The National Security Strategy’s Implications for Seapower


Editor’s Note: Please check out the full roundtable at our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review.

The 2017 National Security Strategy is a statement of Trump administration priorities, and its central tenets can be directly traced to statements made by Donald Trump on the campaign trail, albeit now framed in more genteel terms. National security experts are busily analyzing the strategy to discern its insights, pivots, oversights, inconsistencies, and priorities. This essay, however, concerns itself solely with the strategy’s implications for American seapower.

Seapower advocates have long made the case for freedom of the seas and the security and prosperity benefits that such freedom provides. The strategy comes out of the blocks strong on this front, stating, “Americans have long recognized the benefits of an interconnected world, where information and commerce flow freely” (p. 7). But this recognition is quickly qualified:

Engaging with the world, however, does not mean the United States should abandon its rights and duties as a sovereign state or compromise its security. Openness also imposes costs, since adversaries exploit our free and democratic system to harm the United States.

Here we find the fundamental tension between worldwide freedom of the seas (provided by globally deployed American seapower), and the Trump administration’s view that the United States is often taken advantage of, a tension that is never satisfactorily resolved in the document.

Where the U.S. Navy Is Going and Why

The document outlines U.S. strategy region-by-region: In the Indo-Pacific, the strategy is decidedly forward-leaning, with assurances not only of robust and powerful forward-deployed U.S. forces, but of cooperation, the importance of alliances, and the need to help build partner capacity. Not so in Europe. Our NATO allies are again reminded of their political commitments on defense spending even after a sober discussion of the multiple threats posed by Russia. A Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study released last year (and summarized in War on the Rocks) entitled Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy showed conclusively, that a navy the size of that advocated by the president in his campaign (350 ships) is warranted only if the Navy returns to Europe in force, with routine presence in both the Mediterranean and the approaches to Northern Europe. This document would have been a useful place to lay the groundwork for that return.

In the Middle East, the importance of forward-deployed power is reinforced without reference to the capability of our friends and allies there to provide it for themselves. South and Central Asia are handled separately from the Indo-Pacific, perhaps due to the abidingly continental nature of the former and the maritime nature of the latter. Thus, there is little in the South and Central Asia section that relates to seapower. In the Western Hemisphere, the failure to mention the role of the Coast Guard (except by inference) is notable. In Africa, the ability to support counter-terrorism forces from the sea is, similarly, inferred.

While the strategy document acknowledges that a strong economy “protects the American people, supports our way of life, and sustains American power,” it does not offer any substantial discussion of how military power works to protect and sustain economic prosperity. Yet, no other aspect of military power is as closely connected with prosperity. This symbiotic relationship between seapower and prosperity was bluntly stated centuries ago by Sir Walter Raleigh:

[W]hosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.

American seapower apostle Alfred Thayer Mahan packaged this view more diplomatically for statesmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though no less emphatically.

No such emphasis is to be found in this document. Instead, seapower is simply treated as one of several instruments of military power that must be better resourced without any indication of priority. Meanwhile, a number of familiar campaign themes manifest themselves in the National Security Strategy’s prescriptions for promoting prosperity (fair trade deals, improving infrastructure, and reducing regulatory burdens) without much consideration of that which provides for the movement of 90 percent of world trade: freedom of the seas underwritten by dominant American seapower.

A New Era of Great Power Competition on the Seas

Although the document fails to discuss the unique peacetime, regulatory functions performed by globally postured American seapower and their impact on prosperity (not to mention the force structure required to perform these functions), it does reveal the Trump administration’s reasons for calling for a military buildup: to prevent and prepare for war with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and to conduct ongoing operations against jihadist terrorists. It is a compelling case, such as it is, and it provides some hopeful signs for those advocating for dominant American seapower.

The strategy recognizes that we have entered a new age of great power competition. Calling out China and Russia is helpful because it not only identifies the threats that U.S. forces will likely face, but it also suggests a range of military objectives against which these nations might move. Understanding threat and objectives helps military planners determine the right size (capacity) and mix (capability) of the force. One statement, in particular, resonates:

China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor (p. 25).

Displacing the United States in the Indo-Pacific region is no mean task, and the military component of this Chinese objective is abidingly maritime in nature. If it is indeed the desire of the United States not to be displaced, American seapower will have to shoulder a disproportionate share of the load. The language regarding the Russian threat is equally strong, and makes clear to national security planners that Europe is once again a theater of concern after several decades of relative peace.

A New Deterrence Posture

The document introduces a sophisticated argument for a new conventional deterrence posture that has significant implications for American seapower:

We must convince adversaries that we can and will defeat them—not just punish them if they attack the United States. We must ensure the ability to deter potential enemies by denial, convincing them that they cannot accomplish objectives through the use of force or other forms of aggression (p.28).

This shift from an emphasis of deterrence by punishment to one that stresses denial of enemy objectives echoes the central theme of the CSBA report mentioned above. This study was conducted in response to tasking in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act directing the Defense Department to commission a series of reports on alternative fleet architectures. The CSBA report was unique among the three studies in that the entire fleet architecture was built around a central proposition: that the current approach to conventional deterrence would be ineffective against the numerous, important — but limited — military objectives available to China and Russia in their near abroad. In other words, the threat of punishment would be insufficient to deter, and the ability of U.S. forces in the region to deny or delay aggression must be increased in order to raise the costs of aggression.

This is not a subtle shift. In fact, deterrence by denial demands the availability of nearby force that can be employed quickly and lethally, a primary attribute of forward-deployed American seapower. The CSBA’s architecture provides an option for a more muscular conventional deterrent against not only China and Russia, but also Iran and North Korea.

Growing the U.S. Fleet

The National Security Strategy also makes it clear that when it comes to military force, size matters. Criticizing previous administrations, the strategy states:

We also incorrectly believed that technology could compensate for our reduced capacity — for the ability to field enough forces to prevail militarily, consolidate our gains, and achieve our desired political ends. We convinced ourselves that all wars would be fought and won quickly, from stand-off distances and with minimal casualties (p. 27).

Critics of growing the U.S. fleet have for years fallen back on the notion that, because individual ships are more capable today than ships in the past, fewer of them are needed. The strategy strikes a blow against the false choice of “capacity vs. capability,” advocating that both are important. Whether both are important across the spectrum of military power is an open question.

The strategy states that, “The Joint Force must remain capable of deterring and defeating the full range of threats to the United States” (p. 29). At first glance, the statement seems unobjectionable. Of course U.S. forces must be capable of deterring and defeating the full range of threats. That said, it could also provide cover to avoid making hard choices and answering tough questions: Are all threats equally dangerous and proximate? Must we be equally capable of deterring and defeating all of them simultaneously? The answer to these questions is “of course not.”

The strategy also discusses the importance of strategic nuclear forces and nuclear deterrence, a crucial topic as the nation considers the considerable cost of modernizing and operating its nuclear triad. Coming as it does after an earlier insightful discussion of conventional deterrence and what is necessary to deter by denial rather than from punishment, this emphasis on strategic deterrence raises the question of cost and priority. Interestingly, within the Navy, there appears to be no question of priority. The chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson has repeatedly stated that recapitalizing the nation’s fleet of ballistic missile capable submarines is his top acquisition priority.

However, this priority of strategic deterrence over conventional deterrence is being called into question. Last month, my colleague Seth Cropsey and I released a Hudson Institute Center for American Seapower monograph entitled Maritime Strategy in a New Era of Great Power Competition. In it, we argue

for a new theory of deterrence, one that revises the Cold War approach in which the Soviet Union was deterred from large-scale conventional attack by the threat of nuclear escalation. Under that rubric, one could justifiably say that America’s conventional deterrent was dependent on its strategic deterrent. Today, the decapitating “bolt from the blue” strike is even more remote than it was in the Cold War, and to the extent that nuclear exchange between great powers is conceivable, it is far more likely to flow from conventional conflict that has gone awry. Therefore, to deter nuclear war, we must deter conventional war. No aspect of American military power will be more critical to deterring either nuclear or conventional super-power war than seapower.

By this reckoning and the administration’s rightful emphasis on a new theory of conventional deterrence, care must be taken to ensure that the modernization of strategic nuclear forces does not unduly crowd out resources more wisely applied to conventional capabilities.

Historically speaking, one of the nation’s most useful tools for exerting its influence around the world has been its fleet. The fleet reminds allies that we are engaged, warns potential aggressors that we have interests we will protect, and provides the capability to support diplomacy and development along the coastlines, where the vast majority of the world’s population lives. Yet, these attributes are virtually ignored by the strategy document to its detriment.


While aiming to offer a sober assessment of the 2017 National Security Strategy on American seapower, I share the reservations Dan Drezner expressed in a Washington Post article, in which he lays bare the many contradictions between the content of the strategy and the words and publicly expressed views of the president who signed it. Nowhere was this disconnect more obvious to me than in the president’s one-and-a-half-page introductory letter. In it, North Korea, Iran, and ISIL are called out by name, but Russia and China are only referred to vaguely as “…undermining American interests around the globe.” This is in stark contrast to the substance of the strategy, in which both nations are named and shamed for their depredations upon U.S. interests, the international system, and their neighbors.

If the people of this nation are to be convinced to rebuild the nation’s military strength, they are going to have to be persuaded by the leadership of the president. Few Americans will actually read the president’s strategy, but most are open to his influence. As long as he continues to soft-peddle the threat posed by the revisionist regimes in Moscow and Beijing, and so long as he continues to warmly embrace their authoritarian leaders, the massive contradiction between him and his National Security Strategy will remain, and the military buildup will not be achieved.

The National Security Strategy tells a realistic story. It would be nice if the president agreed with it.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, and the Deputy Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.

Image: U.S. Navy