Is America's Blue-Water Navy Doomed?

With the proliferation of A2/AD capabilities, a forward presence is becoming a liability.

It has been nearly eight years since the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard announced their first tri-service vision, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) on October 17, 2007. On Friday March 13, the current service chiefs, Admiral Greenert, General Dunford and Admiral Zukunft, revealed an updated version A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (CS21-2015) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. As I write, analysts and maritime enthusiasts are already slinging arrows and darts at the document. The criticisms are predictable: CS21-2015 does not conform to one of the classic war college definitions of strategy; it does not pay sufficient attention to the latest headlines, some region or warfighting specialty is inadequately emphasized by the strategy, and on and on and on.

A few analysts, however, have offered qualified praise. My colleague Professor Jim Holmes, for example, has awarded a passing grade to the 2015 document, a fine thing too because he has been notably critical of Navy strategy for some time. Longtime strategist Frank Hoffman judges it “a ‘better’ maritime strategy,” at least in part because it has “a solid diagnosis, a conceptual ‘way’ to resolve the inherent problem identified by the diagnosis and a set of coherent implementing actions that logically support the basic guiding policy.”

Lots of folks will continue to critique the specific strengths and weaknesses of CS21-2015, so I will leave the nitpicking to others. I will focus instead on how well the 2015 version of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower performs two critical functions:

(1) How well does CS21-2015 help the Service chiefs meet their Title X responsibilities to “man, train and equip” their organizations? And

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(2) Does CS21-2015 meet the nation’s security needs as articulated in the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy?

To preview the answers to my own questions, the 2015 tri-service strategy is paradoxical; it may better serves U.S. national needs than help the Sea Services meet their own self-identified, external and internal challenges.

Troubled Waters?     

According to many analysts, all three Sea Services are in trouble. The Navy is operating, and has operated for a long-time, at a barely sustainable operational tempo. Ships and more important sailors and officers are at sea longer than any previous period of maritime peace, to the point where it is increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain equipment and sustain morale.

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Worse, for the first time in a generation, a serious naval competitor has appeared; whatever its shortcomings, China’s PLAN possess a range of capabilities that call into question the USN’s longstanding dominance in East Asia, the acknowledged center of gravity for the global economy. And yet the numbers and types of platforms available to the Sea Services—ranging from ships to manned aircraft to unmanned systems of all sorts—are falling, while fiscal constraints make it hard to sustain the existing force, much less recapitalize, modernize and innovate in the face of a growing threat.

The Marine Corps has spent most of the last decade far from their maritime, amphibious, and expeditionary origin—thousands of Marines have been fighting terrorists and countering insurgency in the deserts and cities of Iraq and Afghanistan. The costs in human and material terms were, and are, enormous. The implications of conducting extended land operations for the Marine’s self-identity as the nation’s 911 emergency force are incalculable. And again, perhaps even more so than the Navy, equipment and weapons are aging and worn, but recapitalization, modernization, and innovation are problematic.

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In the post-Cold War security environment, the USCG has stretched itself thin trying to push America’s defensive perimeter (against terrorists, pirates, criminals and contraband) to the farthest ports and seas from the Horn of Africa to Singapore. In the meantime, a new operating area, the Arctic, has captured the attention of national security analysts as the melting icecap has allowed shippers, cruise lines, energy corporations, and mining firms—not to mention other Arctic states like Russia and Arctic state-wannabes like China—to begin exploiting the regional transportation routes and resources.

Yet, the Coast Guard possesses only a few aging icebreakers, limited Arctic-capable assets and insufficient infrastructure capable of supporting sustainable, cost-effective Arctic operations. Meanwhile the USCG has endured delays, development problems, and cost increases to its premier acquisition program—the National Security Cutter.