Preventing Wars is as Important as Winning Them: Lessons From Past Naval Strategies

USS George H.W. Bush

The American sea services were busy on Oct. 18, 2022. The destroyer USS Roosevelt was in the Baltic Sea, visiting Poland as it concluded the Joint Warrior 22-2 exercise. The American aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush was in the Mediterranean operating with NATO allies. In the Pacific, the Sama Sama exercise organized by American, Philippine, and Australian naval forces was wrapping up, which had also brought together ships from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and British Royal Navy. Marine Rotational Force-Darwin 22 was returning home to California after the 11th rotational force forward deployment to the north coast of Australia. And the USS Milwaukee set sail from its homeport in Mayport, Florida, for a deployment to South America and the Caribbean with helicopters from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28 and a law enforcement detachment from the Coast Guard aboard.    

With challenges and responsibilities for the U.S. Navy across the seven seas, the 2020s have brought about new calls for a fresh look at American maritime and naval strategy. For the most part, these writings have turned toward an alleged golden age of naval strategic thinking in the 1980s when the Reagan administration developed The Maritime Strategy. Some have contended that American naval strategists need to mirror the 1980s efforts more explicitly, while others have asserted that today’s strategy has already done that. With the dominant and potentially existential threat of the Soviet Union providing the focus of those earlier naval strategic concepts, it seems logical that a rising China would call for a similarly focused effort. But a fixation on one era and the parallels of one former adversary are insufficient. While thinking about the historical model provided by The Maritime Strategy, today’s strategists, naval professionals, and national security policymakers should also balance their thinking by returning to the maritime strategy efforts that culminated 15 years ago in the launch of The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power, or CS21.

CS21 was steeped in the classical strategic concepts of seapower but also included revolutionary new elements for the 21st century. Specifically, it included a discussion of maritime responsibilities during peacetime that has been lost over the last decade and a half. Instead, today’s strategic guidance zeroes in on the risks of and potential for a war between the United States and its global rivals, replacing concerns about maintaining peace, preventing conflict, and enhancing prosperity with the need to have a “warfighting advantage.” Rereading 2007 strategy offers an opportunity to return to some of the classical ideals of seapower and focus on the ways that naval power serves to integrate deterrence and broader foreign policy goals.

Cooperation, Competition, and Conflict

In 2005, when the Navy staff began to work on new strategic guidance, the challenges that American national security professionals focused on were different than they are today. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were only a few years old, and were not progressing as military leaders had planned or political leaders had expected. The insurgency in Iraq was growing and by 2007, when CS21 was launched, “the surge” was beginning. The rise of China and the tensions it might engender were barely on the radar of the American national security establishment, and rarely a part of intelligence briefs. Questions remained about Vladimir Putin’s leadership of a Russian Federation which was turning from a failed economy to a corrupt petro-state. None of these challenges appeared to have major maritime or naval elements. American naval dominance remained the often-overlooked foundation of what some international leaders were labeling as the United States’ “hyperpower” status.



Co-signed by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General James Conway, and Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, CS21 was cooperative on multiple levels. First, as the signatories indicate, this strategy brought the maritime elements of the U.S. defense establishment together to collaborate on a shared strategy which aimed to guide all three services as they sailed into the new century. It was the first time the sea services created a shared strategic guidance. Since the end of World War II, the Marine Corps had largely been drifting away from its naval history and the Navy as the service attempted to create its own identity and carve out a place as an independent service with independent missions and goals. Going back even further, since Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels failed in his attempt to absorb the U.S. Coast Guard into the Navy following World War I, and despite operating under naval command in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and missions in the Arabian Gulf from 1991 to 2007, the Coast Guard had largely focused its policies and strategic thinking on its domestic and law enforcement roles. CS21 reversed decades of drifting apart, bringing the three services into direct collaboration with a shared vision of the importance of the maritime world and the United States’ role on the world’s oceans.

The strategy was also cooperative on a global level. Looking back on the text from 2022, it seems prescient. Recent foreign policy thinking and writing includes a good deal of discussion about the liberal world order. The introduction of CS21 leads with the assertion that American “interests are best served by fostering a peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people, and government.” The importance of international partnerships and alliances plays a central role in the document, just as discussion of “integrated deterrence” does today. The maritime foundations of the liberal world order, with the predominance of trade traveling by sea and the international reliance on digital infrastructure made possible by undersea cables, was also at the heart of the strategy. Challenges raised by threats to freedom of navigation, climate change, and mass migrations were all discussed with international cooperation and partnership seen as key to addressing such challenges. While at a programming and practical level CS21 aimed to bring the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard into closer cooperation, it also demonstrated the vital nature of international cooperation on the world’s oceans.

Preventing War

The fundamental thesis behind the maritime thinking in The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power was also seen in some quarters as its most controversial aspect. Early in the introduction, the strategy clearly stated that “[w]e believe that preventing wars is as important as winning wars.” For the U.S. Navy, this was a sea change in thinking from the top, and one that was not entirely supported from the middle or below. Despite the long history of navies and their responsibilities in peacetime, American strategy in the era of American naval hegemony had focused on war. The Maritime Strategy of the 1980s revolved around a narrow focus on the possibility of a war with the Soviet Union and the U.S. Navy’s role in that shooting conflict. This ranged from the importance of ballistic missile submarines to the ability to create conventional threats to Soviet global interests. The strategic documents of the 1990s focused on warfare in the littorals of the world, assuming that American dominance of the blue water of the oceans was complete and the projection of power from the relative safety of the sea was the future of American naval conflict. The rising cultural predominance and competition of the Navy’s warfare community “tribes,” —  naval aviators, surface warfare officers, and submariners  drove naval thinking to focus on the tactical and operational questions of naval combat, largely abandoning strategic thinking to the higher levels of government in a post-Goldwater-Nichols world.

Since 1798, the Navy’s two core responsibilities have been to defend the nation in times of war and to protect its interests and defuse crises in times of peace. To do this, CS21 suggested a two-pronged concept. First, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard needed to deploy “regionally concentrated, credible combat power” to the parts of the world with rising challengers. This force would be designed to “give political leaders a range of options for deterrence, escalation, and de-escalation,” and be prepared to “win our nation’s wars.” It would require continuing to maintain “a powerful fleet.” Second, in addition to these war-ready forces, the strategy called for “globally distributed, mission-tailored maritime forces” which would help provide “persistent global presence” and integrate Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps efforts with “other agency partners.” These forces would aim to contain local disruptions to the global order and foster international collaboration. In other words, it advocated for integrated deterrence and peacetime campaigns around the world. 

These two distinct operating concepts were not designed simply for an amorphous persistent presence mission. In the strategy, it became clear that presence was a factor that contributed to a number of key missions and was more than simply bobbing around on the world’s oceans waiting for something to happen. Presence itself was not the mission. Instead, presence was a condition that created the ability to pursue deterrence, maritime domain awareness, homeland defense in depth, crisis response, naval diplomacy, and alliance maintenance and exercising. The strategy pushed the sea services to work with foreign partners and “in coordination with other U.S. services and government departments.” It reminded national security leaders that “trust and cooperation cannot be surged” but instead requires integrated effort through well-planned peacetime campaigns of influence and security building.

To achieve these two maritime goals — preparing for regionally based wars and enhancing maritime security in the global commons of the world’s oceans — the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard realized that the national fleet would have to change. While there would still be the need to maintain a “powerful fleet,” the new strategy also called for improved integration and interoperability between the sea services in order to provide “mission-tailored” force packages that were newly designed and creatively deployed. These force packages would create “a dispersed force under decentralized authority in a world of rapid information exchange,” which could require new approaches to leadership and operational command. Because of this, in addition to rethinking the fleet architecture with an eye toward smaller and more easily dispersed units, CS21 called for a new look at the education and training of the force in order to prepare those at lower levels for the increased responsibility its concepts would call for.

15 Years Later

Now, 15 years after The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power was launched into the world, the United States and its allies face different challenges in a global environment that the 2022 National Security Strategy describes as an era of “geopolitical competition between major powers.” And yet the description of the global environment offered in CS21 remains valid at its core. The international system of trade, communication, and finance, which make up the foundation of the liberal world order, remains rooted in the maritime world. The international challenges of climate change, mass migration, pandemics, maritime insecurity, and food security — which were all identified 15 years ago — make their appearance in the new 2022 National Security Strategy as well. The need to strengthen partnerships among those who have joined into this international system, and to resist the efforts of autocracies to change the rules, is at the core of the new national strategy, as it was in the naval strategy of 2007. New strategies and guidance name names and call out specific nations and actors as potential adversaries and competitors, which was not the case in 2007. However, the core concept — that the nation’s national security community needs to operate on dual tracks which work first to maintain the peace and overcome crises while also preparing for the possibility of outright war — remains the same.

Despite the apparent prescience of CS21 when thinking about the role of the maritime world in international affairs, and specifically the role of the American sea services, follow through on the concepts and changes outlined in the document was mixed. Over the past decade and a half, the U.S. Coast Guard has become an ever busier and more involved international player. Following through on CS21’s calls for integration and collaboration with the international community, Coast Guard cutters and training teams have increased their international deployments in the past two decades and efforts continue to construct and deploy mission-tailored and specialized forces. The Marine Corps’ recent efforts to create distributed forces that are mission-tailored and able to serve both in support of a “powerful fleet” and during the operations prior to the outbreak of war can also be seen as drawing its inspiration from CS21. 

The Navy, however, has little to show for the deep maritime thinking that resulted from the 2007 strategic guidance. The Navy’s pendulum has largely swung back toward the tactical and operational questions of preparing for war. A growing fear of combat with China has largely resulted in the adoption of only half of the CS21 concept. Focused on regionally concentrated, credible combat power, the Navy’s fleet size has flatlined and there are calls to jettison the historic mission of maintaining the peace. Small ships have been cut from the fleet. Creative new units and force packages have withered on the vine.  

Over the last 15 years, the Navy struggled to implement changes that would have been in line with the 2007 strategy. Efforts to do more with less failed. The new ship classes that were introduced to the fleet during the early 2000s were largely over budget and underperforming. The proposed size the fleet, and the explanations of that requirement, fluctuated over time but saw little change in the actual ship count. Leaders focused on land power took control of Navy force structure planning and, overly-intent on preparing for combat, let the fleet continue to stagnate while making unsupported claims of a future 500 ship navy. The Navy, Department of Defense, and Congressional oversight largely allowed the strategy to die on the shelf. In other words, the Navy’s strategic outlook raised debate inside the service while at the same time failing to gain much resonance with the decision-makers in the Department of Defense and above.

While the Navy’s fleet design and size was generally unaffected by the strategy, and the concept of distributed deployments to protect the global system with mission-tailored forces largely fell out of favor, CS21’s description of the maritime world remained accurate. As a result, partnership and cooperation continued to develop in the 15 years since the strategy’s release. The USS Roosevelt and USS George H.W. Bush are in the Baltic and Mediterranean today as elements of the NATO forces responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They are a part of the largest 6th Fleet deployments in decades and join with NATO ships to bring concentrated, credible combat power to European waters. The naval forces involved in the Sama Sama exercise in the Philippines and the Marine Rotational Force returning from Darwin reflect a similar response to Chinese threats with regard to both Taiwan and the safe functioning of the Pacific maritime order. American naval forces and their maritime partners continue to respond to the realities described in 2007, from the reinvigoration of NATO to the establishment of “the Quad,” and continue to view the future as a cooperative one on the world’s oceans.


Maritime Strategy in the 2020s

15 years after its publication, a fresh look at The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power can help balance vital maritime concepts for today’s naval professionals and national policymakers. Leaders who emphasize the importance of 1980s naval strategy efforts often see a parallel in the existence of a world with a dominant adversary. Yet the world of the Cold War was a different place than the world of the 2020s and today’s broader “geopolitical competition between major powers.” The Soviet Union and its allies were largely disconnected from the global systems of trade, finance, and communications. Because of this, the character of the competition was different. Today, however, China and America’s other potential adversaries are deeply integrated into the international economic and diplomatic system. The extreme sanctions placed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine illustrate that today’s competitors are networked together in ways that are fundamentally unlike the Cold War. Looking back to The Maritime Strategy can offer naval policymakers and strategists some interesting food for thought, but recognizing the differences is just as important as embracing the parallels.

Of course, while the 2020s are different from the 1980s, but they are also different from 2007. While the global order and the international system of trade, finance, communication, and diplomacy remain similar, China, Russia, and lesser adversaries like Iran and North Korea represent new challenges. A strategy focused entirely on the preparation for war is insufficient in our networked and politically, commercially, and militarily linked world. And a strategy focused entirely on the peacetime maintenance of that order may also be unwise.

Across two centuries, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have balanced the distinct missions of preparing for war while simultaneously managing the global responsibilities of peace. While some might wish away half of that historic pair of missions, the reality is that the nation needs sea services that can do both. This has been at the core of the Department of the Navy’s task since the time of Benjamin Stoddert. No less than in 2007 or 1798, preventing wars is as important as winning them.



BJ Armstrong is a contributing editor with War on the Rocks and is the principal associate of the Forum on Integrated Naval History and Seapower Studies. His fourth book, Developing the Naval Mind, coauthored with John Freymann, is available from the Naval Institute Press. Opinions expressed in his article are offered in his personal and academic capacity and do not reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other agency.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Novalee Manzella