Seeing the Maritime Forest for the Trees

By Captain Robert C. Rubel, U.S. Navy (Retired)

‘Step Back for Perspective’

To see a forest you generally have to step back for perspective. Let’s imagine we have a desk globe in front of us. The first thing we note as we observe the Earth rotating is that most of it is covered with water. Closer inspection reveals the seas are all connected, leading the noted British geographer and geopolitical theorist Halford Mackinder to say in 1904: “The unity of the ocean is the simple geographical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world.” 1 However, we also note a particular arrangement of continents, the largest being Eurasia, but with an extensive continental system on the other side of the planet—the  Americas. This arrangement of continents and seas provides the context for human history and for the strategies that nations and empires have adopted over the centuries.

After making his sweeping statement about sea power, Mackinder proceeded to focus on the goings-on in Eastern Europe, concluding there was potential peril for the British Empire. In his analysis, Eurasia—if it could be “organized” under the rule of a single authority by virtue of its sheer size—could pose a threat to the rest of the world. He coined a syllogism that was oft repeated in the Cold War: “Who rules Eastern Europe commands the Heartland (from Ukraine to Irkutsk and from the Arctic to central Iran). Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island (Eurasia). Who rules the World Island commands the world.” 2

At first glance this seems to contradict his earlier pronouncement about sea power. How do we reconcile this apparent paradox? The answer is a simple equation: industrial power equals sea power. If Eurasia was unified, Mackinder assumed that the government would have the resources to build a dominant navy. 3

At least to this point in history, Mackinder’s analysis has not panned out. Or has it? We do have an example of a continent under unified control, but it is North America (at least the U.S. portion), not Eurasia. And yes, this continent-wide nation became an industrial super power that built a dominant navy. Meanwhile, Eurasia continues to be fragmented. The question is, how does this help us see the maritime strategy forest?

Continental or Maritime

If we examine history since the French Revolution, we note the rise and fall of great powers. These powers can be classified as either continental or maritime based on their approach to national security. Continental powers include Napoleonic France, Imperial and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union and current-day Russia, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States prior to the Spanish-American War. Maritime great powers are only two: Great Britain and the United States after about 1890. The first thing to note about this classification scheme is that neither geographic configuration nor the possession of a strong navy and merchant marine are discriminators. The distinguishing feature is the way they approach security.

Continental powers approach security from the center out. Since Eurasian continental powers have been exclusively authoritarian, security of the regime is job one, and thus security starts at the capital and radiates outward. Provinces must be garrisoned to ensure national cohesion, and borders must be fortified. But that isn’t enough. There are two general rules for continental powers: Do not engage in two-front wars, and do not allow a powerful neighbor to grow up on your border. Thus, neighboring states must be politically neutralized—if not occupied—to serve as buffers, the current crisis in Ukraine being an example. Sooner or later buffers are needed for the buffers, and the empire grows until it is checked by some other power. 

It is interesting to observe how continental powers look at maritime strategy. Admiral Wolfgang Wegener of the Imperial German Navy had his own equation: Fleet plus position equals sea power, referring to the need for Germany to have access to the sea unconstrained by the enclosure of the North Sea. When he wrote about strategy, Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan extolled the advantages of the central position and the possession of key geographic features—an appropriate outlook for a theorist steeped in the continental grand strategy reflected by the Monroe Doctrine. Imperial Japan, although an island nation with a large navy, adopted a continental-style strategy of strong outposts in the Pacific.

Maritime geometry is the opposite. Maritime powers’ approaches to security are based on free movement on the seas generally and in particular around the periphery of Eurasia. The necessary freedom of movement is created by seizing command of the sea, which confers a number of critical strategic benefits on the maritime power. The nation having command of the sea can disperse its navy to conduct a number of tasks, the net effect being security for its economy, credible contact with allies, and strategic options versus a continental competitor, including the potential for generating a multi-front war. The dispersal of one’s navy forward can be thought of as exercising command of the sea to enforce the rules of an international order congenial to one’s interests.

Maritime Powers Win

History reveals that in the long geopolitical struggles of the last two centuries, the maritime approach to security—maritime strategy writ large—has been the winner. This is why the U.S. Navy operates forward on a day-to-day basis and why the United States maintains a Navy whose power is greater than almost all others combined. This is the maritime-strategy forest; all other things we call maritime strategy are trees.

At the Naval Institute conference the lawmakers were talking about the forest, while Frank Hoffman, and likely most of the others in the room, were expecting to hear about trees. The congressman and senators talked about maintaining a favorable world order through forward deployment, protecting and promoting American values, and extending democracy. Those things are part and parcel of a maritime approach to national grand strategy. Since the end of World War II the U.S. Navy has ringed the periphery of Eurasia with combat power for reasons that have evolved as the world evolved, but in general the purpose has been to support a liberal trading order as envisioned by the architects of the Bretton Woods accords in 1944. 4 Such an order promotes widespread economic development and establishes a ring of like-minded nations that can ally with the United States against expansionist continental powers when necessary. Keeping the Navy (and the other services, as necessary) forward is the way. The means have been variable and Defense budgets wax and wane, and this brings us around to taking a look at the trees.

Some species of maritime-strategy trees are exclusively associated with wartime, and they are not our business here. Of the peacetime species we can identify two basic kinds: those that are actually executed and those that are declarative. Both, with one exception, are concerned with force structure in one way or another. Executed strategies involve building programs intended to dissuade naval competition, solve specific strategic problems, or react to other nations’ building programs. 

'Declarative Strategy'

The other species of peacetime maritime strategy—one that has emerged in the United States since the 1970s—is the declarative strategy. These have been promulgated every few years, more or less corresponding with the turnover in Chiefs of Naval Operations. 5 These documents have most often been aimed at an internal audience, ideally containing the elements Hoffman set forth. The 1980s Maritime Strategy was notable because it was contingent: It would be invoked in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe. This was associated with the “600-Ship Navy” of the Reagan administration Defense buildup and so attained semi-legendary status as an effective pleading document. The . . . From the Sea series of white papers in the 1990s were doctrinal; they did not specify who, where, or why the Navy would fight, only how—power-projection from the forward littoral. The consistency of these documents across CNOs impressed Congress and generated support for resources. 6 In both cases, the documents—the trees—comported nicely with the nature of the forest.

The attacks of 9/11 threatened to upset the Navy’s strategic applecart. In the direct aftermath, there was pressure from some quarters in DOD and elsewhere for the Navy to patrol American waters. This would have been lethal to the service’s ability to execute the forest-level maritime strategy. The Navy progressively came to the realization that the only viable solution was to obtain the cooperation of as many other navies as possible in order to generate global maritime security. A successful terrorist attack mounted by way of maritime smuggling or hijacking would have ensured that pressure to patrol home waters was irresistible. However, after the invasion of Iraq, obtaining widespread naval cooperation was problematic as the United States was regarded as unnecessarily and perhaps illegally interventionist. Then-CNO Admiral Mike Mullen called for the formation of a “1,000-Ship Navy,” by which he meant a broad collaborative partnership. Other navies weren’t buying the idea. Finally in 2006 he called for the development of a new maritime strategy.

The result of a collaborative project involving a number of Navy organizations was CS21 . The secret sauce in this declarative strategy was made up of several ingredients. First, quite a few foreign navies were consulted in the development of the document, which provided at least some degree of collective ownership. Second, the United States was depicted as being on the strategic defensive through repeated assertions that the Sea Services would deploy to defend the global system (as opposed to facilitating globalization). This provided the basis for global unity of purpose, other navies not feeling they were being asked to help the United States defend itself. Finally, no specific country was called out as an enemy, threat, or rogue. Some foreign heads of navies have said that CS21 provided the political top cover they needed within their own countries to be able to move out and engage with the United States.

CS21 proved very successful at paving the way for the generation of a global maritime-security partnership. However, the document came in for a lot of domestic criticism, especially from within the Beltway, because it did not contain the elements that Frank Hoffman identified. It was not a resource-pleading document. Rather, it was a species of declarative strategy. CS21 is systemic—actually meant to be executed day in and day out. Whatever its salutary effects internationally, it does not scratch the Navy’s declaratory strategy itch.

A New CS21 ?

So where do we go from here? In one sense, abandoning CS21 would be playing with fire if the U.S. Navy is perceived by foreign navies as reneging on its implied grand strategic promise to be benignly defensive and cooperative. Current CNO Admiral Jonathan Greenert assumed office almost three years ago wanting to immediately refresh CS21 . This project has not yet yielded a new document in part because the geostrategic conditions that prompted CS21 still obtain. If the analysis offered here is correct, then it seems reasonable for the Navy, when it is ready, to issue an additional strategy document either supplementing CS21 , or if it supplants it, attempting to keep in it as much of the main ingredients as possible. However, it should contain language that meets the criteria set by Hoffman.

What might such a document look like? First, it should articulate the central values of the service that are summarized nicely by Admiral Greenert’s mantra since taking office: “Warfighting first, operate forward, be ready.” It should point out the strategic benefits that accrue to the nation as a result of the Navy being forward. Anyone who took notes on what the legislators said at the aforementioned conference would have no trouble articulating these. To describe the needed means, research and gaming work will be needed to nail down what capabilities in the emerging environment—including budget constrictions—would be necessary. To this could be added thoughts on how the Navy might further posture itself to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. The big issue is understanding what the document is really for and proceeding on those grounds.

Assuming that at least part of the document’s purpose is to justify national investment in the Sea Services, a couple of things come to mind. Those of us inside Navy circles tend to think that there should be some magic set of words that would galvanize public support. The genesis of this notion is, of course, the dramatic effect Mahan’s 1890 book had in stimulating the creation of a powerful American Navy. This idea was further reinforced by the conflation of the 1980s Maritime Strategy and the 600-Ship Navy. During the development of CS21 , the Navy conducted an extensive series of “conversations with the country” in which senior Navy leadership tried to engage different strata of the public. As far as I could tell these bore no fruit. 

'Deep-Rooted Complacency'

The issue, in my view, is not that there is some kind of neo-isolationism (although this was mentioned in the conference) but rather a deep-rooted complacency borne of decades of American strategic success. 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding, the Navy’s dominance of the seas for so long has caused Americans to take our command of the sea for granted. 

There are good, solid geopolitical reasons the Navy and the other services are out there. The simple American geopolitical syllogism is as follows: If what happens over there affects what happens over here (and it always does), then America needs voice and influence on what happens over there. 7 We don’t get voice and influence based on our good looks. We have earned it by fighting multiple bloody wars to counter continental expansionism and by making the investment and commitment to keep a victorious and dominant navy forward continuously during peacetime. It turns out this is a subscription, not a purchase, and the bill arrives every year. If we let the subscription lapse, other voices will be heeded, and it won’t be pretty for anybody. This is the argument the American public needs to understand and accept. 

A recent Pew Research survey revealed that Americans  feel that the United States does too much to solve other countries’ problems and that it should mind its own business internationally. However, the study also finds that this does not represent a form of isolationism—Americans understand the benefits of U.S. participation in the global economy. 8 This dichotomy is likely the result of the war weariness associated with Iraq and Afghanistan coupled with a broad understanding of globalization. The Sea Services can connect these dots by arguing that their forward deployment generates maritime security and deterrence such that the global economic system is supported—à la CS21 —and the prospects for having to send the Army forward are reduced.

The 'Internal Message'

Frank Hoffman adopted a church metaphor tongue-in-cheek, referring to how the lawmakers were preaching to a sea-power choir at the conference. However, he was right; we true believers in sea power tend to get ourselves fired up with interpretations of the holy writ of Mahan and Julian Corbett and think the apostates out in the street should be struck down from their horses, as was the Apostle Paul, with a blinding flash of insight. Certainly, Mahan’s book is said to have had that effect on Theodore Roosevelt. The prospects for such a public epiphany are not great in today’s world, where American security is taken pretty much for granted, even after the 9/11 attacks. 

A doctrinal strategy containing the elements Frank Hoffman cites is just a starting point, but a necessary one. The Navy must get its internal message together before it starts proselytizing to the general public. However, the new document must be crafted with that mission in mind. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), when asked about the audience for the Navy’s argument, answered that it should be Congress. Given the sophisticated understanding of the maritime-strategy “forest” that all three lawmakers seemed to possess, this seems like good advice. The new “maritime strategy,” whatever it turns out to be, will have to be crafted with an eye toward supporting the Navy’s argument for being resourced to remain forward. To the extent the conference clarified these issues in this writer’s mind, it was a success.

1. Halford J. MacKinder, Britain and the British Seas (London: D. Appleton and Co., 1914), 12.

2. Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality (London: Constable and Co., 1919), 106.

3. Ibid., 49-51.

4. For the spirit of Bretton Woods, see Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull , vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1948), 81.

5. For a good chronicle of Navy declarative strategies, see Peter D. Haynes, American Naval Thinking in The Post-Cold War Era: The U.S. Navy And The Emergence Of A Maritime Strategy, 1989–2007 , Ph.D. dissertation. (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2013).

6. Informal discussion with RADM Jay Cohen, USN (Ret.).

7. For further development of this idea see Robert Rubel, “National Policy and the Post-Systemic Navy,” Naval War College Review , Autumn 2013 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press), 11-29.

8. Pew Research Center, December 2013, “America’s Place in the World 2013”

Captain Rubel is currently the Dean, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, at the Naval War College. He is a retired naval officer who flew light-attack and strike-fighter aircraft. He is a graduate of the Spanish and U.S. naval war colleges and has written on a number of operational and strategic naval issues.


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