The US Navy’s powerful ‘pep talk’ for a deadly serious contest

Two Mondays ago, the U.S. Navy leadership released “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0,” a directive meant to help the navy adapt to a strategic environment in constant flux. Its central message: the navy must prepare to sprint a marathon. The sea service has lost its edge since the Cold War. It needs to get in shape pronto to compete against the likes of China and Russia.

Open-ended strategic competition is the marathon. But the navy must wage that competition at helter-skelter speed to keep pace with technology and warmaking methods that morph by the day. That’s the sprint. The naval establishment, then, maintains that time is simultaneously dilating and compressing in the strategic competition now under way. Prolonged uptempo operations are bound to tax the physical and mental fitness of any fighting force.


Hence the “Campaign Design,” as navy leaders call it, is more a manifesto or call to action than a strategy per se. It is not directly about harnessing resources for strategic and political gain. Strategy is the province of the Pentagon and White House. Rather, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) John Richardson — the document’s principal framer — is using the Design to rally the service. Think of it as a pep talk before a contest with deadly serious results, and Admiral Richardson as the ball-busting coach delivering it.

Or, better yet, he’s the strength coach entrusted with getting athletes in shape to take to the field, not masterminding tactics or strategy. Though he is America’s top-ranked naval officer, Admiral Richardson does not command fleets in action. He’s a “force provider.” He oversees the design, construction, upkeep and training of fighting fleets and supplies them to regional commanders in Asia, Europe and elsewhere around the world. Regional proconsuls are the true executors of U.S. military and maritime strategy. CNO Richardson furnishes them with ships, warplanes and crews.

Nowadays sea-service magnates fret about the quality of U.S. forces relative to potential foes. They fear the U.S. Navy’s margin of superiority has slipped away in crucial areas such as cyberwarfare and long-range precision arms. The Campaign Design exudes urgency as a result. Theodore Roosevelt once told Henry Stimson that a rousing political speech is “not an etching or an arrangement of pastels but a poster.” In that spirit, the Campaign Design conveys its message not in pastels but through primary colors and bold strokes.

One imagines Teddy Roosevelt — a one-time assistant secretary of the navy and a practitioner of Big Stick diplomacy — would approve of the directive.

How to carry out the leadership’s mandate? Restoring maritime supremacy involves renovating the material and human dimensions of naval power. Hardware and people — the sword and its bearer — comprise the sinews of military strength. People fight wars. Mariners need seamanship, tactical excellence and sheer élan. And they need weaponry sufficient in capability and numbers to prevail over competitors equally determined to get their way. The U.S. Navy must bolster both elements to win the marathon against ambitious Chinese and Russian navies.


How did the world’s premier sea service decay to a state where its leadership must worry about falling behind? By assuming it had won permanent maritime supremacy — not a fleeting victory — by outlasting the Soviet Navy in the Cold War. In 1992 political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared an end to political history. All forms of government, maintained Fukuyama, now had been tried out and liberal democracy was best. That same year, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, yielding to the same euphoria, declared an end to naval history.

There was no one left to fight, proclaimed “... From the Sea” (1992), the leadership’s first statement about strategy for the post-Cold War age. The Soviet Navy rusted at its moorings while no new foe appeared on the horizon; why bother preparing for war? The sea was now an American offshore preserve. U.S. maritime forces owned the oceanic battleground and could use it how they pleased. Accordingly, “. . . From the Sea” ordered the services to remake themselves as a “fundamentally different naval service.”

Such a force could afford to downplay combat capability. It could concentrate on policing the sea for pirates or gunrunners, rendering humanitarian aid, or lobbing missiles inland to pummel local opponents or terrorists. Battle could remain an afterthought.

Think about that. Navies exist first and foremost to fight for “command of the sea.” To make use of important seaways, that is, they have to seize control from enemies and defend it. Service chieftains thus instructed U.S. mariners to neglect their most fundamental mission. And so they did. Shipbuilders stopped installing anti-ship missiles aboard American destroyers and submarines. Defense firms slowed down upgrades to old weapons and sensors and more or less halted development of fresh combat equipment.  

The human dimension languished as well. Training for traditional battle missions — hunting submarines, for example — was perfunctory at best. Rather than send newly commissioned officers to school before they joined their ships, the navy took to handing them a stack of CDs and sending them to  their ships to learn complex engineering systems, weapons and sensors on their own. Imagine enrolling in a self-taught engineering degree program and you can guess the results.

And on and on.

Think of “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0” as Richardson’s effort to repeal “... From the Sea.” It’s his bureaucratic sledgehammer. Bureaucracies are like machines. They exist to perform a standard repertoire of tasks over and over again, the same way every time. Machines do not easily reinvent themselves when the operating environment changes around them. They have to be reengineered on the fly — one of the most arduous challenges confronting any mechanic.

It takes a blunt instrument to beat a bureaucratic institution into a new shape. “... From the Sea” telegraphed a powerful signal to the naval bureaucracy, deflecting the U.S. Navy from its tradition of warfighting preeminence. It will take just as powerful a signal from top leaders to cancel out that errant signal and realign the service for the great-power marathon that lies ahead. Let’s hope the navy receives it. 

James R. Holmes is J.C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of “Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy,” just out from the Naval Institute Press. The views voiced here are his alone.