Maritime Strategy & Defense Budgets


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from WOTR Contributing Editor Frank Hoffman’s remarks at the U.S. Naval Institute’s Defense Forum at the Newseum in Washington, DC. His speech can be watched here

This is such a beautiful setting, it reminds me of the setting where I got married, at a venue like this with a commanding view of the city.  In fact, the entire setting today reminds me of religion and marriage.  The marriage part refers to the great relationship between the Navy and the Marine Corps.  Our naval services are joined at the hip by civil law and a vow of partnership just short of “till death do us part.”  The Marines try to stay in this marriage even if they occasionally have their own priorities, such as on amphibious shipbuilding.  I won’t be giving away any marital secrets with the confession that the partnership is sometimes frayed by differences, although they are not irreconcilable.

These two Services share a common religion or faith in Seapower.  Former Secretary of War Henry Stimson viewed tensions between the Army and the Navy as stemming from “the peculiar psychology of the Navy Department, which seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet and the U.S. Navy the one true church.”

We do share a common creed, but our religion is not centered on Neptune but the Holy Scripture of American Seapower, which was first handed down by Moses – I mean Mahan – in The Influence of Seapower Upon History —our Old Testament.  It is not a peculiar psychology or a departure from the realm of logic.  Our seapower creed reflects the clear logic of realism, international economics, and geopolitics.  We are connected to the world by the great oceanic highways, and our interests, our prosperity, and our security are extremely dependent upon the mastery of those seas.

Now like any religion we have many Prophets and Disciples: JC as in Rear Admiral JC Wylie, Peter as in Captain Peter Swartz, and John as in former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.

We are here to discuss the future of our maritime strategy, but we can’t even get to that discussion because of the lack of a predictable budget.  A strategy includes a logical and implementable plan of action with resources overtly linked to objectives and defined goals.  But as Secretary Mabus has so clearly asked, how are our leaders supposed to make strategic choices when today’s path gives us no direction for  resourcing across the Future Years Defense Program, no agreement on strategy, zero flexibility about applying funding, and up until a week ago, we didn’t know what the budget was going to look like?  I got a sense of frustration listening to the remarks by Secretary Mabus and those  from Senator Tim Kaine talking about how little analysis or appreciation of risk comes with decision-making today. This may be the new norm for politics in Washington, but it sure is the complete opposite of acting strategically.

Thinking about security and the defense of the Republic used to be a priority here in the Capital.  Statesmen and congressional leaders shared a common understanding about the foundation of our defense.  Seapower has always been a part of that foundation and will be continue to be an indispensible asset in an era where free trade and economic access are at the forefront of our efforts to renew our leadership and economic strength.  No other component of American military power is as flexible or adaptable as seapower.

Numerous strategic advantages accrue to states that can employ seapower.  Naval forces operating freely in the maritime commons provide an effective conventional deterrent to those who would seek to threaten regional stability.  Potent naval expeditionary forces can swiftly respond to crises and make any adversary pause while contemplating aggression.  This suggests that in order to deter effectively, the United States must be forward to be “present,” as Secretary Mabus stated.  And no form of military power can be as flexibly present in as many critical places at once as naval forces.

Naval forces can operate for extended periods far from our shores without the permission of any sovereign government.  This extends America’s “defensive perimeter.”  Dealing with these threats as far from our shores as possible minimizes risks and adds time and space for decisions and engagement opportunities.  The ability to gather information, perform surveillance of seaborne and airborne threats, interdict weapons of mass destruction, and disrupt terrorist networks without a large shore “footprint” is critical in a world of increasingly sophisticated anti-access systems and concerns over national sovereignty.  Seapower extends our reach, as it extends our security umbrella over our friends.  Our sea-based submarine strike force and surface-based ballistic missile defense assets are clear examples of this extended defensive naval perimeter.

Maritime Strategy

What should our next maritime strategy consist of or emphasize? We lack a common agreement in the naval strategy community. Moreover, we have varying expectations about what a maritime strategy should seek to achieve.  Some contend it is enough to articulate a compelling narrative about the purpose of a Navy, others claim that we must detail a strategic vision, and still others want to argue aggressively for a larger Navy.

But as I wrote in Proceedings two years, ago, based on the writing of Richard Rumelt,  A strategy is not what you wish would happen. It is a set of practical actions for moving forward. It is not a ‘dog’s dinner’ of all the things various parties would like to see done.” Our strategy should produce “a focusing of energy and resources on a few key objectives whose accomplishment will make a real difference.”

Good strategy is based on a solid diagnosis  of critical challenges to be faced and provides a coherent plan of action to achieve stated aims. American maritime strategy must do the same. Good strategy must account for a dynamic geopolitical context and interaction with an adversary who has his own goals and options. Sometimes U.S. strategy is simply a wish list of un-prioritized objectives. Sometimes our strategies are mere statements of a strategic vision or end state. In the latest maritime strategy, we listed missions, but the linkage between the missions, the design and architecture of our Fleet, and the resources necessary to build it were all left to future publications.  I found the last maritime strategy to be a huge intellectual step forward for our community, but I think we need to be clearer with the next one in connecting these missions to the force design.

There are at least four potential benefits we can derive from a comprehensive maritime strategy:

  1. Defines a shared vision of institutional purpose or mission for its members.
  2. Creates an awareness and consensus on core challenges in a dynamic and competitive environment.
  3. Identifies the ways and means logic to create and sustain a competitive advantage relative to the core challenge.
  4. Guides the development and sustainment of maritime capabilities and required capacity (which impacts Fleet design and size).

This last purpose is critical since Navies take so long to build and they are around for a long time.

There are numerous arguments for and against linking the strategy to an explicit force design.   I am in favor of specific design principles that guide the capabilities of the fleet more than being precise about the capacity or number of ships.  Some of the force design principles I’d like to see would include:

  1. Modularity,
  2. Open Architecture,
  3. Commonality,
  4. Endurance, and
  5. Versatility.

The first three  are sort of obvious.  The need for endurance is self-evident given the vast distances our forces must travel to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, something that our small combatant fleet falls short of in my view.  But versatility should be highlighted.  We will have fewer platforms in our future, but our people and payloads will have to be able to adapt to multiple missions and across the spectrum of conflict to succeed.  Thus, versatility will be at a premium.

There are also game-changing naval technologies around the corner.  Secretary Mabus has been very aggressive in the Department on undersea or aerial Unmanned Systems. We will hear a lot about Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) in our future.  But we should not overlook other unmanned capabilities, either undersea or on land.  I would like to hear more about robotics, electro-magnetic rail guns, and directed energy weapons, which are all nearing maturity.  How will our Fleet exploit these game changers?  Our strategy must leverage these capabilities in order to drive the fleet design towards the most sustained competitive operating fleet we can field.

We also must discuss the identification of threats or challengers.  China is the 800-pound Panda Bear in the room.  Each year, as its economic strength has expanded, China has selectively modernized its military.  It may never have the global reach or the peerless Command-and-Control and Intelligencer, Surveillance, Reconnaissance systems that we have, but it is, and will continue to, be a regional power of significant strength.  Previous maritime strategies, including War Plan Orange, the theory of containment derived from George Kennan’s thinking, and the 1986 maritime strategy benefited from having an explicit context within which to plan, to wargame, to develop concepts of operation, and to rationalize a fleet.  Whether or not we want to admit it in public, we would benefit from such a yardstick today.

I heartily endorse the initiative by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) to develop an updated maritime strategy – in fact it’s overdue.  We need a New Testament or a more fiscally constrained update to the highly commendable 2007 maritime strategy.  But it’s difficult to get out in front and to think strategically when the leadership is paralyzed and the nation’s budget is overextended.  There is much uncertainty and risk, but that comes with the job.  But this does not mean we cannot articulate the logic of Seapower and strive to sustain the Nation’s most flexible tool—the one that is the most geo-strategically relevant and the most supportive of diplomacy and economics.

While resources may be limited, which will impact the speed at which we move forward, we need to keep the final destination in mind: as defined by the CNO and Commandant in the June issue of Proceedings, that destination a balanced fleet that operates forward together, operating where it matters and when it matters.  This fleet must be capable of projecting power at great distance from our shores.  It must also be able to respond promptly to crises and generate options for future Presidents.

Ultimately, crafting any strategy is only the beginning of a journey.  Good strategy involves hard choices, clear objectives, a continuous assessment of risks, and priorities. Naval strategists must remain alert to changes in context, take a sextant bearing, and apply constant tiller correction to the plan.  In the past, we could outspend, out-produce and outfight our adversaries and overcome.  No more—it’s a cliché but it is time to out-think our opponents as well. And a sound maritime strategy is the place to start.

At the risk of over-doing it, I’d like return to liturgy and ritual.  We heard wonderful and classical hymns at the U.S. Naval Institute’s Defense Forum about the importance of seapower, the linkage between our nation’s values and economic prosperity, and our ability to use the great commons to reach markets and resources.  There were no heretics, only evangelists.  So yes, let us praise Seapower and let us lift our voices in a new hymn to our Navy and Marine Corps team.  But let’s also get Congress to keep passing the plate (now having finally passed a budget belatedly) and put more than just a few coins in the Shipbuilding account.

As Congressman Forbes noted, we are not investing satisfactorily in our shipbuilding accounts.  We cannot assume seapower as a birthright; we should not be lulled into a new norm of a smaller forces with lower readiness and maintenance levels.

Secretary Mabus has talked of the great efficiencies the Department has gained – it isall true, but both he and Senator Kaine correctly state that our fleet is in need of investment capital.  Congressman Forbes pushed back on the notion that we should accept sequestration as a new norm.  Future CNOs should not be asked to make fishes and loaves entirely out of salt water and sand.

America’s Navy/Marine Corps team needs help from Congress in order to generate the options that future Presidents will want, and if history is any guide, that our Nation will need.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University (NDU).  These comments are his own personal views and not that of NDU or the Department of Defense.  


Image: U.S. Navy