Maritime Power and Grand Strategy


By Dr. Richard Weitz

08/16/2011 – In addition to offering presentations by such U.S. grand strategists as Michael Mandelbaum, Barry Posen, Walter McDougall, John Mueller and SLD’s own David Deptula, the August 4 CNA conference on “American Grand Strategy and Maritime Power” sought to “examine U.S. naval strategy in light of emerging domestic and international conditions, and to discuss the strategic principles that should inform the naval services in the coming decades.”

Can the US build an effective 21st Century maritime strategy? (Credit: Bigstock)
Can the US build an effective 21st Century maritime strategy? (Credit: Bigstock)

An effective grand strategy requires appropriate and adequate tools and resources to carry it out. Sea power is an essential instrument of any effective grand strategy. Despite some difference in emphasis and focus, the speakers—including Hudson’s own Seth Cropsey—generally made the following points about how the U.S. Navy (there was less discussion of the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard) contributes to the realization of U.S, national interests.

For reasons of geography, commerce, and security, the United States must command the seas and ensure the security of global sea lines of communication: 70% of the world’s surface consists of water, 80% of the world’s population lives within a few hundred miles of the oceans, and 90% of U.S. commerce moves on the world’s oceans. Sustaining U.S. military power in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East requires providing supplies and support by sea, including the tactical employment of carrier-based aircraft and the use of amphibious assault forces and naval gunfire support.

The United States depends on the world’s oceans to move people and goods to and from the U.S. homeland. The 2005 U.S. National Strategy for Maritime Security points out that, “The right of vessels to travel freely in international waters, engage in innocent and transit passage, and have access to ports is an essential element of national security. The free, continuing, unthreatened intercourse of nations is an essential global freedom and helps ensure the smooth operation of the world’s economy.”

The U.S. Navy’s global presence ensures U.S. access and freedom of action throughout the world. Forward-deployed U.S. naval forces promote regional stability by deterring potential aggressors-from nation states to pirates–and reassuring allies. Both adversaries and friends constantly notice and measure the flow of highly visible U.S. warships to their neighborhood.

Sea power is unique in its responsiveness, flexibility, and adaptability. Naval expeditionary forces can swiftly respond to crises—including as what are variously defined as “forcible-entry” or “assured-access” operations–without requiring a costly, sizeable, or permanent footprint ashore in advance. They also are not constrained by claims of national sovereignty, no matter how exaggerated. Naval packages, including their Marine component, are modular in nature. Not only can their size be optimized to the situation at hand, but they can be easily moved closer to, or further away from, targets of influence.

The great U.S naval power theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, described sea power as “more silent than the clash of arms,” yet as influential as it is quiet. Since World War II, U.S. maritime power has been so benign and effective that many other countries have declined to develop their own navies. U.S. naval superiority has been so overwhelming that it has also dissuaded most potential rivals from even considering a naval challenge.

Interestingly, US "Grand Strategists" ignore the USMC and the USCG in shaping an effective maritime strategy in a constrained budgetary environment.  Clearly SLD has not. (Credit: USCG)Interestingly, US “Grand Strategists” ignore the USMC and the USCG in shaping an effective maritime strategy in a constrained budgetary environment.  Clearly SLD has not. (Credit: USCG)

U.S. naval power has foreclosed strategic options for these states. The U.S. Navy has not had even to fight a sea battle since World War II thanks to its uncontested supremacy. U.S. naval supremacy gives the United States an unparalleled asymmetric advantage. Naval forces can achieve strategic, operational, and tactical gains while minimizing U.S. vulnerabilities.

History shows that the world economy needs a dominant naval power to protect global sea lines, fight piracy, and otherwise keep vital sea lanes open for all to use. When naval dominance exists, it is often taken for granted since sea power is not a variable of most economic equations or models.

But the absence of a dominant naval power is clearly noted, since it leads to rising threats to this vital global commons as well as arms races and sometimes wars between existing and emerging naval powers. Through its emphasis on commerce and avoiding large standing armies, sea power also promotes democratic freedoms.

The U.S. Navy is a core member of America’s national security team. Nothing empowers American diplomats more than having a fleet of aircraft carriers capable of showing the flag throughout the world. Sometimes exerting influence requires having military power in the foreground rather than the background.

Naval forces can be deployed and redeployed on the high seas as needed without requiring anyone’s permission. They highlight the benign face of the United States by conveying humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following a crisis. U.S. strategic submarines provide a core element of America’s nuclear deterrent thanks to their ability to remain concealed underwater before possibly launching their long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at distant targets.

As Deptula noted, “Sea control isn’t just accomplished with ships anymore, and air control isn’t carried out just by aircraft. The air and maritime domains are seamlessly interconnected.” Like air power, naval power is essential for the United States to undertake offshore balancing and counter threats to allies through extended deterrence.

Both tools of grand strategy support the core U.S. national security goals of curbing nuclear proliferation, managing emerging near-peer competitors, sustaining strategic alliances, maintaining open access to the global commons and key natural resources, and defending the U.S. homeland.

The American people have lost interest in long-term nation building projects or waging protracted counterinsurgencies. This sentiment, which is unlikely to change son, has made it more important to be able to provide “over-the-horizon” military power to U.S. allies, including new ones like the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, through air and naval power.

The Arab Spring is threatening to deprive the U.S. military of many facilities in the Middle East, requiring a buildup of offshore capabilities. The upheavals in those countries have already led to an upsurge in refugees from North Africa fleeing across the Mediterranean into Southern Europe.

Anticipated global trends in economics, demographics, resources, and climate change will if anything increase the demand for maritime power and influence. The world’s waterways will remain the most efficient means for transporting goods. The world’s poor may be inspired by the success of the Somali pirates and become buccaneers preying on the world’s commercial fleets. The proliferation of ballistic missile arsenals throughout the could well require purchasing many additional missile-defense ships.

And several SLD articles have already underscored the opportunities and challenges that are emerging with the thawing of the Arctic ice. Among other things, this development is making accessible the natural resources under its waters and broadening opportunities for global commerce through northern seas. But this access could be contested, and states will need sea power to enforce their claims.

As other SLD articles have noted, the United States urgently needs to reconstitute its Coast Guard icebreaker fleet. Otherwise, it may need to rely on Russia for this capacity, adding to existing U.S. dependence on Russia for manned space flight vehicles.

Unfortunately, U.S. maritime supremacy is threatened by two developments. First, China and other countries are challenging U.S. dominance through innovative tactics and lavish spending. Second, excessive U.S. budget stringency is undermining the sinews of U.S. naval strength.

Pentagon planners worry that Iran, China, Iran, and other adversaries are developing “asymmetric” capabilities that employ innovative means and tactics to circumvent U.S. maritime dominance. These include “anti-access strategies” designed to hobble the U.S. Navy’s ability to project and sustain combat power in a region and “area-denial strategies” that seek to constrain U.S. maritime freedom of action.

The Peoples’ Republic of China is not neglecting the importance of sea power even if congressional budget cutters might. The Chinese have acquired several of the world’s largest shipping companies. They are also constructing a network of facilities and supporting bases in the Indo-Pacific region—sometimes called a “string of pearls”—to support an expansion of their naval power to that domain. Now the Chinese are developing a fleet of aircraft carriers top project power throughout the world.

One problem with navies is that they are capital-intensive and therefore very expensive. Naval capabilities must be purchased even in peacetime, when their value is typically underappreciated. It takes years to construct modern warships, though they normally remain operational for decades if properly maintained, which also is expensive. Furthermore, sailors require extensive training and support. Yet, the size of the U.S. Navy has been cut in half since the 1980s.

Paying for the Navy is an insurance policy to avert threats to global commerce, avert regional conflicts, and forestall other disasters. And forward deployed naval forces can promote partnerships with local allies and help build their capacity. Through their collective efforts, they can minimize challenges to the international maritime order such as deterring pirates and dissuading potentially hostile states from developing their own navies. Such a cooperative approach to maritime security leverages the investment in the U.S. Navy manifold.

As General Deptula noted, the Navy has joined with the Air Force to develop the Air Sea Battle concept to overcome military threats to adversary anti-access/area-denial strategies through the integrated application of U.S. air and maritime power.

But budget cuts are threatening to deprive the United States of the naval assets it needs to conduct the strategy effectively.  For example, the United States needs more nuclear-powered attack submarines, which provide the U.S. Navy with an asymmetric advantage to counter China’s anti-ship missiles and other anti-access capabilities.

Finally, I am obliged to mention the luncheon keynote address of former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig since he addressed issues of perennial concern to SLD readers. These include the need for more adaptive defense production processes in order to provide equipment that will remain effective even in a rapidly changing security environment.

Danzig also called for buying more defense products with the expectation that they would have much shorter service lives provided they were replaced sufficiently rapidly. A more rapid and diverse procurement system would allow the United States to emulate the Israelis, who change their defense equipment, technologies, and concepts as rapidly as their potential adversaries change their strategy and tactics.