November 10, 2008

From Preponderance to Partnership: American Maritime Power in the 21st Century

One of the most important national security challenges facing the next president of the United States will be preserving America’s maritime power. The U.S. Navy has been cut in half since the 1980s, shrinking steadily from 594 to today’s 280 ships. The fleet size has been cut by 60 ships during the Bush administration alone, despite significantly increased Pentagon budgets.

Several naval analysts and commentators, including the observant Robert Kaplan, have argued that America’s present naval fleet constitutes an “elegant decline” or outright neglect. A former Reagan administration naval official contends that our current maritime policy and investment levels are “verging towards unilateral naval disarmament.”

This is something of an overstatement. The American naval fleet is still substantially larger than any other, and has unmatched global reach and endurance. The U.S. Navy’s aggregate tonnage is the equivalent of the next 17 international navies, of which 14 are U.S. allies, and our power projection capabilities retain a 4:1 advantage in missiles. Looking simply at overall naval ship totals may not be the most accurate measure of naval power, but it is an historical standard of measurement. By that criterion, the U.S. Navy has not been this size since World War I, when Britain’s Royal Navy was the guarantor of the global commons.

While one can debate whether today’s Navy is sized properly, there is little doubt that U.S. maritime capabilities are critical to the execution of any national security strategy. The so-called American Century has largely been coterminous with the U.S. Navy’s mastery of seapower. In a global economy that is increasingly interdependent and dependent on the security of the global highways of international trade, maritime security will remain a vital national interest.

Over the past decade, American strategists seem to have collectively lost sight of this relationship. Given the advance of globalization and the increasingly integrated economies that use the world’s oceans as superhighways, the relationship between U.S. national interests and American naval assets should not be hard to grasp. Yet, the ongoing Long War against al Qaeda and the conduct of multiple counterinsurgency campaigns far from the sea have allowed our attention to drift. The next administration must resolve the apparent strategyresources mismatch that currently characterizes our present naval policy and capability, and link naval resources to our overall strategy. Accordingly, this report offers a way to close the strategy-resources gap, and identifies the requisite maritime strategy and forces to carry it out.

The first section of this report provides a detailed review of the latest national maritime strategy. This strategy reflects an acute appreciation for new parameters in the security environment and their potential impact on our interests. However it is not without faults; modifications to U.S. maritime strategy are offered that better support a sustainable and affordable grand strategy for the United States.

The most important element of any strategy is its relationship to resource allocation priorities and the development of the means of carrying out the strategy. Thus, the second section of this report details the current naval fleet and shipbuilding architecture. After presenting the current Navy acquisition plans, a range of alternative fleet designs is briefly reviewed to illustrate the range of options. This section concludes with a synthesis of these competing designs, and an argument for why this particular fleet better matches the sustainable grand strategy offered in the first section. The report concludes with a few general recommendations.


  • Frank G. Hoffman

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