Essays & Reviews

U.S. Naval (Maritime) Strategy: Then (1889) and Now

The U.S. sea services, under the auspices of the Department of the Navy, have released a new maritime strategy, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready.” The strategy attempts to account for changes in the global security environment, new strategic guidance, and a changed fiscal environment. The document revises that of the 2007 iteration, and includes a new function called “all domain access” which underscores the challenges forces face in accessing and operating in contested environments.  The new strategy has two particular emphases: the need to operate forward and to strengthen alliances and partnerships, especially in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The strategy calls for increasing the Navy’s forward presence to 120 ships by 2020, up from about 97 ships today.

Such documents are frequently anodyne, consisting of familiar boilerplate and after-the-fact rationalizations.  For some informed commentaries on this particular publication, see New Maritime Strategy, which observes that the document does not seem to take renewed great power competition fully into account; Better Maritime Strategy, which notes the challenges in implementing the strategy with the projected force posture.

Sometimes strategy documents are quite provocative and designed to shape rather than follow the debate over national policy, as well as military strategy. One thinks of the controversial 1982 Maritime Strategy concept, originally developed in various classified forms under the auspices of Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, but the outlines of which were soon made public as part of Lehman’s advocacy of a 600 ship Navy. (For Lehman’s take on what a maritime strategy document should say in the current environment, see Breaking Defense)

This brings us to this week’s featured American classic, a public document that did shape policy and the policy debate over maritime strategy:  Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Franklin Tracy’s Annual Report for 1889.  Tracy’s official statement placed President Harrison’s administration squarely behind the naval expansionist policies then being promoted by Alfred Thayer Mahan and Henry Cabot Lodge among others, at a time when the U.S. Navy was dwarfed in size and quality by those of the European powers.

Although defense, not conquest, was the object of American national security and naval policy, Tracy argued, defense of the continental United States required a fighting force capable of engaging the fleets of potentially hostile powers, outside of American waters. The Secretary recommended abandoning the past strategy of building commerce-raiding cruisers and coastal monitors in favor of creating a balanced fleet, built around a substantial force of state-of the art battleships, which would be deployed in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

In the end, Congress approved three sea-going coast-line battleships, as they were described, in what became the Oregon class. This did not represent the great naval revolution that Tracy had envisioned. But the 1889 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, and the 1890 Naval Appropriations Bill, represented important signs that the United States, as Mahan put it, was indeed looking outward.