The Evolution of the U.S. Navy

The Navy must reequip itself for its core function of high-seas battle if it is to resume custodianship of an increasingly competitive maritime world.

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Were the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps after the Cold War and the hippy movement of 1968 separated at birth? In a sense, yes. Both made it an article of faith that history had ended or was simply irrelevant. Both took to extremes Henry Ford’s quip that “history is more or less bunk”—a paean to historical forgetfulness if there ever was one. “We don’t want tradition,” declared Ford in the Chicago Tribune in 1916. “We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” Their extremely American conviction that history was bunk liberated the 1960s types and sea warriors from the customs and ways of thinking that had stood the test of time—or so they thought. Both groups had to relearn what they had deliberately forgotten, at considerable peril to the republic and themselves. The hippies constituted a menace to public health; neglect of basic martial missions, tactics, and hardware endangered the ability of the sea services to enforce freedom of the sea

That is my reading of the lessons from a comical albeit macabre story about San Francisco during the 1960s, related by the novelist and gadfly Tom Wolfe. Hippies inhabiting communes in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district had declared it “Year Zero.” They proclaimed that benighted past generations had nothing to teach that was worth learning. They would build an all-new world from scratch, learning everything for themselves. Hence, it was known as Year Zero. The enlightened 1960s generation thus made a conscious choice to forget the accumulated wisdom of the ages—including such fundamentals as basic sanitation and hygiene! The ensuing downturn in public health flummoxed doctors at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Wolfe reports:

Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside—quite purposely—were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets or . . . without using any sheets at all or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning . . . the laws of hygiene . . . by getting . . . diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.

But that isn’t quite right, is it? Getting sick “exposed the hippies to the consequences of their folly”? Whether they learned from the grunge or the rot was up to them. Learning demanded a painful mental readjustment. It demanded that they amend or discard Year Zero thinking, a core precept of commune life. Having consciously decided to reject all lessons bequeathed by past generations, the 1960s generation now had to decide to take the past seriously again, in whole or in part. For Wolfe this was the moral to the story—that the hippies’ ahistorical and arrogant worldview compelled them to undertake a “Great Relearning” of basic truths in order to rejoin modern society as functioning members.

You can disparage those who went before or declare past experience irrelevant. That doesn’t make what your forebears learned about reality any less true. And reality has a way of exacting its revenge. When it does, you can undertake your own Great Relearning or suffer the consequences.

Now, the United States Navy and Marine Corps are not some bunch of smelly hippies per se. But in a way the seniormost naval leadership announced that Year Zero had arrived with the downfall of the Soviet Union and Soviet Navy. Uniformed and civilian officials declared an end to naval history in 1992, at almost precisely the same moment the social scientist Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming an end to political history. (Fukuyama floated the notion of an “end of history” in these pages in 1989 and expanded it to book length in late 1992.) A whiff of Haight-Ashbury wafted through naval precincts when “. . . From the Sea: Preparing the Naval Service for the 21st Century,” the U.S. Navy and Marines’ first effort at making strategy for the brave new world following the Cold War, stated that:

  • The West ruled the sea now that the Soviet Navy was no more;
  • No peer antagonist could rival the U.S. or allied navies for mastery of the maritime commons, and none would for the foreseeable future;
  • And therefore the U.S. sea services could afford to transform themselves into a “fundamentally different naval service” that had little need to gird for surface, anti-air, or anti-submarine warfare against enemies comparable in size and capability to Western forces.

The sea services, that is, could lay down arms and transform themselves. Though not in so many words, sea-service chieftains contended that victory in the Cold War had abolished the chief function of navies, namely fighting enemy battle fleets for maritime command in Mahanian fashion. Since there was no one left to fight, American and friendly forces could skip straight to projecting power from this offshore safe haven. They could land troops on combat missions or errands of mercy, launch air strikes from carrier flight decks, or pelt targets with cruise missiles with impunity. “. . . From the Sea” broadcast a powerful and resonant signal to the sea services. From then forward, hardware, tactics, and skills for dueling peer navies languished—and languished on explicit orders from naval prelates.

History has now debunked the notion that history is bunk. Like 1960s denizens, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps must now undertake their own Great Relearning if they mean to compete effectively against such formidable potential foes as China’s People’s Liberation Army, which is busily fielding a great surface navy backed by an array of missile-toting submarines and patrol craft, not to mention shore-based aircraft and missiles in bulk. The ghost of Tom Wolfe smiles knowingly at the sea services’ plight. The hippies had to learn not to share toothbrushes. We have to relearn and reequip ourselves for our core function of high-seas battle if we are to resume custodianship of an increasingly competitive maritime world. In both cases it’s back to basics after insisting the basics no longer matter.

How do we gauge how well we are faring in this gathering strategic competition? Let’s answer briefly from the standpoint of the United States as a whole and then circle back to the sea services, the long arm of U.S. foreign policy, to see what our Great Relearning involves. As the keeper of an established status quo, America counts it as a strategic success when nothing happens—or at any rate nothing that upsets that status quo. Scholar-statesman Henry Kissinger counsels superintendents of a regional or world order to found their efforts on justice and on a balance of power. If stakeholders in the system accept the system as a legitimate mechanism for settling their differences, then they have little reason to challenge it; they see it as just on the whole and acquiesce in its workings. If a daunting balance of power confronts would-be challengers, then they can cherish few hopes of toppling the system. Either way, nothing happens; the established order stands.

You would think things should be okay today. Communist China freely assented to the “international rules-based order,” which lamentably now seems to have acquired its own acronym, IRBO. It took up a permanent seat in the UN Security Council in the 1970s. It signed on as a charter member of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the 1980s. Beijing seemed to accept the rules-based order as a device for settling disputes, as Kissinger doubtless hoped it would. But the leadership has evidently had second thoughts in recent years, particularly when it comes to managing events in the China seas. The Chinese Communist Party leadership harbors few objections to a rules-based order in offshore waters. It simply believes the rules should be made in Beijing—not in The Hague, New York, or, worst of all, Washington, DC.

Hence the fervent claims from Xi Jinping and his supporters to “indisputable sovereignty“ over maritime space adjoining mainland shores. Such claims would negate the principle that the high seas are a “common,” an expanse that belongs to everyone and no one. If China is sovereign over swathes of the high seas, then it wields a monopoly on the legitimate use of armed force there. The Chinese Communist Party ordains, others obey. The common is no more. So the diplomatic challenge before the United States and fellow liberal-minded seafaring states is to make every effort to coax China back into the rules-based order as it currently stands; to refuse to grant concessions to Beijing that tacitly nullify the rules on which the system rests; and to shore up the regional balance of power in case China keeps stubbornly rejecting the rules. Conciliate Beijing while convincing Xi and his lieutenants they cannot get away with subverting the regional or world order, and a wonderful thing may happen.


This is the first measure of strategic success. How can the sea services help bring it about? Our task is to put steel behind diplomacy and thus face down challenges to the rules-based order—making the favorable balance of power Kissinger espouses a reality. We need to make an impression—a political impression. The strategist Edward Luttwak urges fleet overseers to configure and move forces around to cast a “shadow” across an opponent’s strategic and political calculations. We want Beijing to fret about the consequences it may incur from whittling away at the status quo. The longer and darker the shadow U.S. Navy and Marine forces cast when they cruise from place to place on the map and flex their combat capabilities, the better Washington’s chances of deterring Beijing. Doubt and fear are our friends in this endeavor.

Henry Kissinger devises another simple formula to guide our efforts. He depicts deterrence as a multiple of capability, resolve, and belief, namely our capability and resolve to use it under certain circumstances coupled with the opponent’s belief in our capability and resolve. To deter we must assemble physical capability sufficient to make good on our deterrent threats; display the willpower to use that capability should the opponent defy our deterrent threats; and make that opponent a believer in our capability and resolve. Kissinger hastens to restate his premise: deterrence is a product of multiplication—not addition. If any one of these factors is zero, then so is deterrence.

That’s why the U.S. Navy’s and Marine Corps’ renown as fighting forces is so critical to foreign-policy success. The sea services are capability manifest in steel and flesh. So to track success in strategic competition, mariners need to estimate how they are influencing the three variables comprising deterrence. They must fortify their material and human prowess, project confidence in their ability to fight and win, and help diplomats and policymakers convince Beijing they can and will carry out Washington’s deterrent threats if so instructed. If we can convince China’s leadership it cannot prevail in a trial of arms—or, short of that, that it cannot prevail at a cost Xi and his advisers are prepared to pay—then deterrence ought to hold.

If justice cannot keep the peace, in other words, then the sea services must deploy old-fashioned hard power in concert with U.S. Army legions and Air Force squadrons. Whatever maritime forces do to bolster capability, resolve, and belief helps cast the deep shadow America must cast to deter China—and act as a trustworthy steward over the system. This is my second measure of strategic success.

And lastly, seafarers must reform their institutional culture. Culture—crudely put, “how we do things here”—instills attitudes and habits within an institution and the people who comprise it. A naval culture that is gimlet-eyed yet upbeat will stand the sea services in good stead in strategic competition. It should be gimlet-eyed in that it rejects fanciful claims like those found in “. . . From the Sea.” Victory over a specific competitor may be permanent. Victory over the Soviet Navy is a settled fact, since that antagonist is no more. (Its successor is another matter.) And if the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are fortunate enough to get through the ongoing competition with China and Russia, then they may earn a new reprieve from high-seas strategic competition.

But reprieves are transitory. There will always be a next challenger, and the sea services must feel that conviction in our marrow. Strategic competition never finally ends. We must never again delude ourselves into thinking a momentary triumph, however complete and satisfying, has annulled our first and paramount naval mission—the fight to rule the waves. Mariners must constantly keep pushing themselves to get better at that mission, even if no new foe has yet appeared on the horizon. In that sense a tragic if not fatalistic mindset must guide everything we think and do. We should regard claims that Year Zero is at hand, or that history has ended, with a jaundiced eye.

If naval culture should be fatalistic about elemental purposes, then we should also make it upbeat. It should reflexively deplore orthodoxy while celebrating entrepreneurship that helps the sea services fulfill their purposes. The longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer—another Bay Area dweller, although from the Grapes of Wrath rather than the hippy generation—teaches that innovative ages are mirthful, even whimsical ages. Hoffer says change is an ordeal for all of us, but devil-may-care times make it less trying. Freewheeling times reward experimentation; they may even make it fun. In such times any crank feels free to formulate a harebrained idea, put it to the test of reality, and discard it for the next harebrained idea should the hypothesis fail that test—as most will; but not all.

Ancient Athens was one bubbly, entrepreneurial society students of strategy and foreign-policy encounter when canvassing history for insight. Even the city’s enemies paid homage to Athenian dynamism. Other dynamic epochs, says Hoffer, include early Islam, the European Renaissance, and Restoration-era England. By contrast, orthodox ages are dour. They frown on cranks. Senior leaders obsess over administrative perfection and spit and polish. They gather control of most everything into their hands, attempting to choreograph—in minute detail—endeavors best left to more junior folk. In short, they stifle and punish enterprise. Hoffer says such an outlook deadens creativity, and he is right. Instituting the right rules, regulations, and career incentives can nudge the institutional culture in a direction hospitable to invention. Senior civilian and naval leadership must exercise trusteeship over the culture.

Let’s make nurturing a cultural renaissance a third measure of strategic success. If a healthy culture shapes our thoughts and deeds, then we are likely to compete to good effect. May dynamism—not stasis, orthodoxy, or control freakism—prevail. Let’s tend to the system, deter challengers, and reform ourselves. These efforts are our counterparts to refreshing personal hygiene in the communes of Haight-Ashbury. Take care of the basics and we may go far.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

This article appeared originally at The National Interest.

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