Naval Strategy and National Ocean Policy

By Lieutenant Commander James Stavridis, U. S. Navy

Considering the diversity of U. S. ocean uses, which include resource exploitation (deep seabed minerals, oil and natural gas, fishing, research, seawater, ocean energy, etc.), trade, strategic-military transit, environmental concerns, and research, the need for a coherent national ocean policy is obvious. Now is the time to develop and implement such a policy, with an intelligent regard for the importance of naval strategy. Other nations, including the Soviet Union and Japan (respectively our leading strategic and commercial rivals), have already done so. As a result, their ability to use the ocean environment in pursuit of national interests has been enhanced greatly.

National Ocean Policy: National ocean policy can be defined as "the success of a government in achieving…societal goals with regard to the ocean." 1 The key to successful policymaking is taking a comprehensive approach with centralized direction. In this regard, the United States has failed to produce effective ocean policy. As Elliot Richardson, a cabinet-level officer in several administrations and a leading figure in ocean policy, has commented, "It is not the lack of ocean policies that is the issue; rather the problem is the lack of a comprehensive approach to setting ocean policies." 2 In his essay in Uses of the Sea, Gordon McDonald stated, "Technical, political-military, and economic considerations are all of importance to U. S. policy for the oceans." 3 John Norton Moore of the Center for Ocean Law and Policy has called for a "foreign policy for the oceans." 4 Retired Rear Admiral Max Morris, who has written about the importance of a naval role in an integrated ocean policy, commented, "We must interweave the older and newer resource potentials of the seas—fishing, off-shore oil, and deep sea minerals—into the traditional matrix of seapower." 5

Alfred Thayer Mahan was the first U. S. writer to discuss the linkage between national ocean policy and naval strategy. He identified six "principal conditions affecting the sea power of nations" leading to national greatness: 6

  • Geographical position-location on the globe
  • Physical conformation-features of coast and country
  • Extent of territory-land resources
  • Number of population-people resources
  • National character-seafaring tradition
  • Character of the government-intelligent direction

Despite Mahan's influence on naval strategic thinking, his message concerning the diverse elements that must integrate to form a nation's overall maritime policy and strategy were unheeded. The most important recent U. S. attempt to form an ocean policy was probably the Stratton Commission of the late 1960s. The commission's report, Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action, was published in 1969. It began:

"How fully and wisely the United States uses the sea in the decades ahead will affect profoundly its security, its economy, its ability to meet increasing demands for food and raw materials, its position and influence in the world community, and the quality of the environment in which its people live." 7

In the 1970s, national ocean policy planning occurred only on an ad hoc basis. As a result of the Stratton Commission's recommendations , the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the U. S. Department of Commerce as well as the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere (NACOA) were formed. 8 Neither body, either in its principal charter or its ancillary tasking, attempted to incorporate naval strategy in overall U. S. ocean policy. Indeed, it has been estimated that 11 executive departments or agencies, 30 secondary line organizations, and 100 lesser governmental units are involved in some aspect of ocean planning. 9

The most recent effort to develop a coherent national ocean policy is a pair of bills currently before the House and Senate, entitled "National Ocean Policy Commission Act of 1983." Cosponsored by Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) and Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) (S.1238) and a variety of congressmen (H.R. 2853), both measures call for the establishment of a commission to develop national ocean policy. 10 Both bills would appoint a commission comprised of members from the Department of State, Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, as well as nongovernment members from environmental groups, commercial organizations, and other "experts." 11 Neither bill, in its original form, envisions significant involvement of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The bills are currently undergoing revision and negotiation, and the issue of some military-strategic involvement, although in an "advisory role," is under consideration. It now appears that the Department of Defense will have a seat on the commission, as a result of the urging of the Reagan administration. 12

Naval Strategy and National Ocean Policy: The current mission of the Navy, defined by Title 10, U. S. Code, is to be prepared to "conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea in support of national interests." 13 The roles of the U. S. Navy, traditionally stated, include four major tasks: sea control, power projection, strategic deterrence, and naval presence. Naval strategy is the large-scale planning undertaken to fulfill established and defined national policies. As the United States becomes more involved in ocean activity, naval strategy will be more involved with broader issues of national ocean policy. This is evident from the National Ocean Policy-Naval Strategy Matrix presented in Table 1.

Table 1: National Ocean Policy—Naval Strategy Matrix

Ocean Use

National Ocean Policy Action

Related Naval Strategic Activity

Seabed mining

Deep seabed mining; encourage commercial activity; Law of the Sea Treaty

Strategic mineral usage; protection of miners

Offshore/deep sea oil and natural gas

Hydrocarbon recovery; new technology encourage activity; Law of the Sea Treaty

Strategic hydrocarbon usage; protection of sites

Strategic passage for naval forces

Interface with Law of the Sea Treaty; other treaty activity on peaceful uses

Sea control/power projection/choke points

Trade routes

Most commercial shipping; movement of imports/exports; raw materials

Sea lines of communication; raw materials


Expanding U.S. deep sea fishing; source of protein; industry jobs; new technology

Protection of operations; some exclusive economic zone patrol exclusion


Joint projects; investigation areas; encourage development of new technology

Military application; possible protection


Resource control; environmental control; Law of the Sea Treaty interface

Rules apply to ships; possible police action

Ocean energy

Potential energy source (OTEC, wave, current, etc.); new technology

Protection in deep water


Possible commercial activity; research; joint projects; new treaties

Strategic sites for various equipment; research and development; transit; strategic

Strategic forces

Treaty implications; possible havens

Critical mission; possible haven concept

Port development (coastal/deep water)

Trade; processing; artificial islands

Forward basing; home ports overhaul; prepositioned overseas material configured in unit sets (POMCUS) sites

Marine technology

New commercial application; trade, transfer; Law of the Sea Treaty interface

Military application; security; alliance implications

The variety of U. S. ocean roles will be increasing in the years ahead. Our naval strategy should not drive the formation of the national ocean policy. Nor should the most basic warfighting role of the Navy be reduced in any way. However, naval strategists must consider what role the Navy will undertake in broader national ocean policy. Ina sense, the Navy should add a fifth task to its catalog of strategic concepts: to undertake missions in support of the national ocean policy.

As mentioned previously, the Soviet maritime infrastructure has done this. Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, Commander in Chief of the Soviet Navy, has said, "Among the main components which we included in the concept of the sea power of the state are the state's capabilities to study the ocean and exploit its resources, the condition of the transport and fishing fleet and its ability to support the needs of the state." 14

Since World War II, the Soviets have increased the size of their merchant fleet to about 2,000 vessels and overtaken the United States in several shipping categories. Their distant water fishing fleet, more than 4,000 vessels, is the largest in the world and includes both trawlers and sophisticated floating processing factories . The Soviets continue to build impressive new vessels, integrating them into an overall national ocean policy. Their merchant and civilian vessels are capable of rapidly mobilizing to support their naval strategy in wartime. The Soviet research and development fleet, more than 200 ships, is the largest in the world. Their intelligence-gathering capability from their civilian fleet is considerable. Finally, the Soviet Union today operates 18 large shipyards and is constructing a variety of civilian and military craft with an integrated, centralized plan that seems to follow its national ocean policy. 15

Goals of a National Ocean Policy: A national ocean policy has a number of goals. These goals and recommendations for such a policy could also apply to U. S. policy toward other major "global commons," like the Arctic or Antarctic.

The first goal of any state and the driving force for any governmental ocean policy must be the physical security of the country. The United States has led a sheltered life behind the oceans. If we are to continue to live securely in our island state, our national ocean policy must recognize the threat from the Soviet Union on the blue water portions of the globe. For this, our ocean policy must provide for strategic deterrence, sea control, power projection, and naval presence—all traditional naval missions. In addition, our policy should provide for peaceful resolutions to conflicts on the oceans where possible. Furthermore, it must support other, broader aspects of the national ocean policy into the 21st century.

Second, a globally recognized regime of the oceans, incorporating and encouraging peaceful access to trade routes, international security for legitimate uses of the oceans, and multilateral agreements for ocean management, has been a traditional goal of U. S. policy. The recent Law of the Sea Treaty, although flawed in several respects, offers a starting point for the development of such a regime. The United States should continue to work for a better treaty regime by attempting to form an alternate treaty or changing the already negotiated one. This must include ensuring that all countries have peaceful access to the oceans for trade and legitimate exploitation. Such a regime could include peaceful means of dispute settlement.

Third, the oceans, like the land, are in danger of overexploitation if not wisely managed. The United States, as a leading maritime power, should continue to take a major role in protecting the maritime environment, conserving endangered species, preventing over-fishing and overexploitation, and managing the global commons.

Fourth, as the oceans become more important to the quality of life on earth, more knowledge and research are critical to allow for effective exploitation and protection of the marine environment. As the leading state in the study of marine science, the United States should playa critical role in organizing conferences, conducting marine scientific research, and disseminating information on the marine environment.

Recommendations: As we enter the ocean age, there are many possible actions we can take to create a viable national ocean policy, which integrates a useful naval strategy. For example, the United States can:

  • Take positive steps within the government to formulate a national ocean policy. The national ocean policy commission suggested by S .1238 and H.R. 2853 is a move in this direction, although the strategic-military aspects of national ocean planning must be given more attention in the commission's structure and work. Once the commission has made its report, we should consider the possibility of forming a White House-led Ocean Policy Council, similar to those of the 1960s under the ocean-oriented leadership of then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. 16 One possible configuration for the flow of information and advice into the White House is shown in Figure 1.
  • Ensure that naval strategy is an active component of the national ocean policy by incorporating the suggestions, perceptions, and advice of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A national ocean policy that ignores the importance of naval strategic planning is flawed from the start.
  • Recognize and work to integrate the civilian maritime capabilities in national maritime strategy. Use of targeted naval reserve programs, cross-training, and other innovations would be helpful.
  • Work to coordinate compatible research programs between civilian and military research and development centers. Include private sector projects where possible. Deep seabed mining technology, for example, has a wide variety of military applications.
  • Promote positive congressional action to improve the U. S. shipbuilding capability, the U. S. Merchant Marine, and other maritime activities in this country. The private sector, via tax incentives and other limited subsidies, could be the key force here.
  • Investigate the possibility of improving the U. S. situation vis-a-vis the Law of the Sea Treaty. We should consider the viability of an alternate mini-treaty with other non-signators (United Kingdom, West Germany, Belgium, Italy) or other deep seabed mining countries (United Kingdom, Japan, West Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Belgium). We should work toward a better ocean regime, acceptable to all powers.
  • Consider roles in naval strategic planning that will evolve as ocean activities increase in the early part of the next century. The protection of deep seabed mining sites, offshore hydrocarbon installations, artificial island complexes, ocean thermal energy sites, fishing complexes, etc., may create new missions for the U. S. Navy, particularly if the current ocean legal environment remains unclear and possibly hostile to the United States. Long-range planning groups on the Navy, Department of Defense, and Joint Chiefs staffs should be tasked to investigate the military-strategic implications of further ocean development.

Conclusions: As this century comes to a close, the United States, like other industrial countries with the appropriate technology, will turn to the oceans for an increasing percentage of its mineral resources, hydrocarbons, protein, and energy. At the same time, naval planners must be aware of new missions that might evolve as a result of new and different types of ocean use. The ability of the United States to effectively form national ocean policy and naval strategy as integrated parts of a single planning process will determine our ability to make use of our marine environment.

1 U. S, Congress, House. "An Overview of National Ocean Policy Problems. Issues, and Administration," Hearings Held by the Oceanography Subcommittee of the Committee On Merchant Marine and Fisheries, 9 and 17 September 1976, Serial No. 94-L (Washington, D,C.: U, S. Government Printing Office, 1976), p. 1.

2 Ibid., p. 2.

3 Gordon J. F. MacDonald, "An American Strategy for the Oceans," in Edmund A. Gullion, Uses of the Seas (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), p. 163.

4 John Norton Moore, "A Foreign Policy for the Oceans," The Oceans and U. S. Foreign Policy (Charlottesville, Virginia: The Michie Co., 1978), p. 1.

5 Max K. Morris, "The Naval Role in an Integrated Oceans Policy," The Oceans and U, S, Foreign Policy (Charlottesville, Virginia: The Michie Co., 1978), p. 73.

6 Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), p. 25.

7 Our Nation and the Sea, Report of the Commission on Marine Science, Engineering, and Resources (Stratton Commission), as quoted in John A. Knauss, "Marine Policy for the 1980s and Beyond," Oceanus. Winter 1982-83, p. 3.

8 Knauss, pp. 3-4, See also note 1 for hearings that apply, p. 8.

9 General Accounting Office, Federal Agencies Administrative Programs Related to Marine Science Activities and Oceanic Affairs. 25 February 1975, GGD-75-61, p. 3.

10 Copies of either bill are available through the offices of the respective sponsors. Both are from the 98th Congress, 1st Session. H.R. 2853 is originally dated 2 May 1983, and S. 1238 is originally dated 9 May 1983.

11 H.R. 2853 , pp. 5-9; S. 1238, pp. 5-11.

12 Ocean Policy News. Citizens for Ocean Law, September 1983. p. 3 and October 1983, pp. 4-5.

13 Naval Warfare Publication-IA. p. I-1 -2.

14 Understanding Soviet Naval Developments, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1981), p. 61.

15 Ibid., pp. 61-69.

16 Knauss, p. 4.

Commander Stavridis , a 1976 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, earned a master of arts in law and diplomacy and a doctor's degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has served in the USS Hewitt (DD-966), USS Forrestal (CV-59), and the Strategic Concepts Group. He is currently ordered to be the commissioning operations officer in the USS Valley Forge (CG-50). A frequent contributor to Proceedings, Commander Stavridis won first honorable mention awards in the 1982 and 1983 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contests.


More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership