war on the rocks

A “Better” Maritime Strategy

March 18, 2015

Three years ago, I published an essay on the challenge of crafting a good strategy in the Naval Institute Proceedings. This short research paper was my contribution to an effort to develop an update to the Department of the Navy’s maritime strategy. The paper combined two threads from the strategic management literature: Mintzberg’s deliberate use of crafting to represent the art of strategy and Rumelt’s emphasis on the building blocks of “good” strategy, contrasted with the perils of bad strategy. In that essay I defined a number of key tests for evaluating good strategy, exploiting Rumelt’s common “strategy sins.”

Recently, the leadership of our maritime services has finally issued an update to the “Cooperative Strategy 21” and it is time to evaluate the new revision against some of the criteria developed by Rumelt and the lessons since learned on writing maritime strategy.

The basic elements of a good strategy are a solid diagnosis, a conceptual “way” to resolve the inherent problem identified by the diagnosis, and a set of coherent implementing actions that logically support the basic guiding policy. The Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century Revision meets these three tests. Furthermore, Rumelt condemned what he called “fluff,” the final hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy. Fluff is represented by superficial abstractions and restatement of the obvious, “combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords that masquerade as expertise.” Rather than compelling, fluff is laced into such documents to mask the absence of real thought and hard choices. I am pleased to find little such fluff in the new maritime strategy. Moreover, the authors have scrupulously avoided Rumelt’s other strategy sins.

1. A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.

2. A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.

3. Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.

Diagnosis. Previous iterations of maritime strategy have often been vague about specific threats, and particularly the role of China. The strategy outlined strikes a balanced position, noting that the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) provides forces for counter-piracy and humanitarian missions, and has demonstrated interest in recognizing the need to embrace standards of conduct at sea. It does not go so far as to say that China is not embracing international norms of behavior in the South China Sea, but does note that China has intimidated its neighbors, employed force, and embarked on a naval expansion that contributes to tension and instability in the region. This statement at least is an honest one and goes beyond the recently issued National Security Strategy out of the White House.

While probably not politically acceptable to the foreign policy community or the Administration, being prepared to counter the deliberate pattern of coercion in the South China Sea will eventually have to be dealt with.

Guiding Policy. While acknowledging the complexity and dangers of today’s security context, the strategy also seeks opportunities through the positive and regular interaction with allies and partners in the maritime and international arena. The strategy incorporates the concept of a “global network of navies,” promoted by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, that brings together “the contributions of like-minded nations and organizations around the world to address mutual maritime security challenges and respond to natural disasters.” This is a powerful notion and is consistent with the employment of a maritime-based national strategy of forward partnership that seeks to preserve a rules-based international order as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Implementation. One of the “sins” Rumelt identified was the persistent failure to actually plan to implement strategies. Too often we fall in love with the glossy product and forget that a strategy is supposed to be an action plan. The strategy is not the end product, it’s merely the impetus to guide the organization forward. The new maritime strategy cannot be accused of falling short in this regard. It offers an extensive list of things the maritime services are doing and will be prepared to do in the future. Moreover, the strategy defines principles for future force design and capabilities that will exploit potentially disruptive technologies that are being experimented with now. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Congressman Randy Forbes (R-VA) believe that a new strategy should “include a dose of strategic foresight and long-term thinking.”

They were correct in asking for a forward-leaning strategy capable of responding to emerging opportunities, and should be as satisfied as I am that the new maritime strategy meets their high standard for foresight.

Force Structure. Past maritime strategies were explicit in defining the force structure required to execute the strategy. In the 1980s, the 600-ship Navy was derived from and justified by the parameters of the maritime strategy produced by then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. This newest version makes it clear that “the Navy and Marine Corps must maintain a fleet of more than 300 ships, including 11 aircraft carriers, 14 ballistic missile submarines, and 33 amphibious ships, while the Coast Guard must maintain a fleet of 91 National Security, Offshore Patrol, and Fast Response Cutters.” Of course, this is a resource-constrained force, sized to projected budget projections for the Pentagon. If the PLAN keeps growing and expanding its capabilities, this force may not be sufficient to advance U.S. security interests in the Pacific and elsewhere. If sequestration continues, our forward presence, engagement and modernization levels will be scaled back severely. Thus, I applaud the authors and signatories for signing up to an explicit “floor” to the current strategy and for the explicit warning about current resource levels.

As noted recently by retired Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix, there is a simple math to our needs for the size of the fleet. I support Hendrix’s argument: “the shrinkage of the American fleet over the past generation has begun to create a power vacuum that is inviting others to challenge the longest lasting maritime peace since man took to the water in boats. If we are to maintain peace as well as remain prepared for war, we will need to grow the fleet.” I support this assessment and its explicit call for more tradeoffs and forward-thinking.

I also agree with my fellow War on the Rocks author and naval analyst Bryan McGrath that our current shipbuilding plan is producing a Navy that is not big enough. International stability and the international trading system is not free and it is not an accident. It is the deliberate product of the “the preponderance of the U.S. Navy, its overwhelming might, its ability to protect U.S. global interests and project power thousands of miles from America’s shores.”

The maritime strategy of 2007 was essentially a strong vision statement or seapower white paper. It had many strengths, particularly its intellectual foundation as a cooperative strategy and its links to our increasingly interlinked global economic system. The newest version of the strategy satisfies most of Rumelt’s criteria to be graded as a “better” strategy right now. But as Mintzberg noted, the true test of any strategy is not the document itself, it is how the organization implements it, how much learning occurs, and how the inherent logic adapts over time to the environment. So let’s “up anchor” and sail forward.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. Commissioned in 1978, he served as a Marine Officer and analyst in the Department of the Navy until 2011. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University, and a PhD candidate at the King’s College, London War Studies Department. These comments are his own and not those of the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery