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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

America Needs a True Maritime Strategy

The United States has neither a genuinely maritime strategy, nor an executor beneath the presidency with the power to put such a scheme into effect.

US Navy Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
US Navy Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Help me, Alfred Thayer Mahan, you’re my only hope

Recent word out of Washington, D.C. revealed something gobsmacking: U.S. law designates the secretary of transportation as the nation’s supreme authority on maritime strategy. The law instructs the secretary to consult with the secretary of homeland defense and the commander of U.S. Transportation Command. Together, they develop a national maritime strategy and update it every five years. The U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, a subordinate arm of the Department of Transportation, obliged. An amendment to the law now circulating in Congress would require the MARAD administrator to testify before relevant committees semiannually on the state of U.S. national maritime strategy. 

Congress should jettison that terminology. It obscures a real and grave problem. 

A Strategy for the High Seas

MARAD has published a valuable maritime transport strategy. It is nothing even close to a national maritime strategy. Calling it that conveys the false impression that America has a coherent, comprehensive approach to seaward endeavors when it does not. The nation sorely needs a document worthy of being called a national maritime strategy. Such a directive would explain how officialdom intends to raise and use resources relevant to the sea to fulfill its purposes. The nation also needs someone knowledgeable and powerful enough to put the strategy of that sweep into effect, bolstering the public weal and America’s world standing. 

It would make zero sense to put the secretary of transportation in charge of national maritime strategy. That person has no place in the military chain of command and may know little about sea warfare beyond its logistical aspects. 

How should a national maritime strategy be pitched? At the highest level. I define strategy as the art and science of using power to fulfill purposes. Maritime strategy, then, is the art and science of using sea power to fulfill purposes relating to the sea. In other words, it is about devising ways to use the means of strategy — sea power in all its forms — to achieve political ends. Ways, means, and ends — relating the three is what a national strategy should do. 

Proper Definitions

A refresher on the basic relationships may help clear things up. Cavalier lingo helps account for the confusion, and this is a prevalent problem in literature relating to the sea. What is the difference between maritime, naval, and sea power? If you read enough histories and theoretical tracts about the sea, you will notice some terms used casually and interchangeably. For example, the word navy seems pretty straightforward. The common understanding of a navy is an organization that mans, trains, equips, and deploys fighting ships to help a nation get its way in international affairs. Naval would be the adjective used to illustrate how a navy goes about doing business in great waters. 

The common understanding is correct, but ambiguities abound even here. For example, Great Britain called its merchant fleet during the world wars a “merchant navy.” These were not purpose-built fighting ships. They were civilian ships built to haul freight, fuel, and people in peacetime and wartime alike, and they were crewed by civilian mariners. During the wars, though, many were armed to fight off submarines or air assaults, adding another layer of defense to that supplied by convoy escorts. The crossover muddles things conceptually, and it is not limited to 20th century Britain. Armed merchantmen are nothing new in nautical affairs. 

By contrast, the American term for the merchant fleet is the U.S. Merchant Marine. But as Merriam-Webster points out, marine is defined as “the mercantile and naval shipping of a country” (my emphasis). Dual and overlapping functions as well as linguistic quirks blur neat lines. 

Nor are the classics exempt from criticism. Here’s how Captain Mahan, America’s fin de siècle godfather of saltwater affairs, elucidates the relationship between strategy and sea power: “Naval strategy has . . . for its end to found, support, and increase, as well in peace as in war, the sea power of a country.” By this he seems to mean that the U.S. Navy — presumably including the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, the navy’s fellow sea services — exists to buttress American sea power. And so the sea services do. They are part of sea power, and strategy creates and sustains power as well as using it. It is only natural for them to take part in their own sustainment. 

What is sea power, then? Mahan likens it to a chain connecting industrial production at home to shipping lanes extending across the maritime commons to foreign seaports. “In a word,” he says, the links in the sea-power chain are “(1) Production; (2) Shipping; (3) Colonies and Markets.” Production means domestic industries that manufacture wares that consumers overseas want to purchase, while laying keels for ships capable of making their way across the commons to distant ports of call. Shipping means oceangoing commercial and navy hulls. By colonies and markets, Mahan means access to foreign harbors to unload cargo and to service ships in need of fuel, stores, or repairs. Production and shipping avail little without access. 

All three links in the chain must be stout. Break one and the whole enterprise goes flying apart. Sea power falters. 

Sustaining a Virtuous Cycle

Mahan depicts the purposes of the U.S. Navy as safeguarding seaports at home, merchantmen carrying on marine commerce, and access to ports in important trading regions. The navy’s ulterior purpose is to pay for itself. Trade and commerce enrich the nation. The government taxes the revenue earned and reinvests part of it in a navy to protect trade. Thus commerce funds its own protector. Mahan describes a virtuous cycle between merchant and naval seafaring and between seafaring, economics, and diplomacy. Naval strategy governs what the navy does in this scheme of things. 

But the navy isn’t in charge of the whole cycle, is it? Naval officers and officialdom have little voice in domestic industry, except in the nautical sectors. They order naval vessels, aircraft, armaments, and related infrastructure. Beyond that they don’t tell businesses what to make or shipping firms where to sail — except perhaps in wartime, when convoys may be necessary to fend off raiders. And while naval diplomacy is part of their portfolio, naval professionals generally don’t take the lead in negotiating commercial, diplomatic, and military access to foreign ports of call. Still less do they supervise commercial arrangements with foreign governments, companies, or consumers. 

A navy cannot be in charge of maritime strategy at its highest level. It is an important but subordinate tool of maritime strategy. 

Someone ranking above the sea services, and in fact above the Pentagon, must take on these larger functions in order to keep the virtuous cycle churning into the indefinite future, and in turn to ensure the nation remains prosperous and influential. Choreographing these functions is what maritime strategy does. Maritime strategy is grand strategy for any nation that ventures across the brine. 

A Role Waiting to Be Played

Despite its claim to stewardship over national maritime strategy, MARAD cannot perform this supervisory function. It is chiefly responsible for civilian shipping and supporting transport infrastructure, and for providing strategic sealift to U.S. expeditionary forces operating overseas. In other words, MARAD complements the sea services, especially in the domestic and high-seas links of the seapower chain. It is not competent to run the whole seaward enterprise, and the U.S. government has neither empowered it nor allotted it the resources to do so. 

It is fruitless, then, to assign the secretary of transportation to develop a national maritime strategy, or to summon the MARAD administrator to Congress for a periodic briefing on the strategy’s status. The administrator’s span of authority is far too narrow. The secretary of defense would be a better choice, as at least Secretary Lloyd Austin directs the sea services. He heads the supported agency aided by the Maritime Administration’s supporting efforts. But even Austin lacks authority over the commercial and diplomatic functions. We could turn then to the secretary of state, who is ostensibly in charge of U.S. foreign policy in all of its dimensions. But Secretary Antony Blinken has no authority over the sea services, MARAD, or other elements of seapower beyond the diplomatic. 

So who does have the power to superintend the virtuous cycle between commerce, diplomacy, and naval affairs? 

[Crickets chirping.] 

Right. The United States has neither a genuinely maritime strategy, nor an executor beneath the presidency with the power to put such a scheme into effect. Naval strategy dictates what the sea services do to help amass and husband sea power, as Mahan vouchsafes. Naval strategy is a subset of maritime strategy, and so is the maritime transport strategy compiled by MARAD. But the nation has no larger strategy to oversee the virtuous cycle as a whole, nurturing commerce, ships, and bases while orchestrating the use of sea power for political ends. 

So what should Congress do? First, comprehend the relationship between naval strategy, which directs the sea services to do what they should do, and maritime strategy, a higher tier of strategy aimed at generating and maintaining seapower and harnessing it for political gain. Clearing away the linguistic and conceptual underbrush, as I’ve tried to do here, may help. 

Second, admit we have a problem. Without a true, all-encompassing national maritime strategy to align efforts, important actors may not do what they must do to further the seaward cause.

Third, work with the White House to fix the problem. In all likelihood, corrective action will involve legislation as well as strategic thought and bureaucratic imagination. 

Take it from Mahan: America needs a real maritime strategy and someone to carry it out. 

Author Expertise

Dr. James Holmes, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs, and the author of A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”