A Rose by Any Other Name Still has Thorns: A Global Network of Navies


In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the latter states that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What she fails to acknowledge, or perhaps she intentionally deceives her young and naïve paramour, is that while roses would have an olfactory appeal, they still have thorns. It is worth keeping this in mind when reading a recent article in Proceedings that advocates for a “global network of navies” – the most recent incarnation of the “1,000 ship navy” concept articulated in 2005 by then-Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen. The “1,000 ship navy” is a fleet-in-being of nations willing to respond to shared challenges, since no navy could “go it alone.” In the new Proceedings piece, current Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert and Rear Admiral James Foggo argue that the United States Navy must be “compelled to strengthen the bonds of international maritime cooperation” because no country has sufficient forces to address the myriad of challenges on the high seas or the littorals. Partnerships, therefore, are necessary and would meet those growing global threats. The name may have changed from a 1,000 Ship Navy to a Global Network of Navies, but the arguments supporting the idea remain overly optimistic and neglect to account for other realities. The concept still has thorns.

Isolation, either in international relations or naval operations, remains an inadvisable and irresponsible path for the United States as the world’s largest military power and – for the time being – the largest economic power. Engagement is necessary in an increasingly connected global community. But that interconnectivity presents both opportunities and challenges. While the Navy and the country may hope more for the opportunities, they must however resign themselves to the inherent realities of regional and global challenges to partnerships.

As it has for more than two hundred years, the U.S. Navy works with other navies – whether in underway replenishment, patrols, or other operations. In the late eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson suggested to John Adams that the U.S. should organize an “international task force comprised of all European nations whose shipping was being victimized” by the Barbary States, although Adams responded that it was an idea whose time had not yet come. During the Barbary War, both the U.S. and Swedish navies cooperated against Tripoli until the latter made peace in 1802 and left America to continue alone. In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. Navy sent warships to West Africa to suppress the slave trade at the same time the Royal Navy had its own Africa Squadron.

Today U.S. firms benefit from Foreign Military Sales. Intelligence officers from various nations in centers around the world cooperate on near-, mid- and long-term threats. Warships conduct bilateral and multi-lateral exercises. And just as travelling to foreign countries to experience different cultures can be an invaluable experience enhancing part of an American student’s education, training and educational exchanges are a vital part of naval engagement. The United States Naval Academy Class of 2014 included international graduates from nine foreign nations, in a long-standing tradition that goes back to the graduating class of 1864. International officers can be found at the Naval War College, National Defense University, and elsewhere, just as U.S. Navy midshipmen and officers also study abroad.

Networks (specifically with regard to a “global network of navies”) are important, but their overall capability and resiliency are dependent on the strength, compatibility, and employment of their nodes. The same is true in any century for maritime forces. Many countries have smaller navies and less funding available for maintenance, and lack expertise that only at-sea training can provide. Even larger navies can unfortunately experience a series of accidents. While it is true that maritime security should be, as Admiral Greenert and Rear Admiral Foggo suggest, “a core issue for all nations,” which nations will make the appropriate investments in their navies? Despite strong collaboration in the 20th century with the U.S., NATO members struggle to meet their own 2006 recommendation to spend a minimum two percent of their gross domestic product on military programs. France, for example, spends only 1.3 percent of its GDP on the military. The United Kingdom is one of the few NATO countries that meets (and indeed exceeds) that two percent floor, but defense spending is less than payment of interest on their debt. Despite the incredible expertise of its personnel, Britannia no longer “rules the waves” and the Royal Navy will likely continue to shrink in the future if Scotland votes for independence this September – an issue lacking serious discussion from a naval perspective. As early as 2007 the British First Sea Lord recognized the Royal Navy would be unable to participate in an international blockade of North Korea if necessary. It would be difficult to imagine significant participation in other multinational operations.

Although the former colonial powers in Europe are decreasing their navies, rising powers in the western Pacific are investing in their fleets; however, with the exception of China none have security interests outside the South or East China Seas. Other major nations, like India has said in the past, may be more reluctant to join a “1,000 ship navy.”

In a more ideal world where countries do find common cause, it is unclear where the fleets will come from. The article states that there are 12,000 ships in the service of navies globally, only 5,000 of which are blue-water capable. How many of these 5,000 are adequately resourced and maintained? How many crews receive sufficient training? How many could actively deploy on a moment’s, a week’s or even a month’s notice? Most importantly, which of those navies have countries that would have the national interest and political will to conduct out-of-area operations? The authors note that “on any given day 685 [ships] are under way.” However that number does not distinguish between being deployed and being under way, the latter a term used for any day away from the pier which might include exercises or preparing for deployments. For example, the Navy’s own website stated on 30 June 2014 that it has 289 battle force ships with 99 deployed and 29 under way. In addition, the authors admit that 42 percent of international ships under way are ships of less than 1,000 tons and therefore unlikely to contribute to major blue-water operations.

The authors suggest that the “global network of navies” already exists, citing coalitions of the willing and anti-piracy task forces as primary examples. It is true that many nations, including the United States, independently participated in the operations or as part of the European Union’s Operation ATALANTA or NATO’s flotilla; however, Combined Task Force 151 – which they cite – was established in January 2009, four years after major ships were being attacked and taken. The authors also do not acknowledge that naval activity off Somalia was only one factor that mitigated piracy. A second factor included the shipping industry’s improvements to Best Management Practices. A third embarked armed guards on commercial ships which became more acceptable by public officials at the State Department and some senior navy officers.

Likewise the international effort to locate Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 as a success story of multinational coalition ignores charges of the Malaysian authorities’ incompetence in responding to the crisis, ever-changing search areas, limitations because of geographically isolated locations, and varying capabilities of the air and sea platforms themselves. Despite the manpower, money, and effort, the plane was – as of this writing – not found, suggesting that the new definition for success is the implementation of a process, not results.

Other examples such as humanitarian assistance operations and counter-narcotics operations also fail to tell a complete story. In public polling in Indonesia before the tsunami of 2004, Indonesians held an unfavorable view of America. Although polls briefly reversed themselves immediately after American assistance flowed into Sumatra during Operation Unified Assistance, polling against the U.S. returned to unfavorable levels less than two years later.

American investment in capacity building is also notable, but limited and unreliable in the long term. For example, the U.S. spent more than a decade rebuilding Iraq’s security forces, only to see them fall away in recent weeks as ISIS swept through towns. The same will possibly occur in Afghanistan when the last U.S. forces leave. It is, therefore, plausible that the U.S. Navy would invest in capacity building only to see a nation’s political changes negate the training and platforms provided.

Political decisions – not naval relationships – will determine what forces to use and when in response to incidents, challenges and crises. The article also fails to address the political realities of multinational operations including funding, compatibility, various rules of engagement and access denial not only by potential adversaries but by allies and partners. For example, as the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division prepared to assault Iraq through Turkey, access through that nation – a NATO ally – was denied despite the offer of billions of dollars. Then-Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Charles Moore later stated that this was a “glimpse of the future…where Turkey was able to significantly alter our war plan in that they denied access.” Negative perceptions about the United States are on the rise globally further eroding U.S. opportunities and increasing them for peer competitors.

America must engage with other countries. The Navy must face also domestic political realities, namely its own role in public opinion and the funding challenges the Navy’s standing in public opinion will inevitably present. In a recent Gallup survey, only 17 percent of Americans believed that the Navy is the most important branch of the military. Only 12 percent think it is the most prestigious branch. Public opinion is a driver of public policy, and if a navy always deployed to protect global maritime stability and engage in other operations cannot convince the nation of its own utility, then how can it convince other nations to join it? In the end, affirming phrases like “global maritime partnerships” cannot rationalize, justify or compensate for the lack of national will to appropriately invest in the country’s own naval capability at the risk of maritime force codependency.

Many of these challenges to ensuring global maritime security are not inherently the role and responsibility of the Department of the Navy. They are, instead, political decisions by policy-makers such as improving U.S. perceptions around the world, ensuring the nation has a stronger economy, and investing in a Navy ideally placed to work in tandem with other nations during crises but sufficiently strengthened as a practicality to conduct unilateral operations if absolutely necessary.

For much of the post-Trafalgar nineteenth century, the world’s seaborne commerce was largely populated by British merchants’ ships and global maritime security primarily ensured by the immense Royal Navy. In 1835, during the middle of the Pax Britannica during his nation-wide tour, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville had many observations about the young republic of the United States, including its maritime force. America, he wrote, was born to rule the seas as the Romans were born to conquer the world. But while Rome conquered part of the world, it did not maintain its empire. If America relies too heavily on partnerships, then it cedes its role in maritime security as surely as the Royal Navy ceded its role. If America is to adapt to these changes, it must invest more in its own people and platforms. Its only other option will be, like the 20th century Royal Navy, to guide like-minded emerging navies. One would hope those emerging navies, like that of the United States in the 19th century, will be there when the baton is ready to be passed, certainly a better decline or ending than the poison and dagger in Romeo and Juliet.


Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy, is the author or co-author of four books, and served as Chair of the Editorial Board of Naval Institute Proceedings. He served with Expeditionary Strike Group Five (2004-2005) and is writing his doctoral dissertation on the foundations of American global naval presence. The opinions reflected are his alone and not those of the Naval Academy or Department of the Navy.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery