3rd Prize Winner of the General Prize Essay Contest
The General Prize Essay Contest is funded by Andrew and Barbara Taylor & the Crawford Taylor Foundation.
The post-Cold War era is over. For the three decades after the end of that bipolar conflict—what some have called the unipolar moment—the United States played a hegemonic role as not only the world’s sole superpower but also its sole great power. As geopolitics has sailed further into the 21st century, however, we have seen the return of history.1 Other great powers have risen, regional powers have strengthened, and international relations have become a complicated and multipolar affair.2
The fact that the unipolar moment is over should not come as a surprise. There has been much in the news on the economic, political, and military rise of China. Rising powers and established great powers historically face tense relationships, and it would be easy to draw our focus tightly on the most capable rising nation. But this is a dangerous trap that lures U.S. strategists and foreign policy into the rutted bipolar thinking of the Cold War era. The United States must avoid allowing a single challenger to inform its strategy. As Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote, a sound strategy also pays attention to the most reasonable, or most likely, potential competitors.3
Besides China’s rise, Russia’s quest to return to great power status, the influence of regional powers such as Iran and North Korea, whether Europe intends to play a military or political role in the world, and the unanswered questions of Britain’s place in the order of things all create their own currents and shoals. These are layered with the uneven but dangerous efficacy of non-state actors and violent international groups. This multipolar world requires a multipronged national and maritime strategy. To face the many possible challenges and potential competitors in the maritime commons and littorals of the world, the U.S. Navy must reconsider the shape of the fleet, how it operates, and how it is led.
Bringing Balance to the Fleet
Debates over the size of the nation’s fleet have dominated the headlines in the defense and national security spheres for some time. How many ships does the Navy need? How do we count the ships? How do we pay for them? Yet such discussions miss the truly important question: What does the Navy needs its ships to do? In a multipolar world, the answer is that the Navy needs to be able to do a lot of things.
A focus on hard power—the idea that naval forces must have more missiles and aircraft and weapons at the expense of a larger fleet—fits well into the bipolar thinking of a potential all-out war with China. However, focusing exclusively on big ships that can overcome the problems of survivability and armament will be less useful in a world of competition and friction in operations short of declared national wars. When all a naval force can do is shoot, or threaten to shoot, it ceases to be a navy and becomes a military force deployed afloat.
Navies have responsibilities in peace and during the escalation and de-escalation from the potential of war that are vital to success in a multipolar world. The presence of naval forces provides not only a deterrent effect, but also a lubricating effect on the friction of the world’s dangerous littorals and seas.4 This does not always require the largest, most heavily armed and defensively capable warship. Instead, like a beat cop walking the streets instead of an armored SWAT vehicle rolling past on the highway, frigates and small combatants can and should do the lion’s share of the presence work required of the U.S. Navy. For that to happen, the U.S. Navy needs to take a hard look not at the size of the fleet, but at its balance.
Today’s ship count is woefully unbalanced and heavy at the top end. The projected force in the recent force assessment only makes that unbalance worse, and that heavy weight up high threatens to capsize us. This will affect the Navy’s operational effectiveness not only in peacetime and military operations short of war, but also during a full nation-state war.
In a multipolar world, the seas are likely to be anything but peaceful. Small combatants will play a central role in the U.S. Navy’s ability to address the maritime hybrid conflicts that are likely to arise. Presence and patrolling are critical to success in these operations, and small numbers of large ships are far less effective than large numbers of small ships. Some may contend the lower survivability of small ships has made them untenable, but that objection is the kind of risk aversion that eventually makes all military operations appear unacceptable and offers no real insight in discussions of strategy or operations.
Hybrid wars, local conflicts, and operations against non-state actors are not the only place small combatants have proven themselves. A balanced fleet also is critical to success in full nation-state wars. In World War I, the U.S. Navy’s main contribution was a swarm of small ships with aggressive skippers who took on the U-boat menace, not the dreadnought-style battleships.5 While the Grand Fleet let the High Seas Fleet escape at Jutland and spent the remainder of the war pinned to its open blockade of Germany, small destroyers were cranked out of U.S. shipyards by the hundreds, convoyed the vital sea communications to Britain and the Allies, and eventually brought the American Expeditionary Force to the continent. Small destroyers were vital again in World War II, not only in the Atlantic but also the Pacific theater at places such as Samar.6
If the U.S. Navy faced a peer or near-peer conflict today, there would be no ships available to convoy supplies, protect the combat logistics ships, or run raiding operations and resupply, because of the fleet’s woefully unbalanced architecture. Today’s guided-missile destroyers are destroyers in name only and, in capability, are the battleships of the modern fleet. The Navy needs a significant proportion of its ships to be small combatants, and it needs them fast if the United States wants to see success in the multipolar world.
Distribution and Concentration
Concentration and dispersion have been central issues of naval strategy across history. Much of the foundational work in naval theory, from men such as Julian Corbett, A.T. Mahan, and Philip Colomb, focused on the age of fighting sail and, as a result, defined concentration as physical ships gathered together in a single, powerful force. Mahan wrote for an American audience that did not really understand naval affairs, at a time when ships were regularly sent on single unaccompanied patrols and deployments instead of working as squadrons or fleets. Because of this, he was dogmatic in his insistence on concentration in his early writings and prescriptions for U.S. naval power. Yet, as the U.S. Navy grew, a little noticed shift began to occur in the way he thought and wrote about the balance of fleets and their concentration.
First, Mahan introduced how balanced forces—made up of a battle fleet as well as scouts and cruisers and a flotilla of small combatants to work the littorals—could help solve the problems of concentration and dispersion.7 The battle fleet could remain the concentrated force needed to win a battle, while the cruisers and small combatants were dispersed widely. As Mahan’s thinking developed, a new technology made him again adjust his views. The introduction of the wireless telegraph had the potential to fundamentally alter command and control and thus how navies operated. Mahan wrote that wireless likely would change how naval commanders understood the principle of concentration, allowing ships to disperse more widely during peacetime but respond immediately to recall into a concentrated force at the first sign of trouble.8 In some ways, his brief mention of this development in the introductory essay in one of his books foreshadowed the networked force that we take for granted today.
Today, the surface fleet has again brought the issue of concentration and dispersion to the forefront of naval thought. After several decades focusing on the minutiae of engineering and optimal weapons employment for power projection, the Navy has rediscovered the principle of concentration in distributed lethality and has begun to look at it through 21st-century eyes.9 In the Age of Sail and the dreadnought era, reliant as they were on heavy guns with unguided projectiles, physically concentrating ships meant concentrating the effects of the fleet’s weapons. The surface fleet now realizes it might not be the physical concentration of ships that matters, but that ability to concentrate fires on the enemy. In the 21st century, ships can be distributed and still fight as an organized unit and deliver a concentrated and lethal punch.
It is time for the entire force to understand that the surface fleet’s distributed lethality is not an answer to a “surface” question, but instead is an important and fundamental part of naval concentration and naval strategy. Aviators, submariners, and Marines must embrace distributed lethality as a fundamentally naval concept—not only because it addresses a principal issue in naval strategy, but also because aviation, undersea warfare, and amphibious operations are vital to successfully distributing the fleet while concentrating the lethality of its capabilities. Distributed lethality should become an organizing principle for the entire U.S. Navy approach to modern naval warfare, adjusted based on the inputs and improvements other warfare professionals will introduce when they come aboard.
Naval Professionals in the 21st Century
To think critically about the balance in the fleet, the architecture of the U.S. naval force, and the role of concentration and strategy in naval policy and operations, U.S. Navy leaders must take a fresh look at the professionalism of the force. Today’s sailors, whether enlisted or officer, do not have a clear view of what it means to be a naval professional. They act in a professional manner, keeping their uniforms straight and their conduct proper. They work hard at their jobs and master the skills required to do them effectively. But that does not mean they know what it is to be a naval professional.
We know our place as aviators, submariners, or surface warfare professionals. We can describe what it means to be a professional gunner’s mate or naval aviator. Yet we struggle to come up with a common description of being a naval professional, because once a sailor has left boot camp, or an officer has earned a commission, he or she becomes “tribalized” into a warfare community that demands complete identification with its own professional ideals.
The roots of this naval tribalism are deep. In the 19th century, conflict between warfare specialist deck officers and the early engineers who ran steam plants was common.10 In the 20th century, efforts at naval professionalism like the officer education program introduced in the 1920 Knox-King-Pye Report lost out to the tribalism introduced by Hyman Rickover and then co-opted by naval aviation in both communities’ quest for elitist status.11 As a result, the Navy has lost its way, as evidenced by officers who receive more professional graduate education in joint military matters than they do in naval ones and enlisted sailors who became upset at the prospect of being called by their rank instead of their tribal moniker during last year’s naval ratings fiasco.
The starting point for recovering our course as professionals is a refreshed view of U.S. naval history. Naval discussions of history generally tend to focus on larger-than-life figures who served as “Great Men” in battle or war. Instead, the Navy must look at its long and valuable history outside battle narratives and combat leadership case studies. Chester Nimitz may have been a great wartime commander, but he also helped conceive modern undersea warfare as a lieutenant, and he and a friend named Ernie King devised underway replenishment out of necessity in World War I.
Innovation, leading change, and sometimes even a little bit of technological or policy heresy have been fundamental to the American naval profession. Managing technological change has been a core element of what naval professionals have done for the United States for centuries, from the introduction of steamships and screw propellers, to steel construction and armor, submarines and aviation, radar, nuclear power, and modern computer science. We should be valuing and learning from innovators such as Matthew Maury, Stephen Luce, William Sims, Bradley Fiske, William Moffett, and Grace Hopper as much as from Stephen Decatur, David Farragut, George Dewey, or William Halsey.
A refreshed view of U.S. naval history, as well as a conscious quest to reestablish what it means to be a naval professional, is the vital intellectual backdrop needed for success in the 21st-century maritime world. This begins by admitting to the tribalism that has taken over our ranks and understanding what it has done to our culture. The Navy should follow that with the self-reflection and historical study needed to determine the central elements of naval professionalism beyond the platitudes of modern ethos statements and vision documents. Some leaders have started down this path, and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson has given some initial thoughts by defining what he sees as the “core attributes” of a successful sailor.12 The Navy needs to expand this to a service-wide examination, based in our shared past.
Setting a Course
Adjusting course to confront a multipolar world, where competition and friction on the world’s seas will range beyond two actors and across a spectrum of challenges, will be the fundamental test of the U.S. Navy in the next decade. It will require a reassessment of much of what has been taken for granted in the past several decades. This already has begun with renewed attention to sea control and calls to reclaim our expertise in undersea warfare. Beyond this, however, there are fundamental policy, strategy, and professional issues that are essential to continuing U.S. strength and influence on the world’s oceans. These include returning a balanced architecture to the fleet, the Navy-wide embrace of the ideals of distributed lethality, and a return of a culture of naval professionalism.
To address these issues will require historical understanding, critical inquiry into our modern risks and opportunities, and a conscious leadership effort. This will not be easy. It will require inspiration from the highest ranks, but also engagement and hard work from the middle ranks and the chiefs’ mess and creative initiative and ideas from the junior ranks.
As history has shown, leading these kinds of changes is what U.S. Navy professionals have been doing for two-and-a-half centuries. With a determined hand on the helm, it is a course we can steer again.
1. Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008).
2. Ron O’Rourke, “A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense” (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2016); https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43838.pdf.
3. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1897), 95-97.
4. Jerry Hendrix and Benjamin Armstrong, “The Presence Problem: Naval Presence and National Security” (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2016); www.cnas.org/publications/reports/the-presence-problem-naval-presence-and-national-strategy.
5. William S. Sims and Burton J. Hendrick, The Victory at Sea (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920).
6. James Hornfischer, Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour (New York: Bantam Books, 2004).
7. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political (Boston: Doubleday, Page, & Company, 1902), 175-177.
8. Mahan, Retrospect and Prospect, 2-4, 174.
9. Thomas Rowden, Peter Gumataotao, Peter Fanta, “Distributed Lethality,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141, no. 1 (January 2015).
10. L.H. Chandler, “Is Amalgamation a Failure?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 31, no. 4 (December 1905).
11. “Report and Recommendations of a Board…” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 46, no. 8, (August 1920). Mark Haggerott, “Commanding Men and Machines: Admiralship, Technology, and Ideology in the 20th Century U.S. Navy,” unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Maryland; http://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/8525.
12. Admiral John Richardson, U.S. Navy, “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” (January 2016); http://www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf.