In the middle of March, the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard published a revised version of their 2007 paper, A Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century. The 2007 edition reflected the strong influence of 9/11, U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global campaign against Islamist jihadis. It suggested broadening the reach of U.S. seapower by cooperating with other navies; helping littoral states that might fail by providing them with military training; and bolstering such traditional naval missions as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Strikingly, the word “China” did not appear in the 2007 document. Unmentioned also was what kind of forces American seapower would need and how much they would cost. The same paper was silent about which large roles mattered most to national security and specifically to America’s sea services. Its descriptions of the important elements of naval power outpaced both prescriptions for what to do with it and the choices—about where to invest money and time for example—that good strategy demands.
The sea services’ March 2015 strategic paper is an improvement over its predecessor. It acknowledges—albeit gently—that China presents the U.S. with “challenges.” It notes that Russia’s military modernization, seizure of Crimea, and slow motion invasion of eastern Ukraine raise serious questions about European security. The paper’s discussion of increased maritime activity in the Arctic is more timely that its authors could have known: Three days after the revised strategic paper was published, Vladimir Putin ordered an impressively large snap military exercise in the Artic featuring 41 warships and 15 submarines.
The revised strategic paper also mentions ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terror groups.
Additional useful contributions of the just-published revision include a list of naval competencies that explain what, precisely, seapower accomplishes. Emphases on cyber warfare and on perfecting commanders’ knowledge of surrounding threats are additional healthy signs that the sea services’ leaders are leading. Other improvements over the 2007 maritime strategy include the desired number and type of ships; the old version omitted this fundamental element of strategy.
But the revised strategy is less clear about what to do with whatever ships it actually possesses in the face of multiplying threats. In this, it does the sea services no favors. Are the U.S.’s interest in stability from the Black Sea through the Eastern Mediterranean into the Persian Gulf strategically connected, and, if so, can American seapower coordinate its efforts in this large arc? The revised strategy explains the importance of forward presence. The forward presence of U.S. naval and amphibious forces in the West Pacific is essential to any hope of honoring our treaty obligations with several Asian states, and to convincing China that force will not achieve its goals. But is that it? Forward presence is not a strategy.
Strategy is supposed not only to set broad national goals but also to decide how to achieve them. If sequestration and defense budget cuts continue, where will the money come from to replace aging ships? Surely that’s needed to, for example, secure the flow of oil from the Middle East now that Iran sits astride the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz and—through its Houthis proxies—the mouth of the Red Sea. Also left unanswered is this: As Russia and ISIS seek territorial expansion, does seapower have a strategic role in affecting events on land today, and if so, what is it?
Talk of “strategy” is abundant these days. Amazon.com offers dozens of books on national security, military, and business strategies. There are dozens more available on the history of strategy, strategic thinking, strategic management, and strategic leadership. President Obama offers the administration’s strategy for addressing ISIS and Republicans say that it is either not a strategy or—pointing to the terror organization’s progress—that it is a strategic failure. The Obama administration’s public strategic documents, like those of most administrations that preceded it, are long on desiderata, short on how to achieve them, and shorter still on the military and financial details that ought to accompany any large plan. Jawboning leaves the impression that strategy is like the weather, a subject of talk only. This is wrong.