US Navy’s Indian Ocean Folly?
Image Credit: US Navy

US Navy’s Indian Ocean Folly?


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.

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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.

No political authority seems to have ordained such a redeployment. But if policy defaults, can-do strategists might end up taking charge. The framers of the strategy vow to stage preponderant combat forces in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf for the foreseeable future, making the US Navy a squarely Asian navy. Whether the Obama administration is intellectually prepared to undertake a shift of such consequence—or even agrees that such a shift is warranted—is unclear. And parsing the language of the Maritime Strategy, it’s also unclear whether the sea services are genuinely prepared to shed longstanding commitments to focus their energies on South and East Asia. US efforts at strategy-making obscure as much as they clarify.

In 1943, as war raged across the Pacific, columnist Walter Lippmann published US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. This petite yet hard-hitting volume excoriated US presidents for assuming commitments of colossal scope in the Pacific following the Spanish-American War—notably annexing the Philippine Islands—without generating sufficient naval strength to defend them. (Theodore Roosevelt was an honourable exception to this rule.) They attempted to use a fleet designed to dominate the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to uphold commitments straddling half the globe. For Lippmann, this amounted to ‘monstrous imprudence.’ Letting a chasm open between policy and strategy, he maintained, sapped US policy in the Pacific of popular support while encouraging Japanese aggression and hastening the onset of war.

Does the Strategy Really Set Priorities?

Is the United States, beset by apathy and economic malaise, again drifting toward an imprudent strategy—this time amid the vastness of the Indian Ocean? The evidence suggests so, although this time the intellectual drift is far from irreversible. At first glance, the Maritime Strategy appears to set clear geographic priorities, concentrating fleet operations in the Western Pacific, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean—in a word, in maritime Asia. The key passage:

‘Credible combat power will be continuously postured in the Western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean to protect our vital interests, assure our friends and allies of our continuing commitment to regional security, and deter and dissuade potential adversaries and peer competitors.’

But having issued a clear mandate to reposition forces to maritime Asia, the document instantly attaches a disclaimer, noting that ‘This combat power can be selectively and rapidly repositioned to meet contingencies that may arise elsewhere.’ Should some adversary attempt to disrupt or deny traffic through the maritime commons, moreover, the service chiefs reserve the right ‘to impose local sea control wherever necessary, ideally in concert with friends and allies, but by ourselves if we must.’

The commons—the waters outside the jurisdiction of any coastal state—spans the globe. To fulfil the Maritime Strategy’s directives, then, the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard must act as a global force, able to defeat enemies wherever they may be found. To describe this as ambitious is something of an understatement.

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?

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…’

Later, in his 1911 work Naval Strategy, Mahan devised three criteria for appraising the strategic value of possible naval bases, namely ‘position, strength, and resources.’ Position referred straightforwardly enough to a site’s geographic position. The best strategic positions adjoined one or more important sea lines of communication. Strength was a site’s natural defences, along with the ease with which civil engineers could augment these defences to ward off attack. Resources meant a naval station’s ability to sustain itself through foodstuffs, fuel, and other supplies, either from the surrounding country or through efficient transport infrastructure such as railways.

So how would this apply now? Take a look at the map of Asia through this Mahanian lens. The principal hubs for forward-deployed US sea power in Asia are in the Persian Gulf to the west and scattered among bases in Japan and Guam to the east. The Gulf island of Bahrain is home to a command centre, while US forces routinely call at Dubai for logistical support. Forces are, as can be seen, concentrated at the opposite extremes of the vast Asian landmass. Geographic distance slows efforts to concentrate the fleet for action in either theatre. And along the way, forces bound eastward or westward depend on free passage through such narrow seas as the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the Lombok and Sunda straits. The prospect of seeing these chokepoints contested or closed altogether ought to give US naval planners pause.

But the most problematic challenges are in East Asia. In the coming years, it’s entirely possible that the Japan-based Seventh Fleet may find itself inferior to the concentrated power of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, augmented by Beijing’s increasingly lethal force of ballistic missiles, antiship cruise missiles, and land-based combat aircraft. If so, support from forces based in the Indian Ocean or the United States will be at a premium.

But the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, in the faraway Persian Gulf theatre. Depending on events, a sizable proportion of US combat power is often within the Gulf, in effect a bay or inlet separated from the broad Indian Ocean by the chokepoint at Hormuz. To sortie for action in South Asian waters or to join the Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific, Fifth Fleet units must exit the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, passing under the shadow of Iranian antiship weaponry.

Should Tehran see fit to make mischief, Iranian forces could impede ships transiting the strait in a variety of ways. The Iranian Navy could mine this narrow sea or dispatch stealthy diesel submarines to conduct torpedo or missile attacks. Shore-based antiship missiles could strike at warships navigating the narrow channel, where they have little room to manoeuvre to avoid attack. In short, it’s far from clear that the Persian Gulf, one of the primary regional hubs for US maritime strategy, measures up well by Mahanian principles. The Seventh Fleet could pay the price in East Asia of poor fleet dispositions in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

It’s worth asking the same hard questions about forces based in Japan, which are well within the range arc of shore-based Chinese ballistic missiles. It’s clear in Japan’s case that alternative basing arrangements are worth exploring.

At first glance, Singapore appears ideal for US strategic purposes, lying as it does at the interface between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. But the harbour is too shallow to permit big-deck aircraft carriers to berth pierside. In addition, the city-state also lies within easy striking reach of Chinese ballistic missiles, meaning that a fleet stationed there would be exposed to pre-emptive attack in port.

And it’s probably useful to add a fourth criterion to Mahan’s list—will a prospective host nation grant basing rights? This isn’t a foregone conclusion even with close allies. Despite its alliance with the United States, Singapore cherishes its independence. Indeed, government officials have welcomed foreign warships—including aircraft carriers—of all nations to call at their seaport. This means Singapore would likely be loath to antagonize Beijing by playing host to a US Navy battle fleet over the long term. However useful for providing transient logistical support, Singapore clearly represents an unpromising candidate for a standing US naval hub.

By contrast, Australia boasts numerous advantages, occupying as it does a central position between the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific theatres, meaning forces based there could shift easily between the two oceans. For instance, Allied submarines operated from Fremantle, Western Australia, during World War II. Nor would they be forced to venture through a chokepoint to reach the high seas—a welcome contrast to the Persian Gulf hub, where all or part of the fleet could wither on the vine in wartime.

Hardened facilities along the Australian coast would also prove defensible and could be readily resupplied overland. Such seaports would likely meet the Mahanian standards of position, strength, and resources, while the Australian government—Washington’s most dependable ally in Asia, alongside Tokyo—would likely prove agreeable to such an arrangement. It‘s certainly worth exploring.

All this means that US maritime strategy may be hurtling back to the future. As in the days of Mahan, Roosevelt, and Lippmann, the naval establishment may be placing the fleet at risk by partitioning it between two remote theatres, impeding fleet detachments’ capacity for mutual support. Letting go of past commitments while refocusing tightly on the twin theatres designated in the Maritime Strategy may be the only way to achieve US strategic aims in a swiftly changing Asia.


James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views expressed here are theirs alone.

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