In pursuit of its sailing direction to “operate forward,” the U.S. Navy seems to have confused presence with deterrence and, in so doing, hampered its ability to maintain, train, and equip its forces effectively and sustainably.
Deterrence is hard to quantify. There are too many variables, too many unknown factors, to say with certainty that one event did not occur because another event did. Even so, deterring future conflict is a fundamental and worthwhile national objective, and it remains critical that the armed forces play their part in achieving it.
To deal with this contradiction, the United States historically has relied on an aspect of military operations defined by historian Edward Luttwak as “armed suasion.” In his essay, “The Political Uses of Sea Power: The Theory of Suasion,” Luttwak defines armed suasion as “all reactions, political or tactical, elicited by all parties—allies, adversaries, or neutrals—to the existence, display, manipulation, or symbolic use of any instrument of military power, whether or not such reactions reflect any deliberate intent of the deploying party.”
Fundamentally, he seeks to explain the range of effects military forces have on the world. These effects exist on both a tactical military-to-military level, such as the way a submarine getting under way causes adversary forces to start tracking it, to the broader political level, wherein a government may or may not be influenced by such military activity depending on the circumstances. For example, a Soviet submarine traveling to Cuba in 1957 likely would have been a minor footnote in briefing the President on global events, but five years later during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that same tactical maneuver would have been of the utmost importance.
Beyond the tactical and political levels, armed suasion can be divided between latent and active suasion. Latent suasion is the way all parties involved in a situation perceive a set of military assets and capabilities as either potential threats or potential sources of support. For example, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer positioned off the coast of Taiwan could be viewed by Taiwan as a source of potential defensive support on a tactical level and political solidarity on a political level. To China, however, it would be a tactical threat capable of targeting Chinese assets, and would represent a political infringement on what China views as its sphere of influence.
Active suasion, on the other hand, would be an outright declaration on the part of the United States—a so-called line in the sand—that certain actions by others will be met with a direct response. For example, to dissuade Syria from conducting chemical warfare, the United States could threaten to conduct air strikes against Syrian military facilities. To make this threat a viable deterrent, it must be deemed by the Syrians to be credible and also significant enough to influence their decision making.
Essentially, latent suasion leaves the matter to the various participants to interpret a physical situation, where active suasion is a declaration of intent that interested parties may believe or not believe.
The reason these delineations are significant is that as a foreign policy asset, the U.S. Navy is being used almost solely as a force of latent suasion. The current construct of global naval deployment primarily is based on the forward nature of our submarines, ships, and aircraft. As a crude estimate, the United States is capable of bringing consequential levels of military force to bear on any potential enemy within a day’s time. This “24-hour rule” should be taken into consideration by any would-be enemy of the United States, whether individual actor, terrorist group, or organized state. Unfortunately, from the Chinese dynasties’ inability to deter nomadic tribes with their massive armies to the mighty British Empire’s failure to deter colonial rebellions and peer-level competitors, history has shown that power projection, the raw ability to conduct military operations, is insufficient to prevent conflict.
The existence and extent of potential opposition, military or otherwise, is only one among many factors that influence the decision making of individuals, organizations, and governments. Clausewitz was right in his determination that war is politics by other means, and the ability of military forces to influence an event is likewise constrained by the political realities at hand. These political realities range from international alliances and agreements, which might prevent the outright use of force, to the moral calculus that balances the loss of innocent lives to collateral damage against the potential gain of eliminating hostile forces. To deter actions detrimental to its interests, the United States must be able to identify and overcome those competing influences through use of the full range of hard and soft power tools at its disposal.
The Limits of Latent
The U.S. Navy today is worn thin by perpetual overtasking, underfunding, and misuse. From the perspective of latent suasion, the problem at hand is immense.
The U.S. Navy is responsible for maintaining an active presence in European waters to counteract a resurgent Russia. In the Middle East and Africa, it is committed to maintaining regional stability and conducting a perpetual “war on terror,” primarily through the maintenance of a rapid response capability. In the Western Pacific, ballistic missile defense requirements to rein in a rogue North Korea, and increasing presence requirements around the first and second island chains (to match the growing naval capacity of China’s Navy), have amounted to a race to maintain local tactical superiority. The current size, structure, and funding levels of the Navy are insufficient to provide the appropriate level of force in relative proximity to all the potential problems it faces.
Moreover, when the Navy does provide substantial levels of force in a certain area, there are no guarantees it will have the desired effects. For example, at the tactical level, errors in communication, operational missteps, and personnel issues on either side can lead to a rise of hostilities with political implications vastly different from the intended results. This reality manifests itself in incidents that have populated global news feeds regarding everything from ship and aircraft mishaps to liberty issues.
In addition, the ubiquity of U.S. naval operations relegates their presence in many regions to the mundane, where the positive effects of port calls and public relations events can be drowned out by even the slightest misstep. Even if it is understood by partner-nation leaders in private, the idea that the U.S. Navy helps ensure regional stability is not being sold effectively to their people. This is evidenced by the increasingly derisive tone many international politicians take toward the United States, whose presence often is portrayed as intrusive and manipulative.
In light of these considerations, it is apparent that latent suasion, while useful in some regards, is insufficient in deterring potential conflict.
Loosen the Leash on Presence
The United States instead could pursue a naval strategy based on active suasion. Rather than relying on the global presence of military assets to hopefully deter potential aggression, the United States could conduct foreign affairs through a framework of defense and reciprocity. Rather than keeping forces positioned around the world capable of bringing force to bear on an adversary within 24 hours, it could lengthen response time to one or two weeks. How would that affect our ability to respond to global threats?
From a geographic position, the effects would be far reaching. Loosening the leash on presence means fleet assets could spend less time “drilling holes in the ocean”—sailor speak for an uneventful patrol—and more time conducting valuable training exercises both at home and with foreign partners. It would mean more time between deployments, better adherence to deployment schedules, a lighter burden on our sailors and their families, and more thorough maintenance of our ships. Loosening presence requirements would go a long way toward normalizing fleet operations and creating a better warfighting force.
How would changing presence requirements affect the political and tactical positions of United States? For one, it would keep our forces abroad in a more tactically effective position. As Captain Wayne Hughes points out in his seminal work, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, the inherent advantage of naval warfare lies in the offense. He also emphasizes the Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson adage that a ship’s a fool to fight a fort, meaning a ship is in a disadvantaged situation when within range of a capable land-based threat, particularly when targeting solutions can be maintained constantly. With this in mind, consider how we conduct the majority of our fleet activities while deployed. We spend an inordinate amount of time on littoral patrols that often accomplish little more than showing the flag, all while leaving our ships in highly vulnerable positions—a situation further exacerbated by the degraded level of fleet-wide training and maintenance. We create unrealistic timelines that have sacrificed overall operational readiness in the name of accomplishing one of the most mundane mission sets.
Of course, some missions are significantly more important than just showing the flag, but even these do not require the level of presence we currently employ. Freedom of navigation patrols, undoubtedly an important mission, need be conducted only occasionally to establish their legal merit. Ballistic missile defense requirements are limited to certain key areas of the world, and the current technological limitations of interceptor missiles leave the mission in the shadow of the more important nuclear counterstrike deterrent. Submarine patrols still will be critical in maintaining local underwater supremacy and maintaining the sea lanes, but the limited contributions surface combatants make toward achieving these missions are hardly worth the high operating expenses they occur.
There will be challenges in convincing regional partners that the United States will honor its defensive commitments. But given the inherent weakness of defensive naval operations, regional defense should not be relegated to mere presence-based force buildup. Rather, it can be accomplished more effectively through more exchange programs, increased support for the development of allied capabilities, and occasional exercises that display the ability of U.S. forces to respond to threats on an acceptable timeline. The United States could decrease its presence to the minimum amount of force required to convince regional partners it still has “skin in the game” and to provide limited defensive support.
As an example of how active suasion might decrease the strain on the U.S. Navy while simultaneously increasing its value as a deterrent, consider the defense of Taiwan. The Taiwanese military publicly assesses itself capable of self-sufficiency for up to 45 days. With a 14-day sail from San Diego and a 7-day sail from Hawaii, a well-prepared U.S. task force would be able to provide support to Taiwan in ample time should circumstances necessitate. Short of an outright surprise assault, China could obtain only a limited added advantage during this transit time that it would not already have had as the escalating party.
Meanwhile, keeping the bulk of a U.S. relief task force in the eastern Pacific creates a more difficult targeting solution for hostile forces and increases our potential axis of attack. In addition, the transit time works to the United States’ advantage by allowing it to leverage the full range of hard and soft power assets at its disposal. This includes the ability to conduct international coalition building and employ economic sanctions, which are far more likely to deter conflict than the unilateral threat of force alone.
All of this, of course, would be dependent on assuring Taiwan and other regional partners that the United States is willing and ready to fulfill its international obligations. This idea—that the absence of actual U.S. forces does not and will not constitute a power vacuum or an unwillingness to intervene when appropriate—is a critical aspect of U.S. foreign policy that should be communicated at every level of diplomatic discourse, regardless of how the nation frames its deterrent strategies.
President Theodore Roosevelt set the tone for U.S. foreign policy in the modern era with his “speak softly, but carry a big stick.” As Luttwak points out, however, “To speak softly with a big stick may be less effective as a deterrent than to make a firm, over commitment to use a rather smaller stick.” With this in mind, the deployment of U.S. naval forces around the world should not be an end in and of itself, but rather a tool to be decisively applied toward a greater overall strategy.