Generally speaking, elected leaders and their advisers craft policy goals and, in conjunction with senior military leaders, provide strategic direction for the armed forces. As military theorist Carl von Clausewitz put it, policy shouldn’t be a ‘tyrant,’ but it still ‘permeates’ all but the more routine administrative elements of military affairs.
But what happens if political leaders fail to assert control of strategy?
Over the past decade, successive US presidential administrations have focused their energies on matters other than maritime strategy, something that often appeared remote from more immediate concerns like counterterrorism and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enjoying the strategic holiday that began when the Soviet Navy vacated the seas leaving the US Navy unchallenged in the world’s oceans and seas, it seemed that US forces just didn’t need to fight anymore for command of important waters.
As a result, strategic nautical documents are typically couched in generalities and platitudes. On the Indian Ocean, for example, the 2008 National Defense Strategy, a Bush-era treatise, said: ‘We look to India to assume greater responsibility as a stakeholder in the international system, commensurate with its growing economic, military, and soft power.’ Yet concrete details of what this actually entails are scant. The 2010 National Security Strategy is equally vague.
Documents like these instead portray abstractions like ‘proliferation,’ ‘piracy,’ and ‘anti-access’—not living, breathing antagonists with their own capabilities, resolve, and capacity to innovate—as the principal challenges.
The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, for example, prophesises that the US military will be ‘increasingly challenged in securing and maintaining access to the global commons and must also be prepared for operations in unfamiliar conditions and environments.’ It also promises to furnish ‘solid direction on developing capabilities that counter the proliferation of anti-access and area-denial threats, which present an increased challenge to our maritime, air, space, and cyber forces.’ Yet by refusing to name prospective adversaries or speculate about how such adversaries might attempt to counteract US strategy, Washington has effectively withheld actionable strategic guidance from the armed forces.
In the resulting policy vacuum, those responsible for executing national policy—the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—have taken to devising strategy largely free of close supervision from their political overseers. This effectively inverts the Clausewitzian principle of policy and strategy. In the triservice 2007 US Maritime Strategy A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the uniformed service chiefs announce that the sea services will shift their centre of gravity from the Atlantic and Pacific—the theatres where World War II and the Cold War unfolded—to the Pacific and Indian oceans.
The Maritime Strategy reaffirms that the US Navy will remain the two-ocean navy it has been since Congress approved the Two-Ocean Navy Act in 1940, in anticipation of a two-front war against Germany and Japan. But the second ocean is no longer the Atlantic—it’s the Indian Ocean and the adjacent Persian Gulf.