President's Commentary: Sailing Through Rough Seas

February 1, 2016
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The United States always has been a maritime nation, but now more so than ever. The globalization of the world’s economy and communications has increased the importance of maritime operations. The multitrillion-dollar international economic engine that has brought prosperity to billions of people moves most of its international commerce by sea.

Most countries rely on the United States as the guarantor of free trade and security that ensures peaceful worldwide economic growth. To accomplish this, it is imperative that the United States has a strong global maritime capability. As significant threats emerge, U.S. naval forces must be prepared to move to action quickly anywhere around the world. Whether the challenge is provocation by North Korea, obstruction to free navigation from countries unilaterally declaring sea lanes their own territory, disaster relief, amphibious combat operations, rogue states hindering transit through the Persian Gulf, piracy in coastal regions or the Strait of Malacca, or groups limiting access to the Panama Canal or the Arctic, the nation’s naval forces face a host of challenges that threaten global peace, security and economic growth.

The forces’ arrival in any area of operations sends a strong message that the United States is engaged and prepared to take action when needed. Furthermore, naval forces have the unique ability to loiter in their area of operations, thus providing a wide range of options for national leadership.

In addition to its involvement with the world’s most successful multinational treaty—NATO—the United States is signatory to an array of bilateral treaties and partnerships around the globe. Our allies and partners have come to expect the United States to lead in matters of international security. Without the ability and intent to lead globally, U.S. prestige and influence will diminish significantly. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are critical to that role.

Not all is smooth sailing for naval forces, as threats continually evolve. Just 30 years ago, the Free World faced a single major threat—the Soviet Union and its satellites. Now, the major players have become multinational and multifaceted. Russia is rearming, China is emerging as a major power and many rogue nations and terrorist and nontraditional groups are disrupting peace and security in vital regions.

Additionally, naval forces face a host of new technological, anti-access and asymmetric threats. Many potential adversaries are working on systems to counter U.S. maritime power and deny area access to maritime forces. Ship-to-ship missiles, advanced torpedoes, antisatellite weapons, electronic warfare and new antiship mines all are under development for use against U.S. maritime assets. And cyber looms as a key battle domain for networked naval forces.

Over time, the art of integrating Navy and Marine Corps forces for amphibious operations has atrophied. The fleet has aged, and the number of ships has declined to slightly more than half of what existed barely three decades ago. New ships are increasingly expensive, and the appropriate logistics, crewing and training of new capabilities add to the cost. Today, a smaller force is being asked to confront more significant challenges across a broader spectrum of operations than ever before with fewer resources. This increases stress for the naval forces.

Congress and the administration will not issue a blank check in these fiscally austere times. Naval forces must emphasize cost-effective improvements in their technologies and capabilities. Improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance will help the Navy and Marine Corps find and fix targets while providing advanced warning of threats. Countermine capabilities will be necessary for successful operations. Additionally, cyber operations must be given the resources necessary to complement operations in the dynamic maritime domain.

Today’s naval forces are highly credible, and their ability to provide warfighting capabilities around the world will continue to speak loudly of U.S. commitment and resolve. Not only can they ensure that the United States will support its allies and partners in times of crisis, but also they will serve as a deterrent against conflict erupting against friendly nations. A strong maritime force can put out fires and prevent them from flaring up in the first place. And forces must be adequately resourced and prepared to deal with any conflict should one erupt. This is paramount for any effective comprehensive national security strategy.

U.S. naval forces remain the dominant maritime power in this multifaceted world, and they are a force for good. Potential adversaries gradually may be narrowing the capability gap, but that trend need not continue. It is vital to maintain a major level of advantage both to deter adversaries and to ensure that if a conflict arises, it is not a fair fight.

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