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Control of the Seas: A strategy to meet the challenges to the U.S. Navy

Seth Cropsey

In 2007 the U.S. Navy published a new maritime strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” known as CS-21. The Navy had already shifted from its Cold War focus on defeating the Soviet fleet at sea to projecting power from sea to shore, as challenges in such places as Iraq, Bosnia, and Somalia materialized. CS-21 continued this emphasis on projecting power ashore, but concentrated on multiplying the effect of U.S. seapower by increased association with friendly navies aimed at deterring and preventing crises. Deterrence is an old task for the United States. Preventing conflict by taking action in advance would mean sailing into a mare incognitum. U.S. foreign policy habitually reacts to violent breaches in international order. It does not anticipate them.

The public version of CS-21 has other flaws. It does not mention China. It does not say what forces are required to execute the strategy. Still, CS-21 was a worthwhile effort to adapt to such changes as the increased prospect of failed states that could become large petri dishes for terrorism. This possibility remains, as headlines from Africa’s north and Horn show. Added to failed states and terror is the more ominous possibility that “budget realities” will eviscerate American seapower by as much as half of its current strength—285 combatant ships—within the next decade and a half. “Budget realities” is code for both political parties’ unwillingness to maintain American seapower at levels that would guarantee continued U.S. dominance at sea. The Navy has thus been revising CS-21 for over a year and is likely to make public its efforts soon.

Strategy worthy of the name seeks its ends by using one’s own strength to exploit an opponent’s weakness. All states have soft spots in their armor. Sparta was a land power and had no fleet in the Peloponnesian War, where colonies, allies, and enemies dotted the surrounding seas. Athens was a seapower whose first citizen, Pericles, advised his countrymen to rely on the sea for sustenance rather than confront Sparta at her strongest point, land warfare. When Pericles died and the Athenians abandoned his policy the problems that led to their ultimate defeat mounted.

For Britain, the surrounding seas were the globe’s oceans. They separated her from the European continent and her colonial possessions on which the sun never set. British strategy used diplomacy, coalitions, and armies in the field to prevent the rise of a continental hegemon—from the War of the Spanish Succession to the Cold War—while maintaining a powerful navy to protect the island from invasion and preserve the benefits of communicating freely with military allies and commercial partners by sea. When the unexpectedly high cost of extending the colonial system—in the Second Boer War—as well as the increasing cost of domestic social spending resulted in exceptional indebtedness, Britain started to shed expensive naval obligations and set in motion a retreat from its global presence. The Royal Navy today has one-third as many surface ships as it did during the Falklands war of 1982.

The United States finds itself today in a position uncannily similar to Great Britain’s over a century ago, when strained resources pressured London into defraying military costs by shedding commitments. The British decision to leave patrolling of the Western Atlantic to Washington turned out well. Abandoning the West Pacific to Japan did not turn out so well, although it provided short-term relief to the nation’s finances.

U.S. national interests are challenged at sea today by China’s increasing ability to deny the Western Pacific to American seapower. This threatens our ability to deter China in a crisis and corrodes trust with our five treaty allies in the region. By less conventional and less expensive means—the simultaneous use of midget submarines, mines, a host of short-range missiles, swarming and fast surface attack boats—Iran seeks to deny or at least hobble U.S. seapower’s ability to operate in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Eastern Mediterranean is a cauldron of turmoil, from Turkey’s descent into Islamism to Syria’s civil war to Egypt’s political/religious divide. In short, a nearly 10,000-mile arc of seagoing trouble confronts the U.S. Navy. And in a conflict, the Southeast Asian straits through which tankers pass between East Asia and the Middle East would show up in flashing colors along the same arc.

U.S. grand strategy should aim at preventing either China or Iran from becoming the hegemon of its region. In the Eastern Mediterranean, forestalling a widespread plunge into tribal/religious warfare, deterring regional nuclear proliferation, eliminating existential danger to our friends and allies, and securing recently discovered and likely future major energy deposits are among America’s vital interests. The challenges come primarily from radical Islamists and are sharpened by Russia’s growing permanent naval presence where we have none, as well as the Obama administration’s tenacious view that resolution of Israeli-Palestinian problems offers a royal road to regional harmony.

The new maritime strategy should identify the ability to project dominant expeditionary and sea control force into the Western Pacific, the Persian Gulf, and the Eastern Mediterranean as critical to defending both the nation’s maritime and broad foreign policy interests. The strategy should include the kinds of forces needed to accomplish this: large surface combatants equipped with long-distance weapons-capable drones; submarines whose lethality is magnified by extensive use of undersea drones; and modernized conventional, as well as smaller, surface vessels that are as capable of performing standard naval missions as they are proficient at the swift movement of well-defended, small Marine detachments.

But no maritime threat trumps the self-inflicted diminution of U.S. seapower, whose retreating goals are unsupported by the monies to pay for them. Strategy is supposed to make difficult choices among competing needs with limited resources. It is not expected to move mountains with teaspoons. An October 2013 report of the Congressional Budget Office is one of several that foresees continued shrinkage of America’s combat fleet. “The total costs of carrying out the 2014 [shipbuilding] plan,” it says, “—an average of about $21 billion in 2013 dollars per year over the next 30 years—would be one-third higher than the funding amounts that the Navy has received in recent decades” (emphasis added). In other words, the Navy’s goal of reaching the fleet that the 2014 fiscal year plan envisions depends on large, sustained, and historically anomalous increases to its shipbuilding budget. The largest strategic challenge facing the United States is to rebuild the seapower on which our status as a great power rests.

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