President's Commentary: Naval Modernization Is an Ambitious Effort. Can We Do it?

June 1, 2021
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The sea services have issued a coordinated strategy for U.S. maritime dominance on the high seas. Titled “Advantage at Sea,” the strategy outlines much needed highly desirable goals to ensure freedom of navigation and international security over three-quarters of the Earth’s surface with a rightfully dominating focus on China. It serves as a high-level naval strategy under which is tucked the respective service strategies. Pursuing it comes at a cost, and one blunt question is whether the United States and its allies are prepared to pay that cost, politically and financially. 

As highlighted in “Advantage at Sea,” it is estimated that 90 percent of global commerce travels on the oceans. Free and open flow of maritime traffic helps facilitate trillions of dollars in the U.S. economy annually and 31 million U.S. jobs. Undersea cables carry 95 percent of international communications along with $10 trillion in financial transactions taking place each day. Disruption to the global strategic and maritime balance, which is built on international norms and laws that are being ignored by a rising hegemonic power, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), must be averted by the strong presence of maritime forces. Regardless of the price tag to prudently implement the “Advantage at Sea” strategy, it will be money well invested in light of other proposed government spending, and the underlying political and economic security it provides. 

The naval plan is a high-level strategy that admirably proposes a much tighter integration of all maritime capabilities to meet the growing challenge. It is a strategy that leverages the expeditionary mindset of naval forces operating across all domains; a force that is rapidly able to transition from peacekeeping operations to peacemaking to stability operations at a rapid pace. It is a strategy that promotes the ability to leverage and enforce multiple legal authorities as well as create multiple tactical, operational and strategic military dilemmas for our adversaries. It is an integrated maritime strategy targeted at malignant PRC activities; a strategy that can quickly reinforce diplomatic efforts in times of political tension and rapidly respond to human and natural crisis or higher-end conflict if necessary. It proposes a force that is both lethal and flexible: one that can be highly visible or one that can stand off and be widely dispersed.

Recognizing the capabilities of future adversaries, notably China, the strategy focuses on the Indo-Pacific region and countering the increasingly overt malignant behavior of the PRC. It promotes the ability to conduct more assertive operations with a force better designed to accept calculated tactical risk. It will be a maneuverable force better suited to conduct distributed operations and a force less susceptible to highly advanced enemy location finding and targeting. It is a force that has the flexibility to intermix, share and exchange capabilities. It will be a force that will thoughtfully share risk trade-offs between readiness, lethality and modernization in a more integrated programmatic manner.

Unsurprisingly, there are significant challenges for implementation. First of all, it will require agreement and cooperation outside of the Navy, the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, and the importance of outside influences must not be taken lightly. These influencers range from U.S. institutions and industries to allies that share common values including maritime freedom of navigation and the rule of law. Secondly, there needs to be a cultural realignment that better leverages the strengths and capabilities of each of the services while at the same time protecting equities. This shift must promote maritime interoperability, makes the sum of the parts a stronger whole, and is consistent with the principles of JADC2.

Congress and the administration—regardless of the party in power—must be committed to presenting and supporting a steady funding line that enables consistent investment and underwrites this strategy. Lack of steady, reliable funding has been a consistent lament for decades, but one that hasn’t been given the required commitment in the Congress. Absent that commitment, our maritime forces will find themselves with multiple fractured capabilities as they confront our peer rivals. That said, surely the government that can program trillions of dollars on COVID relief and infrastructure can find the money that provides for the national defense and global economic prosperity. 

We don’t have the luxury of time to methodically work out the best possible approach. The many factors affecting the implementation of the Advantage at Sea strategy are like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, but there are many pieces already in place. What we must not do is fall into the trap of taking too long to put the pieces together, or by the time we figure it out it may be too late. An imperfect plan implemented in a timely manner will trump a perfect plan executed too late.

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