What Critics of the Navy’s Strategy Get Wrong

January 6, 2015

A series of articles, blog posts, and open letters have bemoaned the lack of a coherent American maritime strategy. Much of this criticism was generated by the difficult gestation of a follow-on document to the 2007 “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” commonly referred to as CS21. Some critics of CS21 have pointed to its lack of any mention of resources, while others have argued that it appears to be too focused on peacetime functions at the expense of warfighting. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan Greenert called for a “refresh” to CS21 not many months after taking office (Sept. 2011), but as yet, the Navy Staff has been unable to produce one. CS21 is over seven years old, predating much of the recent rise of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the current budget crunch. This has provided ammunition for those who accuse the Navy of being unable to devise strategy. One of the critics is Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia. Rep. Forbes has been an ardent advocate for the sea services. This writer attended a U.S. Naval Institute conference last winter in Washington where Forbes and other attending legislators evinced a clear understanding of what America’s maritime strategy really is and has been since the start of the Cold War. Simply stated, the United States has encircled Eurasia with forward deployed sea power in order to deter aggression, encourage allies and friends, provide military options during crises and generally support America’s role as prime guarantor of global economic system security.

The Navy, as well as all the other Services, have operated within the context of that overall maritime strategy. Any so-called “strategies” that have been published by the Navy and the other Services have been pleading documents or served some other purpose. CS21 is of this ilk. It had a single primary purpose: to cultivate broad international cooperation on maritime security, and in that respect it was successful. By depicting the United States on the strategic defensive (“As our security and prosperity are inextricably linked with those of others, U.S. maritime forces will be deployed to protect and sustain the peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance.”) the document counteracted widespread distrust of U.S. motives in the wake of the Iraq invasion. As a number of foreign chiefs of navy told this writer (who designed and led the Naval War College research project that produced the concepts behind CS21), “Your strategy gave us the political top cover we needed with our government to allow us to move out and engage.”

The unstated corporate strategy behind CS21, if only dimly perceived and understood even by those of us crafting it, was to avoid the need for a “home fleet” to protect the U.S. homeland from terrorist smuggling by creating effective international information sharing. Few seem to remember the pressure that was building on the Navy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to keep forces in home waters. The success of the 2007 document in generating international cooperation gave the Navy preemptive top cover with Congress and the White House in case an al Qaeda attack mounted from the sea did materialize. It could demonstrate a legitimate response to the need for homeland maritime security, and thus allow the Navy to keep sending its forces forward.

The challenge the Navy faces today is how to keep executing the actual maritime strategy with a steadily shrinking force. Whatever technical and operational fixes the Navy comes up with, like the current Optimized Fleet Response Plan, what is needed is a corporate strategy for catalyzing Congressional investment in shipbuilding and readiness. In a time of U.S. preeminence, rather low global threat levels and severe budget deficits, this is a tough challenge to say the least. As I understand it, the new draft “strategy” will attempt to make the case for the strategic importance of forward presence. I applaud this approach, but the fact remains that the document will not be an actual strategy. Rather, it will be a document that supports a Navy strategy of focusing on Congress, which may be the best one to pursue at this time.

The actual U.S. maritime strategy will chug on, with the Navy straining to meet the demands of the individual combatant commands by deferring maintenance and extending deployments, despite brave words from Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, who says we will be going to a supply-side rather than a demand-side naval deployment model. But that threatens to undercut the actual maritime strategy. That strategy will come apart in one of two ways: either a presidential decision to bring forces home or the creeping inability of the Navy to generate sufficient forces to execute the strategy.

In my view, all the hand wringing about the lack of strategy and strategists is overwrought and misdirected, despite the difficult gestation of a follow-on document to CS21. The Navy has actually produced some useful documents since 1980. The vaunted 1980s Maritime Strategy was more accurately a contingent warfighting doctrine, and its reputed effects on the Soviet Union are contestable. However, it did accomplish then-CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward’s goal of busting the Navy out of the defensive mindset it had fallen into after Vietnam (focusing on defense of the “GIUK” — Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom — Gap) and start thinking offensively. After the fall of the USSR, the “…From the Sea” series of white papers established Navy joint bona fides and prepared it for its incredible performance in the opening moves of Operation Enduring Freedom. The beneficial effects of the 2007 strategy have been previously mentioned. This seems like a pretty good track record.

As Dr. Phil would say, it’s time to get real. The Navy’s job, like that of the Marine Corps, is to provide ready and capable forces to the joint commanders. It isn’t that there is no room for the Services to engage in strategy development; it’s just that history shows that when such attempts have been made, their beneficial effects have been focused on the Services’ Title X functions more than actual national strategy. The 2007 strategy jumped that fence a little bit; but again, its net effect was to give the Navy political breathing room to execute the actual national maritime strategy. A new Navy “strategy” document oriented on convincing Congress to fund adequate force levels is probably the right thing to do at this juncture, but there will no doubt be plenty of criticism from pundits who will contend that it falls short of being a comprehensive strategy. The new document may succeed (I fervently hope) or it may fail. But either way, it won’t be — and can’t be — an actual strategy.


Robert C. “Barney” Rubel is a retired naval officer. From 2006 to 2014, he was Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the US Naval War College. Prior to assuming this position, he was Chairman of the Wargaming Department. A thirty-year Navy veteran, he received his commission through the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Illinois. He subsequently became a light attack naval aviator, flying the A-7 Corsair II and later the F/A-18 Hornet. He commanded Strike Fighter Squadron 131 and also served as the Inspector General at U.S. Southern Command.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery