The Coming Naval Century

By Robert O. Work

• Any grand strategy starts with an assumption that all resources are scarce, requiring a balancing of commitments and resources. As political commentator Walter Lippmann wrote: “The nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means, and its means equal to its purposes.”

• The upcoming defense drawdown will be less severe than past post–World War II drawdowns. Accommodating cuts will be hard, but manageable.

• At the end of the drawdown, the United States will still have the best and most capable armed forces in the world. The President well appreciates the importance of a world-class military. “The United States remains the only nation able to project and sustain large-scale military operations over extended distances,” he said. “We maintain superior capabilities to deter and defeat adaptive enemies and to ensure the credibility of security partnerships that are fundamental to regional and global security. In this way our military continues to underpin our national security and global leadership, and when we use it appropriately, our security and leadership is reinforced.”

• Most important, as the nation prioritizes what is most essential and brings into better balance its commitments and its elements of national power, we will see the beginning of a Naval Century—a new golden age of American sea power.

The Navy Is More Than Ships

Those who judge U.S. naval power solely by the number of vessels in the Navy’s battle force are not seeing the bigger picture. Our battle force is just one component—albeit an essential one—of a powerful National Fleet that includes the broad range of capabilities, capacities, and enablers resident in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. It encompasses our special-mission, prepositioning, and surge-sealift fleets; the ready reserve force; naval aviation, including the maritime-patrol and reconnaissance force; Navy and Marine special operations and cyber forces; and the U.S. Merchant Marine. Moreover, it is crewed and operated by the finest sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, civilian mariners, and government civilians in our history, and supported by a talented and innovative national industrial base.

If this were not enough, the heart of the National Fleet is a Navy–Marine Corps team that is transforming itself from an organization focused on platforms to a total-force battle network that interconnects sensors, manned and unmanned platforms with modular payloads, combat systems, and network-enabled weapons, as well as tech-savvy, combat-tested people into a cohesive fighting force. This Fleet and its network would make short work of any past U.S. Fleet—and of any potential contemporary naval adversary.

It will only get better for the Navy–Marine Corps team. In a seminal essay in the May 1954 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” political scientist Samuel P. Huntington divided the history of American national security policy into three distinct phases—the earlier Continental and Oceanic phases and the emerging Eurasian one. He argued that the service with the strategic concept and organizational structure most able to answer the dominant national-security challenges of the two earlier policy eras was the one most rewarded when it came time to allocate the country’s scarce national resources.

Huntington specified that if the Navy–Marine Corps team expected its claims for resources to be answered in the new Eurasian phase, it would need to change its strategic concept and organizational structure. This was well suited to the previous Oceanic era, but not to the contemporary problem of containing a continental peer located across the world’s oceans. In short, Huntington’s basic argument was that the service with a strategic concept and organization best aligned with the country’s national-security policy would reap the benefits in terms of strategic prestige and resources. Without a doubt, the Navy–Marine Corps team’s strategic vision is very well aligned with the new strategic guidance for sustaining U.S. global leadership, and with the attendant priorities for 21st-century defense.

In the author Ralph Peters’ “GPS approach” to strategy, the first thing you have to understand about any historical moment is where you are. To this I would add the “Work Corollary”: The second thing you have to know is how you got there. With this in mind, and expanding on Huntington’s timeless thinking, I would like to quickly try to place the nation’s new strategic guidance, and the Department of the Navy’s central role in implementing it, in the context of past and present U.S. national-security policy eras.

Continental Phase

The initial Continental Phase spanned the period 4 July 1776 through 29 December 1890. The primary national-security challenges were to deter, defeat, or frustrate any intervention of foreign powers in the newly formed United States or, later, the entire Western Hemisphere; screen our steady expansion to the limits of our continental borders and secure the continent from internal threats; and preserve the Union.

Consistent with these aims, we entered into no entangling alliances and sought no overseas bases. The Navy–Marine Corps team was the only U.S. military force that conducted out-of-hemisphere engagement and combat operations—a role that gradually imprinted an expeditionary mindset into its very DNA. Throughout this 11-decade era, the nation was at war for 181 months; the ratio of the number of years at war to the number of years at peace was 1:6.59. All of our wars were fought north of Veracruz, Mexico, and south of Canada. Under these circumstances, the Army was the service with the strategic concept and organization most aligned with U.S. national-security thinking.

Oceanic Phase

During the Oceanic Phase, 30 December 1890 to 12 March 1947, the fortunes of the Navy and Marine Corps changed in a big way. With the continent and Union secure, the primary security challenge was to solidify the nation’s position as a hemispheric hegemon and project joint forces beyond the North American continent in support of U.S. interests. Both jobs required a team able to compete with any fleet in the world. The Navy–Marine Corps strategic vision of a powerful, concentrated battle force capable of seizing bases and establishing sea control, and of projecting power in any theater globally, quickly became central to U.S. strategic thinking.

As a result, during this period the Navy ultimately became the world’s number-one naval power, and the Marine Corps perfected the arts of expeditionary warfare and seizing advanced naval bases. We also gained our first overseas bases, all located on U.S.-controlled territory (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines). Although we often fought with allies and partners, we did so on our own terms, avoiding foreign alliances. During the Oceanic Era, the nation saw 108 months of major war, with a war-to-peace ratio of 1:5.24 years.

Transoceanic Era

In the paradigm of Huntington’s post–World-War-II analysis, 13 March 1947 marked the beginning of the Eurasian Phase, which most know as the Cold War. I prefer to call this phase the Transoceanic Era, since the primary national-security challenge was to build and lead a global coalition of allied nations to contain and deter the Soviet Union, a hostile, ideological, continental peer across the ocean. In keeping with this mission, the United States entered into many entangling alliances. It also established large numbers of external U.S. bases on foreign soil along the contested frontier with the Soviet Union and its Communist allies. American long-range air and missile power underwrote the nation’s strategic deterrent posture; and a large standing Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and special-operations forces contributed to conventional deterrence.

Having acquired command of the sea in the Oceanic Era, the Navy–Marine Corps team expanded its strategic concept and organization to include maintaining combat-credible forces in major theaters to deter Soviet adventurism, reassure our allies, and respond to crises, and to use the oceans as a base to project power from the sea. Despite the valuable contributions of the Navy and Marine Corps, the national-security focus of this era remained squarely on the European central front. The era ended 12 May 1989, the day President George H. W. Bush announced the de facto end of the Cold War. The nation had been at war for a total of 138 months, for a war-to-peace ratio of 1:2.67 years.

Global Era

With the unexpected end of the Cold War, the country entered a fourth national-security policy phase, shaped initially by three apparent characteristics: uni-polarity, a new accelerated wave of globalization, and a revolutionary shift from unguided-munitions warfare to guided-weapons warfare. Those trends and characteristics shaped the new Global Era in which the United States became the primary guarantor of global security. Even as America began to dismantle its Cold War garrisons, leaders from both political parties pursued a consistent grand strategy of “global meliorism,” described by Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Walter A. MacDougall as “an American mission to make the world a better place, based on the assumption that the U.S. can, should, and must reach out to help other nations share in the American dream.” Central to this grand strategy was the idea of sustained engagement throughout the world and the enlargement of the community of democratic nations.

From a military perspective, the United States would build a joint force capable of rapidly winning two regional wars, and operate it forward during times of peace to “administer the global system.” This proactive grand and military strategy led to an unprecedented pace of “peacetime” military activities, as well as major wars and operations in Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Serbia. After 9/11, the United States amped up its already high-tempo military activity with two major irregular-warfare and nation-building campaigns into Afghanistan and Iraq, supported by a sustained global anti-terrorism campaign.

By 2003–4, a fourth characteristic of the Global Phase of national security was becoming clear: the reemergence of identity politics, defined by nationalism, religion, and ethnicity. To make matters worse, war among peoples and a steady diffusion of guided-weapon and battle-networking technologies to weak states and non-state actors made all military operations more challenging. Because of these factors, nation and democracy building proved time-consuming and very, very, expensive. And, while the United States remained the single most powerful country in the world, its relative degree of economic, diplomatic, and military advantage was gradually declining.

By Fiscal Year 2004, total defense-budget authority reached approximately $555 billion (in FY 2011 constant dollars), exceeding the peak spending of both the Vietnam War ($533.6 billion) and President Ronald Reagan–era defense buildup ($552 billion), and was projected to rise further still. In an effort to rein in rising costs, the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review emphasized a more indirect strategic approach based on building partnerships and partner capacity, and working with and through others. However, with the global economic downturn and the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan grinding on, efforts to reduce costs were not successful. By FY 2008, total defense spending reached $700 billion a year—a post–World War II high.

If the Global Era started on 12 May 1989, as of 31 December 2011 we had seen 130 months at war for a war-to-peace ratio of 1:1.08. Assuming we cease combat operations in Afghanistan as planned in December 2014, the ratio will fall to 1:0.85. And these figures count only Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom; they do not include the many other major named operations in the Global Era, or many other crisis-response and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief operations. No matter how you slice it, this represents the highest tempo of military activity in U.S. history by a large margin. Indeed, this level of military operations and its accompanying pull on national resources is not sustainable over the long run. We are, therefore, at the cusp of turning a new chapter in the Global Era.

The Strategic Inflection Point

The President’s plan to reduce deficits and revitalize the economy spurred a major review and rethinking of national military strategy. This strategic review, led by the President and Secretary of Defense, and with the full participation of all three secretaries of the military departments and all four service chiefs, sought to balance military plans and programs with our expected resources. Informed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the review developed new strategic ends, identified new strategic and operational ways, and prioritized the Department of Defense means necessary to accomplish the desired ends.

As we prepare to address the defense cuts associated with the new strategy, it would be a big mistake to see or dismiss this effort as a simple budget drill. In keeping with Lippmann’s guidance, the President is engaged in a concerted effort to put our global aims and leadership and power into better balance, bring our purposes within our means, and make our means equal to our purposes.

Some say such an effort is unnecessary, pointing out that although the absolute level of defense spending is at an all-time high, the burden on our economy is manageable. After all, $700 billion–plus is slightly less than 5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, far below that of the Cold War average. But this argument is not compelling. The first sin of strategy is failing to recognize that all resources are scarce and must therefore be prioritized, and that good strategists must make their priorities clear and be disciplined in following them.

Those who maintain that the world is now too dangerous to reduce the Pentagon budget need to look at the security challenges that President Dwight D. Eisenhower faced when he came into office and began to craft his FY 54 budget proposal. The United States was engaged in a major conventional war against Communist China on the Korean Peninsula. The Soviets were actively pursuing the hydrogen bomb. Throughout 1953, we were dealing with a major crisis in Iran, which ultimately led to a U.S.- and British-orchestrated overthrow of its democratically elected government. That same year, we were dealing with local proxy aggression and fomented insurrection in Southeast Asia, Greece, Guatemala, and the Philippines. There were continuing cross-strait tensions between Taiwan and mainland China. Demands for continental aerospace and civil-defense requirements were high. We were rebuilding NATO and Japan.

Despite this wide range of challenges, which were as or more serious than those we face today, President Eisenhower moved to cut defense spending. By making clear strategic choices and prioritizing his military ways and means, he was able to slash annual defense spending by 40 percent between FY 52 and FY 56. The results were far from ruinous; he went on to balance the budget to put the United States on the sustainable pathway that ultimately won the Cold War.

In a similar way, and as outlined in the recently published Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense , President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta are moving us along a different, more sustainable, and forward-looking national-security pathway. Their vision is framed by four key priorities: maintaining the best military in the world, avoiding a “hollowing out” of the joint force, keeping faith with our service men and women, and ensuring that any reductions in defense capabilities and capacities are taken strategically, not by equally apportioned budget cuts. In this regard, the new strategic guidance:

• Requires that we maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent—if possible with a smaller nuclear force. This puts a premium on the Navy’s strategic ballistic-missile submarine force, which already provides the most secure nuclear deterrent in our strategic arsenal.

• Places great emphasis on sustaining freedom of access throughout the global commons, tying these efforts directly to the health of the global system of commerce and America’s continued economic growth. This line of thinking comes straight out of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and requires a strong Navy–Marine-Corps Team.

• Prioritizes sustaining U.S. global freedom of action even in the face of increasingly sophisticated anti-access and area-denial threats. This calls for strong naval, aerospace, cyber, and special-operations capabilities, backed by a credible ability to conduct joint forcible entry operations in any theater, when required.

• Emphasizes nonmilitary means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability to reduce the demand for significant troop commitments to nation-building or stability operations.

• Rebalances the focus of U.S. military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, whose broad expanse necessarily demands strong naval and aerospace forces.

• Calls for a long-term strategic partnership with India, to support its role as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the Indian Ocean—which will hopefully lead to a closer maritime partnership.

• Continues to maintain U.S. and allied military presence in—and support of—partner nations in and around the Middle East and Persian Gulf, but with less emphasis on large numbers of boots on the ground. As we responsibly withdraw from Afghanistan and refocus our attention on the Asia-Pacific region, this theater will inevitably become more maritime in its focus.

• Reduces our land-based posture in Europe while increasing forward-stationed naval forces. We will work with NATO to pool, share, and specialize capabilities to meet mutual 21st century security challenges—capabilities that will likely be increasingly naval in nature.

• Calls for innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve security objectives in Africa and Latin America—approaches routinely demonstrated by the Navy–Marine Corps team since the Continental Era.

A New Golden Age for American Maritime Power

After reviewing this guidance, it is very hard for me to imagine anyone thinking that maritime power, capabilities, and capacities are not absolutely central to our national-security policy thinking. In my view, the last time naval forces were so central to national-strategic aims was in the Oceanic Era. The Department of the Navy vision of an integrated National Fleet, with a Navy–Marine Corps total force battle network built and ready for war, and operated forward to preserve the peace, represents a broad strategic concept and outlines an organizational structure that aligns perfectly with the President’s national-security policy goals. If Huntington is right—and I believe he is—then as we go forward, the nation will inevitably allocate the resources necessary to implement our strategic concept and organizational construct, as long as we articulate them and can back them up with tangible actions.

Our destiny is, thus, in our own hands. Together we must update the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower to better refine our strategic concept, and then tirelessly explain how the combined capabilities of the Navy–Marine Corps team, the Coast Guard, Military Sealift Command, Maritime Administration, and Merchant Marine form a National Fleet with a broad range of capabilities and capacities absolutely vital to our national security. We must continue to make real our organizational construct, which envisions naval forces operating ashore; manned and unmanned platforms operating above, on, under, and from the sea; with enablers such as distributed sensor networks and durable data and communication links, modular, adaptable payload bays, open-architecture combat systems, innovative payloads, network-enabled weapons, and flexible logistics systems—all operated by the finest sailors and Marines in our history. They fight as a single, interconnected, and cohesive team.

We must continue to preserve and hone to an even finer point our unique expeditionary culture, first developed more than 200 years ago in the Continental Era, which offers the nation the most efficient and cost-effective way to provide a stabilizing presence around the globe. And, most important, we must remain ready to respond to crises or go to war at a moment’s notice and be able to prevail over any potential adversary in any theater.

If we do all these things, then the 21st century will indeed be a Golden Age of American sea power. I am absolutely confident this will happen. Not because of our forces, ships, aircraft, or tanks, but because of the secret weapon of the Navy and Marine Corps, as of all the U.S. military: our people. Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians are our greatest asset. They are the most motivated, well-educated, innovative, tech-savvy, and adaptable warriors in the world. Every one of them is imbued with the spirit of Navy Lieutenant Commander Ernest E. Evans, who as commanding officer of the World War II destroyer USS Johnston (DD-557) told his crew: “This is a fighting ship, and I intend to take her in harm’s way.” These were not hollow words. At the Battle of Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Johnson turned his little ship to do battle with the cruisers and battleships of a vastly superior Japanese fleet. Although he lost his ship and his life—and many of the crew that willingly followed him—he helped save four escort carriers in his task force for further action. His actions earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.

In the coming Naval Century, the National Fleet will be a central part of U.S. global military power. The Navy–Marine Corps team—built and ready for war, operated forward to preserve the peace—will be the Fleet’s long arm. And with men and women like Evans, the team will continue to do what is required to be the best in the world, because, as in the past, they will be great by choice.

You should all believe it. I know America does, and always will.

Mr. Work is Under Secretary of the Navy.


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