In a recent interview, Marine Corps Commandant General David H. Berger was asked whether there is a dialogue between service chiefs and combatant commanders (CoComs) over force demands and whether the CoComs would moderate their demands. Berger was unequivocal in saying there is no prospect the CoComs will moderate their demands, because they have to manage risk on a day-by-day basis.1 So, even as the Navy and Marine Corps have gotten smaller, the demand for forward presence has remained constant or even increased, placing intense pressure on the services.
There are four options for dealing with this problem. First, Congress could increase shipbuilding funding to bring the fleet to some number of hulls that would provide for sustainable forward presence. That is not likely. Second, the Secretary of Defense could adopt a “supply side” force deployment policy in which the forces made available for forward presence are only those that can be sustained.2 This was advocated by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, but it did not materialize.3 Third, the Navy could alter its fleet design to include a significant number of smaller, cheaper ships focused on routine forward presence. This idea was incorporated in the 2007 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, based on a “bimodal” Navy concept submitted by Professor Wayne Hughes of the Naval Postgraduate School.4 However, the Navy has shown no sign of implementing the idea. The final option is to shift management of naval forward deployment to a global basis, centrally managed from the Pentagon.
Sea Control Versus Command of the Sea
Making an argument for the fourth option requires returning to a 1974 article by Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner entitled “Missions of the U.S. Navy.”5 In it, Admiral Turner noted the traditional mission of command of the sea had been redefined as sea control. As a result, the basis for Navy planning became operational vice strategic—ignoring the geopolitical impact of a single world ocean—and naval presence became a regional function at the mercy of the CoComs.
When the fleet was sufficiently numerous, these doctrinal shifts did not adversely affect Navy and Marine Corps operations. When it fell to a level not seen since before World War I, however, the regionalization of U.S. maritime strategy began to have negative effects on combat readiness.
The Navy is beginning to rediscover the idea of command of the sea. The latest version of Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare (NDP-1), mentions command of the sea in its foreword.6 It correctly states, “Command of the seas is a fundamental strategic pillar of our nation, necessary for the security and prosperity of our citizens.” But it misses the mark when it defines command of the sea as “the strategic condition of free and open access and usage of the seas necessary for our nation to flourish.” It confuses cause and effect. A free and open sea is a policy the United States has adopted, one that is enabled by having command of the sea. Thus, a proper basis for formulating strategic plans and allocating resources still awaits a correct definition of command of the sea and an appreciation of all its implications.
The world ocean is very large, and, relatively speaking, ships are very small, so what constitutes command of the sea can be a confusing matter. American theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan came closest when he said, “It is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive.”7 Command of the sea, rightly understood, denotes a strength relationship between or among contending navies in which the difference is such that the weaker navies dare not directly challenge the stronger. This is the cause; all the benefits of command derive from it. While this definition might seem arbitrary or academic, a study of long-term geopolitical trends reveals its significance.
Researchers George Modelski and William Thompson studied the relationship between sea power and global politics from 1494 to the late Cold War. They examined the dynamics among nations that realistically could vie for global leadership, using warship numbers as a surrogate for the rest of the aspects of national power.8 They identified five “long cycles” of competition in which global war produced a world power that possessed command of the sea, followed by a peace in which that power used its command to maintain an international order congenial to its interests.
Command of the sea was defined as concentration of naval power, in which one nation possessed roughly 50 percent of the total relevant warships owned by all contending powers.9 When “deconcentration”—the more even distribution of naval power among contending nations—occurred, global war eventually followed, producing a new global leader having command of the sea. Then the cycle repeated. “The long cycle of global politics refers to the process of fluctuations in the concentration of global reach capabilities which provide one foundation for world leadership,” Modelski and Thompson explained.10
For the past five centuries, oceangoing sea power has been the foundation of global reach and influence. Command of the sea permits unfettered movement and thus use of the oceans to project influence. Command of the sea, therefore, is at heart a global concept. Moreover, its DNA is composed of deterrence: the unwillingness of other navies to directly challenge the strongest. When the strength relationship changes—the deconcentration of sea power—the erosion of command contributes to the eventual breakout of global war, according to the Modelski/Thompson analysis. Third, command is relevant in both war and peace. Not only must a dominant concentration of naval power be maintained in peacetime—a difficult proposition for any government—but that power also must be exercised to defend and support the international order the global leader desires. That is, command of the sea consists of two components: maintenance and exercise. These are not analogues to Admiral Turner’s sea control and power projection; they are global and strategic vice regional and operational.
It is to exercise command of the sea to support and defend a desired global order that the United States deploys its naval forces around the world. The combination of the policy to promote a global liberal trading order and the decision to deploy military forces to defend that order is a tacit U.S. grand strategy, one that has been remarkably consistent across administrations and that continues to this day. Through the late 1970s, the Navy’s focus was either directly projecting power over land, as in Korea and Vietnam, or supporting land forces. It also undertook a nuclear deterrent using its aircraft carriers and, later, ballistic-missile submarines. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Navy had grown to be a significant threat. At that point, the Navy shifted gears, and its 1980s Maritime Strategy included aggressive forward operations to push back and intimidate the Soviet Navy. All these actions were instances of exercising command of the sea to defend the global order it had established.
In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States did not demobilize or bring home its naval forces. This was an indicator of the true nature of the maritime component of its grand strategy—not to defeat the Soviet Union, but to exercise command of the sea to support and defend the global system. The Navy and Marine Corps issued a new capstone document in 1992. . . . From the Sea clearly articulated the reasons for continuing to exercise command of the sea: “Our forces can help to shape the future in ways favorable to our interests by underpinning our alliances, precluding threats, and helping to preserve the strategic position we won with the end of the Cold War.”11
Tellingly, that document also said, “Our strategy has shifted from a focus on a global threat to a focus on regional challenges and opportunities.” With the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that strengthened the authorities of the CoComs, a fleet large enough to sustain forward deployments in all regions, and the lack of challenge to U.S. command of the sea, exercise of command became the province of the CoComs. The only global component was the Global Force Management process that apportioned forces in response to CoCom requests.
The U.S. policy of supporting a liberal trading order—the end of U.S. strategy—has remained constant since the end of World War II. The means of the maritime component of the strategy is a powerful U.S. Navy. The way has been to forward deploy a significant portion of that Navy around the periphery of Eurasia to deter aggression, assure allies and partners and build naval interoperability with them, and have forces available for contingencies ranging from military aggression to disaster relief. But the Navy is now at its lowest ebb, in fleet size, since before World War I, and it is stressed beyond its ability to sustain the necessary pace of deployment. If the end is constant and means shrink, the way must change.
There are two elements to the current maritime strategy of ringing Eurasia with naval power: location and purpose. Where ships are deployed and for what purpose governs the number and type needed. If location and purpose are managed strategically—a new variation of the way—then a smaller number of ships might suffice. But managing deployments strategically on a global basis means some staff must be established with the requisite authority to do so.
New Staff with a New Perspective
The focus of the CoComs is managing risk on a day-to-day basis, and they also must develop and maintain productive relationships with the countries in their areas of responsibility. Their perspective, therefore, is near term and regional, whereas the overall focus of the exercise of command should be global. Allocating naval forces on a regional demand basis has the effect, especially when forces are scarce, of diluting maintenance and training. This erodes maintenance of command, because the same forces that exercise command are the ones relied on to maintain it.
Hard decisions are needed to strike the necessary balance between the maintenance of command and its exercise—or, stated in more conventional but somewhat inaccurate terms, between combat readiness and forward presence. These decisions cannot be made by the CoComs, and the Chief of Naval Operations has no authority to do so, nor does the Joint Staff. The only place where the necessary perspective and authority are married up is in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). Priorities must be established not only among the deterrence, assurance, and response functions of forward presence, but also among regions.
But there is another strategic aspect of exercising command of the sea that is connected to its maintenance. An inherent principle of exercising command is that one should not risk the maintenance of command in the process of exercising it. If, for example, the United States lost enough naval forces of the kind that underpin command of the sea, command could be lost. This would open the door to China or perhaps Russia to use the sea to undermine the world order. As Seventh Fleet commander in the mid-1970s, Vice Admiral Thomas Hayward was motivated by a form of this logic. He was concerned about the possibility of Washington transferring his carrier battle groups to the Atlantic to reinforce NATO. If that happened, he feared, opportunities would open for the Soviets to seize the Aleutian Islands or take other actions that would harm the United States.12 In other words, the U.S. Navy would lose command of the Pacific, and deterrence there would evaporate.
Whether by incurring losses in a regional operation or through the maldeployment of forces, command of the sea could be lost through injudicious exercise of it. Thus, exercise of command and maintenance of it can be understood only on a global basis, and risk thereby properly assessed.
Beyond the need for a staff with the perspective and authority to develop and execute a global exercise of command of the sea strategy, what can be said about the elements of such a strategy? The first place to look is deterrence. Is deterrence a local matter, or is it a global issue? Based on the Modelski/Thompson research, command of the sea is a global concept based on the overall naval strength relationship. With regard to Taiwan and the advent of Chinese land-based, long-range antiship missile systems, deterrence appears to be a local matter, but China also is building an oceangoing navy that has demonstrated the ability to deploy globally. So the outcome of a fight over Taiwan could have implications for global command of the sea:
• An unsuccessful invasion could precipitate the fall of the Communist Party, perhaps ending any bid to displace U.S. command of the sea.
• Win or lose, if in defense of Taiwan the United States were to lose too many naval forces, especially aircraft carriers and submarines, its command of the sea could be threatened.
• If China succeeded in seizing Taiwan, the invasion could lead to escalation and widening of the war, especially if others such as Russia decided it provided an opportunity for aggression in their regions.
If such a war did widen, a centralized (read global) strategy would be needed to properly allocate forces. Individual regional fights must be regarded as the exercise of command, and risk must be managed centrally. All of this argues not only for centralized risk management of naval forces, but also for a fleet design in which the kind of forces applied to exercise command are such that their loss does not affect overall command.
As the Navy is now structured, the forces that form the basis for maintaining command of the sea are the same ones that exercise it. The locus of risk assessment and management, therefore, should reside at the national rather than regional level. However, the current unified command structure—philosophically and doctrinally based on the operational level of war—effectively turns the national authorities into strategic sponsors rather than supervisors.13 There is no effective mechanism for coherently balancing maintenance and exercise of command of the sea, something that is critical in view of current fleet design and the reduced hull numbers.
Current statute prevents investing either the Navy or the Joint Staff with the authority to dictate naval force distribution globally or to develop the strategy to govern it. The likelihood of Congress amending existing legislation is low, so another approach is needed. The Secretary of Defense possesses the requisite authority, so an operational staff embedded within OSD could be created without the need for legislative relief.14 The staff would inherently be joint, although heavily naval to ensure the necessary expertise. The CoComs would retain authority to plan and execute campaigns in their regions, but the centralized maritime staff would allocate naval forces on the basis of a global strategy developed by OSD, perhaps with the advice of both the Navy and Joint Staffs.
Both the Air Force and the Navy have developed operational command-and-control centers that could serve as a pattern for establishing a global staff, and much of the communications infrastructure already is in place. However, to operate effectively, such a staff will require specialized training and education to generate the kind of global strategic/operational fusion of thinking required.
A New Approach to Maritime Strategy
Command of the sea and its associated logic must be the basis for a new approach to U.S. maritime strategy, including a global staff situated in Washington to govern the strategic application of scarce naval forces. The Navy also should redesign its fleet to better adhere to the principle of not risking command while exercising it, but a new layer of command and control within the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the quicker and surer way to address the problem of a Navy too small to properly support national policy. Such a staff would possess a form of the authority invested in Fleet Admiral Ernest King in World War II, who had “the latitude to change the longitude” of Navy forces.
1. Jared Samuelson, Sea Control 269—“USMC General David Berger Commandant of the Marine Corps on Force Design,” podcast, 20 August 2021, Center for International Maritime Security.
2. In a 21 September 2021 article entitled “Pentagon, Navy Conducting Parallel Fleet Studies Ahead of Next National Defense Strategy,” USNI News reporters Mallory Shelbourne and Sam LaGrone quote the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) as saying a supply-based deployment procedure already exists, based on the 2018 National Defense Strategy. But knowledgeable people the author contacted are unaware of such a procedure, believing the CNO was referring to the dynamic force employment concept, which is not the same as a supply-based approach.
3. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work, speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Fifth Annual Global Security Forum 2014, Washington, DC, 12 November 2014.
4. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), “A Bimodal Force for the National Maritime Strategy,” Naval War College Review 60, no. 2 (Spring 2007).
5. VADM Stansfield Turner, USN, “Missions of the U.S. Navy,” Naval War College Review 27, no. 2 (March-April 1974).
6. U.S. Navy, Naval Doctrine Publication 1, Naval Warfare (April 2020).
7. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660–1783 (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1987), 138.
8. George Modelski and William R. Thompson, Seapower in Global Politics, 1494–1993 (London: The MacMillan Press, 1988), 28.
9. Modelski and Thompson, Seapower in Global Politics, 99.
10. Modelski and Thompson, 97.
11. U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, . . . From the Sea: Preparing the Naval Service for the 21st Century (September 1992), 1.
12. John Hattendorf, The Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy 1977–1986 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2004), 19.
13. Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan, Alien: How the Operational Art Devoured Strategy (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, September 2009), viii.
14. Based on discussions with former high-level Defense Department officials.