Tag Archives: Deterrence

Conventional Deterrence and the US Navy: Why the Future Needs to Happen Now Pt. I

By Adam Taylor

Recent remarks by Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command (INDO-PACOM), highlights one of the most difficult challenges confronting US naval forces in the Asia-Pacific—America’s conventional deterrence posture in the region. He noted “the greatest danger for the United States in this competition [with China] is the erosion of conventional deterrence. Absent a convincing deterrent, the People’s Republic of China will be emboldened to take action to undermine the rules-based international order.” This statement deserves further consideration among naval observers given its assumptions about the nature of conventional deterrence, possible ramifications on the composition and disposition of US forces in the region, and implications for the Navy’s future force design. An assessment of the Navy’s recent “Battle Force 2045” vision against the utility of its traditional contributions to conventional deterrence and the implications associated with differing US and Chinese ideas about deterrence unfortunately demonstrates that the service’s future force design remains ill-equipped to address the deterrence deficit confronting the US.

Deterrence represents one form of coercive diplomacy, which the DoD defines as the “prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” Compellence constitutes a different form of coercive diplomacy, representing the “use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would.” States can employ these coercive approaches through various instruments of power in their pursuit of national interests.

Strategies of deterrence and compellence differ in their relationships to the prevailing status quo : Deterrence seeks to preserve the status quo, while compellent policies seek to alter it. Other important differences between both strategies include the passage of time and initiator of action. Deterrence strategies passively wait for the object of the deterrent strategy to initiate action, while compellence requires continuous and active efforts by the coercing state.

As a status quo great power, America’s deterrence paradigm informs the Navy’s contributions to the nation’s conventional deterrence posture. Three of its nine functional contributions to the joint force directly contribute to conventional deterrence posture:

  1. Conduct offensive and defensive operations associated with the maritime domain including achieving and maintaining sea control, to include subsurface, surface, land, air, space, and cyberspace;
  2. Provide power projection through sea-based global strike, to include nuclear and conventional capabilities; interdiction and interception capabilities; maritime and/or littoral fires to include naval surface fires; and close air support for ground forces;
  3. Establish, maintain, and defend sea bases in support of naval, amphibious, land, air, or other joint operations as directed.

The chart below from a Center for Naval Analyses report illustrates how the Navy’s deterrent contributions fit into the broader joint force deterrent posture.

Deterrence: Total Force View

The Navy’s ability to “loiter” and remain minimally intrusive highlights why the service is best suited to provide mobile, prompt, and flexible conventional deterrent forces that can sustainably project power without a footprint. The resources needed to deploy and sustain land forces may effectively signal a state’s deterrent commitment, but require time to generate and are relatively less mobile within a theater of operations. Conversely, air power can provide prompt response and minimally intrusive capabilities, but is limited by platforms’ relatively short time on station compared to naval assets. The Navy mitigates these issues through a variety of means, as noted in the same report:

“When maritime power is used, countries can keep from appearing to have an overly close relationship with the United States that might spark new, or enflame ongoing, socio-cultural tensions and violence, while at the same time enjoying the security benefits of US forces in the area vis-à-vis regional adversaries. In fact, if there is a continuing trend in which countries want completely new US security commitments and/or strengthened assurances of existing guarantees, but at the same time do not want to host US forces on their soil, maritime power may increasingly become the primary military instrument used to simultaneously assure allies and deter adversaries.”

Naval operations can simultaneously address the need for commitment without the costs associated with permanent military installations because they do not need basing or overflight rights like land or air forces and can maintain either an overt or “over the horizon” presence. These qualities led Oliver Cromwell to famously declare that a “man-o-war is the best ambassador.” They also demonstrate how naval assets can credibly communicate the commitment needed to deter without incurring political costs or unnecessarily antagonizing potential belligerents.

These qualities ensure the Navy remains a crucial element of America’s deterrence posture in the Asia-Pacific given the contestable nature of conventional deterrence. Prompt denial mitigates opportunistic aggression by limiting the likelihood of quick and low-cost victory. The Navy’s combination of air, sea, and land assets ensures the service has the organic ability to counter aggression. Similarly, the service’s ability to loiter in zones of contention for extended periods of time means the Navy can demonstrate the political resolve and commitment needed to convince potential belligerents to abandon hostile courses of action – but only if those potential belligerents find the deployed forces to be credible.

China, however, pursues a conventional deterrence strategy at odds with America’s deterrence paradigm. The PRC defines deterrence as “the display of military power or the threat of use of military power in order to compel an opponent to submit.” This definition encompasses both dissuasion and coercion in a single concept. Chinese military writing emphasizes that deterrence has two important functions: “one is to dissuade the opponent from doing something through deterrence, the other is to persuade the opponent what ought to be done through deterrence, and both demand the opponent submit to the deterrer’s volition.” Beijing’s definition of deterrence also suggests it views deterrence as a way to achieve a desired political outcome. Deterrence represents a means to a specific end. American discussions tend to characterize deterrence as a goal. INDOPACOM’s mission to field a “combat credible deterrence strategy…” highlights this distinction.

American versus Chinese Views of Deterrence

Strategy Definition Temporal Constraint Object of Force Characteristics
American Deterrence Dissuade an opponent from taking an unwelcome action by threatening the use of force. Occurs during peace time. Passively influence enemy’s intentions to prevent future challenge to status quo. Status quo posturing can be viewed as first strike preparations.
Chinese Deterrence Dissuade or coerce an opponent through the display of military power or threatening the use of force in order to compel an opponent to submit. Occurs during peace and war time. Requires object of deterrence to preference Chinese political interests at object’s expense. Multi-domain; preemptive; contests disputed sovereignty claims; crisis amenable.

The PLA pursues deterrence through a strategy of “forward defense.” This strategy calls for China “pushing the first line away from China’s borders and coasts to ensure that combat occurs beyond China’s homeland territory, not on or within it…China’s borders and coasts are now viewed as interior lines in a conflict, not exterior ones.” China incorporates a variety of conventional, space, information capabilities, economic, and diplomatic means into its deterrence policy tool bag. All of these measures combine to aide Beijing’s deterrence policy which aims to compel an aggressor to abandon offensive intentions or cause a defender to conclude the cost of resistance remains too high. The offensive nature of Chinese deterrence means Beijing would consider preemptive action during periods of tension should the PRC conclude an aggressor has decided to violate China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing’s use of force in its deterrence strategy also highlights the value it places on crisis and tension. While American policy makers might consider a crisis that challenges the status quo a possible point of deterrence failure, Chinese leadership views crisis as an avenue to achieve favorable political outcomes. A crisis or increase in tension that might not normally exist under the status quo allows the PRC to probe an adversary’s intentions, foment friction among allies, weaken an opponent’s resolve, or decrease the domestic political support for an adversary’s policies.

The divergence in deterrence theory and practice between both nations has important implications for the Navy’s future force design. China’s impressive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities combined with a deterrence strategy that favors crisis escalation and encroachment on other nations’ sovereignty challenges the Navy’s ability to effectively deter. The Navy can no longer assume that its ships’ ability to loiter in zones of contention will deter an increasingly capable Chinese military from taking unwanted action. Navy leadership also must reconsider if the fleet’s current composition and posture adequately conveys America’s daily commitment to its allies or provides a realistic deterrent against belligerent Chinese behavior short of war. Aircraft carriers, high-tech destroyers, and attack submarines do an excellent job demonstrating the Navy’s capabilities should conventional war occur, but do not necessarily represent the best choice when dealing with the daily and persistent malign behavior that China employs. These platforms cost a lot to operate and maintain which means the Navy cannot endlessly keep them at sea in contested areas. Furthermore, it likely strains Chinese credulity to believe that the US would employ its qualitatively superior platforms to respond to every escalatory action Beijing engages in against American partners. Washington would look overreactive and all too willing to consistently let its ships and sailors operate in a costly A2/AD environment.

All of these issues raise important questions about the Navy’s ability to deter Chinese aggression, manage escalation, and credibly prevail in a great power conflict. The future fleet must possess the ability to decisively win a conventional conflict while also maintaining the capability needed to deter aggression short of war. Beijing’s deterrence paradigm requires a navy that can compete with China across the entire spectrum of operations. Unfortunately, the Navy’s recently released “Battle Force 2045” concept falls short of these requirements with its over investment in surface combatants, under investment in uncrewed ships, and unrealistic assumptions about defense budgets.  A more thorough review of the Navy’s ability to respond to conventional aggression against Taiwan will demonstrate the service’s current shortcomings and the way ahead for a more sustainable and effective force design.

Adam Taylor recently separated from the Marine Corps where he served four years as an air support control officer and is now in the Individual Ready Reserve. He currently works as a fellow in Congress and received his M.A. in international relations from American University’s School of International Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect any institutional position of the Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or Member of Congress.

Featured Image: INDIAN OCEAN (March 20, 2021) Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ryan Walsh, from Monroe, N.Y., watches the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) from the flight deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59) March 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Wade Costin)

Russia’s Arctic Ambitions Held Back by Economic Troubles

The following article was originally featured by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Michael Lambert

During the Cold War, the geographical position of the Arctic and the technology available put the region in the geopolitical spotlight. The Arctic was the shortest flight path for Soviet and American intercontinental bombers between the United States and Soviet Union. Later, with the advent of ballistic missiles, the Arctic’s strategic relevance began to fade – only to be reignited in the 1970s with the arrival of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and strategic bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles.

The United States cooperated closely with Canada to stop the bomber threat coming from Moscow. The end result was a number of early warning radar lines across Canadian territory, most recently the joint Canada-U.S. North Warning System (NWS) built in the late 1980s, as well as significant air defense (and later aerospace) cooperation evident in the bi-national North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was also increasingly intent on penetrating the Soviet nuclear bastion in the Arctic with its own nuclear attack submarines.

The Soviet Union was itself directly exposed to strategic bombers located in Alaska. Looking at the strategic context until 1991, the USSR gathered a significant number of defense forces in the Soviet Arctic, going from advanced air defense systems in Rogachevo, Amderma, and Alykeland Ugolnye Kopi to submarines able to launch nuclear weapons from the Soviet Far East. The United States and the Soviet Union both conducted military exercises in the Arctic, and eventually had the technological capabilities to destroy each other multiple times. However, it was difficult for the United States to say if Moscow was trying to develop a defensive or offensive policy in that part of the world – although that uncertainty did not prevent the U.S. from moving decisively to try to mitigate this potential threat.

Moscow conducted an impressive number of nuclear experiments in the area. By the end of the 1980s, the USSR Northern Fleet had 172 submarines, including 39 SSBNs, 46 cruise missile submarines and 87 attack submarines, and between 1967 and 1993 Soviet and Russian submarines carried out a total of 4,600 training missions. However, looking at the size of the Arctic, the numbers are less impressive, and it seems difficult to know if the area was considered to be an outpost or a buffer zone, in so far as archives regarding Soviet nuclear weapons are still classified in Russia today.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited almost all Soviet facilities and nuclear equipment, including in the High North. Does the Russian approach toward the Arctic differ from the Soviet one? Under then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, supported by Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s Arctic forces were almost entirely disbanded for economic reasons during the 1990s. The Kremlin did keep its SSBNs to ensure nuclear deterrence and a minimum presence in the area. But it also diminished the number of aircraft and anti-aircraft systems as well, the latter decision largely due to the difficulty with modernizing equipment needed to detect and intercept American bomber aircraft, such as the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

With the return of Moscow on the international stage, Russia’s new nuclear policy in the Arctic has become a major issue for the relationship between the United States, Canada, Northern Europe (NATO and non-NATO members) and Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, current Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the modernization of Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces and its Northern Fleet to be a state priority.

More than 80 percent of Russia’s strategic maritime nuclear capabilities is located in the Northern Fleet, mostly in the form of its ballistic missile submarine fleet. It is also focused on developing infrastructure needed to operate such capabilities, such as the refurbished military airfields in its northern region that will provide aerial support for its Northern Fleet. In the Russian Military Doctrine of 2014, the Arctic was highlighted as one of the three key regions for military development, alongside Crimea and Kaliningrad. And, since 2008, Russia has reestablished long-range aviation patrols and increased the presence and activity of the Northern Fleet.

Putin’s policy in the Arctic can be interpreted as partly an attempt to protect future economic and military interests of the Russian Federation. After all, Russia has significant economic interests in the Arctic and needs to protect them. More than 20 percent of the country’s GDP is produced in the northern part of Russia, with approximately 75 percent of oil and 95 percent of natural gas reserves located in the area. In addition, it also is a means to put more pressure on Washington and its allies (including Canada) in the context of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. As well, it provides an opportunity to threaten (and therefore possibly deter) countries showing a growing interest for NATO membership, such as Sweden and Finland.

Russia has recently unveiled a new military base at Franz Joseph Land in the Arctic Sea, following its initial Northern Clover Arctic base on Kotelny Island, north of Siberia. The Franz Joseph Land archipelago had been abandoned in 1991 but the Russian Air Force decided to reopen Graham Bell Airfield (named the “Arctic Trefoil”) to protect Moscow’s interest in the area. However, Russia’s 150 soldiers are probably not enough to stop any foreign forces and control the 191 islands in this peninsula.

recent article published at the Department of Geography at Laval University also underlines the limitations of Russian Air Force operations in the Arctic, pointing particularly at the relative modest number of air military patrols in the region compared to the significant number of intrusive patrols (bombers and fighters) close to Japan, Northern Europe, and the Baltics.

In that context, it seems difficult to say if Russia is able to conduct any large military exercises in the Arctic, due to the size of the region and the limited number of troops on the ground. A brief look at the equipment available like the Tupolev Tu-160 – a Soviet bomber produced in the USSR between 1984-1991 and upgraded by the Russian Air Force – shows their limited capabilities to conduct an attack against Alaska or Northern Europe from the area, although their development of long-range cruise missile technology could change that calculus.

The Russian Federation is also facing difficulties when it comes to submarines. The Russian Navy cancelled the modernization program for its venerable Typhoon-class vessel in 2012, and most of its newer Borey-class SSBNs are under construction and those vessels earmarked for the Northern Fleet (Knyaz PozharskiyGeneralissimus Suvorov) won’t be ready until 2020. Indeed, the Yury Dolgorukiy is the only submarine located in the Arctic at the moment.

Despite Putin’s stated interest in strengthening the Northern Fleet, this situation should remain the same for the foreseeable future – especially following Moscow’s revised funding scheme for the Arctic. The expected budget approved for the military in the Arctic until 2020 is 17 times lower than the original sum. This arises from Russia’s current economic crisis, brought on not least by international sanctions after its military intervention in Ukraine.

In this context, rather than fixating on Russian activities in the Arctic, the United States and Canada should continue to focus the brunt of their attention on Europe and Syria – where the Russian presence remains far more intrusive, robust, and ultimately destabilizing.

Michael Eric Lambert received a PhD in History of Europe and International Relations from Sorbonne University, France. He is Founder and Director of the Caucasus Initiative, a new independent and unaligned European Policy Center with the mission to analyze contemporary issues related to de facto states and the Black Sea area.

Featured Image: Russian submarine (Russian Ministry of Defense)

Beyond the Security Dilemma? De-Escalating Tension in the South China Sea

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Jan Stockbruegger

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A Chinese vessel at Johnson South Reef, which is being turned into an island, AP Photo.

In May 2015 China presented its new Military Strategy white paper. The white paper, which appeared at a time of heightened tensions over land reclamations in the South China Sea, has triggered much debate and discussion. How should the strategy be interpreted, and how should policy makers respond to it? Does it demonstrate China’s expansionist and revisionist intentions? And does more need to be done to contain China’s rise as a super power? In this contribution to the debate I briefly summarize China’s new military strategy and reflect on it in the light of two diverging interpretations. I first argue that the strategy needs to be understood in terms of a deterrence logic that indicates the emergence of a security dilemma in the Asia-Pacific. I then offer a reverse interpretation that sees China’s military strategy as a move toward transparency and building trust and confidence. I conclude with some optimistic thoughts about how these two contradicting logics play into each other.

Maritime Rebalance and Military Modernization

Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, CDR USPACOM and Director General of the Institute for Defense Strategy, Lt Gen Nguyen Chien in Hanoi, Dec. 10, 2013. U.S. Army photo.
Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, CDR USPACOM and Director General of the Institute for Defense Strategy, Lt Gen Nguyen Chien in Hanoi, Dec. 10, 2013. U.S. Army photo.

China’s new military strategy is a very analytical document. It describes, analyses, and explains China’s perspective on international security, and it provides a frank and honest assessment of the threats and challenges the country faces. This includes “‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” as well as the U.S. “’rebalancing’ strategy,” and its “military presence and its military alliances in this region.” China is particularly worried that some “external countries” – most likely the U.S. “are … busy meddling in the South China Sea affairs” and that a “tiny few maintain constant close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China.” The strategy also refers to the dispute in the South and East China Sea – though it does not say so explicitly – when it notes that “some of China’s offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.” China thus has to protect its “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” Hence, the strategy argues the “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned,” and “great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans.” China, it claims, will become a “maritime power” and “develop a modern maritime military force structure.” China intends to strengthen its navy, which “will gradually shift its focus … to the combination of ‘offshore waters defense’ with ‘open seas protection.’” The “preparation for military struggle,” in particular maritime military struggle, is central to China’s new military strategy.

Yet in the strategy China also claims that it does not have offensive military ambitions and will avoid armed confrontation and escalation. Its military philosophy is based on the idea of active defense, which holds that China “will not attack unless we [China] are attacked.” China will try to prevent crisis and, most importantly, “strike a balance between rights protection and stability maintenance.” The strategy also says that China supports collective security and embraces Confidence Building Mechanisms. Notably, China intends to deepen “military relations with the U.S. armed forces” to reflect the “new model of major-country relations” between the two states.

China’s new military strategy is to some degree ambiguous if not contradictory. It announces an ambitious military modernization program to protect its expanding interests while at the same time emphasizing its peaceful intention. This leaves room for interpretation. So how should one understand China’s military strategy? And how should the international community, in particular the U.S. and regional states, respond to it?

Deterrence and Security Dilemma

One way to interpret China’s military strategy is to look at what it says about the country’s military intentions and ambitions. From this perspective, China’s military modernization program appears threatening. It signals China’s long-term determination to dominate the Asia-Pacific and to use its expanding military capabilities to further narrow national security objectives. The strategy suggests that China will not accept Taiwan’s independence, will not abstain from its claims in the South China Sea, and will try to limit U.S. influence and military operations in the region. From this perspective, China is a threat that needs to be deterred. The U.S. in particular needs to do more to reassure its allies, to contain China, and to strengthen its predominant position in the Asia-Pacific.

This interpretation has significant implications for the regional security environment. It would eventually create a security dilemma, a situation in which, according to the eminent political scientist Robert Jervis, “the means by which a state tries to increase its security decreases the security of others.” It is easy to see how this would work. China feels its position is insecure, and it modernizes its military to deter potential aggressors. East Asian states and the U.S., on the other hand, feel threatened by China’s military build-up and behavior in the South China Sea, and they therefore strengthen their military capabilities to counter potential Chinese aggressions. Hence, even though neither side might want to risk conflict, their behavior increases exactly that risk. This dynamic reinforces rivalries, triggers intense security competition, and increases the likelihood of a confrontation between the world’s major military powers.

USMaritimeStrategy15It is important to note that the security dilemma is not a fantasy or a distant future; its contours are already clearly visible, not only in China’s new military strategy and ongoing military modernization program, but also in the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Indeed, current U.S. defense debates are no longer about whether or not China needs to be deterred militarily; instead, analysts are already discussing specific military deterrence strategies (e.g., the Air-Sea Battle Concept, now renamed the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons). According to the new U.S. Seapower Strategy, 60 percent of U.S. Navy ships and aircraft will soon be deployed in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Put differently, the Asia-Pacific security dilemma is an emerging reality, and China’s new military strategy further reinforces this trend.

Transparency and Strategic Trust

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, and China's Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie in Beijing, AP Photo.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, and China’s Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie in Beijing, AP Photo.

Another way to interpret the strategy is to view it as a move towards military transparency, openness, and dialogue. In the strategy, China officially declares its long-term military interests and ambitions. It describes threats and challenges, outlines China’s plans for military modernization, and it also discusses China’s strategic new orientation. This might sound worrying and threatening to some security analysts. However, the strategy certainly does contribute to clarifying China’s military intention and explaining its rationale. Hence, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman commented in the New York Times that China’s new strategy “is an example of transparency” and “exactly the type of thing that we’ve been calling for.”

Military openness and transparency create trust and confidence among adversaries. They enables a better understanding of what each side wants, why they do the things they do, and how they might behave in the future. A military strategy hence also contributes to dialogue and mutual engagement. It allows actors to identify disagreements, develop joint interests, and reach common ground. Military dialogue does not resolve political conflicts, such as the islands disputes in the South China Sea, but it creates opportunities to avoid military escalation and to manage the security competition that such unresolved disputes produce.

Such an Asia-Pacific military dialogue is already underway. In April 2014 regional naval representatives at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium signed a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. A similar document, a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Rules of Behaviour for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, was signed by the U.S. and China in November 2014. Both documents, which are not legally binding, regulate military encounters at sea and seek to prevent incidents that could trigger military confrontations. The militaries of China and the U.S. also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Notification of Major Military Activities. With this document both sides “seek to foster greater comprehension of each other’s security policy.” They agree to engage in “regular exchanges of information related to major official publications and statements,” which includes “White Papers, strategy publications, and other official announcements related to policy and strategy.”

This is exactly what China has done with the publication of its new military strategy. Hence, from this perspective China’s military strategy does not reinforce the emerging Asia-Pacific security dilemma; rather, it is part of a pragmatic coping mechanisms aimed at managing this dilemma and de-escalating tensions in the region.

De-Escalating the Security Dilemma?

In this piece I have offered two interpretations of China’s new military strategy. I have argued that China’s military strategy contributes to a deterrence-based logic, and that it also de-escalates security competition. These two interpretations are certainly contradictory, but they are not mutually exclusive. China’s military strategy reflects a pragmatic double-strategy through which states seek to balance their security interests. On the one hand, China finds it necessary to deter potential adversaries militarily. On the other hand, however, it also relies on a peaceful international environment based on cooperative security arrangements. Yet whether the Asia-Pacific will manage to keep this balance is unclear. Regional disputes and conflicts are yet to be resolved, military expansion and modernization continue, and the emerging security order remains fragile. Are more efforts needed to manage the security dilemma and to ensure that security competition remains peaceful? This is exactly the question that stakeholders need to discuss jointly and as part of a sustained dialogue aimed at keeping peace and security in the face of increased geopolitical tensions and security competition in the region.

Jan Stockbruegger is a Research Assistant at Cardiff University and a graduate student in Political Science at Brown University. He is the lead editor of piracy-studies.org, a research and resource forum for maritime security studies. Jan can be contacted at stockbrueggerj@cardiff.ac.uk. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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More Mahan and Corbett

The Battle of the Nile, 1798

In my last post I criticized those who overemphasize the size of a fleet as a measure of its operational effectiveness, using the historical example of the Royal Navy’s fleet modernization efforts prior to the First World War.  I did not offer any alternate criteria by which to judge what an optimally sized U.S. Navy would look like.  With discussions of what insights turn-of-the-century theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett would have on modern maritime strategy so popular right now, however, I thought there might be value to apply their models of sea power to evaluate the composition of today’s U.S. Navy.

Responding to a critique that the current fleet is the smallest it has been since 1917, Under-Secretary of the Navy Robert Work noted that the ability of the current fleet to accomplish its missions is as great as it has ever been, arguing that at a century ago “we didn’t have any airplanes in the fleet.  We didn’t have any unmanned systems.  We didn’t have Tomahawk cruise missiles.”

Critics of what they perceive as a too-small fleet claim that quantity is important because “presence” is necessary for command of the sea.  On its face this is logical, as without enough combat power at the right spot and right time, victory is impossible.  Having more ships makes it theoretically possible to concentrate a larger force at the decisive point, as well as providing more resources in more places to deter against the enemy, wherever they may be.  The only restriction in a navy’s ability to provide presence is the amount of resources that a state has at its disposal.

Mahan was opposed to any notion of presence itself providing any particular utility, expressing a preference for offensive fleet action, even when that end was accomplished by a fleet inferior in total size to that of its foes.  His optimal navy was “equal in number and superior in efficiency” to its enemies at the decisive point within “a limited field of action,” not necessarily everywhere.  It protected national interests “by offensive action against the fleet, in which it sees their real enemy and its own principal objective.”  Mahan would have not approved of an emphasis on presence as an objective, for his description of the undesirable alternative to his above strategy was one which requires the “superior numbers” needed to provide “superiority everywhere to the force of the enemy actually opposed, as the latter may be unexpectedly reinforced.”  Trying to outnumber the enemy everywhere at sea is an impossible end state in any situation in which a pair of opponents have remotely comparable resources upon which to draw.

Corbett’s view of sea power is more compatible with the notion that presence is important.  Corbett felt that what he called “Command of the Sea” was “normally in dispute” and that the most common state in maritime conflict was that of “an uncommanded sea.”  In that context, presence in terms of more ships means that a navy can employ its forces in more places, with command thus achieved.  It would be easier to achieve this state of command through presence in asymmetrical situations in which the smaller force is overmatched both in terms of quantity and quality.

War at sea often revolves around two factors: the ability to locate the enemy, and the ability to employ decisive force against the enemy first.  Until navies began to use aircraft in the early twentieth century, the only way to locate an enemy fleet was to actually see it from onboard ship (or ashore).  Until the introduction of wireless communications, the ability to pass any intelligence thus derived was also restricted to line-of-sight or the speed of a ship.  Mahan noted the difficulty to locate and track a fleet when he said that they “move through a desert over which waters flit, but where they do not remain.”

By having more ships (assuming they effectively employed them), a navy would theoretically have a better chance to locate the enemy on favorable terms.  Nelson could sail across the Atlantic (and back again) and around the Mediterranean without finding the French fleet because his “sensors” were limited to the visual range of his fleet.  The conflict between the German and British navies during the First World War was largely one in which the two fleets were unable to achieve their tactical objectives because they could not find each other (at least under tactically favorable circumstances).  In a more modern example, the American victory at Midway was made possible by SIGINT.  Because the US Navy knew that the Japanese intended to attack Midway, its fleet was placed in a position where they were more likely to find the Japanese first (even then however, each fleet was limited in their ability to locate the enemy to the range of their aircraft).

A smaller fleet which is enabled in its ability to project combat power over a larger area through technology to engage the enemy on its own terms would seem to be just as important as a large fleet.  Today’s U.S. Navy, with access to a historically unprecedented web of information made possible by sensors and surveillance assets in the air, on the surface and under the water, has the ability to win battles against a capable enemy because those sensors mean it can deliver ordnance against enemy targets first.  However, one of the more astute criticisms of Under-Secretary Work’s defense of the current fleet size is that it only works in war, not other situations in which it is not clear “whether replacing ships with aircraft is a legitimate approach towards maritime battlespaces in peacetime when that same effort has been largely ineffective dealing with other low intensity maritime problems like narcotics and piracy.” 

The debate over presence revolves around strategy and objectives, and whether the size and composition of a fleet matches up with those objectives.  If the U.S. maritime objective is the ability to operate at sea in any contested theater, then having a sensor-enabled battle force in which surveillance assets make decisive action possible before the enemy can act is more important than surface presence in terms of many ships.  Conversely, if the most important objective is to provide maritime security against illicit actors such as pirates or drug smugglers, then presence is more important.  As the linked post above from Galrahn notes, a UAV can enable kinetic offensive operations from another platform located far away, but it cannot board a suspect vessel and detain the crew.

The debate between the advocates of presence and a high-end battle force is actually one over the relative importance of the Maritime Security and Sea Control missions, and the resources devoted to each at the expense of the other.  Unfortunately, without a crystal ball, there is not a straightforward answer as to which is the more necessary one for the US Navy to conduct.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence Officer and currently serves on the OPNAV staff. He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2). The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.