On October 17, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard unveiled a new maritime strategy. This is the first time that all three sea services have labored to produce a common strategic vision, and it is thoroughly convincing. The strategy argues that the global order is being transformed by new technology, new trading patterns, and new threats. The shared task of the sea services must be to use their mastery of the seas to protect global peace and prosperity through the effective execution of six missions: forward presence, conflict deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security and humanitarian assistance.
Whether you believe that the nation is in a long peace or a long war, the new maritime strategy is sensible and appealing. First, there is an emphasis on cooperation and sharing in the pursuit of global security; this ethos extends not just to the three U.S. sea services, but to their overseas counterparts whose assistance is necessary in policing the world’s oceans, coastlines and inland waterways. Second, there is a recognition of the need for interoperability among domestic and foreign sea services to assure they can mesh effectively; all participating forces must have the training and technology to participate in the networked and distributed operations of the future. Third, there is an understanding of the requirement for improved “maritime domain awareness” in monitoring emerging threats; the strategy stresses the need for better surveillance capabilities and better cultural/linguistic skills in dealing with maritime and littoral adversaries.
It is hard to argue with such a reasonable approach to global security. However, there are three issues that mar the credibility of the new maritime strategy. First of all, while cooperation and shared purpose are fine values, they often don’t seem to be driving the way the three sea services deal with each other today. The harshness with which they attack each other’s motives and programs when talking to third parties make the Army and Air Force sound like Mary Kate and Ashley (the Olsen twins). It would be a useful test of how committed the sea services really are to future cooperation to see whether the Marine Corps can stop criticizing the Navy’s carrier-based Super Hornet, the Navy can stop criticizing the Marine variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, and the Coast Guard can stay in its lane on overseas missions.
Second, the new maritime strategy makes it sound like the three sea services can achieve overseas military objectives by themselves without depending on other components of the joint force. The reality is a little different. Most of the global connectivity, reconnaissance, navigation and weather information the sea services depend on is provided via satellites managed by the Air Force. Sea-based aircraft can’t get very far inland in Southwest Asia or the Western Pacific without aerial refueling from Air Force tankers. Nothing in the current sea-service arsenal remotely approaches the overland persistence of a Global Hawk surveillance drone or the survivability of a B-2 bomber. And we all know what would have happened to the Marines if they were sent to secure Iraq without the Army. So perhaps the net of cooperation needs to be cast a bit more broadly to capture all the key contributors to future military success.
Finally, no amount of cooperation can compensate for the corrosive consequences of a naval shipbuilding program that is dead in the water. You can’t sustain global maritime supremacy by buying one submarine a year and one aircraft carrier every five years. And you can’t fix a fouled-up shipbuilding sector by launching a political jihad against the handful of shipyards that have survived a generation of Navy mismanagement. The Navy needs to settle now on what warships it wants for the future and start building them at a much faster rate, otherwise it will lack the tools to carry out all its high-minded strategic concepts.
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