Previous American Sea Power Project authors have constructed solid arguments for the United States to maintain a strong Navy. Calling on the classic writings of Alfred T. Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, they raise the central theme that sea power influences a nation’s ability to secure trade, increase national wealth, ensure national security, and therefore catalyze national power.1 These are the ultimate “ends” of a national strategy. The maritime “ways” (within the ends, ways, and means of a strategic construct) are the connective tissue—the “how”—between what a nation wants to achieve, and the ships, aircraft, weapons, and personnel required. Ends, ways, and means are symbiotic in nature, meaning a fleet’s composition and capacity enable choices for its operational employment, and therefore directly impact the strategic objectives a nation can achieve in the maritime domain. Likewise, setting new national objectives will influence a nation’s investments in fleet composition and capacity, which will open new choices for its employment.
Classic writers, including Mahan and Corbett, and more recent authors, such as Bernard Brodie, Frank Uhlig, and Wayne Hughes, all address the importance of sea power, but they also discuss the fleet’s operational employment to influence the international stage in peacetime and war. Fundamental to their thinking is the ocean’s advantage over other domains in moving combat power and commerce in terms of speed and capacity. Hughes captures this in his two great operational constants of maneuver and efficiency of movement.2 Warships and merchants alike can move between 400 and 500 nautical miles a day, much faster than land forces. And, while not as fast as air transport, they have many times more lift capacity and self-sustaining combat power.
A cautionary note, however: Under current and projected budget levels, the U.S. Navy’s practice of buying mostly expensive, multimission warships that take years to build—and in case of conflict, years to replace—generates a smaller fleet. This limits options to employ the fleet in both peace and war. Put another way, combat potential at any objective is a function of a ready force’s capacity and capability, the logistics to deliver and sustain that force, time to deliver the force, and distance to the objective. Decisions on what, when, and where to place naval forces under these constraints are the essence of operational art. Naval leaders rarely get to pick the time and distance to meet operational demands, but investments in combat and logistics capabilities and capacities are choices the Department of Defense and Congress get to make, and current choices in these strategic “means” are limiting the operational options of the Navy and Marine Corps.
The following sections look at the classic operational “ways” of employing naval power. Each is followed by a brief assessment of the U.S. Navy’s current force structure to accomplish these employment options, with highlights on constraints.
A Fleet’s Operational ‘Ways’
In his book How Navies Fight, Frank Uhlig categorizes the “ways” of naval warfare in five bins:3
• Strategic movement and support of armies and air forces
• Acquisition of advanced bases
• Landing forces on a hostile shore
• Conducting blockades
• Mastering the local sea
Captain Wayne Hughes described four tasks of naval operations:
• Ensuring the safety of friendly goods and services in the maritime domain
• Denying adversaries maneuver by the seas in war, and pirates in peace
• Delivering goods and services to the shore: from air strikes and amphibious operations to disaster assistance
• Preventing enemy delivery of goods and services 4
In short, a nation’s navy can influence the maritime domain by enabling its use for transportation and delivery of “goods”—commerce, Marines, or bombs—or denying its use to others. It can do this by defeating an enemy fleet; “bottling up” an enemy fleet through close and distant blockades; restricting an enemy fleet from obtaining general sea control by a “fleet in being”; taking critical shore territory for bases to control sea passage near that territory; and/or intercepting adversaries’ commercial trade and military logistics ships. In a competitive environment, these wartime missions may be demonstrated as deterrence measures, while constabulary duties are undertaken to ensure access to the maritime domain. Maritime security missions, such as fisheries enforcement, counterpiracy operations, counterterrorist operations, freedom of navigation, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, strengthen relations with allies and demonstrate commitment to important contested regions. These fleet activities—or ways—can be summarized in categories of fleet-on-fleet, fleet-vs.-shore, fleet-vs.-trade, and fleet in an era of maritime competition.
Fleet on Fleet
Using a fleet against another fleet to influence sea lines of communication is traditionally binned in three categories: decisive sea battle, blockade, and fleet-in-being. The battles of Midway, Tsushima, and Trafalgar are all classic examples of fleet-on-fleet sea battles denying adversaries’ operational plans or settling the dispute on which side had the sea’s advantage throughout the rest of the war. To these decisive battles, the cumulative effects of a series of individual battles across an extended campaign between fleets can be added. In conflicts such as World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic and the Guadalcanal Campaign’s sea battles, a series of individual engagements between portions of each fleet created the compounding effects for eventual victory. In these cumulative campaigns, a fleet’s resilience, responsiveness, and recovery abilities weigh as heavily as the ability to mass fires in a single engagement.
A blockade may constrain an adversary’s fleet or commerce and may be executed either close or at a distance. The English close blockade of Brest during the Napoleonic Wars is one example. This blockade’s primary purpose was to prevent the French fleet from supporting a British Isles invasion by confining French ships to their base. Bernard Brodie argues, however, that the last close blockade against a fleet was employed by the Japanese against the Russians at Port Arthur in 1905.5 Today, the advent of advanced mines, fast-attack craft, shore-based antiship missiles, and aerial bombing present too much risk to a close surface blockading fleet.6 This was recently demonstrated by Russia’s loss of the cruiser Moskva and hits on other Russian naval vessels in the Black Sea by shore-based Ukrainian forces. A robust undersea force may create close fleet blockade effects with less risk by employing submarine barrier patrols or advanced minefields—given sufficient inventories of both. The concept of exercising a distant fleet blockade, although less effective, is proposed by some as a maritime war strategy today.7 A distant blockade is executed by denying an adversary’s fleet and commercial ships access through geographic choke points or into trading ports.
The concept of a fleet-in-being as a maritime strategy has been a topic of considerable historical debate among naval strategists.8 In the late 1800s, Philip Colomb suggested that, by its existence, an inferior fleet may serve as a deterrent for a stronger fleet’s invasion designs.9 Sir Julian Corbett broadens this view to say any active fleet avoiding destruction will tie up an adversary’s maritime resources and constrain them from achieving complete command of the seas—that is, limiting options for invasion and intercepting commerce.10 Prior to the Battle of Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet constrained the Royal Navy Grand Fleet’s movement to the North Sea by acting as a fleet-in-being. Even proponents, however, admit that a fleet-in-being is a defensive strategy to place risk on a stronger opponent. The best effect achievable through a fleet-in-being is anchoring an adversary’s maritime power to gain relative superiority at some other objective and in another domain.
Analysis Of U.S. Naval Forces’ Fleet-On-Fleet Capability
In a mid-Pacific decisive at-sea battle involving only the combatants’ sea-based aircraft, ships, and submarines in a massive salvo exchange, the U.S. Navy would likely be the victor over the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). But even in such conditions, it might be a pyrrhic victory as U.S. losses probably could not be reconstituted as rapidly as China’s.
One might argue then that the United States should seek smaller engagements in key locations across a longer time horizon and geographic spectrum to find local advantage. This implies a cumulative and distributed strategy, which challenges the limited capacity of the current U.S. fleet’s platforms, weapons, logistics support, and repair facilities.
Employing a distant blockade or bottling up an adversary’s navy is sometimes proposed as a maritime strategy today. Restricting PLAN movements to within the first island chain by using U.S. Marines and special forces to provide targeting data for their own and longer-range missile platforms, while additional U.S. Navy ships simultaneously patrol key international straits and passages, is within current U.S. capabilities. This option, however, implies a long-term stalemate in which the waters inside the first island chain become a no-man’s land and the strategic objective is to provide time for a peace agreement.11 It also implies Taiwan cannot be defended by the current U.S. fleet alone. In addition, for such a campaign, rotational U.S. forces would be needed in numbers sufficient to sustain the level of risk desired against the Chinese fleet—which could play a fleet-in-being waiting game.
The U.S. Navy’s current size and capabilities will allow it to serve as a fleet-in-being by restricting an adversary’s actions within range of U.S. bases. This operational scheme can be employed to shape time and place of tactical engagements by using some fleet elements for deception, but force-wide it is a defensive strategy—and one that historically forecasts a nation’s maritime power descendancy. It also is not a strategy that would deter Chinese military action inside the first island chain. The mere existence of U.S. naval forces in San Diego or even Hawaii will have little effect on Beijing’s calculus towards Taiwan—those forces must credibly be able to deploy and fight in the western Pacific.
Fleet vs. Shore
The seven-month World War II battle for Guadalcanal is a superb example of fleets battling each other and shore forces to achieve advanced bases from which to further project maritime and air power. The July 1942 discovery of Japanese airfield construction on Guadalcanal refocused and accelerated the planning for Operation Watchtower. Watchtower’s original objective was to obtain a base on Tulagi to protect the U.S.–Australia lifeline and be the genesis for a drive up the Solomons to Rabaul. Japanese airfield construction on Guadalcanal mirrored this strategy by threatening interdiction of U.S.-Australian logistics by Japanese bombers. As a result, Guadalcanal was added as an operational objective. On 7 August 1942, General Vandegrift’s Marines landed on Guadalcanal and began a series of battles involving every combination of sea, shore, and air forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Gavutu, and surrounding seas before U.S. forces obtained control of the area.12 The follow-on Pacific battles, including Leyte and Okinawa, are further examples of fleets battling shore lodgments to establish forward basing. Given the geography of the first and second island chains, a war with China over Taiwan would require similar operations.13
Assessment: U.S. Naval Forces’ Fleet-Vs.-Shore Capability
Forward-based forces that support fleet operations and influence the maritime littoral continue to be relevant. Aircraft and shore-based antiship cruise and ballistic missiles provide sea-denial capabilities while extending the fleet’s reach in critical areas of the world. The U.S. Marine Corps’ stand-in-forces concept reflects this objective. China’s recent efforts to establish a political lodgment in the Solomon Islands, along U.S.–Australian sea lines of communication, reminds us that the “geography” in “geo-political” is still strategically relevant.
Possessing a forward base, however, also carries the need to exercise some level of sea control to maintain its viability. In this way, forward bases and the fleet must be mutually supporting, both in their offensive missions and in logistics support. In addition, China’s land-based bombers, submarines, and long-range land-based anti-ship and land-attack missiles place most U.S. naval power projection assets inside the first island chain at risk—in some cases beyond the first island chain. They also challenge U.S. forces’ ability to maintain even temporal sea control east of the first island chain. In plain words, PLA capabilities challenge U.S. logistics lines to support forces in the first island chain. In a conflict, the current surface and aviation fleet may be consumed with traditional convoy protection and theater ASW providing at least temporal projection for mid- and western Pacific sea lines of communication. For these missions U.S. multimission combatant ships and carrier forces are well prepared. However, more distributed, lower-signature at-sea logistics capacity is needed to support them and Marine Corps stand-in forces.
Fleet vs. Trade
Intercepting an adversary’s merchant ships, naval logistics ships, and/or naval amphibious ships are ways of denying the maritime domain as a venue for the delivery of goods and services. The objective is to prevent an enemy from supporting military forces abroad or maintaining a wartime economy. During periods of increased tensions and war, these actions can be a fleet’s contribution to a larger national strategy of disconnecting an adversary’s economy from global trade. During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy’s blockade against the Confederacy prevented trade with Europe (mostly cotton exports) and helped starve the Confederate economy of financial resources, thus denying it the ability to purchase weapons.
In World War II, both Germany and the United States employed submarine warfare to intercept and sink adversary merchant and logistics ships, challenging Allied and Japanese logistics respectively. At the start of the Russia-Ukraine War, the Russian Black Sea Fleet blockaded Ukrainian merchant ships, severely affecting the Ukrainian economy and denying their customers grain and other exports.14 By attacking or blockading trade, navies make physical contributions to national economic warfare.
Assessment: U.S. Naval Forces’ Fleet-Vs.-Trade Capability
Similar to the fleet-vs.-fleet distant blockade option, U.S. naval forces have the capability to intercept adversaries’ naval logistics and civilian trade vessels worldwide and deny critical seaways and port access. Such actions imply a long-term cumulative strategy to achieve a favorable peace settlement while lessening the risk to engaged naval forces. Fleet-vs.-trade is a longer-term strategy, designed to slowly choke the enemy’s economy. It would require more ships than the U.S. Navy currently possesses. For example, 253 U.S. submarines and many minefields were used in the Pacific in World War II to engage the Japanese fleet, logistics, and trade.15 With less than a fifth that number of submarines for global operations today, and a truncated mining capability, the U.S. Navy’s capacity to conduct trade interdiction operations is limited.
Fleet in an Era of Maritime Competition
The world’s oceans are a maritime common and a common border among maritime nations. These domain features empower navies to contribute to the diplomatic and economic elements of national power as no other military service. Enforcing international norms; combating piracy and maritime terrorism; providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; sustaining forward presence; and acting as vehicles of diplomatic overtures are how navies are employed in a competitive era (short of war) for political ends. Navies can be a national signal of a helpful hand extended, or a fist displayed, and employed at whatever scale the nation desires and fleet architecture allows. With fewer than 300 ships in its Navy today, the United States must be very selective about when and where it engages and the commitments it makes. Ship count alone constrains the U.S. Navy’s forward presence operations for engagement, assurance, patrol, and deterrence, which brings us back to fleet composition, how it defines the options for fleet employment, and what can be done about it.
A Fleet at Risk?
Former Navy Secretary John Lehman’s January 2022 article warns us that the current U.S. naval force architecture is too small, procurement insufficient, and national will ill-informed to meet the demands of the current geo-political environment.16 Put in terms of distributed maritime operations, the U.S. carrier strike group–centric fleet architecture was not designed to distribute force in contested waters, which limits the ways in which the U.S. Navy can meet the national strategy in competition or war. This constrains strategic choices for engaging allies, deterring adversaries, and conducting war.
Options for fighting a close blockade are constrained by the number of ships, submarines, and mines in the fleet. A distant blockade option is limited by the number of combatants that are deployable and sustainable worldwide. Solutions to these problems call for either greater investment in U.S. naval forces (spending more to get more) or a new and novel force architecture featuring advanced smaller, cheaper, and more numerous platforms and weapons. The ability to disperse greater numbers of naval forces generates more options for force employment—in other words, more “ways” to use the fleet.
This is the rationale behind a bimodal fleet construct of a sea-control force and a sea-denial force to “buy back” operational employment options.17 Bimodal is not a “high-low” mix, but really two different naval forces. The first conducts forward presence and shaping, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and protection (or interdiction) of strategic sea lines of communication during times of conflict. The current surface and aviation force structure of multimission platforms represents the sea-control force capable of defending logistic lines. These expensive platforms are best employed in defense of the logistics lines that will sustain more forward forces, particularly in the initial phases of a conflict. The other fleet is a multidomain, manned and unmanned sea-denial fleet that will operate in highly contested littorals, critical sea passages, and inside an adversary’s weapons engagement zone. This fleet is composed of many, less expensive, but still lethal platforms.
The sea-denial force composition is based on independent, local reconnaissance strike networks that can exercise denial operations in specific regions, making it scalable and resilient. Picture distributed naval forces, stealthy manned and unmanned platforms connected in kill webs, with the ability to share targeting data and fire off other platforms’ targeting solutions. An unmanned aerial vehicle that detects an enemy surface contact and shares that firing solution with a Marine Corps NMESIS battery is an example.
A bimodal fleet delivers more kinetic and nonkinetic delivery platforms that use information and robotic technologies, thus expanding the ability to employ all operational “ways” in competition and war.18 The forward sea-denial fleet will be integrated with stand-in forces (both U.S. and allied) in conflict, and it will provide integration opportunities with maritime security partners in the competition phase. There are risks in moving to such a fleet construct too quickly, yet there is greater risk in continuing to make marginal changes to the existing U.S. fleet—including having too few operational employment options to have the desired strategic impact when and where needed.
1. Nicholas Lambert, “What Is a Navy For?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 147, no. 4 (April 2021); John Maurer, “Classic Works on Sea Power Have Enduring Value,” Proceedings 147 no. 6 (June 2021); Benjamin Armstrong, “American Naval Dominance Is Not a Birthright,” Proceedings 147, no. 9 (September 2021); and Trent Hone, “Sea Control and Command of the Sea Remain Essential,” Proceedings, 147, no. 11 (November 2021).
2. Wayne P. Hughes, “A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 3 (2012), 30.
3. Frank Uhlig, Jr., How Navies Fight: The U.S. Navy and Its Allies, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994) 399.
4. Hughes, “A Close Look at the Operational Level of War at Sea,” 25-26.
5. Bernard Brodie, A Guide to Naval Strategy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 95
6. T.X. Hammes, “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy,” Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2012, pp. 10-14; and Jeffrey E. Kline and Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle: A War at Sea Strategy,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 4 (2012), 2
7. William S. Lind, “A Distant Blockade in the Pacific,” The Conservative American, 20 December 2021.
8. John B. Hattendorf, “The Idea of a ‘Fleet in Being’ in Historical Perspective,” Naval War College Review 67, no. 1, article 6 (2014), 43.
9. Philip H. Colomb, Naval Warfare, Its Ruling Principles and Practice Historically Treaded (London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1891), 122.
10. Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 212, and Bernard Brodie, A Guide to Naval Strategy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), 94.
11. Kline and Hughes, “Between Peace and the Air-Sea Battle,” Naval War College Review 65, no. 4 (2012), 2.
12. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Volume V, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, August 1942–February 1943 (London: Little, Brown, and Company, reprint 1994), 12.
13. Marine Corps University’s “How to Fight and Win the Single Naval Battle: Operation Watchtower’s Relevance Today” (November 2018), is a superb case study which reviews many of the engagements in the contest for Guadalcanal and discusses its relevance today in a potential peer naval contest.
14. Daniel Boffey, “Russia’s Black Sea Blockade Pushing Millions Towards Famine, G7 Says,” The Guardian, 14 May 2022.
15. Jeff Cares, “On the Distribution of Combat Performance,” Submarine Operations Research Group Memorandum 22-03, August 2022.
16. John F. Lehman, “Getting Back On Top: How to Rebuild the Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no.1 (January 2022).
17. Wayne Hughes, “A Bimodal Force for the National Maritime Strategy,” Naval War College Review 60, no. 2 (2007), article 5.
18. Jeffrey E. Kline, “Impacts of the Robotics Age on Naval Force Design, Effectiveness, and Acquisition,” Naval War College Review 70, no. 3, (Summer 2017), 64.