The winding down of operations in Iraq, the anticipated winding down in Afghanistan, growing concerns over China’s military modernization effort, and reductions in U.S. defense spending resulting from the Budget Control Act of 2011 together have set the stage for a debate over the country’s future role in the world and its military strategy for supporting it. Although my position prevents me from taking a position on what the outcome of that debate should be, my hope is that it will be informed by strong presentations of competing perspectives, because I am of the view that such an approach is more likely to result in the best possible decisions.
In this connection, following are a few thoughts on the relationship between U.S. grand strategy and maritime power, based on a presentation I made in my personal capacity at an August 2011 Center for Naval Analyses–sponsored conference. These are by no means the only things that can be said on this subject, and much could also be noted about the relationship of other forms of national power to U.S. grand strategy.
Maritime power is a broad term that includes not just the Navy and Marine Corps, but also the Coast Guard, the Merchant Marine, the supporting technological and industrial base, and other elements. My remarks focus on naval forces, while recognizing that other aspects of maritime power deserve attention as well.
Most of the world’s people, resources, and economic activity are not in the Western Hemisphere, but in the other hemisphere, particularly Eurasia. Consequently, a key element of U.S. national strategy, going back many decades, has been to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in one part of Eurasia or another, because such a hegemon could deny the United States access to some of the Eastern Hemisphere’s resources and economic activity.
Preventing this is a major reason why the U.S. military is structured with force elements—including significant naval forces, long-range bombers, and long-range airlift—that enable it to cross broad expanses of ocean and air space and then conduct sustained, large-scale military operations upon arrival. The United States is the only country with a military designed to do this. The other countries in the Western Hemisphere don’t attempt it because they can’t afford it, and because the United States is, in effect, doing it for them. Countries of the Eastern Hemisphere don’t do it for the very basic reason that they’re already in that hemisphere, where the action is. Consequently, they instead spend their defense money on forces for influencing events in their own neighborhood.
The fact that the United States designs its military to do something that other countries don’t aim to do can be important to keep in mind when one sees the U.S. military compared with those of other nations. When observers, for example, question why we have 11 aircraft carriers, pointing out that other countries don’t have anything like that, it would appear they are overlooking or downplaying this basic point.
A variation on this argument by comparison is that U.S. naval forces are clearly sufficient—or excessive—because they are equal in tonnage to the next dozen or more navies combined, most of which are the navies of allies. Those other fleets, however, are mostly of Eurasian countries, so they don’t need to be able to cross to the other side of the world and project significant power upon arrival. The fact that the U.S. Navy is a lot bigger than allied navies does not necessarily prove that U.S. naval forces are either sufficient or excessive. It could alternatively, for example, mean that allies are investing too little in their own fleets to meet even their more limited needs. Again, it would appear that observers who make this comparison either do not see or are downplaying this logical flaw in their line of reasoning.
More than two-thirds of the world is covered by water, much of which is international. Consequently, capable U.S. naval forces, while not inexpensive, can give the United States the ability to convert a major part of the planet’s surface into a huge, globe-spanning medium of maneuver and operations for projecting power ashore and protecting U.S. interests in various parts of the world, particularly Eurasia.
This point wouldn’t be as important if less of the world were covered by water, or if the oceans were carved into territorial blocks, as is the land. But most of the world is covered by water, and most of that water is international. So it’s not that naval forces are inherently special or privileged—it’s just a consequence of the physical and legal organization of the planet.
At a time when many observers are talking about other countries’ asymmetric military capabilities, it can be argued that U.S. naval forces, because of how the world is organized physically and legally, represent one of the most important asymmetric military advantages enjoyed by any nation. Given that leverage, an argument could be made that funding for naval forces should be protected even as defense spending is reduced, on the grounds that they are a high-payoff investment that preserves a lot of options for U.S. leaders.
The Special Case of China
A U.S.-China conflict may be unlikely because of the economic ties between the two countries and the tremendous damage such a conflict could cause. But that doesn’t mean the U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific isn’t important. For one thing, showing that the United States is prepared to win such a conflict is a part of what makes it unlikely.
Equally important is that other countries in the region are constantly observing that military balance and factoring it into their decisions regarding whether to align their policies more closely with the United States or with China. The day-to-day U.S.-Chinese military balance in the Pacific, in other words, will help shape the political evolution of the Pacific basin, which in turn will affect the ability of the United States to pursue various policy goals, both in the Pacific and elsewhere.
Forward deployments of U.S. naval forces don’t only reassure allies and partners, deter potential aggressors, and demonstrate U.S. commitment to a region. They also permit U.S. naval forces to collect intelligence and monitor foreign military operations in ways that other U.S. intelligence assets can’t, familiarize sailors and Marines with overseas operating areas where they one day might need to conduct combat operations, strengthen ties with foreign military and political leaders, improve military interoperability with allies and partners, train and work with other navies in maritime-security operations, conduct counterterrorism operations, and carry out humanitarian assistance and disaster-response operations. Forward-deployed U.S. naval forces carry out tasks such as these on a daily basis in support of U.S. policy goals, even though they aren’t always publicized. Being forward deployed also permits U.S. naval forces to respond to crises rapidly, before they might escalate into more costly conflicts.
If U.S. access to overseas bases becomes more limited or uncertain in coming years, then the ability of naval forces to operate in international waters—without, as the Navy says, the need for a foreign permission slip—could become more important. Naval forces are modular in nature, so they can be tailored to the forward-presence needs of particular regions. And they can be positioned closer to shore, or farther away, according to the political message that U.S. leaders want to send. The operational, political, and diplomatic benefits that a forward-deployed naval presence can provide is important to keep in mind in light of the cost of the force structure needed to maintain it.
Supporters of other parts of the military have arguments about the relationship of those forces to U.S. grand strategy. They can and should bring them to bear. In a debate about the country’s future role in the world and its military strategy for supporting it, those with various perspectives should put their best thoughts on the table, so that decisions regarding how to spend defense dollars can be best informed.