When I read James Holmes’ provocative piece “Yes, the U.S. Navy’s Been on a Strategic Holiday” (The Diplomat, 16 January 2014), I instinctively assumed he was talking about the capital-ship building holiday enacted by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. Yes, I am a geek. However, this now (mostly) forgotten historical factoid can help us understand the larger issue that Holmes raises in his piece: “How much strategic thinking do you do on a holiday, once released from the everyday cares of your profession? Not much, one suspects.” By implication, Holmes charges the Navy with dereliction of strategic duty for failing to properly imagine and plan for the challenges it and the nation face today.
In 1922, the navies that had been victorious in World War I decided to end any potential postwar arms race preemptively by scrapping several million tons of battleship and battlecruiser tonnage. Additionally, they agreed not to build any more such weapons, which were perceived as destabilizing to world peace, for another ten years. They believed they were implementing a major lesson learned about the conflict’s origins: Naval arms races cause wars. So collectively they took a holiday from history. In 1930 most of these powers extended the vacation another five years. Nine years later, the same nations went back to war with different weapons of destruction—aircraft carriers and submarines. The point is that we cannot pick and choose strategic holidays. Sometimes they come and go regardless of what we think we are doing.
The service did go on a naval-strategy holiday when the Cold War ended, but not because it intended to. The reason was that general command of the sea by the United States and its allies was simply a fact. Not until after 9/11 did urgent maritime strategic “forcing functions” such as anti-access, area denial, and the rise of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) push the U.S. Navy to contemplate how to seize control of the seas in the environments of the future. These forcing functions were muted by the overwhelming focus of the U.S. defense community, including our beloved Navy, on a “global war on terrorism.” Anti-access, area denial, and the PLAN are now well recognized, bringing us back to a focus on what needs to be done about future policy and strategy, and not just in the Pacific. Holmes’ position should be read as not so much a criticism as a statement of fact.
His declaration notwithstanding, the actual end of any sort of Navy strategic holiday occurred sometime around the first publication of 2007’s A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the 2007–08 financial crash, and the start of China’s very public increasing naval focus. But the Navy’s strategic community has gotten back up to speed with these new challenges more easily than Holmes implies.
Even if one accepts his argument that the Navy is intellectually lazy, the extenuating circumstances of the requirement to pursue simultaneously two land wars in Asia should give any analyst pause. These operations meant that Navy personnel were used to backfill land-power jobs and provide additional combat power ashore with Navy missiles, planes, SEALs, Seabees, and various other service members such as explosive-ordnance-disposal teams. Sailors were asked to do these things by both the Army and their own leadership, which offered more individual augmentees than was perhaps prudent. For example, one EP-3 naval flight officer, a very valuable piece of equipment indeed, was performing electronic-warfare convoy protection for trucks in Iraq, not ships. Essentially, he jammed improvised-explosive-device fuses buried along roads, rather than protecting sea lines of communication. He did his duty and earned a Bronze Star—but during the land-based conflicts of the early 21st century, these types of tasks have occupied the Navy for the most part.
Nonetheless, some strategic planning and conceptualizing has taken place in the past ten years. Contrary to what Holmes intimates, the Navy has a healthy strategic culture. In 2002 the Center for Naval Analyses was already studying at which point the shrinking Fleet should be realigned with strategic realities. This does not sound like much of a vacation. But Holmes is right that the larger Navy and the nation appear to have become serious about the new challenges only in the past five years, with the theoretical implementation of the State Department’s recommendation to pivot toward the Pacific. We had a holiday, but it has now ended. Get over it and get on with it, I say, although this process seems to have already begun.