James Holmes

The Elements of US Maritime Strategy

An all-encompassing U.S. maritime strategy must include all the armed forces—not just the navy, coast guard and marines.

The Elements of US Maritime Strategy
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Zachary Montgomery

So does America have a maritime strategy? It’s only fair to ask. A few years ago our Chinese friends were fretting over whether they had one, or needed one, and how to formulate one. Though the Naval Diplomat is a shy and retiring sort, loath to voice opinions, I held forth on the subject over at the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. My verdict: yes, China does have a maritime strategy. An unwritten one, evidently, but an impressive one.

Impressive because it alloys all elements of sea power into a single, sharp political weapon. The strategy’s executors include not just the navy but the coast guard but land-based forces too. Its executors are seamen, airmen, and soldiers … and diplomats, international lawyers, fishermen, journalists, you name it. China’s broad-based understanding of maritime strategy begets concentration of energy and effort at sea. And that begets a tough competitor.

Does the United States have anything similarly all-encompassing? No. That’s why this is a historical excursion worth taking. Sea-service leaders have been mulling over “refreshing” the U.S. Maritime Strategy for the past couple of years. Its appearance is — we think — nigh. As they finish revising the document, drafters should take a page from Beijing’s book.

Inscribed on that page are some big insights. For one, policy is king. No strategy should neglect diplomacy. That’s what imparts purpose to enterprises on the briny main. Armed forces exist to empower political leaders in negotiations, whether they’re hobnobbing with pinstriped ‘furriners in peacetime or prosecuting power politics while the bombs burst in air. Too tight a focus on tactics, operations, and widgets obscures these larger strategic and political ends. The refreshed U.S. Maritime Strategy should take a similarly sweeping view.

For another, leaving sister armed services out of a maritime strategy verges on neglect. Why leave air and land power on the shelf if they can advance national purposes at sea? Doing so flouts the Clausewitzian principle of making yourself as strong as possible at the decisive place and time. Furthermore, there are side benefits to a comprehensive outlook. Restricting America’s strategy to the traditional sea services, for instance, primes U.S. commanders to mirror-image. That means projecting our way of thinking onto antagonists — and assuming they think about sea power in the same narrow-gauge way we do.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

They don’t. By definition, weaker sea powers have leaner stockpiles of maritime might. To compete successfully they have to wring maximum value out of these resources. That means competing smartly and cohesively. Beijing, a weaker contender competing close to home, sees the PLA Navy as an implement of maritime strategy — obviously. But so are the PLA Air Force and Army. So is the China Coast Guard. So are commercial vessels. Even the fishing fleet constitutes a seagoing militia in times of trouble. Diplomats, and international lawyers, and reporters all help mold events in China’s interest. All of these are instruments of political purpose.

In short, a grand U.S. maritime strategy would align all implements of sea power toward Washington’s aims. It would also alert U.S. mariners to how competitors put their own implements to political use. Such a document would help us know ourselves while acquainting ourselves with others — and this with what seafarers will face in contested theaters.

Am I making much ado about little? Well, let’s sojourn in America’s seafaring past awhile. A series of directives has issued forth from Washington since the 1980s. Some have called themselves maritime strategies. Most famous is the Reagan-era strategy championed by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Chief of Naval Operations James Watkins. Their brainchild, however, was a naval strategy through and through. It explained how the U.S. Navy would contribute to overall Allied strategy during a land war in Europe. In effect, navy task forces would open a nautical theater, fanning out around the Eurasian periphery to, say, sink the Soviet ballistic-missile submarine fleet in its icy northern bastions.

Horizontal, a.k.a. geographic, escalation is a prerogative of those who rule the sea. Just ask Francis Bacon. The Lehman/Watkins strategy was a nifty piece of work, but it was maritime in only a narrow sense. Sea power is about more than fleets. In the 1990s the naval leadership grappled with the post-Cold War era through documents bearing titles like …From the Sea and Forward … From the Sea. These were strategic concepts more than anything. They instructed the navy to concentrate on projecting power onto foreign shores rather than trouble itself with high-seas battle. There was no opponent of the stature of a Soviet Navy to contend with. Why not turn its attentions to near-shore waters? Corbett depicts maritime strategy as the art of controlling the land-sea interface. In that sense …From the Sea and its successors were more maritime than the Lehman/Watkins directive.

The next document to call itself a maritime strategy was the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. It remains in force to this day. Its framers widened their aperture still further, enfolding all of the sea services within a single statement of purposes and power. The 2007 Maritime Strategy, that is, governs not just the U.S. Navy but the Marine Corps, the nation’s legion of sea soldiers, and the Coast Guard, its peacetime law-enforcement service and adjunct wartime navy. Their handiwork represented the first genuinely maritime strategy in U.S. history.

And yet. The 2007 strategy still isn’t a maritime strategy in that all-consuming Chinese sense. Think about it. These days tactical warplanes sporting anti-ship missiles and flying from airfields ashore can punish warships cruising hundreds of miles offshore. Bombers can join the fray once armed with anti-ship weaponry. Reconnaissance planes find and target enemy task forces. Land-based ballistic and cruise missiles can reach out scores or hundreds of miles as well. The People’s Liberation Army’s “counter-intervention,” a.k.a. anti-access, strategy acknowledges the potential of land-based sea power, putting not-strictly-naval capabilities to artful use.

By contrast, the U.S. Air Force and Army remain conspicuously absent from U.S. maritime strategy. It’s commonplace to point out, for example, that the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle doctrine isn’t a strategy but an operational concept. Indubitably. So why not bring the heirs of Billy Mitchell into maritime strategy, rather than attenuate and fragment U.S. effort at sea? Let’s hear how the air force will contribute to U.S. and allied success in the nautical milieu. Heck, why not get the air-force chief of staff to co-sign the document alongside the navy, marine, and coast-guard chiefs?

Same goes for the U.S. Army. The army has a long tradition in Pacific strategy. It strove — without success, alas — to defend the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii in the early 20th century. Soldiers waged amphibious warfare against Japan in the 1940s alongside marines, seamen, and airmen. General Douglas MacArthur masterminded the island-hopping strategy that Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō called one of three decisive factors in the Pacific War. That’s a saltwater legacy worth rediscovering. Why not put army units to work, say, guarding the Ryukyu Islands and the straits between? Let’s help control the sea from shore.

In short, sea-service potentates should widen their gaze yet again, bringing non-naval assets into maritime strategy. Hoist a big tent!