By 1 October, the U.S. government, over a budget impasse, had shut down operations, directly affecting the Department of Defense and the Navy. How the government found itself in this precarious state is nothing short of ironic. Nearly three years earlier, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen had declared the soaring national debt to be the biggest threat to national security. Cost-savings initiatives made a preemptive effort to avoid the worst effects of forced cuts. However, once the proverbial ax of sequestration had fallen, U.S. national-security organizations had to re-evaluate their tactical posture once again. Most notably, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a comprehensive strategic choices and management review that would redefine DOD’s priorities and structure under various budget scenarios. The partial government shutdown, which lasted for 16 days, added further confusion and concern.
In the meantime, some might argue that the best advice to follow may be the British World War II slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” During this initial triage phase, it’s probably too soon to estimate the full impact of budget cuts and strategic reassessment on national security. This isn’t the first (or last) time national-security organizations have faced budgetary or mission challenges. However, there’s always hope—albeit extraordinary—that, necessity being the mother of invention, this challenge will yield a number of innovative solutions.
Planning for Obstacles
The Pentagon, the Capitol, and the White House may only be a few miles apart, but each has its own agendas, goals, and timetables. Their only common ground often seems to be the constant struggle over resources, strategy, and reality. The result has been an ongoing systemic disconnect between ends and means, exacerbated by ambiguity and misperception.
Strategically, ambiguity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the lack of specificity can provide maneuverability, flexibility, and anonymity. On the other hand, it can obfuscate purpose, accountability, and assessment. The lack of clearly articulated priorities can cause resources, from financial to intellectual, to be compartmentalized or poorly allocated, and efficiencies from potential interagency cooperation to be forfeited. Even worse is the widely held belief that the “tensions generated by cultural differences, turf, and competition for limited resources will always be part of the interagency process.” 3
Furthermore, ambiguity can lead to vague, or worse, unattainable goals. National-security agendas can be hijacked by opportunists or by hot-button issues, such as the recent fiscal cliff, government shutdown, and debt crisis. More often, the focus drifts to the symptoms instead of the causes of national-security threats. “These days, our goals are less about stopping bad things from happening and more about limiting the effects when they do happen—whether it’s creating computer networks that can resume operation after a cyber attack, developing homeland security programs to accelerate recovery after a terrorist strike, or helping new democracies withstand violent insurgencies.” 4
Whether a result of intelligence gaps, lack of situational awareness, or hubris, another key vulnerability is perception—and misperception. Because of its relatively successful track record, the United States generally believes that it will not only overcome national-security challenges, but that things will ultimately work out in its favor. But this “optimism bias” also creates opportunities for underestimated adversaries to catch the United States off-guard by unexpected means, such as the 9/11 attacks. Forgetting that the enemy is persistently executing a strategy of asymmetric warfare can be fatal, as the April Boston Marathon bombings demonstrated.
Just as dangerous is the failure to anticipate trends, behaviors, and effects; the inability to learn from experience; and not being able to adapt one’s capabilities and institutional constructs to the threat environment. And threats that were once tangible (kinetic weapons and damage) are now increasingly elusive. Many of the larger threats to U.S. security—the budget and debt crisis, cyber attacks, aggressive nuclear proliferation, and transnational terrorism—don’t seem to be taken seriously enough until it’s too late. Consequently, the severity of these threats is, unfortunately, rarely matched by the urgency to counter them.
While not reassuring, it is prudent to expect these conditions or obstacles and plan for them. The American national-security system, it would seem, was not built to handle the plethora of threats—asymmetrical and conventional—that it currently faces, and the several institutional challenges do not appear to be changing for the better any time soon. Nor is the hope for a fully operative, collaborative, and effective interagency process likely to become reality in the near future.
The Evolution of Naval Power
When the Continental Navy was established in late 1776, its purpose was to disrupt British supplies and capture ships to help finance the revolutionary cause. Expected to play a modest role, the small fleet was crucial in helping America gain its independence. Several decades later, it was naval involvement in the Barbary Wars that established the young country’s prominence in the world. The Navy’s role in national security and force projection has grown ever since.
The Navy is central to U.S. national and global security. Waterways, especially sea lanes, are vital to transportation and commerce. Nearly half of U.S. foreign trade is seaborne. Communications (underwater cables), energy (transoceanic pipelines), smuggling (including human), piracy, anti-terrorism, humanitarian aid, and even the environment are all within the scope of maritime missions. In light of this, one thing is clear: Every major national-security strategy under consideration today requires significant naval presence.
While “Operation Neptune Spear” sounds more like a deep-sea fishing trip, it was the name given to the mission—with Navy SEALs on point—that finally took down Osama bin Laden. Special operations have become increasingly attractive for their tactical agility and effectiveness. Michael A. Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict, reported to the House Armed Services Committee in April that “the Defense Department will continue to sculpt innovative, small-footprint, low-cost solutions to achieve defense goals and that the special operations community is ideally tailored, structured, and trained for its mission.” 5 The Navy SEALs, as part of that community and command, have already proven many times over to be successful in that role.
The arrival of the USS Freedom (LCS-1) in Singapore in April was a clear indication that the United States was committed to maintaining a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure stability. 6 The ongoing pivot toward Asia recognizes growing activity and tension in the area, and assumes a move away from extended land-based conflicts. By 2020, 60 percent of the Navy’s Fleet will be deployed to the Pacific. Four new U.S. littoral combat ships will be stationed by Singapore, while Indonesia has plans to buy a broad range of American hardware and take part in joint maneuvers. 7 Strong military relations with Japan and South Korea, along with increased rhetoric from North Korea, suggest that many aspects of the Asian pivot will be protected from budget cuts.
The pivot is reinforced by the emerging Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept, which according to the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review aims to address how air and naval forces will integrate capabilities across air, sea, land, space, and cyberspace to counter growing challenges to U.S. freedom of action. Although the operational details are reportedly still being developed, the strategy is clearly aimed at deterring China and reassuring regional allies.
Even with sequestration and Secretary Hagel’s strategic review, ASB retains momentum. According to the Air-Sea Battle office, “Having smaller budget authority does not change the validity of [ASB’s] ideas and actions for force development, although it may slow [ASB’s] implementation.” 8 Further proof that ASB has traction is that the U.S. Army, while skeptical about the concept, is “developing its own Joint Concept for Entry Operations that envisions amphibious, airborne, and air assault operations to gain and maintain inland access to the adversary’s territory.” 9 After all, imitation (or, perhaps, “parallel conceptualizing”) is the sincerest form of flattery.
It’s doubtful that any country could match American naval might. But when China put its first aircraft carrier into service in 2012, it seemed America’s supremacy at sea was to be tested. The increasing frequency of such challenges will ensure that the U.S. Navy will always have a major role in America’s global strategy—a strategy that must have a forward-deployable sea-power focus.
Champions and Campaigns
At the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt realized two things: First, America’s Fleet had to grow to protect U.S. interests abroad, and two, it had to be very big. After battling congressional naysayers and other obstacles, Roosevelt pushed for the creation of the “Great White Fleet,” which consisted of four squadrons of warships manned by 14,000 sailors and Marines. The Fleet made its debut in 1907 in grand fashion—a 43,000-mile, 14-month world tour with 20 port calls on six continents—and is still considered to be one of the greatest peacetime achievements of the U.S. Navy. 10 Such a move and display today might seem ostentatious, wasteful, or even threatening. However, the importance of the Navy in U.S. national security and foreign policy would have taken much longer to establish without Roosevelt’s robust and effective advocacy.
But an advocacy role today would have to be a campaign with momentum and sustained support. Since Roosevelt, the closest the U.S. Navy has come to such a campaign was Ronald Reagan’s platform to improve America’s armed services and strengthen its strategic retaliatory capabilities in the 1980s. The “600-Ship Navy” plan bolstered the Navy with an “in with the old and new” program. Iowa -class battleships were recommissioned, while older ships were kept in service longer. At the same time, a large construction program was introduced, which accelerated production of Nimitz -class aircraft carriers. Unsurprisingly, both then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James Watkins and Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, were outspoken supporters. Lehman actively persuaded Congress and courted public support for the Maritime Strategy .
The fleet envisioned by the 600-Ship Navy strategy never quite reached that number. The enduring added value, however, was that “along with the new and improved ships, aircraft, and weapons came additional resources to recruit, retain, and train the professional sailors who were so essential to modern operations.” 11 The bottom line was that the strategy continued to ensure that the United States had the most powerful Fleet ever.
A century after Roosevelt and several decades after Reagan, the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, but threats to both national and global security have grown in complexity and number. Yet the importance and priority of the Navy has not waned, and its role today is arguably even more important. Ships have historically been a symbol of strength and commitment, such as for blockades or use in “gunboat diplomacy.” The capability to deploy a carrier strike group and establish a presence in a conflict zone sends a powerful message, be it of deterrence, reassurance, or defense.
Challenges like sequestration and shutdowns that exacerbate competition for resources have made reasserting that importance a priority. According to Politico ’s Darren Samuelsohn, “Agencies, companies and other groups are on the hunt for Capitol Hill allies with the juice to save their pet issues from the full force of the across-the-board cuts.” 12 However, while others may fight primarily for job security, the Navy and its sister Sea Services can make a clear argument for national security. With broad responsibilities—from projecting power to transportation to minesweeping and more—the Navy extends the mobility and operational access of the other services. Apart from its traditional roles, the Navy needs to be viewed as the linchpin of cross-domain dominance.
Frankly, there’s a good reason for the abundance of lobbyists and celebrity spokesmen. Advocacy works. Leadership on Capitol Hill and within the administration will need to know the arguments and be convinced by the Navy community. Having credible champions with the political clout to navigate the imperfect government budgeting system would greatly advance the pivotal role of the Navy in the joint environment.
Political advocacy must be complemented and amplified by thought leadership. This calls for a focused campaign by all the knowledgeable and involved constituents. Just as Roosevelt had Alfred Thayer Mahan and his theories of sea power, an infusion of innovative strategies and fresh perspectives—discourse and debate—is regularly needed to keep the Navy ahead of the game. This would seem to be an important leadership role today for organizations like the U.S. Naval Institute, the Navy League, the Naval War College, and the Naval Postgraduate School, along with many others.
Understandably, it may be difficult for some to see how to promote that role in the current fiscal environment. So this is the challenge—to mount a “campaign with champions” to make the case. Coincidentally, it was the champion of the Great White Fleet, Theodore Roosevelt, who once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” From the opportunities presented here, it seems the Navy has a lot more to work with than some might have assumed. So, will the next Theodore Roosevelt please step forward to lead the Navy’s 21st century campaign?
1. Christopher Cavas, “U.S. Navy: Sequester Means Strike Groups Could Stay Home,” Defense News , 24 January 2013, www.defensenews.com/article/20130124/DEFREG02/301240022/U-S-Navy-Sequest...  .
2. John Bailey and Jeff Black, “Federal cuts jeopardize national security, intelligence chief warns,” NBC News , 11 April 2013, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/11/17707246-federal-cuts-jeopard...  .
3. Gabirel Marcella, Ed., “Affairs of State: The Interagency and National Security,” December 2008, www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubid=896  .
4. Amy Zegart, “Taking Resilience Too Far; Resilience isn’t always a good thing, especially when it comes to national security,” Slate , 19 March 2012, www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2012/03/resilience_in_nat...  .
5. Amaani Lyle, “Special Ops Official Discusses Adaption, Strategy,” American Forces Press Services , 18 April 2013, www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119810  .
6. “US warship in southeast Asia gives punch to US Asian ‘pivot,’” Times of India , 18 April 2013, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/rest-of-world/US-warship-in-sou... 
7. Associated Press, “China says US ‘Pacific Pivot’ Destabilizes Region,” Military.com , 16 April 2013, www.military.com/daily-news/2013/04/16/china-says-us-pacific-pivot-desta...  .
8. Kris Osborn, “Air-Sea Battle endures amid strategic review,” Military.com , 5 April 2013, www.dodbuzz.com/2013/04/05/air-sea-battle-endures-amidst-strategic-review  .
9. Michael Raska, “Air-Sea Battle Debate, Operational Consequences and Allied Concerns,” Defense News , 30 October 2012, www.defensenews.com/article/20121030/DEFFEAT05/310300008/Air-Sea-Battle-...  .
10. Journalist Second Class Mike McKinley, “The Cruise of the Great White Fleet,” Naval History and Heritage Command , www.history.navy.mil/library/online/gwf_cruise.htm  .
11. “Ship Building 1981-89 - Reagan, Ronald,” GlobalSecurity.org , www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/scn-1981-reagan.htm  .
12. Darren Samuelsohn, “Sequester Exemptions; The New Earmarks,” Politico , 22 April 2013, www.politicopro.com/go/?id=21345  .