No Strategic Success without 21st Century Seapower: Forward Partnering


If you read War on the Rocks regularly, you are aware that history has returned and that geopolitics are central to world events. A dozen years of war and two trillion dollars invested in trying to shape another people’s social system has distracted us, but now we need to become normal again. By normal I mean thinking and acting strategically. Thinking strategically also means deciding about priorities and making tradeoffs, a competence that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen suggested we lost a while ago when resources were seemingly limitless.

This call for true strategy is just in time. America’s so-called “Unipolar Moment” has quickly passed. Our uncontested preponderance was not a permanent condition. Geopolitical history suggests that multi-polarity is far more common. Some suggest we live in a Post-Pax Americana context described as “nonpolar” or “apolar.” Others suggest we prepare for a Post-American World, one in which American decline, absolute or relative, is inevitable.

I very much doubt that we will live a world ruled by China as Martin Jacques suggests, but we will live in a world in which our international system–a rule-based order that has benefited us and the global community–is contested by an alternative system with a different political format, a different set of values, and a different economic model. It remains to be seen how this emerging bi-polar contest plays out.

For those of you up on your Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue is being replayed in Mandarin in the South China Sea today—“the mighty do what they can and the small suffer what they must.” This crude realpolitik coming out of Beijing is well understood in Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines.

American strategic thinking needs to adapt to the changes in the security environment, particularly China’s emergent power. Some folks do not think we need a strategy, while others bemoan the silent death of American strategy entirely. We have amply demonstrated over the last decade that our strategic thinking and implementation machinery are rusty and that we lack the cognitive discipline to sort out priorities, preferring to do everything and simply outspend our rivals.

Too often we think a strategy is simply a list of bulletized objectives on a power point slide. Too often, as Rumelt suggests, we:

dedicate resources to unconnected targets and accommodate incompatible interests or contradictory bureaucratic preferences. Too often we apply resources without priorities, a luxury of the rich and intellectually lazy or careless. But this makes for bad strategy.

Those days are over. This generation of military leaders will operate within a more constrained budget for national security resources and with fewer and less capable allies across a broader mission base, which will generate a protracted debate on national priorities.

In the face of rising challenges, broadening missions in new domains, and reduced resources, a true strategy is needed to preserve and extend America’s ability to advance and secure its national security interests. As Professor Freedman has noted, a real strategy must also relate to a specific context and an understanding as to what position we seek to obtain. To do so, we will have to be able to craft what Rumelt finds rare: a good strategy.

I hope to suggest the outline of that strategy here.

Strategic Options

There are several prominent grand strategy options in the public marketplace of ideas. Each has political and academic constituencies in our public discourse today, and each option offers different pros and cons. Each also has a different price tag.

Strategic Restraint. This is the most rapidly growing school in academic and policy circles, led by MIT Professor Barry Posen.This school argues for reduced military spending, redefined foreign priorities, and a shift of our defense burden to allies. Restraint sounds disciplined but it is difficult to differentiate the proposed strategy from outright retreat and retrenchment. No doubt that this strategy would help justify much lower defense spending, perhaps as low as $400B a year. But current events in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Afghanistan suggest that “restraint” is not the problem.

Offshore Balancing. A number of advocates across the political spectrum are promoting a more classical strategy of Offshore Balancing. Chris Layne thinks it is the operative strategy of the Obama Administration. In its classical formulation, this policy would forgo formal alliances, and like Strategic Restraint, advocate the removal of most forward-based forces. In Offshore Balancing, the U.S. would expect regional powers (think of China, Russia, and Iran) to maintain order in their own areas, and would avoid direct engagement until a crisis emerged. Such an approach, however, is reactive and presumes the U.S. can regain access when regional powers and friends have proven they cannot match up to the task.

Selective Engagement. Selective Engagement counters some of the weaknesses of Offshore Balancing. It is a proactive strategy that seeks to shape events. First, it accepts the notion that working towards a stable international environment is in U.S. interests. Second, the strategy is selective since U.S. interests are prioritized on a regional basis and based upon key alliances, rather than seeking global dominance.   The strategy is also selective in when and how it applies military force. It stresses a narrower and realist appreciation of U.S. national interests over universal values, and reserves waging war for vital and highly important interests rather than humanitarian interventions.

This strategy invests forward stationed and conventional forces in much the same pattern as the last several decades.

Primacy or Assertive Internationalism. This strategy has been advocated most recently by the scholar Robert Kagan. It offers thegreatest degree of unilateral action, the greatest propensity to use military force, and the large defense budget. It preserves America’s preponderance of power but largely in the military domain. Because it seeks global leadership and primacy and has the highest deployment and employment tempo, Primacy is the most expensive strategic option. Indeed, it is likely to generate a cost that appears well beyond what the body politic of the United States is willing to pay for.

A Synthesis: Forward Partnering

Which of these strategies will allow America to advance and secure its interests in the face of rising powers and an eroding power base? The international system will require some leadership and as Brooking’s Bruce Jones has quipped, it’s still “ours to lead” if we can generate the political will and consensus to do so. To do so, we will have to be postured to reassure friends and to defend the extant system that has generated significant benefits to most of the world. We will have to fulfill this role with fewer resources and a smaller margin of preponderance than the past two decades.I contend that the United States will be more secure, and global stability more sustained, if America shifts to a strategy of “Forward Partnering.”

Forward Partnering blends the discipline and concentrated resources of the Selective Engagement school with the freedom of action and reliance on naval assets of Offshore Balancing. It endorses the selective discipline of Selective Engagement on vital and core U.S. national interests. But is favors the flexibility of naval forces over stationing of American garrisons. The “selective” component will husband scarce resources and forces, but our engagement and partnerships will retain American commitments to friends and allies. In this way, it generates a force requirement that better matches the defense resources that we can expect in the coming years, unlike Assertive or Liberal Interventionism.

Forward Partnering rejects the detachment, distance and reactive character of Strategic Restraint and the anti-collective security aspects of Offshore Balancing. It does, however, accept the need to engage broadly with designated partners and friends to preserve regional stability, but without extensive forward-stationed forces. The strategy focuses on critical national interests in the global commons, ensuring access to critical markets and resources for ourselves and our partners.

As suggested by the name, this strategy leverages U.S. military forces that operate forward and with our allies and partners to leverage cooperative and preventive actions to prevent conflict. It emphasizes naval power to generate and sustain these preventive actions and to promote partnerships.

This approach envisions exploiting a command of the commons to both generate and sustain freedom of action for ourselves as well as our allies and partners.

The focus of the strategy is not on American Primacy but on preserving a stable and rule-based international system. The United States should continue to serve as the “managing partner” of the larger concert of nations seeking to preserve this system. This is consistent with Mahan’s arguments in favor of informal concerts of seapower to generate maritime and economic advantage.

This strategy is certainly relevant to the realities of geography in the Indian and Pacific theaters. Clearly those interests are at greater risk in Asia given the importance of international trade and our allies and treaty partners in the region. As we “rebalance” from the Middle East and Central Asia to this region, our engagements and focus will concentrate foremost on the Pacific. That said, the political sensitivities about U.S. bases in the Middle East and South Asia also reinforce the utility of naval forces with a more dynamic presence and lower footprint.

Military Force Design

The force design implications of this defense strategy suggest the following:

  • We would place a priority on naval maneuver assets, our Navy and Marine team, to generate both strategic and operational freedom of action in priority regions and the ability to exploit the global commons to shift resources flexibly.
  • Naval forces would be structured to ensure sea control and access and to provide crisis response with tailored naval expeditionary assets.
  • Partnership with allies would be retained and our Joint power projection ability from the continental United States would be the major source of strategic reassurance and war-winning capacity.
  • Forward stationed forces would be reduced in order to gain maximum strategic freedom of action over fixed positions or intensive protracted conflicts. Commitments would be sustained and routinely exercised.

Fleet Design

This grand strategy would influence our Maritime Strategy and shape the size and capabilities of our Fleet. The fleet will be regrettably smaller than what we actually need. Higher capability requirements and sharp cost increases have pushed down the total number of ships we can afford.   We need to raise awareness of this simple fact–we have a 306-ship plan but we’re budgeting ship procurement accounts that will produce a 240-ship Navy by 2025. As CBO has noted, we are trying to build up our Navy ship totals with a plan that requires roughly $218B a year. However, the Navy’s budget is probably going to fall short of that by some $5-6 billion each year. The result will be a fleet of 220 to 240 ships by 2030, barring a significant spike in shipbuilding.

More importantly than just the right numbers, we need to build the right fleet with the fewest dollars we can project to be available for shipbuilding.

How will Forward Partnership influence the Navy? My fleet design does not embrace “balance” as a design principle. Relevance is the key word. The Fleet should not be built around what it does day-to-day in peacetime, or to provide maritime security. What is most relevant is our warfighting capability. This is the ultimate source of a credible deterrent against aggression and the most reassuring source of credibility we provide to our treaty partners.

The fleet should be strategically shaped by the character of the operating environment in the Pacific and by a conscious net assessment. Our marked aversion to addressing the most important geopolitical challenge of our times is not conducive to sound public policy and discourse on our security interests. Climate change is not our greatest threat, despite what Commander, U.S. Pacific Command may say. As important as maritime security, environmental challenges and transnational crime may be, we should be clear about our priorities: the greatest geostrategic challenge to our conception of a stable international system is China.  We do not need to confront China about its doctrine, modernization plans or the transparency of its defense spending. But we do need to clarify our intentions about what is acceptable and not acceptable when it comes to norms, international law and behavior.

Having worked for some 30-odd years inside the Marine Corps, I am genetically predisposed towards the writings of Corbett. However, our strategic context suggests we not adhere to Sir Julien’s littoral emphasis. Our interests are challenged further out in the global commons today by a rising power who appears to have embraced Alfred Thayer Mahan’s robust nationalism and naval theory.Mahan remains relevant today as he saw correctly that American greatness depends on dominant sea power. Many in America have forgotten Mahan or think he’s outdated due to globalization but there is little doubt that the Chinese have embraced some of Mahan’s principles. We may be entirely a neo-Mahanian era with Chinese characteristics.

Our fleet should place a premium on certain operationally required attributes suggested by the character of the vast Pacific region and its security challenges. In particular, we need a fleet that has reach, endurance, and lethality. Every aspect of that requirement argues against the largest and fastest-growing aspect of today’s Navy—small surface combatants, which have too much aluminum and too little fighting capacity. There is far too much interest and investment in flotillas of small combatants and auxiliaries. While not irrelevant to many Navy missions, given today’s smaller shipbuilding budget, investing in swarming small craft is “Flotilla Folly.” We need a Navy Fighting Machine that deters competitors, reassures allies and friends and, when crisis erupts, can fight and win against a projected antagonist.

The recent interest in Influence Squadrons is misplaced.We already have wonderfully effective sources of influence— both Carrier Strike Groups or Amphibious Ready Groups give us the opportunity to shape and influence events, at sea and ashore. But let’s be clear: our deterrent capacity and ability to reassure friends comes from our warfighting capacity and capabilities.

Our acquisition plans are over-investing in surface and tactical air assets. We should spend at least as much on building ships as we do buying airplanes and missiles. More critically, we need to think in terms of creating a sustained and strategically competitive advantage against future adversaries, and that would be in undersea warfare. Like Congressman Randy Forbes, I think we are underinvesting in submarines. In an age of surveillance parity based on space and precision strike, our large surface resources would probably be at some operational disadvantage.  We currently possess and can extend a more competitive stance, and perhaps impose costs better, by emphasizing undersea warfare. This could be the potential basis for what Thomas Mahnken has described in his wonderful book on competitive strategy.


Despite claims about the silent death of American grand strategy, the United States remains capable of both developing and applying strategy. It is not the end of the American-led era, but it will be if we do not take steps to craft sound strategy. Preserving today’s international system and our access to the global commons is a must. It directs relates to our economy and future prospects. As the naval strategist Bryan McGrath has stressed in this outlet, our prosperity is dependent upon our useofthe sea. This requires the preservation of our global reach by sea and flexible forward engagement. This is what navies are for. Seapower confers freedom of maneuver and strategy flexibility, and it leverages the globally networked forces that Navy leaders are calling for.

Forward Partnering contributes to the debate and offers a framework for generating greater coherence between the ends, ways and means of American security. The strategy defines priorities for shaping American power and its armed forces for the current century instead of the last. More critically, Forward Partnering resolves the growing gap in a coherent ends-ways-means chain that should guide America’s grand strategy.

Admittedly, Forward Partnership has a maritime focus, employing seapower principally as an element of forward posturing and engagement. The Naval Services need neither be shy nor modest about their contributions to national security. American seapower is not sufficient by itself, but it’s not a luxury either. It’s a strategic necessity if we seek to sustain an order that counts on access to the global commons for our prosperity. In short, strategic success in the 21st century is synonymous with the persistent development and prudent application of seapower.


Frank Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University. These are his own remarks and they do not necessarily represent the policy or position of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery