Several events occurred at sea in January 2019 that affirmed a U.S. Navy operational trajectory that should now be recognized as the “Trump maritime strategy.” This strategy has reasserted the notion that the U.S. Navy is the leading edge of American foreign policy as it relates to strategic deterrence against competitor nations—the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation. It also is encouraging more naval activity and collaboration with allies and partners, and less with adversaries.
Recent Navy Operations
The first event occurred on 7 January when the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG-85) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea to challenge the PRC’s excessive maritime claims. While this was the first FONOP of the Paracel Islands since the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) did one in November 2018, what made the McCampbell’s operation even more significant was that it was the first FONOP in the South China Sea since the departure of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, signaling that the two-year pattern of increasing naval operations to challenge the PRC’s expansionism in the maritime domain would continue.
Two events also occurred in the Black Sea. First, on 7 January, the dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) pulled into the Romanian port of Constanta. This was the first U.S. warship to enter the Black Sea since Russia seized three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait in late November 2018. The second event occurred 19 January when the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) entered the Black Sea, the second U.S. warship to enter in two weeks.
This Administration has also demonstrated a commitment to naval operations in the Taiwan Strait. On 24 January, the McCampbell and USNS Walter S. Diehl (T-AO-193) transited the Taiwan Strait, the third such transit in the past four months.
Elements of a Trump Maritime Strategy
In each case, the Trump administration signaled American resolve in confronting the bad behavior of both the PRC and Russia. At a time when Americans are debating overseas troop deployments, a formal declaration of a Trump maritime strategy would offer a clear alternative to the past thirty years of using ground forces as the first choice in addressing U.S. foreign policy challenges.
The leading element of the Trump maritime strategy has been the FONOPs around the globe, most notably in the South China Sea. During the first two years of the Trump Administration, the U.S. Pacific Fleet conducted at least nine FONOPs in the South China Sea, a rate higher than the previous administration. The Trump Administration’s aggressive FONOP program has exposed the PRC’s excessive, and confusing, territorial “claims” in the South China Sea, as well as their flawed interpretation of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Specifically, the PRC challenges foreign navy warships that operate in the South China Sea, asserting they have trespassed into Chinese territorial waters without permission of the Chinese government. An aggressive FONOP program makes it more difficult for the PRC to use salami-slicing tactics to achieve its strategic goal of establishing de facto territorial sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea (what the Chinese refer to as the nine-dashed line), something the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016 ruled was illegal.
That said, critics have rightly noted that FONOPs alone have been insufficient in preventing Beijing from expanding its presence and hard-power influence over the region. Recognizing this, the Trump Administration has expanded non-FONOP naval operations in the western Pacific as well. Most notably, aircraft carrier operations in the South China Sea have increased, both unilaterally and with our allies. To be fair to the previous administration, high-profile aircraft carrier operations designed to signal the PRC began in 2016 with the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) carrier strike group (CSG) operating in the South China Sea alone in March 2016 and then again with the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) CSG in June and July of the same year. The precedent set by the Obama Administration was not only sustained but expanded upon during the past two years.
Within the first month of the Trump administration, the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) CSG was ordered to the South China Sea. A year later, in March 2018, the Carl Vinson CSG returned to the South China Sea for dual-carrier operations with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) helicopter carrier. Not only was this unprecedented, it particularly irked the PRC who characterized the dual-carrier operations as crossing its “red line.”
Undeterred by such rhetoric, the Trump Administration followed in October 2018 with another combined U.S.-Japan naval operation, this one involving the Ronald Reagan CSG and the JMSDF’s Escort Flotilla 4 Battle Group. And in November the Ronald Reagan CSG operated with the Stennis CSG in the South China Sea.
Having served the majority of my career in the Pacific, I can attest that this series of U.S. aircraft carrier operations with our ally Japan in the South China Sea is unprecedented since the Vietnam War and represents the single clearest statement of U.S. naval power to the PRC. These operations alone justify a formal declaration of a Trump maritime strategy. But there is more.
In October 2017 the U.S. Navy announced that the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) CSG had arrived in the 7th Fleet area of operations joining the Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) CSGs, thus bringing to three the number of U.S. aircraft carriers in the western Pacific. Unlike the carrier operations mentioned previously, these three CSGs operated off the coast of Korea for four days in November 2017. While the primary goal was to stage a show of force to the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the PRC was also a target of what the Trump Administration characterized as a “maximum pressure” campaign to get North Korea to denuclearize.
In March 2018, the Carl Vinson CSG visited Danang, Vietnam. This was widely reported in the region and represents another use of the U.S. Navy to support an emerging regional friend and signal the PRC. It was the first U.S. aircraft carrier to dock in Vietnam since the war ended in 1975.
Finally, it is worth noting that a Trump maritime strategy is not only evident in the Pacific theater. Regarding Russia, there are a number of similar examples where the U.S. Navy has been used to signal to Russia U.S. resolve. For example, in October–November 2018 the USS Harry S. Truman CSG operated north of the Arctic Circle during NATO Exercise Trident Juncture. It was the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier had done so since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In addition, aircraft from the Harry S. Truman conducted flight operations in the annual multinational exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2018, representing the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier aircraft participated in BALTOPS since the exercise’s inception in 1972.
Despite the increase in Navy operations that form the elements of a maritime strategy, the Trump Administration still has much work to do. First, the Department of Defense should develop and implement a coherent strategic communications plan. A Trump maritime strategy should be formally published—one that aligns with the already published National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents. Additionally, a senior administration official should give a speech announcing the new maritime strategy and link it to existing regional foreign policy challenges around the globe.
Second, Navy public affairs reporting should be more disciplined and consistent. For instance, Exercise Trident Juncture in the North Atlantic and Norway received extensive press coverage as a result of more proactive rules regarding media embarks to showcase the capabilities of U.S. and allied naval forces. This stands in stark contrast to Exercise Valiant Shield in the Pacific in September 2018, which had almost no Navy public affairs reporting other than some wide-angle photographs. This was a missed opportunity to message Pacific theater adversaries such as China. The same mismatch can also be seen regarding the under-reporting of FONOPs, most notably in the South China Sea.
Despite the fact that the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, the Administration should emphasize that its maritime strategy supports the principles enshrined in UNCLOS. By doing so, it will highlight where both the PRC and Russia are ignoring, or even violating, international norms in the maritime commons. What the international community allows the PRC to get away with in the South China Sea has serious consequences elsewhere. Exposing the PRC’s illegal actions there will also bring attention to Beijing’s illegal or questionable behavior elsewhere, such as in Antarctica, the Northwest Passage, and in space.
Allies, Partners, and Friends
Allied support is another area where the current Administration can signal the PRC and Russia of its intentions in the maritime domain. In the Pacific, the Administration could build off its precedent-setting decision to disinvite the PRC from participating in the 2018 Rim-of-the-Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. For instance, the administration could conduct a RIMPAC-like exercise in the South China Sea that includes Association of Southeast Asian Nation states, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In addition, under the auspices of the Trump maritime strategy, the U.S. could lead the other three members of the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) in a naval exercise within the first or second island chain as a reminder to the PRC that its provocative and threatening actions in the maritime domain will not go unchallenged.
Given that the PRC Navy will have more than 500 major combatants and submarines by 2030, for the Trump maritime strategy to have any chance at effectively deterring continued PRC expansionism, the U.S. must prioritize its Navy in the defense budget. Plans to build a 355-ship Navy must be met, if not exceeded. The United States also must accelerate fielding new supersonic, long-range antiship cruise missiles. Today, the PRC Navy not only “out-sticks” the U.S. Navy, but does so from a myriad of platforms above, on, and below the sea. The United States must reverse this strategic trend line or risk being a paper tiger.
A Trump maritime strategy already exists. It just has not been formally articulated. The Administration should promote this strategy with a comprehensive public affairs campaign that extols its benefits and alignment with existing international law, invite allies and partners to contribute to its execution, and resource the Navy to meet its demands. To fall short will simply cede more of the maritime domain to the unilateral, and dangerous, designs of the PRC and Russia.