The Past, Present, and Future of Navies and the Maritime World

December 28, 2018

Editor’s Note: As 2018 comes to a close, War on the Rocks is publishing a series of year-end reflections on what our editors and contributors learned from the publication’s coverage of various national security topics. These reflections will examine how War on the Rocks coverage evolved over the year, what it taught us about the issue in question, and what questions remain to be answered in 2019 and beyond. Enjoy, and see you next year!


2018 was bookended by the publication of two documents that will play important roles in the way the United States considers naval and maritime affairs. In January, the administration released the National Defense Strategy, setting the tone for much of the thinking and writing in the past year. The strategy addressed the return of great power competition and highlighted issues in the maritime domain, including the South China Sea, as an example of an area of growing disorder. And last week’s release of Adm. John Richardson’s A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 offers specific explanation of how the chief of naval operations sees the U.S. Navy’s place in a changing world. Richardson noted the National Defense Strategy’s orientation toward great power competition and explained the Navy’s plans for it. Over the past 12 months, the writing and thinking here at War on the Rocks has addressed a wealth of naval and maritime-related subjects, which can help develop the thinking behind the National Defense Strategy and Richardson’s Design as the services move toward implementing both documents. Our contributors delved into geography, technology, policy and, especially, history, to further our collective understanding of the maritime future of a multipolar world.

Great power competition in the 21st century is by definition a maritime subject. Naval history and, in particular, the story of how the Unified Command Plan developed can inform the question of how the Department of Defense should be organized for increasing competition and, more broadly, how to succeed at organizational change. Several authors examined the maritime competition that might develop from increasing access to the Arctic, coming up with differing assessments of the risks involved and tools to address them. From the Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, maritime tension seems to be on the rise around the world. The United States wasn’t the only Pacific power to reassess strategy in 2018: The Chinese have reexamined their approach to the maritime world, which in turn has caused Japan-watchers and the Japanese to consider significant adjustments to the naval elements of “self-defense,” as well as Taiwan. In partnership with the Foreign Policy Research Initiative, War on the Rocks made a deep dive (submariner pun intended) into the Black Sea and the maritime conflicts that continue to fester on the frontiers of Europe. Maritime diplomacy, naval partnership, and the ocean-spanning nature of trade and economics all create opportunities as well as challenges for the exercise of seapower in the 21st century. This reality, when combined with an understanding of how great powers have leveraged the sea in the past, promises that the continued competition in today’s multipolar world will be deeply naval.

Richardson’s Design gives significant attention to the technology, weapons, and acquisition programs needed for the future. These subjects have generated a wealth of discussion here as well. Experts have examined the rapidly approaching challenge of swarming drones at sea, the future of artificial intelligence and machine learning in naval conflict, and the interplay between the navy and the space domain. Beyond technology, there are also more classical concerns like the challenges of logistics and fuel in future conflict in maritime regions. In addition, a healthy discussion of how to judge the past and future effectiveness of unmanned aircraft highlighted the complications of assessing new weapons and new technologies. This has important implications for the U.S. Navy’s enhanced timelines for unmanned systems laid out in the Design.

Marines and amphibious thinkers were also very busy in 2018. This cohort brought innovative thinking on the future of amphibious conflict to these pages, including discussions of the potential future of Warbot Companies, the future of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific littorals, the Marine Corps’ role when “not yet openly at war, but still mostly at peace,” and the roles and missions of amphibious forces more widely. While the ideas are creative and new, authors also built on the deep history of amphibious innovation. As Sir Julian Corbett liked to point out, the ultimate power of naval forces lies in the way they interact with events on shore, which is just as true today as when Corbett reflected on great power competition and war a century ago.

In the 1.0 edition of the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Richardson highlighted the importance of historical understanding and wisdom derived from the naval past. While the 2.0 edition skips ahead to the future, here at War on the Rocks historians have helped develop a deeper understanding of maritime friction and conflict. From 19th-century examples of failed naval diplomacy and maritime security operations, to the recent anniversaries of the Marine Corps’ Battle of Belleau Wood and the Navy’s fight during the Tet Offensive in the Mekong Delta, War on the Rocks articles have set sail to explain history in width, depth, and context. As David Morgan Owen reminded readers in his discussion of the use of history in strategic deliberations, sometimes “we must cast our lens away from the realm of military operations and focus on issues such as culture, organization, and strategy, in order to make meaningful comparisons.”

As the new year begins, War on the Rocks authors have not solved the problems of the naval or maritime world. However, they have uncovered many new ideas, developed cogent analysis of the problems faced across the seven seas, and shared creative thoughts on addressing the near future. As Olivia Garard reminded readers, today’s regional powers are moving beyond their local seas to raise their global influence specifically on the world’s oceans. Thus, potential areas of friction and conflict are likely to be in the naval and maritime domains. Addressing them will require a sophisticated knowledge of the maritime past and present in order to plan for the maritime future.


BJ Armstrong is an Assistant Professor of War Studies and Naval History and a U.S. Navy officer. He holds a PhD in War Studies from King’s College, London and is the author and editor of numerous articles and books on naval history, strategy, and leadership. Opinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity, and do not reflect the positions of policies of the U.S. Naval Academy, Department of Defense, or any other agency.

Image: U.S. Navy/Ryan D. McLearnon