Tags: Michael Smith, seapower
It seems inevitable when the fiscal environment wanes toward austerity that there are calls for reducing forward presence in those regions of the world that concern us most. Some have argued that our forward presence is too expensive in relation to the immediate threat. They would advocate pulling back our deployed maritime forces and allowing our allies to take on a greater share of their own defense. These critics further imply that the Navy is deployed everywhere, all the time, without a clear mission other than simply being out and about.
Does the Navy have a counterargument to this view, and if so how do we characterize it? The U.S. Navy has long maintained that our strategic value to the Nation is predicated on our ability to operate forward. We have long used the phrase forward presence to emphasize this posture and convey both a robust operational tempo and a readiness for any crisis. We characterize it within our Maritime Strategy as a “core capability.”1
I would argue, though, that forward presence is inaccurate and misleading in describing the value of our Navy’s forward and ready posture. Being forward deployed is not simply about being present—as if that were enough—it is about being ready and able to provide an effective response to challenges to America’s vital interests. This mischaracterization of forward presence as just “being there” feeds the misperception that we seek to be everywhere rather than being where it matters, when it matters. Have we failed to convey the value of the Navy’s forward and ready posture all these years by using the wrong words to describe it? We have to make a two-fold case to shift the discussion to more accurately convey the great lengths to which our Navy goes in maintaining a combat ready force operating far from our shores. First, we have to choose the right words – forward presence simply fails to fully capture the purpose of forward and ready Navy forces. Operating forward directly enables everything we do, from deterrence to disaster relief – it is a posture of readiness, rather than an end in itself. Second, we have to stop advertising forward presence as a core capability. Commanders request capabilities to execute particular courses of action to meet mission objectives – but capabilities may not be service specific, and they are called upon only episodically. This clearly understates the strategic contribution of the Navy’s forward and ready posture: it is neither interchangeable with the offerings of other services, nor do episodic forward deployments convey the same responsiveness and steady-state influence as ready, forward forces. Forward and ready is in fact the central operating construct of our Navy: it provides America with an essential and cost-effective ability to proactively influence events and rapidly respond to crises when time is of the essence.
Being forward and ready enables every function we perform as a Navy – from cooperating with allies and partners in maintaining maritime security to defeating adversaries in war. Forward operations are a central element of the Nation’s ability to project power and communicate resolve where and when it matters most. This does not mean we need to be everywhere at once – a common misperception – but it does mean we need to be operating forward and ready in the regions of greatest importance to the American national interest.
Our forward operations encourage–rather than dampen—the allies’ and partners’ willingness to contribute by communicating American resolve and promoting regional security and stability. Tailoring our forward posture by region ensures a U.S. Navy posture that is concentrated where it is needed and desired, and diffuse where partners assume primary responsibility for regional security and stability. And through daily engagement and maritime governance in cooperation with allies, partners, and other stakeholders, naval forces contribute to freedom of navigation, reinforcing the norms of free access to the maritime commons.
Forward posture also enables timely response to crises. The presence of combat-ready naval forces allows us to dissuade, deter, and contain aggression. In the event of conflict, our ability to operate forward enables sea control and facilitates the arrival and employment of additional naval, joint, or multinational forces surged from home or from other globally dispersed locations. Moreover, forward operations facilitate the inherent advantages of our forces (mobile, versatile, and self-sustaining) by providing an ability to swiftly shift from one location or mission to another as local situations evolve. While we can’t be everywhere at all times, swinging forward and ready forces is inevitably a more effective and efficient first response compared to “surging” forces from their homeports.
Forward presence was, and still is, our own terminology so we bear the responsibility of shifting the conversation. The Navy does not simply provide presence. We provide a relevant and capable combat ready force that is globally deployed. We are forward and ready; not forward and present. It is time we communicate this more effectively to properly convey our Navy’s strategic value to the Nation. Pulling back our deployed forces is not a feasible solution when the very essence of how we operate is forward and ready.
1 A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) – currently under revision.