Does the U.S. Navy Have a Strategy Problem?

May 3, 2021 Topic: U.S. Navy Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NavyU.S. NavyMilitaryU.S. MilitaryNaval Strategy

Does the U.S. Navy Have a Strategy Problem?

Former deputy undersecretary of the Navy and current Hudson Institute analyst Seth Cropsey has aimed a broadside at the U.S. sea services’ latest maritime strategy. Unfortunately, Cropsey’s broadside sails well wide of the mark.


Over at the Wall Street Journal last week, former deputy undersecretary of the navy and current Hudson Institute analyst Seth Cropsey aims a broadside at the U.S. sea services’ latest maritime strategy, titled Advantage at Sea. Cropsey’s broadside sails well wide of the mark. Let’s inspect—and see if we can correct—the fall of shot.

The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard have taken to calling themselves “the Naval Service,” singular, to signify that they regard themselves as a cohesive maritime force. Last December they released Advantage at Sea, also known as their “Triservice Maritime Strategy,” to explain how they intend to shape events on the high seas and especially in coastal zones. Yet Cropsey assures us the triservice strategy “isn’t a maritime strategy” at all because it “offers no suggestions about how to win a naval war against China.” For him, it seems, strategy must script out a sequence of events culminating in victory to qualify as strategy.


Really? That would come as news to master maritime strategist Julian S. Corbett, who urges fleet commanders to embrace a phased approach to naval warfare: deny a hostile navy the use of the sea if you’re the weaker combatant; win sea control once you’re strong enough to hazard a decisive battle; exploit sea control once you’ve won it. The victor earns the right to choke off enemy shipping, bombard hostile shorelines, land troops, and on and on. That basic Corbettian logic courses through the Triservice Maritime Strategy.

Cropsey hands us two yardsticks to judge his critique. He approvingly quotes the late Professor Samuel Huntington’s landmark 1954 article from the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, one of my other publishing haunts, noting correctly that Huntington beseeched the U.S. Navy to develop a “strategic concept” for the post-World War II age. For Huntington such a concept explains “how, when and where the military expects to protect the nation . . . . If a military service does not possess such a concept, it becomes purposeless.”

So far, so good. An institution without a concept of how to interpret its surroundings and execute its functions is indeed culturally rudderless. What Cropsey neglects to mention is that Huntington proposed a strategic concept in his article, that of the “transoceanic navy” with no peer competitor to challenge its command of the sea. That concept evidently meets with Cropsey’s approval. As it turns out, though, the Huntingtonian vision offers few specifics.

Nor should it.

Huntington advised America’s navy to remake itself as a transoceanic navy, a “navy oriented away from the oceans and toward the land masses on their far side.” The U.S. Navy had reaped the mixed blessing of winning big in World War II. Namely, it confronted no peer challenger to act as a focal point for strategy, operations, and fleet design. The Soviet Union was a powerful continental contender, but America ruled the waves. Its mariners had reduced the Imperial Japanese Navy to wreckage strewn across the Pacific seafloor, while the Soviet Navy had not yet started building itself into the oceangoing force that prowled the seas by the 1970s. Accordingly, Huntington maintained that sea-service prelates could and should fashion a “strategy of monopolistic sea power” markedly “different from that of competitive sea power.” They no longer needed to concern themselves overmuch with readying the fleet to fight titanic battles for high-seas mastery.

Then what? Since the “great oceans” were “no longer the no man’s land between the competing powers,” opined Huntington, the U.S. Navy must shift its attention and resources to “the narrow lands and the narrow seas which lie between those great oceans on the one hand and the equally immense spaces of the Eurasian heartland on the other”—to the “rimlands,” as geopolitics maven Nicholas Spykman put it in the 1940s. Mold events in the rimlands in America’s interest: that’s about as detailed as Huntington’s strategic concept gets. Judge for yourself whether his transoceanic-navy concept or the Triservice Maritime Strategy presents more actionable specifics.

Nor, despite the plaudits Cropsey heaps on the 1980s Maritime Strategy, did Cold War naval leaders map out some detailed theory of victory vis-à-vis Moscow. The Reagan Navy Department’s strategy supplies our second yardstick to evaluate the Triservice Maritime Strategy. Of those halcyon years Cropsey recalls:

“During the Cold War, the U.S. Maritime Strategy told everyone from Congress to the Kremlin that in the event of war the U.S. Navy would target the enemy’s ballistic-missile submarine bastions and divert Soviet concentration from the central front in Germany by striking its oceanic flanks from the northern seas to the Mediterranean to the Pacific.”

By going after the Soviet Union’s oceanic environs, in other words, naval forces would siphon Soviet military resources from ground combat in Western Europe and give numerically weaker NATO fighting forces a chance to prevail. Admiral James Watkins, the chief of naval operations, took to the pages of Proceedings in 1985 to explain the Maritime Strategy. CNO Watkins evidently disagreed with Cropsey about the need for specifics in strategic directives. He observed that the Maritime Strategy did not “purport to be a detailed war plan with firm timelines, tactical doctrine, or specific target sets.” Instead it sketched out the Navy Department’s interpretation of the strategic setting along with a broad overview of how maritime forces would contribute to national military strategy.

Watkins forecast that “while Soviet ground and air forces conduct a massive offensive, a critical Soviet Navy role in a future conflict would be to protect the Soviet homeland and their ballistic missile submarines, which provide the Soviets with their ultimate strategic reserve.” If U.S. Navy task forces went after the offshore bastions Cropsey mentions—essentially semi-enclosed waters overshadowed by Soviet land-based defenses and roamed by the Soviet fleet—then whatever resources the Soviet military stationed around Soviet shorelines to fend off U.S. forces would be unavailable to support ground operations against NATO or to interdict crucial Atlantic shipping lanes. Offensive U.S. maritime operations, in short, would help redress the ground-force imbalance in West Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The Maritime Strategy also reiterated that U.S. military operations would be forward operations. A pullback would forfeit U.S. alliances and court defeat. “Holding our maritime power near home waters,” declared the CNO, “would inevitably lead to abandoning our allies.” He deemed such an approach strategically bankrupt. “Allied strategy must be prepared to fight in forward areas. That is where our allies are and where our adversary will be.” In parlance much favored of U.S. Marines in recent years, U.S. forces would “stand in,” defying efforts to expel them from critical theaters, rather than “stand off” and try to fight their way back in later.

And Watkins intended to recruit Father Time to the NATO cause, putting Moscow on notice not to entertain hopes that a blitzkrieg would bring swift victory in Western Europe. U.S. commanders meant to protract the conflict while widening it on the map to encompass theaters where Soviet commanders preferred not to fight. “Should war come,” the CNO proclaimed, “the Soviets would prefer to use their massive ground force advantage against Europe without having to concern themselves with a global conflict or with actions on their flanks. It is this preferred Soviet strategy the United States must counter. The key to doing so is to ensure that they will have to face the prospect of prolonged global conflict.”

Which brought Admiral Watkins to sea power. Seaborne mobility would carry the war to seacoasts far from the primary theater—compelling the Soviet leadership to choose between amassing overwhelming might in Europe and leaving its coasts and ballistic-missile submarine fleet inadequately guarded. “Aggressive forward movement of anti-submarine warfare forces, both submarines and maritime patrol aircraft, will force Soviet submarines to retreat into defensive bastions to protect their ballistic missile submarines.” Menacing them there would ease pressure on the Atlantic sea lanes connecting North America with Europe, denying the Soviets “the option of a massive, early attempt to interdict our sea lines of communication.”

Bottom line: “The United States cannot allow our adversary to assume he will be able to attack the fleet with impunity, from inviolable sanctuaries.”

The Maritime Strategy would unspool in three phases, wrote Watkins: “deterrence or the transition to war; seizing the initiative; and carrying the fight to the enemy. There are no fixed time frames associated with these phases; they provide a broad outline of what we want to accomplish, not an attempt to predict an inherently unpredictable future.” And, to his eternal credit, the CNO abjured strategic control freakery, declaring that “the complexity of the tasks makes it essential that we not attempt to micromanage the war from Washington.” Instead top leaders would “provide options and broad concepts to assist the unified commanders in implementing their detailed plans.”

Well put.

On to the Triservice Maritime Strategy. Huntington counseled the U.S. Navy to operate across transoceanic distances to shape events in the rimlands, the decisive zone of strategic competition; the Reagan strategy likewise instructed the sea services to operate forward and offensively in order to ease the burden on allied ground forces, protracting the war while spreading the field geographically and multiplying Moscow’s strategic dilemmas. In a sense, though, makers of Cold War maritime strategy had it easy. They had one obvious challenger to manage, and that challenger had a fairly obvious strategy to defeat.