Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A New Maritime Strategy: Navigating Uncertain Waters

A New Maritime Strategy: Navigating Uncertain Waters

The Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen, announced earlier this year his plans to develop and promulgate a new Maritime Strategy.[1] This publication will be the latest in a long line of strategic pronouncements produced by the Department of the Navy. The last formal version was crafted and aggressively marketed by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman during the Reagan administration.[2] That version was the culmination of years of internal studies and critical debates about the Navy’s Cold War role. Lehman’s offensive sea-control approach was crucial to his arguments for the building of a 600-ship Navy.[3] It served as the cornerstone of the Navy’s thinking for how it intended to fight, what type of fleet was needed to counter the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, and how it would operate. Today’s Navy lacks such a cornerstone, and thus Admiral Mullen’s initiative is timely and necessary.[4]

However, this effort will be challenged by six factors that will ultimately influence the development of any maritime strategy. These factors will have to be wrestled with in developing a modernized Maritime Strategy that is responsive to America’s role in a world characterized by an increasingly globalized economy and a broadening set of missions that naval forces can expect to be tasked with. In a world described by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as “flat,” global forces have created a smaller world, one in which change—including radical change—occurs much faster and with more destabilizing impacts than Mr. Friedman appreciates.[5]

1. Strategic Foundation

The latest Maritime Strategy was developed to be supportive of a long-held and widely recognized strategy of containment. Although this strategy shifted over time from symmetric confrontations to more indirect or peripheral modes, the overall grand strategy remained intact for almost all of the Cold War, or what is now often thought of as World War III. Today’s iteration is being developed in an interregnum in historical terms and in a strategic vacuum. There is a range of options to be considered, and the maritime strategy must be subordinated to a long term Grand Strategy. Instead of a broad bipartisan consensus, stark divisions may exist that undercut an enduring strategic framework.

2. Adversary Understanding

The length and nature of the Cold War facilitated the development of a deep understanding of our enemy and the concomitant creation of a cadre of specialists who advised our policymakers about the strategic inclinations, decision-making processes, culture, and historical underpinnings of our opponent. Given the range of potential scenarios facing the United States’ global interests today, our grasp and understanding of tomorrow’s foe is a daunting challenge. The risks of miscalculation have been ameliorated slightly of late by the development of dedicated cells at the Naval War College and the Center for Naval Analyses. However, American strategists face transnational threats as well as rising powers and naval strategists today lack the formal National Intelligence Estimates and rigorous analytical foundation that their predecessors exploited effectively.[6] Likewise, the opacity of tomorrow’s threat reduces our ability to appreciate the specific geography and context for future operations. Where is tomorrow’s Northern Flank?

3. Political Consensus

Another complexity is the lack of political consensus guiding American foreign policy. Over the past few years, advocates of primacy have sought to extend indefinitely America’s preponderance of power. A number of policymakers, often labeled as neoconservatives, have focused primarily on U.S. military power, in the mistaken belief that the United States could compile so much raw power that potential competitors would be dissuaded from even contemplating a competition against the Goliath. A component of this strategy has led to the ongoing war in Iraq, part of a “generational commitment” to bring democracy to the Middle East. The backlash and lessons from this conflict will undoubtedly influence American taxpayers and their elected representatives, but exactly how is an unknown.

4. Domestic Support

Closely related to the shifting sands of political support from policy elites and American leaders is the degree of domestic support for a new strategy. The Cold War and the experiences of World War II helped shaped domestic support for many years until that support was weakened by the costly war in Southeast Asia. The Maritime Strategy of the 1980s emanated in part from a rejection of the post-Vietnam syndrome on the part of Americans, led by President Reagan. Absent such leadership and a clear threat, one doubts that a new administration will be able to call the country forward in the aftermath of Iraq. In any event, the American people are older, more diverse, and more sharply divided than they were in the 1980s.

5. Economic Context

The previous Maritime Strategy could count on an American economy that was unrivalled in its breadth and technological capacity. America’s economic standing remains atop the world’s economies today, and its capacity to develop and exploit advanced technology remains substantive. Over the long term, due to reduced investments in education and Research and Development accounts, this lead may be challenged. Moreover, the world economy is different: more interdependent and far more dynamic than a generation ago. Advanced technologies have diffused rapidly, and potential wildcards abound in many fields. America’s industrial base is certainly smaller in some fields, including shipbuilding, and other uniquely naval competencies are waning.

6. Coalition Network

Another challenge is the United States’ decreased ability to attract and maintain coalitions and partners. During the Cold War, America’s moral stand, political appeal, and leadership contributed to the creation of NATO and other collective security institutions. From this network of friends, we amassed additive capabilities. From a naval strategy perspective, we also garnered the requisite bases and infrastructure from which to operate forward in critical regions. The end of the Cold War removed the threats and the necessity of these bases, while simultaneously domestic pressures have forced some former allies to reconsider the political costs of permanent U.S. military garrisons. One sees this in Europe and parts of Asia, and in Turkey during the build-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Over the last decade or so, America’s overseas posture has been considerably eroded, which could limit our ability to project and sustain forces at great distance from our shores.

Overcoming These Barriers

None of these factors are necessarily insurmountable to the CNO and his team. But they do underscore the complexity of the problem and the need for an inclusive and transparent process of strategy development. The Navy has publicly announced its intention to take this product out to the American people to widen the inputs and to help shape the final product. The CNO has appropriately reached out to his maritime partners in the U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard. He has also made a great effort to reach out to his international partners to garner their insights. Yet it has been a long time since the Navy has produced a formal strategy, and hardnosed strategic thinking has not been a forte of the individual Services since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 mandated a greater emphasis on Joint operations and ceded strategic thinking to the Joint Staff.

Admiral Mullen recognizes this, and he has energized the considerable intellectual talents at the Naval War College, in Newport, RI, to assist him. Newport has historically assisted the Navy in developing strategic guidance with a world-class war-gaming center and a dedicated strategic research department that continuously monitors international affairs and maritime matters. While the Navy has not jumped through the strategy development hoops for at least a decade, it has a deep pool of talent and a great deal of legacy capability to draw upon. That base is already making progress with a rich and open series of workshops and war games that are refreshingly candid and remarkably diverse in the range of viewpoints actively sought and listened to. Unlike the past decade or so, when war was reduced to a process of identifying static targets and applying precision weapons, today’s Navy is considering a wider range of social, political, and economic factors, not just technology.[7]

Equally important, the strategy process Admiral Mullen has insisted upon avoids what the British strategist Colin Gray calls “presentism.”[8] The worst thing the Navy could do is focus on the ongoing War on Terror and radically adapt the Fleet to solve today’s problem. Strategy demands a long-term view, guided by the questions that history suggests are relevant, by the enduring nature of distance and geography, and by the ambiguity of strategic decisions in the absence of answers to many unknowns. The long lead time needed to construct a fleet, along with the long life of most ships, reinforces the need for a long-term perspective. Since ships built today will still be in use in 2040 or 2050, they need to be strategically relevant for long periods.

This process also avoids another potential problem by ensuring that institutional biases and preferences do not become preordained answers. There are still some within the Navy who envision the modernization of the Chinese armed forces as a readily convenient threat. This small group sees the PLA Navy as a conventional threat that automatically mandates a large blue-water Navy capable of defeating a mirror-imaged fleet constituted quite like ours. Little thought seems to be given to the strategic culture, legitimate security challenges, or geostrategic options of the PRC. Chinese history suggests a more ambiguous and less conventional approach. This is not to dismiss the Chinese Navy’s ongoing modernization or the potential for a rising power to disturb the status quo. But neither “presentism” nor mirror-imaging serve our national security interests.

Having observed it up close for a week, I believe the nation is well served by today’s naval strategists and the comprehensive manner in which alternative strategies and options are being scrutinized. The swirling dynamics of globalization are being given due weight, as are historic trends and realities. Critical political issues regarding strategic deterrence, nuclear proliferation, and coalition-management challenges are being wrestled with. A new Maritime Strategy to navigate an uncertain future is a daunting challenge, but is critical if America’s security interests are to be as well preserved and advanced in the next century as they were in the last.


  1. Admiral Mike Mullen, USN, speech at the Naval War College, Newport, RI, June 14, 2006. 
  2. The Maritime Strategy, Supplement, Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1986. 
  3. George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890–1990 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 418-44.
  4. The Department of the Navy did issue two “institutional vision” statements in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution which were strategically relevant and represent innovative thinking: “From The Sea” (1991) and “Forward . . . From the Sea” (1993). 
  5. Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005. 
  6. For a detailed understanding of the development of the strategy, see John B. Hattendorf, ed., The Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy, 1977–1986 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2004). 
  7. See Frederick W. Kagan’s impressive new book, Finding the Target, The Transformation of American Military Policy (New York: Encounter, 2006). 
  8. Colin S. Gray, “Stability Operations in Strategic Perspective: A Skeptical View,” Parameters, Summer 2006, p. 4. 

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