What is a Navy for?
Dr. Lambert very properly connects sea power to the economic values of globalization, but there is much more. The renaissance of the U.S. Navy in the late 19th Century was driven by a national strategic shift. The United States had suffered sea-based attacks from the major European powers, and the Europeans had come close to intervening in the Civil War.
The key realization of the late 1880s became essential to understanding sea power more generally: The sea is the greatest of all highways. The map may show that Europe is 3,000 miles from the United States, but in terms of transportation, it is closer to the East Coast than, say, Chicago. Air transportation obscures this reality for people moving great distances, but not for freight—or for invaders. In the 1880s, the advent of steam power made invasion by sea easier. The United States would have been a rich prize, with big cities open to invasion by increasingly rapacious European powers. Looking back, that may seem ludicrous. Who would simply assault a large rich country just because it was defenseless? But in 1889 the world was a few years from exactly that sort of attack, when Japan invaded China. We may look back at Imperial China as a declining power ripe for the plucking, but, at the time, it looked like an enormously wealthy empire with ridiculously weak defenses at which better-armed foreigners had been nibbling for years.
For the United States, protection could come only from better coastal defenses or a fleet that could deter attack by giving the country the potential to meet any enemy on its own home ground. In 1889, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy convened some forward-thinking naval officers, who showed that the better alternative was forward defense. Their report was published in Proceedings. It was the basis for building a U.S. battlefleet, which at the time was the necessary means of supporting forward operations.
Forward defense remains the basis of U.S. national strategy. We protect our friends abroad, and we sometimes attack enemies abroad, all because we would rather not fight at home. The 9/11 attacks were a severe shock because it seemed problems abroad had come home. U.S. forces fought in the Middle East in hopes of settling the issues that had fomented the attacks.
The United States has become the center of a global commonwealth of like-minded countries. We benefit enormously from that commonwealth, which helps maintain prosperity thanks in part to the free use of the sea. Other members help us because they know that we can come to their aid—largely by sea.
We often forget these points because we have benefited for so long from having the world’s most powerful navy. We have taken for granted what that supremacy has bought us. Now, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we see a viable challenger on the far side of the Pacific. We stand to lose a great deal, as a nation, if we forget how much successful sea power is worth to us.
I laud the Naval Institute and the American Sea Power Project for invigorating the debate on Maritime Strategy. As it has been since 1873, Proceedings is the perfect forum to host this critical discussion.
I enjoyed Dr. Lambert’s contribution. His candid statement that “Today’s Navy requires two things above all else: clear vision and money” is absolutely spot on. Likewise, he is correct in asserting that our Navy knows how to fight. As a fleet commander, I had the privilege of observing our magnificent sailors operate incredibly complex platforms in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Baltic and Black Seas, and Gulf of Guinea. When our ships leave the pier to deploy, they are ready to fight if called on to do so. We train our sailors to fight to win, but—more important—to win without fighting.
Deterrence is one of the Navy’s most important missions, and it has become more complex over time. Deterrence was crystal clear during the Cold War with two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—and two blocs—NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It was a bipolar world, and China was hardly in the picture, let alone the threat from Iran, North Korea or violent extremist organizations. For a midshipman or a junior officer, understanding the threat and how to deter or defeat it was simpler. For example, recognition training of the enemy order of battle could be contained in a deck of flashcards focused on the Soviet Armed Forces.
Today, our Navy faces a multitude of new threats not so easily contained in a single deck: manned platforms masquerading as merchant shipping and unmanned platforms that complicate targeting and the rules of engagement. Hypersonic weapons reduce reaction time and increase standoff range. Cyber warfare exploits vulnerabilities in command-and-control networks.
The amount of information flowing into our networks is staggering, and we struggle with processing, evaluation, and dissemination. We must determine the right mix of manned and unmanned systems facilitated by artificial intelligence. The limitation on resources puts pressure on naval leaders to maintain the readiness of legacy systems while taking risk to migrate into new frontiers of autonomous platforms.
In his landmark essay “National Policy and the Transoceanic Navy,” Samuel Huntington wrote that the maritime service must have a strategic concept to gain public (taxpayer) support, and as the world evolves, the service must adapt its organizational structure to the new mission. Timeless advice…
With the challenges the country faces in its industrial base and long-term acquisition strategies, designing a Navy with the right capacity and capability to fight to win but win without fighting is quite a task. Our civilian and uniformed Navy leaders are on the right track and doing a good job. The latest triservice maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea, is a good start.
It is worth remembering, as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, that the Navy and Marine Corps were the first to battle stations. Strikes against al Qaeda in Afghanistan occurred just a few days later from the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise (CVN-65) and Carl Vinson (CVN-70). Our naval forces offer immediate response capabilities unmatched by any other service.
But today’s threats today are more diffuse and opaque. We now operate in five, not three domains of warfare. While maintaining sufficient power projection capability in a resource-constrained environment, we might have to reduce legacy systems while investing in unmanned platforms and artificial intelligence to deter and defend in future conflicts. Knowing this, our alliances and partnerships become essential force multipliers, something we see playing out with the revitalized “Quad” organization (India, Japan, Australia, and the United States) in the Indo-Pacific today. As our current strategy notes, allies and partners will be critical to ensuring our Navy’s enduring ability to uphold our core interests around the globe.
—ADM James Foggo, USN (Ret.)
Dr. Lambert’s article is valuable on two levels: distilling Alfred Thayer Mahan’s universally cited but very seldom read 1890 treatise and reminding us that “all navies are local.” Citizens should be aware that sea power—so often taken for granted—works in both directions. It allows U.S. manufacturers to reach foreign markets while allowing foreign goods to be stocked on our shelves.
He touches on a couple of points that I noted in my 2009 article, “Fear and Loathing in the Post-Naval Era.” At that time, the Navy was again on the chopping block with an antimilitary mind-set in the administration and across much of the country. I asked, rhetorically, “Why do we have such a large navy when we hardly ever use it?” “We the people” tend to give the Navy little thought, yet we “use” it frequently, maintaining freedom of navigation (read: commerce) where necessary.
The lingering problem I noted was educating and/or convincing the taxpayers that their funds are justified (even if sometimes squandered on projects such as the littoral combat ship, F-35, and others). And therein lies much of the challenge: offsetting the litany of boondoggles with reminders of the real benefits of the Navy. Dr. Lambert’s fine exposition merits wider distribution.