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American thinking regarding sea power has evolved continually. The first substantial debate about it played out in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the participants reached back for its terms to the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress in 1775. The essentials of the argument were self-evident in the framers’ mandate that the Congress “shall provide and maintain a Navy.” Ever since, politicians, naval leaders, and the broader public have debated the intent of that phrase, how to fulfill its requirements, and with what means to do so. In light of today’s national and international challenges, the nation must seize this moment to renew the debate.
Defining the Debate
President George Washington commissioned the Navy’s first six purpose-built frigates to defend U.S. interests, driven by a campaign for active commerce and an insistence on freedom of the seas. These ships served in a series of historic skirmishes and conflicts through the end of the Napoleonic era. But their authorization and building were not foregone conclusions. Rather, they were the subject of intense congressional debate, the terms of which have largely persisted: costs and benefits, honor, and politics. The first president to be a true navalist was James Madison, and his frigate captains used the products
of those debates to brilliant effect, establishing
in the War of 1812 the fighting heritage of the U.S. Navy.
The War of 1812 also forged U.S. popular thinking about naval warfare that would linger for many years. Following the Civil War, naval officers recognized new international factors that changed more than just the scale of what it meant to provide and maintain a navy and the role of oceans in U.S. national security, which drove the development of American sea power. Starting in the 1870s, as “manifest destiny” reached its culminating point, the eyes of the U.S. public turned increasingly to the oceans and the wealth promised by trade. This drove a new national policy, which in turn placed growing emphasis on strengthening the country’s ability to influence events beyond North America.
These changes in national attitude and policy stimulated a growing perception that the Navy would have to evolve into a new role. The October 1873 establishment of the U.S. Naval Institute and the 1884 founding of the Naval War College were the result of—and further stimulated—thinking on the new Navy. A new national role in the world, rapidly evolving technology, and a growing sense of professionalism within the Navy launched an explosion of deliberation and innovation. Most notably, these changes spurred Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan to compose his many works on naval power and amplified the effects of those works on U.S. and global maritime thinking.
The new international competition then unfolding resulted, for the United States, in the 1907–08 voyage of the Great White Fleet—conceived of by the great modern navalist President Theodore Roosevelt. He understood and built on the legacy of the six frigates. As a young man, he had written about the conceptual and fighting roles of the original six frigates in The Naval War of 1812, and he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy before resigning to lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.
The Great White Fleet symbolized the United States’ emerging role in the world, completing the Navy’s transition from a coastal-defense to a seagoing fighting force. The changes rested on the principles of U.S. naval strategy that were established and popularized, not just in the United States, but globally, by the Navy League, the Naval War College, and the U.S. Naval Institute. These organizations focused debate and provided a platform for the ideas of many naval thinkers, such as Stephen B. Luce, Alfred T. Mahan, William Sims, Dudley Knox, and others.
Mahan’s compelling depiction of the influence of sea power on history and its role in U.S. security reflected and reformed concepts of U.S. naval power and prosperity just as it was becoming apparent that the turn of the 20th century would be a historic inflection point. In this, Mahan and his Naval Institute contemporaries were looking over their shoulders at presumptions of both British and (especially) U.S. sea power; for, by the early 1900s, the need for a more muscular concept of national sea power had become self-evident to the American public and Congress.
The resulting agreement about the evolving role of sea power in the nation’s future emerged as a result of the dedicated effort of naval professionals. They established a template for contemplative action and open, substantive debate within and outside the naval profession, which provided the intellectual foundation on which U.S. naval power could prosper. Further, they understood that the Navy’s role was changing, based on the existing global environment and U.S. national policy. Their conclusion was that the Navy and Marine Corps must consider each era on its own terms but steeped in a firm understanding of the realities of geography and the time-tested principles of maritime power.
These theoretical and strategic concepts of naval power carried beyond the post–World War I naval holiday. Teddy Roosevelt’s fifth cousin Franklin, in the family tradition a navalist and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, built on these turn-of-the-century foundations. As President, Franklin Roosevelt collaborated with Representative Carl Vinson, Admiral William D. Leahy, Admiral Harold R. Stark, Admiral Ernest King, and others in conceiving, designing, and building what would become the two-ocean Navy of World War II.
Today’s circumstances are analogous to those that confronted the first meeting of the U.S. Naval Institute in 1873. The need to rethink naval strategy in the face of significant and rapidly changing national and global circumstances is manifest. China is challenging; Russia, Iran, and North Korea are troubling; Europe is divided; and the United States is conflicted but indisputably remains a maritime nation. The clear imperative, then, is to reflect on American naval power in the context of national strategy and diplomatic and military posture. In other words, as the world again goes through a period of geopolitical upheaval, how should the United States evaluate the Navy’s role in national strategy going forward?
The circumstances may resemble those of the late 19th century, but missing today are that era’s foregone conclusions about U.S. naval power. Those were taken for granted all the way through the end of the Cold War, when presumptions about American sea power were again called into question. The Navy fell victim to the “peace dividend” mind-set as much as political leaders and the public at large did. What ensued was a mix of diluted Navy authority resulting from the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act; Admiral Frank Kelso’s declaration in his Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing to be Chief of Naval Operations that the U.S. maritime strategy “was on the shelf”; the diversion of attention and funding toward land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and an unwarranted presumption that the Navy’s ability to unilaterally project power ashore was an American entitlement for all time. Worrying about preserving sea control appeared simply unnecessary.
In contrast with the resources available to the founders of the Naval Institute, it is not possible today simply to infer a U.S. naval strategy. The U.S. national geostrategic posture itself is at issue—and posture and strategy are inextricably linked. The Navy’s post–Civil War forebears did not simply argue for sea power in a vacuum; they built arguments for and articulated explicit concepts of American sea power in the face of changing national and international circumstances. To persuade politicians and the public to fund an expanded Navy demanded a cycle of reflection, conception, rationalization, and articulation. Then came the acquisition, experimentation, learning, and refinement that have been the Navy’s professional hallmarks.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, there has been little reflection regarding basic truths and therefore little against which to measure either change or progress. China seems to have recognized this absence and is capitalizing on it. As a result, current Navy assumptions, structures, and concepts notwithstanding, today’s U.S. navalists and strategists must conceive, rationalize, articulate, and rebuild compelling arguments before they can start to replan and rebuild the fleet.
Some of the answers to questions about Navy rationale, requirements, ways, and means lie in the past, just as they did for Mahan, because some facts are immutable and some challenges are timeless. One can sense today the same intellectual ferment that inspired Mahan and his contemporaries. To guide us, we have the same heritage of the young seafaring republic, and the key example of Civil War naval campaigns. The explosion of serious thought about naval power at the end of the 19th century and the iconic international debut of Teddy Roosevelt’s fleet also remain relevant. So, too, do Franklin D. Roosevelt’s maneuverings to build public and congressional support for what became the precursor of “the transoceanic Navy.” Samuel Huntington coined this phrase in a pivotal 1954 Proceedings article, explaining the need for the Navy to reassert its transcendent position, given how the U.S. national security posture had changed during World War II and afterward with the onset of the Cold War.
The first order of business must be a theoretical and strategic review of and for the Sea Services.
Today’s fundamental changes are driven in large part by the emergence of peer competitors and new technologies that redefine relative strength and capability. For the first time in a generation, broad shifts in the geopolitical landscape, global economics, society, and—most significant—the role of military power are accelerating changes in the character of war. These presage a whole new strategic planning and operational-technical environment for the Sea Services. Absent a theoretical framework—and a thorough understanding of its historical foundation—U.S. naval planning will remain adrift.
The American Sea Power Project begins at square one. The fundamental premises and knowledge of history that guided development of the Navy, especially from 1873 to the end of the Cold War, must be restated and proven anew to be relevant in light of today’s challenges. New ideas about the role of the Sea Services (or old ideas reaffirmed) have to be proposed, refined, and engaged inside the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. Subsequently, these initial concepts and expressions of purpose will have to be vetted in public. A virtuous cycle must follow, an iterative process of testing conclusions and building consensus—to place before the public the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to win its assent. Only in this way will Congress and the American people arrive at an understanding that will support the necessary political and budgetary measures going forward.
It will do to keep China in mind, of course, while parsing what is shaping up to be a U.S. choice among global liberalism, defensive realism, and proactive realism, and whether the idea and reality of transoceanic American sea power will endure.1 Such complex choices require open discussion, specifically debate that illuminates the salient issues, subjects them to analysis and decision, and thereby sharpens ideas. In short, it will be for the debates to work out these choices and their implications. If the past is any guide, national strategies and policies will shape the outcome and then be reshaped by it.
The Naval Institute’s American Sea Power Project will largely unfold in the pages of Proceedings. An initial yearlong effort is now under way, focusing on the “ends” part of the “ends, ways, and means” framework. With the exception of the March International Navies issue, each 2021 issue will contain a section dedicated to the debate, including a lead article and associated comment and discussion. It is hoped that these initial essays and comments will spur a wide debate within the naval profession, the government, and the public. The project will also feature a “page-to-stage” program, where panels of authors and commentators will debate the issues presented.
Following the initial year of “ends” essays, the Institute plans to launch subsequent segments addressing the “ways” and “means” aspects of American sea power, each building on its predecessor.
This program underscores the Naval Institute’s sense of the critical times in which we live. Fundamental change is occurring, and dealing rapidly and effectively with that change requires a firm footing. The Naval Institute American Sea Power Project hopes to inform strategy, planning, and procurement within the Sea Services and the government and build public support for the continued role of maritime power for the United States.
Coming Next Month
“Great Responsibility Demands a Great Navy” by James Holmes
1. Global liberalism gives priority to a free and open international system that deals with China as a “responsible stakeholder” and partner, downplaying competition and precluding direct conflict. Defensive realism presumes no direct U.S. interests worth fighting for are at stake in peer competitions; U.S. forces come home, and the United States returns to a more constrained role as an offshore balancer. Proactive realism affirms peer competition and reaffirms the Cold War transoceanic national strategic posture; U.S. political, economic, and military resources are deployed “over there” to oppose the rise of powers inimical to U.S. interests.