When we set out to frame the American Sea Power Project in the summer of 2020, we took an unabashedly Mahanian perspective—that maritime power is the single greatest determinant of geopolitical power. We understood from the outset that this thesis had been largely forgotten, and that where it was remembered, it was both derided and rejected. Working from this point of view, and recognizing that appreciation for and application of maritime power are cyclical and that we were in a current trough, we proceeded based on the judgment that the American people, the Congress, the White House, navalists, and the Navy itself needed to be reminded of the primary relevance of sea power.
We understood that the United States in general, and the Sea Services specifically, had a lot of catching up to do to get back to the point where they could deal with the exigencies of revived great power competition. What we did not grasp in planning this series was how far behind events the Sea Services were, that the pigeons of post–Cold War sea power neglect were coming home to roost, and just how timely this project would be. That this is so should be self-evident, at least to readers of Proceedings. Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to reshape the world order to his liking, no matter how one interprets Mahan and the geostrategic influence of sea power, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are going to play an outsize role in coming events one way or the other, either proactively and as strategic resources of the highest order, or indecisively as a reflection of continued underinvestment or misuse.
In a recent interview on The John Batchelor Show, Kori Schake, an earlier author in this series, described the high stakes and made a point about U.S. geopolitical power that should resonate with Proceedings readers.1 In response to a question regarding current events, she said, “If the Russians actually invade (Ukraine), . . . it will be the collapse of the post–World War II security order.” We argue that Vladimir Putin’s ambitions—and those of Chinese President Xi Jinping—are a clear sign that the liberal international order already has collapsed, hence this vital review of the purposes—the ends—of American sea power.
With this in mind, we set out to reintroduce the subject of American sea power from its first principles, in a multiyear series organized on the basis of ends, ways, and means. The United States is in a period of increasingly apparent and intensifying great power competition, and China’s challenge is the first and foremost planning case.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s nationalistic bellicosity are reminders of how little has changed in geopolitics, underscoring the timelessness of sea power and the need to understand its value to U.S. and global security.
The articles so far in this series, as well as those pending, are shaping up as a primer for commanders, political leaders, and a concerned public on how the U.S. Navy can respond to and control world developments. If we have lost a step in forgetting, reducing, and diluting American sea power since the end of the Cold War, then this review, in its building to prescriptions, will provide the substance for decisions, strategies, and acquisitions that are as well-informed as possible while taking into account the daunting effects of intervening changes.
The first article in this series laid out the continuity of U.S. thinking about sea power since before the founding of the Republic, and that perspective changed with circumstance and challenge. The article described the need for consistent public support for sea power, which has at key times been amplified and directed through a succession of great American navalists, often occupants of the White House. The culmination of the Cold War and the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, however, preceded what in effect was a collapse of perception and support, a break in continuity with serious consequences. A few political cycles ago, a presidential candidate was practically laughed off the debate stage when he suggested support for the Navy. The conclusion is that the United States finds itself back at “square one” regarding the consideration, planning, operations, and strategy of naval power. After the Cold War, maritime strategy should have been directed to the proposition that never again would the United States allow itself to be in such mortal danger. That course was not taken, however, and now the nation is in the unenviable position of having to review before it rebuilds.
Naval War College Professor James Holmes always can be depended on to clarify complex maritime issues. In this article, he argues, “The responsibilities the United States has taken on require it to build a Navy capable of managing them.” Given that “there is more to American sea power than guarding home waters and protecting overseas trade and commerce,” it is necessary to “build and oversee alliances” and to “preach the gospel of sea power.” Doing so requires advocates for the Navy in high places, the last distinct example being President Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Nicholas Lambert got to the heart of “the ends” of a Navy in this article: “To develop the right kind of fleet, the nation needs to understand the navy’s purpose.” A Mahanian of the first order, Dr. Lambert points out that the Navy grappled more than a century ago with circumstances similar to those it faces now. His close exegesis of Mahan’s writings may have overturned the popular conception of Mahan as a combat battlefleet man. Rather, writes Lambert, Mahan, especially in his later writings, made a compelling case for a broader economic perspective. In fact, “Mahan became a pioneering thinker about the importance of naval power in a globalized world economy.” He focused on “the role of naval power in facilitating—or deranging—international trade.”
In his article, Dr. Seth Cropsey described the China challenge forcing a reconsideration of American sea power:
If China succeeds, the consequences will be immense: The rules-based international order of human rights, free enterprise, protections for territorial sovereignty, and freedom of navigation would be supplanted by a boundless tyranny enabled by surveillance, military power, and, in the end, global servitude.
Dr. Cropsey put our present predicament in perspective. “When the structure of power unravels, cultural and legal restraints dissolve as well.” Tracing history from Rome to the British Empire, he concluded that naval power undergirded U.S. post–World War II international policy, and made the strong case for enlightened leadership such as provided by Franklin Roosevelt:
Without similarly enlightened leadership in the executive and legislative branches now and in the future, the United States can count on being unprepared for an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world.
In short, Dr. Cropsey points out, the maritime power of a powerful and self-confident United States stands in the way of disaster.
In June, Naval War College Professor John Maurer made the case for Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett as being as relevant today as ever. Several points are particularly applicable.
First, Maurer quoted Mahan arguing strongly against the commerce raiding theories emerging from France just when the United States was rebuilding its Navy:
because such a minimalist approach could not prove decisive against a country in possession of the “two requisites of a strong sea power, a wide-spread healthy commerce and a powerful navy.”
Then Maurer quoted the world’s current leading proponent of Mahan, China’s Xi Jinping, whose public pronouncements and commitment to building a “world-class navy” leave little to the imagination:
History and experience tell us that a country will rise if it commands the oceans well and will fall if it surrenders them. A powerful state possesses durable sea rights, and a weak state has vulnerable sea rights. . . . We must adhere to a development path of becoming a rich and powerful state by making use of the sea.
At the same time, “While Mahan is read in China, his writings have been dropped from the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program. Nowadays, it seems that Mahan is a prophet not honored by his own country’s navy.”
In her treatment of the aftermath of the Washington Naval Treaties of 1922, Kori Schake parsed the effects of subsequent interwar innovation among the primary naval competitors of the time—Britain, Japan, and the United States. She concluded that the Royal Navy was found wanting. In contrast, she pointed out (quoting Williamson Murray) that U.S. success “rested on serious intellectual effort that came to grips with intractable problems,” and that the very strictures of the Washington treaties “created a general atmosphere of innovation” in the Navy.
Pointing to the disruption of the core naval competencies of Japan, Britain, and the United States, Dr. Schake argued that in attempting to preserve their core competencies, “successful organizations struggle to innovate because innovation requires challenging the culture that made for success.”
Naval War College Professor S. C. M. Paine argued that maritime powers compound wealth: “Since the Industrial Revolution, the currency of international power has shifted from land to commerce” she wrote, and “the old system destroyed wealth; the new one creates it.”
Recalling Nicholas Spykman, Professor Paine concluded, “In other words, U.S. security was a function of sea power.” And she argued that this maritime world view—“the sea-power appetite for global access”—drove the key role of the United States in “the global transition from empires to a maritime, rules-based
As we have pointed out from the outset and as author Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong reiterated, American naval dominance has occurred only briefly (during World War II) and largely has been untested since.
Professor Armstrong pointed out that Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 11, assumed the necessity of American sea power in its relation to the protection of commerce.
Federalist No. 11, Armstrong argued, laid the foundation of U.S. naval power: “The link between naval power and economic power, a navy’s vital contribution to managing a world of competing great powers, and the Navy’s beneficial relationship with the American people.”
But Professor Armstrong reminded us that:
the relationship between the American people and their Navy remains at the heart of how these first two elements are pursued. Hamilton recognized that, in a democracy, the size and shape of a naval force depend on the people and their elected representatives.
U.S. domestic political support has not remained constant. Historian Craig Symonds’ has called it the “sine wave of U.S. naval power.” Professor Armstrong concludes with a powerful prescription that speaks to the gap that rationalizes the American Sea Power Project:
The Navy as an institution and naval officers as citizens have a responsibility to talk about naval policy and maritime strategy with the people whom they serve. They have a responsibility to think deeply about naval strategy and national policy and . . . be able to communicate that effectively to their fellow citizens. . . . American naval dominance is not a birthright or anything strategists and policymakers can assume. American naval dominance is a choice.
Princeton Professor Aaron Friedberg lays out the stakes ahead in the Indo-Pacific and why, underscoring the present “Cold War with Chinese characteristics” circumstances:
Geopolitically, the United States finds itself. . . trying to rally a coalition of mostly democratic nations along the Eurasian periphery to counterbalance the growing strength of an aggressive, authoritarian, continental power.
It is a classic security dilemma: “The United States and its regional partners believe preserving the status quo is essential to their security; China’s leaders are equally convinced the survival of their party and nation depends on its revision.”
Friedberg points out that U.S. “military professionals have, for the most part, been notably silent,” and “To judge by official statements, it is not yet clear how the United States and its allies and partners propose to deal with these . . . challenges. While some parts of a possible countervailing strategy have been discussed and seem to have gained widespread acceptance, important questions remain (publicly) unanswered.”
Trent Hone stipulated that because the
Navy had enjoyed unchallenged command of the seas for more than two decades after the Cold War, it had become complacent. The Navy must, however, embrace the importance of sea control and command of the sea to reach their full potential.
Harkening back to Mahan, Mr. Hone argues, “Command of the sea allows a nation’s ships, goods, commerce, and military forces to move around the globe at will. Without the ability to fight for sea control, nations are relegated to ‘a passive role’ and become ‘consumers’ of the global order rather than drivers of it.”
Hone also criticized the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, saying since its inception, “the U.S. Navy has found it difficult to craft a comprehensive strategy,” and that “the adoption of a particular vision of ‘jointness,’ one that divides the the world into regional combatant commands and allocates naval forces to them, has obscured the centrality of command of the sea . . .”
The Honorable Robert Work and retired Navy Captain Robert Rubel both took exception with the way the Navy and the joint force conduct business. Secretary Work wrote, “The forward presence mission is taking a toll on the fleet and the force.” He underscored the conundrum of contemporary U.S. naval forward presence: expensive and generally modest of public profile (and therefore without champions); crucial enough that the demand signal far exceeds what is . . . practicable; subject to numerous and varied requirements levied by regional [CoComs] without reference to any useful overarching—and shaping—maritime strategy; and lacking an effective . . . spokesman able to make the case for sufficient resources versus unpalatable alternatives.
Secretary Work argued for simplicity:
By adopting a strategic concept that simplifies the duties and business of every officer and sailor to prepare for war, the U.S. Navy can gain a common purpose, correct its material deficiencies, enter a new era of realistic and demanding unit and fleet training, regain its warfighting mojo, and deter any potential adversary thinking about testing its mettle.
In a similar vein, Captain Rubel noted, “. . . 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.” As a remedy, he argued for a new layer of command and control within the Office of the Secretary of Defense that would “possess a form of of the authority invested in Fleet Admiral Ernest King in World War II . . .”
In this article, the Honorable John Lehman reminds us that the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s was the guiding document behind not just a 600-ship force-sizing construct but also aggressive forward-deployment of naval forces to the edges of the Soviet empire. His article tracks how the Navy recovered and rebuilt after the Vietnam War.
This is a good story, well told. Secretary Lehman’s 10 epic closing points on how the Navy recovered, rebuilt, and improved (in quantity and quality) to be the dominant Navy by the end of the 1980s come at just the right time for those charged with the present challenges 40 years on.
Dr. Thomas Mahnken pulled no punches in addressing China’s challenge:
The United States today suffers from a critical deficit in strategic thinking about . . . the rise of China and the threat it poses to U.S. interests. Addressing that deficit is a matter of the utmost importance and urgency.
He pointed out that “any strategy for competing with China in the western Pacific will, by definition, be a maritime strategy: Actions in, through, and from the seas will play a central role.” And he declared unequivocally:
Under Xi Jinping, the [Chinese Communist Party] has set about making the world safe for authoritarianism and . . . a Sino-centric alternative to the liberal international order. In this model, the hallmark of U.S. global leadership—an open system of free trade and cooperative security . . . would succumb to a closed system in which transactional dealings with Beijing determine the fates of nations.
Dr. Mahnken’s prescription is a maritime strategy to deal with China using two mutually supporting elements:
Together, inside and outside forces should allow the U.S. military, in conjunction with allies and partners, to create the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration. That is, arraying forces across the geographic breadth and depth of the theater in a way that balances lethality and survivability.
What Comes Next?
Having established the “ends,” these initial articles lead to the second portion of this project—the “ways” of sea power. In the coming months, this series will focus on how to use sea power: where, when, for how long, with whom, etc. We are consciously withholding consideration of the “with what?”—the “means”—until we have covered its ends and ways.
In the past year, a number of Proceedings authors have asked, “How can I contribute to the project?” Here is your chance. In addition to soliciting articles from noted experts, we are now inviting contributions to complement each topic. This will allow us to expand the discussion going forward. Each monthly (print) issue will still have one American Sea Power Project article, but we will publish more articles online. If you are interested in writing an article, you can email a Word document (not to exceed 2,500 words) to [email protected] and put “American Sea Power Project” in the subject line. And for shorter comments on articles, please send emails (not to exceed 500 words) to [email protected].
The journey continues.
1. Kori Schake, “2/2: #Ukraine: The Insular Presidency & What is to be done?” The John Batchelor Show podcast, 14 February 2022.