The Navy and Nation Need a Maritime Strategy

By Paul S. Giarra

The Navy’s strategy enterprise has been fundamental to operations and tactics as well as to the guiding vision that expresses what a U.S. Navy is for. It has depended on the Navy’s intellectual bent, tempered by a seaman’s experience and practicality. As an expression of commander’s intent, previous maritime strategies have reflected central guidance that at the same time distributed authority. Not everyone can be a strategist, but when the strategic mechanism is working—when the strategy is well articulated, widely circulated, and popularly debated—all in the Sea Services are able to understand and internalize strategy. This necessary popular relationship between the fleet and the strategic enterprise and the maritime strategy extends to landsmen as well, for maintaining a navy depends on the tangible and intangible appreciation and support of others.

Embracing the concept of naval-based national greatness as a strategic rationale, President Theodore Roosevelt sent his Great White Fleet around the world to demonstrate U.S. martial power and blue-water capability. He is seen here on the USS Yankton on 16 December 1907, as the fleet prepared for its cruise.

The Long Cycle

Navy strategic leadership has waxed and waned in three long cycles since the Civil War.

The first cycle of Navy strategic leadership began with Alfred Thayer Mahan. It is no coincidence that he began to write at the same time the U.S. Naval Institute was founded. Each was a representation of the same compelling naval strategic impulse. At a time of dramatic international competition and shifting balances of power, Mahan’s representation of the influence of sea power on history had precisely that effect of historical influence. He was seconded by the likes of Stephen B. Luce and William S. Sims, who drove the Navy to think about itself not just as a gunnery platform or engineering problem, but as a shaping force that affected its circumstances as well as reflected them.

President Theodore Roosevelt embraced Mahan’s concept of naval-based national greatness as a strategic rationale and point in fact. His leadership in an ambitious national competition culminated in the Great White Fleet’s “grand pageant of American sea power.” He combined a great naval buildup with the hefty sinews of the United States’ economy, industry, natural resources, and abundant and ambitious populace. In doing so, Roosevelt demonstrated how sea power could shape, drive, and affect those other elements in a persuasive calculus of national power.

This was a symmetric maritime strategy. The measure of effectiveness at the time was battleships, in direct competition with other fleets. But the new U.S. fleet represented more than the industrial capacity necessary to build and maintain it. The Great White Fleet was an expression of the American desire to compete on a geostrategic basis with the other powers of the time and a symbol of the United States’ emergence as a great power in its own right. This was a new direction for U.S. grand strategy, and the Navy was both the symbol and the means of the strategy.

The second cycle of Navy strategic leadership began in the interwar years. By the 1920s, war and depression had intervened. The surge of World War I naval building peaked in 1920, with 243 surface warships, before plummeting to 102 surface warships in 1921. 1 A postwar, isolationist United States was in no mood to underwrite naval power and endorsed naval disarmament. At the outset of the second cycle, the Navy was left to itself to quietly consider the long-brewing threat from Japan and how to defend the colonial Philippines. Nevertheless, this was a period of great clear-mindedness for the Navy, which set about the most difficult of tasks: talking itself out of deeply held doctrinal preferences for a Trafalgar-like, definitive Mahanian victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy in a short, sharp campaign.

Likewise inspired by Mahan, and encouraged by their own great naval victories over China and Russia around the turn of the century, Japan’s admirals planned for the same battle, albeit without modernizing their approach. The difference was that the U.S. Navy was able to work through the exercise of changing its mind at the strategic and doctrinal level, and Japan never managed to divest itself of its prevailing strategic concept of a great fleet engagement.

The Navy received a great deal of political support in the interwar period: soto voce from President Franklin Roosevelt, who was not entirely constrained by the prevailing national isolationism, and more explicitly from Congressman Carl Vinson, who became the political father of the “Two Ocean Navy.” It is an indication of how far the Navy and he had to go that Vinson began laying the ground for the naval buildup to come by having to argue in the mid-1930s that the first task was to build to interwar treaty limits with modern ships.

During the second cycle of Navy strategic leadership, the service received political support from President Franklin Roosevelt and Congressman Varl Vinson. Vinson's push to build the Navy to interwar treaty limits culminated in the Vinson-Trammel Act, being signed here by Roosevelt, with Vinson at his right. 

In the meantime, the Navy was challenging every strategic, operational, and tactical preconception on the books, investing in enough transformative capabilities that it would be ready when the time came not just for expansion, but also for revolutionary technical and operational change. This brewing intellectual and strategic transformation preceded both political and budget authority. The Navy did not wait to be told to get ready, and not just because thinking did not cost much. Although isolation was the national policy, naval aviators could design aircraft carriers based on airplanes that did not exist, which in turn had to wait for engines to be designed that were powerful enough to lift a useful bomb load. And thinking was not against the law, either. In the run-up to Pearl Harbor, submariners could consider the efficacy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Japan even while its conduct was literally illegal.

This was difficult and consuming work, and essentially the entire Navy was involved. Two decades of fleet problems, hundreds of war games at the Naval War College, defining tactical innovation emerging from the fleet, and thinking forward ensured that the Navy was ready with a fleet design when Carl Vinson passed his landmark Two-Ocean Navy Act in the summer of 1940. The interwar process of transformation was not perfect, and it was not complete by the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but virtually every World War II flag officer had attended the Naval War College before the war started. Interwar thinking and planning, when the Navy had time but no money, succeeded in articulating the need for and requirements of a great maritime strategy that would exemplify the nation’s naval ambitions and drive the rest of the national strategy through World War II. This institutional effort set up the cascade of naval building and authorizing legislation that was to follow, when the Navy had money but no time.

At its most fundamental, the interwar Navy was able to conceptualize and articulate its strategic purpose and goals to itself, the Congress, the President, and the American people. Unlike its turn-of-the-century antecedent, it was an asymmetric maritime strategy of power, sustainment, and sea control that disadvantaged competing concepts of short wars and internal lines, with its denouement the decisive use of naval power against the shore. Numbers, materiel, logistics, jointness, and maneuver all played prominent roles. Time was a critical factor: this would not be a short war, and sustainment would be a key consideration. Destroying Japan’s national economy and ability to wage war was a key strategic objective for the Navy. Like its strategic antecedent at the turn of the century, it was persuasive and broadly accepted. Its direct result was a U.S. Navy unprecedented in size and power, enabled by institutional clarity of vision and purpose. Even more so than its antecedents, this second-cycle maritime strategy informed a national strategy of external lines, forward deployment, sea lane defense, and sea control that essentially pertained for the next 50 years.

Postwar reduction repeated several times during the Cold War. By the outbreak of the Korean War, the World War II U.S. Navy had shrunk from 833 surface warships and 28 fleet carriers to 161 surface warships and 11 fleet carriers. Despite the dramatic buildup of the Soviet Navy after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the post-Vietnam War low came in 1977: 182 surface warships and 13 fleet carriers. 2 The Navy was following, not leading.

Admiral Thomas Hayward - far left, during a Senate hearing with Navy secretary John Lehman and Marine Corps Commandant Robert Barrow - laid the foundation for ta strategy that leveraged maritime forces to address the nuclear threat on conventional warfighting terms. 

The third cycle of Navy strategic leadership commenced in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. As commander of the Pacific Fleet from 1976 to 1978, Admiral Thomas Hayward defied conventional wisdom. The strategic transformation he led began in his own thinking, as he read the war plans as Seventh Fleet commander. War with the Soviet Union was going to escalate rapidly to a nuclear exchange. There was to be little use, and no place, for the U.S. Navy.

Hayward recognized that the strategy of the time, which would send all the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic to support a European war with the Soviet Union, was not only insufficient but also counterproductive. He saw that this reflexive shift was poor use of his fleet and also of the Navy; swinging the Pacific Fleet would not pressure the Soviets in a general war. The trans-Siberian railroad had been modernized and expanded, was handling 100 trains a day in peacetime, and could transport scores of Soviet divisions to the western fronts long before any transatlantic reinforcement could make a difference. Holding these divisions in the Soviet Far East would be essential to any war in Europe. Furthermore, Hayward concluded that the Navy was not taking advantage of its inherent mobility, flexibility, conventional striking power, and survivability. Doing so would require expanding fleet operational plans globally, escalating horizontally, and fighting in the Pacific as well as in the Atlantic.

Perhaps most important, his plan was developed as an alternative to an early and automatic resort to nuclear warfare. This was the deterrent irony at the core of the strategy: plan to fight to win to avoid having to fight. What began as the Pacific Fleet “Sea Strike” plan had obvious force structure and posture implications for all the services. More important, it was a “maritime” strategy that was both practical and expansive. It leveraged the combat power and strategic influence of maritime forces in a national realignment of military posture that was able to address the nuclear conundrum of the Cold War on conventional warfighting terms.

Like Mahan and then the interwar naval leadership, Hayward had not waited to be asked. The complex strategic formulation on which he had embarked as commander of the Pacific Fleet was not in his remit. Nevertheless, when Senator Sam Nunn stopped by Makalapa on his way through Hawaii on a fact-finding tour of U.S. defenses in the Pacific, Hayward was ready with his strategic conclusions and prescriptions. Nunn was the first of many to recognize the deceptively simple audacity of what became the Maritime Strategy of President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup in which Navy Secretary John Lehman played a pivotal role. As it had for Mahan and the pre-World War II Navy, this presidential imprimatur made all the difference in elevating Navy strategic thinking to national prominence and geostrategic effect.

The Context of Maritime Strategies

What, then, is the strategic context for the fourth cycle of Navy strategic leadership, a Navy narrative to garner that essential presidential imprimatur?

The fleet and its platforms will continue to change, with new warfighting technologies emerging more rapidly than ever. Budgets are a perennial challenge, as is the ebb and flow of presidential and popular political support. Obviously, the United States is not now an emerging power rationalizing its naval power in Mahanian terms. The U.S. Navy is not trying to fight its way to the top; rather, it is striving to stay on top.

The context of the Navy, however, has not changed nearly as much. Addressing the British Parliament just before the outbreak of World War I on the largest estimates for British naval expense ever presented, Winston Churchill described what could be our own conjunction of naval and national strategies:

Two things have to be considered—first, that our diplomacy depends in great part for its effectiveness upon our naval position, and that our naval strength is the one great balancing force which we can contribute to our safety and to the peace of the world; secondly, we are not a young people with a blank record and a scanty inheritance. 3

In his remarks, Churchill was addressing constant purpose, not transitory method. In fact, in the same address, he highlighted the transformative effects of oil and submarines on naval warfare and alluded to the eventual obsolescence of battleships: “two eggshells striking each other with hammers.” 4

Just as for Great Britain then, the effectiveness of the U.S. naval position, its great balancing force, its essential contribution to the nation’s safety and to the wider security of the world, and the great U.S. naval heritage remain constants in the equation of naval strategy.

Nevertheless, there are four holdbacks to working through the U.S. Navy’s narrative:

• The first is the irony of success. The Cold War ended in such a way that the Navy walked away from the successes of Reagan, Lehman, and Hayward. This was to be the End of History, which some took literally, forecasting that the Navy would face no competition going forward.

• Second, without ostensible competition, it was decreed the Navy would not need a strategy. In his June 1990 confirmation hearings, when asked what he thought of the Maritime Strategy, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Frank Kelso responded, “We don’t need one.” Soon thereafter the Navy strategic planning subspecialty was disestablished, the small community of Navy strategists was left to fend for itself, and the bones of the strategic planning enterprise were fought over by OpNav’s three-stars.

• Third, Goldwater-Nichols disestablished the CNO’s responsibility as the Navy’s strategic planner and distributed strategic planning authority in small portions without critical mass to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the theater commanders.

• Fourth, OpNav strategic planning influence passed to budget programmers, and platform preference as a strategy was not compelling. This has had a pernicious effect on Navy strategic leadership. The figurative result was that no one spoke for the Navy strategy, let alone for the Navy as a shaper of national strategy.

Still, there is room for optimism. The bones of Navy geostrategy are still solid. 5 Like Churchill’s Royal Navy, “we are not a young people with a blank record and a scanty inheritance.” In fact, we have a lot to remember, to our credit and our benefit. Thinking through the maritime strategy is terra obliti (forgotten territory), not terra incognito (unknown or unexplored territory).

In a fourth cycle of Navy strategic leadership, two ingredients are indispensable.

The first is strategic leadership in the person of the CNO, who can speak both to the Navy and for the Navy. The CNO must express what a navy is for and thereby shape both the maritime and national strategies and the fleet operations that flow from that guidance. The CNO must express this Navy narrative without waiting to be asked, remit or no remit. This requires making the fundamental case that the strategy is the independent variable—not the budget, not particular ships or capabilities, and certainly not proposals for withdrawal and reduction. 6

Second, as a forcing function, the fleet is going to have to train, equip, and operate on the world ocean like a great navy of great inheritance. As in each of the first three cycles, the fourth-cycle Navy will have to be a fighting navy, with all the at-sea and shore-based sustainability and industrial base necessary to support it.

The justification for a muscular deterrent rests in the enduring Cold War insights of Admiral Hayward: war has become too terrible to lose and too terrible to fight. Neither doing nothing nor not doing enough are options. Remembering Churchill’s description of “eggshells and hammers,” and the temptation of preemption, we must ensure that our competitors are never tempted to move beyond Phase Zero.

This requires taking competitor navies into account, as did Mahan and Teddy Roosevelt, but also accounting for the Navy’s influence against the shore, as did Franklin Roosevelt and Hayward. This requires an iterative emphasis on the fleet’s sustainment and transformation. This will be no short deterrent campaign, and any failure would not bring a short war. Furthermore, advanced technology will be important but not necessarily determinative.

Great naval strength will require fleet expansion in parallel with transformation and worldwide deployments. Numbers of ships and squadrons count—although there is much more to a strategy than numbers, and it is fallacious to make those numbers the bottom line of any strategic argument. That said, it would be good to remember that the surge of the Navy into the Pacific in 1943 and 1944, in what amounted to a strategy of power, “changed everything” for our commanders and our strategy:

[A]t the operational level, nothing prepared the Navy to employ the explosion of naval production that took place in 1943 and 1944. Fifteen fast aircraft carriers were put into commission in 1943. Thus was born the idea of a single carrier task force composed of three- and four-carrier task groups. The ability to concentrate or disperse gave Spruance and his carrier boss, Marc Mitscher, tremendous flexibility.

They realized during the February 1944 strike on Truk Atoll that it was no longer necessary to hit and run. There had been no precedent for this. Instead of hitting and running, relying on mobility and surprise, they could hit and stay, relying on sheer combat power, both offensive and defensive. That changed everything.7

This means the Navy has to both guide and reflect the national impulses for power, the good offices of international engagement, insistent opposition to hegemony and totalitarian regimes, and the global assertion of U.S. interests and values.


Maritime geography has not changed, nor have the basics of maritime strategy. Yale Professor Nicholas Spykman’s prescient observations in 1942 and 1944 regarding the postwar United States’ power position apply directly to today’s world: “Who controls the rimland, rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.” 8 He foresaw a postwar alliance with Japan to control China: “a threat not only to Japan, but also to the position of the Western Powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean.” 9

Perhaps most tellingly, he saw this Asiatic Mediterranean in the marginal seas of the western Pacific as controlling China’s access to the Pacific Ocean and the sea lanes of communication connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For the Navy’s strategic planning enterprise, that observation is a good point of departure.


1. See Naval History and Heritage Command, “U.S. Ship Force Levels, 1886-present,” .

2. Naval History and Heritage Command, “U.S. Ship Force Levels, 1886-present.”

3. Quoted in “Battleships, Submarines, and Oil,” The Army and Navy Register 55, no. 1761 (18 April 1914), 486.

4. Ibid.

5. The Navy has many resources to call on: numerous self-selected Navy strategists; the Naval War College strategy curriculum and Center for Naval Warfare Analysis; the Naval Postgraduate School strategic planning curriculum and many other civilian academic resources; FFRDCs like CNA; the national laboratories; and University Affiliated Research Centers all are traditionally invaluable resources.

6. See Sam LaGrone, “Randy Forbes to CNO Greenert: ‘The Navy Desperately Needs a Strategy,’” USNI News, 1 October 2014, .

7. See Christopher Nelson, “’The Fleet at Flood Tide’ – A Conversation with Author James D. Hornfischer,” Center for International Maritime Security, 7 December 2016, and James D. Hornfischer, The Fleet at Flood Tide: America at Total War in the Pacific, 1944-1945 (New York: Bantam Books, 2016).

8. Nicholas J. Spykman, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power, 1942 (Transaction Publishers, 2007); and Nicholas John Spykman, Helen R. Nicholl, et al., The Geography of the Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944). See the discussion by Francis P. Sempa, “Nicholas Spykman and the Struggle for the Asiatic Mediterranean,” The Diplomat, 9 January 2015.

9. Sempa, “Nicholas Spykman and the Struggle for the Asiatic Mediterranean.”

? Mr. Giarra is president of Global Strategies & Transformation, a professional services firm and strategic planning consultancy. He is a strategic planner and national security analyst for Japan, China, East Asia, and NATO futures and a frequent contributor to and commentator on China military futures, the U.S. Navy’s maritime strategy, and the U.S.-Japan alliance. He is a graduate of Harvard College, the U.S. Naval War College, and the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo. During his naval career, he was a naval aviator; a naval strategic planner; a political-military strategic planner for Far East, South Asia, and Pacific issues; and managed the U.S.-Japan alliance in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
A new cycle of Navy strategic leadership is needed, and it must be based on a fighting navy that operates on the world’s oceans and takes competitor navies such as China’s into account.


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