Seapower in the 21st Century- NeoMahanian?

“Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA) characterize the environment of the 21st Century and thus a strategy for the U.S. can be a difficult concept to develop and implement.” [1] This phrase aptly describes the situation the U.S. Navy faces in the second decade of the 21st century. The primary purpose of seapower, or, to use a more Mahan-like term “maritime power” has remained fairly steady since Mahan and Corbett wrote their tomes on seapower and strategy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Great maritime trading nations have depended on ocean-going commerce for economic prosperity and have required a strong navy to protect their interests and ensure the safe flow of shipping.

Writing in the late 1890s, Alfred Thayer Mahan advocated a strong navy for both peacetime and wartime purposes. In peacetime a strong navy ensured the safety of both national and international commerce on the high seas, and in wartime, a strong navy not only protected American merchant shipping, but could menace an opponent’s sea-borne trade. To build-up and maintain this strong Navy, Mahan outlined six components of naval power, in particular noting the importance of overseas bases and a government supportive to ship-building and other maritime industries. In the spirit of the era of colonization, Mahan espoused the view that America would need to emulate the great maritime empires such as Holland, Spain and Britain and build a large navy supported by overseas colonies if it was to become a world power. [2]

Corbett completed his work shortly after Mahan and took a uniquely British view about sea power by combining prophetic view on expeditionary warfare and the concept of a “fleet in being” that Germany would use effectively in World War I to tie down a large portion of the British fleet in anticipation of a climatic naval battle. Corbett was a student of both Clausewitz and Jomini and attempted to integrate Clausewitz’ theories of limited and unlimited wars, along with the primacy of the defense into his thinking on naval warfare. [3]

As the U.S. begins to retrench from Iraq and Afghanistan, American ground forces will require extensive recapitalization and refurbishment form 10 years of combat operations. Moreover, the American public and international communities are both leery of any further large scale deployments of American troops to the world’s trouble spots.

Enter the U.S. Navy, with a new Operations Concept that is realistic and attuned to the challenges of the 21st century security environment. This new concept embodies the best of both Mahan and Corbett’s thinking, upgraded for today, and has been called neo-Mahanian thinking by some strategic pundits. Replacing the old concept of colonies and bases for coaling and refueling ships, today’s American navy provides key capabilities in maritime presence, expeditionary forces, and the ability to deter or defeat maritime enemies securing the free flow of maritime commerce world-wide. [4]

Globalization and free trade have replaced the old colonial concept of economic power, but the ‘global commons’ of the world’s oceans continue to carry more than 77% of international trade. Naval forces fit a unique niche among the armed services in maintaining a fairly small overseas footprint with minimal presence in foreign countries, mainly from port visits. Naval forces also fulfill a unique diplomatic position among the armed services through the interaction with other countries’ navies to ensure the safety and security of all international shipping. The current counter-piracy operations being conducted off Somalia are the ultimate example of navies from disparate countries such as China, Russia, the U.S., India and even Saudi Arabia working together to protect shipping and ensure the flow of international trade. [5]

Because of their offshore presence and ability to operate at sea nearly indefinitely, naval forces have also expanded into new roles of humanitarian relief and disaster assistance where the capabilities of large, capable platforms such as aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships provided diplomatic success to U.S. efforts to show benevolence and outreach to countries affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean area.[6]

In terms of traditional nation-state conflict, the only significant potential competitor to the U.S. in the near to midterm is likely to be China, where any armed action will primarily involve naval and air power across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy and their Air Force counterparts are just beginning to grapple with the realities of increasingly capable Chinese naval and air forces able to achieve local dominance in the East and South China Seas as the U.S. Navy operates at the end of a very long logistical tether. Unlike the U.S. Navy panned by Secretary Stimson, the modern U.S. Navy understands that it must act as part of a larger joint and combined team to overcome the Chinese military in its own back yard, if conflict becomes unavoidable. [7]

Several strategic studies have shown that the two most important regions of the 21st century are likely to be the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, where maritime power will be the most important measure of military and diplomatic influence. These facts will challenge the U.S. Navy as it continues to downsize through retirement of older ships and a much smaller shipbuilding program over the next twenty years. Discussions now underway about the size and composition of the future force will have a profound effect on the capabilities and influence of the U.S. Navy in the future. In order to achieve the national security objectives of America and its allies, the Navy will not only have to work with other U.S. services, but foreign militaries as well, when required. The unique capabilities of the Navy-Marine Corps team will remain extremely important, as world populations continue to grow, particularly in unstable and developing countries. Since most of these populations continue to live within 200 miles of the coast in many countries, power projection and expeditionary capabilities provided by modern and capable naval forces will remain an important component of American power and diplomacy. With the decline of the U.S. Navy from a force of nearly 600 ships in the late 1980s to less than 300 ships today, cooperation with allies and regional powers will become a necessity as American warships begin to shift their deployments and forward presence from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean in response to the increasing importance of that region to both regional and global stability. Stability, not hegemony will become the new watchwords of naval power. [8]

[1] CDR Bruce Black, The Legacy of Mahan for the 21st Century, U.S. Army War College (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army, 2006).
[2] Alfred Thayer Mahan, "The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783," in Roots of Stratgy, Book 4, ed. David Jablonsky, 43-148 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999).
[3] Julian Corbett, "Some Principles of Maritime Strategy," in Roots of Strategy, Book 4, ed. David Jablonsky (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999).
[4] U.S. Navy, Naval Operations Concept, 2010, U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy, 2010).
[5] Center for A New American Security, Contested Commons: The Future of American Power in a Multipolar World, (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2010).
[6]Jane's Intelligence Review, "Making Waves- Naval Power Evolves for the 21st Century," Jane's Intelligence Review, Nov 12, 2009, American Military University Electronic Library (accessed Oct 11, 2010).
[7] Frank Hoffman, From Preponderance to Partnership: American Maritme Power in the 21st Century, (Washington, DC: Center for A New American Security, 2010); Andrew Krepinevich, Why AirSea Battle?, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (Washington, DC: CSBA, 2010).
[8] Ralph Peters, "Waters of Wealth and War: The Crucial Indian Ocean," in Wars of Blood and Faith: The Conflicts That Will Shape the 21st Century, 293=301 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007); CNAS, Contested Commons.