My Take on the 2015 Maritime Strategy: Thumbs Up

My Take on the 2015 Maritime Strategy: Thumbs Up
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Today the U.S. Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard, collectively known as the sea services, released a “refreshed,” a.k.a. revised, edition of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. The process of drafting, debating, and publishing a strategy that conforms to today’s geostrategic realities consumed several years and proceeded in fits and starts. The resulting product isn’t bad at all.

A few quick-strike responses, in no particular order. One, “refresh” is a misnomer. While the new strategy is clearly a descendant of its 2007 forebear, it’s over twice as long page-wise—probably more than that word-count wise, as the words are densely packed onto the pages rather than spaced out in the glossy, pamphlet-like 2007 strategy. 

Two, the Asia pivot set in motion by the 2007 strategy—albeit before the slogan was formulated—continues! Rather than make the case for concentrating resources and energy on the Western Pacific and greater Indian Ocean, the new document follows the logic already spelled out. Its framers reiterate, for instance, that 60 percent of naval forces will be stationed in the (maladroitly dubbed) “Indo-Asia-Pacific” region in the coming years, in keeping with the “rebalance” to East, South, and Southwest Asia. Europeanists also have their day after being mostly left out of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy. The document pays homage to NATO, notes that ballistic-missile-defense destroyers will be forward-deployed to Spain, and the like.

Reinserting Europe into the strategic mix makes the Maritime Strategy a mostly Eurasian document—especially considering its observation that maritime movement is increasingly viable through polar waters, along Eurasia’s northern rampart. Sea power can increasingly hug Eurasia all around the perimeter, albeit intermittently in the Arctic basin. The Western Hemisphere will be a largely U.S. Coast Guard theater—the Coast Guard gets far more play than it did in 2007, incidentally, which is all to the good—while Africa will remain an “economy-of-force” theater overseen by combined forces using joint high-speed vessels, afloat staging bases, and kindred low-cost shipping and platforms.

Three, the service chiefs take a sober view of the access-denial challenge, pronouncing “all-domain access” the one capability to rule them all. None of the fine things the sea services hope to accomplish—welding together a “global network of navies” to police the sea and sky, responding to natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies, quelling piracy, weapons proliferation, or seaborne terrorism—can be accomplished without ready access to geographic zones where these endeavors unfold. Access is Job #1.

Four, the refreshed strategy calls out China. China was conspicuously absent from the 2007 strategy—which did little to mute suspicions among the Chinese leadership that the sea services were gunning for China. The strategy rightly observes that relations with China remain a mixed bag, with some efforts at cooperation unfurling alongside Beijing’s unlawful maritime territorial claims and other attempts to make maritime East Asia a Chinese preserve. It’s worth noting, moreover, that China commands by far the most verbiage of any country in the strategy. Prospective allies and partners—including rising powers like India—are laundry-listed among other countries with which naval leaders vow to forge collaborative relations.

One hopes the strategy’s framers see that most of the cooperative things—counterpiracy, for instance—are happening beyond the arcs of the Western Pacific island chains and the Malay Peninsula. Most of the competitive things are happening in the China seas, imperiling American allies such as Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Perhaps the habits of cooperation will radiate from outer maritime theaters into East Asia, perhaps not. That’s the diplomatic challenge before us—and China can always say no to U.S. and allied overtures.

And five, the service chiefs evidently took aboard some of the pointed criticisms of the 2007 Maritime Strategy. Critics rightly pointed out that strategy puts resources behind its purposes, and that the 2007 strategy was silent on that crucial topic. That made the document a strategic concept more than a strategy per se. A fatal shortcoming? Hardly, in my view. There are advantages to not mooring strategy in what’s transpiring now, now, now. Nonetheless, the 2015 strategy talks ship numbers and dispositions, makes the obligatory plea for Congress and the administration to exempt naval forces from sequestration, and on and on. It does acknowledge resources. 

The upside to this is that the new strategy is a strategy; the downside is that inserting today’s budgetary woes, platforms and weapon systems, and controversies of various stripes, the strategy could take on a musty odor before long. Events may move on, rendering parts of it moot. Whereas the 2007 strategy had longevity by abjuring the concerns of the day, then, the 2015 strategy may itself need to be refreshed before long.

This was my early take on the refresh, which ran over at Foreign Policy in January. It supplies a few things to look for in the new document. My overall snap verdict on the 2015 Maritime Strategy: thumbs up. How well the sea services execute the strategy will—of course—be the arbiter of its success. Being good on paper only goes so far. The sea services have made the promise—now they have to perform.

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