James Holmes

Does America Have Any Naval Strategists Anymore?

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James Holmes

Does America Have Any Naval Strategists Anymore?

Our navy needs to think strategically about its return to history — before history comes a-knocking.

Mahan, we hardly knew ye. Does America still have any maritime strategists? Not so according to former U.S. State Department official and International Assessment and Strategy Center analyst John Tkacik.

Washington Free Beacon reporter Bill Gertz contacted Tkacik to comment on China’s new restrictions on foreign fishing in much of the South China Sea. What he says is largely exceptional, but Gertz closes by tossing out a morsel of red meat. “As China’s navy grows stronger — and the U.S. Navy shrinks — Washington’s options will run out in a few years,” notes Tkacik. “I don’t know that anyone in Washington, either at State or the Pentagon, is thinking this challenge out beyond a year,” he added. “It is America’s misfortune that it no longer has any real maritime strategists.”


Chances are this was an off-the-cuff remark that Gertz reproduced to boost web traffic. It happens. Still, it is a serious charge, with a big enough truth quotient to justify parsing it in some detail. In one sense doing so is a trivial task. Tkacik makes a categorical statement, that this fine republic of ours is home to zero real maritime strategists. To rebut such a stark claim, all you have to so is produce one contrary example. I’d like to think I look at a real maritime strategist in the mirror each morning. (Otherwise, why confront this face made for radio??) Or, my department houses around forty strategists, some of a nautical bent. Outside Newport, there’s Paul Kennedy down at Yale, Bernard Cole at the National War College, Admiral Mike McDevitt at the Center for Naval Analyses, or Bryan McGrath and Seth Cropsey over at the Hudson Institute. Harumph.

But Tkacik’s words — particularly his reference to “State or the Pentagon” — suggest that what he’s really lamenting is a shortage of maritime strategists in positions of authority, not the extinction of scribblers in academe or the dark subterranean realm of think tanks. He’s also lamenting a lack of foresight — a cardinal virtue for any strategist or statesman, quoth Thucydides — within officialdom. Hence the crack about how few think downrange. This is, or may be, closer to the mark.

Being a bear of small brain, I would break the question down into its simplest components — “strategist” and “maritime” — and work from there. A strategist is someone accustomed to harnessing resources to accomplish big goals. It’s certainly true that the exigencies of naval service work against thinking above the level of tactics and hardware. Ships and aircraft are intricate creatures. Learning how to operate and maintain them takes time, and lots of it.

That’s why the U.S. Navy mantra is that sustained performance at sea is the way to ascend the ranks. Couple that outlook with career incentives and disincentives — promotions, awards, plum assignments — and you have a powerful bureaucratic signal warning officers to lock their gaze on their immediate surroundings, and on the immediate future. Strategic thought is an opportunity cost imposed by naval culture, as transcribed into bureaucratic routine, and indeed by the intensely technical nature of seafaring in the machine age.

Which is why officers attend the Naval War College or some other graduate school around midcareer. (In theory they attend such institutions twice. While it’s not uncommon to meet students with degrees in other subjects — I had a student with two MIT master’s degrees a couple of years back — I have yet to meet a dual NWC graduate.) By exposing them to the strategic theorists you encounter in places like, well, the Naval Diplomat, and by using those concepts to try to figure out what various historical figures did right and wrong in long-ago conflicts, we try to encode the habit of strategic thought in our graduates’ intellectual DNA.

Does this educational enterprise take? Tough to say. I hope Tkacik is wrong about the shortfall of strategic thought within the national-security community, but it’s tough to gauge one way or the other. As Clausewitz notes, schooling is only the beginning of education. All we can do in the schoolhouse is supply the basic concepts and try to fire students’ enthusiasm for their own lifelong self-education. We do the former and try to do the latter.

Graduates leave NWC with the tools, then, but education takes self-maintenance. One hopes there’s a copy of Clausewitz, Thucydides, and the rest of the theory bunch on every graduate’s bookshelf, and not just to provide ballast. Some officers and civilian officials really take to strategy, judging from the occasional email dispatch I receive from the field, or happenstance meeting with a former student. Many report putting their education to work. These are heartening datapoints. But again, naval officers have to fight against bureaucratic imperatives if they want to reach the highest ranks. It may take a cultural revolution to make the U.S. Navy as friendly to strategic thought as are, in my experience, the U.S. Army and Marines. What stimulus would it take to bring about such a revolution? I shudder to think. Something big and bad, most likely.

What about the maritime dimension of strategy? Sea power ranks at the bottom of Admiral Wylie’s four schools of strategic thought (land, sea, air, Maoist), best I can tell from classroom interactions. Part of this is because one of our two major sea-power theorists, Mahan, makes for tough reading. (As Mahan himself admitted, late in life.) Part of it is because we have so little time to spend exploring Mahan’s vast body of work. The curriculum scants the geopolitical dimension, focusing mainly on the basic attributes of sea powers and some of the big ideas, such as concentrating the fleet for action. Much escapes notice. Corbett’s work is better-written and explicitly Clausewitzian, so it finds favor in the classroom. All is not lost. But still.

The other factor is the geopolitical setting around us. Ground-force officers may be more receptive to strategic thought simply because they’ve been fighting for most if not all of their careers. Warfare is part of their daily lives. Thinking about it deeply is second nature. The popularity of counterinsurgent theory with our students, accordingly, can be no coincidence. That’s not to say the U.S. Navy has been twiddling its thumbs since 9/11. Just the opposite. In a real sense, the navy is always at war once at sea. Routine steaming differs little from wartime steaming, except that weaponeers load up exercise ordnance for the one and live ordnance for the other.

And yet, the navy fought its last fleet engagement seventy years ago this coming October, at Leyte. And the sea services have been enjoying a prolonged strategic holiday since the Soviet Navy evanesced two decades ago. The lack of a scary peer competitor tends to dull the strategic mind, making it easy to concentrate on the next inspection, exercise, or shipyard overhaul — mundane events of immediate consequence for one’s career. Keeping an engine or pump running demands attention now, whereas China and Iran are remote, abstract-seeming foci for finite mental energy. On which would you spend scarce time if forced to choose?

So John Tkacik is wrong to say America has no real maritime strategists. He overstates the problem. He’s right to say America needs to do more to nourish the right habits of mind within the naval service and its political overseers. Trotsky supposedly quipped that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. The maritime world is an increasingly competitive, hardscrabble world. Our navy needs to think strategically about its return to history — before history comes a-knocking.