The Navy’s New Flat-Earth Strategy

The U.S. unveils a collaborative plan for policing the seas

Over the decades our Navy has been slowly disappearing on us. At the end of World War II we had 6,700 ships. Throughout the Cold War we had around 600 ships. In the 1990s we had more than 350. Now we are down to fewer than 280. This decline is occurring while China is in the midst of a shipbuilding and acquisition craze that will result in the People’s Liberation Army Navy having more ships than the United States Navy sometime in the next decade. Qualitatively, the United States will still very much have the edge, but China is catching up. And China is merely one of many challenges—terrorism, piracy, port security, and humanitarian disaster assistance are others—that the Navy now faces.

The Navy has plans to increase the number of ships from below 280 to more than 310. But according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service, cost overruns of 34 percent, plus other factors, mean that these plans may be overly optimistic. In fact, over the next decade and beyond, if the Navy builds only seven ships per year with a fleet whose life expectancy is 30 years, the total number of its ships may dwindle to the low 200s. And yet we live in a world where 75 percent of the Earth’s population is within 200 miles of the sea, and in an era when 90 percent of commerce travels by sea, including two-thirds of petroleum exports.

Such is the sobering context for the United States’s new maritime strategy, just released after many months of study—particularly at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The study was commissioned by Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen, recently promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was released by the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard—the first time the three maritime services have jointly authored a common strategy.

This is very much a diplomatic document, meaning it is necessary to read between the lines. Without mentioning China and without going into specific numbers—or even asserting the need for more ships—the 16-page document makes the case for a Navy that must do, if not everything, then nearly everything. And it makes its case within an intellectual framework that should resonate with the public and a Democratic Congress: the dialectic of globalization. “Our Nation’s interests are best served by fostering a peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance.”

As this document sees it, our world is interconnected, its population clustered in dense, pulsing demographic ganglia near the seas that will be prone to disruptions such as asymmetric attacks and natural disasters. The document pointedly does not rule out great-power military conflicts, asserting that “peace does not preserve itself.” But according to the new strategy, even great-power conflicts are apt to be subtle and asymmetric. There is little talk here of conventional sea and land battles and the need to spread democracy. This is a post-Iraq document, with an emphasis on soft power. Indeed, the war in Iraq appears less relevant to the document than the Indian Ocean tsunami emergency of December 2004/January 2005. To wit: “Building on relationships forged in times of calm, we will continue to mitigate human suffering as the vanguard of interagency and multinational efforts ... Human suffering moves us to act, and the expeditionary character of maritime forces uniquely positions them to provide assistance.”

The title of the report aptly describes its essence: “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” is all about cooperation between the three maritime services and, more significantly, between the United States and allied nations. For the past few years, Admiral Mullen has been talking about a 1,000-ship Navy—an international coalition of friendly navies to share intelligence and help each other police the world’s coasts and seas. The phrase “1,000-ship Navy” does not appear in the document. (I heard reports and rumors that the Bush administration did not like it.) But the spirit of the 1,000-ship Navy and “collective security” is everywhere in these pages. In fact, the new strategy goes further than Admiral Mullen’s concept, expanding the definition of partnership beyond friendly navies to other institutions. “No one nation has the resources required to provide safety and security throughout the entire maritime domain. Increasingly, governments, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and the private sector will form partnerships of common interest to counter ... emerging threats.”

In essence, this new maritime strategy represents a restrained, nuanced yearning for a bigger Navy, albeit one whose mission will be cooperation with other navies. That requires more than just new ships. “A key to fostering such relationships is development of sufficient cultural, historical, and linguistic expertise among our Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen to nurture effective interaction with diverse international partners.” Such training costs money and creates bureaucratic challenges, but it helps lay the groundwork for an exceedingly gradual, elegant decline of the Navy’s capabilities—a future in which it has fewer platforms but gets more out of the ones it does have by working more closely with others.

Strategies make bets, often subtly. This document does not disappoint. While it refers to the need to project massive power in a conventional conflict, its focus represents a clear wager that it would be a mistake to mirror-image a future peer competitor like China. “Adversaries are unlikely to attempt conventional force-on-force conflict and, to the extent that maritime forces could be openly challenged, their plans will almost certainly rely on asymmetric attack and surprise, achieved through stealth, deception, or ambiguity.” In other words, even if China does emerge as a peer competitor as the Soviet Union once was, it will act subtly and be just one of myriad threats that the United States is best positioned to handle through a Navy that’s forward deployed and interlocked with allied ones. As bets go, this seems like a reasonable one—but it’s still a bet.

Bottom line: The new maritime strategy posits an unconventional naval vision for a flat world, as Thomas Friedman calls it. Consistent with that vision, it also calls for a powered-down command structure, with junior officers better trained and more influential than ever, working in dispersed networks around the world, in which marines and coastguardsmen are integrated with sailors in the same units: each unit built around a specific task, be it combat, irregular warfare, or humanitarian relief.

Hard-liners will be frustrated by the spirit of the new maritime strategy, if not its language. Yet because the new strategy travels with the prevailing political winds in Washington, it is likely to win support among Congress and the larger public. And that could produce what the Navy needs but the new strategy doesn’t really talk about: more ships.