The New Maritime Strategy: It’s Tricky to Balance Ends, Ways, and Means


Editor’s Note: Bryan McGrath was the primary author of the 2007 maritime strategy that preceded this new work. Bryan Clark previously served as a close adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, and played a role in shaping some of the ideas in this strategy.


The nation’s maritime services (Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) unveiled their new strategy last week, entitled, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready. Billed as a revision to the 2007 Maritime Strategy, this updated document makes a clear break from its predecessor to address the much different security environment naval forces face today, one characterized by constrained budgets, an increasingly aggressive and revisionist China and Russia, and a growing Islamic terrorist movement. Like the 2007 strategy, it will serve as a useful communication and tool for the Navy. On the other hand, like its predecessor, it will likely be criticized by purists for not adequately balancing ends, ways, and means and for its lack of clear priorities.

While the maritime strategy remains a tri-service document, it retains its overwhelmingly “Navy” orientation. As a result, the new strategy will help cement the legacy of Admiral Jonathan Greenert as CNO, and codify several “big ideas” he introduced during his time at the helm.

Four of these ideas stand out in the new maritime strategy. The first is elevation of electro-magnetic (EM) spectrum operations to a level equal with other naval warfare areas such as surface warfare and integrated air and missile defense. Next is squeezing more forward presence from a force that is unlikely to grow in the coming years; and, if the ongoing financial imbroglio continues, a force that is quite likely to decline in size. Third is the establishment of gaining and sustaining access as the main naval contribution to the joint force. And fourth is a heavy emphasis on achieving greater flexibility, adaptability, and modularity in the sea services.

Strategy and Great Power Competition

The strategy’s most significant shortfall is it does not sufficiently explain the role and application of American seapower in an era of increasing great power competition. Military challenges from rivals like Russia and China are clearly a priority for naval posture and force design given the Navy and Marine Corps we have today and are planning for the future. Yet the strategy does little to explain how naval peacetime presence and warfighting capabilities will address great power dynamics.

Recent Russian and Chinese aggressions are somewhat diplomatically described in section 1 (Global Security Environment). The strategy then goes on to describe in subsequent sections several initiatives that could help U.S. and allied naval forces deter or respond to this aggression. Unfortunately, the strategy does not connect Russian and Chinese behavior to these initiatives. Even if the United States never comes into actual conflict with these powers, their considerable anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities and ongoing low-level provocations could signal to allies that American forces could not or would not intervene on their behalf. Unless U.S. strategies articulate a credible approach to protect allies’ interests this belief could shape their peacetime behavior in ways that cause them to be more accommodating, something Dr. Andrew Krepinevich compares to the Cold War phenomena of “Finlandization.”

The lack of connection between strategic environment, ends (missions), ways (posture, functions), and means (force design) repeats the primary error of the 2007 strategy and reduces the utility of this document as strategy. This is more than an academic concern. As noted above these linkages would help the naval services communicate reassurance to allies and partners. They also would enable the services to establish priorities among posture, capability and force design initiatives and identify the level of capability or capacity needed in the force.

While the Navy’s current leaders may know how various initiatives in the strategy are intended to address its security environment and missions, this understanding is likely not shared by the numerous other groups needed to implement the strategy, support it, or complement it. We are informed that the Navy plans a classified annex to the strategy that may articulate these connections, but it will have a limited audience. There are thousands of leaders within the Navy who make decisions every day about how to use their time and resources; U.S. Combatant Commanders who plan and conduct naval operations; allies and partners who want to complement U.S. efforts; and those in Congress and the Office of Management and Budget who modify and approve Navy budgets. It is unlikely they will all have access, time or interest to digest a classified supplement.

The amount and character of naval presence needed in the Indo-Pacific and Europe should be designed to counter the revisionist actions of China and Russia. Section 2 on Forward Presence and Partnerships, however, would lead one to believe that the level and character of naval presence in Europe is designed to address Iranian missile threats and disorder in North Africa. The challenge presented by Russia is not mentioned. The discussion of Indo-Pacific presence provides no basis at all for the growing fleet to be continuously deployed in the region other than the ongoing “Asia-Pacific rebalance.” This lack of specificity could reduce the confidence of European and Asian allies in U.S. security assurances today. Going forward American and allied planners will lack the context to project how the number and type of deployments might evolve as security concerns change over time.

Sections 3 (Functions) and 4 (Fleet Design) detail several excellent capabilities and concepts that appear intended to address China, Iran and Russia. What isn’t described is the priority between them and their connection to external security challenges. As a result, when deployments, investments, or research and design efforts need to be reduced (for instance in a budget crunch), the hundreds of officials able to make these decisions may not know where to go first — or last.

For instance, the Navy will build and deploy a number of ships focused on maritime security and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions such as the Mobile Landing Platform (MLP), the Afloat Forward Staging Base (AFSB), the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) and (in the surface warfare configuration) the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). At the same time the presence these ships provide can also counter the implication of U.S. competitors that A2/AD capabilities will push American forces from their regions. They can also show allies and partners that U.S. naval forces have appropriate means to oppose low-intensity or “sub-conventional” aggression, similar to what China is undertaking in the South China Sea. Understanding the wide-ranging value of these ships would be important to allies, Combatant Commanders, and U.S. policy makers.

The Primacy of Access and Setting Standards

The strategy establishes “all domain access” as a new function for the maritime services and suggests it is their most important contribution to joint warfare. This is an important and much-needed strategic shift. The Cold War maritime strategy proposed using naval forces to project power on the flanks of the Soviet Union to take pressure off ground forces in the central front, with sea control as a necessary enabler. After the Cold War, the Navy’s strategic focus shifted almost entirely to power projection in the absence of any threats to sea control. Today the proliferation and improvement of A2/AD networks make access a vital and contested element of joint warfighting. Given the location and geography of America’s A2/AD-equipped rivals, the United States will have to largely rely on its naval forces to gain access.

The position of all domain access in the strategy’s functional hierarchy, however, is not clear. The five maritime functions — all domain access, sea control, power projection, deterrence, and maritime security — are portrayed as equal and parallel. But in section 4, the document implies sea control and power projection combined with C4ISR and EM spectrum operations produce all domain access.

While this seems like merely a taxonomical discussion, the orchestration and relationship among functions (or ways) in the strategy have implications for the kind and quality of capabilities (or means) needed to implement it. In this case, if sea control and power projection result in all domain access, then the need to obtain access for specific joint force operations sets the bar for how much sea control and power projection capability is needed in the naval force and how good it has to be.

If instead all the maritime functions are independent, then it is more difficult to establish standards for naval force capabilities — especially in a constrained budget environment. For example, the requirement for sea control capability and capacity could be established as sweeping the enemy from a large area of ocean and coastline, regardless of the intended joint force operation. This could be unaffordable or unachievable.

Moreover, one could infer from the ships and systems described as providing deterrence that it is an outgrowth of sea control and power projection as well. This would suggest naval sea control and power projection must have sufficient capability and capacity to “convince potential enemies they cannot win or that the cost of aggression would be unacceptable” — which could be a much higher bar than merely gaining access. It is more likely the joint force would provide deterrence as a whole, but by not describing the relationship between functions, the strategy does not provide planners this insight. Further, it misses an opportunity to prioritize one approach to deterrence over the other, which may be necessary against capable A2/AD-equipped adversaries.

Another aspect of deterrence the new strategy does not address is the need for a robust naval and maritime industrial base. The United States could in the near future have little or no excess production capacity beyond a relatively low peacetime level in its new construction shipyards, its repair yards, and munitions factories. As a capital-intensive operation whose force structure takes years to develop, this shortfall may erode the ability of naval forces to deter major powers like China or Russia. The Navy must begin to make the argument that it is in our national interest to ensure some measure of excess industrial capacity for wartime use, even if this is inefficient in peacetime.

This new strategy is an important step forward and a coherent recognition that the world has changed in significant ways since 2007. It moves American seapower in the right direction by providing a more hard-edged, clear-eyed vision than the document it replaces. If supplemented by statements or discussions that make its priorities clear — to friends and allies, future friends, and others — and the national will to implement those priorities, it could lead to a significant and beneficial strengthening of this foundational element of our national power.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC and Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower. Bryan Clark is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery