What Should the New U.S. Maritime Strategy Look Like?

January 7, 2014 Topic: Defense

What Should the New U.S. Maritime Strategy Look Like?

The 2007 strategy was right for its time, but in the interim, the strategic environment has changed substantially.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Jonathan Greenert entered his post in September 2011 with the goal of “refreshing” the Service’s 2007 Maritime Strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” As the Team Leader for the 2007 effort, I applauded his decision and briefed his transition team on my thoughts on how it should be updated. In my view, the 2007 Strategy was right for its time, but in the interim, the strategic environment had changed substantially, warranting a sharper, more focused approach. Chief among these changes were the fiscal condition of the United States and the increasingly unpredictable behavior of China in the Western Pacific, neither of which were central to the 2007 document.

There are reports that the rewrite is nearing completion, and that the new strategy will be ready for public release in the near future. On the off-chance that there remains room for debate, I offer the following suggestions for the new document.

It should explain why we need a strong, globally deployed Navy, and it should clearly identify the threats to our nation that such a Navy mitigates. The greatest threat to the security and prosperity of the United States against which naval force is arrayed is the growing threat to freedom of the seas. As I have written elsewhere, “We currently sustain a powerful, globally-deployed Navy for one very important reason, and that is to guarantee freedom of the seas. Freedom of the seas is the irreducible minimum condition necessary for global trade, the overwhelming majority of which travels by sea. This salutary condition has a foundational impact on our nation’s ability to import and export goods, hence, our prosperity is utterly dependent upon it. The prosperity of other nations, all other nations, is similarly dependent. We must have trading partners with the money to buy our goods and the capital to create goods for our markets, and the free movement of commerce upon the oceans underwrites this.” The new strategy must explain to the American people not only the benefits of that trade but the growing threats posed to it by nations such as China, Iran, and North Korea. It should name names, and it should speak to the growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat to freedom of the seas.

After clearly identifying the threats, it should clearly articulate how it will respond. The Navy must make strategic choices, and it is in this section that such choices should be made. The future fleet architecture should be promulgated, along with the assumptions underpinning it. Specific functions and warfare areas in need of additional emphasis should be cited, and those functions and warfare areas ripe for de-emphasis should be identified.

It should return to a three-hub construct. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States Navy ceased to routinely operate significant power projection forces in the Mediterranean Sea, choosing to instead service EUCOM requirements with transiting battle groups on their way to and from the Arabian Gulf. This practice was codified in the 2007 document which cited operational hubs for forward-deployed, credible combat power in the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific only. The lack of maritime power projection forces in the Mediterranean has been sorely felt since the 2007 employment construct was articulated, with the President facing limited options at the start of the Libyan uprising, the events in Benghazi, and in attempting to respond to reported Syrian use of chemical weapons. I am a great advocate of a powerful surface force, but Navy officials’ (including the CNO) continued citation of the presence of a few Tomahawk-equipped destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean as providing sufficient response options in Syria run the risk of losing the “value of the aircraft carrier” argument without firing a single shot.

It should reference a classified companion document. The 2007 Strategy exists only in unclassified form. Partner nations were wary of our stressing that there was no classified component that we were not sharing with them. It was difficult to convince them, but I believe they eventually believed us. They should be under no such impression with this document. To reflect a harder, warfighting edge, the unclassified document should cite the presence and importance of the classified volume. In the classified volume, specific capabilities should be cited that will be stressed as means to mitigate threats to freedom of the seas. While the unclassified version is the strategic communications platform for external audiences, the classified version would be the strategic communications platform for internal (within the fleet) audiences.

It should embrace true integration between the Navy and the Marine Corps, not cooperation, nor coordination, nor interoperability, but true integration. The Department of the Navy can and should shoulder a significant portion of the Nation’s peacetime national security load. The strategy should define American seapower in a manner that includes the world’s premier maritime-based ground combat force. It should lay out in detail the influence American seapower has on attaining the nation’s national security objectives. It should set the Department on a course for integrated operational command structures, and it should be bold enough to consider the possibility of a single maritime armed service.

It should make a coherent argument for supporting an industrial base sufficient not only for present needs but also for potential expansion. We did not make an industrial base argument in 2007, something I have always regretted. The Navy cannot expand quickly, at least not as quickly as can the Army. It will be unable to expand at all if there is insufficient industrial capacity to do so. The Navy must articulate the necessity of industrial capacity even if it is underutilized. While this will strike some as inefficient, it is essential to being able to ramp up to any wartime emergency.

The framers of the updated Maritime Strategy have a unique opportunity, and that is the chance to influence the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review. To that end, the document should be more specific, less aspirational and narrative-based, and more hard-edged than its predecessor. Such an approach would create a coherent strategic predicate for shifting resources within the Department of Defense to adequately fund required naval capability and capacity.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy. He is also the Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute.

Image: U.S. Navy/Flickr.