war on the rocks

The Brutal Realities of Naval Strategy

July 29, 2015

Peter D. Haynes, Toward a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era, (Naval Institute Press, 2015).


Why does the U.S. Navy struggle with strategy? Or does it? In January of 2014, former diplomat John Tkacik lamented to the Washington Free Beacon that “it’s America’s misfortune that it no longer has any real maritime strategists.” A few months later, Rep. Randy Forbes sent a letter to the chief of naval operations expressing his concern on the matter, saying “in short, I am concerned at the deficit in strategic thinking.” There were quick responses from navalists in online journals and blogs, some of whom contended that there are plenty of naval strategists around. Last week a group of security studies scholars from the Naval Postgraduate School released a report on the Navy’s strategy development process which clearly declares: “Today’s Navy suffers from a strategy deficit.” Peter Haynes’ new book, Toward a New Maritime Strategy, jumps directly into the middle of this debate with authority. The book offers a behind the scenes history of when, how, and why the Navy developed its strategic documents following the end of the Cold War. The result is a masterpiece of institutional history that exposes the Navy’s strategy community, process, and leadership to the light of day. It is a light that is not always flattering.

The book begins with a general introduction and discussion of the Cold War and the Navy’s role in, and thinking about, a global conflict with the Soviets. Haynes, a Navy captain with a PhD in security studies, quickly guides the reader through the strategic documents and thinking produced through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Cold War naval thought culminated with “The Maritime Strategy” of the Reagan era. Yet as the threat of the Soviet navy began to evaporate from the world’s oceans, the U.S. Navy began to struggle with a description of its raison d’etre.

The rest of the book is a history of that struggle and of the Navy’s recent understanding of strategy and strategic concepts. In each chapter Haynes walks the reader through one of the strategic documents produced by the Navy from 1990 to 2015. He discusses what the documents said but also offers a history of the process and personalities that produced them. It is in this history of the staff process that Haynes’ work truly shines. Approaching the subject as a kind of intellectual history, he chronicles and analyzes how decisions were made using the backgrounds and statements of the leaders who made them. This includes consideration of their education, operational experiences, and administrative prejudices. He navigates the shoal waters of competing egos and powerful officers with an impressive clarity.

There are three elements of Toward a New Maritime Strategy which jump off the page for the reader. First, over the course of the past several decades the leadership of the U.S. Navy has become narrower in terms of background, experience, and focus. In part, this is the result of the Navy’s longstanding engineering mindset and education system. But it is also due to the changes that the Goldwater-Nichols Act forced on the Pentagon staffs, and a logical response to the long post-Cold War story of budget cuts and administrative efficiency. Because of these influences, the Navy has spent the past 30 years promoting officers with operational and programmatic focus. It has been deemed more important to have budgetary knowledge and bureaucratic experience than to have an understanding of strategy or geopolitics. This hasn’t only been at the top of the chain-of-command. Because career paths and promotion potential are inculcated in young officers very early on, it stretches across the fleet.

I vividly remember a conversation I had a decade ago when I was a lieutenant searching for funding for a graduate degree. The officer that worked the graduate education desk in Navy Personnel Command explained that the Navy didn’t think there was any reason for its officers to study military history, but there were many opportunities to obtain an MBA or to study finance. Haynes explains the result of choices such as this: generations of naval officers that are focused on explaining the how of naval budgets and weapons systems, but have an extremely limited ability to explain the why of naval and maritime strategy or to execute it.

Second, the book illuminates the Navy’s general lack of understanding of the difference between naval strategy (the use of military force on the sea in war) and maritime strategy (the wider use of the naval, diplomatic, and economic levers of power in peace and war), and how or why the two should interact. This was, in some ways, reflected in the response to John Tkacik’s statement in 2014 bemoaning the dearth of maritime strategists. Coming out of the Cold War, the Navy was in an excellent position to explain its importance to national security. The decades at the dawn of the 21st century have been dominated by the need for rapid and effective crisis response, interaction with a globalizing world, and the interplay between military, diplomatic, and economic elements of national power. For two centuries these had been the forte of America’s naval forces, but naval leadership didn’t appear to have the slightest understanding of it.

Instead, American naval leaders were completely focused on combat and purchasing the high-end weapons systems it required. It wasn’t just that they were unable to explain the importance of a globally engaged and capable Navy for peacetime strategy and regional crises; it was that they didn’t even seem to acknowledge it. As Haynes relates: “Despite a history that speaks of a close relationship between foreign and economic policy, trade, and the U.S. Navy, the Navy’s admirals bore no responsibility to think in systemic terms or to represent the maritime dimensions of U.S. strategy. In short, no one was minding the strategy store.”

Third is the stunning view the book offers inside the Navy staff and the decision-making process in the Pentagon. Haynes lays bare the good, the bad, and the ugly. As Colin Gray said in his comment on the back of the book’s jacket, “This will make uncomfortable reading to many, but read it they must.” Readers learn much about the impact of Goldwater-Nichols, the distinctly different mindsets and philosophies that come from a maritime and naval focus and a continentalist Army and Air Force focus, and the struggle with the many competing definitions of what strategy actually is and who in the Pentagon is responsible for it.

We also see that many of the ideas which we consider new or important today have a much longer pedigree than we care to admit. The fact that Navy strategic documents began talking about anti-access and area-denial as early as 1999 is often lost in today’s discussion. Likewise, the general shift of overall American military strategy toward a recognition that military forces may have responsibilities outside of major power war, a concept that has long been key to maritime thinking, is laid out clearly. One can’t help but be left wondering if an Army or Air Force officer could, or would, take on the challenge of writing such a clear and critical look at their service’s strategy and planning functions.

This book is primarily a work of contemporary and intellectual history. Captain Haynes does this exceedingly well, but it leaves the reader with an unanswered question: Where do we go from here? Some suggestions are made in the conclusion, but they are relatively underdeveloped. The surface level comparison of naval and maritime strategy that runs as a theme throughout the book is valuable, but it cries out for a more elaborate and detailed examination of the strategic theory involved. However, it is understandable that such matters aren’t covered in detail in a work that is clearly a look at our past, even if it is the recent past. For those looking for practical thoughts on the issues identified, the recent Naval Postgraduate School report makes clear recommendations about strategic process, which make it a worthwhile complement to the book.

There are bright spots in the naval strategy community and hopefully Haynes’ work will help to reinforce them. The recent introduction of a process within the Navy’s personnel system to designate and track officers with experience and education in strategic affairs is an important step. There are many thoughtful naval officers who are studying and writing about strategy on their own and hopefully the bureaucracy can learn how to recognize this. Moving the promotion system to value it is another matter entirely. The recent release of the 2015 edition of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, after a long gestation period, is also an important positive development. However, within the document we can already see a shift away from the maritime thinking of the 2007 edition and back toward the operational and programmatic emphasis where naval officers find comfort.

Toward a New Maritime Strategy is a masterful look at how our Navy thinks about, and creates, strategy. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in naval and maritime affairs, or the development of military strategy more broadly, both in uniform and civilian clothes. Frankly, it should be on every officer and national security professional’s reading list because, as the strategist Adm. J.C. Wylie wrote: “Strategy is everyone’s business.” Yes, even maritime strategy.


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He was recently designated with the Navy’s new Naval Strategy sub-specialty code. His second book, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era, was released in February by the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery