Perspective

A national strategy to maintain American sea power is sorely needed. Even a casual review of the news and commentary by national security strategists highlights that our country demands maritime superiority as a key element of strength and continued prosperity. Anything less would leave the United States and our partners and allies vulnerable to the agenda of others.

The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy lay out the situation and concerns in a world of ever-increasing competition. This competition can be seen at sea across the globe, including in the Arctic commons. However, this problem has long been overlooked: “With a defense posture that requires advance deployment of troops overseas, strategic sealift is a vital mission that requires a strong and healthy merchant marine. Today, the ability of our merchant marine to meet the requirements that would be placed upon it in the event of an emergency should be clearly questioned.”[1] What happens at sea and the mastery of the maritime environment is essential to our prosperity and security as a great nation and leader of democratic values for the world.

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Navy Sealift Command Container

Aggressive opportunistic practices by other nations and shortsighted national fiscal decisions have left America with an unbalanced capability to project power across the DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, and economic) national security construct. This has also left America with a challenged infrastructure and a shortage in new talent to support our nation’s maritime needs.

We are approaching a maritime (and, by extension, a national security) crossroads. Either we decide that America should retain preeminent leadership across the planet in the protection of the sea lines of communication and trade, or we give up that leadership role and cede that mantle to other nations. America needs to get beyond its current condition of “seablindness” (as referenced in Seth Cropsey’s book Seablindness: How Political Neglect is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It) and make decisions that are less about near-term dollars and more about national security common sense for our future.

These critical decisions for our nation’s future cannot be left up to Congress or our executive branch. We are talking about the very survival of our great country moving forward in a contested environment in uncertain times. We the People must be fully involved and understand the real investments in blood and treasure that come with accepting the mandate that our nation will incur moving forward as a global maritime power. And make no mistake—this will not be cheap under any circumstance. Creating and maintaining a global maritime sea power presence to protect our geo-strategic and economic interests abroad will come with a high price. But the alternative will cost us much more if we don’t rise to the occasion. Three key points to consider:

  1. Threats to our nation and allies continue to rise, especially at sea. From an aggressive island-building campaign in the South China Sea to militarization of the Arctic Ocean,[2] powerful nations like China and Russia continue to seek influence in the world’s oceans to further their world views and agendas.
  2. From a purely fiscal or economic point of view, it is hard to justify the U.S. Merchant Flagged Fleet, but this short-term thinking has severely reduced our ability to project power from a strong economic perspective.
  3. A holistic approach is needed to address multi-domain (sea, air, land, space, cyber, informational, electromagnetic, etc.) challenges and take advantage of the opportunities. Anything short of a balanced and sustainable approach leaves far too many points of vulnerability for our competitors to take the advantage away from us.

Fortunately, the conversation regarding a national maritime strategy has taken on new life. The United We Sail campaign by the Military Sealift Command, Sealift the Nation Needs by the Navy Staff, Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority by the Chief of Naval Operations, and Arctic Strategic Outlook by the Commandant of the Coast Guard are all putting the right issues on the table. Combined, these efforts serve as the impetus for progress and the building blocks for restoring American sea power.

To put things in perspective, consider that nearly 80 years ago, our nation was thrust into a major world war with our Navy and its maritime sea power assets in flaming shambles. We paid a high price for our isolationist views and desire to avoid funding a modern and capable Navy. In the decades since World War II, our nation has made the commitment to sustain and build a modern Navy because we have learned that our continued prosperity and safety depend on it.

As we approach this crossroads on deciding what value our nation wants to put on our maritime sea power elements, we should think about what responsibilities we have to future generations at the turn of the next century. Do we, as a nation, decide that it is time for us to fall backward and relearn the hard lessons of isolationism and short-sighted fiscal decision-making? What is the cost?

Now is the time to bring these thoughts together in an overarching maritime strategic framework that provides the resources, inspiration, and priorities for our nation’s sustained action toward ensuring our continued maritime superiority into the next century and beyond. To do anything less is an abrogation of our responsibility to the current and future generations of American citizens.

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Navy Sealift Command

Contributors: Captain Scott Sundt (USN ret.), and Mr. Jon Kaskin


[1] Ronald C. Hessdoerfer, “Maritime Options for the Future: The Means to Revitalize the U.S. Merchant Marine” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 1984), 13, retrieved from https://calhoun.nps.edu/bitstream/handle/10945/19434/maritimeoptionsf00hess.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[2] Andrew S. Erickson, “The Pentagon Reports: China’s Military Power,” The National Interest, May 8, 2019, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/pentagon-reports-china%E2%80%99s-military-power-56542.

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