Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Confronts Great Power Challengers

The U.S. Navy's got 99 problems.... Can the new strategy grapple with them all?

Last Friday, the maritime services finally released the new edition of the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. The last Cooperative Strategy, released in 2007, earned some public attention, but the latest iteration has already produced a firestorm of commentary.

This likely has more to do with the changing nature of internet commentary than the document itself, but the proliferation of material has nevertheless led to an illuminating debate on how the strategy has changed, and how it may fail to meet the requirements of the United States military.

What’s a Cooperative Strategy?

The Cooperative Maritime Strategy was designed for a post-Cold War world, in which many of the basic maritime problems demanded collective, rather than unilateral, action. The idea found its genesis in the “1000 ship navy” concept, which envisioned an ever shifting coalition of naval partners for managing problems such as piracy, humanitarian crises, and the regulation of the international system of maritime trade. CS-21 (as the Cooperative Strategy was known) envisioned the United States playing a leading role in the defense of the global maritime commons, and consequently of the liberal international order. At the same time, CS-21 sought to depoliticize the maritime sphere, treating it as a positive sum space

Although CS-21 left some of the implications unstated, the cooperative approach had an edge. Through emphasizing relationships, the maritime services (and particular the USN) would gain an advantage over potential competitors by occupying a central role in most naval endeavors. Developing familiarity with the attitudes and capabilities of partners would give the USN a critical leg up in case of any actual political disputes. CS-21 wanted to make the point that while no one could have a pool party without inviting the USN, the involvement of the PLAN was strictly optional.

What’s Different About this Strategy?

Why do we need a new strategy? Many critics of the first strategy challenged its focus on collaboration, especially with potential competitors such as China and the Russia. The first strategy hedged on competitors, implicitly suggesting that deterrence and the development of a network of professional relationships could help soften the edges of political disputes. The first CS-21 notably failed to establish much guidance for procurement, fleet constitution, or force structure, which some argued left the service ill-prepared to fight budgetary wars in Washington.

There’s little question that the best-case scenarios regarding Chinese and Russian behavior have, since 2007, failed to materialize. The new strategy, which includes a much tighter focus on problems that area denial systems present for power projection and forward presence, clearly has this development in mind. It even includes a brief aside about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a level of specificity that the previous document mostly eschewed. The new strategy is considerably longer than its predecessor, containing more detail about the various missions that the maritime services expect to perform.

The critiques that have emerged thus far of the revised strategy strongly resemble the critiques of the earlier document. The new Cooperative Strategy still does not offer an answer to the growing power and assertiveness of China and Russia. By envisioning the maritime commons as a global management problem, it struggles with the concept of “legitimate” great power conflict. At the same time, most of the critiques that have emerged over the past few days have granted that the new document offers much more guidance on what the U.S. Navy should actually look like.

What’s Wrong with This Strategy?

The basic problem with the new strategy is familiar; it still can’t figure out how China and Russia fit into a cooperative, positive sum maritime framework. China and Russia are neither pirates nor hurricanes; they are major countries that dispute, to some degree, the existing structure of the liberal international order. At the same time, they depend on this order (China more than Russia) for their continued prosperity.