Counter China’s Goal of Displacing American Command of the Sea

Notes to the New CNO Series

By Robert C. Rubel

The Navy is the nation’s primary source of strategic thinking and advice on the role of the ocean in U.S. security. When the unity of the world ocean becomes a factor in U.S. security strategy, the Navy must “advise up” beyond its specific Title X responsibilities. It did this in the 1980s with the Maritime Strategy and again in 2007 with the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Both efforts were successful in solving the problems that prompted their development, but both adhered to the structure of the Unified Command Plan that was established to provide command and control of power projection into Eurasia, which consisted of deterrence, influence, and actual use of military force when needed. This was consistent with the concept of containment in the Cold War and countering strategic instability in the post-Cold War world. Navy fleet design was oriented on power projection capability, both in the specific weapons carried by ships – primarily tactical aircraft and Tomahawk missiles – and in the number and types of ships in the battle force. 

The rise of China as a contender for global leadership presents a different kind of great power threat than the Soviet Union. China explicitly seeks global leadership with which it can restructure the existing order, which was established by Allied statesmen at the end of World War II to avert another world war. To support its goals, China is creating a navy that it hopes can directly challenge the U.S. Navy for supremacy on the world ocean, something the USSR never aspired to do. The combination of China’s economic and industrial power, and its sweeping global objectives, presents the U.S. with a new and more difficult challenge that previous approaches to security will not properly address.

The U.S. must adopt a new approach to defending the global order, one that is heavily based on maintaining and exercising global command of the sea. The current security strategy happens to be based on this superiority, but American command of the sea has been so complete for so long that it has become a background tacit assumption rather than explicit goal. That has to change, especially if the Navy is to develop a feasible and effective fleet design going forward.

Command of the sea is a strategic condition in which the weaker navy either cannot or will not directly challenge the stronger, a power balance that is relevant in both war and peace. In war it allows the nation to use the sea as necessary for operations, and in peace allows the nation to adopt policies on the use of the sea that are consistent with its national interests and values. If China succeeds in displacing the U.S. Navy as the preeminent naval power, it will likely impose a more authoritarian set of norms on the oceans, and trigger far-reaching consequences. Numerous elements of U.S. national security, economic relations, and foreign policy would be compromised.

It is not enough for the U.S. Navy to focus on projecting power ashore at specific times and places, supported by sea control. The Navy, in conjunction with allies, must create a capability to command the sea that China dares not challenge. This calls for capabilities and methods that are much more than just iterations upon current trends and legacy systems. The U.S. Navy must conduct urgent investigations and research into what novel capabilities and warfighting concepts can offer enduring command of the sea, and develop both a global maritime strategy and derivative fleet design based on the most promising approaches.

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: Sailors aboard the Chinese Navy guided-missile destroyer Dalian (Hull 105) line the deck at attention during a far-sea joint training drill in early April, 2023. ( by Yang Yunxiang)

One thought on “Counter China’s Goal of Displacing American Command of the Sea”

  1. Very good article. The author has rightly analyzed the existing situation in the Sino-US rivalry. To establish command of the sea, MDA is a vital tool that has to be strengthened. Cooperative Maritime diplomacy with littoral states could be a very important strategy that could develop by the USA while enhancing the sharing of maritime information, and joint operations, and strengthening coastal surveillance.

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