The Navy is having great difficulty producing a coherent maritime strategy, but we have been here before. The strategy process need not be so vexing or difficult—this is terra oblita, not terra incognita.
Since the German-Italian-Japanese Tripartite Pact, it has been the grand national strategy of the United States to prevent the rise of an inimical hegemon in Eurasia. While there does not appear to be a national consensus on this strategy at the moment, it should be pretty obvious to anyone watching what is going on in Asia that history validates this strategic concept, precisely because history keeps repeating. This is what Carl Vinson, Franklin Roosevelt, William Leahy, and Ernest King understood at the outset of the building of their two-ocean Navy.
Deploying forward when these Eurasian circumstances pertained—World War II and the Cold War—was enabled by the U.S. Navy being able to bring critical elements of national power to bear across the oceans.
Since 1940, this has required establishing sea denial and sea control first, and then a lot of “a ship fighting a fort”—despite the constant misreading of what Nelson and his peers said on the subject. This is the manifestation of the United States’ “over there” strategic posture.
This is how Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz expressed it in his address (presaging jointness as we know it today) before a joint session of Congress on 5 October 1945:
With our seapower making possible the use of all our other resources, we gave Japan the single choice of surrender or slow but certain death.
This is not a hard concept to understand if we are to believe in the lessons of history and the inevitability of the worst in human nature as expressed in Eurasian despotism; in the horrific nature of the Chinese Communist Party’s regime (and others); in the requirements of enlightened strategic self-interest; and in the United States’ tremendous asymmetric national advantage at sea; and if the nation is not to squander the great strategic gift of ocean borders without land-border challenges.
To make American sea power work—and work it must—the maritime strategy has to come before the Navy’s budget. “Tell me the budget and I’ll tell you the strategy” is nonsensical.
As I see it, until the end of the Cold War, the Navy always had been able to express the wisdom of what Samuel Huntington called the “Transoceanic Navy” (in his famous 1954 Proceedings article in 1954). The Navy has not been able to communicate this wisdom for some time, obviously, but this is more a failure of Navy strategy construction and expression than a lack of public or political acceptance. I date the turn to a precise moment in June 1990, during Admiral Frank Kelso’s confirmation hearing (to be Chief of Naval Operations) before the Senate Armed Services Committee. When asked by Senator John McCain what he thought of the Maritime Strategy, the admiral replied that it was “on the shelf”—unnecessary, in other words. This was a gross misreading of both the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act (which established the modern joint force) and history, a misreading that has persisted.
This failure of strategy cannot be allowed to continue.
Simply put, it is not good news that current geostrategic circumstances and challenges would be familiar to our forebears. In fact, in his book The Geography of the Peace (Harcourt, 1944), Nicholas Spykman anticipated exactly what we now see, forecasting the rise of China and a U.S. alliance with Japan long before the end of World War II. Spykman did not originate the ideas in his book; they were commonly held views, if not fully expressed. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, clearly had Samuel Huntington’s concept in mind when he included maritime power as key to the aspirations of the Atlantic Charter. Spykman simply looked at maps and made sense of them, in the process describing the South China Sea as the Mediterranean of Asia.
A credible maritime strategy does not have to be complicated. To be credible it must come from the Navy, which traditionally (i.e., before Goldwater-Nichols and the end of the Cold War) had a significant role in shaping the formulation of national strategy. Fundamentally, a maritime strategy must express “what the Navy is for” in a geostrategic context. To wit:
- American sea power is an international good, expressed in the national strategic self-interest of the United States.
- The Chief of Naval Operations is the nation’s key sea power strategist.
- Sea control from the water’s edge is the basis of American sea power. The Navy will control the seas to bring to bear worldwide all elements of U.S. national power.
- The Navy will control the seas in support of U.S. national security and the ideals and aspirations of liberal democracy. These ideals and aspirations are expressed in the Atlantic Charter, the UN Charter, the North Atlantic Treaty, and in mutual security treaties and arrangements with Japan, Australia, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, India, and other allies and friends around the world.
- To carry out its strategic and operational responsibilities, the Navy will oppose from the sea the rise of despotism threatening the security of Eurasia, liberal democratic ideals, and the U.S. national way of life.
- Forward deployment “over there” of a transoceanic Navy, emphasizing an offensive strategic maritime posture, is key to the Navy’s maritime strategy. This means that the Navy will be constituted as a seagoing fleet to deploy credible deterrent and combat power wherever it might fight, across the oceans of the world.
- The Navy will operate in an explicitly joint manner, integrated in close strategic, operational, and doctrinal cooperation with the other U.S. military services
- American sea power in the international interest is best practiced by close partnership with seagoing allies and partner navies and, in doing so, increases confidence in U.S. national motives, strategic reach, and staying power.
The rest is map talk and working out ways and means—but with direction and purpose. The budget is just the price to be paid in peacetime sweat for protecting the national strategic interests in dangerous times.