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US Navy’s Indian Ocean Folly? (Page 3 of 5)

Nor does the strategy supply clear guidance on the missions this regional-yet-global force must perform. The document lays great weight on constabulary functions. And, true to their vision of a cooperative strategy, the service chiefs enjoin the maritime services to fashion multinational alliances, coalitions, and partnerships to police the seas for pirates and traffickers in illicit goods, render assistance following natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes, and above all to assure free navigation through the world’s sea lanes for the merchantmen that carry raw materials and finished goods—the lifeblood of a globalized economy. The strategy portrays constabulary duty as a global, not a regional, function that will be discharged by ‘globally distributed, mission-tailored maritime forces’ in concert with foreign navies and coast guards.

All this means that the Maritime Strategy announces with great fanfare that the United States will exercise predominant sea power in East and South Asia, only to declare that the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard must also remain capable of winning battles and policing the seas across the globe. This seemingly straightforward document induces vertigo in the close reader!

Where to Concentrate the Fleet?

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But assume Washington exercises intellectual discipline, keeping its priorities in order rather than diffusing its efforts. The sea services must still revisit a perennial debate, namely where to station the fleet to best effect. When wrestling with complex matters, it’s always helpful to consult the greats of strategic theory. Clausewitz cautions against dispersing forces and effort too widely. In the effort to do everything, everywhere, the United States risks stretching its military so thin that it proves incapable of doing much of anything anywhere. The Prussian thinker also urges commanders to shun secondary theatres or operations unless the likely gains appear ‘exceptionally rewarding,’ and unless such a diversion won’t risk too much in the main theatre or line of operations. In modern parlance, they should keep their eyes on the ball.

Such a focused attitude is worth cultivating. After all, even a global fleet has finite resources, and some theatres must therefore be delegated to regional powers or triaged altogether. Sea-power theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan weighs in with two related insights. Mahan supposedly counselled commanders, ‘never divide the fleet!’ This quotation is apocryphal, but he did highlight the perils of breaking the fleet down into standing contingents weaker than likely opponents. This would subject each lesser fleet to catastrophic defeat and the US Navy to piecemeal defeat. (It should be borne in mind, of course, the context in which he was writing was the pre-Panama Canal world, where the US Navy couldn’t swiftly combine Atlantic and Pacific forces; warships had to circumnavigate South America).

Far better, maintained Mahan and kindred thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt, to keep the full battle fleet on one coast and accept the risk of attack on the other coast than to leave one half-strength fleet in the Atlantic and another in the Pacific. Both fleets would be inferior to potential adversaries. In his 1897 book The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, accordingly, Mahan pronounces it ‘a broad formula’ that any US fleet ‘must be great enough to take the sea, and to fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against it…’

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