Is the Navy Writing Strategy?

July 17, 2014

The U.S. Navy has been working on a new strategy document. CDR Bryan McGrath has discussed it and the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower here at War on the Rocks. In the 21st century, everyone and everything appears to have something they call a strategy, from Silicon Valley start-ups to your home-owners association. But while they call their ideas, plans, and statements “strategies,” they usually don’t deserve the label.

A few weeks ago, the Naval War College held its annual strategy conference, the Current Strategy Forum. This year’s event focused on the Navy’s forthcoming strategy and looked to ask the kinds of questions that would help Navy strategists do their work. Over the past several decades, there have been a number of official Navy documents that have been considered strategies, from the 1990s when papers like “From the Sea” and “Forward … From the Sea” were issued, to the current one, which the Navy staff is endeavoring to update.  Some bore the strategy label, others did not.

Many navalists chart the Navy’s strategic course through these documents back to the 1980s. Military analysts of all stripes likely remember the call for a “600 Ship Navy” during the Reagan administration. The fleet size wasn’t just a talking point. It came alongside a document developed by the Navy staff under the leadership of then Chief of Naval Operations James Watkins and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. AirLand Battle and the NATO plans for the Fulda Gap cast maritime forces in the role of supply chain, necessary for hauling material across the pond, as in World War I and World War II, but not really central to the fight. The Navy and Marine Corps saw things differently. The 1986 “Maritime Strategy” proposed an approach to war with the Soviet Union that included major naval operations around the Eurasian land mass. These would serve to help defend vital American allies while also siphoning Russian combat power away from the plains of Eastern Europe, stretching the Soviets into a multi-front war.

At the Naval War College, retired Captain Robby Harris asked Dr. Geoffrey Till an important question: “Some would argue that the high water point of maritime strategy, naval strategy, was John Lehman and Jim Watkins’ Maritime Strategy of the 1980s. Do you agree, why or why not?” Till’s answer was interesting (and worth watching), but I don’t think it got at the heart of the question. Some members of the audience thought the question seemed to be saying, “Look, we’ve done this pretty well before, we just need to do the same thing.” Then again, as Harris said, it might not even be a valid comparison.

That comparison is built upon a very significant problem. We are not engaged in a Cold War with anyone. We are not moments away from the outbreak of a global shooting war in quite the way we were when facing the Soviets. The Maritime Strategy of 1986 was designed to face that Soviet threat (as Till’s answer illuminated). It had very clear “ends” in the axiomatic approach to strategy described as “ends-ways-means.”

I would suggest that today we don’t have an “ends.” We do not have a goal for naval force in quite the same way Harris and the strategists laboring in the Pentagon did in the 1980s. As a result, what is being discussed in the rewriting of 2007’s Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, and what McGrath has addressed here at War on the Rocks, is not actually strategy, but instead a clear outlining of naval policy — the Navy’s view of things. And it should be; sound naval policy lies at the foundation of any future strategy.

From Sun Tzu to Clausewitz to Mahan, the grand masters have written in one form or another that war is an extension of policy or politics. The objective of war is for one side to bend the will of the other through force of arms to achieve a political goal. If today’s naval strategists in the Pentagon are struggling with a grand overarching strategy like the one in 1986, it may be because we don’t have a single country that we anticipate having to force into a specific political result. Instead, as we heard at the Current Strategy Forum, there are a wealth of potential challenges and issues around the world that we may have to deal with in the future. It seems reasonable to suggest that what needs to be written is not a strategy at all, but instead a clear statement of our nation’s naval policies. A policy document like this explains the “means” and illuminates the different “ways” that may be used strategically in the future, once an “end” is determined.

Now this may all be semantics. Or maybe not. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, asked an important question in his CSF14 opening remarks. It was one that hasn’t really been addressed in the after-action writing about the conference. Wondering about what strategy is, he asked, “Is it in a book somewhere, what’s the definition?” Maybe defining strategy is one of the things that needs to be considered.


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer, helicopter pilot, and a PhD candidate in War Studies with King’s College, London. He has served as an amphibious search & rescue pilot and led an MH-60S gunship detachment in Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR and in counter-piracy and counter-terror operations in the Middle East. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute and the editor of 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. The views expressed are those of the author alone and are presented in his private capacity.


Image: US Navy