Today's guest is Jan Van Tol, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower states the Navy believes that preventing wars is as important as winning wars. When matching the strategic objective of preventing war to resources, can the US Navy prevent war in the 21st century, and if so, how?
America’s Navy: A Global Force for GoodIn thinking about the Cooperative Strategy’s premise that “preventing wars is as important as winning wars,” one is reminded of a certain classic movie set at a fictional college whose proud motto was “Knowledge is Good.” That is, it is a fine sentiment, but what practical guidance does it provide the Navy?
Contemporary Navy recruiting slogan
“Sic vis pacem, para bellum.”
Publius Flavius Vegetius
Accepting the premise en arguendo for the moment, the meanings of two key words must be unpacked. For the purposes of the Cooperative Strategy (CS21), what does “war” mean? What does “preventing” entail? Only with some reasonable working definition of those terms in the CS21 context is it possible even to consider whether the US Navy could accomplish the stated objective of “preventing war,” and what resources it might require to do so.
Protecting the Global System versus Winning in Wartime
CS21 describes a litany of “Challenges of a New Era.” It suggests the diverse consequences of globalization, increased demand and competition for resources, widespread access to information, and growing proliferation of technologies with military applications to an ever broader range of state and non-state actors are all potential sources of future conflict. Further, “weak or corrupt governments, growing dissatisfaction among the disenfranchised, religious extremism, ethnic nationalism, and changing demographics exacerbate tensions and are contributors to conflict,” and heighten the appeal of extremist ideologies. Climate change may further amplify human misery and lead to greater social instability, large-scale involuntary migrations, and regional crises. These and other threats such as piracy, terrorism, trafficking in people, drugs and weapons, and other forms of criminality all pose threats to the “peaceful global system comprised of networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance.”
The maritime domain is particularly important “because [it] … supports 90% of the world’s trade, it carries the lifeblood of a global system that links every country on earth.” Thus “where conflict threatens the global system and our national interest, maritime forces must be ready to respond along with other elements of national and multi-national power,” as well as the capabilities of international powers. Since no single nation has the resources needed to provide safety and security throughout the entire maritime domain, a cooperative approach to maritime security is required. This is turn puts a premium on ongoing peacetime engagement with various partners, e.g., via Global Maritime Partnerships, to promote the rule of law, and prevent or contain local disruptions (including conflicts) before they impact the global system. This is reflected in CS21’s elevation of two new “core capabilities,” maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), to the same level as the traditional naval missions.
CS21 acknowledges the continuing important roles of maritime forces in defending the homeland, deterring major power war, and defeating enemies in war (as part of the joint force). However, it explicitly states there is tension between the requirements for “continued peacetime engagement” (or global system maintenance, if you will) on the one hand and maintaining the capabilities and proficiency in critical skills needed to fight and win in combat on the other. Thus by implication, these are distinctly different, hence the proposition that preventing wars is as important as winning wars [emphasis in the CS21 document]. By logical extension, this implies that meeting the requirements for the former is as important as meeting those for the latter.
CS21 offers an extraordinarily expansive view of the sources of violence and conflict that can threaten the global system, and which thus must be dealt with before they can result in destabilization of that system. It is especially concerned about regional conflict since that “has ramifications far beyond the area of conflict,” including humanitarian crises, violence spreading across borders, pandemics, and the interruption of trade in vital resources. Though CS21 acknowledges “we cannot be everywhere, and we cannot act to mitigate all regional conflict,” it nonetheless offers an essentially unbounded vision of what factors and circumstances may or should draw US military involvement and/or intervention, with multi-national assistance where possible, without it if necessary. In essence, because the security, prosperity, and vital interests of the United States are now inextricably coupled to those of other nations and the global system, it asserts that the United States has a general duty to intervene to prevent or contain wars, principally by a priori addressing the diverse underlying factors that may lead to conflict, because any significant disruption to the global system might ultimately pose a threat to US security.
|Which of these prevents war?|
The CS21 vision is thus based on maximalist notions of what may lead to war and accordingly what its prevention will entail in the future. It is a formula for creating virtually unlimited demand for actions and activities to ameliorate the large set of disparate factors that ostensibly have the potential to lead to conflicts around the globe. Moreover, left unconstrained, the set of possible actions likely will also grow. Consider the recent efforts to invoke a new “responsibility to protect” in the case of regimes savagely mistreating their populations (e.g., Libya, Syria); recurrent calls for humanitarian intervention in the cause du jour; proactive humanitarian assistance such as provision of medical services overseas by amphibious forces; the employment of a CVN in fisheries patrol in Oceania. Worthy as such efforts may be, the causality with regard to wars “prevented” (as opposed to alleviating human suffering) seems highly tenuous at best. Negative proofs are always difficult.
Further, such activities conducted on the scale that CS21 implies will be necessary in the future security environment must bring very substantial resource demands with them. Those might be sustainable in times of budgetary plenty, but in an austere budgetary environment represent an increasingly zero-sum game vis-à-vis the resources required for maintaining the warfighting superiority if not dominance required against adversaries with genuine ability to harm the United States and its national interests.
Problems with the CS21 Construct
The central tension within CS21 thus lies with its imperative to use seapower in conjunction with the joint force and perhaps other agencies of government to prevent any significant disruptions of the global system (of which those caused by wars may be the worst) versus the traditional requirements to deter and if necessary win wars directly involving the United States and its allies should they occur. That tension is unnecessarily and unreasonably intensified by CS21’s exhaustive list of factors that the United States and the Navy should act to ameliorate in order to prevent conflicts from breaking out.
To note a few problems with this expansive view:
- Many of the threats that may cause disruptions of some kind to the global system do not involve war or plausibly lead to war at all. For example, most maritime security tasks deal with criminality, e.g., piracy, smuggling or trafficking, terrorism at or from the sea, thus are more the province of coast guards in nature. However, the US Coast Guard is comparatively small, so overseas tasking of this kind has primarily fallen to the Navy, with the (in some eyes) perverse result that expensive, sophisticated warships are all too often employed on such low-end tasks at the cost of wear and tear and their availability for other tasking.
- Non-emergency humanitarian assistance efforts, while useful for the sake of public diplomacy, are necessarily far too small in scale to ameliorate internal sources of turmoil such as corruption, mass poverty and underdevelopment serious enough to threaten governments.
- Humanitarian interventions, particularly those under the amorphous “responsibility to protect” rubric, more often than not have costly unintended consequences. Similarly, “peace enforcement” actions have a notable lack of success historically. Recent experience suggests the continuing wisdom of John Quincy Adams’ assertion that “America is not in search of monsters to destroy.”
- Outside involvement in various kinds of intractable conflicts, such as insurgencies or civil wars, generally has been costly and not accompanied by success.
- From a purely Navy perspective, many of the CS21-cited factors contributing to potential systemic disruption or conflict are beyond Navy’s ability to affect materially in any case, simply because they occur on land beyond the reach of maritime forces. While some of these could eventually lead to conflicts that entail employment of naval forces in support of other elements of the joint force or combined forces, the role of seapower in preventing them per se is nugatory.
|Which of these prevents war?|
Being a “Global Force for Good” is no doubt a positive and useful thing. The US Navy has long done much “good” on a large scale in the CS-21 “prevent war” sense, but it has done so en passant, and will continue to do so on that basis. However, pace the sainted Samuel Huntington, “a military service does not exist to perform these functions; rather it performs these functions because it has already been called into existence to meet some threat.”
And, indeed, the Navy and its sister services have done by far their greatest good for America (and the global system) by helping to destroy a succession of “evil empires” and regimes. Sometimes this had to be accomplished through major protracted wars, sometimes happily without requiring direct warfare against a major antagonist. But in each case the paramount factor in achieving the end result was the demonstrable US ability to prevail in war if it came to that.
Preventing wars is of course to be preferred to actually waging wars, but nothing is more important than the winning of wars, and being suitably prepared to do so. In the realm of peace or war, few axioms or adages have stood the test of time as well as the Vegetius’ ancient formulation, “if you want peace, prepare for war.” This is nothing other than classic deterrence of significant competitors and adversaries. The paradox of deterrence remains as ever that as long as any serious potential or actual enemy has deep reason to doubt it will profit by initiating a conflict with the United States and its allies, that war de facto will have been “prevented.”
The US Navy cannot affect or attenuate most sources of strife and conflict around the globe, and it would be hubristic to believe that it can. It can, however, play a major role in helping to prevent (deter) the outbreak of the most dangerous kind of wars, those involving aggression by major adversaries, whether directly against the United States or its forces or against genuine US allies and selected other security partners, by strongly reinforcing perceptions on their part that the Navy and the rest of the joint force exist first and foremost to fight and win in war. This is the critical element in preventing war. Navy resources not dedicated to that purpose are resources misallocated.
That CNO Greenert has made “Warfighting First” a central tenet for the fleet is refreshing and salutary – and long overdue for a Navy that still remains largely a peacetime organization in its collective mentality.