The Buzz

The New U.S. Maritime Strategy: Taking on China's Rising Military Might

The revised version of the US maritime strategy (A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower - CS-21R), released last month, has been generating excitement in maritime circles. The new document updates concepts and strategies in the original 2007 document (CS-21) to make them more relevant in the current maritime environment. It is especially valuable for clearly identifying Chinese assertiveness as a threat, for making existing strategy more relevant, and for providing specific ways to guide operational thinking in strategic scenarios.

From an Asian perspective, the document's release is timely. Not only has the US been expanding the scope of its operations with Asian littoral states, regional maritime forces have been grappling with a complex set of challenges. To its credit, the new maritime strategy attempts to comprehensively address the entire spectrum of nautical issues, pulling together diverse strands such as nationalistic posturing in the Asia-Pacific, nontraditional security challenges in the broader maritime littorals, new technologies complicating security responses, and even fiscal prudence as a key consideration in planning future maritime operations.

Like its predecessor, the new document underscores maritime cooperation as the foundational principle of effective maritime security. However, departing from the earlier version's articulation of the concept as a kind of doctrinal "end" in itself, CS-21R presents maritime cooperation and transnational partnerships as a strategic imperative in achieving long-term security objectives. This difference, although marginal, is instructive because it implies a greater keenness on the part of the US Navy (USN) to engage and involve partner-navies in its maritime endeavors. Consequently, the new document advocates a more purposeful engagement with allies and partners to achieve greater synergy in security operations.

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The most noticeable aspect of the CS-21R is its clear acknowledgement of China as a key challenge. Unlike its predecessor, the new document candidly recognizes China's maritime expansion and territorial claims as a source of regional unrest. But it stops short of recognizing China's A2/AD challenge, desisting from making the all-important link, even as it pronounces "all-domain access" as a strategic prerequisite to all its global endeavors. Yet, it raises the possibility of nautical strife arising from the military resurgence of another Asia-Pacific power, Russia. Since traditional challenges are only likely to grow, the document projects "forward presence" as the bedrock of the USN's future security undertakings. The authors explain the need for a joint force to gain and sustain security operations, even as they emphasize flexibility, adaptability, scalability and integration in the sea services.

The CS-21R makes clear that while the United States is exporting more energy than it imports, it remains tied to the global economy. Since the latter remains wholly dependent on the uninterrupted supply of oil and gas from the Middle East and Central Asia, the USN would continue to play an important role in securing oil-flows by forward deploying in key theatres. Oddly, however, the emphasis on forward operations isn't borne out by the dim prospects of future growth in naval force levels. According to the authors, the USN's current budget submission provides for just about 300 ships, of which 120 will be forward deployed by 2020. This is a marginal rise from current force levels - leading to some doubts whether the Navy will at all be able to sustain forward presence in critical areas of operations.

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The new maritime strategy, however, offers some pointers in terms of operational imperatives and trends. The emphasis on cyber warfare, electro-magnetic spectrum operations, battle-space awareness and cross-domain synergy is a useful illustration of the evolving needs of contemporary naval engagement. It is also a reminder that even as navies learn to operate in a climate of financial hardship, they must utilize available means innovatively to effectively tackle nontraditional and regular challenges simultaneously.

Equally interesting, from an Asian perspective, is the introduction of the term "Indo-Asia-Pacific" - an integrated region where the "US Rebalance" is meant to play out. While the document announces a new policy aimed at positioning approximately 60 percent of Navy ships and aircraft in the said region, it does not make a case for distributing resources equally in the Western Pacific and broader Indian Ocean. With increased assets in Japan, Guam, Singapore, and Australia, it is clear the thrust of the Navy's operational focus continues to be in the Pacific theatre.

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