This article outlines the path that led to the U.S. Navy’s current strategic deficit and proposes a framework for a new maritime strategy, one that I believe should be immediately developed along with the corresponding force structure assessment. With a modest 5% additional investment in the Navy over the next five years, 90% of the changes required by this strategy can be achieved.
The Death of Naval Strategy
The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 effectively ended U.S. naval strategy. Through this legislation, Congress affirmed its authority to step in and “right the ship” after a series of well-publicized military failures, which at the time seemed to lay squarely on the shoulders of the services’ inability to work together without service-specific parochial interests getting in the way.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act affirmed and strengthened the role of Secretary of Defense and greatly expanded the power of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, effectively removing the Service Chiefs and Secretaries from any role in the operational chain of command and from any advisory role to the President. They were relegated to budget warriors – and the Navy was a ship not under command.
The Act also sought to increase the caliber of officers in joint positions and required that all officers serve in a joint tour as a prerequisite for promotion to flag or general rank. As a result, the services realigned officer career paths to meet these new joint timelines. Each service had to align to statutory promotion boards, which ultimately drove the career path of each officer, resulting in officers moving as quickly as possible from one milestone tour to another. No longer could an officer afford to spend multiple tours on Navy staffs learning the craft of strategy. Strategy was only for the Joint Staff—only for the Chairman.
The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)—the only service chief with “Operations” in his title— had a unique role since the position’s establishment in 1915. The official role of the CNO was codified in 1947 under General Order 5 as “(a) command[er] of the Operating Forces, (b) principal naval advisor to the President and the Secretary [of the Navy].” The ink had barely dried on the General Order, when forces in Congress and the White House set about to further the trends in unification of the armed forces. Over the next 20 years in a series of laws, the role of the CNO in operational matters was fully removed and by the 1970s, then-CNO, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, was convinced that the Navy “was confused about its justification for existence.”
Thomas Hone noted in his book, Power and Change, that “OPNAV [the CNO’s staff] is a loose confederation, not an operational organization.” It was, however, not until 1978, when CNO Admiral Thomas Hayward, fresh off a tour as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, translated Zumwalt’s criticisms into real change. Hayward was convinced the Navy needed to be revitalized, strategically and tactically – simply put, the Navy needed a strategy around which to plan and program. As professor John Hattendorf of the Naval War College observed, “Hayward sought to change…from a budget battle to an analysis of the strategic issues of a global maritime power.” In 1981, Navy Secretary John Lehman built on Hayward’s Sea Strike concept to establish the goal of a 600-ship Navy, which he very nearly reached before leaving office.
Then came Goldwater-Nichols. One cannot deny that the Act has been successful in more fully integrating the services into a Joint Force, however, one cannot overlook the deleterious effects on strategy and procurement in the individual services that have resulted. As I wrote in Look to the 1980s to Inform the Fleet of Today, the Navy does not have, and has not had, a maritime strategy for the past 30 years. Moreover, the past 30 years have seen failures in ship class after ship class, resulting in a lost generation of shipbuilding.
As “budget warriors,” many CNOs since the late 1980s have attempted to leave their mark on the service, and some have—for better or worse. However, it is precisely because the Navy has lacked a strategy that the success or failure of the Navy has relied solely on the strength of the CNO or Navy Secretary’s personality. As I noted in my article, Secretary Lehman’s bullish approach: “first strategy, then requirements, then the POM, then budget,” stands in stark contrast to the budget-driven Navy leadership of subsequent decades.
What is, and is not, a Maritime Strategy?
A strategy is the military means to accomplish political ends – or as often quoted from Clausewitz, “a continuation of politics with other means.”
This year, like many others, military leaders reiterated in repeated testimony before the House Armed Services Committee that they are “prepared to compete globally and fight and win the nation’s wars…” However, when asked what “win” means, the same leaders seem befuddled. The Chief of Staff of the Army recently testified that “winning with China means not fighting China.” I happen to agree with him, except, that was not the question—which is precisely the problem. We cannot define what “winning” means. When one cannot define winning, one cannot write a strategy.
What does winning with China look like? Numerous naval strategists including Sir Julian Corbett have argued that war cannot be won by naval (or air) action alone. Similarly, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, recently testified that “decisive outcomes in war are ultimately achieved on land…” Does this mean that we cannot have a decisive outcome with China without a ground invasion of the mainland?
Today, the military rise of China threatens the balance of power globally and as Thucydides noted – the rise in power of one actor threatens all others. This is not to say that China—or any other country—does not have the right to defend itself, but that a country that does not share the ideals of a free, democratic world is disrupting international norms. As with the destabilizing actions of Russia, if not properly managed, China’s actions could be misinterpreted and lead to unintended conflict.
It is precisely this ambiguity that drives the Navy’s need for a new global maritime strategy – and a complementary national maritime strategy that includes the full range of commercial maritime activities, domestic shipbuilding and repair, and Maritime law enforcement activities. The need is especially critical when defense resources are strained amid competing priorities from non-defense spending and among the services themselves. This naval strategy should be developed by naval leaders, not by the Joint Staff nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. defense planning strategy has been a variation of a two-front war policy. Today’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls for the Armed Forces to be capable of “defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.” By placing offense (defeating aggression) as the primary capability of our forces, it constrains thinking in the offense-defense balance of military strategy and has resulted in maintaining a large standing army and Cold War-era battle tactics as the preferred methods of training and equipping our forces.
Today’s “Maritime Strategy”
In the 1984 Maritime Strategy, “winning” meant keeping the conflict to a conventional war and supporting ground forces in driving the Soviets back to their own borders. This is the “deny and punish” approach still employed today. The Navy developed the strategy on the assumption, backed by intelligence, that any conflict with the Soviets would quickly engulf much of the globe. This required the Navy to be present and ready in three key regions simultaneously, instead of the “swing strategy” preferred by the Joint Staff.
The Navy developed a maritime strategy based on a three-front conflict and centered it around the carrier battle group. The strategy did not consider limitations in maintenance, training, or employment. It was assumed every ship would be available in conflict and that the number needed was 600.
If the same construct were applied to our force today using the current NDS, the Navy could simply use the Indo-Pacific Command Commander’s most demanding contingency to determine the number and type of ships required for the whole Navy. This resultant force structure would be well below the 355-ship requirement, even when accounting for “opportunistic aggression elsewhere,” and would likely fall below 250 total ships.
So, how did the Navy develop its current Battle Force 2045 plan that calls for somewhere between 382 to 446 manned ships and 143 to 242 large, unmanned vessels?
Instead of starting with a single contingency, or multiple contingencies, the Navy made assumptions about force development, force generation, and force employment to drive their final assessment. The range of ships presented in Battle Force 2045 came about not from a global maritime strategy, but instead, three different studies were simply coalesced into a single force structure assessment, and the resulting force requirements present a range based on the final product of each study.
As a 2019 RAND Corporation study on defense planning noted, “different assumptions and types of guidance can produce very different results in the process.” In other words, our assumptions greatly drive outcomes. Combatant Commanders (CCDR) develop contingency plans to combat specific scenarios in their theater while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, through the Joint Staff, is tasked with global strategic planning. The study concluded that “a common assumption is that the plans and programs of the defense planning process should be strategy-driven, but the final size and shape of the force are highly budget-influenced. When operating in that realm, defense planners do not have a reliable way of estimating—or quantifying—risk” (emphasis added).
Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, that the Joint Staff force planning process, the process that translates strategy into the forces we need, is deeply flawed and guided much more by parochial interests vice national interest. She goes on to say “the current process is antithetical to the kind of competing of ideas and innovation that the Department [of Defense] really needs…”
When a force structure assessment begins by using inputs like force generation and employment to counter specific scenarios, the output will always be dependent on current force employment constructs. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan uses a 5:1 model, where five ships result in one deployed. For example, if one wanted 100 ships deployed around the globe annually (the Navy’s traditional deployment rate), the force structure required would be 500 ships. However, if the force generation model is changed to 4:1, the total force would require only 400 ships. Further, if the force generation model was a forward deployed naval force (FDNF) model where ships are available two-thirds of the time (3:2), the force structure assessment addressing the same threat would only require 150 total ships. These force generation models are critical assumptions that drive the force structures used in defense planning.
In a seminal article, “Cruising for a Bruising: Maritime Competition in an Anti-Access Age,” Naval War College Professors Jonathan D. Caverley and Peter Dombrowski, note “the most likely location for great-power friction is at sea.” Many scholars have written about the balance of power that affects competition on land, especially over the last 20 years, but much less has been written about maritime competition and the offense-defense balance on the oceans. However, a truth remains, “when offense has the advantage, the security dilemma grows more acute, arms races grow more intense, and war grows more likely.”
Naval platforms are ideally suited to provide a flexible deterrent option, however, Barry R. Posen and Jack Snyder postulate that the U.S. military is offensively minded, and one can see this through public testimony and statements of our military leaders. The defense side of “offense-defense” is often thought of as a natural output of a strong offense. This was true in the 1980s Maritime Strategy that envisioned an exclusively offensive plan and is what Caverley and Dombrowski refer to as the “Cult of the Offensive…” They argue that even if the Navy could instantly develop the fleet of the future, the doctrine of power projection would still dominate the thinking.
In the 1984 Maritime Strategy, the deterrent role was ancillary from the demand-based wartime strategy that resulted in the 600-ship requirement. In that strategy, deterrence was an output of force structure, and it articulated the requirement for a peacetime presence to fill deterrent roles, reduce response times, and provide policymakers with naval crisis-response options. One-third of the ships needed for wartime missions in each theater would always notionally be forward deployed under the strategy. However, by 1987, the 600-ship requirement was exclusively tied to a deterrent presence model. Vice Admiral Hank Mustin testified that dropping below the 15-carrier requirement would necessitate a discussion of “what [region] do you want to give up?”
Deterrence as a Strategy
I agree with many of today’s military leaders that war is not inevitable, but to conclude that the only way to win in the face of malign or belligerent nations is not to go to war is naïve at best, and is not grounded in a strategy that uses deterrence as its first principle.
It would be better to acknowledge that we are not going to conduct a land campaign against China, so in conventional thinking, the U.S. cannot “win” a war, however, much as with nuclear war, deterrence should be considered “winning.” When military leaders use language like “fight and win,” it downplays the primary objective of deterrence and ultimately may shape force structure and force employment in the wrong direction.
A deterrence strategy should not be a byproduct of an offensive strategy. According to a 2017 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) study, in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, “the U.S. Navy pursued a deterrence posture that relied on modest levels of forward deployed forces that were smaller representations of the larger force. To avoid instability caused by regional powers, deterrence was premised on the promise of punishment that would arrive with follow-on forces.” Bryan Clark, testifying about the study in 2017, affirmed “the emergence of great power competition is going to put the onus on us to deter conflict with those great powers.”
Each contingency plan has a phase of deterrence, or what the Navy terms “presence,” day-to-day requirements for ships at sea. In the past 20 years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dominated the Navy’s power projection requirements and structural cracks in our force generation and employment models have been revealed. Many ships have deployed back-to-back with maintenance truncated, only to have future maintenance availabilities extended to double or more of their original length, requiring another ship to deploy in their place. The Navy has tried to “reset” this cycle on several occasions, only to be told that they must surge again to meet emergent requirements.
Today, the combined CCDR day-to-day requirements for all theaters would require 150 more ships than are presently in the fleet. Moreover, although the Navy can provide flexible strike options without the need for overflight consideration, the last two decades of war have shown that our Navy is not adequately sized using current force employment models to provide this enduring capability.
The inherent mobility of a navy provides a deterrent when present, but when removed it reminds enemies—and allies alike—of the unfixed nature of a mobile force, and could create the incorrect perception that an opening exists for aggression. Case in point is the recent deployment of the forward-based carrier Ronald Reagan from Japan to the Middle East. A ship can only be in one place at one time, therefore, political decisions or CCDR requests can also take away the deterrent that was present yesterday.
The same is not true for forward based ground troops. During the past twenty years, the Army did not lower the troop levels in Korea or Germany to deploy them to Iraq and Afghanistan—but that is precisely what the Navy did with its own force posture commitments. Naval forces that otherwise would have been present in the Mediterranean, Western Pacific, and North Atlantic have instead persistently been deployed to the Middle East, leaving a massive presence gap that China has exploited.
A New Maritime Strategy
The same 2017 CSBA study cited earlier provides a compelling model for developing a new maritime strategy. This study proposes a revolution in naval strategy and presence. This new “deterrent strategy” would organize forces into distinct Deterrence Forces and Maneuver Forces, with each having separate force structures and missions. The study suggested that the Navy should “focus on sustaining an effective posture for conventional deterrence rather than an efficient presence to meet near-term operational needs.”
The Deterrence Forces
Much has been written over the past 70 years about the actual success of deterrent strategies, but many believe it is a strategy worth pursuing. Deterrence cannot be measured in real time and although it is the cornerstone of our National Defense from nuclear to conventional conflict, there is no way to accurately measure its success or failure. Only in retrospect can we know that our strategy of deterrence has worked – and it has clearly worked in nuclear conflict, but not always in conventional conflict.
In a deterrent strategy, the commitment of the defender, in this case the U.S., must be resolute and unwavering. As Robert Jervis noted, “perceptions are the dominant variable in deterrence success or failure.” Bruce Russett concluded that deterrence fails “when the attacker decides that the defender’s threat is not likely to be fulfilled.” This does not mean that the U.S. must respond to every provocation, as it often did during the Cold War, but as Michael J. Mazarr noted, “successful deterrence typically involves…taking steps to demonstrate both the capability and determination to fulfill a threat.” It is this capability and determination that may have led Michèle Flournoy to state that if the U.S. had the capability to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan…”
The Navy and Marine Corps by their inherent construct are uniquely positioned to provide both general (ongoing, persistent) and immediate (short-term, urgent) deterrent forces. In a 2020 article, Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay stated that “One of the defining characteristics of a naval force is its special role in projecting power. Navies enable countries to influence politics in more places, more decisively, farther from home.” The article provides an in-depth discussion of the role of naval power and identifies actions that demonstrate resolve and capability, and that make room for adversaries to reach bargains, rather than conflict. This is precisely the reason the U.S. Navy should be persistently present on the high seas around the globe. This deterrent presence cannot simply be the byproduct of the current Navy global presence construct. It must be intentional, persistent, and tailored to the individual theater.
The CSBA study provides a detailed proposal of the composition and deployment locations of the deterrence force, and although I do not agree with the entirety of the force structure or locations outlined in the study, the overarching concept it defines is valid and should be considered as a foundation of a new maritime strategy.
In this construct, the Deterrence Force consists primarily of forward deployed naval forces, with a force generation model that produces a full year of deployed ship presence for every two ships, which is 2.5 times what we achieve today through purely rotational forces. The study’s force construct provides for a mix of low- and high-end forces, including unmanned surface and sub-surface vehicles. Carrier strike groups would not be part of Deterrence Forces.
The Maneuver Forces
While the Deterrence Force is the first line of defense preventing near-peer competitors from achieving a fait accompli, the Maneuver Force arrives to conduct sustained warfare, and will be augmented by the remainder of CONUS-based rotational forces when they arrive later.
In the CSBA study the Maneuver Forces are deployed on a more traditional, rotational model such as the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) and are centered exclusively on carrier strike groups. The study provides for two carrier strike groups deployed continuously, but independent from current global force management plans. Instead, these forces “will need to be prepared for a wider range of possible operational environments, more potential adversaries, a larger number of alliance relationships, and a higher likelihood of being faced with high-intensity sustained combat.” In the study, the Maneuver Forces consist of multi-carrier task groups not assigned to a particular region, but free to move between theaters conducting major exercises, experimenting with tactics, and operating with allies.
The Navy should develop a maritime strategy and corresponding force structure based on the Deterrence and Maneuver Force construct outlined in the CSBA study, make changes to operating models as rapidly as possible, and make their intentions widely known.
The 2017 CSBA study makes a strong case for adoption of this new operating model and for making significant changes to future naval forces. We simply cannot continue to use the same outdated approach to conventional deterrence and expect to successfully deter peer competitors. The study concludes that:
“This [current] approach to conventional deterrence will likely not work against the potential great power aggressors of the 2030s, who are likely to seek the ability to achieve a quick, decisive victory over adversaries. Efforts to reverse the results of aggression would require a much larger conflict and would likely have global consequences that would create international pressure to reach a quick settlement. To be deterred in the 2030s, aggressors must be presented with the possibility that their goals will be denied or that the immediate costs to pursue them will be prohibitively high.”
The conundrum we face today is that there is no time to waste in developing this new strategy and method of operations. The CSBA study calls for significant investment in new platforms and overseas basing that are both costly and time consuming.
Many of the force changes proposed in the study would take decades to achieve and proposals such as basing forces in Vietnam and the Philippines are unlikely to materialize. However, force employment and generation can be changed quickly, and existing infrastructure and basing agreements can be rapidly leveraged to achieve the goals of this strategy.
In order to quickly establish the Deterrence Force, I differ somewhat from the CSBA study in the proposed locations for these units and believe that we must take advantage of locations where we currently conduct routine operations and have existing infrastructure. These forces could be postured in a sweeping arc encircling China, from Djibouti to Diego Garcia to Singapore to Guam to Japan, very similar to the Akhromeyev Map. This would include standing up the First Fleet in Singapore, as proposed by the former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite. We should work with allies in the region on increasingly-coordinated operations and extend and strengthen our compacts with island nations, such the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, who have expressed a willingness to work closely with the U.S. to reject Chinese influence.
In the Mediterranean and European theater, deterrent forces should be based in Souda Bay, Spain, and Norway to counter Russian malign efforts in the region, with additional forces stationed in Alaska. This would also be a deterrent force poised to respond in the Arctic.
For the Maneuver Force, a slightly different approach than that discussed in the CSBA study is achievable today. Operating these maneuver forces using a FDNF CONUS-based model would position one carrier strike group on each coast, with the remainder of the carriers operating in a rotational model (such as OFRP) until it is their turn to rotate into the FDNF model. Additionally, the Japan-based FDNF carrier would remain on its current cycle. The two FDNF CONUS carriers would then split the globe and operate as maneuver forces in a regional model vice specific allocation to a combatant commander.
Finally, I propose that by using existing platforms we can achieve most of the deterrent effect of this strategy in the next five years. We should increase DDG procurement to four per year (two per yard per year), rapidly ramp-up and expand the FFG program to a second production yard, modify current platforms such as the MK VI patrol boat with missile launchers, field the Naval Strike Missile on LCS, and convert commercial vessels to large VLS magazines. Additionally, while the Marine Corps fully develops its Expeditionary Advance Base Operations concept, they could begin testing the concept using the LCS and EPF platforms. I postulate that this deterrence effect can be gained for as little as a 5% increase in the current Navy budget ($10B) per year. Much as John Lehman wrote in discussing the development of the 1984 Maritime Strategy, 90 percent of the deterrent power of this buildup could be achieved in the first year. This was done by publicly declaring and explaining the strategy, especially its naval component, and taking actions that left no doubt among friend and foe that it would be achieved.
The United States has a unique role in history. Seth Cropsey and Bryan McGrath wrote in 2017, “the paradox of the American experience is that the U.S. is not simply a great power – it is an exceptional power, for which ideals count as much as strength.” It is this exceptional power – and responsibility – that requires exceptional thinking by the political and military leaders of our nation. This global maritime strategy can work, but the Navy will have to overcome substantial barriers to change in the Joint Staff, Combatant Commands, amongst the Services, and within the National Security Council and Congress. However, one cannot argue with a good plan. All we need is the plan and a few champions on Capitol Hill.