To the uninformed, naval strategy is often confused with tactics—the maneuvering of ships on a “chessboard without squares.” To those better in the know, it becomes more strategic, embracing the employment of naval units on the waters of the world to good military advantage during wartime. But in truth, naval strategy is much more complex and capable than even this more enlightened view allows.
A true understanding of naval strategy reveals that combat at sea is most accurately characterized as a last resort, the failure of sea power’s employment in the realm of grand strategy, where the full expanse of available means (diplomacy, information, military, economic—sometimes referred to as DIME) is used to achieve the nation’s aims.1 The military component is included as a persuasive, rather than a kinetic, tool applied in terms of deterrence rather than as the application of force. In the realm of grand strategy, naval power lurks in the background (or in some cases the foreground) of international relations, providing the “steel” that makes policy and diplomacy credible and ensures the preservation of economic vitality. Employed effectively—through those familiar (but not always fully understood or appreciated) concepts of sea control, forward presence, and deterrence—naval power serves best when it prevents conflict, when it empowers the nation to achieve its policy goals without having to resort to conflict at sea or on land through power projection. For all of their martial appeal, Tomahawk cruise missiles, Alfa Strikes, and SEAL insertions are manifestations of the nation’s inability to achieve its objectives through more efficient—and often more effective—means.
This is not to say that sea power is a form of pacifism or that naval forces need only be equipped to show the flag or to threaten; for those applications of soft power to work, they must be backed up by real combat power that once employed must be capable of inflicting necessary harm to not only achieve the desired immediate effects but give pause to future challengers of the nation’s strategic goals.
The proper use of naval power across this strategic spectrum is the substance of naval strategy, the art and science of applying logic and a degree of prescience to solving problems that confront those entrusted with the nation’s interests in the international arena. Policymakers who understand this, who view sea power as one of the primary instruments of their craft, are better prepared to achieve their desired results. Naval professionals who likewise understand their roles as subservient to broader national interests, as elements of strategy rather than as purveyors of naval power for its own sake, are well positioned to serve the nation’s interests and to faithfully carry out those oaths of office that presaged their current employment.
Teaching and Learning
Because naval power is multifaceted in its capabilities, and naval strategy must embrace various means for its employment, the study of this complex subject can be challenging, often perplexing. Ways of overcoming this complexity must be employed to teach neophytes and to substantively empower those who are tasked as policymakers and/or implementers of strategy.
Naval strategy is rightfully taught and explored at the Naval War College, and this author has had the honor and rather daunting responsibility of teaching the college’s “Strategy and War” course for more than two decades. Over the years, the students, particularly those in military service, often come to the course looking for “the gouge,” a checklist of things to do to win wars. This is understandable, given the military training culture, where checklists are effectively used to accomplish seemingly miraculous things, such as bringing a giant warship safely into harbor or harnessing the power of the atom. In most of their endeavors, military people tend to be more scientists than artists or philosophers. We use spherical trigonometry to navigate, physics (ballistics) to deliver firepower, thermodynamics to accomplish propulsion, and electronics to communicate, reconnoiter, etc. All of these are exact sciences with predictable outcomes. But the granddaddy of all those endeavors is war itself, with its major components of strategy, operations, and tactics. While there is a substantial amount of science in tactics and operations, strategy is less cooperative.
Those who have studied and/or experienced war and learned its hard lessons are very much aware that strategy is far too complex to yield to the simplicity and predictability of a checklist. So to serve as an antidote to this checklist mentality, the War College employs a combination of theoretical readings and relevant case studies, the former serving to take the students out of the laboratory and into the lyceum where philosophy replaces scientific method, and the latter providing real-world opportunities to test the theories offered by philosophers of war.2
At the risk of being dismissed as a biased participant rather than an objective observer, I will nonetheless assert that the Naval War College is successful in this endeavor, that the corpus of assessment (student critiques, Navy inspections, academic accreditations, etc.) strongly indicates that naval strategy is being successfully taught on the shores of Narragansett Bay and in many adjunct locations—including cyberspace—by the NWC College of Distance Education.
But teaching strategy to naval professionals is only a partial solution to a much larger problem, one that must be solved less by professors and more by public-affairs specialists.
Unfortunately, there currently is no vehicle for teaching naval strategy to civilian policymakers. Coming as they do to their various offices from different walks of life through elections and appointments, there is no practical way to send them to a war college or an equivalent. But a partial solution can be derived if we first acknowledge that in America national power resides in the people.
Most Americans—if they think about their navy at all—perceive it as expensive (true) and no longer as necessary as it once was (decidedly not true). Like it or not, through the power of the purse strings, those citizens and their legislative representatives hold the keys to the nation’s security. If the Navy is going to continue to carry out those missions so essential to a maritime nation such as ours, those missions have to be explained so that the citizenry understands what the Navy does and what it must be prepared to do.
There is evidence that the Navy’s leadership understands this necessity, because the most recent iteration of strategy (A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower—more familiarly known as “The Maritime Strategy”) is presented not only as a guiding document for professionals but as a form of advertisement for the Sea Services as well. A centerpiece of that document is the identification and explanation of Sea-Service missions, called “core capabilities.” While these six capabilities—forward presence, deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster response—are explained effectively in the Maritime Strategy, that document has never been on The New York Times bestseller list. More must be done . . . much more.3
We must find ways to educate the American people (and their congressional representatives whence they come) who are ultimately paying for these expensive naval forces. We must come down from the naval pulpit and use other means to spread the gospel of naval strategy so that taxpayers and lawmakers understand and appreciate those core capabilities. This is much easier said than done, because for all their importance these capabilities are not intuitively obvious. Each requires at least some explanation to place them in their proper (maritime) context.
Less Tangible—No Less Important
In addition to the problem of mission opacity, there is another less obvious reason for the underappreciation of the importance of the nation’s Navy, one that is ironically caused to a large degree by the incredible success of the Navy in the middle of the last century. The great victory at sea of World War II, where American sailors fought and won many awe-inspiring battles—some of them gargantuan in scope—elevated the U.S. Navy’s status in the eyes of its citizens to unprecedented heights. And while that status was richly deserved and should never be forgotten, it has had the converse effect of setting a very high bar for future naval operations in terms of public perception. One can look to the battles of Midway, Leyte Gulf, and Okinawa and see the tangible results of sunken ships, captured islands, and an ultimate surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship. But one must rely on much less tangible “proofs” when trying to visualize such things as “forward presence” or “sea control.”
The conflicts that followed World War II—the Cold War power plays in Korea and Vietnam, the various clashes in the Middle East, etc.—would not have even been possible without the continued dominance of American sea power, yet the absence of great sea battles in those conflicts promotes a popular (but deficient) image of a Navy that is only peripherally involved at best, and superfluous at worst.
In his August 2014 Proceedings article “Why 1914 Still Matters,” Dr. Norman Friedman explains another aspect of the Navy’s image problem by pointing out that even though World War I was largely a maritime conflict, that aspect is overshadowed by images of trench warfare. He concludes by observing that “we are the world’s largest trading nation, and we live largely by international trade—much of which has to go by sea.” He laments that “relatively few Americans understand as much, or see what happens in the Far East as central to their own prosperity.”4 It is fair to assert that few shoppers at Walmart or Target ever stop to consider that the plethora of products they find on those rows and rows of shelves are there partly because the Navy is doing its job, keeping the sea lanes of trade open 24/7/365.
These problems are exacerbated by our recent history. We have been at war for more than a decade, a fact that is recognized (if not internalized) by the American people. But the imagery of that combat is dominated by soldiers, Marines, and SEALs. While this is certainly valid imagery in its own right, it has the unfortunate side effect of masking the other essential components of our national defense and further promotes the misleading and erroneous conclusion that the Navy may no longer be indispensable.
The Navy has long relied on its public-affairs specialists to promote the service to the outside world. While a significant portion of that effort is understandably and necessarily geared toward recruitment, that exertion should be heavily supplemented—indeed superseded—by a focus on educating the public regarding those missions that are so elemental to maritime power (and survival) yet are so little understood and greatly undervalued.
A current Navy public-affairs television message succinctly states the problem (at least a portion of it) and the solution. It begins with an overhead view of the ocean with the words “70% of the world is covered by water” superimposed on the surface below; those words fade and are replaced by “80% of all people live near water;” then, “90% of all trade travels by water;” the words fade again, but this time the powerful image of a bustling flight deck of an aircraft carrier moves across the screen, followed by the words “100% on watch” in its wake.
That short but powerful ad is a masterpiece, showing what good public-affairs talent can do. But it only scratches the surface of the deeper problem, a great first step that should serve as the vanguard of an effective and sustainable campaign that will edify and inspire.
We must find ways to illustrate the concepts of “forward presence” and “deterrence” just as that masterpiece ad conveys the concepts of sea control and maritime security. Such messaging is potent in its subtlety and its simplicity, but we should also rely on concrete examples that show the Navy doing what it does so effectively.
Just a few of the countless examples of naval power wielded in ways that do not make good subjects for action movies yet are essential to the nation’s ability to maintain its security and to influence world affairs are:
• The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (when a naval quarantine coupled with credible deterrence enhanced our maritime security, while preventing a third world war in a time of perceived superpower parity).5
• The Jordanian Crisis of 1970 (where forward presence was the key to achieving important strategic goals, including the preservation of an important Middle Eastern ally).6
• The Yom Kippur War of 1973 (when the U.S. Navy played a key role in the preservation of Israel and in reducing the influence of the Soviet Union in that region).7
The absence of explosive imagery in such situations makes the task of edification difficult but not impossible. The kind of talent that created the aforementioned TV ad is most likely up to that challenge.
Some excellent television ads also highlight the core capabilities of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These are important missions and should be recognized and valued, but they must be balanced by messages depicting the Navy’s other strategic missions, lest they distort rather than enhance the overall perception of the broad body of naval capability and importance.
We must also make it very clear that when those other elements of naval strategy fail, when force becomes the medium of exchange, our Navy is ready and able to deliver, effectively and decisively. We should do this by reminding the nation of select instances when power was projected, such as the air strikes against the Taliban and al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11.8 Another would be the short, one-sided naval battle against the Iranians in October 1987 (which could also serve to remind the Iranians!).9 If the latter sounds like lobbying for naval history, guilty as charged. But let it be clear that these are means to an end, not an end in itself. Our Navy’s history is an underused tool that can be deployed effectively toward this important goal. We enjoy an impressive history of achievements—both in war and in peace—that we barely embrace ourselves, much less use to educate those who ultimately hold the fiscal keys to our effectiveness.
Successful politicians have learned that popular television can be a powerful supplement to news coverage and to political ads. They have learned that they can connect with the American people in a powerful way by making appearances on late-night talk shows and the like. Such exchanges can go a long way toward popularizing issues that were previously constrained by the brevity and formality of traditional news, and they can humanize the messengers in ways campaign ads often fail to do. Significant efforts should be made to find ways for the Chief of Naval Operations and/or other high-ranking entities to appear on television where they can deliver these important messages in a conversational manner. There are risks, to be sure, but risk averseness is not an attribute to stand alongside such things as honor, courage, and commitment.
Often the messenger is as important as the message. We should attempt first to educate and then enlist the assistance of celebrities or people with natural credibility. The American public will listen to the likes of actors Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock if they can be persuaded to promote this important message. If Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would publicly acknowledge that his economic colossus depends on overseas trade for materials and foreign markets, the concepts of sea control and maritime security could be more easily understood and appreciated. The right spokespeople, who are recognized as important in their own realms yet can speak as citizens who “get it,” could have a significant impact.
Social media have proved their potential potency in troubled parts of the world, serving as game-changers in ways that a short time before no one saw coming.10 We must also make better use of such tools as Facebook and Twitter as other means to these worthwhile ends.
All of these efforts do not have to function exclusively for the Navy. A joint effort among the armed services could be even more effective, as long as no one service is allowed to dominate, and the Navy is presented as an equally essential partner in the grand scheme of national defense. A “purple” approach could defuse charges of parochialism and potentially benefit from pooled resources.
Teaching All Who Matter
The Navy has proved that it can teach naval strategy to naval professionals, and that is of course a very good thing. But if we are going to be able to maintain the capabilities of the nation’s navy, to keep this maritime nation safe and prosperous, we must ensure that those who control the purse strings understand why they are spending precious treasure on something they vitally need but rarely see. We must acknowledge this edification process as a very high priority and expend the necessary effort and resources to develop a carefully balanced, multifaceted campaign that explains all that the Navy provides and must be ready to provide to a people who are currently only vaguely aware of its existence and even less cognizant of its purpose.
If successful, the American people will be able to grasp the basic but somewhat elusive elements of naval strategy so that they can make informed decisions about the spending of their money and, by extension, policymakers will be better equipped to make use of the capabilities that navies provide. People rarely purchase things they cannot see or understand, so it is imperative that we use the tools we have—a proven track record and a genuine raison d’etre—to “sell” this vital product.
Strange as it may seem, we must teach naval strategy to the public.
1. John G. Krenson, “On Strategy: Integration of DIME in the Twenty-First Century,” U.S. Army War College Research Project, 2012. Anton K. Smith, “Turning on the DIME: Diplomacy’s Role in National Security,” Strategic Studies Institute, October 2007.
2. Naval War College, “Strategy and War,” Syllabus, Joint Professional Military Education Phase I, Intermediate Level Course, 2014–15.
3. ADM Gary Roughead, USN, GEN James Conway, USMC, and ADM Thad Allen, USCG, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007).
4. Norman Friedman, “Why 1914 Still Matters,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, no. 8 (August 2014), 90 .
5. Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War During the Cuban Missile Crisis, (New York: John Wiley, 2006).
6. Richard A. Mobley, “U.S. Joint Military Contributions to Countering Syria’s 1970 Invasion of Jordan,” Joint Force Quarterly, no. 55, (4th Quarter 2009), 160.
7. F. C. Miller, “Those Storm Beaten Ships, Upon Which the Arab Armies Never Looked,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 101, no. 3 (March 1975), 18.
8. Thomas J. Cutler, A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 71–75.
9. Craig Symonds, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History (Oxford University Press, 2006), 265–320.
10. Raymond Schiller, “Social Media and the Arab Spring: What Have We Learned?” Huffington Post, 21 May 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/news/social-media-arab-spring/.