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The New U.S. Maritime Strategy: Seeking ‘Clarity’ in an Era of ‘Shifting Reality’

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 07, 2015

    A few weeks back the United States released a revised version of its maritime strategy (A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea-power – a.k.a. CS-21R). This document updates concepts and strategies in the original 2007 document (CS-21) so as to make them more relevant in the current maritime environment. The document’s release is a timely move, especially since the US Navy (USN) has been grappling with a complex set of challenges in the wider maritime commons. To its credit, the new maritime strategy attempts to address the entire spectrum of nautical issues, pulling together diverse strands such as nationalistic posturing in the Asia-Pacific, non-traditional security challenges in the broader maritime littorals, new technologies complicating security responses, and even fiscal prudence as a key consideration in planning future maritime operations.

    Like its predecessor, the new document underscores maritime cooperation as the foundational principle of effective maritime security. However, departing from the earlier version’s articulation of the concept as a kind of doctrinal ‘end’ in itself, CS-21R presents maritime cooperation and transnational partnerships as a strategic imperative in achieving long-term security objectives. This difference, although marginal, is conceptually instructive because it implies a greater keenness on the part of the USN to engage and involve partner-navies in its maritime endeavours. Consequently, the new document advocates a more purposeful engagement with allies and partners to achieve greater synergy in security operations.

    The most noticeable aspect of CS-21 R is its clear acknowledgement of ‘China’ as a key challenge. Unlike the 2007 iteration, the new version of US maritime strategy candidly recognises China’s maritime expansion and territorial claims as a source of regional unrest. But it stops short of recognising China’s A2/AD challenge, desisting from making the all-important link, even as it pronounces “all-domain access” as a strategic prerequisite for all its global endeavours. Yet, it raises the possibility of nautical strife arising from the military resurgence of another Asia-Pacific power, Russia. Since traditional challenges are only likely to grow in the future, the document projects “forward presence” as the bedrock of the USN’s future security undertakings. The authors explain the need for a joint force to gain and sustain security operations, even as they emphasise flexibility, adaptability, scalability and integration in the sea services.

    CS-21 R makes clear that while the United States is exporting more energy than it imports, it remains tied to the global economy. Since the latter remains wholly dependent on the uninterrupted supply of oil and gas from the Middle East and Central Asia, the USN would continue to play an important role in securing oil-flows by forward deploying in key theatres. Oddly, however, the emphasis on forward operations isn't borne out by the dim prospects of future growth in naval force levels. According to the authors, the USN’s current budget submission provides for just about 300 ships, of which 120 will be forward deployed by 2020. This is a marginal rise from current force levels – leading to some doubts whether the USN would at all be able to sustain forward presence in critical areas of operations.

    The new maritime strategy, however, does offer some instructive pointers (in terms of operational imperatives and trends) that maritime forces at large will need to contend with in the future. The emphasis on cyber warfare, electro-magnetic spectrum operations, battle-space awareness and cross-domain synergy is a useful illustration of the evolving needs of contemporary naval engagement. It is also an instructive reminder that even as navies learn to operate in a climate of financial hardship, they must utilise the available means innovatively in order to effectively tackle non-traditional and regular challenges simultaneously.

    Another interesting feature is the introduction of the term “Indo-Asia-Pacific” – an integrated region where the 'US Rebalance' is meant to play out. While the document announces a new policy aimed at positioning approximately 60 per cent of USN’s ships and aircraft in the said region, it does not make a case for distributing resources equally in the Western Pacific and the broader Indian Ocean. With increased assets in Japan, Guam, Singapore and Australia, it is clear that the thrust of its operational focus continues to be in the Pacific theatre.

    To be sure, CS-21 R’s framers devote renewed attention to regions that were neglected in the previous version. But it doesn't appear entirely plausible. For instance, the reappearance of Europe and Middle East as theatres of strategic attention – though well-reasoned, as a contingency occasioned by the USN’s need to operate in the Mediterranean, the Levant and Northwest Asia – seems like an exercise in box-checking. It is unclear how the United States intends providing security around the Eurasian landmass, while forward deploying a majority of its operational assets in the Pacific.

    From an Indian perspective, the document’s exposition of naval power projection as a form of “smart power” is interesting, particularly the notion that classical naval capabilities can be used in benign missions such as HADR (as demonstrated by the USN during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines). It is also noteworthy that the document expands the role of the US Coast Guard (USCG) in maritime security. Underlining the USCG’s stellar contribution in building partner-state capacity for maritime governance, the authors announce the coast guard as the lead agency responsible for security in the western hemisphere. The raised profile of the USCG also raises the possibility that the service could be used to support conventional maritime operations in the Eastern Pacific during a conflict with China.

    Ironically, the only noticeable grey-zone in CS-21 R – apart from the issue of squaring budgets with resources – also involves China. The PLA-Navy (PLA-N) is growing in size and will soon be the largest presence in the Asia-Pacific region. From a strategy of area-denial the PLA-N might soon move to one of area-dominance (worryingly not just in the Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean). That means that the US will need to counter China’s A2/AD strategy in China’s near-waters but also be prepared to defeat PLA-N forces in the far-seas. However, with its existing force levels in the region, it seems unlikely that the USN will have the capability for both sea-control and active war-fighting.

    Nowhere is this more relevant than in the South China Sea, where the US and its allies are involved in a power struggle with China. Washington realises its limitations, which is why the “Air-Sea Battle” concept has been recently recast as the “Joint Concept for Access and Manoeuvre” – presumably in a bid to make it appear less confrontational to China. In fact, the USN has not only toned down the rhetoric on countering China’s A2/AD complex, it has also been building a closer relationship with the PLA-N. Not surprisingly, the new maritime strategy highlights Beijing’s efforts to be a responsible maritime player, extolling its support for counter-piracy operations off Somalia, the PLA-N’s HADR missions and participation in multinational naval exercises, and also the signing of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) that has served to reduce suspicion in maritime-Asia.

    From New Delhi’s vantage point, there is much to be gleaned from CS-21 R. The document's characterisation of the emerging maritime dynamic is apt and holds revealing lessons for other navies. But it is Washington’s willingness to articulate a strategy that identifies Chinese assertiveness as a threat that is most refreshing – especially since earlier documents sought to tip-toe around this contentious subject. In fact, now that the US has clearly called out the China threat, other Asia-Pacific powers might be encouraged to follow suit in the revision of their own maritime strategies.

    In the pursuit of the objectives laid out in the new maritime strategy, the Indian Navy (IN) is likely to be a key partner. New Delhi is aware that Washington’s dependence on regional states is growing. The future will see a stronger demand by the USN for high-end collaboration with the Indian Navy. So far, India has parried US efforts to link IN-USN cooperation to larger balance of power issues. But there is an increasing sense that India is expected to not just shoulder a larger proportion of the security work-load in the Indian Ocean but also partner the US in limiting China’s freedom of action in the broader Indo-Pacific. The message in the new maritime strategy is clear: ‘load-sharing’ is now the animating ideology of the USN’s concept of collaborative operations and it applies to both irregular and traditional forms of security.

    CS-21 R is a credible attempt to refine an existing strategy to make it more relevant to the times. The document gives practitioners some concrete tangibles to guide operational thinking in strategic scenarios. But it also honestly acknowledges that the United States isn't the sole arbiter of maritime security in the global commons.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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