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Great power rivalry and the growing need for a coherent US maritime strategy

The mounting challenge of countering great power rivals around the globe is stretching the tactical and strategic capability of the US, limiting the fleet’s effectiveness and placing an increasing burden on allies like Australia. In response, US Navy Commander (Retd) Paul Giarra believes its time for a coherent maritime strategy.

The mounting challenge of countering great power rivals around the globe is stretching the tactical and strategic capability of the US, limiting the fleet’s effectiveness and placing an increasing burden on allies like Australia. In response, US Navy Commander (Retd) Paul Giarra believes its time for a coherent maritime strategy.

Throughout history, no naval force has so effectively and dominantly managed the security and freedom of navigation on the global maritime commons as the US Navy.

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Emerging from the Second World War as the premier naval power and surging out the other side of the Cold War victorious it seemed as if none could challenge this unassailable might, driven by a qualitative and quantitative edge. 

Today, as we look not only across the Indo-Pacific but more broadly around the globe, many established and rising powers are expanding the capability and composition of their respective naval forces as tensions continue to mount in the post-COVID world.

The basis of this unprecedented maritime dominance stems back to 1890 and the work of American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, which outlined: "Whether they will or not, Americans must now begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it."

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This seminal work served to establish the basis of America’s foreign and strategic policy well into the 21st century despite periods of isolation during the First World War and the inter-war years. 

Mahan's thesis stresses the importance of maritime security, freedom of navigation and dominance played in past periods of great power competition, but increasingly today as two great powers stare across the vast expanse of the Indo-Pacific.

One, the incumbent heavyweight champion – the United States, tired and battle-weary from decades of conflict in the Middle East and burdoned by global responsibilities echoing back to its crushing defeat of Imperial Japan during the Second World War – is being circled by the upstart.

A rapidly developing and powerful Communist China is seeking to shake off the last vestiges of the 'Century of humiliation' and ascend to its position as the undisputed economic, political and strategic world leader.  

Further challenging the previously unrivalled dominance of the global maritime commons by the US is the resurgence of an increasingly modernised Russian Navy and the proliferation of advanced, increasingly capable weapons systems, once previously only the domain of global powers. 

The US Navy has struggled to cohesively and consistently respond to the myriad emerging challenges, placing ever-growing responsibilities for regional maritime security on key regional allies and partners, including Australia, as the fleet grapples with the impact of budget constraints associated with introducing new fleet units, and ballooning modernisation and sustainment costs. 

Further hindering the capacity of the US Navy is the apparent lack of a cohesive maritime strategy, something retired US Navy officer Commander (Ret’d) Paul Giarra needs to be addressed urgently if the US is to maintain its maritime supremacy. 

Giarra establishes the challenge, stating, "The Navy is having great difficulty producing a coherent maritime strategy, but we have been here before. The strategy process need not be so vexing or difficult — this is terra oblita, not terra incognita.

"Since the German-Italian-Japanese Tripartite Pact, it has been the grand national strategy of the United States to prevent the rise of an inimical hegemon in Eurasia. While there does not appear to be a national consensus on this strategy at the moment, it should be pretty obvious to anyone watching what is going on in Asia that history validates this strategic concept, precisely because history keeps repeating.

"This is what Carl Vinson, Franklin Roosevelt, William Leahy, and Ernest King understood at the outset of the building of their two-ocean Navy. Deploying forward when these Eurasian circumstances pertained — World War II and the Cold War — was enabled by the US Navy being able to bring critical elements of national power to bear across the oceans.

"Since 1940, this has required establishing sea denial and sea control first, and then a lot of 'a ship fighting a fort'—despite the constant misreading of what Nelson and his peers said on the subject. This is the manifestation of the United States’ 'over there' strategic posture."

Budget dictating strategy is nonsensical 

The budgetary challenges facing the US Navy have long been identified and recognised, particularly during the Obama-era where sequestration had a dramatic impact on the capacity of the US Navy to sustain and modernise the fleet, as well as field increasingly costly, next-generation platforms to counter the rising capability of peer and near-peer competitors. 

China's rapid recapitalisation and modernisation has seen the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) evolve into one of the world's most powerful and modern navies, capable of global reach on an increasing scale, with aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, amphibious warfare ships and next-gen large surface combatants all on the shopping list.

In response, former US defense secretary Dr Mark Esper redoubled calls for more funding to directly support America's naval modernisation.

Esper explained this push, stating, "We will build this fleet in such a way that balances tomorrow’s challenges with today’s readiness needs, and does not create a hollow Navy in the process. To achieve this outcome, we must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force. Doing this, and finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing."

This call is backed by a record US$207 billion request for the US Navy as part of the Pentagon's 2021 budget request as the force pivots to respond to key capability developments by Beijing, namely, a powerful fleet, paired with shore-based, long-range anti-ship missile capabilities designed to blunt traditional US and allied advantages and, critically, to keep the US Navy’s powerful carrier air wing out of striking distance.

Responding to these challenges, in particular, are a priority for Giarra, who states, "To make American sea power work — and work it must — the maritime strategy has to come before the Navy’s budget. 'Tell me the budget and I’ll tell you the strategy' is nonsensical."

Navy's strategy is a key component of broader national security

This has a major impact on the US Navy's capacity to not only implement a strategy, but more importantly, to design a coherent and consistent maritime strategy for the next two decades at least. 

Giarra explains, "As I see it, until the end of the Cold War, the Navy always had been able to express the wisdom of what Samuel Huntington called the 'Transoceanic Navy' (in his famous 1954 Proceedings article in 1954).

"The Navy has not been able to communicate this wisdom for some time, obviously, but this is more a failure of Navy strategy construction and expression than a lack of public or political acceptance.

"This failure of strategy cannot be allowed to continue.

"Simply put, it is not good news that current geostrategic circumstances and challenges would be familiar to our forebears. In fact, in his book The Geography of the Peace (Harcourt, 1944), Nicholas Spykman anticipated exactly what we now see, forecasting the rise of China and a US alliance with Japan long before the end of World War II.

"Spykman did not originate the ideas in his book; they were commonly held views, if not fully expressed. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, clearly had Samuel Huntington’s concept in mind when he included maritime power as key to the aspirations of the Atlantic Charter. Spykman simply looked at maps and made sense of them, in the process describing the South China Sea as the Mediterranean of Asia."

Building on these key points, Giarra articulates that developing and implementing a cohesive, consistent strategy doesn't need to be unnecessarily complicated, but it does need to fit within a broader national security strategy, stating: 

"A credible maritime strategy does not have to be complicated. To be credible it must come from the Navy, which traditionally (i.e. before Goldwater-Nichols and the end of the Cold War) had a significant role in shaping the formulation of national strategy."

Giarra identifies key points of any proposed strategy and how it would seamlessly fit within the broader confines of the US national security strategy, including:

  • American seapower is an international good, expressed in the national strategic self-interest of the US;
  • The Chief of Naval Operations is the nation’s key sea power strategist;
  • Sea control from the water’s edge is the basis of American sea power. The Navy will control the seas to bring to bear worldwide all elements of US national power;
  • The Navy will control the seas in support of US national security and the ideals and aspirations of liberal democracy. These ideals and aspirations are expressed in the Atlantic Charter, the UN Charter, the North Atlantic Treaty, and in mutual security treaties and arrangements with Japan, Australia, Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, India, and other allies and friends around the world;
  • To carry out its strategic and operational responsibilities, the Navy will oppose from the sea the rise of despotism threatening the security of Eurasia, liberal democratic ideals, and the US national way of life;
  • Forward deployment “over there” of a transoceanic Navy, emphasising an offensive strategic maritime posture, is key to the Navy’s maritime strategy. This means that the Navy will be constituted as a seagoing fleet to deploy credible deterrent and combat power wherever it might fight, across the oceans of the world;
  • The Navy will operate in an explicitly joint manner, integrated in close strategic, operational, and doctrinal co-operation with the other US military services; and
  • American sea power in the international interest is best practiced by close partnership with seagoing allies and partner navies and, in doing so, increases confidence in US national motives, strategic reach, and staying power.

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over, the world is now a multi-polar, contested environment. 

In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep. It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – If you want peace, prepare for war. 

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Great power rivalry and the growing need for a coherent US maritime strategy
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