Against future irregular threats, cooperation is the name of the game. This is the message of a new Navy Vision [pdf] signed off by chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead in January. The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower highlights the unique position of the US Navy to “leverage access to the maritime domain and cooperate with partner navies and security forces to dissuade, deter, and defeat irregular threats at sea and ashore”. Specifically, the Vision argues for confronting irregular challenges with:

  1. “Increased effectiveness in stabilizing and strengthening regions, by securing and leveraging the maritime domain, with and in support of national and international partners.”
  2. “Enhanced regional awareness of activities and dynamics to include a deeper understanding of ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic characteristics and norms.”
  3. “Increased regional partner capacity for maritime security and domain awareness.”
  4. “Expanded coordination and interoperability with joint, interagency, and international partners.”

These objectives are spot on and follow my own thinking. However, probably the most important point is buried in the middle of the paragraph on the last page:

“[The Vision] recognizes the value of presence, of “being there,” to maintain adequate levels of security and awareness across the maritime domain, and restrain the destabilizing activities of non-state actors”.

Discussions of grand strategy and national security so often devolve into debates over hard power. Yet, however unsexy, the most powerful weapon is most often found in allies and relationships. Using the US military to train Brazilian medics or rebuild Nicaraguan health clinics is not about humanitarianism, it is about making friends and making friends stronger. In the domain of irregular threats, knowing whom to call can be more powerful than any weapon system. Call it Rolodex power, and more than any other branch, the Navy’s got it.

Crossposted on Conflict Health.

Posted by Christopher Albon in Navy, Soft Power
Tags: , , ,

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  • Wow. At the risk of being disagreeable, I can’t help but think that this is an awful mix of Sigma Six-CNMI and the latest darling of the management world….”Partner Relationship Management Strategy”….

    Why do military leaders think that adopting the latest and greatest from the business world has any application in strategy. Procurement…perhaps…but strategy?

    You’re right Christopher, I do believe that ultimately it comes back to hard power. If the Navy is incapable of dealing effectively with the piracy problem then how is it going to deal with an organized threat of an irregular nature? How is it going to enhance regional stability if its incapable (or rather not allowed) to intercept the shipment of arms to Hamas?

    If you can explain how this strategy will enhance the Navy’s ability to deal with just those two long term problems then I’m sold…if not then this is just another pdf designed to entertain politicians and one which has no bearing on the activities of Sailors and Marines.

  • Solomon –
    Soft power is designed to deter wars and create allies – at a fraction of the cost of war fighting. Ignore the buzz words de jour and appreciate this is mission long performed by the U.S. miltary.

    As far as the Somali pirates go, it is not a matter of capability so much as a reluctance to take on the task of taking out their bases on shore – which is where almost all piracy has had to be stopped. Because of the special rules applied to the U.S. – “if we break it, we own it” – that essentially would mean occupation after an invasion.

    While we have the capability to do that, we are simply not willing to undertake that responsibility and without the U.S. Navy’s amphibious capabilities I doubt any other country is willing to play there either.

    The EU anti-pirate forces (perhaps joined by NATO, China and others?) have announced they are looking to shift their mission from pure escort and sea lane protection to something more that sounds like some sort of blockade of known pirate ports and a more aggressive pirate interdiction program. If true, and pursued with vigor, this approach may slow Somali piracy considerably. The point being, the U.S. is quite capable of dealing effectively with the pirate problem if ordered to do so. Those orders have not been issued except to authorize the current actions undertaken by our forces to patrol and protect offshore.

    For the most part the other piracy hotbeds are located in the territorial waters of countries which are seeking to resolve the problem on their own or with their neighbors (e.g. ReCAAP for the Strait of Malacca). Others are receiving anti-piracy training from U.S. and allied “soft power” sources.

    With the exception of the waters off Somalia, there is simply not that much “blue water” piracy to throw our navy against and, unlike the 19th century, apparently we are currently not willing to invade other countries to root out pirate bases.

    The waters off Somalia have Turkish, French, Dutch, Indian, Chinese, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Pakistani, German, Greek, Spanish, Canadian, Italian and British warships out there in addition to the U.S. ships. Also Yemen and several private operations offer services in the sea areas. Frankly, we don’t have the number of ships to match the service of the non-U.S. forces out there on a continuing basis. It’s nice to see these other countries step up to protect vital sea lines of communication.

    Further, comparing the piracy issue with an “organized threat of irregular nature” confuses the issue. There is a vast difference between “policing” and “war fighting” and the rules of engagement that let Somali pirates bop about are much different than those allowed in a war threat environment with weapons free. As with the question about Hamas, the issue is political in nature, not one of military capability.


    I agree with the whole soft power approach advocated in the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and also the Vision for confronting irregular challenges. I have real issue with paragraph III Implementing the Vision. To implement a Vision you need a few things:
    1. Someone needs to be in charge. Who is that? Can anyone tell me who’s responsibility it is to, “Define the strategic and operational tenets and approaches for our Navy to apply across our general purpose and special operation forces”? or better yet “Identify the advocates and resource sponsors responsible for resource allocation and comprehensive program execution for existing and emerging Navy-unique and joint multi-mission capabilities to confront irregular challenges”? I didn’t think so. When no one is responsible, nothing gets done. Leadership 101.
    2. The actions required need to be clearly understood by the people responsible for the action and by the organization as a whole. Anyone care to take a crack in plane English what the two above excerpts mean, or any of the other 11 supporting points for that matter.
    3. A means to measure success. How do we know we have made progress? When is the job complete? Anyone care to take a crack at it.
    Much like the “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower”, the document provides a decent enough Vision. But that is the easiest part. As is, the document is virtually worthless after the vision statement and its four supporting statements. Part II is nothing more than restating what we are doing now (a non-value added activity) and Part III (the implementation part) is worse than worthless. In my opinion it actively confuses the issue.
    This reminds me of the Revolution in Training, another good idea run amuck. Until we get a well articulated, achievable vision, which can be understood and whose success can be measured, that is someones responsibility, we are just wasting our time. We have waited three years in deafening silence for the Naval Operating Concept that supports the Seapower Strategy, how long will it take to get the supporting documentation for this thing?

  • Chris,
    Sorry to be the skunk … but such is my nature. After nodd’n my head and saying “Amen” to E1’s comment above, I have to add this note of caution: unfortunately, like much that has come out of the CNO’s office as of late – Admiral Roughead’s message is heavy on consultant-speak and jargon, but light on substance.

    B.L.U.F. – there is nothing “irregular” about the challenges outlined in the message. Everyone walk down to the Navy History and Heritage Command in DC and look at what our Navy has done for a couple of centuries. Heck, the word “history” is in the first sentence of the CNO’s message at the beginning of the document. If you have a history of doing something, and you have always done it – then why call it “irregular?” Buzzword Bingo is intellectual pixie sticks – this is a perfect example. The fact that the CNO’s “4” is considered irregular is disturbing. Bread and butter is more like it.

    In many ways, it is just repackaged concepts that the Navy has been based on for decades/centuries. Hey, I have another four; four enduring core capabilities;
    – Sea Control.
    – Power Projection.
    – Forward Presence.
    – Deterrence.

    All the consultant-speak in the message, when put through a thesaurus so Sailors and taxpayers can clearly understand them, are subsets of the four …. with a little Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief if you must, things that again we have been doing as a Navy from our very beginning.

    There. Is. Nothing. New. Or. Irregular. About. Them.

    By talking like it is irregular – we sound like we don’t know our business. It is almost like having a bartender show shock that 1oz of Southern Comfort has more alcohol than 1oz of Guinness.

    The largest weakness in the message – and one that needs to be challenged every time it is brought up, is the overselling of the “Global Maritime Partnership” ( nee “1,000 ship navy”) that is the USN version of the caveat-laden Kabuki dance’n Potempkin Village that is the “Allied Effort” in Afghanistan.

    Sure, we have since the dawn of our Navy worked with international partners. Some will be full partners (in AFG for example; GBR, CAN, NLD, EST, DNK), but most will only provide enough to get a flag out front of the HQ (in AFG for example; CZE, GRC, TUR, BEL, SVK, etc), but not too much that if things get rough they can be blamed for failure.

    RADM McKnight’s experience off HOA is a perfect example of this. He had 24 ships doing counter-piracy. You know how many could actually take action against pirates? 3 to 4, depending on which nation’s ships happened to be at sea and not in port that week.

    What we as a Navy need to do more of is talk about what the Navy can do to meet the national security requirements of the United States. “The Navy” is the United States Navy. You know, the one the taxpayers invest billions of dollars in. The one that they should rely on – and when the outflow hits fan blades – will be 95% of what will be there for them.

    We need to tell our story and mission clearly, without consultant-speak, buzzwords, gimmicks, politics of the day, and without the guilt of the terminally Joint.


  • Grandpa Bluewater

    I don’t want to get all cranky and 20th century, but…

    “Soft power is designed to deter wars and create allies – at a fraction of the cost of war fighting.”

    Too bad it’s such a poor design. When did it work?

    It is absolutely no substitute for real power, present at the scene. That’s why they call it “presence”.

    Use of the term “power” in the absence of real power is at best a tactic. That tactic is “Bluff”.

    “Soft power” is a interchangable term for self delusion. As we have seen. Afghanistan since the victory for the Northern Alliance – QED.


    Grandpa Bluewater,
    So let me get this straight, you’re saying we should not strenghten and build regional capacity in the area of Maritime Security? Enhancing domain awareness is bad? We shouldn’t work closely with the USCG and other agencies who have an interest in maintaining the maritime commons? Instead we should send CSGs and ARGs to look good and deter war against the United States while ignoring maritime security like we did numerous times in our history. Just what part of the Vision is it you don’t like.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Let’s take ’em in order.

    Strengthen and build regional capacity. Exactly how? Give away ships we need ourselves, hoping to make friends? Give away money we haven’t got, hoping to gain influence? Regional capacity for what, exactly? Military not under your command are not reliably available. They’ll take anything we offer…for free, take! What we’ll get when the chips are down are Saudi minesweeping, German special forces, Canadian fighter bombers…at best. Allies functionally AWOL are not allies.

    Enhancing domain awareness? Would that be good intelligence? Is asking with a tin cup better than having our own long term humint in place?

    Work closely etc, etc, blah, blah maintaining the maritime commons?
    Yes, when the Venn diagram’s mission/agenda/interest circles intersect. A basic building block of Command of the Sea, and in this context, the question is a red herring. Business as usual, if competant. If…

    We ignore maritime security because we are not funded for it and hence not organized for it. The Navy is not a welfare organization nor a law enforcement organization. By design. Its output is readiness for war, deterrence of war, successful combat operations and whatever else ordered to do, subject to the following: No bucks, no Buck Rogers.

    What don’t I like: I don’t like the BS, the myopia, the buzzwords, and the track record. (Other) Nation states act in their own perceived self interest, period. Which means taking a generous and stupid ally (that would be us for the last 50 years) to the cleaners whenever possible.

    Capability is determined by resources. The nation is beyond broke. The 1000 ship Navy is smoke and mirrors to make naval decline palatable and (maybe, in my darker moments it seems likely) get senior officers good post retirement jobs. Or maybe just a powerpoint to let some 05 action officer dance past some friday deadline to prep for for a following Tuesday dog and pony show, so he can make his daughter’s sweet sixteen birthday party. Take your pick.

    Just don’t confuse it with sound strategy.

    Rant off. Over to you.


    I understand your frustration. And I make no effort to defend the document past Para I. Really, beyond the actual vision statement and the four supporting points, its worthless. No, worthless is better than the last 80% of the document which actively confuses the issue. The very worst of pentagonese and business school jargon that means nothing. OK, we agree it largely sucks. OK, so what of value can we learn from Para I.
    – irregular threats are largely maritime security issues
    – are best handles by a combination of joint and combined action
    – require other nations to be effective at maintaining there own waters and EEZ.
    – Has a lot of grey area with other agencies like the USCG.
    – In large part cannot be solved by the USN directly. We are a supporting player. That means we have to learn to shut up, listen, be diplomatic, and help. Its a lot harder to convince someone that what you want is what they want but it can be done.

    OK, so lets look at what we can do because burying our head in the sand and hoping everything goes well isn’t the answer. Saying it is not in our job description doesn’t work either. Acting like the bull in the china shop won’t get it done. Maritime Security is a lot like COIN at sea, if you ignore it until you can take kinetic action against it, you are spending way too much money, time, and other resources. We ignore it at our own peril.

    1. Strengthen and build regional capacity. How? OK, a fair question. Lets use some examples from the past as an idea.
    UNITAS – Come on, who ever really expected UNITAS to do much in the event of conflict with the USSR? But it does build regional capacity of the other nations. The SOUTHCOM Ship stations, which is pretty cheap, helps much more directly. For example, training the Columbia Navy (which is part Coast Guard part Navy) to interdict drug smugglers helps them and helps us. But we have to work with USCG, Customs, DEA, etc.
    Developing the capacity to protect offshore infrastructure in Iraq is another area. You do it at first, but you train the capacity to allow the Iraqis to eventually do the job. Does the US have an interest in offshore infrastructure protection around Nigeria and Angola for instance? We can’t do it, so we work to develop capacity of others. Slow, difficult, and frustrating and not very well suited to a CSG. It requires long term presence and engagement largely as a supporting participant.

    Enhancing domain awareness? Would that be good intelligence? Is asking with a tin cup better than having our own long term humint in place?
    Why is one mutually exclusive and why can’t we help the other nations maximize there capacity instead of giving them something? Knowing smuggling routes across the Horn of Africa is good, but knowing the smuggling routes and having the nations responsible for maintaining maritime security able to do their job is even better.

    Work closely etc, etc, blah, blah maintaining the maritime commons?
    I think we are agreed that it is not in our interest to do someone elses job. But it is in our interest to work to strenghten the other nations ability to do their job. A CVN doesn’t do that, but often an LSD with a group of Sailors, Marines, USCG types, and other trainers can have significant capability in that regard. It takes a long time, its a lot harder than showing off our cool toys, and there are no really snazzy pictures to hang on the wall afterwards, but it is at least moving in a direction we wish to go. And the good thing is, it really isn’t that expensive since we are not talking really expensive stuff. Patrol boats, small arms, radars, etc. The biggest thing is building the human capital to use what they already have to do what is already in their interest.

    Expand Cooperation with partners. As you identify, this is motherhood and apple pie, but you would be surprised how badly we are at this. You are correct that we are not budgeted for, and in many cases do not have legal authority for, the maritime security mission. But more often than not, nations do not have separate coast guards and navies. So we need to work with others, such as the USCG, to achieve the national goals.

    The Document as a whole is bad. But the Vision part is actually pretty good, but even then I would argue it is also redundant with the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Centery Seapower. And we still don’t have a Navy Operating Concept that supports the strategy.

    To say the US Navy hasn’t done Maritime Security in the past is wrong. It has been, in onbe form or another, a part of the mission of the US Navy from its founding. And whether we like it or not, it is still a part of our mission. Just one we have largely neglected.

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Yes, Virginia, the Navy will help even the US Army, if asked and at all possible. Don’t know that the Air Force has ever asked, but Mother Navy no doubt has a contingency for even them, given “pretty please”.

    So the Navy is a global force for good, so to speak.

    The core mission comes first. So it’s all NTIB, and the “ally” should have to establish credibility first (in my dreams). That said, helping a friend in need can have genuine and long lasting impact. I remember a Senior Norwegian Naval Officer almost at the point of tears while thanking our wardroom and crew for the loan of about a half dozen PT boats to the WWII Norwegian underground – saving his life thereby – even though not a man or woman on board our ship had been born at the time. However -comma- there is no point helping if we don’t have the time, skills and tools in house. I agree that speaking softly and not stepping on local toes are a prerequisite, necessary but not sufficient for success.

    So we (sorta) agree on the “vision”. Sorta.

    And I appreciate your sharing some of my reservations.

    Since we agree that this bright idea is mostly equine based rose fertilizer, I guess we will have disagree whether those few things worth doing on the basis of experience, or objective reality, amount to anything more than claiming credit for design and implementation of a forward looking new program for ecological excellence in facility operation, because the extra duty men shovel out the horse barn every morning

    Good luck finding the pony. There sure is a lot of evidence there is one in there somewhere.