NAPLES, Italy — The Navy has spoken softly. Now it’s reaching for the big stick.
After years of emphasizing global amity and cooperation across the seas, the service is speaking more about combat power, the threat of “anti-access” technologies such as cheap missiles and the challenges posed by nations such as China and Iran. “Warfighting” has suddenly become the new buzzword across commands.
Friday’s release of the new Maritime Strategy epitomizes the shift in message. The joint document was developed by the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard as an update to a 2007 strategy that focused on cooperation with foreign navies and generally avoided reference to confrontation.
Despite carrying the same title — A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower — the update moves in a different direction, identifying regional competitors and unstable regimes by name and detailing force deployment by theater.
The strategy elevates “domain access” — the ability to operate at will in a theater — alongside traditional naval goals of deterrence and forward presence. It includes more about Marine Corps posture than in 2007, and it frames naval forces as forward-pressing instead of maintaining status quo. “It is an appropriately harder-edged document,” said Bryan McGrath, a former Navy officer who worked on the 2007 document and reviewed the new one before release. “The threat has clarified in a meaningful way.”
A big part of that threat is financial. Current Navy plans call for more than 300 ships in the fleet by the early 2020s, about 20 more ships than the fleet currently operates. Just maintaining and replacing the current fleet is costly: The program to replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine is expected to be too large to wedge into the Navy budget when the program begins in 2020.
What’s more, budget cuts set to return in fiscal 2016 threaten to stop shipbuilding plans before they can begin, unless Congress acts to overturn or offset them.
Global threats also appear to be on the rise compared to 2007, when the Navy was concerned with fostering foreign cooperation in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said Robert Rubel, a former professor at the Naval War College who helped draft the original strategy document.
The result in 2007 was a much softer message, which framed the U.S. as on the strategic defensive, its goal not to assert itself militarily but to maintain a global world order that benefited many nations. “We never named any names in there, we never called out any country, we added humanitarian assistance to the list of core capabilities of the Navy,” Rubel said. “This rankled a lot of realists-slash-hawks in the Navy and elsewhere. But we felt this kind of language was necessary.”
By the time Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, called for a strategy update in 2011, the climate had already changed. Naval cooperation among nations had improved, but global power dynamics had shifted. China and Iran were asserting themselves as regional powers. Russia was newly assertive, having invaded Georgia in 2008. Affordable missile technology was challenging the assumptions of naval power projection by making access to shore more costly.
Naval strategists continued to push for a more detailed vision of naval power in the world. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, wrote a letter to Greenert last July decrying the Navy’s lack of strategy and encouraging him to speak openly of China’s rise as a threat to U.S. interests. “If this (document) had come out and was as general as the last one, it would have been a failure,” McGrath said.
It is instead far more detailed. While few, if any, of its statements are new, the document labors to place maritime strategy in the context of recent world events, from Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last March to the January terrorist attacks in Paris and the resurgence of the Boko Haram terrorist group in western Africa.
It names military hardware like warships and weapons systems and details Marine Corps efforts to scale unit size to mission in places like Africa and Australia. It argues that the sea services will embody the U.S. shift to the Pacific: Navy plans call for roughly 60 percent of ships and aircraft to be based in the Indian and Pacific oceans regions by 2020.
The strategy still emphasizes cooperation and maintenance of a shared global system. But the message this time, said Rubel, is intended more for Capitol Hill than foreign nations. “It doesn’t need to address the rest of the world,” he said. “[The original] CS-21 took care of that. It needs to have an internal message.”
The question is whether that message will resonate with Congress.