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The radical transformation of United States naval strategy and force structure predicated on the lessening of East-West tensions is well under way. A formidable open ocean force, ready and able to contest sea control with a major maritime threat, appears anachronistic given current national goals and perceived threats. The strategic necessity for a Mahanian navy, particularly in an environment of diminished threat and fiscal austerity, is unclear. As a result, current naval doctrine mandates a smaller but more multi-faceted navy ideally suited to projecting power ashore in regional conflicts around the globe.

Any probable use of naval power by the United States in the foreseeable future will involve some form of intervention in regional conflicts, be it amphibious landing, aerial strike, sealift, special operations, or local sea control in shallow water. As outlined in Forward … From the Sea, the Navy of today and tomorrow will be specifically tailored to accomplish these missions. It seems heartening, then, that the strategy and force structure emerging from a period of frenetic downsizing and disarmament will be suited to, and capable of handling, the threats it will face.

Yet, it is reasonable and prudent to consider the possibility that there may be risks inherent in any strategy which deviates from the Mabanian principles of open ocean sea control which have dominated naval strategic thought since 1890. The analysis which follows explores the relevance to modem strategy of major navies contesting command the seas, particularly in terms of the consummate sea control weapon: the submarine.

The End of History

As the shockwaves from the collapse of the Iron Curtain and Soviet Russia spread across the globe, Francis Fukyama in The End of History and the Last Man posited his sensational and now-famous question: “Is history over?” Fukyama used the word history not in the manner most would understand, but rather in a Hegelian sense. Following the demise of communism and victory of democracy. he essential! y asked if major ideological conflict, or Hegelian history, between nations had ended. In his view, authoritarianism and totalitarianism had proven they could not survive and democracy had prevailed as the only viable political philosophy.

Fukyama’s thesis, if correct, would have a profound effect on strategic thought. Certainly a world devoid of ideological tyrants and populated mainly by democratic regimes, historically unlikely to fight one another, would have a very low likelihood of major, global wars. From a naval perspective, the prospective need to wrest or protect sea control from another maritime power would be nonexistent. A navy based on regional conflict intervention, however. maintains its relevance. When Fukyama theorized that major ideological conflict would cease, he was not saying that all conflict would cease (a misunderstanding for which he is often inappropriately criticized). In the normal flux of human and nation-state affairs, local or regional conflict remains likely and a naval strategy based solely on this seems particularly appropriate.

But what if Fukyama is wrong? China represents one quarter of the world’s population and its governmental ideology is certainly hostile to democracy. Muslim fundamentalism and the authoritarian governments it generally produces are very much alive and growing. Rabid nationalism seems always to lie just below the surface in many European countries and might produce governments decidedly hostile to the West. It certainly could be argued that fervent and expansionist nationalism, particularly in a powerful country such as Russia, represents a major global threat.

As these current examples demonstrate, the end of history may be an intriguing idea, but is also an altogether unlikely one. When one factors in the possibility that with time new ideologies will emerge and old ones evolve, then the probability of perpetual peace seems remote indeed. If Fukyama is wrong, then traditional questions about how to establish and maintain an enduring peace remain as valid as ever. And strategic means of deterrence designed to preserve peace, such as command of the sea, remain critical now and in the future.

The Origins of War and Strategic Deterrence

Why do wars start? Or, perhaps more appropriate in this analysis, what must be done to preserve the peace? Donald Kagan in On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace provides an answer, as well as issuing a profound warning highly relevant to the Navy and the Submarine Force today.

Kagan presents a cogent and compelling case that wars are a relatively normal condition between states who naturally contest the distribution of power. Wars arise always because they are not adequately deterred. In five case studies (the Peloponnesian War, Second Punic War, First and Second World Wars and the Cuban missile crisis), he analyzes the crises up to the onset of war and identifies the critical failure that allowed (or nearly allowed) the collapse of peace. Consistently, one or more nations failed to adequately perceive or predict a strategic threat, lacked the will to take the necessary action while facing difficulties or constraints, and proved unable to generate an adequate deterrent capability.

Considering the strategic threat, it is entirely reasonable for the Navy and the Submarine Force to ask: Who is the threat? Who needs to be deterred? The answer must consider both potential threats existing today and those, given the normal behavior of states throughout history, which may emerge in the future. According to Kagan, “The current condition of the world, therefore, where war among major powers is hard to conceive because one of them has overwhelming military superiority and no wish to expand, will not last” (emphasis added).

China and Russia affect the global distribution of power today. Germany and Japan, when they inevitably establish military power on par with their economic might, and possibly one or more Muslim states will affect the power distribution soon. Their strategic impact must be considered. For the Navy, it may be reasonable to assume that one or more of these states will again possess the capability to contest open ocean control of the sea.

It is, of course, insufficient only to assess the strategic situation. A nation also must have the will and the capabilities to act on the assessment. Prior to World Wars One and Two, ample evidence existed that the strategic balance had shifted and a deterrent response was needed. Before World War One, Britain took action to strengthen its Navy but did little about its Army.

This proved a critical mistake because only a large standing army pledged to aid France would have deterred continental war. Prior to World War Two, British leaders utterly lacked the will to either recognize the emerging threat or allocate the (painfully) scarce resources needed to bolster its armed forces.

Prior to both tragedies, nations which could have prevented the wars were convinced that they lived in a time when no threats existed and war was unthinkable. This was especially true prior to the Second World War. Domestic circumstances and the scarcity of resources created a need to believe that deterrence in peace was unnecessary. In the end, the lack of both will and capability resulted in horror. The analogies to the United States today are troubling and certainly worthy of consideration.

Sea Control and the Preservation of Peace

In contemporary America, economic distress, fiscal discipline and an isolationist tendency make military choices dedicated to preserving an existing peace difficult. Resources devoted to military missions in real regional conflicts seem to produce more concrete returns and thus are easier to justify. For example, a submarine constructed and operated to deter another power from developing or exercising a sea control capability produces far less tangible results than the submarine which launches a Tomahawk strike against a terrorist state, or mines a harbor.

Also, the United States is tempted to count on rearmament on the eve of a renewed strategic threat. Submarines are extremely vulnerable to this danger. Any cessation of submarine production would likely cause an infrastructure atrophy such that no submarines, or only a very few, could be built for a long period of time. As John Keegan pointed out in The Price of Admiralty, “The era of the submarine as the predominant weapon of power at sea must be recognized as having begun. “3 No other platform can match the submarine’s sea control ability. Thus, too few submarines means a significant lessening of the Navy’s ability to exercise sea control against a maritime threat. Nor can the Navy effectively interdict the huge numbers of merchants and their warship escorts necessary when attempting to economically strangle a foe.

Production is not the only worry. Suppose the current strategic environment continues unabated for ten years. Further suppose that during those years, research and development of sensors, weapons and ship systems is entirely devoted to submarines in a regional conflict support role. Also, during those years, all submarine training and inspections are directed toward this mission. At the end of the decade, the Navy’s submarines excel at Tomahawk strike, SEAL delivery, mining, active sonar and anti-diesel prosecution.

But were a large sea control threat to emerge, the ability to carry out ASUW and open ocean ASW would have suffered severely and would take years to rebuild. Technological development and production have associated time lags of many years, and the institutional memory and body of knowledge of the Submarine Force accrue over generations of personnel.

Kagan’s warning is clear and should be heeded. The will and capability to present an effective deterrent, despite the cost, even in peace, is the only way to preserve that peace. As Colin Gray details in The Leverage of Sea Power, the Navy’s role as a deterrent force and preserver or global peace rests on sea control. And if one accepts that the diligent maintenance of a deterrent to conflict is required, then so too must one accept the constant need to command the seas. (Emphasis added by Editor.) The Navy and the Submarine Force must be ready, having properly balanced that need against competing strategies such as regional intervention.

Toward a Naval Strategic Balance

Without a doubt, the United States Navy and the Submarine Force have control of the seas today. Whether in littoral waters or in the open ocean, no threat or potential threat can contest American naval power. Any attack submarine could smoothly shift gears from a battle group support and strike warfare platform in a regional conflict to an open ocean ASW platform maintaining the sea lines of communication. The governing strategic document of the Navy, Forward … From the Sea, while focused primarily on the projection of power ashore, still includes a naval sea control role.

Clearly, the deterrent leverage of sea power currently exists and, as a result, the proximity of global conflict seems distant. So, too, was it prior to the Second Punic War for the Roman Empire. Yet in the space of a few years which included the failure to recognize the reemergence of a strategic threat and the inability to maintain an adequate deterrent, the Romans were at war with Hannibal.

A deterrent sea control ability certainly will be difficult to maintain in this relatively peaceful period. The immediacy of other missions demands attention and resources. But unless the Nation, the Navy and the Submarine Force strive to achieve a balance of missions, a balance that preserves our command of the seas, we too will meet our Hannibal.


  • May 15 thru 17, 1996
  • Secret Clearance Required
  • Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab
  • Invitation only: Contact Pat Dobes

(703) 256-1514

  • June 5-6, 1996
  • Alexandria, Virginia


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