S. Navy’s primary tools in this great-power competition. Because of the raw aggression that submarines communicate, they are ill-suited for missions that display military power and best suited for missions that exercise military power. The surface fleet’s strengths are altogether opposite.

Aircraft carriers, simultaneously symbols of national power and of national prestige, are excellent tools for communicating power, but a ruinously costly platform to lose.19 Losing a symbol of national pride would deal irreparable damage to the national psyche. The U.S. Navy must look to its destroyers and cruisers as the primary combatants of this great-power competition. While not as awe-inspiring as an aircraft carrier, they are still an excellent form of communication. The U.S. Navy has rightly increased destroyer and cruiser freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, and it must continue this upward trajectory.20 By regularly challenging expansive Chinese claims, Washington must continue to signal Beijing that the South China Sea is not a Chinese lake. Frequent FONOPs through contested sea lanes go much farther in projecting maritime strength, communicating intentions, and deterring aggression than stealthy submarine deployments. To do this effectively, and not repeat Soviet mistakes, the United States needs a larger surface fleet.

The battle of ‘capability vs. numbers’ is a perennial struggle that has haunted the minds of American naval policy wonks for decades. Examined holistically, there is a clear winner. “The trend towards fewer, more capable ships is both unarguable and . . . inexorable,” notes Admiral John Ellis, former Commander of United States Strategic Command.21 Over the past twenty-five years, the number of ships in the U.S. Navy has decreased by nearly half while the demands placed on the American fleet remain the same.22 “Today, that means twice the percentage of the fleet is deployed than was at the height of the Cold War,” notes ex-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead.23 At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office recently determined that the Navy is only able to fulfill 60 percent of deployments requested by combatant commanders.24 In short, at some point, numbers do matter. Simple math dictates that if the U.S. Navy has fewer ships, either they need to be deployed more often or they must be asked to execute fewer missions. The Navy must stem its unrelenting pursuit of a leaner, cutting-edge fleet. Naval budgeteers must be willing to substitute a pricey aircraft carrier for a dozen more destroyers or cruisers. Vulnerable aircraft-carriers and stealthy submarines will not be the heroes that secure American maritime superiority, it will be destroyers and cruisers.

Together, not Alone

The Cuban missile crisis of 58 years ago stands as the most studied event of the nuclear era—so much so that there are essays about why we should stop writing essays about it.25 Yet, until fall 2002, American national security experts were not aware that the four Foxtrot-class diesel submarines deployed to Cuba had been armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes.26 The CIA’s four intelligence reports on Soviet arms buildup leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis categorically ruled out the presence of nuclear weapons in the Caribbean.27 Instead of preparing Americans for the possibility of nuclear catastrophe, intelligence reports based on complacent assumptions made the discovery of this fact all the more shocking. In short, the Soviet Union caught the United States flat-footed.

Handicapped by the technology of the time and oblivious to the presence of tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. Navy decided to release a Notice to Mariners (NTM) detailing how depth charges would be used to peacefully signal the submarines to surface. Moscow never sent an acknowledgement of receiving the NTM.29 Upon detecting the nuclear torpedo laden B-59, American naval forces started dropping depth charges in accordance with the NTM. Unaware of American intentions, suffering from inhospitable conditions and agitated by the subsurface explosions, Captain Savitsky gave the order to ready the nuclear torpedo: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not become the shame of the fleet.”30 It is because cooler heads prevailed on the B-59 that day that the Caribbean was not subject to a nuclear explosion. Second Captain Vasily Arkhipov overruled Captain Savitsky and prevented the opening shot of a nuclear war.

Now as then, complacency continues to surprise and compel the United States into ad hoc, reactive measures. In 2012, both China and the Philippines swarmed a collection of rocks and reefs known as Scarborough Shoal. Up until then, both countries claimed the Shoal as theirs, but it was under de facto Philippine control. 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese land mass and 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, the Scarborough Shoal episode exemplifies China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.31 To mediate their dispute, the United States hastily brokered a bilateral agreement for both sides to retreat and, in effect, return control to the Philippines. Only one side held to its word. China used the agreement to deceive the Philippines into retreating while maintaining its presence. Without American reprisal or condemnation, China has since then controlled Scarborough Shoal.

The United States must not let the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) bully China’s neighbors. Unlike Khrushchev’s about-face with Castro, the United States must stand steadfast beside its allies. Despite increased FONOPs in the South China Sea, a recent public opinion poll of ASEAN citizens indicated that almost two-thirds of respondents believed U.S. engagement with ASEAN nations had declined. Another one-third said they had little to no confidence in the U.S. as a strategic partner and provider of regional security.32 The United States must reaffirm its commitment to the South China region through military sales, combined exercises, and economic empowerment. It is much harder to reverse a change in the status quo than to maintain it through deterrence. By turning the cause of American maritime dominance into a multilateral quest, China’s unilateral offensives will be rendered moot. 

One More Time

The Soviet Union was not defeated through armed conflict; it was defeated through persistent coercion. As the United States negotiates its presence in the South China Sea, and by extension its maritime dominance, it must rely on the same strategy that overwhelmed the Soviet Union while not resurrecting Soviet mistakes. The Soviet decision to forsake their surface fleet and their allies precipitated their withdrawal from the Caribbean, which in turn forecasted their global retreat and eventual downfall. The United States must simultaneously lean on its surface fleet and its ASEAN allies to maintain its position as the bailiff of the world’s saltwater commons.

Sun Tzu pithily remarked that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. We have done it once before, now we must do it again.

LT Akshat Patel is a Submarine Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense. 


1. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (W. W. Norton, New York, 2001), 401.

2. Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: the South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2015), 278.

3. Noam Chomsky, “Cuban Missile Crisis: How the US Played Russian Roulette with Nuclear War,” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, October 15, 2012,

4. George Friedman, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (New York: Random House, 2009), 153.

5. Ibid.

6. “Occupation and Island Building,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic and International Studies), accessed April 25, 2020,

7. “China Island Tracker,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Center for Strategic and International Studies), accessed April 25, 2020,

8. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 60.

9. Ibid., 75.

10. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:2 (April 2005): 236, doi: 10.1080/01402390500088312.

11. Raymond Garthoff, “New Evidence on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Khrushchev, Nuclear Weapons, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cold War International History Bulletin 11 (Winter 1998): 253.

12. Ryurik A Ketov, Captain 1st Rank, Russian Navy (retired), “The Cuban Missile Crisis as Seen Through a Periscope,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28:2 (April 2005): 218, doi: 10.1080/01402390500088304.

13. Soviet Navy: Intelligence and Analysis During the Cold War (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017), 12.

14. Ibid., 7.

15. Ibid., 12.

16. Ibid., 8.

17. Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron, 71.

18. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 249.

19. “Aircraft-carriers are big, expensive, vulnerable – and popular,” The Economist, November 2019; Jeff Vandenengel, “Too Big to Sink,” Proceedings, May 2017.

20. Zack Cooper et al. “America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations Are Lost at Sea,” Foreign Policy, January 2019.

21. James O. Ellis, Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired), “Rightsize the Navy,” Hoover Digest (Summer 2018): 49.

22. Gary Roughead, Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired), “A Stretched Navy and A Fiscal Disconnect” Strategika 47 (January 2018).

23. Ibid.

24. Ellis, “Rightsize the Navy,” 51.

25. Eliot A. Cohen, “Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Interest, Winter 1985/86.

26. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

27. Amy B. Zegart, “October Surprises,” Hoover Digest (Fall 2013): 50.

28. Svetlana V Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 249.

29. Ibid., 250.

30. Ibid., 246.

31. Gordon G. Chang, “A China Policy That Works – For America” Strategika 41 (May 2017).

32. Jack Kim et al. “Southeast Asia wary of China’s Belt and Road project, skeptical of U.S.: survey,” last modified January 6, 2019,

Featured Image: A P2V Neptune U.S. patrol plane flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)