Incoming: A Maritime Nation Needs 21st-Century Seapower

August 1, 2015
By Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

In March 2015, the chiefs of the nation’s sea services—U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard—unveiled “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” charting a forward, engaged, ready course to meet the nation’s global maritime strategic responsibilities. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, USN; Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., USMC; and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, USCG, underscored the growing importance of increasing cooperation among the services to achieve the maximum forward presence and warfighting capabilities required for national defense and homeland security.

This document is not about diminishing the criticality of our nation’s air and ground forces—far from it. The document is about how the maritime world fits into the broader geopolitical context of our efforts to create 21st-century security.

A bird’s-eye view of the shipyards, port facilities, Navy ships, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and special forces bases and stations in and around the nation certainly reminds us the United States is a global maritime power. This is as true today as it has been since the beginning of the republic. What often is forgotten is the critical importance of a maritime strategy to go with all that capability. The sea services have developed such strategies for three decades, and they have been largely successful in driving the size, deployment patterns and impact of our maritime forces.

In 1986, with the fast-growing Soviet Navy as the potential adversary, the Navy and Marine Corps published “The Maritime Strategy.” It was aimed at using maritime power, in combination with the efforts of its sister services and forces of our allies, to bring about war termination on favorable terms. This flowed from presidential guidance. President Ronald Reagan, when asked to summarize what his policy toward the Cold War would be, said: “...we win and they lose.” Pretty simple.

Subsequent strategic road maps would be published in 1992, 1994 and 2007. The massive blue water threat of the Soviet Union faded and the sea services became more skilled at littoral warfare as guided by the strategy titled “… From the Sea” in 1992. The world economy—largely dependent on sea transport for commerce—was becoming more interconnected. The challenges to national security were evolving to include wars between major powers, regional conflicts, international terrorism, piracy and response to natural disasters. Yet there was one constant—whenever a new international crisis faced the nation, the president in office would continue to ask, “Where are the carriers?”

“A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” addresses the challenges and opportunities before the sea services from 2015 to future horizons, framing the strategic discussion in terms of the global security environment, forward presence and partnership, seapower in support of national security and force design/building the future force. World changes since 2007 are presented in summary and then examined in detail: “Today’s global security environment is characterized by the rising importance of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, the ongoing development and fielding of anti-access/area denial [A2/AD] capabilities that challenge our global maritime access, continued threats from expanding and evolving terrorist and criminal networks, the increasing frequency and intensity of maritime territorial disputes, and threats to maritime commerce, particularly the flow of energy.”

Chinese naval capabilities, the longer reach of its navy into the Indian and Pacific oceans, and China’s growing territorial claims are highlighted, as is China’s participation in international exercises and disaster response missions. In the strategic context, these are understood as both challenges and opportunities. But of course it is not all about a Pacific pivot. Europe still matters deeply.

More U.S. ships, aircraft and Marine Corps forces will be operating in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. In broader terms, if the sea services’ global forward presence is imperative, the expansion of naval and Marine Corps planning and operations with allies and other friendly nations on seas around the world go hand in hand. Such partnerships provide increased international stability in peacetime and increased combined-force capability in time of conflict. In parallel, the Coast Guard, as a regulatory and law enforcement agency and one of the nation’s five armed services, is expanding combined operations, with more than 60 bilateral agreements already in place with foreign governments countering international illegal operations and further enhancing maritime stability.

Against the current background of budget constraints in place and looming, flexible, agile and ready forces, and the most highly trained and capable sailors, Marines, and Coast Guard members—our greatest asymmetric advantage—will be required. This will include a balanced force of submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships and surface combatants for deterrence, sea control and power projection; for the maritime security needed to combat terrorism, illegal trafficking of people, drugs and arms; to combat piracy; and to safeguard freedom of navigation.

There is one top-priority, underlying message throughout the new maritime strategy. The need for seapower is greater than ever. Again, this does not diminish the need for other forms of national power—land, air, special operations, cyber. But make no mistake: Extremely difficult international threats and challenges lie in the years ahead. It is essential that we provide the forces and the people the sea services require, and this new strategic vision does a commendable job articulating the case.

Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.), was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in international law, and he is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s board of directors.

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In strategic terms, the US is an island bound by three oceans, and its two land neighbours are its most important allies. This means that it needs a navy that can ward off attacks to its continental homeland first, and project power beyond the three oceans second. The current fleet is more than adequate for the first task. In terms of the second task, I fear we remain stuck in the paradigm of World War II -- fleet on fleet war fought by aircraft carriers and submarines and their current descendants including amphib warfare ships. The recent record from places like Somalia suggests that the current threat is something else entirely, and that the Navy needs to keep permanent "Brown" and "Green" water fleets for that sort of warfare instead of "Brigadoon" ones or trying to reduce these tasks to "missions" that can be accommodated by "modules" on conventional ships -- which is a recipe for failure as the LCS taught us. The whole regime of merchant fleets needs to be revisited as well, and it is time to move away from the current legal and economic chaos of the shipping industry. Ships should fly the flag of their owners' nationality and shell companies should not be allowed to own ships. The crews should derive from the citizen bodies of the flag states and the flag states should be responsible for their defence and protection. Under this older model, the armed merchantman can be revived in a manner more conducive to normal international law, and that particular category of ship is precisely what is needed to deal with offshore terrorism -- AKA piracy, which is the real threat to US power projection capabilities.

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