Citizen Sailors: The Missing Link in Maritime Force Structure
The U.S. Navy confronts a generational challenge: The Chinese Navy now eclipses it in number of ships, with a shipbuilding capacity that outpaces it 200 to 1. While the U.S. Navy’s shifting battle fleet requirement gets the most press, the attendant manpower shortfall gets significantly less attention. The force structure of the Army and Marine Corps expanded to meet the challenges of the Long War. But, despite significant investments in unmanned technology, the Navy’s current projected need for 3,000 to 10,000 additional personnel over the next 30 years seems woefully inadequate given the prospect of high-end naval combat in the Western Pacific. The Navy’s Reserve Component is reforming to enhance its responsiveness, but it remains significantly undersized. And right now, it is only designed to provide full operational fleet capabilities and manpower 90 days after a mobilization order.
Put simply, the Navy does not have enough personnel to man the ships it has, much less the ones it wants to build, and is now missing its recruiting goals. And this does not even consider the need to replace trained and experienced sailors who would be lost in the event of war with China.
Yet despite this challenge, there is a proven solution readily at hand. In pursuit of its constitutional duty to “provide and maintain a Navy” and in support of the Tri-Service Naval Strategy, Congress should create a Maritime National Guard as a way to strengthen the Navy’s force structure, improve recruiting and retention, and reconnect the American populace to the sea through a new generation of citizen sailors.
Despite its best recruiting efforts and its growing focus on unmanned platforms, the Navy needs more sailors. It seems that 50 years into the all-volunteer force, Generation Z feels little connection to the sea services and is in no hurry to sign up for deployments of indeterminate length and frequency.
Recent reports indicate that at-sea billets are undermanned by 9 percent to 15 percent. To ensure the readiness of deploying ships, the Navy regularly plays a shell game with personnel to plug holes in critical job specialties. Inadequate end strength increases the workload on the rest of the workforce, induces unpredictability in a sailor’s assignments, and leads to chronic fatigue. In this way, under-manning aggravates a vicious cycle that contributes to lower retention rates, which is particularly dangerous given the Navy’s well-publicized difficulties in meeting its recruiting goals.
Because the Navy is not big enough, it prioritizes readiness for the “most dangerous” course of action — high-intensity naval combat — over the “most likely” course of action — steadfastly supporting allies and partners in confronting continuing Chinese maritime coercion. As a result, many opportunities to build strategic access and credibility with smaller partner nations are missed. For example, there is a strong demand signal from nations around the Bay of Bengal, South China Sea, and Oceania for persistent maritime security and maritime domain awareness engagement. While U.S. Pacific Fleet forces do their best to meet these requests, the demands on assigned forces are such that these engagements are intermittent and unbalanced, with U.S. Navy platforms dwarfing the patrol vessels and reconnaissance planes that constitute the bulk of navies in South/Southeast Asia and Oceania. Operating as part of the integrated all-domain naval force, the Coast Guard meets some of the underserviced demand. However, already stretched thin by expanding domestic and international commitments and facing its own manpower shortages, the Coast Guard lacks the budget and force structure to seize many additional “away game” opportunities.
To its credit, the Army successfully repurposed a security force assistance battalion, established to train the Afghan and Iraqi armies, to perform persistent low-level engagement throughout the Indo-Pacific region, allowing its combat formations to focus on high-end warfighting readiness and exercises. Unfortunately, neither the Navy nor Marine Corps has comparable units, having decommissioned their Maritime Civil Affairs and Security Training Command and Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group after the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Navy has some relevant engagement capabilities in its reserve component, such as naval coordination and guidance to shipping units that seem tailor-made to engage partner nations as maritime domain awareness advisors. However, byzantine activation and funding mechanisms make reserve component personnel and capabilities almost impossible to access in a meaningful way in the Indo-Pacific.
As in other services, the Navy’s reserve component takes 90 days to fully activate following a mobilization order, though the secretary of defense can waive this to 30 days in times of war, national emergency, or to meet mission requirements. Central, European, and Africa Commands all have ongoing named operations and/or mobilization authority allowing reservist support under Title 10 of the United States Code. Indo-Pacific Command does not and can only access reservist support through cobbling together individuals’ annual training (up to one month) and active duty for training or active duty for operational support for up to 365 days. Even this is dependent on limited and competitive fleet manpower budgets, which are often capped at 140 days in order to avoid additional permanent change-of-station costs. Given that these limited availabilities are typically reserved for joint and fleet headquarters’ staff augmentation during major exercises, it is difficult to get meaningful work out of temporary reservists downrange, particularly on short notice. Even if a reservist is activated, temporary additional duty/travel funds must be found to push them forward for engagement. Thus, active-duty forward-deployed naval forces conduct the bulk of low-end maritime security engagement if and when possible.
Compounding the problem is sheer lack of numbers. At 93,847, the Navy has the smallest ready reserve of any of the armed forces besides the Coast Guard. At 199,259, the combined strength of the maritime (Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) ready reserve is only a third of the Army’s (592,248) and still less than the Air Force’s (203,353). Of the Navy’s officer reserve corps, only about a third are in warfighting unrestricted line billets, with the rest in the restricted line (technical specialists) or staff corps. Put another way, while the Army and Air Force have three tiers of force structure (active, reserve, and National Guard), the Navy and Marine Corps only have two (active and reserve).
In stark contrast, both U.S. Army Pacific and Pacific Air Forces can leverage the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, which pairs state national guards with regional countries, as a vital security cooperation enabler. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this past July, the State Partner Program succeeds because the size and capabilities of guard units more closely mirror those of partner nation militaries. Unlike their active and reserve component peers, National Guard members tend to stay in their units longer, sometimes for an entire career, and are often more able to build longstanding relationships that produce access, local familiarity, and force interoperability in times of peace or conflict. Unfortunately, the National Guard does not include a dedicated maritime force.
What’s more, the Navy is divesting its remaining low-end capabilities best suited to engage with smaller partners. This perpetuates the cycle of reducing brown/green water capabilities in favor of blue water ones that followed World War II, Vietnam, and now the Long War. The Navy recently transferred the last of its Coastal Patrol vessels to partner nations, and its remaining Mk VI patrol boats are in mothballs. Indicative of the Navy’s aversion to the coastal/in-shore mission set, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command is the only type command in the Navy headed by a one-star admiral, and the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School is effectively owned by Special Operations Command.
A final, grim challenge facing the Navy is that it has limited means to quickly replace combat losses were they to occur on a scale not seen since World War II. Based on the casualty rates from the 1987 USS Stark incident, a successful missile strike on a single Arleigh Burke destroyer would result in approximately 63 killed and 36 wounded in action. Even if the ship were repaired, those casualties could not easily be replaced. With full reserve support only coming online 90 days after mobilization, this could leave a significant hole in the Navy’s force structure early in a conflict when it would matter most.
Why a Maritime National Guard?
A solution to all of these challenges lies in creating a Maritime National Guard. Fortunately, the legal authority to establish naval “organized” militias already exists in Title 10, §§8901-8904. Indeed, three states currently have active maritime militias (Alaska, New York, and Ohio), three states have maritime components of their state defense forces (California, South Carolina, and Texas), and another 20 are authorized by state constitutions but are inactive. Pursuant to 10 U.S.C. §8904, the U.S. Navy can provide Navy Reserve and Marine Corps Reserve equipment and facilities to a state naval militia if Navy and Marine Corps reservists make up at least 95 percent of those militia units, and if the militias conform to U.S. Navy standards.
The problem is that due to these requirements, none of the active naval militias use Navy facilities or equipment. The problem is aggravated because naval militias, as currently authorized, report solely to the governor like State Defense Forces, and cannot be federalized as entire units under Title 32. As such, naval militias are more of a tax than a benefit to Navy force structure and it is unsurprising that they have withered accordingly. Naval militias should be reconstituted as a Maritime, instead of Naval, National Guard because their unique authorities and capabilities would augment and support Coast Guard and Merchant Marine mission sets in addition to the Navy and Marine Corps. The result would be a uniquely versatile maritime operational reserve.
Like the Army and Air Guard, the primary peacetime mission of a Maritime Guard would be defense support to civil authorities. Under the command and control of a state governor, and through mutual aid agreements, the Maritime Guard would support state and local officials, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Northern Command. The guard would be tasked domestically and in the near abroad to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the event of increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and other natural or manmade disasters. Currently, absent a Maritime Guard, the active Navy has been pressed into service to perform disaster relief, most notably following Hurricanes Katrina and Irene and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. A Maritime Guard would become the Department of the Navy’s premiere humanitarian assistance/disaster relief formation, relieving the fleet of primary responsibility for this vital but low-end mission and could provide fly-away response elements to augment responding-fleet forces with requisite subject-matter expertise.
Similarly, a Maritime Guard would provide law enforcement support to state and local maritime police, Customs and Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard. It could act as the focal point for state maritime domain awareness, provide additional small boat capacity, and field unique capabilities such as tactical unmanned aerial vehicles. Indeed, in their law enforcement support role, the Maritime Guard would become the Department of the Navy’s subject-matter experts on maritime governance; counter-narcotics; illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing; human trafficking; migration at sea; and port security — all issues that resonate deeply with regional partners in the Indo-Pacific. Given appropriate platforms, such as littoral combat ships and ScanEagle drones, a Maritime Guard could easily provide counter-narcotics support to Joint Interagency Task Forces, freeing active and traditional reserve component force structure to focus on high-end warfighting. Similarly, the deployment of Maritime Guard units to the South China Sea could augment Seventh Fleet forces by providing a persistent low-end presence while acting as an effective counter-force to the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia as it enjoys a similarly opaque legal status. Finally, the Maritime Guard would be on the front lines of defending the American homeland in the Second Island Chain in any conflict with China.
As it happens, the platforms and missions best suited for the Maritime Guard’s state-retained Title 32 roles are the very ones the Navy seeks to divest from its active component. Many Navy expeditionary units and missions could be transferred whole cloth to the Maritime Guard, such as coastal/riverine small boats, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles, and expeditionary intelligence. The Navy should also consider moving limited numbers of littoral combat ships and expeditionary afloat staging bases to the Maritime Guard for homeland defense, defense support to civil authorities, and as surface warfare training ships. Similarly, the Maritime Guard would be a natural home for the offshore support vessels that feature prominently in Navy/Marine Corps littoral operations in a contested environment/expeditionary advanced base operations concept but do not fit neatly into existing naval force structure. Thus, Maritime Guards operating these vessels in California, Hawaii, Louisiana, and North Carolina would significantly advance blue-green integration.
With its comparable platforms and subject matter expertise, the Maritime Guard would quickly become the maritime security cooperation partner of choice for smaller partners in the Indo-Pacific as a part of the State Partner Program. With dedicated engagement funding and revised authorities, the Maritime Guard would resonate with partner navies and maritime security forces because it would be the part of the U.S. Navy that looks most like theirs. It would allow the Navy and Marine Corps to build strategic access and credibility through long-term unit-to-unit and people-to-people relationships to compete day-to-day and set the conditions for a rapid transition to a crisis as exemplified by the California National Guard’s relationship with the Ukrainian armed forces.
Once established, there are any number of missions and capabilities that could logically reside in the Maritime Guard including port security, port opening and salvage, floating dry-docks, expeditionary battle damage repair, maritime infrastructure cyber defense, and fly-away maritime sealift command support detachments for chartered logistics vessels — to name just a few. Furthermore, by decentralizing the mobilization process to state Maritime Guards, the traditional bottleneck for reserve mobilization at the Expeditionary Combat Reserve Center would be greatly reduced. Having a Maritime Guard would give Department of the Navy force structure planners much-needed flexibility in determining how to get the right capability to the right place at the right time for the right cost.
Reconstituting the ineffective Title 10 naval militia as a Maritime Guard under Title 32 is likely the quickest and most cost-effective way to meaningfully increase the Navy’s strategic depth and overall force structure in the short and medium term. The chief of the National Guard Bureau claims that for 1 percent of the overall $6 billion Department of Defense security cooperation budget, the Guard currently produces 20–30 percent of engagements and activities in European and Indo-Pacific Commands and nearly 50 percent in Africa and Southern Commands. That is a return on investment that cannot be beaten. Additionally, the creation of a Maritime Guard is politically expedient. Congress is far more likely to appropriate significant new funds for maritime equipment and facilities if they can be assured that much of the money spent and jobs created will go to their home districts.
An additional benefit of establishing a Maritime Guard would be to help with the Navy’s retention goals and recruiting shortfalls. First, a Maritime Guard would allow the Navy to capture sailors and officers who would otherwise separate from the Navy, thus retaining invaluable training and experience in the state or unit of their choosing. Currently, many Navy reservists are assigned to units far from their home of record due to their job specialty. As a result, they are forced to commute for drills, often at their own unreimbursed expense. Some leaving active duty choose not to affiliate with the reserves due to these onerous administrative requirements. Second, the recruitment pool is significantly larger for people willing to serve part-time while bringing their civilian expertise to that part-time duty. The U.S. Merchant Marine is kept on life support by the Jones Act, but the country still has a robust coastal/riverine maritime industry in off-shore support vessels, tugs, fishing, and recreational boating. A patriotic appeal to these marine communities, along with the pay and benefits of Maritime Guard service, would entice a significant number of mariners to sign up as citizen sailors, supporting their state in peacetime and performing critical missions and providing professional manpower in crisis or conflict.
There would no doubt be significant growing pains as the Navy and Marine Corps learn to manage a total force that includes a Maritime Guard element. As it is, the active Navy is largely ignorant of the arcane subtleties of reserve personnel and unit management, and integrating the Maritime Guard would be a further stretch. However, the Army and Air Force have years of experience integrating Active Guard and Reserve forces. The National Guard Bureau would no doubt assist the Navy in learning to manage a total force that includes Maritime Guard units and personnel.
Making the Maritime Guard a reality would require significant collaboration between state and federal governments. The first step should be consultations between state governors, the Department of Defense, the Reserve Policy Board, the Departments of the Navy (Navy and Marine Corps), Department of Homeland Security (Coast Guard), the Department of Transportation (Merchant Marine), and National Guard Bureau to develop a shared vision for the Maritime Guard. Once a roadmap has been designed with the input of relevant stakeholders, the Department of Defense should submit a legislative proposal to Congress to bring all 31 authorized maritime militias under Title 32 with funding levels on par with the Army and Air National Guard state elements. Next, after naming a director, the six active maritime militias and relevant Navy Expeditionary Combat Command and Reserve Component units could be transferred to the Maritime Guard under National Guard Bureau oversight. Finally, the stakeholders should develop a plan to activate the remaining 25 state Maritime Guards and encourage additional states to establish units. To cover the significant startup costs, Congress should realign proportional funds supporting units transferred from the Active Component and Navy Reserve to the Maritime Guard from Title 10 to Title 32 and increase the overall funding for the Maritime Guard.
In addition to providing a solution to the Navy’s force structure and manpower challenges, the establishment of a Maritime Guard has the potential to create a virtuous cycle that would advance the Department of the Navy’s priority strategic partnerships with allies and partners, Congress, and the American people. Maritime Guard units would encourage state governments to strengthen their relationships with their local maritime industries. This could spark investment in maritime infrastructure revitalization through state and federal public-private partnerships, bringing significant knock-on benefits for the active Navy. A 2021 Maritime Administration study found that 42 states enjoyed a direct economic benefit from the private shipbuilding and repair industry. Furthermore, establishing a Maritime Guard would create citizen sailors who would bolster the nation’s fraying relationship with the sea services. As the Navy navigates troubled waters in America’s competition with China, the time is now to create citizen sailors who will fill the missing link in U.S. maritime force structure.
Capt. Joshua P. Taylor, USN is an Indo-Pacific foreign area officer currently serving as a military faculty member at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
Col. Scott C. Humphrey, ANG is a master air battle manager currently serving as chief of international affairs for the National Guard Bureau.
The views expressed are solely the authors’ and do not represent the views of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, National Guard Bureau, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.