Strategic Cooperation: Everybody Wins

By Rear Admiral Michael E. Smith, U.S. Navy

Fortunately, the answer is not necessarily. The confluence of the emerging geostrategic and fiscal environments calls not for pessimism, but rather for a clear-eyed, pragmatic approach to naval cooperation and collaboration—starting with deeper operational integration with longstanding allies and partners. A real commitment to cooperative force allocation and operational planning—leading to appropriately aligned naval investments—offers a pathway to the resolution of our means-ends dilemma. In practice, this calls for increased risk tolerance when allocating U.S. naval forces among theaters. Specifically, when allies and partners consistently demonstrate the will and ability to deploy their naval forces either alongside ours for shared missions or in regions of mutual interest, we need to suppress our historical urge to hedge our force allocations against their hypothetical future absence.

Almost paradoxically, this risk tolerance decreases the “net risk” to both U.S. and allied strategic interests. By focusing on long-term, collaborative approaches toward achieving common objectives (such as regional maritime security), each nation can avoid duplication and thereby reduce its proportional share of the expense. This is not simply about global maritime partnerships. It’s about a focused and pragmatic approach to force allocation that acknowledges allies’ existing contributions. Countries could immediately apply the freed resources to unique national missions for which a collaborative approach is impractical. For the United States, any additional savings reaped from such an approach could (and should) be immediately applied to the urgent manpower, maintenance, and recapitalization needs of our joint force.

Grasping this new approach will require two things: first, the ability to discriminate between truly mutual strategic interests (at the bilateral, multinational, or even global levels) and those that are more strictly national; and second, sufficient willpower to co-manage risk with our partners and allies in those areas of shared concern. Neither of these challenges is trivial—but each is surmountable. Most important, they are affordably achievable. They call not for expensive investments, but rather for a simple shift in mindset.

The new approach to strategic naval cooperation outlined here provides for more efficient and effective application of limited national resources to both discrete national requirements and the broader mutual interest in regional and global stability. By relying more heavily on allies and partners to contribute to specified mutual objectives, the United States can continue to address its strategic imperatives even in a time of austerity. The following explains how.

Out with the Old

For too long, U.S. defense planners have preached cooperation (albeit sincerely) while at the same time allowing our operational-planning processes to default to risk-averse, “go-it-alone” assumptions. That is, we have considered our allies and partners welcome additions to any real-world operation, but we have stopped short of proactively counting on their contributions when formulating our national plans—in particular, when developing force allocations for steady-state tasks such as building partnership capacity, maritime security, and regional presence geared toward the deterrence of a rogue state.

Of course, some aspects of this traditional approach had a logical basis. For instance, it is extraordinarily unlikely that any state would completely abandon a military capability deemed vital to its national existence based solely on the expectation of international support. Yet our planning processes suggest that we tacitly conflate capabilities and operations associated with our discrete national interests, such as the defense of United States territory and citizens, with those that are in fact intrinsically linked to mutual, international interests such as maritime security and regional stability. Though we episodically partner with other navies in areas of common interest, enduring partnerships are the exception, not the rule.

How did this come to pass? In short, America’s economic and military strength afforded it the luxury to assume that all future plans ought to be achievable by U.S. forces alone if necessary. The downside of this advantageous position is that it reduced our incentive to capitalize on opportunities to accomplish shared strategic objectives more efficiently through collaborative partnerships. The good news, however, is that these opportunities are always present. Seamlessly aligning multinational sea power contributions through combined force-allocation processes and deeper integration of operational planning would allow us to synchronize our national means (in this case, our naval resources) with those of our allies and partners. The emerging sea power era suggests that now is the time to seize the opportunity, and our mutual fiscal realities provide a clear incentive to do so.

The first step in expanding cooperation is to discard old ways of doing business—specifically, the indiscriminate use of blanket planning assumptions that necessitate dedicated use of U.S. capabilities to achieve every national strategic interest. We must challenge assumptions that do not allow planners to account for the contributions of allied and partner navies within the plans themselves. (Note that this general feature of the planning process is frequently at odds with real-world U.S. operations, in which allied and partner navies often feature prominently.) Instead of viewing U.S. strategic interests as a single undifferentiated pool, we must acknowledge that the sharing of responsibility is either more or less feasible, depending on the specific strategic context.

This is not to argue that the United States places a single priority on all of its strategic objectives; rather, it is to say that—for steady-state operations, at least—the United States typically defaults to an approach that would seek to minimize risk to each objective through the use of U.S. resources only.

Two brief examples suffice to illustrate this strategic outlook and its implications for strategic cooperation. On one end, deterring nuclear attacks is an irreducible (in fact, existential) national interest, and as such, the United States will logically maintain appropriate and sufficient national forces to do so. On the other hand, the freedom and security of the seas for legitimate commercial and military use under international law is a mutual strategic interest shared by every state benefiting from the globalized maritime transportation system. It is therefore an objective eminently suited to allied contributions in plans against regional actors that threaten assured access.

Embrace Our Allies

The United States must embrace allied contributions to shared objectives in our force-allocation process. For example, while free and secure seas are clearly a vital U.S. national interest, it is not narrowly associated only with the United States. The naval ways and means to achieve such mutual objectives should not be limited to one’s own national capabilities: For mutual interests, there is more room to assess operational risk based on combined contributions. Our force-allocation planning calculus should therefore take full account of the meaningful contributions made on a daily basis by a broad set of international partners—with examples spanning a range of activities from building partnership capacity and counter-piracy to combat operations, as in Libya in 2011. A few illustrations of this calculus are already in action. For instance, the combined maritime-security operations of our Asian partners’ naval forces in the Strait of Malacca and its approaches serve the mutual interest of maritime security in this vital crossroads without overreliance on the U.S. Navy. Counting on our partners in these cases enables the United States to assign its naval capabilities to other national and shared missions.

Because these types of operations are distinct from those mandated by more narrowly sovereign interests, it is quite reasonable to adopt a modified, more sustainable approach that does not automatically hedge against operational risk, effectively discounting the contributions of allies and partners. Indeed, while such an approach does introduce some degree of operational risk associated with reliance on key allied capabilities, the overall level of strategic risk for any individual state should in fact decrease. We see this today when NATO, the European Union, and Japanese naval forces contribute to the ongoing counterpiracy efforts in the Horn of Africa region. This maritime-security mission is, in other words, shared by a de facto coalition of maritime powers with a vested interest in freedom of the seas. For counterpiracy missions from the Horn of Africa to the Strait of Malacca, therefore, it has been in America’s best interest to rely on allied and partner contributions, freeing up our high-demand surface combatants to execute missions elsewhere. Our policies must make these examples the norm and not the exception.

Lest this prescription sound too utopian, it is important to remember that increased risk tolerance on the part of the most powerful navies has a hard-edged aspect. Without a demonstrated will on the part of leading navies to accept the moderate risks inherent in real burden sharing, current and prospective partners have little incentive to increase their level of contribution (see sidebar, page 58).1 Put bluntly, to create a tangible demand for increased multinational effort, the United States must show a willingness to step back, not from particular regions or commitments in their entirety, but rather from an unsustainable vision of risk-averse self-sufficiency. Fortunately, if the interests identified are truly mutual, and U.S. strategic planners and decision-makers demonstrate the requisite leadership, our key allies and partners will indeed step forward, especially given that in many cases they are already there, in the same regions, carrying out their own naval missions.

In with the New

A truly cooperative approach to addressing mutual strategic interests will contribute to the U.S. Navy’s ability to remain sustainably forward and ready—even under increasing resource constraints. What are the critical requirements for implementing this more deeply cooperative approach to naval strategy? At a minimum, we must undertake three important tasks to gain the benefits of strategic naval cooperation. Fortunately, these benefits do not hinge on expensive or politically impractical measures. The key challenge lies, instead, in mustering the will to selectively dispense with our unreflective habit of self-reliance.

First and foremost, the United States must pursue combined regional force-allocation planning. This requires neither a reworking of intricate national planning processes nor politically implausible merging of command structures. Instead, it simply calls for a willingness to acknowledge other states’ contributions to mutual security objectives and to accept the presumptive risk of including their naval forces as intrinsic elements of our force-planning process—rather than “nice-to-have” additions. The specifics of these mutual interests will vary by ally or partner, geographic location, and particular mission. What is unavoidably true is that, in the absence of an institutionalized habit of pooling our naval resources in steady-state planning, the best of intentions will not result in meaningful implementation of a cooperative strategy.

It is important to note that mutual interests need not be diffuse, nor must they necessarily reside at the “low-intensity” end of the operational spectrum. They can equally result from highly specific, yet closely shared strategic challenges and objectives anywhere along that spectrum. Regional partners and allies often share with us a mutual interest in deterring or defeating destabilizing actions of rogue states. After all, it is those partners and allies who are quite literally closest to the problem. From countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to deterring or defeating acts of aggression, the United States should appropriately factor allied and partner naval capabilities into its planning processes.

For instance, the U.S. global force-allocation process generally relies on quantitative presence criteria such as the number of ships or aircraft in a particular theater. A combined process would serve U.S. leaders (and their international counterparts) well by capitalizing on the equivalency of forces available to support mutual interests. As just one obvious example, U.S. combatant commanders could consider British destroyers and attack submarines equivalent to their U.S. counterparts when assessing a host of potential missions, many of which are of equal importance to both the United States and the United Kingdom. There is no reason to suppose that British ships would not meet the needs of a theater commander for a broad range of commonly envisioned missions. Similarly, NATO leadership of 2011’s Libyan operations—and the leading combat roles played by our NATO allies, with the United States in support—clearly demonstrates that common strategic imperatives mean U.S. forces do not need to be poised to immediately take the lead everywhere, in every circumstance, and for every phase of operation.


This interchangeability of forces would, in turn, free up scarce resources for other missions of specific U.S. or allied national interest. Consider a scenario in which U.S. Navy ballistic-missile-defense destroyers must operate in high-threat areas to support combined missions such as the defense of Europe. If additional forces are needed in the theater to address less-specialized yet still dangerous threats, then rather than assigning additional U.S. assets, we could collaboratively allocate allied combatants to those concurrent missions.

In addition to amending our collective force-allocation process for missions of mutual interest, we must expand our operational planning parameters and better integrate key allies into U.S. campaign plans. Such efforts may require some modifications to our information-sharing mechanisms, but the strategic payoff will far surpass whatever modest information-security risks develop. As just one example: Suppose French, British, or Australian naval forces conduct capacity-building engagements with a given country. Do we not share essentially identical strategic objectives with these close allies when it comes to such missions? It makes little sense not to count these efforts toward achieving specific objectives in our theater campaign plans. Moreover, synchronizing our efforts would allow for deeper integration, not just division of labor. Imagine embarking U.S. Navy Seabees in an allied warship engaged in a capacity-building engagement, in a theater where we might lack sufficient dedicated surface ships to assign to similar missions.

Failing to synchronize such efforts, on the other hand, almost inevitably leads to duplication and missed opportunities for real collaboration. Whether we are addressing steady-state capacity-building exercises or high-intensity combat operations, therefore, we and other like-minded navies should collectively employ our complementary capabilities to their fullest combined effect when our strategic objectives intersect.

Criticisms that these planning assumptions are unrealistic would miss a significant historical precedent. We are not truly inventing new ground. Cold War naval collaboration under NATO auspices presents a clear, guiding example of deep and ongoing integration of force allocation and operational planning in response to our mutual strategic interest in deterring or defeating Soviet aggression. One could argue that the key difference between then and now is simply the greater challenge associated with identifying today’s mutual strategic objectives. To address this challenge, we must both understand our partners’ fundamental strategic interests, as well as the ways and means by which each partner works to achieve them. Improving our levels of strategic understanding through focused dialogue is therefore an important first step in promoting collaborative planning.

This leads directly to the third key prescription. To achieve the goal of deep cooperation, we must reduce barriers to information sharing. Sovereign states rightfully maintain secure systems to safeguard information deemed critical to vital national interests. However, the default position often becomes protection of all information, resulting in frustrating impediments to basic and essential information sharing in areas of mutual interest. Multinational operational and tactical information systems such as the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System are steps in the right direction.2 Yet in practice, the pressures of real-world operations can result in allied and partner communications defaulting to national channels. The same could be (and has been) said of protocols for sharing classified information at the strategic level. More seamless capabilities and processes for allied and partner communication and information sharing are necessary in order to fully realize a cooperative strategic approach.

The Payoff

Any discussion of cooperation between naval forces must acknowledge that the United States’ framework of longstanding formal alliances confers a ready-made springboard to deeper collaboration—either between the United States and its allies, among our allies themselves, or by extension, between the allies and partners of our allies. Many of the most capable navies are formal treaty allies (such as the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan, and South Korea). Today, many like-minded allied navies possess forces with significant power projection, sea control, and maritime-security capabilities, as well as meaningful technological and doctrinal compatibility with the United States and with each other. Within these existing alliances, the opportunities afforded by more integrated force-planning processes offer the greatest near-term return on investment. And just as important, they will provide a model for deeper cooperation with yet more current and emerging partners.

It is a near-certainty that additional challenges and requirements will arise in the implementation of a more cooperative approach to naval strategy. Nevertheless, the three critical requirements described here—combined force allocation, collaborative operational planning, and reduced barriers to information sharing—are the minimal elements of such a strategy’s foundation. By embracing these elements, naval forces can avoid the temptation to spread themselves too thin, thus preserving their ability to focus presence where their capabilities are most in demand for both shared and intrinsically national objectives. And by scuttling counterproductive habits and steaming boldly ahead with a new approach to deep cooperation, like-minded allies and partners can continue to address our naval strategic imperatives while simultaneously bringing our appetites back in line with our national pocketbooks.

1. See Mancur Olson Jr., The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965); Mancur Olson Jr. and Richard Zeckhauser, “An Economic Theory of Alliances,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, vol. 48, no. 3, (August 1966, 266–79; and Martin C. McGuire, “Defense Economics and International Security,” Handbook of Defense Economics, vol. 1, Keith Hartley and Todd Sandler, eds. (New York: Elsevier, 1995).

2. See the Defense Information Security Agency website: .

Rear Admiral Smith is Director, Strategy and Policy Division, N51, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

Encouragement ‘to Step In’

Political economists Mancur Olson and Richard Zeckhauser applied Olson’s theory of public goods to arrive at a conceptual understanding of alliance inefficiency, a species of Olson’s “collective action problem,” which we can generalize to the combined pursuit of mutual strategic interests.

As an example, states with an overriding national-security interest and a demonstrated commitment to actively pursue it with maximum effort inadvertently encourage “free riding” by other states that enjoy the benefits without paying costs proportional to their own interest in the issue at stake. Note that “free riding” should not be taken as a pejorative term. Clearly, it is only common sense for states to allocate resources where they can contribute the most to their own national objectives. Why pay for what someone else is already doing, free of charge?

Analysts have found this problem to be famously intractable when the most powerful states have a disproportionately large interest in the issue at hand (most famously, the United States as the leading contributor to NATO during the Cold War), because any “threats” to reduce their own investment in security are not credible. Yet, geographically diffuse and widely held mutual interests—such as freedom of the seas in a globalized economy—suggest areas in which individual states’ strategic interests are not so disproportionately distributed. In such cases, the best way for leading states to encourage more efficient and effective collaboration may be to simply step back (e.g., from continuous versus periodic maritime-security operations in a given region) so as to encourage others to step in.



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