Lacking a Comprehensive Maritime Strategy, U.S. Can Learn from Friend and Foe

The desperate need for a U.S. maritime strategy that demonstrates both peacetime and wartime purposes has been a popular point of discontent among military experts.

While many point to the 1980s as the last time the United States had a cohesive strategy, other nations provide some paths forward to consider.

Just last month, two major powers – including one of our closest allies, the United Kingdom, and the other among our most implacable opponents, Russia, each published their own maritime strategies. They are far more complete than our own 2020 Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, which is missing vital substance.

As tensions rise across the globe, it is more important than ever that the United States develop a comprehensive maritime strategy concerned not only with military power but also seaborne commerce, politics, international law, infrastructure and the environment, as others are doing.

Russia’s maritime strategy, entitled The Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation, is deeply rooted in declared national interests, perceived strategic challenges, ongoing naval operations, and defined means – albeit questionably attainable – by which their objectives can be achieved.

It clearly identifies that in the Kremlin’s view, the foreign policies of the United States and its allies are the greatest strategic challenges for Russia. In the maritime domain, this manifests in a set of 14 objectives, ranging from expanding its fleets to increasing the outer limit of Russia’s control of the continental shelf in the Arctic. More granularly, it covers the broad naval activities of Russian forces across defined regions and shipbuilding aims – including an aspiration to enhance its aircraft carrier inventory.

Yet Russian maritime doctrine also distinctly acknowledges the roles of climate change in maritime resource conservation, the disruption to global economics caused by COVID-19, the competitiveness of Russian maritime transport, international legal regimes and oceanic research. The inclusion of non-security functions in the maritime domain represents an acknowledgement that the seas are not simply a naval operating space, but a multi-function realm in which various arms of government and private sector institutions must interact.

Whether all the means enumerated in the maritime doctrine are feasible may not be as important as their codification itself. It will serve as a guiding star for the development and application of Russian sea power across the spectrum of maritime activity.

Alternatively, the United Kingdom’s National Strategy for Maritime Security is even more extensive. It distinctly identifies the mission of naval operations in peacetime as “upholding laws, regulations and norms to deliver a free, fair and open maritime domain” as well as continuing to cultivate a combat-credible military force.

The document defines, complete with a useful series of maps, the U.K.’s national interests across the globe – from outlining its exclusive economic zone and control of the continental shelf to identifying global strategic sea ways and subsea infrastructure, and more.

The threats and challenges identified in the U.K.’s strategy are expansive, including the disruption of maritime logistics, smuggling, seaport capacity and climate change, among others. This is accompanied by sets of recommendations for meeting the threats and challenges, from an increase in the size of the Royal Navy to outlining an enhanced forward presence abroad and an investment plan for supporting nations threatened by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

In this way, their National Strategy provides a comprehensive framework for the U.K.’s maritime interests – whether in relation to security, economic, political or environmental issues. And it also spells out, with generally concrete proposals, how these interests will be protected.

U.S. strategy is a patchwork lacking in overall cohesion

The United States, on the other hand, continues to operate within a web of so-called NAVPLANS issued by the Chief of Naval Operations, shipbuilding schemas, the Secretary of the Navy’s “strategic” guidance, tri-service “strategies” and each presidential administration’s National Security Strategy. At the same time, there is no meaningful Maritime Administration or Military Sealift Command strategy to speak of.

While many of these documents align in their overarching values, the distribution of the lines of effort across so many guidelines obfuscates the value of — and multifaceted challenges to — the maritime domain, as well as the sea services’ wartime and peacetime raison d’être.

Indeed, in the key U.S. maritime document, the tri-service “strategy” Advantage at Sea, its authors are so fixated on the challenges posed by China and Russia, they neglect to provide a sufficient explanation as to why naval power is necessary outside of warfighting.

And yet the document fails to fully inform how the sea services will combat near-peer threats. Non-military maritime issues like the effects of climate change on the maritime domain and illegal fishing are included, though they are clearly afterthoughts only tacitly acknowledged in service of the paper’s wider focus on China and Russia.

Russia’s Maritime Doctrine and the U.K.’s National Strategy are not flawless policy documents. But they are far more complete than the patchwork that is U.S. maritime strategy. The United States lacks a single framework behind which to organize its political, military, economic, social, infrastructure and informational policy efforts in the maritime domain.

The sea services and wider Biden administration ought to take a page out of our international peers’ and rivals’ books.

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