President's Commentary: A Sea Change for Our Maritime Services

February 1, 2020
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The current National Defense Strategy looks at the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Consequently, the military services are thoughtfully making strategic adjustments and adapting their operational concepts to meet new and emerging threats. Those changes are especially significant in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Among the threats is China, which is pursuing an aggressive campaign of economic and diplomatic hegemony underwritten by a growing naval presence across the entire reach of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. The Belt and Road Initiative aims to create a Chinese sphere of influence extending throughout the globe, and the cost of participation—an intrusive Chinese presence, internal corruption and often crushing debt incumbent with Chinese-backed financing—already is apparent to many countries.

Russia may no longer be the global power it once was, but it is a regional force that poses a challenge for the United States with its nuclear forces and information operations. Further, it is once again extending its influence through the use of surrogate forces.

With oceans covering nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface and roughly 90 percent of international commerce exercised via the sea lanes, maritime forces could find themselves in the midst of a sudden conflict in any of a number of different scenarios. Ensuring continued freedom of navigation and access to the high seas will only increase in importance.

The U.S. Navy has a new chief of naval operations, and the Marine Corps has a new commandant. They are building on the foundations established by their predecessors, and they are implementing complementary strategic course adjustments in their respective services based on the defense strategy and evolving threats.

An aggressive threat, specifically from China, Russia and Iran, has impelled the Navy’s transformation into a larger and more versatile force. Strategic plans call for a 355-ship fleet, with Navy leadership presently aiming to reach this goal within 10 years. Obtaining the resources necessary for this expansion, along with other improvements, will be a challenge. Still to be determined is the exact ship mix. To this end, we will likely see a combination of crewed and unmanned ships and submersibles, with advanced automation enabling new capabilities.

The Marines are retooling in a return to their roots as a maritime force. As Fleet Marine Forces, they again will work closely with the joint maritime component commander. The model will likely reflect the manner in which the two services functioned together in the past: integrated much more tightly in a significant departure from the way they have operated during almost 20 years of combat in Southwest Asia.

The nation doesn’t need a second land army. There is, however, an operational gap between the U.S. Army and special operations forces that traditionally has been most capably filled by a versatile and expeditionary Marine Corps. Marine forces in the future will be lighter, more maneuverable, less geographically concentrated and more able to bring increased lethality through improved technology and associated weapons advances—a role for which they are well-suited. The commandant’s number-one priority is force design: determining the capabilities needed to work with the Navy going forward.

The changes underway in the Navy and the Marine Corps will benefit both services. Marines can help safeguard sea lanes of communication by being geographically positioned to bring fires to bear on adversaries and denying them maritime access in those areas. This has the potential for freeing Navy ships to operate elsewhere. Similarly, the Navy can bring its own capabilities to the fore to support Marine Corps operations. Both services will be more widely disbursed with greater flexibility and reduced vulnerability.

One of the advantages of naval forces is that they are mobile by design. They can loiter or shift geographic position rapidly, creating an operational dilemma for adversaries and forcing them to expand their defensive posture. Additionally, owing to sea-based maneuverability and mobility, maritime forces can, as the scenario calls, appear less threatening than the suggested permanency of land-based forces, while delivering a powerful political message.

Finally, the military services are preparing for the all-domain fight, and understanding the threat is paramount. Consequently, allies and partners will continue to be critical to future military operations. Naval forces have a vital role in shaping these relationships, whether it is through exercises, training, exchange programs, humanitarian operations, presence or conflict. They will be important to strengthen our existing bilateral treaties and partnerships as well as developing new relationships with countries that share our common view.

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