On 9 August 1798, following his victory at the Battle of the Nile, a wounded Horatio Nelson wrote: “Was I to die today this moment, ‘Want of frigates’ would be found stamped on my heart. No words of mine can express what I have, and am suffering for want of them.”1 Nelson’s problem was not unique. His dispatches and those of his contemporaries are filled with similar complaints regarding a lack of frigates and sloops to carry out the unglamorous but necessary tasks of scouting and communication by sea.
Today the maritime forces of the United States face a similar problem. Fortunately, a healthy debate has resurfaced in mainstream audiences regarding the size of the U.S. Navy. Beneath the superficialities of this numbers-versus-capabilities tennis match lies the more substantive, ongoing discourse in naval circles regarding the fleet’s ability to guarantee contested access, the carrier’s future, as well as the number, effectiveness, and survivability of smaller combatants in wartime. While this discussion remains critical, a re-examination of historical maritime theory and “Eastern” strategic concepts reveals the United States is already losing command—as the concept is properly understood—of the Western Pacific because of a lack of presence, not firepower. The Navy has enjoyed uncontested command for so long, many fail to appreciate the differences between securing and exercising command, and the characteristics of the vessels required to achieve them. Only a balanced fleet can perform both effectively. While many have written on benefits and weaknesses of smaller combatants in wartime, their true strength lies in the political influence they can wield in peacetime. If the United States hopes to defend freedom of the sea, a withering policy in the Western Pacific, it ignores the political influence of smaller platforms at its peril.
Command, Control, and Their Exercise
“Command of the sea” is a confusing concept. As British naval historian Geoffrey Till has pointed out, “there is a natural tendency to use the phrase . . . as though it were a synonym for maritime greatness, ruling the waves, or even seapower.”2 But command of the sea is nothing more than a means to an end. It is a condition of localized strategic superiority that allows the party possessing command to utilize the sea as it sees fit while retaining the ability to deny that freedom to others. Command can be temporary and localized or constant and general, but is always a matter of degree. No nation can possess absolute command because no matter how great the disparity in naval strength, the weaker side will normally be able to concentrate force somewhere to achieve a measure of superiority. With 70 percent of the world’s surface covered by water, the oceans are simply too expansive for a nation to possess enough maritime power to achieve absolute command. The best that can be hoped for, as naval historian Sir Julian Corbett often put it, is a “working command.”3
However, securing working command is not an end in itself. It is sought for the objectives it allows: transporting goods and people, extracting natural resources, and projecting power for diplomatic and military means.4 Corbett labeled this use of the sea as the “exercise of command.”5 The distinction between securing and exercising command is important because they are separate functions that require different types of vessels to carry out.6 Where command is secured by combat power, its exercise is defended by protecting the array of individual vessels—from container ships to fishing trawlers—tasked with carrying out the maritime objectives command allows. The latter task is called sea control, the protection of shipping. Critically, a vessel that excels at sea control—traditionally a smaller but swifter ship—will not necessarily possess the combat power required to secure command and vice versa. Only a balanced fleet can perform both functions effectively.7 Unfortunately, these distinctions are often ignored.
Battling Schools of Naval Thought
When a nation designs a fleet, it is forced to make decisions regarding how naval technology can best be employed to meet its needs. In wrestling with these decisions, naval historian Clark Reynolds identified two schools of strategic analysis: the material and historical. According to Reynolds, “the material school rests on the assumption that the dominant military hardware or weapon—the material strength—at a given time creates such an overwhelming superiority that it alone generally satisfies the nation’s defense needs.” These advocates are primarily focused on fighting and deterring wars between major powers, and claim that superior technology ultimately controls the balance of power. Therefore, naval combatants must be built to maximize firepower.8 Accordingly, a fleet built by materialists tends to focus on capital shipping at the expense of smaller craft.
The historical school rejects this reasoning. It examines “the past conduct of competing nations in order to understand all historical forces at work and thus the various alternative approaches to strategic problems.” In addition to fighting great powers, nations also must prepare to fight limited wars, exercise diplomatic and legal avenues as alternatives to conflict, and deal with powers that employ asymmetric means to circumvent an adversary’s firepower.9 Historical sea-power theory emphasizes the importance of versatility and balance among combatants.
Alfred Thayer Mahan was one of the first to argue that capital ships could not secure the objectives of command alone. History taught that battleships would determine victory in decisive battle but also made clear capital ships required the support of smaller groups of “cruisers” to operate effectively and secure the objectives of command. One group—the more heavily armed of the two—escorted commercial shipping and preyed on enemy commerce while the second—built primarily for speed—operated with the battleships to keep them apprised of enemy movements and scouted shore-based defenses. Each group possessed unique strengths but only a fleet having all three could command the sea.10
Corbett also favored a three-tiered fleet but, unlike Mahan, argued smaller vessels actually played the more important role. Under Corbett’s classification system, the “battle-fleet,” made up of capital ships, secured command by neutralizing an enemy’s battle-line, usually through battle or blockade, while “cruisers” and “the flotilla” exercised command under the battle-fleet’s protection. In Corbett’s taxonomy, echoing Mahan’s scheme, the cruiser class consisted of vessels that could operate independently against peer-strength combatants or groups of weaker assailants, while the flotilla was made up of smaller ships built for speed, agility, and quantity. Where Mahan ordered the battle-fleet first in overall importance, Corbett ranked the flotilla and cruisers higher because they were tasked with achieving the strategic objectives of command, while the battle-fleet merely prevented the enemy from interfering with their exercise. He reasoned that even if an enemy had no battle-fleet, a seafaring state would still require a flotilla and cruisers to exercise command, leading to his famous admonishment of materialist theory: “In no case can we exercise control by battleships alone.”11
The Power of Presence
Though unstated, underlying Corbett’s reasoning was the importance of “naval presence” and the various types of vessels best suited to establish it. Presence, to steal a simple definition, means being there.12 Till labeled presence an “enabling activity” that leads to a range of maritime options.13 A navy cannot exercise control over any stretch of water if it cannot deploy power to that area. While Corbett had been chiefly concerned with the deployment of naval power in wartime, by the 1970s the historical school began to emphasize the value of presence derived from the political influence it provided in peacetime. Military strategist Edward Luttwak termed this influence “suasion”—the deployment of naval force to persuade others to act in accordance with one’s wishes through perception rather than violence—and argued navies were best positioned, due to their flexibility, independence, speed, and staying power, to implement suasion against friends, foes, and neutrals alike.14 International-relations theorist Ken Booth, building on Luttwak, believes navies perform a trinity of influential roles—military, diplomatic, and policing, all of which are necessary to meet the objectives of command in peace and in war.15
However, as Mahan and Corbett both stressed, different classes of vessels are needed to perform Booth’s trinity and with it the objectives of command, a fact underappreciated by materialists. The combat power of the battle-fleet plays a central role in military power projection. It also provides a powerful negotiating tool for diplomacy but the speed, flexibility, and mass of the flotilla make it a far more effective police force because it extends global presence. The sheer cost of capital ships renders them ill-suited for tasks that require expansive presence, like open-ocean sea control or constabulary maritime security, because, as Corbett put it, “[t]heir specialization has . . . made them too costly ever to be numerous enough.”16 In other words, a greater emphasis on the battle fleet lowers fleet numbers, which minimizes presence and the maritime options flowing from it. Accordingly, only a balanced fleet can perform the trinity of naval function effectively, thus securing command and enabling its ercercise and objectives.
The Presence Gap
The post–Cold War U.S. Navy ignored these teachings. At the end of World War II, materialists fascinated by ever-more advanced weaponry seized control of strategy and naval force structure and focused almost solely on deterrence. After the Cold War, the Navy’s new operational concepts emphasized the value of global presence, but its shipbuilding plan—with minor exceptions—remained wedded to warfighting.
Instead of a balanced fleet designed to optimize presence, plans focused on cutting-edge combatants centered around the Navy’s declining fleet of carriers, amphibious assault ships, and their guided missile escorts. However, due to soaring shipbuilding costs and peace-dividend defense cuts, the Navy could no longer afford to purchase a battle fleet of carriers in the numbers it wanted, a cruiser force of guided-missile escorts and submarines, and a flotilla of frigates and patrol craft.
To remain balanced, the money devoted to each class needed to come down in rough proportion. But senior Navy officials ignored historical arguments for balance in favor of a larger fleet of carriers, which gutted the flotilla. While support for smaller combatants declined throughout the Cold War, by 1997 the Navy had made plans to permanently retire all of its frigates and patrol craft, with no plans to replace them.17 Indeed, the service decommissioned its last guided missile frigate in September; the vessels will be replaced by the littoral combat ship (LCS), now dubbed the “fast frigate” going forward. The Navy continued to boast about presence but funded a top-heavy fleet that all but guaranteed a lack of it. These plans handcuffed the Navy’s police powers, which diminished its ability to exercise command and ensure the security of the global economic system, fostered by freedom of the sea. China has pounced on these weaknesses, with dire consequences for East Asian security.
Competing Games of Strategy
Henry Kissinger argues China’s strategic culture differs from its Western counterpart.18 Where Western tradition emphasizes absolute victory through decisive battle, the Chinese tradition downplays decisiveness and favors subtlety, misdirection, and the gradual accumulation of strength and advantage. Kissinger, among others, has pointed out that these respective traditions can be illustrated by the classical strategic games associated with each culture.19 Western identity has gravitated to chess, where opposing sides confront one another directly by the maneuver of combatants with varying abilities to capture or defeat opposing forces to achieve checkmate, or decisive victory. Success is acquired through attrition or a maneuver that takes advantage of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various forces available to the player.20
The Chinese equivalent of chess is wei qi. Players possess 180 stones of equal value that are placed on a square grid in alternating turns. Opponents deploy their forces to build up positions of strength while attempting to capture opposing stones by encirclement. Multiple struggles for strategic advantage occur in different areas of the board simultaneously, as the balance of forces shift subtly over time, with each player attempting to clarify and thwart the other’s strategy. Victory is achieved by controlling the most space at the end of the game. Where chess is a Clausewitzian struggle to strike at the decisive point or center of gravity, wei qi is about strategic subtlety, deception, measured encirclement, deciphering and attacking the opposing strategy, and the gradual acquisition of a superior strategic position over time—concepts emphasized by Sun Tzu, the military general and philosopher of ancient China.21
While Kissinger overreaches by claiming the existence of an unbroken “Western” or “Chinese” strategic tradition, the respective American and Chinese maritime strategies being employed in the Western Pacific do reflect concepts advocated by the theorist and game associated with their particular cultures.22 The primary strategic objective of the U.S. Navy is preventing war; securing freedom of the sea has fallen to a second aim. To achieve these ends, the Navy distributes its battle fleet of carriers as widely as possible so they can bring combat power to bear as soon as possible. This strategy and fleet structure is optimized for direct combat and power projection; it hopes to secure and exercise command by creating a powerful deterrent, a materialist approach designed to “exercise control through battleships alone.” However, a shrinking carrier fleet limits this distribution, which has diminished American presence.
Chinese maritime strategy has seized upon this absence to replace freedom of the seas in East Asia with a closed-sea system. Where freedom of the sea designates the highway of nations as “the common property of all,” a closed-sea or sovereignty-based system allows individual powers to “own” and govern sea space. International law applies a limited version of this concept to territorial waters and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) extends it farther to Exclusive Economic Zones.23 Rather than working within an open system and benefiting from its freedoms, China is seeking a radical expansion of the ownership concept by proclaiming jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea, based on its ten-dash line—an area nearly one-and-a-half times the size of the Mediterranean.24
Wei Qi at Sea
To impose this closed sea, Beijing has implemented a comprehensive maritime strategy reflecting the historical tradition of thought and concepts of wei qi, employing military, diplomatic, and legal elements to slowly erode the current rule-set and build superior positional strength over time.25 China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines is typical of this approach. Under international law, the shoal belongs to the Philippines.26 But in April 2012, flotilla forces encircled the shoal and barred Philippine fishermen from harvesting their own waters. Beijing attacked diplomatically by placing strict quarantine controls over the import of Philippine bananas and deployed faulty legal reasoning to argue China holds superior title to the shoal based on historical claims.27
China has taken similar steps throughout East Asia to encircle disputed areas, establish a permanent presence with naval power, and exercise jurisdictional control throughout its self-proclaimed “near seas.” Beijing’s establishment in November 2013 of an “air-defense identification zone” over disputed areas, its deployment and defense of an oil rig into Vietnamese waters, along with its infamous island-building campaign, confrontation of U.S. forces, and the passage of regulations in Hainan Province that require all foreign vessels to obtain Chinese approval before entering the 770,000 square miles of sea over which Hainan claims jurisdictional control, are all designed to slowly build positional and psychological advantage to achieve command and frustrate if not outright bar U.S. and allied objectives without firing a shot.
China is winning the contest because U.S. naval power simply is not there. Occasional shows of force and sporadic “freedom of navigation” patrols do not produce the kind of local, sustained presence required to exercise the suasion needed to deter Chinese aggression or persuade allied vessels that it is safe to ply their own waters. Lacking a flotilla of small, cheap, and lightly armed vessels and constabulary aircraft to back up allied navies, show the flag to concerned allies and neutrals, and extend American presence, the United States has essentially deprived itself of stones to play in the ongoing game of wei qi in the Western Pacific. American fleet structure may be deterring open war with China, but it is failing to prevent the seizure of territory and the slow erosion of freedom of the sea, the very objectives command of the sea and its effective exercise should thwart.28
To reassert command, the United States must look to presence and policing, not just technology and warfighting. Chinese maritime strategy is about managing perceptions. It hopes to psychologically disarm its opponents by convincing global public opinion that Beijing’s territorial possession and jurisdictional control over its “near seas” are not only permissible under international law but, being able to relieve an overburdened U.S. Navy, desirable for maritime security or simply inevitable. All these perceptions are false. First, Beijing’s ten-dash line, artificial-island building, and forceful confrontations throughout East Asia do not comply with international law. China simply hopes to capitalize on global ignorance and apathy until its interpretations become accepted as a matter of custom, which could occur if left unchallenged. Second, replacing freedom of the sea with a sovereignty-based system will not benefit maritime security. Hainan’s recent laws requiring Chinese permission to enter the South China Sea are but a flavor of regulations that could govern one of the globe’s busiest shipping lanes, hardly an encouraging sign for maritime insurance rates and East Asia’s ability to harvest maritime resources peacefully.
To undermine these false perceptions, American forces and those of its allies must—like China—play the long game and look to the broad range of options examined by the historical school, not just technology and deterrence. UNCLOS offers a powerful weapon. Currently, China’s legal position is untenable, but dispiritedness among East Asian powers will strengthen Beijing’s position under customary international law, established by the acceptance of a state practice over time. To guard against such an erosion, the Pacific powers must press their claims through UNCLOS arbitration to apply steady pressure to China’s legal position, which should wither under a stream of adverse rulings, build favorable precedent for future challenges, and trumpet arbitral results and violations to the international community.
The United States must support this pressure for two reasons. First, Washington must convince East Asia nations that legal action is worthwhile. The Philippines filed arbitral proceedings in early 2013, and a ruling is expected next year. But China has refused to participate in the process and claims it will not abide by the result. Accordingly, East Asian powers must be persuaded arbitration will alter Chinese behavior if they are to incur Beijing’s wrath for filing. Second, China must be convinced that its refusal to participate in the process will have consequences. Therefore, the United States must be willing and able to enforce UNCLOS if the convention is to have meaning. As Reynolds counsels, “international agreements depend on the willingness of the participants to live up to them and especially upon the acquiescence of the great powers which are capable of commanding the seas.”29
Effective Policing is Vital
Unfortunately, the current fleet structure is ill-suited for enforcement operations. While the battle fleet certainly possesses a powerful and coercive punch, policing operations are more about sustained presence and competency than lethality.30 The aim of policing is to encourage individuals—be they citizens, countries, or non-state actors—to behave in accordance with a set of rules for the mutual benefit of all. It is not solely about coercing an enemy to do one’s will through the application or threat of violence. Accordingly, overwhelming might has little to do with effective policing. In fact, too much firepower within a police force can be counterproductive. As Professor James Holmes at the U.S. Naval War College points out, “the only difference between a major combatant conducting constabulary missions and a major combatant pursuing parochial interests is the intent of the policymakers directing its activities.”31
Good order at sea is achieved by stabilization. To obtain stability, maritime-security forces must be on-station daily in adequate numbers to escort fishing fleets and resource exploration, mediate disputes, and record and report violations. Global media reports of illegal conduct, such as CNN’s recent broadcast from a P8-Poseidon during which the Chinese navy ordered the U.S. crew out of international airspace over international waters, should not be uncommon. Without sustained local presence and an informed international community, good order at sea dissolves; as another study concluded, “no policemen, no law.”32 Therefore, constabulary vessels and aircraft must be swift, flexible, and sufficiently numerous to maximize presence but not overly powerful or they could send unintended messages.
Bringing Balance to the Force
The Navy must reacquire a flotilla to meet this demand. As others have suggested, to reestablish presence in the Western Pacific, the United States should consider forward- deploying Coast Guard assets to East Asian waters.33 By all indications, Coast Guard vessels performed well in the Persian Gulf and despite their impressive capabilities, its cutters pose little threat to China’s combatants.34 If funding and permanent basing rights can be reacquired—certainly not easy tasks—an expanded, forward-deployed Coast Guard could be a vital addition to East Asian waters.
The Navy’s all-high mix of combatants is also changing with the introduction of smaller ships. However, the debate over them has become mired in materialist criticism regarding survivability and lethality, two characteristics that should matter very little in flotilla design. Critics who attack the LCS for these reasons must remember that the flotilla does not acquire or defend command; it exercises control after command has been secured by the battle fleet. Speed, numbers, and flexibility are the hallmark characteristics of the flotilla because they extend forward presence, critical for policing and global stability. By loading constabulary vessels down with armor and weapons to allow them to operate in a contested sea, these strengths are negated by weight and expense. Members of the flotilla are not capital ships, nor are they cruisers, and they certainly cannot be all three.
Reacquiring a flotilla is vital for American sea power. The Navy cannot command the sea and lead a constabulary force of shipping without the capabilities and extended presence a flotilla provides. Until this situation is recognized, freedom of the sea will remain under threat in the Western Pacific as it slides ever closer to a closed and decidedly un-pacific sea.
1. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, Viscount, Duke of Bronté, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson. Notes by Sir Nicholas H. Nicolas. 7 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1844–46), vol. 3, 98-99.
2. Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-First Century, Third Ed. (London: Routledge, 2013), Kindle edition, Sec. 6.1.
3. Ibid., 6.2.
4. Ken Booth, Navies and Foreign Policy (New York: Croom Helm, 1977), 15–17.
5. Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longman, Green & Co., 1911).
6. Till, Seapower, Sec. 6.2.
7. Ibid.; see also Capt. Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Command of the Sea: An Old Concept Resurfaces in a New Form,” Naval War College Review, vol. 65, no. 4 (Autumn 2012), 21–33.
8. Clark G. Reynolds, Command of the Sea: The History and Strategy of Maritime Empires (New York: William Morrow & Company Inc., 1974), 10–12.
10. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Considerations Governing the Disposition of Navies,” in Benjamin F. Armstrong, ed., 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 61–63. Benjamin F. Armstrong, “More than a Battle Force? WWATMD?,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, 12 October 2012, http://blog.usni.org/?s=disposition+of+navies&x=30&y=13.
11. Corbett, Some Principles, 107–127.
12. CAPT. Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “Cede No Water: Strategy, Littorals, and Flotillas,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 9, (September 2013), 40–45.
13. Till, Seapower, 10.4
14. Edward N. Luttwak, “The Political Uses of Sea Power: The Theory of Suasion,” in Strategy and History, Collected Essays (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1985), vol. 2, 84.
15. Booth, Navies and Foreign Policy, 15–17.
16. Corbett, Some Principles, 114.
17. Robert O. Work, “The Littoral Combat Ship: How We Got Here and Why” (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2013), 2.
18. Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 22–32. For a somewhat contrary view see Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
19. Ibid. See also David Lai, “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi” (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2004).
20. Kissinger, On China, 23.
22. See Arthur Waldron, “Chinese Strategy from the Fourteenth to the Seventeenth Centuries” in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, eds. The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Kindle Edition, location 2095–2786, esp. 2645-2654. John Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat Culture From Ancient Greece to Modern America (Basic Books, 2003), 1-28.
23. Till, Seapower, 14.3
24. Arthur Waldron, “China’s Pre-emption Trap,” The Jamestown Foundation, 28 May 2015, www.jamestown.org/press/mediaapp/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=43955&tx_ttnews[backPid]=59&cHash=ebf2602b58b0f3a6ac6a4e01d3e5ffff#.VfDlpqYjhjd. M. Taylor Fravel, “China’s Strategy in the South China Sea,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33.3 (2011), 292–319.
25. A similar argument was recently made in Alexander Vuving, “China’s Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea,” The National Interest, 8 December 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-grand-strategy-challenge-creating-its-own-islands-the-11807.
26. See Mark E. Rosen, “Philippine Claims in the South China Sea: A Legal Analysis,” A CNA Occasional Paper (Washington, DC: CNA, August 2014), 14–18.
27. Ibid. For a discussion of the Chinese legal position on its nine-dash line see Zhiguo Gao & Bing Jia, “The Nine Dash Line in the South China Sea: History, Status, and Implications”, 107, American Journal of International Law 98 (2013).
28. Matthew Hipple, “China: Leap-Frogging U.S. Deterrence in the Pacific.” War on the Rocks, 2 July, 2014, www. Warontherocks.com/2014/07/china-leap-frogging-u-s-deterrence-in-the-pacific/. Zachary Keck, “Is Air-Sea Battle Useless?” The National Interest, 16 May 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/air-sea-battle-useless-10473.
29. Reynolds, Command of the Sea, 547.
30. James R. Holmes, “Ken Booth’s ‘Navies and Foreign Policy’ Three Decades On” in Andrew Forbes, ed., Naval Diplomacy and Maritime Power Projection: Proceedings of the Royal Australian Navy Sea Power Conference 2013 (Canberra, Australia: Sea Power Centre, 2014), 58.
31. Ibid., 59.
32. James M. McConnell and Anne M. Kelly, “Superpower Naval Diplomacy in the Indo-Pakistani Crisis,” Professional Paper 108, Center for Naval Analyses, February 1973, https://www.cna.org/sites/default/files/research/5500010800.pdf.
33. LCDR Craig Allen Jr., USCG, “A Great White Fleet for Cooperative Sea Power,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 140, issue 8, (August 2014), 26–31. Holmes, Three Decades, 60.
34. Holmes, Three Decades, 60.
Mr. Beasley is an attorney with Phelps Dunbar LLP and previously worked as a research consultant with the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Virginia. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Mississippi with a BA and MA in history. He earned his JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he served on the editorial board of the Mississippi Law Journal.