Category Archives: Strategy

A New Maritime Strategy, Part 3 — Process As Product

Read Part One, Part Two.

By Robert C. Rubel

The more deeply one thinks about strategy the harder it is to pin down exactly what it is. This problem is more than an academic musing when it comes to the Navy. The Navy routinely publishes documents that it calls strategy, but these vary widely in form and focus, and in any case are the result of different processes, so much so that it is hard to recognize some as actual strategy. In her recent CIMSEC article Congresswoman Elain Luria contends that the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act “effectively ended U.S. naval strategy.” What she means is that if one regards strategy as a plan for defeating an enemy, then the Navy no longer has a role in developing such plans, a marked difference from the early 1980s when the Navy developed its Maritime Strategy, a global plan for confronting the Soviet Union in a conventional war. Without such a plan, she contends, the Navy’s budgets are built on a foundation of sand.  If so, the Navy’s current strategic document Advantage at Sea is an insufficient guide to force development. In parts one and two of this series of articles I discussed the factors that would influence the content of a new maritime strategy of the sort Congresswoman Luria calls for. In this article I will discuss the process of strategy, focused on the Navy’s case.

In 1981 Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward established the Strategic Studies Group (SSG) and the Center for Naval Warfare Studies (CNWS) at the Naval War College to advance the quality of strategic thinking in the Navy. From its founding up until World War II the College had a major influence on Navy strategy and force development. In the case of the Maritime Strategy, reports from the SSG and the results of the Global Wargame series held at Newport provided significant inputs and support. The Maritime Strategy originated with Admiral Hayward’s Sea Strike strategy when he commanded Seventh Fleet. That nugget of an idea was then expanded, briefed, argued over, coordinated, modified and ultimately formalized over the course of six years. Importantly, it gained the support of both the Secretary of the Navy and President Reagan, leading to the creation of the “600 Ship Navy.”

In early July 2006 Vice Admiral John Morgan, then the Navy’s Deputy CNO for Operations and Strategy, visited the Naval War College to receive a brief on its proposed process for developing a new maritime strategy document as called for two weeks previously by then-CNO Admiral Mike Mullen. As the newly-designated Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies I was tasked to design and lead that project. I briefed the Admiral as we slowly motored around Newport Harbor in the College’s “barge.” Morgan stressed to me before the brief that he wanted a broadly collaborative process, various stakeholders such as industry and fleet units being involved. The underlying purpose of the new strategy was to somehow elicit greater international cooperation on maritime security.

After I finished my brief, Morgan said “Okay, do it.” I then asked him if I could invite international officers to participate in the development process. He thought for a moment and then said yes. At that point I responded “Okay, Admiral, do you understand that you have just selected the strategy and everything from here on out is execution?” He smiled and said yes, he understood. From that point forward, process and product merged in the development of the 2007 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21). Achieving increased international naval cooperation required developing greater levels of trust, and giving other nations a voice in the Navy’s new strategy was a key part of the mechanism. A nine month program of workshops, games and international consultations followed. The formal document, announced at the 2007 International Seapower Symposium, although entitled a strategy, was actually a tool to advance the underlying strategy of courting international cooperation. In the years afterward international maritime security cooperation mushroomed. However, a new template for fleet architecture to execute the strategy, which originated with a strategy option submitted by Prof. Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School, was ignored by the Navy’s resource directorate. It would have created a “bi-modal” fleet that contained a large number of smaller, single purpose ships in addition to the traditional large combatants.

Concurrently with the CS21 development process Vice Admiral Morgan worked on creating a formalized strategy development process for the Navy Staff. It reflected a desire to make strategy development a collaborative process both within and external to the Navy Staff. The result was codified into a draft instruction but opposition from the Resources Directorate (N8) killed it and it resides, unsigned and forgotten, in some file drawer in the Pentagon. I later asked the chief analyst in N8 how they incorporated Navy strategy documents into their budget preparations. He responded that they didn’t; they developed their own strategies. Thus from an organizational perspective, budget and strategy development were isolated from each other.

Fast forward to 2011 when Admiral Jonathan Greenert became Chief of Naval Operations. He, like many naval officers, were not satisfied with CS21 because they felt it had insufficient emphasis on warfighting. He wanted a “refresh” of the 2007 document; that is, a rewording to insert more traditional Navy emphasis on high end combat. The revised document was supposed to be issued within a month or so of him taking office. N51, the strategy shop, came to NWC and asked us to do a rewrite. I initially refused, saying that we were a research organization not a staff. However they reminded me that we were a Navy organization and bound to respond to OPNAV requests, so I set my faculty to work. We produced what I thought was a decent draft, the watchword being first do no harm to the international political capital CS21 had generated. This draft disappeared into the bowels of N3N5 never to be seen again.

The admiral in charge of N5 decided that his folks, i.e. the occasional available captain, would do the rewrite. The process of wordsmithing dragged on within the cubicles of the Navy Staff until March 2015. At one point I received a phone call from a commander on the Navy Staff who wanted the working papers from the 2006 project. It seemed that when they briefed version 12 (!) to the VCNO, Admiral Michelle Howard, she asked why the document said what it did and they did not have a good answer. Eventually, at a Naval Institute-sponsored conference in Washington, DC, Senator Ayotte of Maryland, responding to a question about who the audience for a new strategy should be, answered Congress. This broke the logjam and eventually the Navy issued the “refresh” to CS21 (CS21R), which turned out to be a pleading document to Congress for a larger fleet. Despite being a well-written justification for increasing the Navy’s size, it had no influence.

These case studies reveal several things that are key to a successful strategy development process. The first is that a document is not a strategy; rightly understood a strategy is an idea for solving a problem. The idea behind the Maritime Strategy was to intimidate the Soviets by aggressive forward presence operations. The idea behind CS21 was to court foreign cooperation by bringing them into the strategy development process. Both were solutions to global strategy problems that involved the unified world ocean. Congresswoman Luria defines it as the way military means are used to achieve political ends. The respective documents, the Maritime Strategy’s various classified briefs and ultimately the unclassified Proceedings Article, and the CS21 document itself, were tools to aid in the execution of the strategy or to garner support for it. In contrast, the CS21R document was meant to be the strategy; a document meant to gain Congressional support for a larger fleet, with no strategic problem solution underpinning it.  Wordsmithing does not constitute strategy development. The upshot is that for practical purposes, strategy for the Navy should be an idea for solving a strategic problem that involves the world ocean. By strategic I mean what Congresswoman Luria means; using the Navy’s forces to achieve desired international political effects.

The second thing is how the Navy arrives at the central idea. A small group of officers brainstorming in a cypher-locked Pentagon office might produce a viable idea, and sometimes this approach is necessary, but it appears that wide collaboration has had more success. Moreover, strategic problems are generally multi-faceted and hard to grasp, so extensive research and gaming should be used to explore, refine, and finally articulate the problem. The Navy could certainly benefit from having a cadre of officers specially educated and experienced in strategy development, but that does not mean that the development process should take place exclusively within the Navy Staff. The connecting link between the two successful strategy cases just described is the Naval War College. The institutional context within which the research, gaming and thought that supports strategy development is important, and the College’s academic culture and ability to collaborate makes it the appropriate place for such activity to take place, even if the Navy Staff has ultimate responsibility for selecting the strategy and crafting any briefings and documents. Other venues such as think tanks or the Navy Staff itself lack complete objectivity for various reasons, and despite Congresswoman Luria’s advocating for the 2017 CSBA study, a blank slate is needed for the new maritime strategy project.

All of this begs the question of whether strategy development ought to somehow be formalized and institutionalized per Admiral Morgan’s ill-fated effort or whether it should be ad hoc, responding to the particular circumstances of the time. This writer favors the latter approach, although the history of War Plan Orange, the strategy for defeating Japan in the Pacific, suggests the former. As it stands, the Navy would be well-advised to initiate an ad hoc project at this point, even though it has, with the stand-up of the new N7 directorate, created an organizational home for strategy development whose authorities reach into the analysis and resource arenas. The smart move for N7 would be to act as a strategy development sponsor, absorbing and integrating the War College’s research and gaming efforts as well as think tanks such as the Center for Naval Analyses and perhaps those outside Navy lifelines like CSBA. As described by writers like Trent Hone and John Kuehn, the other empowering element of Navy strategy development during the years from the turn of the Twentieth Century up to World War II was the continuing relationship between the Naval War College, the Fleet, and the Navy Staff. As War Plan Orange demonstrated, iteration is a path toward better strategy, and N7 is well positioned to promote a coherent flow of thinking and rethinking of strategy among the relevant institutions and thereby informing Navy budgets, doctrine and shipbuilding plans.

I must agree with Congresswoman Luria’s complaints about the structure of the Unified Command Plan and its strategy development process. American military power, and especially its seapower, has become a scarce resource relative to the demands of the U.S. grand strategy of supporting and defending a rules-based, global liberal trading order. When resources become scarce, centralized planning is needed to ensure their efficient distribution. It is dangerous to simply mete out scarcity equally among the COCOMs, which is apparently all the current system is capable of. Moreover, as the current debacle in Afghanistan again demonstrates, throwing policy problems over the transom to the military that should rightly be handled by State, Commerce, and the other Cabinet departments, produces mindless overreach and ultimate tragedy. The Navy has, from time to time, had to step in and solve strategic problems that in theory should have been handled by either the Joint Staff or the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but neither was either capable or interested. The current problem that spawned Congresswoman Luria’s article – the looming loss of American command of the sea – is global, strategic and maritime, and apparently the Navy is the only organization capable of coming up with an idea – a strategy – for how to solve it. But to do so, the Navy must learn from both its past successes and failures and put into motion a rational process for developing a new maritime strategy.

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: STRAIT OF HORMUZ (Aug. 4, 2021) The Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) transits the Strait of Hormuz, Aug. 4, 2021.  (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Logan Kaczmarek)

Beyond Defense: America’s Past and Future Interests at Sea

By Jimmy Drennan

The ongoing supply chain crisis is a sobering reminder that American maritime interests have always been about more than national defense. The U.S. Coast Guard traces its lineage to an 18th century Treasury Department service charged with tariff enforcement. Over time, its mission evolved and expanded, while the U.S. built the world’s foremost Navy and formed myriad other agencies to secure its broad maritime interests. In the 21st century, China’s ambitious bid to reinvent the way a nation can exploit the high seas and define multifaceted maritime interests has emerged as a tangible threat to America’s future. This threat demands a new approach to maritime security and prosperity.

In the next decade, the balance between the U.S. and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navies will be pivotal in defending the concept of freedom of the seas, likely without even firing a shot. Throughout its history, the U.S. Navy has ranged from six to 6,768 ships. By most estimates, the current fleet of 299 battle force ships is about 100-200 short of what America needs to secure its national interests, and navalists are dusting off old theories to convince Congress of the value of seapower.

From Barbary Pirates to the Great White Fleet, or to strategic confrontation with the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy has been integral not only in ensuring America’s security in wartime, but also its prosperity in peacetime. The 2020 U.S. Tri-Service Maritime Strategy1 echoes 19th century strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan when it states that the naval service’s peacetime missions include “safeguarding global commerce” and “extending American influence.”2 In fact, Mahan’s philosophy even suggests that navies serve a primarily economic purpose. If the U.S. Navy’s mission goes beyond national defense, it is unlikely to be adequately resourced in a parent department that seeks to equitably distribute funds across all other military branches. Meanwhile, China’s recent naval buildup – tripling to around 360 battle force ships in the last 20 years – is possibly not meant to defeat America in a war at sea, but to serve as a credible deterrent force to underwrite the various economic and coercive aspects of its maritime strategy.

America should reconceive how it leverages and secures its territorial waters, trade routes, and the high seas. The history of America’s tangled maritime bureaucracy offers insight to how it can answer China’s challenge.

From Cutters to Committees: America’s Maritime Heritage

As the Navy steadily cemented its role as the primary guarantor of America’s maritime interests, other federal maritime entities grew and evolved, primarily through two institutions: the Coast Guard and the Merchant Marine.

The U.S. Coast Guard

Long before the United States commanded the world’s largest Navy, America’s leaders recognized the sea as the lifeblood of its economic prosperity. Following the Revolutionary War, the national debt topped $75 million ($2.16 billion in today’s dollars), and import duties on seaborne trade represented the bulk of federal revenue. On August 4th, 1790, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton convinced Congress to commission ten cutters and establish the Revenue-Marine to enforce its tariffs. Hamilton understood the danger of lost revenue from smuggling and piracy, writing to the service’s commanding officers: “It is well known that one of the most extensive cases of illicit trade is that which is here intended to be guarded against – that of unlading goods before the arrival of a vessel into port, in coasters and other small vessels, which convey them clandestinely to land.” For example, in 1756 and 1757, only 16 of 400 chests of tea were imported legally into Philadelphia. In 1763 the British government estimated £700,000 in goods were smuggled into the colonies annually, which equates to about $150 million today. Even a fraction of that loss of revenue would have been devastating to the newly independent nation.

Congress merged the Revenue-Marine (then termed the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service) and U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1915 to establish the Coast Guard as a branch of the armed forces. The Coast Guard would integrate operations with the Navy as economic and military threats overlapped, formally shifting to the Navy Department when Congress declared war in 1917 and 1941. As the Coast Guard assumed other military and navigation support missions, its relationship with Treasury gradually faded. The U.S. Customs Service was originally tasked to oversee the cutter fleet in 1789. The two services jointly collected and enforced the nation’s tariffs, but by the early 20th century, the Customs Service’s border patrol primarily performed these roles. The Coast Guard no longer protected federal revenue when it transferred to the new Department of Transportation (DoT) in 1967. In response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2002 Homeland Security Act moved the Coast Guard under the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for which maritime border security would be a core mission. The Act also rejoined the Coast Guard with customs but kept their functions separate, creating Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under DHS. In fact, under the reorganization, ICE, and later CBP, maintained an Air and Marine Operations division tasked with securing the nation’s maritime borders, which perpetuated bureaucratic fragmentation.

To this day, DHS frames its maritime security mission from a post-9/11 “Global War on Terrorism” perspective. The National Strategy for Maritime Security (NSMS), jointly developed by DHS and the Department of Defense (DoD) in 2004 to better coordinate all federal maritime security efforts, states: “Preeminent among our national security priorities is to take all necessary steps to prevent [weapons of mass destruction] from entering the country and to avert an attack on the homeland.”3 The strategy, which has not been updated, does not fathom the rise of China. It anchors all threats, including theoretical conflict between unspecified major powers, to the potential for terrorist attacks on the homeland.

The U.S. Merchant Marine

Just as in Hamilton’s time, the U.S. still depends on the sea for its economic health, with over 70 percent of foreign trade, worth more than $1.5 trillion, flowing through the nation’s seaports.4 Modern federal oversight of maritime trade is rooted in the 1916 U.S. Shipping Board, which Congress tasked with boosting American shipping capacity and addressing overreliance on foreign carriers. At the time, about 10 percent of U.S. trade was carried in U.S.-flagged ships.5 Today, that number is less than two percent. In 1933, after successfully supporting the American war effort, the Shipping Board was moved under the Department of Commerce and eventually replaced by the independent U.S. Maritime Commission by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, in part to “promote the commerce of the United States, [and] to aid in the national defense.” In 1950, the commission disbanded and its duties were split between the new Maritime Administration (MARAD) and Federal Maritime Board, both under the Department of Commerce. The Federal Maritime Board became the independent Federal Maritime Commission in 1961, and MARAD transferred to DoT in 1981.

Figure 1. DoT Timeline for Developing a National Maritime Strategy. Click to expand. (Source: GAO Analysis of agency information, GAO-20-78)

In 2004, the Secretary of Transportation chaired the new Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS) to secure and improve America’s infrastructure network of over 8,000 facilities and 25,000 navigable waterways.6 The CMTS maintains a five-year National Strategy for the MTS, last published in 2017. That same year, DoT submitted a separate draft national maritime strategy, which Congress directed in 2014 to make the U.S. maritime industry more competitive. DoT finally released the strategy in 2020 after years of bureaucratic delay (Figure 1).7 The red tape did not stop there. Two additional interagency committees developed national strategies for mapping the 2.25 million square mile U.S. economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and establishing maritime domain awareness.8 Furthermore, the Coast Guard shares responsibility for enforcing fisheries laws in the EEZ with the National Marine Fisheries Service, an element of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce.9

The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 also spawned the U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) to train citizens to serve in the U.S. Merchant Marine, the collective fleet of federally and civilian owned merchant vessels. Over time, authority over the USMS shifted between the U.S. Maritime Commission, the Coast Guard, and DoT. Despite its vital role in Allied victory, the service’s various activities were absorbed by other federal agencies following World War II, while the Secretary of Transportation retained a symbolic cadre of USMS officers.

Today, the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet is administered by a combination of the Navy, MARAD, and private industry. That fleet is obsolete and dwindling. As of 2018, the U.S. owned one percent of the world’s container ship fleet, with an average ship age of 20 years, compared to China and Hong Kong which owned 18 percent with an average age of 10 years.10 U.S.-flagged merchants currently represent 0.4 percent of the world fleet, compared to over 40 percent in 1947. The National Defense Reserve Fleet, a subset of the Merchant Marine, has shrunk to 88 federally-owned merchant vessels maintained to support shipping during national emergencies, down from its peak of 2,277 in 1950.

If current trends persist, the U.S. will increasingly rely on Chinese infrastructure for its seaborne trade and transport, reminiscent of the conditions that led to establishment of the U.S. Shipping Board in the first place.

The Chinese Maritime Challenge

As American maritime bureaucracy meandered, Chinese challenges to the post-World War II international order coalesced. Rather than use the PLA Navy and land-based power projection alone to exercise traditional sea control, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has used the world’s oceans innovatively as part of an economic gray zone strategy11 to intimidate its neighbors and encroach on their sovereignty, undermine customary law of the sea, and avoid open confrontation with the U.S. and allied navies along the way.

From its inception in 1949, the PRC established two key elements of its maritime strategy: the Nine-Dash Line, which mapped Beijing’s claim of sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea (Figure 2); and the Maritime Militia, a loosely controlled fleet of freighters, tankers, and fishing vessels to assist the small PLA Navy in its struggle to prevent Nationalist incursions into mainland China’s territorial waters. China generally followed international maritime norms in the 20th century, ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, but now flouts the prescribed definitions of territorial waters and EEZs in favor of the Nine-Dash Line. Meanwhile, as China’s maritime ambitions grew, the Maritime Militia gained prominence in Chinese doctrine for asserting its sovereignty, sometimes amassing hundreds of militia vessels inside the EEZs of neighboring nations.

Figure 2. Map of the South China Sea, Secretariat of Government of Guangdong Province. January, 1947. Click to expand. (Source: PRC Territory Department of Ministry of the Interior)

A strategic cousin of the Maritime Militia is China’s Distant-Water Fishing (DWF) fleet. In 1985, China had 13 DWF vessels. Today, as many as 17,000 Chinese vessels, far more than any other nation’s fleet, harvest the world’s fisheries, sometimes illegally, to sell their catch at home and abroad.12 China’s growing appetite for fish – forecasted to create a 6-18 million ton domestic shortage by 2030 – will increasingly pressure its DWF fleet to fish inside other nations’ EEZs, with or without their consent.13 Globally, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing accounts for up to $50 billion in lost revenue, and China’s DWF fleet is a growing flashpoint for conflict, particularly as other Asian nations assert their sovereignty in the South China Sea.14 Yet, this is not a problem that the world’s navies alone can address. Although it pushes the envelope on fishing regulations, China seems to set policies for its DWF fleet that comply with internationally accepted standards, such as lining up hundreds of vessels one mile outside a nation’s EEZ (Figure 3). Most nations, including the U.S., are simply unwilling to use military force against fishermen not violating their sovereignty or international law.

Figure 3. Foreign fleet of trawlers lined up outside Argentina’s EEZ. Click to expand. (Source: Daniel M. Coluccio Twitter @DaniMColu)

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s multi-trillion-dollar global infrastructure strategy, seeks to tilt the global economy in Beijing’s favor. Chinese state-owned firms already operate, or hold majority stakes in, the ports of Piraeus, Greece; Haifa, Israel; Gwadar, Pakistan; and Hambantota, Sri Lanka.15 China may or may not try to convert these ports to overseas naval bases, like the one it maintains in Djibouti near the mouth of the Red Sea. Still, one can easily see how leverage over trading partners and logistics hubs could threaten American prosperity in a global economy so heavily dependent on seaborne trade. The 2021 supply chain crisis offers a clear example of what can happen when key links in the chain are unavailable. In addition to owning the world’s largest nationally-flagged merchant fleet by a wide margin, China builds half of the world’s new container ships, and its state-owned shipping firm COSCO is the world’s largest terminal operator, accounting for 14 percent of the world’s container throughput.16 Certain elements of BRI also have maritime implications, such as the Polar Silk Road, which would cut China’s transit distance to Europe by 24 percent using Russia’s Northern Sea Route, and the Digital Silk Road, into which China has invested $79 billion in countries like India, Mexico, and the Philippines to build undersea internet cables and a navigation satellite network.17,18

The U.S. Maritime Department

If China stays in the gray zone and avoids military confrontation, the U.S. will struggle to secure its maritime interests with any number of warships under its current federal structure. In 2007, the U.S. Naval Studies Board formed a committee on the “1,000-Ship Navy” to study the Chief of Naval Operations’ vision of global maritime partnerships. The Committee observed that there is “no single agency or department that can effectively speak for the President and the nation’s maritime concerns. Responsibilities are fragmented. Authority is often exercised but decisions are not coordinated, so the result is less than optimal.” The Committee concluded that a “novel and extraordinary approach is needed to break through the international barriers abroad and interagency barriers at home,” recommending three potential alternatives: improve interagency coordination under existing federal government structure, assign a lead agency, or establish a new agency either under an existing department or standalone (like the Federal Aviation Administration).19 The Committee’s findings have proven prescient, but the recommendations fell short of addressing the economic and diplomatic challenge that China would pose.

Perhaps with the benefit of foresight, the Committee would have made a fourth recommendation: establish a cabinet-level Maritime Department with a mission of integrating applications of national power to ensure maritime security and prosperity.

Figure 4. Proposed composition of U.S. Maritime Department. Click to expand. (Author graphic)

Without bold federal realignment, it is difficult to see how a nation with no less than four independent national maritime strategies can achieve maritime security and prosperity. Before it can even address strategy, the U.S. must learn from history and restructure itself to meet contemporary challenges. In addition to the Bush Administration’s creation of DHS in the wake of 9/11, President Carter created the Department of Energy following the 1973 oil crisis, and President Truman created DoD in 1947 due to military dysfunction after World War II. A Maritime Department would integrate national power in the maritime domain by consolidating the various federal entities responsible for maritime security and prosperity, to include the Coast Guard, MARAD, NOAA, and others (Figure 4). To solve the dilemma of having to adequately resource the Navy’s peacetime missions while maintaining readiness to win the nation’s wars at sea, the Navy may also need to be transferred from DoD, except during a state of war or when supporting Combatant Commanders in overseas contingency operations.

This arrangement is analogous to the current relationship between the Coast Guard and DoD. The notional Maritime Secretary would advocate for the value of American seapower from the perspective of all of its maritime interests, not just national defense. Granted, creating a Maritime Department would not automatically boost much needed funding for the sea services and other maritime entities, but it would enable greater budget flexibility between the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine, essentially pooling their resources to more effectively integrate national security, law enforcement, and commercial activities.

The Two Sides of the Pacific

The contrast between American and Chinese strategic momentum at sea is stark. China’s activities at sea are well integrated facets of a national strategy in full execution, while America’s federal maritime entities progress haphazardly. Prevailing in modern maritime competition requires more than warships and, in any case, America’s heritage of seapower has never been about national defense alone. The Navy is the most capable maritime arm of the U.S. government, but its capacity is being overwhelmed by competing demands to support current military campaigns, prepare for future conflict, and counter China in the gray zone.

Even after properly funding the Navy, the prospect for American maritime interests under the current federal structure is bleak. A focus on military readiness for a conflict that may never come may cause America to sit out of the strategic competition entirely, never clearly seeing China’s national strategy nor developing one of its own. The authors of the “1,000 Ship Navy” report predicted the need for a novel and extraordinary approach to overcome the “quagmire of bureaucratic and political hurdles” they saw, even before seeing the threat China would pose to America’s security and prosperity.20 After 14 years of strategic stagnation on one side of the Pacific and stunning acceleration on the other, the hurdles are even higher. In another 14 years, they may be insurmountable.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the Center for International Maritime Security. His views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.


1. The governing strategic document for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard (collectively, the “naval service”).

2. Braithwaite, Kenneth J., Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, 16 December 2020 (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2020)

3. United States White House Office, The National Strategy for Maritime Security, September 2005, retrieved from, 30 May 2021. The NSMS is separate from the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy.

4. U.S. Committee on the MTS, National Strategy for the MTS: Channeling the Maritime Advantage, 2017-2022. (Washington, DC, 2017), p. 4.

5. Hurley, Edward N., The Bridge to France. (Philadelphia & London: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1927).

6. U.S. Committee on the MTS, National Strategy for the MTS: Channeling the Maritime Advantage, 2017-2022. (Washington, DC, 2017), p. 15.

7. United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Committees on National Maritime Strategy: DOT Is Taking Steps to Obtain Interagency Input and Finalize Strategy. (Washington, DC: GAO, 2020).

8. In 2020, the Ocean Science and Technology Subcommittee of the Ocean Policy Committee, led by NOAA, published a national strategy for mapping, exploring, and characterizing the U.S. EEZ. Separately, the U.S. National MDA Plan is maintained by an executive steering committee consisting of representatives from the National Maritime Intelligence-Integration Office (NMIO) and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Transportation – but excludes NOAA and the Department of Commerce.

9. Garofolo, John, “Protecting America’s Fisheries,” Coast Guard. (Washington, DC: USCG, 1998).

10. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Review of Maritime Transport 2018 (New York: United Nations Publications, 2018).

11. International political competition below the threshold of armed conflict.

12. Gutierrez, Miren, Daniels, Alfonso, Jobbins, Guy, Gutierrez Almazor, Guillermo, Montenegro, Cesar, China’s Distant-water fishing fleet: Scale, impact and governance, ODI Report, June 2020.

13. Crona, B., Wassénius, E., Troell, M., Barclay, K., Mallory, T., China at a Crossroads: An Analysis of China’s Changing Seafood Production and Consumption, One Earth, Perspective, Vol. 3, Issue 1, pp. 32-44, 24 July 2020.

14. Sumaila, U. R., Zeller, D., Hood, L., Palomares, M. L. D., Li, Y., Pauly, D., Illicit trade in marine fish catch and its effects on ecosystems and people worldwide, Science Advances, Vol. 6, No. 9, 26 February 2020.

15. Hillman, Jennifer, Sacks, David, China’s Belt and Road: Implications for the United States, Council on Foreign Relations, Independent Task Force Report No. 79, March 2021.

16. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Review of Maritime Transport 2019 (New York: United Nations Publications, 2019).

17. Albert Buixadé Farré, Scott R. Stephenson, Linling Chen, Michael Czub, Ying Dai, Denis Demchev, Yaroslav Efimov, Piotr Graczyk, Henrik Grythe, Kathrin Keil, Niku Kivekäs, Naresh Kumar, Nengye Liu, Igor Matelenok, Mari Myksvoll, Derek O’Leary, Julia Olsen, Sachin Pavithran.A.P., Edward Petersen, Andreas Raspotnik, Ivan Ryzhov, Jan Solski, Lingling Suo, Caroline Troein, Vilena Valeeva, Jaap van Rijckevorsel & Jonathan Wighting, Commercial Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage: routes, resources, governance, technology, and infrastructure, Polar Geography, 37:4, 298-324, 2014.

18. Deloitte, BRI Update 2019 – recalibration and new opportunities (Shanghai: Deloitte, 2019).

19. National Research Council, Maritime Security Partnerships (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008).

20. National Research Council, Maritime Security Partnerships (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2008).

Featured Image: Arlington (LPD-24) on the builders ways at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, Ingalls Operation, Pascagoula, MS. (Photo via NavSource)

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)