THE U.S. NAVY is by far the most powerful naval force in the world, perhaps equal in combat power to all the rest of the world's navies combined. The U.S. Navy alone operates large deck, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, their air groups (each more potent than most of the world's air forces) and their associated battle groups on a routine basis--and possesses no fewer than ten of these. The U.S. Navy alone operates a large force of nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines (the Soviet submarine force being but a shade of its former glory, while the Chinese submarine force is two or three technology generations behind). The U.S. Navy alone possesses the wherewithal to launch large amphibious assault operations. Most important of all, the U.S. Navy alone has the ability to project and sustain naval power at any point on the globe for weeks and months on end, thanks to its unsung but essential "fleet train" of oilers and underway replenishment vessels (In 1982, the British task force sent to the Falklands was literally falling apart for lack of maintenance by the end of that war).
The United States Navy today suffers from only one glaring shortcoming: a perceived lack of relevance. Navies traditionally exist to fight other navies, to preserve freedom of the seas, to control sea lanes, or at worst, deny them to other navies. But today the U.S. Navy is unchallenged. The Soviet Navy has trouble sending a relatively small task force into the Mediterranean after a year of preparation. The Chinese Navy seldom ventures beyond its bastion in the South China Sea. The rest of the world's navies are slouching into glorified coast guards. So why do we need a navy, and how does the Navy justify its shipbuilding budget?
The broad answer is deterrence. The existence of the Navy serves to inhibit potential aggressors from going to war by allowing the U.S. to project military power anywhere in the world, even where we do not have allies or bases in the theater. Thus, in any given crisis, every president since Eisenhower has always asked first, "Where are the carriers?" The size and power of the U.S. Navy inhibits most other countries from even attempting to match us at sea (even the USSR settled for a "sea denial" strategy intended to disrupt U.S. reinforcement of Europe for a limited period, rather than trying to wrest permanent control of the Atlantic from us), and so their options are immediately constrained by the existence of U.S. seapower.
In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy exercised this deterrent function in two ways: first, by maintaining the nuclear ballistic missile submarine force as one (and the most secure) leg of the nuclear triad; second, by developing and retaining the combat power to defeat the Soviet navy's aim of disrupting the Atlantic sea lanes. At a secondary level, the Navy also had the ability to strike along the periphery of the Soviet empire, and to intervene in secondary theaters or regional wars through airpower and amphibious assaults.
Today, these missions are gone, but the need for the Navy to act as a deterrent to aggression remains. The question is how.
The U.S. Navy recently tried to answer that question through a new policy document entitled "A Cooperative Strategy For 21st Century Sea Power." Produced and endorsed by the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marine Corps, it recognizes that the days of fleet actions are most likely over (barring a major conflict involving China), and that the future will be dominated by low intensity conflicts, humanitarian assistance, stabilization and reconstruction operations, and counter-terrorism operations. How does the Navy make itself relevant in that context?
The short answer is by continuing to be the United States Navy. With its large, general-purpose forces, the Navy is capable of a wide range of contingency operations without making substantial alterations to its force structure or its operational methods. The capabilities that support the Navy's primary military missions allow it to perform these low-intensity missions as well. This will become increasingly important given the rapid "littoralization" of the world's population--already a majority of people live within 60 miles of the ocean, and the shift from hinterlands to coast is accelerating.
Take, for example, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. As witnessed by the 2005 Asian tsunami and the flooding of the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it is often necessary to intervene in situations where fixed port facilities are either destroyed or severely damaged. Humanitarian organizations had tremendous problems in delivering food, water, shelter and medical supplies because the infrastructure in these areas was wiped out by natural disaster. People were dying while the means to save them remained on ships offshore--until the arrival of the U.S. Navy.
As part of its amphibious warfare capability, the Navy has to assume that ports will not be available, and so it developed ships capable of delivering cargo, vehicles and personnel directly unto a beach. It has the ability to rapidly repair and clear damaged ports, or to build temporary ports through its Naval Construction Battalions (the famous Seabees). The Navy and the Marine Corps (the Navy's army) have organic engineering assets to repair infrastructure, build new roads, restore utility services. More important for immediate relief operations, they have hundreds of helicopters capable of lifting in emergency supplies and medical personnel and evacuating the critically injured or otherwise endangered survivors. The injured can be treated aboard U.S. Navy hospital ships, each with hundreds of beds and the surgical and lab facilities found only in larger U.S. cities. The Marines also have the military muscle to provide order and security where these have collapsed, allowing the local authorities to get back on their feet. In short, because the Navy can wage amphibious warfare, it can also perform humanitarian relief.
Humanitarian relief is one part of a spectrum of "stabilization and reconstruction" (S&R) operations, which also include restoring order and rebuilding infrastructure after (sometimes during) an international or civil conflict. Many of the same skills used in humanitarian assistance also apply to S&R operations, which means they, too, can be addressed through the U.S. Navy's amphibious warfare capability. On the stability side of the equation, the U.S. Navy has substantial resources for coastal surveillance and intelligence gathering operations, including Naval Special Warfare units such as the SEALS. For their part, the Marines have been practicing S&R since the Banana Wars of the 1920s, and have retained the doctrinal basis for that in their Small Wars Handbook and Small Wars Center of Excellence.
The breakdown of established government in many parts of the world, particularly in the Horn of Africa and some parts of Asia, has seen the resurgence of piracy--both for material gain and as part of an ideologically motivated terrorist strategy. The U.S. Navy already plays a major role in combating piracy on the high seas, and its ability to perform this mission will increase with the launch of new coastal patrol vessels such as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the fielding of new intelligence gathering systems such as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system, a long endurance UAV equipped with imaging radar, infrared sensors, and signals intelligence systems that can remain on station for more than a day several thousand kilometers from its base.
But the new naval strategy is not content to react to disasters, insurgencies, and other contingencies. Instead, it seeks to take the initiative by preventing such situations from arising by forging close connections with regional allies and neutral nations to build up local institutions, develop common operating procedures, and to increase the level of training and proficiency among the world's smaller navies. One might not be able to stop a tsunami or typhoon, but one can work beforehand to ensure that local authorities are trained and prepared to respond more effectively, and to work cooperatively with the U.S. once they happen. With regard to problems of stability, building links with local civil and military authorities, strengthening institutions, and providing developmental assistance can help prevent countries from collapsing into "failed states" that serve as breeding grounds for insurgencies and terrorism. To some extent, this already happens on a daily basis. Every naval exercise establishes common operating procedures and builds confidence, every military assistance program also involves a civil affairs program (e.g., while training foreign medics, the Navy will hold free clinics in local villages, while a construction battalion works with its foreign counterpart to erect a clinic).
The establishment of U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) is a broader step in that direction. While the commander is a U.S. Army general, the deputy commander is an officer of the State Department. AFRICOM has few assigned troops at present, and no established military mission. Rather, most of its functions involve intelligence gathering, foreign military training, and occasional advisory actions. But if trouble occurs, AFRICOM already has a framework in place to deal with it.
So, overall, the U.S. Navy's new maritime strategy merely formalizes what has been happening for the past decade or more. For the most part, there needs to be very little change of emphasis in the shipbuilding program or the Navy's materiel priorities. The new strategy still needs aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, aircraft and helicopters. It still needs SEALS and Marines (more than ever). It will also need more small craft for inshore operations and more remote surveillance systems, but these, for the most part, will not dominate the budget.
The main change is in mindset and training. The Navy no longer thinks of fleet action as its raison d'etre and low intensity operations as a "diversion". Rather, low intensity operations are now the main show. But this creates a problem, for in many ways it is easier to ratchet down from high intensity operations in order to deal with lower intensity ones. As we have seen in places like Kosovo and Somalia, high intensity warfare skills atrophy quickly in a low intensity warfare environment, and it takes time to get the edge back. The issue for the Navy, in implementing its new strategy, is how to develop the skills needed for the range of low intensity operations (counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism, stabilization, reconstruction, development) without losing those needed to continue to deter the "peer competitor" attempting to emerge in the South China Sea.
Stuart Koehl is a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Transatlantic Relations and a contributor to THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.