A New Look at an Old Maritime Strategy


The occasion of the reinvigorated Current Strategy Forum at the Naval War College in Newport, RI this week past created the space to reconsider America’s maritime strategy and its agent of action, seapower. The Navy is in the endgame of its process to update the 2007 strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” and this year’s forum brought together giants in the field (including WOTR stalwarts Frank Hoffman and Kori Schake) to provide their views on how properly to frame this effort.

Having had a hand in the development of the 2007 Strategy, I am keenly interested in the direction this effort will take, especially in light of my having first advocated for its update nearly five years ago. Strategies, after all, must be regularly reassessed. No strategy can afford to be static. The team drafting the new maritime strategy has sought my views on several occasions, and I have been honored to provide them, but it was not until this this conference that I came to some clarity on one fairly important point.

The central proposition of the 2007 strategy was that there is a global system in place that works to the benefit of the people of United States and all other nations who participate in it. The system consists of tightly interconnected networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance, and the strategy posits that U.S. maritime forces will be deployed to protect and sustain the system. That system is subject to all manner of shocks, and its close interconnectedness transmits these shocks across regions with rapidity. American seapower—so the strategy suggests—plays a central, critical role in the advancement and sustainment of this system by mitigating, preventing, and deterring such shocks.

The 2007 strategy was subject to many criticisms, but the one that was most difficult to address was the nature of the threat(s) to the system. In other words, while critics seemed to buy the whole concept of a global system, they did not see it as being under much duress. As important as the effort to combat terror was at the time, it did not rise to the level of an existential threat or even one that threatened the health of the global system. There was potential if weapons of mass destruction entered the picture, but that was a horse of a different color. In the critics’ view, the only real threat to the system was great power war. At the time, the prospect of great power war seemed remote at best. In the view of these critics, we were trumpeting America’s stewardship, advancement, and protection of a system that simply was not under pressure and in need of vigorous protection.

We responded by asserting that while great power war would be ruinous, there were other lesser shocks that were deleterious to security and prosperity, such as regional conflict and natural disasters. These, too, were subject to seapower mitigation. Yet just below the surface, I was always uncomfortable with these answers, as they did not justify the force levels we had, let alone the force levels we sought in order to be prepared to fight major power war. To a large extent, I quietly agreed with the critics. To me, it was all about great power war, and virtually everything else was a lesser included offense. In fact, the earliest version of the “defense of the global system” strategy mentioned only great power war. That we were in a period in which many considered great power war a distant possibility mattered little; navies cannot spring up out of whole cloth when conflict arises like, for example, infantry, which can be recruited, trained, equipped, and mobilized relatively more quickly in times of urgent need. It takes time to field a fighting fleet, and foresight must be exercised years or even decades in advance in order not to be caught unprepared. For example, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program was announced in November of 2001, and has been on a “fast” acquisition timeline ever since. Yet thirteen years later, we have still not begun routinely deploying it. Over time, however, both the sense of the remoteness of great power conflict and the determined input of other stakeholders produced a strategy that considered a range of threats (or “shocks”) to the system.

Now the 2007 strategy is under review, and I find myself thinking (as I did in 2009) that it is a good thing. What I am particularly interested in however, is how much more relevant the defense of the global system argument is now than it was in 2007. The threat that critics then charged did not exist is now gathering on both ends of the Eurasian landmass. Both Russia and China are little invested in the present global order, and both openly challenge it with force and through other means even as they have benefitted handsomely from it. Great power politics (and its continuation by other means, great power and proxy war) is all of a sudden back in fashion, and Western democracies—having grown limp and unconfident in the defense of the system they created—must again begin to think about how to respond to defend it.

American seapower plays a vital role in this defense and that role must be explained anew to the American public and its representatives. The value of powerful, forward deployed U.S. naval forces in catalyzing cooperative security within our network of friends and allies cannot be overstated. We must provide emerging/re-emerging great powers with convincing evidence that the current order will not be overturned by acts of disorder great or small. We must explain to our own people the incalculably high cost of great power war in a tightly interconnected world and how the forward deployed forces make war less rather than more likely.

The American public must be lead, not read; lead to an understanding that the uneasy feeling they currently have about America’s position in the world is not simply a temporary pause in American greatness because of a financial crisis, but the predictable, baked-in result of policy choices. In constant FY13 dollars, spending on the U.S. Navy has remained flat since 1965, so any suggestion that American seapower has had a role in our dramatically increased debt is folly. We have made choices in this country, choices that have not only weakened us but which have set the stage for the return of great power war as a real threat.

The Navy must explain how seapower assures, prevents, and deters, and it must explain how American seapower plays the dominant role in the free world in doing so. It must explain the unalterable fact that the maintenance and sustainment of a powerful Navy is not strictly speaking, an efficient, free-market decision. Having more ships and aircraft than you need in peacetime is essential to ensuring their availability in wartime. While some analysts might think the current industrial base is too large for the force it supports, over-capacity is critical to the ability to ramp up when storm clouds gather. When heavy industries walk away from the Navy, they might not come back, and if they do, the time and expense associated with doing so will undermine meaningful response.

Finally, the Navy should not shy from clearly stating its force structure requirements, even if it appears that they are currently unaffordable. Those who would deride this approach as “un-strategic” and “dreaming out loud” underestimate the power of aspirational strategy logically formed and ready to be pursued when the case is made and additional resources are applied. End the confusion and state with clarity the totality of the need, even if it turns out to be 50% larger than the one we currently operate. It is common Washington practice to laugh off the desires of the Combatant Commanders as wishful thinking, but no one is in a better position to assess what is needed in their theaters to achieve the policy goals of the National Command Authority.

The Navy’s current (2007) strategy already contains a superb central idea around which to organize (the defense of the global system). Now that the threat is clarifying, a new strategy should state those threats just as clearly. And it should set out the direction American seapower should take in order to best support the global system and America’s leadership role in it, and let the politicians decide to what level they wish to resource this approach.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group defense consultancy and the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery