Advocating Naval Heresy

By Captain R. B. Watts, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

This time, however, the world does not seem to be cooperating with our desire to return to any sort of normalcy. Even the closest potential peer competitor, China, is not much of a conventional threat in the traditional sense; with one true power-projection asset, it’s a bit of a stretch to assume the Chinese are going to be vying for traditional sea-power dominance. There are simply no other threats that can rationalize a return to tradition. But nontraditional threats continue to plague us. Irregular conflict in the Middle East has only worsened since the end of our conflict in Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State being the most recent example. Russian adventurism in the Ukraine and other areas is both diverse and sophisticated, demanding innovative strategic solutions that go far beyond simple demands for new and improved traditional platforms. And irregular warfare, that most complex form of conflict that has been the norm since the end of the Cold War, shows no sign of abating as the war of choice for our potential enemies. While these various irregular threats are mentioned akin to a laundry list, how sea power is to be used against them is something of a mystery. We have, unfortunately, returned to “what we know” and as such risk relevancy in the violent and diverse world of today.

What we need now is a little heresy in our traditional thinking.

Heresy and the Cycles of History

Of all the services, the Navy is one of the most traditional in terms of its continued adherence to classical theory. Since Alfred Thayer Mahan’s magnum opus was published in 1890, the Navy has followed a remarkably consistent approach to naval warfare. Capital ships—first the “big gun club” of “battleship admirals,” followed by advocates for carrier power in the post-1945 era—remain the core essence of U.S. naval theory. The emphasis on capital ships has, in turn, led to a number of principles that remain embedded in strategy. Forward operations, presence, power projection, and strike using capital ships are all fundamental in our way of thinking and as such are the centerpiece of naval strategy.

But if the strategic environment changes, would it not make sense to change our principles? Such is not the case historically. Although the United States has not engaged in combat with a peer since 1945, our principles remain consistent. During periods of deviation—largely irregular-style conflicts—the Navy has demonstrated a pattern, a cycle, of begrudgingly adapting in small degrees, only to return to traditional methods once a threat has passed. We often dismiss conflicts that do not meet our image of traditional naval war as an aberration, waiting for tradition to return. Because our fundamental way of traditional thinking is so deeply ingrained, various “heresies” that suggest that times are indeed changing (and the heretics who propose this) at best do not last long. Divergence from core strategic principles in the history of U.S. sea power has been remarkably slight, especially compared to land- and air-power theory. Rarely if ever does the Navy break from these principles except in reaction, and then it will return to them as soon as a crisis passes, completing the cycle.

The recent Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept is an example that is completely aligned with this historical cycle. Despite the fact that the Navy has operated in support for operations in the Middle East since 9/11, in ASB it virtually dismissed these types of operations. Intended, apparently, as a means to effectively project power without the need for land forces, the ASB concept (combined with the so called “pivot” to Asia) is one of the most interesting “non-strategies” ever devised. Although officially not directed against any one opponent, the constant references to the “rise” of China’s Navy and dark threats about power-projection capability of “emerging powers” to operate traditionally in blue water rationalize the continued development of traditional naval power. Against this “non-threat” we will operate forward, projecting power of an unknown kind, and maintain our capital-ship dominance to match a threat that has yet to materialize. This was reinforced in the newly revised CS-21 .

Heresy is needed to get ahead of the cycle, challenging our core assumptions before reaction takes place. Given that force composition is directly tied to traditional theory, heretics are usually few and far between. Why is this important now? Simply put, trying to apply traditional principles during the “decade of war” didn’t work well—and now it seems like the ASB and the new CS-21 are investing in a new conflict in the Pacific that isn’t there—yet. Assets, not geopolitical reality, are driving a strategy that assumes future conflict—a very, very dangerous proposition. At best, we are rationalizing our force for a very unlikely war while others rage on; at worst, we may in fact be moving rapidly toward a “Thucydides trap” in creating conditions that drive us toward a war we don’t want. In such an environment, heresy in our strategic thinking should not be viewed as an aberration, but rather as a requirement. This begins with an honest (and heretical) examination of our core assumptions.

Core Assumptions = Wrong Assumptions

Challenging core assumptions is a rare thing in naval circles. In the past, “heretical” discussions have largely been confined to debates about numbers of platforms or the addition of some new capability that enhances (or doesn’t) capital ships. Now is the time to move beyond this paradigm into a genuine debate on the strategic level concerning our traditional core assumptions. In considering the future of naval power and our traditional paradigm, I would propose the following heresies for consideration:

We assume that our traditional view of sea power is universally accepted and pursued by others. From Mahan came the basis of U.S. sea-power theory that emphasized battle fleets composed of capital ships, a model that remains today. But while we remain wedded to a Mahanian model, the world moved on long ago. Few if any naval powers possess capital-ship fleets and show little indication (or desire) to build them. Even the so-called “rise” of the Chinese navy has been, at best, a public-relations event for the United States. The development of one aircraft carrier—and a poor one at that—does not herald a “return to Mahan” as some have claimed. We must admit that, after almost 70 years of completely dominating the seas in the Mahanian model, times have changed. Inventing or exaggerating new threats that could return us to the traditional model does nothing for our credibility and harms us in terms of legitimately contributing to national strategy.

We assume that fleet-to-fleet conventional war at sea is a modern reality. Operationally, this assumption flows from the previously stated idea that the world wants to build fleets like ours to engage in traditional combat. It is equally unrealistic. Given that the last major fleet-vs.-fleet action was during World War II and today there is no peer competitor that could possibly survive in such an action against the U.S. Navy, why we continue to assume this will occur is a mystery. There simply isn’t a force that can challenge our Navy in fleet combat; even during the Cold War the much vilified Soviet Navy, in retrospect, stood no chance against American sea power. Yet we continue to assume that a modern Jutland will be in our future and build ships accordingly. It’s time to look at the recent wars for our lessons, not the naval glories of the past.

We assume that capital-ship power can address the full breadth of conflict, including irregular challenges. There seems to be a belief that because capital ships are large they are multimission, capable of operating along the entire range of conflict. This is not the case. While certainly able to deliver enormous firepower, carriers and their supporting capital ships have become increasingly specialized, both practically and conceptually. Air wings have become specialized toward strike, the mission that obviously dominates carrier operations. Moving to other missions is also a problem. Although a great show has been made of carriers operating in nontraditional roles such as supporting tsunami operations and, in one rare case, hosting special-operations forces during the Iraq War, the reality is these missions are few and far between, not only due to the specialization of the platform but also because of a distinct lack of desire to expand missions. The logic is that doing so is dangerous: If capital ships perform missions that could arguably be done by cheaper, smaller, or less sophisticated assets, some may question the need for the capital ships in the first place—a very real possibility in an era of increasingly tight budgets. These restrictions make practical use in irregular conflicts extremely limited.

We assume that crisis overseas requires or even favors a U.S. military solution. Today in naval circles operational discussion revolves around “anti-access,” the idea that an international strait will be closed to us, or, more likely, an ally, requiring a naval response. This aligns nicely with our tradition. “Freedom of the seas” is a historically American value, and in the past “freedom-of-navigation” operations by fleets have been a very effective show of force in ensuring that value. But we must remember that holding to this position has also led to war. Assuming that the arrival of our fleet as a show of force will somehow defuse a crisis situation in a form of latter-day gunboat diplomacy in the modern era is a dicey affair—and far too simplistic. Today there are few waterways that are not bound by treaty (such as the Law of the Sea, a treaty the United States has not signed) or subject to negotiations by a host of nations. It is incredibly naïve (and dangerous) to assume in an anti-access scenario a show of force is the desired solution rather than relying on diplomacy and international law, especially given that there are few such areas that tie directly to the national interest.

We assume that our tradition can weather the storm. There is no doubt that the United States is the world’s premier naval power, achieving global supremacy through its fleet. But what was used to obtain this in the past is inappropriate to maintain it. Mahan’s vision of command of the sea was promulgated long ago, and the world has moved on. This power comes at a cost rapidly reaching unsustainability. Our rationale no longer states that we must be ready for the last war, but rather one that occurred half a century ago, a scenario that is increasingly becoming a thing of fantasy. This simply won’t sustain the incredible cost of building and deploying more capital ships and strike power. Traditionalists must give way to heretics if we are to ensure our ability to remain a sea power.

The Heretical Way Ahead

If we are to remain relevant in the modern era, we must challenge our long-term assumptions. This can be accomplished by free—and heretical—debate. Let us consider this in three areas:

Heresy of ideas: How difficult is it to foster new ideas? More difficult than one might imagine, even in the face of a potentially “game-changing” threat. The following example is illustrative. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the Sea Services were apparently faced with a legitimate threat from the sea to the homeland. This did not go unnoticed in the highest circles of government. In a series of presentations on this topic, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, the honorable Paul McHale, asked a simple question: What were the Navy’s plans to defend against a surprise maritime threat, a “pop-up” of sorts? Northern Command, officially tasked with maritime homeland defense, asked the same question. Both were largely put off. Navy strategy was to operate “forward” and offensively against a maritime terrorist threat (whatever that was); it was deemed highly unlikely that any threat could penetrate a “layered defense” whose primary combat power was forward. No further discussion ensued.

What is remarkable about this issue is not whether one side was right or wrong, but rather that in the face of the most significant threat the United States had faced in decades, there was simply no real debate. Regardless of the efficacy of the threat (which, in retrospect, was probably small), any hint that Navy ships would operate in a “defensive” posture on or near the coast of the United States was purely anathema, despite some fairly good reasons for them to do so. The attacks of 9/11 presented a genuinely new challenge to our defensive infrastructure, yet it was met with a response that was entirely traditional in terms of the use of major naval combatants. If new ideas were stifled in the aftermath of 9/11, they certainly can be again. This must not be allowed as the character of modern war changes, potentially creating new threats to the homeland.

Heresy in strategy: Because it is constantly deployed in a crisis mode and has global reach, it can be argued that the Navy is perhaps the most “strategic” of the services. Moreover, modernization of naval assets always takes time and considerable investment (a historical consistency), so realistic strategy should be at the forefront of our thinking. But it isn’t. Rather, we routinely fall back on the aforementioned “what we know,” often ignoring the world around us in favor of a traditional solution.

The Air-Sea Battle concept, again, is an example of this trend, attempting to return to elements of traditional sea power—forward operations and power projection—while nimbly circumventing the identification of a potential opponent and thus divorcing itself from other elements of national power. The previous Cooperative Strategy was so vague in generalities that the long-forgotten service strategy of “Anywhere Any Time” could be its moniker. Both avoided the reality that sea power has always been supporting power—of national objectives in times of peace or for land power in time of war. If we are to have a fully integrated strategy then we must move beyond a hard-power, strike mindset and link our strategy to supporting elements. This is not to imply sea power is not important—it is crucial in many regards—but we’ve lost sight of our ultimate objective of support by clinging to assumptions for assumptions’ sake. We must consider how our old assumptions fit in with the fulfillment of national objectives and move away from those that do not work well in the modern era. The fleet that we have today is far too specialized and expensive to continue in this role without adversely effecting other, more applicable elements of national power.

Heresy in platforms: It is no secret the Navy hates small. This is obvious in our modern shipbuilding focus, even after 9/11. Despite making some progress in developing an effective irregular-warfare combatant in the PC-170, the Navy has either delayed, excused away, or marginalized this type of ship for far too long; the last “successful” smaller ship was the FFG-7. We need to stop pretending that the Navy cares about developing a small, capable combatant to deal with the lower ends of conflict and actually get serious about developing it. The one attempt, the LCS program, has faced its share of harsh criticism. It is hard to believe that this idea—first conceived in the 1990s—was put on the fast track in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Tragically, it has followed the predicable path of other heresies to the capital-ship paradigm; increasingly complex missions, technologies, new requirements, and even the inability to make a decision on a hull form are indicative of a mindset that this platform was never wanted and will simply be “slow rolled” until it either becomes too expensive to continue or canceled in favor of something else—that something else being, if the historical trend continues, new and larger combatants.

We simply can’t keep going in this direction. If the last ten years of war are any indication of the future—and there is every indication that we will continue in this vein—we need a small combatant that can deal with the complexities of irregular warfare and missions that move beyond our traditional paradigm. In other words, we need to catch up with what the rest of the world has been doing since the end of World War II. Otherwise, we will price ourselves out of existence.

This year will mark the 14th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, the game-changing event that launched the “decade of war” in Afghanistan and Iraq. The character of modern warfare has shifted dramatically during that time, yet we seem to be consistently returning to a model of sea power that is at best irrelevant, at worst exactly the wrong thing to do if we are to continue to meet global irregular challenges. It would take enormous effort to wrest command of the sea from our Navy, yet we continue to build and train for that contingency, clinging to assumptions that have become enshrined in unalterable tradition.

The United States and its Navy once defined sea power through the intellectual musings of Mahan, but times have changed, and changed radically. We need to take the intellectual lead once more to meet the challenge. With just a bit of heretical thinking, there is still time to alter course before our traditional mindset makes our Navy an unsustainable liability. For a service with such a global reach and potentially such a diverse mission set, it is remarkable how frequently we turn to old, traditional ideas to meet new challenges. Much of this is certainly cultural, as adherence to tradition often is. But this is also reflective of a deeply conservative mindset that has a tendency to punish transgressors. Today the Sea Services have the dual advantage of being composed of the most highly educated personnel in history, combined with a genuine shift in global circumstances that should stimulate debate, not suppress it. We need to encourage a true dialogue that will foster a new vision of sea power, one that deals with the reality of modern conflict and what it means for the Navy, rather than continuing to rationalize our old way of doing business.

The time for heresy is now.

A 1985 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Captain Watts served 26 years on active duty, consisting of strategic-planning billets and six sea tours with both the Navy and Coast Guard. He commanded the USCGC Steadfast (WMEC-623) and served as the Coast Guard liaison officer to the Chief of Naval Operations. Holding several advanced degrees including a PhD from the Royal Military College of Canada in War Studies, he is currently an associate professor of strategy at the National War College. His new book, American Sea Power: The Failure of Capital Ship Theory , is forthcoming this summer from McFarland.


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