“Control of the seas means security. Control of the seas means peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the sea if it is to protect our security.” —John F. Kennedy
“For in this modern world, the instruments of warfare are not solely for waging war. Far more importantly, they are the means for controlling peace. Naval officers must therefore understand not only how to fight a war, but how to use the tremendous power which they operate to sustain a world of liberty and justice, without unleashing the powerful instruments of destruction and chaos that they have at their command.” Admiral Arleigh Burke
Over the Memorial Day weekend Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced the naming of the second ship in the Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier. The name selected was significant as the ship will be named the USS John F. Kennedy CVN-79, her namesake being President John F. Kennedy who served as a junior officer in the Second World War commanding a Patrol Torpedo Boat, PT-109 in the Solomon Islands. Kennedy’s boat was rammed and split in two by the Japanese Fubuki class destroyer Amagiri in the early hours of August 2nd 1943. Over a period of six days he made herculean efforts to save his crew and was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.
The United States has always been a seafaring nation and today the vast majority of our commerce is borne by ships from the world over. The United States learned during the Revolution and the War of 1812 the importance of sea power when the Royal Navy for all intents and purposes rules the waves. Even the land victory of Washington at Yorktown was sealed by the intervention of the French Fleet which prevented the British from evacuating the garrison. During the Civil War the Union Navy was the deciding factor as it blockaded Southern ports and forced the Mississippi River cutting the Confederacy in two and sealing its fate even as Confederate armies battled Union forces in the bloodiest battles ever seen on this continent. The Navy was the deciding factor in the Spanish American War sweeping the Spanish Navy from the seas and dooming its garrisons around the world. The U.S. Navy began the First World War late but by the end was the ascendant naval power in the world and was one of the major reasons that the British in spite of the superiority that they had at the time agreed to the Washington and later London Naval accords. When the Second World War erupted the United States was in the beginning stages of a Naval build up to reinforce and replace the fleet that was still dominated by the ships built prior to the Naval treaties. In the Pacific the Japanese Navy steamrolled its scattered and ill equipped opposition while in the Atlantic German U-Boats decimated convoys very nearly breaking the back of Great Britain and the Soviet Union. However it was the Navy initially stretched to its limits by the Two Ocean War which regained the initiative which in an unprecedented build up of Naval Power defeated its adversaries and safeguarded the vast convoys of merchant ships carrying American troops and equipment into battle and bringing American Lend Lease aid to reach Britain and the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam the Navy was a flexible and mobile response force to crises around the globe military, diplomatic and humanitarian, often diffusing situations without a shot having to be fired in anger and eliminating the need for large numbers of ground forces. In the 1980s the Navy secured the Gulf of Sirte against the threats of Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and kept the Persian Gulf open during the Tanker Wars initiated by Iran on merchant ships transiting the Gulf. American naval power was again on display during the Gulf War and subsequent United Nations sanctions on Iraq. After 9-11 the Navy has been a response force around the globe in the War on Terrorism as well as numerous natural disasters and humanitarian crises. When a crisis develops which might require a military response the first questions on the mind of every Presidential administration has been where is the nearest Carrier Strike Group and Marine Expeditionary unit. Today the Navy supports military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa and against piracy.
The vast majority of the world’s populations now live on the littorals, or the land areas adjacent to the ocean. The bulk of world commerce is maritime commerce; the United States depends on secure sea lanes to support our economy.
While sea power is essential to American national power, diplomatic, economic and military large standing armies are not. Yes our land forces must be strong and in quality the best in the world. At the same time whenever we have committed large numbers of land forces to ill defined campaigns we have squandered national power and prestige in wars that have been at best stalemates and at worst strategic defeats. This of course excemts the two World Wars where those large land forces were engaged they had a specific mission that was directly tied to national strategy.
We have come to a place in our national life where our strategic thinking still largely influenced by the World Wars and the Cold War has to be modified. The major land wars launched by the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven incredibly costly in terms of manpower and economics and it is clear that the Obama administration and bipartisan Congress will seek to disengage sooner rather than later from those wars. One knows that once those wars are over that land forces will shrink as plans are already on the table with cuts already beginning in some services.
Of course one has to ask what the military should be composed of in light of a coherent national security strategy that takes into account the full spectrum of threats to our nation many of which are not military in a traditional sense. To sustain large numbers of land forces on foreign territory is expensive and often fraught with peril when there are changes in the leadership of allied nations on which we depend for the basing of such forces. Even forward deployed Air Force assets are subject to these constraints. Such basing was necessitated by the Soviet threat during the Cold War. All previous overseas conflicts were viewed by American leaders as expeditionary in nature, land forces would go in with a specific goal for a limited time. If forces were left in place they were generally small and of a constabulary nature.
Only the Navy-Marine Corps team provides the flexibility to provide a rapid military or humanitarian response to overseas contingencies. Critics call it “gunboat diplomacy” but then we have found what we are doing is not sustainable and we need an alternative. That alternative is the Sea Services, which also include the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. The Bush administration reduced the Navy in terms of ships and personnel in order to support land wars of questionable strategic value, even turning thousands of Sailors into soldiers to support Army missions in Iraq and Afghanistan without reducing and even expanding the requirements of Naval forces. This was a mistake of unmitigated proportions, no strategic goal that we have accomplished in either Iraq or Afghanistan could not have been accomplished by the Navy and Marine Corps and contingents of Special Forces, military and civilian advisors and the CIA.
Theodore Roosevelt had a saying, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He was not an isolationist by any means; he advocated engagement with the world but also protections, military, economic and ecological for Americans. A strong Navy was central to his thinking as were good relations with other nations. He understood the importance of the Navy in supporting American interests. In his annual address to Congress on December 6th 1904 he stated:
“In treating of our foreign policy and of the attitude that this great Nation should assume in the world at large, it is absolutely necessary to consider the Army and the Navy, and the Congress, through which the thought of the Nation finds its expression, should keep ever vividly in mind the fundamental fact that it is impossible to treat our foreign policy, whether this policy takes shape in the effort to secure justice for others or justice for ourselves, save as conditioned upon the attitude we are willing to take toward our Army, and especially toward our Navy. It is not merely unwise, it is contemptible, for a nation, as for an individual, to use high-sounding language to proclaim its purposes, or to take positions which are ridiculous if unsupported by potential force, and then to refuse to provide this force. If there is no intention of providing and keeping the force necessary to back up a strong attitude, then it is far better not to assume such an attitude.”
Roosevelt understood better than most of his peers around the world of the necessity of worldwide engagement and the protection of American interests. As interdependent as the United States and our allies are on international cooperation in anti-terrorism, humanitarian response and the free flow of commerce the Sea Services have to be the primary means of response. Land forces are important but it is clear that they will need to be reorganized and rebuilt after the long and arduous conflicts that they have shouldered and ultimately they are dependent on the Navy for the bulk of their support when deployed overseas.
Any new national security strategy must prioritize our nation’s goals with diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic assets. We must leverage power and not squander it. Naval forces are among the most flexible and economic means of exercising the military aspects of such strategy and are not hostage to unstable governments as are forward deployed land forces. Naval power leverages national power in ways that forward deployed land forces cannot and are far more connected to goodwill than are ground forces which are seen by many around the world as occupying forces.
British Maritime strategist Julian Corbett in his book “Some Principles of Maritime Strategy” provides a clear understanding of how sea power is best suited to the principle of a true national strategy for a maritime nation which emphasized limited and asymmetrical warfare. Such strategy sustained the British Empire until it allowed itself to become mired in the trenches of Flanders and the shores of Gallipoli during the First World War killing off the flower of the nation’s youth and nearly bankrupting the nation and alienating much of the empire.
Corbett maintained that naval forces were best suited to controlling lines of communications, focus on the enemy, and maneuver for tactical advantage. He also believed that naval forces best suited the political, economic and financial dimensions of waging war as well as war’s technological and material aspects. One key aspect of this was the Corbett believed that continental war where large land armies are deployed inherently act against opponents limiting their political aims and increase the chance of total war with all of its destructive effects. Corbett understood, as Clausewitz did before him the primacy of politics in war and necessity to devise appropriate strategies to protect the national interests while emphasizing efficiency in battle while preserving costly assets.
Ultimately the United States is a maritime power. When we try to become a continental power by engaging in protected land wars overseas we lose our strategic and economic advantage. One can argue that we would not be in Iraq or Afghanistan today had it not been for the deployment of land and air forces on the Arabian Peninsula following the Gulf War.
The new USS John F. Kennedy when completed will be one of the key platforms of American power projection in the middle part of this century and it is important that we strengthen and modernize the Navy so that it might meet the tasks required of it by our nation and our friends around the world. It is imperative that we as a nation remember our heritage and return to it as we develop a strategy that is at last freed from the World War and Cold War model. The time for that is now.