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

July 3, 2014

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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

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5 thoughts on “A Rose by Any Other Name Still has Thorns: A Global Network of Navies

  1. Claude,

    Thank you for highlighting the Global Network of Navies in your post and continuing the discussion on a professional level in this forum.

    In response to your Shakespeare citation, I would offer you another quote from a well-known English gentleman:

    “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – And that is to fight without them”
    – Sir Winston S. Churchill

    While establishing and managing meaningful partnerships is not easy, it is rewarding for all parties in the relationship. We learn a lot from one another and we create synergies between naval forces that will endure for a very long time. As ADM Mullen used to say, “You can’t surge trust.” It must be built over time.

    As you know, sometimes the world gets a vote and crises can spin up on a moment’s notice. There may not be time to establish a robust coalition or an enduring partnership in response to world events or natural disasters. That’s the beauty of a “global network of navies”–a coalition of the willing that can “plug and play”–come as you are and do as much as you can. You hit the nail on the head in that interoperability is important. We’ve got to do more to facilitate good communications with potential members of the network and the establishment of a common operating picture. Hence the last five points in the article: Participation; Exercise; Talk meaningfully; Standardize; Exchange ideas.

    I’ll reiterate one example and that is the destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapon Stockpiles. The Danes and the Norwegians removed the stockpile from the Syrian port of Latakia. The Russians and the Chinese provided warships as escort vessels. The Russian referred to himself as OTC, but that was Officer in Tactical “Control” not Tactical Command. The US Navy trans loaded the stockpile in a third party location and will neutralize the stockpile onboard USS CAPE RAY. This all came together quickly and in the midst of the crisis in the Ukraine. It worked, despite ongoing differences between some of the players because it was in ALL of our national security interests to do so. I don’t think anyone can argue that the world is not a better place with these weapons no longer in the hands of the Assad regime.

    Finally, I would offer that the largest exercise in the Pacific Ocean, RIMPAC, is now ongoing with 26 nations and 42 ships and scores of aircraft off the coast of Hawaii. This is the first time that the Chinese Navy has been a full participant in RIMPAC. It’s a great example of a real time execution of those five things I mentioned above. And when it comes time to mitigate the next natural disaster in the Pacific Rim, all participants will be better prepared and postured to do so.

    Based on a number of factors, I don’t see America going it alone in the near future unless it is defense of the homeland. I stand by what we said and wrote in “Forging a Global Network of Navies.” As the world becomes more complex and the oceans less secure, we are compelled to strengthen the bond of international maritime cooperation.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment and keep chargin’ Claude.


    J.G. Foggo

  2. Sir,
    Thanks for your reply and perspectives.

    The example of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles was probably the best of the seven examples provided in the article. Some of the others I responded to didn’t meet the standards you set forth in yours.

    I don’t think anyone who’s been to sea would disagree that working with other navies is both important and rewarding. As the son of a WWII vet, I found it fascinating to have my ship operate with those from both Japan and Germany, for example. Alliances, partners, and opponents shift over time. That’s history. But that’s also the problem Churchill faced as London burned in the middle of the Blitz. Where were his allies? Where were their platforms? Where was their political will to enter the fight? If you look at Gallup poll in the fall of 1941, the majority of Americans were opposed to entering a European war.

    And that is why I wrote that naval partnerships are important but they aren’t always reliable – not because of the navies with whom we the honor to work with every day but because of the decisions that rest with the political authorities and public opinion among our partners and even ourselves to appropriate invest in their own capabilities.

    This will continue to be a problem as maritime challenges remain constant and there are fewer and fewer resources among us and most other navies to respond to those challenges.

    Thanks again, sir, and I hope you and your family have a happy and safe Fourth of July.

  3. If America relies too heavily on partnerships, then it cedes its role in maritime security as surely as the Royal Navy ceded its role.

    The Pax Britannica did not end because the UK relied too heavily on partnerships, it ended because the UK lost its economic hegemony as the world economy became more multipolar. Military power inevitably follows, although you might try to pretend that your share of the military pie wasn’t shrinking by talking about 2-power standards and the like. Eventually you have to admit economic reality and so that’s when you have to rely more on partnerships – as Fisher did with his North Sea pivot, handing over responsibility for security in the Med and Western Pacific to France and Japan so that he could can a bunch of low-end warships in order to build dreadnoughts to take on the new peer enemy.

    Even at the same stage of decline, your procurement is very different if you have enough self-awareness to plan for Jutland rather than maintaining a massive fleet of sloops for constabulary duties. Handing over constabulary tasks to partners may mean that the security task is done less well – but that is less important than maintaining the wherewithal to fight Jutland.

  4. El Cid,
    I concur. A nation with a severely constricted economy and which chooses other investment priorities cannot maintain its fleet (post-Armada Spain, late 20th century England, 21st century America?) The point is that as funding is reduced and fleets are reduced, nations enter ad hoc partnerships out of necessity and there are inherent challenges to relying on those partnerships when the partners are facing their own fiscal realities.

  5. Noone’s doubting that things are more difficult when you have to rely on partnerships – I think where we disagree is whether the US has a choice. You seem to be living in 1889, where the UK responds to growing foreign military strength by “more of the same” increased military spending – as formalised by the adoption of the 2-power standard. At least that’s my interpretation of the first part of :

    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…If America relies too heavily on partnerships, then it cedes its role in maritime security

    You seem to be saying “The US has a choice of more military spending or partnerships, and partnerships are undesirable”. I’m living in 1904, where Fisher realised that option 1 was no longer feasible, and partnerships were inevitable. A multipolar economic world means that the US will have to cede its global role in maritime security, the questions it faces are how to prioritise within the reduced-but-still-important role that follows.

    I’m fascinated with the parallels between today and the late 19th century, starting with the first great crisis of a globalised economy in 1873. The similarities are really quite spooky when you look at it closely. So I’d be interested in what you would do differently if you had been First Sea Lord in 1900 – or indeed at any time between 1880 and 1910?

    The Pax Americana will not end in precisely the same way as the Pax Britannica but I think that modern thinkers on the future of the USN should be able to give an answer to the above question – and then explain how things are different for the modern US. Until they can do that, I suggest they’re not thinking hard enough.