Canary In The Coal Mine: The US Navy’s Dilemmas As An Indication Of A Culminating Point In National Grand Strategy

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 4, April 2020

By Captain Robert C. Rubel USN (Ret)


June 20, 2000 – The U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln Battle Group and ships from Australia, Chile, Japan, Canada, and Korea steam alongside one another for a Carrier Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. US Navy.

From a resource point of view, the US Navy has not been doing well lately, its program to expand fleet size to 355 ships, a number that seems to be accepted by the Administration and Congress, has been suffering a series of setbacks.  Whether being raided for money to build a border wall, forced to fund the replacement ballistic missile submarine program or constricted due to the need to bolster current readiness, the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is under tremendous pressure, and Congress, despite a desire for a bigger fleet, has not increased the Navy’s top line sufficiently to accelerate ship construction.  Moreover, and perhaps worse, the Navy has been unable to produce a fleet structure assessment (FSA) that passes muster with the Secretary of Defense, who doubts the validity of a key assumption that underpins the study.[1]

Many, including a number of my colleagues, feel that the answer is a significantly increased Navy budget, as if the only problem is money.  While there is no doubt that a bigger budget would lubricate shipbuilding, it would not necessarily solve the bigger problem of fleet structure analysis and fleet design; how many of what kinds of ships should the Navy have in the future and the uses of each kind.  But more money does not seem to be in the cards, and correcting assumptions about the effectiveness of the Navy’s principal force generation process, the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) does not bode well for what an adjusted FSA would reveal.  The Navy is facing a no-win situation, and to find a way out, we have to engage in a deeper strategic diagnosis of the problem.

As a retired 30 year naval officer I logged plenty of time in the midst of international crises, studied and taught at US and foreign war colleges, designed and directed multiple strategic level wargames and as dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, oversaw the functioning of a strategic research department and international law department.  Especially in the analysis of wargames, I learned how to mentally back off and ask myself “what is really going on here?” to try and see the forest for the trees.  That kind of mental skill is needed to discern what the Navy’s problem really is such that it can find a way out of the current dilemma.

The short answer is that the Navy’s problems are a symptom of a disconnect between US grand strategy and evolving geopolitical conditions.  The Navy, to invoke a metaphor, is the canary in the coal mine.  Because the Navy is so intimately connected to the day-to-day execution of US grand strategy, it is a sensitive indicator of problems.  The squeeze between current readiness, future readiness and resources is, in a sense, unprecedented and should cause us to reevaluate US grand strategy as a precursor to any attempt at a new FSA.

It is not the intent of this article to propose a new grand strategy but to make an attempt to see the grand strategic forest from a different perspective, one that helps illuminate why the Navy is a leading indicator of problems at that level.

Many might argue that the United States, due to the nature of its political system, is incapable of devising and executing a true grand strategy, or at least a coherent, long-term one.  It is certainly true that each administration has crafted its own policies and approaches, sometimes revising them as conditions change.  Others argue that there have been threads of continuity, whether containment of the Soviet Union or support for a liberal global trading order.  Taking both views into account, there does seem to be an overarching vector to US strategy and policy since World War II, and to understand this vector we need to use some concepts that inhabit the world of operational art.

Admittedly, grand strategy is a bit of a different animal than military strategy, but there are certain concepts in the latter that seem to overlap into the grand strategic realm and others that seem to scale well into that realm.  Applying them as analytic tools allows us to see motion at the grand strategic level a bit like time lapse photography reveals the motions of plant growth.

Let’s begin with a famous injunction that links military strategy to the realm of policy: war is the continuation of politics by other means.  This assertion can mean many things, but one is that war is simply one tool among many that statesmen employ to settle disputes or protect and advance their nation’s interests – a basic goal of grand strategy.  Moreover, the statement is a bit like an equation, one that obeys the commutative law; politics is the continuation of war by other means.  Thus we might expect that the end of a war does not eliminate the politics behind it, but perhaps does transform them.  That leads to the idea that a victory in war does not necessarily settle things for all time.  If the victor is to enjoy the grand strategic fruits of that victory he must somehow manage the subsequent politics such that a repeat does not occur; the victory must be defended in some way.  This was not done, or at least very well, in the wake of World War I.  The Allies imposed ruinous reparations on Germany and did little to influence its internal politics.  The League of Nations was established on a very weak basis with its organizer, the US, not even joining. Finally, economics were left mostly unaddressed, eventually resulting in the Great Depression, and ultimately the rise of Nazi Germany and World War II.

Having learned from this, American and Allied statesmen in 1944 acted to construct defenses of the coming victory.  Secretary of State Cordell Hull expressed the gist of the strategy for victory defense like this: “[U]nhampered trade dovetailed with peace; high tariffs, trade barriers, and unfair economic competition, with war…if we could get a freer flow of trade…freer in the sense of fewer discriminations and obstructions…so that one country would not be deadly jealous of another and the living standards of all countries might rise, thereby eliminating the economic dissatisfaction that breeds war, we might have a reasonable chance of lasting peace.”[2]  To achieve a free and fair flow of trade, he and his colleagues fashioned a structure of international institutions that would regulate trade and provide forums for the airing and resolution of grievances, collectively known as the Bretton Woods accords.  The defense of victory in 1945 was aimed at preventing another world war by creating a global system of trade and mutual security.

Within a couple years the US found that it needed to back up these measures with military might, stationing forces around the rim of Eurasia to contain Soviet adventurism and generally suppress strategic instability.  To manage this aspect of victory defense the US employed a globe-girdling scaffolding of military commands that had been established in the war, whose blueprint became the Unified Command Plan (UCP).  As opposed to the rather fragmented State Department architecture the unified combatant commanders, now known as COCOMs, due to their regional perspectives, broad mission definition and plentiful resources of all kinds, progressively accrued influence over the execution of the US victory defense, becoming virtual proconsuls.[3]  To perform their duties, which include deterrence, engagement, diplomacy, disaster relief and various other functions, they need military forces on a day-to-day basis, and naval forces are a key component for many different reasons.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and democratization and economic globalization spread, one might conclude that the American defense of its victory in WWII was complete and we could fold our tents and go home.  But that was not the case for several reasons.  First, while there was no great power threat to the liberal trading order, various kinds of regional instability still posed a threat, especially evident in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.[4]  Second, the UCP structure was still there and had the momentum borne of statute and routine behind it.  In fact, the 2007 national maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (which this author was involved in developing), expressly states that the US Sea Services will deploy globally to defend the system.[5]  So although administrations have come and gone and conditions over the years evolved, the US, in a de facto manner, is still engaged in defense of its victory in WWII.

So the natural question arises, how long should a victory defense last?  Under what circumstances does it become obviated or in less amenable conditions, abandoned?  These are very difficult questions that again require trying to see the forest for the trees, and again it is helpful to turn to a military strategy concept.

Military theory says that an advancing army, tends to grow weaker as it proceeds due to a number of factors including combat losses, extended logistic lines and perhaps the need to garrison occupied territory.  At some point its strength might be whittled down until it no longer exceeds that of the defender.  If it continues the advance past that point, as did Napoleon and later Hitler in their respective invasions of Russia, the defender might be able to mount a successful counterattack.  Thus, a smart general would, if he could detect when that point of equilibrium was reached, halt the advance and adopt a defensive posture, at least temporarily until he could marshal more resources. This is called the culminating point of attack, a concept that seems to scale well, from the tactical to the grand strategic.  The problem was – and is – detecting the approach of that point.

There are any number of reasons why a general might fail to detect an incipient culminating point.  First, an advancing army has every appearance of success, and it is naturally hard to convince oneself that problems are brewing; in other words, a form of denial.  Second, indicators may be subtle and easy to miss, or to interpret their true meaning even if evident.  Third, there is the matter of momentum.  When an army or any other large organization is on a particular vector, it can be hard to deflect or arrest its motion along that vector.  This is not only a physical and bureaucratic matter; having one’s mind, either individually or collectively, focused in a certain direction it can be hard to discern alternatives, something pointed out by the Canadian communications guru Marshall MacLuhan.[6]  All of these factors serve to prevent a general – or national security leadership – from recognizing the approach of a culminating point.

The alert reader by now will know where I am going with this line of argument, whether or not he or she agrees with it.  But to be clear, my argument is that the Navy’s problems are not simply or only a matter of mismanagement or lack of resources, they are spawned by the national grand strategy of defending the WWII victory approaching a culminating point.  Unless there is an adjustment, if not fundamental change to the national grand strategy, the Navy will be unable to conduct a coherent FSA.  Now, the problem with such a statement is that it sounds like the tail wagging the dog.  National grand strategy should not be the dependent variable in the Navy’s force planning algorithm.  Nonetheless, the Navy’s difficulties should be seriously regarded by the Administration as an indicator that something big is amiss.

Some have talked about US imperial overstretch in past years,[7] but couching the problem in those terms does not capture the true dynamics of the situation.  While it is true that especially with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and attempts at nation building in Afghanistan the US has spent massive sums of money for very little strategic return, overstretch implies a program of political enlargement which does not reveal the true nature of the US strategy.  Virtually all the provisions and moves over the past seventy five years have in some way been connected to the aim of preventing another world war.  While it would be foolhardy to say, as some have, that another such conflict is impossible, we must acknowledge that the validity of some of the underpinning assumptions of that aim is eroding, opening to question whether continuation of that defense is advisable.

As stated up front, this article does not presume to offer a strawman grand strategy, only to connect a couple of dots that do not appear to have been linked thus far.  That said, we can at least pull the threads on how the Navy’s force planning dilemma reveals some of the aspects of the nation’s grand strategic culminating point.  The Navy is caught in the middle of a three-way squeeze.  From one direction there are the demands from the combatant commanders for the continuous presence of naval forces.  From another the rising need to improve high-end combat capability to deter and if necessary defeat Chinese aggression.  From the third direction there is the flat budget combined with all the demands that whittle away at the amount available for shipbuilding.  The rising military threat that China presents would logically privilege efforts to address the second pinch – the need to develop an improved warfighting capability.  Perhaps that might be accomplished within current budget limits if the Navy were allowed to scale back some of its presence commitments, but so far the combatant commanders, in the continued execution of the national grand strategy, have not curtailed their demands for forces, and they have received no authoritative guidance otherwise.  With its current fleet size of around 296 ships, the Navy can barely meet those demands and still perform the needed maintenance on its ships and aircraft, much less gather a significant number together for fleet experimentation.  The Navy is therefore left to stake its prospects on particular technical advancements rather than a broad effort of training and experimentation such as was conducted between the wars.  This pressure may be partly behind big technology bets that are in danger of not paying off such as systems on the new Ford Class carriers and the F-35 fighter.

What this adds up to is that forward presence is privileged over all else, despite the rhetoric and desires of the last two chiefs of naval operations, and a number of senators and congressmen.  This means the grand strategy concocted in 1944 is still chugging away.  That strategy is based on the assumption – the faith – that the rest of the world wants to be free, democratic and capitalist, and members of a rules-based international order of free trade.  Certainly, for a brief moment in time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that did seem to be the case, with the rapid spread of democratization accompanied by the increasing economic interdependency created by globalization.  In this environment the 1944 assumptions, with their consequent manifestations in US policy and military structure, fit nicely.  But as the third decade of the twenty-first century begins it is becoming clearer that the validity of those assumptions is starting to erode.  Globalization has not proved to be a universal blessing, culture and identity in many cases is trumping constitutionalism, and many people around the world appear to value security over freedom.  If naval presence was able to somehow prevent the founding assumptions from crumbling, then it would indeed be a bulwark of a defense of the world order the statesmen of 1944 envisioned.  But it cannot, and now continued reliance on it creates a strategic dilemma for the Navy as it attempts to adjust to new geopolitical conditions.

Whereas keeping to the same grand strategy – defense of the victory/system – has been viable due to the great wealth, both absolute and relative, of the United States, the strategic dilemma of the US Navy indicates that “staying the course” is no longer feasible; some new direction is indicated.  President Trump has been taking steps in that direction with his attempts to extract US forces from the Middle East, force allies to foot more of the collective security bill and engage in a trade war with China.  His “America first” mantra encapsulates the gist of his strategy.  Importantly, there has been considerable opposition to his moves, especially from people who think that the collection of policies, organizational arrangements and decisions made since WWII are fixtures of the international scene and not manifestations of a single American grand strategy.  Whether President Trump’s approach is the correct one remains to be seen; the gears of grand strategy grind slowly, and a subsequent administration may overturn them.

Without conjuring a specific new grand strategy, we might usefully think about the criteria with which to judge the suitability of a new one; would it, if successfully implemented, achieve American long term goals?  Would it be feasible; that is, could it be achieved within available resources, economic, political, technological, etc.?  Would it be acceptable; able to be undertaken at an acceptable degree of risk?  In terms of the general objectives of any nation there are four criteria that cover the waterfront: defense of the homeland, economic well-being, favorable world order and promotion of values.  These are not mutually exclusive, nor can they be put into any priority order; especially for the United States, they are all intertwined and inter-dependent.

To get very basic, any strategy in which our policies or actions materially raise the risk of nuclear war would be both unsuitable and unacceptable.  Since the dynamics of escalation are not well understood, as well as a history of wars taking on a momentum and logic of their own, even strategies that feature the potential precipitation of a conventional fight with China or Russia would likely fail these tests.  Perhaps the most fundamental strategic principle is “don’t shoot first.”  Even snookering an opponent into doing so (and the US has done this) is likely to backfire in some way.  That is not to say the US should not adopt hostile policies such as the embargo on oil and metals for Japan in the 1930s that could lead to war.  Excessive altruism is not a recipe for long term survival.

Beyond that basic consideration it is important to not get lost in the bits and pieces, mistaking them singly for a grand strategy.  A clear example is containment, which many identified as an American grand strategy but which was in fact only a component of the actual grand strategy of defending the WWII victory by promoting a liberal trading order.  As stated earlier, evidence for this view is provided by the fact that the US Navy’s deployment structure did not diminish after the Soviet Union collapsed.  If any scheme is to survive the coming and going of administrations, it must be a big, simple idea such as “America First.”

Since America First is at least a nascent grand strategy articulated by President Trump, let’s pull the threads on how it might differ in practice from defense of the system which, as events unfolded, became synonymous with defending the WWII victory. In defense of the system the US provided a disproportionate share of the resources and effort involved in the strategy, compared to its allies and other nations who benefitted from the world order it produced.  President Trump has made it a point to try and force NATO allies to provide their “fair share” of the resources needed to secure Western Europe.  Whether he would threaten complete US withdrawal remains to be seen, but that would be consistent with the abandonment of system defense.  Possible risk of such a move include increased aggression by Russia in its near abroad, and European nations individually cutting economic and security deals with China.

On the plus side, the NATO nations would be stimulated to make common cause and significantly beef up their defenses.  Although possibly hewing to a diplomatic line more independent of US policies, the emergence of a strong and possibly more assertive European power center that is democratic would complicate the strategic calculations of China and Russia.

Another aspect of such a strategic shift would be the abandonment of projects in the Middle East.  Here again President Trump has called for pulling US forces out of the region.  The US would presumably focus any security export efforts on Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.  While such a move would give a free hand to the radical Salafists and dictators, the complexities and rivalries within the region are liable to attenuate any spillover of violence to the outside.  In any case, Europe would have the most incentive to contain the instability.

It is toward China that the America first strategy has the most salience.  China became a free rider on the American defense of the system, and having grown strong as a result, now challenges that system.  China seeks to reorder the system to serve its particular interests and to be recognized as the dominant power.  As it has become clear that China’s aims are inherently hostile to US interests and are global in scope, the inadequacy of American grand strategy has been revealed.  President Trump initiated a series of tariffs and sanctions that many term a trade war.  It would be one thing if the measures were simply a tactical move to even out the trade balance, but a true America first strategy would seek to alter the vectors of the relative power growth.  The systemic, liberal view that free trade raises all economic boats must be abandoned and policies adopted that both strengthen the autarky of the US and undermine the economic development if not also the political stability of China.  In a certain sense it means adopting China’s playbook – fighting fire with fire.

How would a true America first strategy affect the design and operation of the US Armed Forces, especially the Navy?  In the first instance, many of the rotational deployments would cease, relieving much of the pressure on the USN.  Having some wiggle room, it could engage more extensively in experimentation and training, much as it did in the 1920s and 1930s.

America first, rightly considered, involves telling much of the rest of the world it will have to take care of itself while America focuses its resources and efforts on a fitness program – bulking up its economic muscle unapologetically at the expense of China and Russia.  This is no longer a defense of victory but a program aimed at achieving a new victory; a reverse culminating point recognized in time to take corrective action.

At this point I can go no farther; the detailed nature of a new grand strategy is beyond my expertise to explore.  Others, such as Barry Posen of MIT have offered alternatives.[8]  The 2017 National Security Strategy does at least give such a change lip service with its “America First” concept, but thus far its implementation has been hit or miss and for the military it is business as usual. One would hope a future administration would be able to come up with the ideas, make the hard choices, amend law and structure and articulate the vision in such a way that it survives successive elections.  We hold certain truths to be self-evident and of universal applicability.  The US fought two world wars, a cold war and numerous smaller wars to protect those truths.  We thought for a while that we had won that epic struggle, but as a sage once said, in war the result is never final.

Captain Robert C. Rubel USN (Ret) served thirty years active duty in the US Navy. In the first twenty years he served as a light attack/strike fighter pilot. His last ten were mostly spent on the faculty of the US Naval War College, teaching planning and decision making, and wargaming. After retirement from active duty he spent thirteen years as a civilian faculty member at the Naval War College, serving as Chairman of the Wargaming Department and later as Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He currently serves as an advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations on fleet design and fleet architecture.


[1] Ben Werner, “SECDEF Esper Blames Failures of Optimized Fleet Response Plan for Delay in 355 Ship Fleet Outlook,” USNI News, February 26, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/02/26/secdef-esper-blames-failures-of-optimized-fleet-response-plan-for-delay-of-new-355-ship-fleet-outlook

[2] Hull, Cordell (1948). The Memoirs of Cordell Hull: vol. 1. New York: Macmillan. p. 81

[3] Carnes Lord, Proconsuls, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), see Chapter 1, “On Proconsul Leadership,” pp. 1-22 for a discussion of delegated political-military leadership in the American system.

[4] The logic of regional defense of the system is laid out in Thomas P. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map, (New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 2004).

[5] US Navy, US Marine Corps, US Coast Guard, “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower,” October, 2007,  http://www.navy.mil/maritime/Maritimestrategy.pdf

[6] Marshall MacLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Corte Madera, Calif.: Gingko, 1994), Chapter 4: “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis,” pp. 63-70.

[7] For a recent reference, see Hal Brands, American Grand Strategy and the Liberal Order, RAND Corporation Report (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), p. 10.

[8] Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for American Grand Strategy, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).