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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

On March 13, 2015, the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard released their long-awaited new joint strategy, although some American experts expected the document to be released back in summer 2014. In contrast to many previous papers, it offers no revolutionary, excessively ambitious or groundbreaking entries, but rather comes across as a thoroughly reworked forerunner with situational adjustments.

On March 13, 2015, the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard released their long-awaited new joint strategy, although some American experts expected the document to be released back in summer 2014. In contrast to many previous papers, it offers no revolutionary, excessively ambitious or groundbreaking entries, but rather comes across as a thoroughly reworked forerunner with situational adjustments.

Joint Struggle for the "Common Good"

Service-wide strategies constitute a major component of U.S. national security policy and military development, resting on guidance documents at a higher level, among them the Presidential National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy produced by the Department of Defense, the National Military Strategy of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review.

The previous U.S. maritime strategy was issued in 2007 under the title "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower", becoming the first product of its kind applicable simultaneously to the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. As a rule, service-wide strategies are developed by a limited group of officers from the relevant staff, whereas the Cooperative Strategy of 2007 is known to have been based on extensive consultations with experts, defense and other corporations. Along with coverage of all three sea-oriented services, the chosen algorithm made it more objective vis-à-vis some previous papers and more influential in American defense policy making. Since the document is pivotal for understanding the new strategy, it definitely deserves more attention.

The strategy's main feature is its positive rather than negative context.

The strategy's main feature is its positive rather than negative context, which means the bias towards cooperation for the "common good" rather than for countering a specific threat, the "common good" meaning the international sea trade which is critical for practically all international actors, except for hideous entities like al-Qaeda. The world’s oceans occupy 70 percent of the Earth surface, with 80 percent of the population residing along coastal areas and 90 percent of world trade conducted through sea lanes. Hence, the principles of multilateralism make up the core of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy.

In fact, the document put an end to the then-dominant transoceanic approach, which suggests action against enemy territory to reach political aims. The Cooperative Strategy of 2007 also signaled the return to the traditional oceanic attitude which proclaims dominance at sea as the key instrument of a sea power to attain political goals, as well as to control the world economy and the global balance of power. However, that time the oceanic approach was interpreted along the lines of the liberal paradigm and the ideas of the postmodern navy, rather than the concept of realism and modern navy ideas.

The forward naval presence coming to the fore.

The strategy proceeded from the point that countries are becoming more interdependent in economic and security sectors. U.S. interests require the encouragement of a system of international, legal, civil and governmental ties. There are no distinct borderlines between peace and war, so the destabilization of one region can affect other areas and American interests. Hence, preventing a war is as significant as victory.

Because of this, the strategy stressed that the United States cannot guarantee security in the whole of the world’s oceans, with a portion of commitments to be shouldered by other states that need to follow in the wake of the "global maritime leader." The document in fact acknowledged the need for a collective security system based on common threats and mutual interests "in an open multipolar world" (highlighted by the author).

The strategy outlined six key imperatives for U.S. maritime armed services:

  • Restraint and settlement of regional conflicts through a forward naval presence.
  • Containment of wars between great powers.
  • Winning wars.
  • Domestic security.
  • Promotion and advancement of international cooperation.
  • Prevention and minimization of risks.

The six imperatives correlated with the six key functions of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, i.e. a forward naval presence, containment, sea dominance, power projection, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

More international cooperation to a large extent was an attempt to lessen the burden on the U.S. Navy, as then Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen bluntly stated: "The changed strategic landscape offers new opportunities for maritime forces to work together – sometimes with the U.S. Navy, but often times without. In fact, a greater number of today's emerging missions won't involve the U.S. Navy. And that's fine with me."

The Cooperative Strategy of 2007 was both condensed and terse, in fact what a strategy should be. However, this same feature became one of the main reasons for criticism, for example over the absence of the roles and indication of specific areas and potential enemies (hinting of China), as well as the linkage of goals and ways to attain them with resources and tools, i.e. naval construction programs. This problem was partially settled through the publication of additional documents, first of all the voluminous Naval Operations Concept. The latter was also censured for generality, a lack of distinct priorities and an overdependence on soft power.

Eight Years later…

On the whole, the expert community found the 2007 strategy to be fairly plausible, although over the past several years much has happened to drastically alter the global landscape, for example, the Russia-Georgia conflict, the Arab Spring that seems more like Arab Winter after triggering the Syrian conflict and the emergence of the Islamic State, the reintegration of Crimea which was literally missed by the U.S. military, and the continuing rise of China amidst a worldwide economic crisis and defense budget sequestration in the United States.

The new naval strategy has preserved the title and the spirit of its predecessor but absorbed the guidelines issued between 2008 and 2014, as well as accounted for changes in the international environment and the criticism poured on the 2007 document. The two versions have much in common but also differ greatly in certain areas. The Cooperative Strategy of 2015 contains many positions mentioned in the earlier papers, while the incorporation of concrete points has significantly elevated its status.

"All-domain access" is a new mission consolidating the independent mission of the controversial Air-Sea Battle concept.

The "cooperative" component is intact, as the strategy still covers all three maritime services and rests on multilateralism. However, international cooperation is now second in importance, with the forward naval presence coming to the fore. In particular, the strategy provides for ships deployed in forward areas to be increased from 97 in 2014 to 120 by 2020.

The document clearly outlines key operative areas and their hierarchy, with the Indo-Asia-Pacific region acquiring paramount significance. In contrast to the 2007 paper, the text mentions China and its "naval expansion", although cautiously referring to it as to a source of "opportunities and challenges." Through forward presence and "constructive interaction" with China, the U.S. maritime triad expects to "reduce the potential for misunderstanding, discourage aggression, and preserve our commitment to peace and stability in the region." It is in the Indo-Asia-Pacific where Washington plans to deploy 60 percent of its ships and aircraft, as well as its most advanced weapons.

The second priority is the Middle East, which is being overwhelmed by the menace of extremism and terrorism. Iran is mentioned as a potential threat to global sea trade, more specifically to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. By 2020, forward presence there is to rise from 30 to 40 ships.


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The new strategy shows the European redux.

Next comes Europe and the Mediterranean, which after the Cold War are widely rated secondary in the terms of naval priorities. But this mistake was later recognized, and the new strategy shows the European redux, of course, due to "the illegal seizure of Crimea and ongoing military aggression in Ukraine." However, the naval buildup is going to be hardly significant, since the strategy mentions only four BMD-capable destroyers to be deployed in Spain and four specialized Marine Corps units. The United States seems eager to place regional security commitments mainly on its NATO allies.

The Western Hemisphere and Africa have been given the lowest rating, their key threats being regional instability, "under-governed areas" and transnational organized crime. Because of climate change and the melting of the icecaps, the document demonstrates more interest in the Arctic and the Antarctic, with responsibility delegated to the Coast Guard rather than the Navy and the Marine Corps.

Missions

The 2015 strategy outlines five naval missions, with "forward presence" now being a "foundational principle" and "humanitarian assistance and disaster response" included in the power projection segment, whereas previously it was termed a mission. The amendments appear logical, stressing somewhat less attention to soft power and the U.S. Navy's willingness to obtain some safeguards from possible structural cuts by attaching primary importance to forward presence.

"All-domain access" is a new mission consolidating the independent mission of the controversial Air-Sea Battle concept, which recently was given a new, barely pronounceable title. The new mission boils down to freedom of action for U.S. forces in areas with access blocked by the enemy. The trick is made through the integration of all services in all spheres in order to generate cross-domain synergies. To this end, special attention should be given to the Electromagnetic Manoeuvre Warfare, a new naval concept, which suggests the integrated operations of the Navy in outer space and information and electromagnetic provinces using non-kinetic weapons systems to overwhelm the enemy. The concept’s emergence and incorporation in the primary missions list seems to indicate the Navy's awareness of its might and at the same time weakness in this area, as well as the desire to outpace other services in electronic warfare.

Also of importance is the fact that the document's spirit relays to the Coast Guard functions of maritime security, i.e. the protection of state sovereignty and the resources of the world’s oceans, support for free and open sea trade, countering non-military threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy, etc.), as well as economic, political and legal stability at sea. First, the move somewhat eases the burden on the Navy that can now divert more of its resources to its primary missions, and, second, it strengthens the stance of the Coast Guard in resisting budget cuts.

Naval Forces

In comparison to the 2007 version, the recent strategy contains a large section devoted to the required fleet structure and naval construction priorities, first of all, in order to ensure linkage between the objectives and missions within the strategy. Moreover, the approach consolidates the optimal quantitative and qualitative parameters in shadow of the still looming sequester, because now the cuts in the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard can be interpreted as a direct threat to national security.

The Cooperative Strategy of 2015 sets the desired naval strength at over 300 ships, including 11 aircraft carriers, 33 amphibious ships and 14 ballistic missile submarines that are to be replaced with 12 next-generation Ohio-class submarines. The Coast Guard must maintain 91 patrol ships and cutters.

The force building principles include support of the optimal balance between forward presence and readiness of the based forces, between the acquisition of new equipment and the maintenance of assets in use, the reduction of low-priority expenses and the cost of life for maritime assets, as well as the wider use of the modular principle.

The force building priorities list the next-generation ballistic missile submarine program, the fifth-generation fighter, long-range precision weapons, integrated ballistic missile and air defense systems, the conventional submarine component, a wide range of systems for all-domain access and operations in the electromagnetic spectrum, higher energy efficiency and development of ship-based power plants, and the introduction of novel weapons including lasers and rail guns. While the priority has been given to the Navy, other services have also received their share of programs, among them modern landing systems for the Marine Corps (amphibious armored vehicles, cutters and aircraft) and port security systems for the Coast Guard.

The strategy will hardly bring major shifts in U.S. naval activities and national security policy, but will rather adapt the maritime services to the landscape changes over the past eight years.

The new U.S. naval strategy definitely reflects the numerous changes on the global scene and the three-plus-year-long tireless efforts of Admiral Jonathan Greennert, the current Chief of Naval Operations, who has been insistently defending and implementing some of the core strategy's ideas, among them the electromagnetic spectrum bias, the optimization of the forward presence, a modular approach in shipbuilding, and all-domain access. Hence, the final document is both pragmatic and logical, although critical attacks do happen, some of them from the most ardent proponents of American naval power, among other things, because of the authors' restraint toward Russia and China.

The strategy will hardly bring major shifts in U.S. naval activities and national security policy, but will rather adapt the maritime services to the landscape changes over the past eight years. Also significant is the consolidation of main force construction avenues and the fleet structure requirements to withstand the Damocles' sword of sequestration.

China and Indo-Asia-Pacific remain the U.S. Navy's priority, which should remain as a long-term strategic factor. Russia has been also given some attention, but the Middle Eastern and Chinese headaches will effectively prevent any buildup in Europe in the mid term in the absence of hardly imaginable additional expenses. The Navy definitely aims to maintain the status quo and handle a myriad of burning problems like financing the next-generation ballistic missile submarine, which means that the United States seems likely to contain and pressure Russia with other assets.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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