At the dawn of the 20th century, rising powers seemed intent on redefining the established world order. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan gazed on the changing world with a new perspective on future challenges. Today, the trials Mahan foresaw resonate in globalization, great power competition, and the rise of China. China’s rise poses a significant threat to the liberal, rules-based world order built on law and reciprocity. Russian aggression attempts to turn globalization and communication into weapons to disrupt Western unity. Meanwhile, protracted conflicts in Southwest Asia and the Middle East have distracted the United States, while readiness issues and excessive demands plague the Navy as it strains to meet these competing requests. A new strategy, built on Mahan’s principles of readiness through fleet concentration and distribution, will give the Navy a sound basis and successful maritime strategy with which to deter future aggression.
At present, the Navy’s strategy aims to present a combat-credible forward presence in contested regions. Its roots trace back to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in the late 1940s.1 It implements a two-hub model —Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF) Rota, Spain, and FDNF Yokosuka, Japan—along with a substantial presence in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility.2 For more than six decades, this deployment strategy has served as the outline for operations, with relatively few changes made.3 While the model has provided the Navy with extensive reach, it has ceased to be a sustainable approach for projecting global power.
While the current two-hub deployment model effectively served its purpose, budget cuts, ship reductions, and excessive demands have drained the Navy’s ability to combat high-end conflict with peer competitors. Drastic changes based on Mahanian principles for effective fleet distribution must be the foundation of a new deployment strategy to restore readiness and credible power projection abroad. The Navy should create a one-hub-plus model, a drastic but necessary drawback from the current deployment model.
Admiral Mahan recognized the importance of employing a general dispersion of forces “directly referenced to a state of war,” even in times of relative peace.4 By deploying assets where conflict is expected, fleets “conform to that which the opening of war requires,” enabling swift resolution to conflicts.5 One of his main tenets is fleet concentration. He acknowledged that “it is impossible to have a superior fleet in all quarters” where influence is desired, but he maintained that keeping the fleet together was the only assurance of readiness.6 Consolidation avoids overextension while simultaneously presenting a cohesive, influential presence abroad.
Improper dispersion, on the other hand, invites action from adversaries who are “not only enabled, but necessitated to strike” before proper massing of forces can be achieved.7 Effective concentration before a conflict therefore is essential because trying to consolidate far-flung ships after the shooting starts can be treacherous.8 In fact, the precise position of the fleet is less critical than its concentration.9 Mahan believed that, in the face of a surprise attack on a country, it is better to have the whole fleet in the wrong place than half the fleet in the right place: “Transfer is always more feasible than junction, and the half might be annihilated while the whole could not.”10
Mahan argued that the “temperament of nations” must be appraised in any strategy.11 China and Russia present the most formidable threats to the current international order. Smaller threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea must also be addressed, albeit with less emphasis.12 While globalization has brought the world closer, it has also made it more sensitive and uncertain. Mahan argued that in such a world, overseas commerce would dominate as “the primary object of external policy of nations.”13 Therefore, he concluded that logically the “instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”14
For the Navy to maintain the international system of free commerce as it has since the end of World War II, it should bring half the forward-deployed forces home. FDNF–Japan would become the only hub, while FDNF–Spain would return to the U.S. East Coast. Following Mahan, the remaining forward hub would focus on China because it poses the greatest naval threat to the United States. The one-hub-plus model would enable increased maintenance periods, reduce wear on ships, and provide better high-end training opportunities in home waters. The newly homeported ships would have three functions: extended maintenance, attachment to a new developmental training squadron, or deployment on cruises using the current dynamic force employment (DFE) model.
To perform maintenance efficiently and on the scale necessitated by the influx of returning ships, shipyard capacity will need to be increased both at existing facilities and through construction of new ones. Improved infrastructure will contribute to rebuilding readiness because the current undercapitalized shipyards struggle to keep up with problems exacerbated by overuse of worn-down ships and aircraft.
While some ships undergo this bolstered maintenance phase, others will enhance tactics and skills in a training squadron dedicated to developing tactics for high-end warfare with competitors. Calls to create a surface development squadron (SurfDevRon) similar to submarine experimentation squadrons illustrate the need for a place to take “calculated risks.”15 It would center on cultivating a “culture of experimentation, tactics, and procedures that the surface navy needs in an era of great power competition.”16 SurfDevRon could find credible uses for the Zumwalt-class destroyers and even help reevaluate carrier warfare within increasingly contested antiaccess/area-denial (A2AD) environments. Carriers in this new strategy would focus solely on high-end warfare, countering peer competitors and might even shift the carrier deployment model from carrier strike groups (CSGs) back to carrier battle groups (CVBGs). This realignment of carrier doctrine to the CVBG would require the SurfDevRon to focus on multicarrier battle groups that train to combat opposing maritime fleets as well as break into contested A2AD environments. SurfDevRon would help build a “cohesive surface force,” figuring out ways to better integrate new and existing ships and look for new ways to counter great power adversaries.17
Power projection and influence across the globe do not have to suffer with reduced forward presence. Communication with allies will be the most important step to successful maintenance of global influence, and better coordination and presence from NATO’s fleet and allied countries’ naval assets will supplement the loss of U.S. forward presence.18 Current DFE deployments conducted by the Harry S. Truman and Abraham Lincoln CSGs have illustrated the benefits of the dynamic force employment model. DFE allows forces to be “strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable.”19 DFE has already created space for more high-end training and increased time spent operating with NATO partners.20 Captain Nicholas Dienna, commanding officer of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), attested to the benefits of DFE:
“I can tell you we are in phenomenal shape as we look to that sustainment phase. We’ve had both execution and training opportunities beyond what I think any of us anticipated. From a material standpoint, we’re doing phenomenally and we have some opportunities in the sustainment phase not simply to sustain our readiness if we’d be required to subsequently serve, but to even improve on the baseline where we’re at right now and focus on more high-end capability.”21
DFE deployments have also incorporated a return of multi-carrier forces, combining the Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman strike groups to conduct dual-carrier operations.22 During these, they conducted a composite training unit exercise (CompTUEx) with the addition of live, virtual, and constructive (LVC) training to “form a carrier strike force for high-end training.”23 Both these training models can be used by the new SurfDevRon to develop tactics and training.
Mahan argued it is imperative that strategy hinge on the most formidable adversaries. The one-hub-plus model assumes a focus on Chinese naval assets— the most formidable challenge—and a decreasing presence in the Middle East. To distribute forces with “probable chance of concentration where danger is imminent,” the Navy should position more carriers in the Pacific than the Atlantic.24 The re-created multi-carrier CVBGs should use the DFE model, especially in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, to project power and influence in the face of increased Russian activity in the Arctic and Atlantic that threaten the U.S. Navy’s ability to protect free trade and sea lines of communication.25
While it is essential to focus strategy on the most formidable opponents, Mahan acknowledges that where nations desire influence, presence is required.26 Therefore, “thought must be given to the role smaller nations such as Iran and North Korea” play as well as the threats of terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Africa.27 Big-deck amphibious platforms can perform an increased role in power projection. Given that America-class LHAs have a size and capacity equal to or greater than other nations’ full-size carriers, these platforms can fill CVN-presence gaps in low-end conflict environments, including strike operations in the Middle East. Incorporating multiple LHAs into the expeditionary strike group (ESG) model can also help meet these operational needs.
Small aircraft carriers (CVLs) adapted from the LHA design would be low risk and more affordable than a blank-sheet CVL design.28 “Two of them could do most of the work of one Gerald R. Ford-class carrier,” but such sacrifices are necessary for rebuilding the readiness of the fleet.29 This strategy would require a larger employment of F-35s. If sufficient numbers can be acquired, this implementation of the ESG “represents a true multirole flotilla, able to flexibly threaten any foe within hundreds of miles of the ocean.”30 This redistribution of assets corrects the current imbalance of high- and low-value assets assigned to low-end combat. It focuses the high-value carriers on countering the high-value conflict presented by great power competition while supplementing their roles with low-value assets, such as LHAs, in low-value conflict operations in the Middle East.
This one-hub-plus model is just one possible solution to the difficulties that plague current Navy readiness. It requires a lot to be implemented, especially from shipyards and homeports within the United States. Because of this, adjustments may need to be made to create a realistic working model adapted from the one presented above. Just as Mahan argued that the precise position of fleets does not matter as much as having concentrated forces, the same goes for implementation of a new strategy.31 Strict adherence to the details above is not the main point of this argument; rather, incorporation of Mahan’s ideas is the crucial element. The ideas of fleet concentration to bolster readiness, credible redistribution of fleet assets to face the most formidable adversaries, and aligning high-value systems with high-value conflict are the crucial takeaways needed for asserting a global Navy.
The one-hub-plus model incorporates Mahan’s foundations and illustrates the overall shape of a possible solution. The present geopolitical environment, resource, and political restrictions, as well as knowledge and experience from naval leaders, will dictate the actual details of any such strategy. Rapid change, rising powers, and a challenge of the status quo are parallels between Mahan’s era and ours. Readiness and excessive demands have crippled the Navy, and change is a crucial necessity. Mahan’s principles can pave the way for a sustainable future in which the Navy remains a force able to protect U.S. interests around the globe.
1. Peter M. Swartz, “Sea Changes: Transforming U.S. Navy Deployment Strategy: 1775–2002,” Study (Alexandria, Va: CNA Center for Strategic Studies, 31 July 2002).
2. Swartz, “Sea Changes.”
3. Swartz, “Sea Changes.”
4. RADM Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, Mahan on Naval Strategy: Selections from the Writings of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1991).
5. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
6. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
7. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
8. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
9. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
10. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
11. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
12. Benjamin F. Armstrong, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2013).
13. Armstrong, 21st Century Mahan.
14. Armstrong, 21st Century Mahan.
15. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron’ to Experiment with Zumwalt DDGs, Unmanned Ships,” USNI News, 28 January 2019.
16. Eckstein, “Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron.’”
17. Eckstein, “Navy Pursuing ‘Surface Development Squadron.’”
18. Sam LaGrone, “Aircraft Carrier Deployments at 25 Year Low as Navy Struggles to Reset Force.” USNI News, 26 September 2018.
19. Christopher Woody, “Admiral Says Navy’s New Fleet Strategy Already Fooled the Russians - Business Insider.”
20. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Leaders Say ‘Dynamic Force Employment’ Proving Successful in Truman Deployment,” USNI News, 22 November 2018.
21. “Navy Leaders Say ‘Dynamic Force Employment’ Proving Successful.”
22. Sam LaGrone, “Harry S. Truman Strike Group Back Underway After More Than a Month in Port,” USNI News.
23. Megan Eckstein, “Carrier Lincoln Preparing for Deployment After Several High-End Training Opportunities,” USNI News.
24 Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
25. “Carrier Lincoln Preparing for Deployment After Several High-End Training Opportunities.”
26. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.
27. Benjamin F. Armstrong, 21st Century Mahan."
28. “Small Aircraft Carriers: RAND Report Won’t Convince McCain,” Breaking Defense,.com/2017/10/small-aircraft-carriers-rand-report-wont-convince-mccain/.
29. "Small Aircraft Carriers."
30. Tyler Rogoway, “Here’s the USMC’s Plan For ‘Lightning Carriers’ Brimming With F-35Bs,” The Drive.
31. Mahan, Mahan on Naval Strategy.