Forget Aircraft Carriers: If the U.S. Navy Doesn't Have This One Thing...
November 9, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Forward PresenceU.S. NavyAmericasChinaJapanSouth China Sea

Forget Aircraft Carriers: If the U.S. Navy Doesn't Have This One Thing...

The literal physical presence of ships and men makes a huge difference.


On the other hand, since the 1979 revolution, the U.S. and Iran have shared so few common interests that extraordinary leverage has been required for the U.S. to achieve its desires vis-a-vis Iran and vice versa. These have ranged from crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to the use of force against Iranian military assets during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s.

Most relations between nations lie somewhere between the U.S.-U.K. and the U.S.-Iran extremes. On those occasions when influence is required, two broad categories of techniques are available to the influencer.

Techniques of Influence

A threat is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that unless the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to punish the influencee. A promise is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that if the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to reward the influencee. Although not necessarily always the case, in most instances threats are used to deter and to compel and promises are used to reinforce and promote.

Tools of Influence

With respect to the tools of influence, states may use diplomatic, economic, military, and informational tools to punish and to reward targets of influence.

Military tools of influence may be used to achieve military goals as well as political and economic objectives. Similarly, political and economic tools may sometimes be useful in gaining military objectives. For example, a trade embargo or conversely promising most favored nation trade status could be effective in deterring a nation from the sale of weapons of mass destruction. However, as relations between nations worsen, as they share fewer common interests, objectives can become more militarily dominated and defined, thereby causing the effectiveness of military tools of influence to increase.

Consider, for example, ensuring Iran compliance with UN sanctions. Although diplomatic demarches (political tool) and trade sanctions (economic tool) had been employed as threats to influence Iranian behavior, arguably the most effective tool to condition Iran’s actions is the presence of military forces (military tool) on the ground in allied states and naval forces on station in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea. Moreover, because the predominant concern of U.S. allies and friends in Middle East is one of military security (against an assertive Iran) military tools take on disproportionate influence for the U.S. in region.

The Effectiveness of Influence

Having derived a definition of influence, examined its characteristics, the purposes and objectives for which it is used, the techniques employed to achieve it, and the effect of shared interests on the requirements for the use of those techniques, let us now consider what makes influence effective.

Here we must examine the influencee’s decision calculus, and how the influencee weighs a range of outcomes of an influence situation. Two dimensions come into play: utility and probability.8 The degree to which the influencee likes or dislikes the prospect is called utility or disutility. The likelihood that the influencee assigns to the outcomes ever occurring is called probability. The influencee’s combined assessments of these two dimensions determines expectations and thus the influencee’s response to the influence attempt.

 Each nation has, either explicitly or implicitly, a continuum from good to bad along which it assesses outcomes of an influence attempt. The continuum is based on values systems and although values systems certainly are not uniform from nation to nation, there is some degree of similarity. Outcomes which tend to restrict a nation’s freedom of action are normally placed low on the utility scale (or high on the disutility scale). Conversely, outcomes which do not restrict freedom of action are placed high on the utility scale (low disutility score).

Nations do not, however, make decisions based solely on the attractiveness or unattractiveness of various potential outcomes. Nations also compare outcomes not only in terms of desirability, but also in terms of estimated likelihood. While some nations are more risk-prone than others, most nations are fairly conservative in foreign policy. They seldom commit resources and prestige to the pursuit of an outcome which seems improbable, regardless of how attractive the outcome may be.

Despite idiosyncrasies along one or the other dimension (utility/probability), nations combine both sets of considerations in responding to an influence attempt. The decision of how to respond to an influence attempt is the result of a utility and probability calculation.

Thus, for an influence attempt to be successful, the influencer must address something that the influencee considers valuable (high utility) and the influencer must persuade the influencee that the influencer will take action as threatened or promised (i.e., the influencer must be perceived as credible). Thus, the utility-probability calculus determines influencee response both to threats (deterrence/compellence) and promises (reinforcement/promotion).

Recent studies suggest that there is another important dimension to credibility, one not based solely on military capability or political will to use military force, but the speed with which military power (influence) can be employed.9 That is, the influencee’s knowledge that the influencer possesses the capability to act without delay seems to be a key component in the influencee’s decision calculus. This, of course, bolsters and helps to explain the argument advanced by the Navy and Marine Corps regarding the special “shaping” (influencing) role of forward present Navy and Marine Corps forces. Their nearly constant presence in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf, and western Pacific is a visible reminder to friend and foe alike of U. S. intent, capability, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to act swiftly.


So, what does all this discussion of a theory of influence add up to? Hopefully, it will help naval officers better understand what we tend to understand intuitively already: forward present naval forces play a special role in influencing (shaping) other nations.

These forces are able to fulfill both purposes of influence: Assure the continuation of anticipated positive behavior and modify anticipated negative behavior. They are able to achieve both objectives of influence: Promote/reinforce positive behavior, and deter anticipated negative behavior/compel reversal of negative faits accompli. They are able to convey both techniques of influence: promises of rewards for positive behavior and threats of punishment for negative behavior. They are able to affect the influencee’s decision calculus of utility and probability. Their diversity and breadth (from F-35s and F/A-18s, from LRASMs to Tomahawks, and to a Marine rifle company squad) and reach (to a thousand miles) permits them to reach out and touch something that matters (high utility) and their combat readiness gives them high credibility/probability of successful employment.

Being there counts. The ability to act without delay during the early days of a crisis or a potential crisis affects the influencee’s initial decision calculus in a special way. It precludes an opponent an early and easy fait accompli. It forces a rational opponent (influencee) to carefully evaluate carefully their courses of action. It tends to preclude impulsive behavior. It forces the influencee to conduct a utility/probability calculation. It buys us time to augment U. S. forces, if necessary. It gives us timely influence. And, at the end of the day, if the influence attempt is not timely, it is far less effective. Here in their forward presence lies the unique influence advantage of naval forces.

Captain Harris commanded USS Conolly (DD-979) and Destroyer Squadron 32. Ashore he served as Executive Director of the CNO Executive Panel. He was a CNO Fellow in CNO Strategic Studies Group XII. It was during his stint as a CNO SSG Fellow that this article was first begun. Captain Harris is indebted to Mr. Dmitry Filipoff for his efforts in updating the draft, sharping the arguments, and greatly improving the readability.

This originally appeared on CIMSEC in 2019.

Image: DVIDShub.