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Some Thoughts on a Maritime Strategy for the 21st Century


Rear Admiral Thomas Marfiak, U.S. Navy (Ret.)


In the early 1980s, the Navy, realizing we needed a driving concept for the creation of a naval force capable of holding the Soviet Union at bay, created the first Maritime Strategy. We knew then that the resources available were finite, and insufficient to meet all the requirements of the combatant commanders. We would have to find the right combination of leverage points and build a force that could be applied to preserve the safety and security of the United States and our allies.

The strategy that emerged from those studies identified the Soviet undersea bastions as a major point of effort and concentrated on the battle of the North Atlantic. As finally articulated, it had several progressively classified versions—the last being highly classified—wherein the methods we would use to take the fight forward were outlined. In briefings to Congress, it made operational sense, and could be defended in key committees in the House and Senate. Appropriations could be designed and supported to make it a reality. Among the several successors to the Maritime Strategy, the original stands out, even today, in that it actually succeeded in moving the budget authority needle in favor of the Navy. It was far more than a glossy pamphlet designed to explain naval forces to those ignorant of what they are or how they could be used.

We are now at another turning point. In the three-and-a-half decades since the original Maritime Strategy was created, the Soviet Union has collapsed; we have fought several actions in places such as the Persian Gulf and the central Mediterranean, while, at the same time, responding to contingencies from the northern Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, the force has been reduced from a high of 586 ships to the present level of fewer than 300. A new force level of some 350 ships is being discussed, but we still need an articulate discussion of how it might be used, and how, precisely, it should be expanded so that we are best prepared for the future.

Today we confront a world where threats can emerge from a variety of sources. They all share one characteristic. They are long distances from the United States, across oceans that eat up steaming days, and require significant logistics support. In addition, potential foes have the advantage of advanced technology, including ballistic and cruise missiles and submarine weapons and mines, which could inflict significant costs on any force within range. Lightly armed, ill-coordinated forces are likely to be insufficient to impose any significant deterrence, or, in the event of conflict, any significant cost to the enemy. We need to prepare accordingly.

Much has been written about our national strategy. Should we be prepared to fight two major conflicts at once, or fight one while holding another to a draw? What are the capabilities of our sister services, and should they determine how best we design the fleet for the future? Those are good questions, but we must ask ourselves if we should not answer a higher order question. How best can we assure the continued existence of the United States against threats that could destroy our nation or, at the very least, dramatically disrupt the global economy upon which we depend? This essay suggests some considerations to frame a new maritime strategy for the future. We need to begin work now, as the new administration begins to frame its vision of our future forces.

Just as the threat has changed and diversified, so too have capabilities evolved that offer the means to respond. We are seeing the growth of smart weapons, with precision guidance, connected to widespread networks that complicate an enemy’s ability to locate or counter them. At the same time, autonomous unmanned sensors can combine with manned sensors to expand our awareness of the battle space. Our platforms are changing as well. The large deck amphibious ships will soon deploy the F-35B with its networked sensors at the same time distributed lethality adds additional surface-to-surface capability to the amphibious ready group or surface action group accompanying them. Far from replacing the carrier strike group as we have known it, this growth in capability will complement the tools available to our national command authority.

Undersea warfare is undergoing a similar expansion in capability. Expanded missile loads of the Virginia class, and the eventual replacement of the SSBN fleet with the new Columbia class will diversify the threat from beneath the sea, adding to the complexity any enemy must face. Increased quieting and improved communications and data sharing will continue to add to the robustness of the undersea arm. The addition of autonomous underwater vehicles will no doubt expand our sensor reach, but they too must be integrated into the battlespace, affording commanders an enhanced view of any forces they may encounter and providing the means to keep them at bay.

Similarly, amphibious forces continue to improve with the advent of the Osprey, new ship to shore amphibians, and increased capacity of the LPD-17 class to deploy Marine combat teams rapidly and effectively from well offshore. When coupled with special forces, as we have seen in the Gulf and Africa region, there is a significant growth in the capability to respond to unfolding crises, even in the remote areas of the African littoral or the Asian sub-continent.

These examples are by no means exhaustive. The purpose of mentioning them here is primarily to highlight the reasons why we should expand our thinking. We must evolve a new way of thinking about sea control, or dominance of the maritime battle space. In the past, in the post-Mahan era, we thought in terms of two dimensions, ocean space and the means of sustaining our forces (the coaling stations he advocated). As World War II arrived, we discovered the need to think in terms of three dimensions as the advent of the aircraft carrier expanded the battle space to control of the skies and the sea area beneath. Today, ballistic and cruise missile defense has vastly expanded that three-dimensional construct to include near space, and engagement distances have grown from thousands of yards to thousands of miles. We are a long way from being able to solve maneuvering board problems in our head.

The primary driver for changing our thinking is the fourth dimension—time. We do not seek to dominate a battle space for months or years. Rather, we need to control it for that period of time necessary to accomplish our objectives. That period may vary, from minutes and hours to several days. Constructing a matrix that will enable us to determine what forces are necessary, for what period of time, will be instructive and should inform our decisions about how to use those forces, and how to protect them.

We might then envision the force as a moving matrix, crossing the sea within an arc of coverage, networked with national sensors, to occupy a contested area for a period of time until the crisis has been resolved, or our national objectives have been met. Time, space, distance, and control all intersect to determine force dispositions and support requirements. This is a good deal more than the Network Centric Warfare we espoused in the latter portion of the 20th century. Redefined battle groups will be more dispersed, and sensors will be widely distributed, even as the threat has diversified. We need to adjust our thinking to correspond with the new facts of warfare in the 21st century.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we must be prepared to operate in a space where networks and communications will be challenged. Highly adaptable, jam-resistant networks will be a key tool. Without them, we may find ourselves at a disadvantage as we seek to control a sea-air-space environment. At the same time, our networks must be capable of sustaining a dense information flow to inform decision making with a high degree of accuracy. The old tried and true identification, friend or foe system may be due for an overhaul. Every platform, from remote sensors (autonomous underwater vehicles, autonomous unmanned surface vehicles, etc.) to individual amphibious platforms (assault amphibious vehicles, landing craft air cushions) must be present in some way on the net.

Sustaining our forces for a protracted period far from logistics heads has been a staple of sea power since the days prior to World War II. Developing a refueling and rearming at-sea capability materially contributed to victory in the Pacific. That capability is no less vital today. We must pay attention to that need as we construct a force that can sustain itself for long periods underway in distant locations. Even nuclear-powered aircraft carriers must refuel at sea to sustain aircraft operations, replenish food and ammunition, and receive vital parts. We need logistics forces that can operate with the carrier and its supporting ships.

The need that emerges today is to replenish vertically-launched weapons, which must be reloaded in port, in calm conditions. As found in Desert Storm, those may only be achievable in a friendly port with the necessary crane and apron availability. Planning ahead can alleviate that requirement somewhat, but not eliminate it.

In the same way, as our forces move across the oceans, we will need moveable supply depots that can be quickly set up and activated to provide for support en route. Think of it as trying to lead the duck, shooting ahead of the target. The littorals of South America and Africa offer few locations for such support. We should begin now to identify such locations, garner the necessary national permissions, and develop the flying squadrons to support deploying strike groups as they pass.

Our forces must be prepared to be flexible, changing missions on the fly, like a backcourt guard moving down the court. A critical component to develop that flexibility will be the training exercises each component receives while preparing to deploy. That training must be realistic, informed by the best intelligence available and conducted by staff that have experience in the area. We train the way we fight. We must confront deficiencies honestly and holistically. Every part of the exercise must advance the goal of preparing each ship for the demands of being at the tip of the spear. Band-aid solutions merely mask an underlying issue that should be addressed before we are playing for keeps.

As we have found over and over again, forward operations on a large scale are invariably joint service affairs. We need to work with our partners in the Air Force to develop integrated inter-service cooperation for refueling, reconnaissance, and targeting. We cannot wait until we are engaged in some distant conflict to refine tactics and coordination. Beyond the pages of the air-sea doctrine, we need to exercise our forces together in the real world. We must develop communications and data flows to support complex operations before we are called upon to coordinate them under the pressure of real-world events. Interservice rivalry has no place on the battlefield. In particular, air refueling of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft should be practiced in exercises before we need it at sea. In similar fashion, we need to work with airborne warning and control system platforms, integrating their picture with that of the battlegroup to provide wide-area coverage, augmenting data received from E-2 Hawkeyes, drones, and satellite coverage, where available.

We have come some distance since the “thousand-ship navy” years. Allies are a major component of any forward-based strategy. Yet all allies are not alike. They may be separated by their rules of engagement (ROE)—some allies, such as the United Kingdom and Australia have ROE similar to our own—or by their capability—from frigate-like to ballistic missle defense–capable heavy destroyers. When a coalition is being assembled, each warship committed by an allied government is a vote of confidence. Yet the expectation is often that it will be returned, intact, with no damage to the ship or crew. Given the range of tasks incumbent upon a large group—well over 100 ships in Desert Storm—there will be sufficient tasks for allies. It is incumbent upon any strategy to provide for their participation, from exercises to real-world engagement and intelligence sharing. We build a coalition through preparation and cooperation, not through last-minute assignment.

As we move into the new era, we must recognize that maritime commerce is the lifeblood of every economy. We need to integrate our own merchant marine into the fleet; train and work with shipping companies around the globe to ensure their rapid integration into defended shipping lanes or even convoys, if required, to assure the continuation of trade in the event of conflict—limited or otherwise. That will require more than an annex to the next maritime strategy.

As the recent budget battles have shown, continuation of reduced funding for current operations and maintenance, even as operating tempo has remained high, has created a condition wherein existing resources are insufficiently ready and available to support the demands placed upon them. Restoring readiness to acceptable levels is a precondition for being able to execute any strategic plan, no matter how minimal or encompassing. If it can’t fly, shoot, or submerge, we won’t be a player when it counts. At the very least, we will incur far higher risks than if we were properly prepared. We have a moral objective to send our men and women to sea with the best we can afford.

As noted earlier, we once knew with fair certainty where we might be engaged. Our deployments, to the Mediterranean, far western Pacific, and the North Atlantic, developed a regularity over the years. With the advent of global warming, the Arctic approaches are increasingly vulnerable. Do we understand what it might take to operate in those northern climes?

Today, we may be called upon to pivot in mid-transit to a new area, to confront a different set of risks, some posed by state and others by non-state actors. Developing an awareness of that new battlespace requires a high degree of integration of national and naval assets to provide commanders a complete picture of the challenges before them. In turn, they must integrate that knowledge into operational plans for the forces assigned to them.

Pulling all these threads together is a far greater task than the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, in its present configuration, can execute on its own. The days of a “brain trust” in what was then OP-6 (Strategy, Plans and Policy) are gone over the horizon astern. It may take a handpicked team of specialists, working closely with Navy leadership at the highest levels, several months of analysis, drafting, and integration to build a suitable maritime strategy for the 21st century. Once that is done, it should be made available to Congress, to key offices in the Secretary of Defense, and, finally, to the president. An unclassified version should be provided to think tanks and the press, to assure maximum visibility and to educate the public. The uses of maritime power are many, but ultimately, the Navy and Marine Corps exist to assure the continuation of the freedoms we have enjoyed for more than 200 years.

Despite the uncertainty that clouds the future, we can be assured of one thing—the men and women who bring the fleet and the Corps into action are the key to making it work at a high degree of effectiveness. Any investment we make in their training and education will be repaid a hundred fold. We must continue to train them to the highest degree, while giving them the tools to do the job.

Much has been written about the force structure necessary to implement our national and maritime security goals. Arguments, pro and con, about the number of carriers required, the balance between combatant ships and ships designed to pursue littoral combat will continue. It may be useful to recall that it may require four carriers, a large fleet train, and Air Force tanking to press home an advantage in striking power against a foe possessing a reasonable amount of air defense. A fleet of some size, disposing of significant sea-to-shore weapons manned by highly-trained professionals, will ultimately prevail, if properly employed. The key is to be able to conduct sustained combat operations from sea, with all that entails.

In conclusion, we need not only an articulate maritime strategy that conveys a vision of how our forces can work together with our allies and partners at sea, but with our sister services as well. That maritime vision must be part of a greater national strategy that advances the cause of the United States as the guarantor of freedom of seas, and guardian of the ocean commons, upon which rest the peace and prosperity of the world community.

Published: Fri Apr 06 17:06:58 EDT 2018