The End of Sea Power

By Captain R. B. Watts, U.S. Coast Guard

But this ascendancy comes at a price. While history may have ended in our vision of sea power, for the rest of the world it is moving rapidly forward. Command of the seas has not solved the problem of the asymmetric threat of the 21st century. Eight years ago, 19 men in four planes changed the world; since then, we have been engulfed in widespread 4th-Generation Warfare, with minimal contribution from traditional sea power. Despite much postulating about the need to evolve and change, for U.S. naval strategists, "history" remains frozen by choice. In naval circles we have seen very little action in terms of evolving fleet power to meet the current threat.

Rhetoric aside, the Navy has not effectively deployed a new class of ship to deal with anything but conventional large-scale fleet combat for years. Blue-water combatants, carriers, and nuclear-powered submarines remain the focus of our shipbuilding efforts, and training remains focused on defeating an equally capable blue-water opponent. The limited use of these assets against asymmetric enemies is either rationalized in vague strategic terms or simply ignored.

This worked in the past when the events of 9/11 were seen as an aberration. No longer. The United States is the only nation capable of rapidly deploying military power on the sea, yet it has no effective strategy for doing so against the current threat. Despite being actively engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates of Cold War-style sea power consistently look to the next threat or the next war, relying almost exclusively on a vision of frozen history. Despite the longevity of the global war on terrorism, many naval strategists are openly dismissive of the threat, assuming it is simply transitory. Development of systems that can contribute to the current conflict, such as practical littoral combat power, remains subject to ill-defined requirements and cost overruns.

Painful Change of Course

Attempts to steer away from the philosophy of large fleets and decisive battle are met with loud outcries, skepticism, and dark forebodings about future naval threats waiting to emerge from an empty sea. The debate on the type of sea power the United States should develop-big ships versus small, high-tech versus low-tech-has been going on for years. But it has never been so important. It is a hard reality that the sea is absolutely essential to globalization.

In an era of emerging markets, trade, and unprecedented international cooperation, the sea is becoming the ultimate highway by which nations communicate and interact. Freedom to use this highway is vital for nations to maintain their prominence in emerging global markets or develop natural resources. This fact is not lost on enemies dedicated to countering globalization or who see the sea as a means to strike at targets vulnerable to terrorist attack-enemies who will fight asymmetrically.

Yet the naval strategy we have and the shipbuilding apparatus to fulfill that strategy largely ignores these facts. The United States is entering its ninth year of asymmetric conflict, yet our strategy in dealing with this is remarkably ambiguous. We say we will address the new threat yet continue to cling to Mahanian principles and in so doing make the Navy increasingly irrelevant for lack of an identifiable mission. It is no accident that thousands of Sailors are deployed in land billets in southwest Asia or that admirals stumble badly in congressional hearings when asked the most basic questions concerning future use for their ship designs, falling back on a "trust us" mantra that speaks of mythical sea power principles while committing billions of dollars to build a Cold War fleet.

We in the naval profession who advocate the value of sea power must recognize the danger of this approach if sea power is to remain relevant. In today's economic climate, building the wrong weapons for the wrong jobs simply won't suffice. Attempting to adapt conventional sea power for non-traditional missions is both expensive and ineffective. We must work now to unfreeze history to meet the prevailing threat and demonstrate the true versatility and continued relevance of sea power by addressing the fallacies of current theory.

Sea Power Trends and the Misuse of Theory

Throughout most of history the development of sea power has been driven by technologies developed in relation to opponents of roughly the same strength. Technological development is generally driven by theory during years of peace, theory that is often trumped by wartime reality. All of this is obvious to a student of naval history. But in the aftermath of World War II, a new element became dominant. From 1945 until the end of the Cold War there was no effective wartime challenge to theory, so shipbuilding and strategy were based largely on theoretical interpretation.

The Soviet Navy was a mystery to the West; how this force was going to be used was subject to a great deal of speculation-speculation that fit nicely with Mahanian theory. Despite the Soviet Navy's technological inferiority to Western forces and its defensive doctrine, dominant Cold War theory assumed it would be used in an offensive salient against the West, a threat that could be defeated only through massive expansion of traditional fleet combat power.

In hindsight, today we know the Soviets were not nearly as technologically advanced as perceived, and their intentions regarding naval force were not in alignment with the Mahanian ideal of decisive battle. But while our theoretical view of the Soviets was almost completely wrong, we still exercise the tendency to view potential opponents in the worst case and apply the lessons of frozen history. With no traditional enemy to match, we are forced to engage in an endless debate of what-if scenarios that attempt to define sea power in a worldview that ignores the reality of asymmetric threat. In the traditionalist view future naval war is "big war" in the model of the Cold War. It is also the model that drives force procurement. In recent times it has become more specific, identifying potential global threats.

There is no doubt major powers continue to build navies, and in this environment these actions are often seen as rationale for future conflict. The most common threat in a big war scenario focuses on a naval war fought with China over Taiwan or some other crisis. Planning for this conflict relies on familiar elements; a forward and aggressive use of traditional carrier power to seek out and destroy the enemy in decisive battle, ensuring war's end by establishing command of the sea. This is frequently cited as the rationale for continuing to develop mass conventional sea power. Often the assumption is that failure to maintain a large traditional Navy for this purpose would embolden the enemy to take offensive action.

The China Syndrome

China seems to be the perfect fit for the rationale of continuing in the mode of frozen history. But a number of obvious flaws with this scenario extend to the big war theory in general. Dubious political speculation aside, sea power is often portrayed as the singular, overriding element of warfighting strategy. This is a fundamental violation of strategic principles that sea power itself cannot act independently, but rather must be part of a combined arms effort of all elements of power.

Second is an underlying assumption (much like the Cold War strategy) that potential enemies will cooperate and sail out to do battle, or that an enemy will limit the conflict to the sea. This is very naive-and dangerous-given that enemies in these conflicts will undoubtedly have significant land, air, and strategic (nuclear) power.

Third, and perhaps most significant, is that the enemy fleets projected in these scenarios do not exist nor, despite the rhetoric, are there any indications that nations are building sea power capable of or designed for big war scenarios. It is quite true that industrial nations of the world are modernizing their fleets. But navies take time to build, train, and develop as an integrated strategic force. The fact that emerging naval powers are building a handful of submarines or surface combatants cannot rationalize freezing history. A much-publicized picture of a Chinese periscope does not portend World War III at sea.

Without a credible enemy, we must ask ourselves: what level of sea power is required to maintain dominance in today's strategic environment? Can we justify our traditional forces for dubious what-if scenarios? And what about the ongoing asymmetric conflicts in which the United States is currently engaged? Unfortunately, the answer for war on terrorism is not comforting. It has been characterized as the "long war" and has proved to be exactly that, with no real end in sight. Traditionalists have largely ignored this fact or, when pressed, noted that naval operations in such traditional areas as strike and power projection have contributed significantly to the course of this conflict. Traditional power can be adapted to meet the threat, so there is no need to unfreeze history-what we're doing is working. But this assumption is questionable.

Putting Sea Power to Work for Us

It is true that since 9/11 the Navy has demonstrated remarkable ability to deploy to various hot spots and project power against targets both in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how effective is this, and at what cost? Both wars are land conflicts where the use of sea power is at best secondary. The primary means of strike can be accomplished by many different types of assets that can be put on station far more cheaply-even the idea of creating global fleet stations, areas where waiting combatants loiter to project power-are fantastically expensive to maintain. Do we really need our traditional power for this?

Perhaps most disturbing is that the two ways sea power can be used effectively in the war on terrorism has attracted little interest or real development in our services. Various applications of "soft power" that can address the causes of terrorism are random at best. While it is true the Navy moved quickly to tsunami relief, these operations have not been captured in any meaningful way strategically or consistently. Presence operations are limited to operating far offshore and using aircraft; the development of littoral power, so vaunted in 2000, has withered for lack of a coherent mission or any appreciable enthusiasm. Even the most fundamental mission of the naval forces is in question.

Terrorism is a direct threat to the United States. As an island nation, this country is vulnerable along its coastlines to insertion or direct terrorist attack. Naval strategy today states that "forward presence" will prevent such attacks-but is this realistic? Forwardly deployed assets today are not tracking the vast number of ships bound for the United States, instead focusing operations on power projection against traditional military threats. The idea of developing a system of maritime domain awareness has largely been left to the Coast Guard, which has neither the financial means nor the assets to complete such a monumental task.

Sea power is vital to the United States. We are an ocean-going nation, and the sea is integral to our national strategy. The United States is the only nation capable of deploying rapid military power against the terrorist threat and emerging threats worldwide. Yet since the attacks of 2001, we have pursued a naval strategy contrary to requirements and that threatens to become economically unsupportable. In the face of the rising costs of combating terrorism, arguing for continued development of carriers and new attack submarines to fulfill future Cold War-style missions is at best unrealistic and at worst will undermine the true value of our Navy to the nation. By freezing the history of sea power we threaten the relevancy of sea power itself.

Sea power must not end-its continued development is too important for us as a nation. The oceans have always been vital to the United States. As globalization matures, we have the opportunity to be true leaders on the oceans. But we cannot do so if our sea power is not relevant to the mission or threat. To move history forward we must adapt and justify a comprehensive strategy that commits real assets to an identifiable threat. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

What Is the Threat?

First, we need an unbiased analysis of the new international environment and the practical role sea power will play in it. And we must be ready to abandon assumptions that are no longer valid. When considering sea power strategies, we too often fall back on the traditional use of large ships in an attempt to force them into a role that is not applicable. In designing a way to fight in the future we must realize that nothing is sacred; practicality must override tradition. We must adopt a culture that molds not only our procurement, but also our training methods to focus on the current threat-not a threat that might happen in the future.

Second, we need a truly effective strategy for the war on terrorism. We must acknowledge that the asymmetric threat is long-term and not transitory. We must acknowledge that this war will surpass generations. We need a solid plan to defend our homeland against attack, identify missions conducive to sea power, and train accordingly. Homeland defense is a legitimate and vital mission for our naval forces, which should focus on protecting our vast maritime borders.

Finally, strategy without resources is simply rhetoric. Means to address the threat must not be generic but must be concrete. The last time a strategy actually spelled out specific missions for naval forces was the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s. Since then, we've become far too nebulous regarding what sea power specifically will do against an enemy. Forces must be designed and trained to conduct diverse missions, both in the littoral and in the conduct of soft power. We must not rely on lessons of frozen history to guide us. As radical or painful as it may seem, it is time to move forward with a Fleet that is truly capable of expressing the true value of sea power to the nation in the war of today.

Can we change? Can we overcome our traditions and design a Fleet that will be truly effective in the war against terrorism? History has shown that the way will be difficult. It took a massive attack on 7 December 1941 to demonstrate that battleship theory-long entrenched in navies worldwide-would no longer be sufficient in that new world order. We faced a similar situation on 12 September 2001 but have been slow to grasp its significance. The new era is here-we must acknowledge it and move forward.

Captain Watts teaches strategy at the National War College and is a Ph.D. candidate at the Royal Military College of Canada. A 1985 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, he served six tours at sea, most recently commanding the USCGC Steadfast (WMEC 623). A qualified surface warfare officer, he has been published numerous times in Proceedings and won the 1998 Colin Powel Joint Warfighting Essay Contest.


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