The United States was a global maritime power centuries before it became the world’s de factosuperpower. Merchant ships built and crewed in the colonies sailed to the ends of the Earth. It should come as no surprise that where commerce led, the U.S. Navy soon followed. As early as the American Revolution the new nation understood the strategic role of forward deployed naval power. The famous battle between John Paul Jones’s Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis took place where? Off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, as the former sought to intercept the Baltic trade fleet being escorted home by the latter. The need to respond to raids on U.S. merchant ships by the Barbary pirates resulted in the creation of the United States Navy in March, 1794 and the deployment of the first operational squadron to blockade the port of Algiers. From 1819 to 1861 the African squadron operated alongside the British Navy to suppress the slave trade. During the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Army and Navy conducted multiple amphibious operations at Veracruz and on the California coast. The Navy early on established a continuing presence in the Pacific, resulting, inter alia, in Admiral Perry’s visit to Japan in 1856 and Admiral Dewey’s defeat of a Spanish squadron in the battle of Manila Bay, April 26, 1898.* The U.S. Navy’s forward operations in the twentieth century were dominated by two World Wars and, from 1946 to 1991, the requirement to ensure the peace of the Cold War by securing the freedom of the seas, guaranteeing access to friends and allies and projecting military power ashore in the Caribbean, Middle East and East Asia.
The end of the Cold War saw the Navy adapt in ways that, if anything, increased the value of forward presence to the nation’s political and military leaders. Forward deployed carrier strike groups served as highly visible symbols of American power, presence and commitment. They also provided readily available support to joint operations in the absence of land bases. From October through December, 2001 naval aviation conducted 75 percent of strike sorties in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. In addition, the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) deployed with critical special operations forces at the start of that operation. The role of the nuclear-powered submarine shifted from that of submarine hunter-killer to an ISR and land-attack platform of unrivaled ability. The combined Marine Expeditionary Unit/Amphibious Ready Group provided an air-sea-land crisis response capability. For example, in 2011 the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) amphibious assault ship deployed first to the Indian Ocean to provide disaster relief following a massive earthquake in Pakistan, and then moved to the Mediterranean to conduct both airstrikes and a successful combat search and rescue mission as part of the Libyan intervention.
Today, forward naval presence is one of the most valuable military, political and even economic assets this nation possesses. U.S. naval forces deployed in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Pacific are helping to suppress piracy, interdict narco-trafficking, deter would-be aggressors from attempting to close critical sea lanes, provide humanitarian assistance to nations experiencing natural disasters and standing ready to provide Combatant Commanders with immediate, decisive offensive and defensive power. When North Korea threatened to attack the U.S. homeland with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, Aegis missile defense capable ships were immediately dispatched to the region. Following the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, the Navy placed five Tomahawk cruise missile armed destroyers in international waters off that country’s coast. Navy assets that responded to the humanitarian crisis in the Philippines included a forward deployed carrier strike group organized around the USS George Washington, two amphibious landing ships from Japan and even an oceanographic survey vessel, the Bowditch, operated by the Maritime Sealift Command for the Naval Oceanographic Office.
The U.S. Navy, unlike most others, has never stayed close to home shores; it has always been at sea, forward deployed and engaged. This remains as true today as it was from its founding. In a recent speech, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus expressed this idea succinctly yet eloquently: “Presence is what we do. It is who we are. We reassure our partners that we are there, and assure those who may wish our country and allies harm that we’re never far away. That is American seapower.”
*I am indebted to Bryan McGrath for these examples.
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