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.

Posted by RDML Mike Smith in Foreign Policy, Maritime Security, Navy, Training & Education
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  • Personally don’t think it’s the Navy’s role to have positions on debates or counterarguments. I think that’s the President’s responsibility; the Navy is just the worker and executioner of policy in my view.

    I personally think it is the US navy’s job to deter aggression via regular patrols of international waters; prevention of war is a lot cheaper than winning a war. I think the critics who state the US navy is out and about with no clear mission need to be reminded that since the US navy has been out and about (from say 1945), there have been no major world wars nor major naval battles fought. Historically speaking only in times when the US military was largely at home did the 2 world wars erupt.

    As for quantity of patrols/presence/ships/whatever, again that is a political question. If the politicians decide that the US military’s primary focus should be on combatting terrorism, well, I think the US navy’s presence and number of ships can be reduced substantially. If the politicians decide that the US navy’s primary focus should be deterrence and protecting economic interests (the likely decision), then likely nothing will change.

    • grandpabluewater

      “The Navy is just the worker and executioner (sic) of policy”

      Derrick: It’s a bit more complicated than that. If one has experience and expertise, and works for some one who has less, one has the responsibility to advise. For senior officers of the Navy, the duty is a statutory one.

      The Navy is not kept in a display case with a sign: ” In case of conflict, break glass.”

      This is no different for any other human endeavor, throughout history.

      Research the following phrase: “Council of War”, Thank you for your interest in national defense.

      • But is communication a core competency of the US Navy, or military in general? As I understand it, the article is suggesting the US navy advise on communication and terminology, not actual deterrence or warfighting strategy.

        Advising on something which is the US Navy’s core competency makes sense to me. So advising on communication strategy seems a bit of a tangent to me.

        So I think the best use of the US navy’s time is to advise on how to deter aggression or if necessary, squash it. And if that requires increased presence, more ships, jets, whatever, then the US navy should advise it. But let the communications people think about how to communicate it.

        There are communications specialists all over the US federal government who are probably better trained to communicate what the navy does in a manner that will be meaningful to ignorant civilians such as myself. Communications specialists will ensure that factual explanations won’t be mis-represented or mis-interpreted by the media.

      • grandpabluewater

        Standard english and the avoidance of jargon and cant will suffice, given that the average defense reporter is innocent of knowledge of the basics and uninclined to educate him/herself. If you want the job done at all, do it yourself.

  • grandpabluewater

    RADM Smith is quite correct that “presence” is a term of art, which conveys more meaning to the educated practitioner than that which the neophyte will likely understand. So is “public affairs”, General Patraeus’s peccadillo not withstanding.

    When communicating with the general public, it is important to speak precisely, using standard English. The speeches of Winston Churchill provide excellent examples.

  • robert_k

    “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.”

    Perhaps we should start listening – what is it the American citizen wants its navy to do?

    Admiral Kirby makes a good argument in today’s WaPo:

    “It’s time that we do a better job understanding and relating to the people we serve….We do not talk with them. Too often, we talk at them.”

  • RDML Mike Smith

    BJ, I appreciate your response. I agree that the Navy exists not only to fight and win our nation’s wars, as you noted. Our responsibilities and functions, as varied as they are, contribute to avoiding wars as much as fighting and winning wars. As you suggest, theater security cooperation, counter-piracy, and humanitarian operations, just to name a few, are not just “busy work” but important functions in their own right; they communicate national resolve and promote regional security and stability through cooperation with allies, partners, and other stakeholders, contribute to freedom of navigation, and reinforce the norms of free access to the maritime commons. These activities foster robust relationships, contribute to the mutual defense of our allies, and promote collaboration on enterprises of mutual benefit, such as maritime security. In this manner they help prevent wars and improve the security of the American people.

    I don’t think, though, that these “steady state” activities are entirely distinct from warfighting readiness, because our forward posture also enables timely response to crises. That’s precisely why I chose the phrase “forward and ready.” As we must be able to both proactively influence events and rapidly respond to crises, being ready to fight and win must be the bedrock of our daily operations-especially in those strategic maritime regions where conflict is likely and most consequential, or in places where our citizens or interests may be threatened. By operating forward and conducting peacetime missions we afford, in part, an opportunity for sailors and Marines to hone their skills and to be ready and positioned to fight and win if called upon.

    • Chuck

      “national resolve and promote regional security and stability through
      cooperation with allies, partners, and other stakeholders, contribute to
      freedom of navigation, and reinforce the norms of free access to the
      maritime commons”

      I doubt most of the public can understand that importance, understand how that contributes to their welfare, that is worrisome. I sometimes feel that the attention span is no greater than a 24 minutes. (30 minute escapist TV show.) It is difficult to quantify those issues and additionally foolish to ignore them

  • Sperrwaffe

    After repeated reading and thinking about this question let me try to do some reverse approach.
    BJ gives some very good points which provide historical points to consider. The whole discussion follows the acceptance of the critics path of arguments. That it is a negative issue that navies are just there for “being out and about”. If you let this negative connotation drive you, you enter this vicious circle of having to justify your role against a position which should be your first argument of your existence. You can only loose in this discussion, since you end up in the position of being to abstract and not really reaching people. A typical problem of today’s politics/ politicians.
    This is where I would like to take BJ’s historical approaches.
    “Being out and about” is NOT negative per se. It is the justification for a Navy. It has to be there. It has to be out. In peacetime and during crisis. Together with allies, with partners in a combined! and of course joint environment.All historical examples given by BJ justify this. It is the same vicious cycle as fire departments or police departments. They are expensive. But beware the peopels scorn if they are not there and ready. If they are not “being out and about”.
    Why not approach the critics with some of their own medicine? Their argumentation leads the military apparatus (especially high ranks…no offense meant Sir..) to justify itself by getting as abstract as it can. To counter with grand strategy, which evidently leads to leaving people behind who are not in the discussion as people in this forum are.
    It is the same problem as the recent professional identity article “semper huh”. A simple, easy to understand identity.
    Here it is the same.
    Personally I don’t consider “being out and about” as something negative. Why so?
    Navies are representatives of their nation. Something I learned during my training. “As a sailor you are a representative of your nation.” So they have to be out and about. To represent. Every sailor is a representative of his nation. Even more in peacetime. Then it is his utmost task to represent and an absolute honor to be a member of such a naval force “being out and about.” The most positive thing to be. If its not about “being out and about” you are not a navy. You are a mothball collection of steel in the water.

    I know that this may not be a high level approach, which would pass through your strategical review. It’s a small addition to the discussion to think about or to dislike coming from an non USN perception but nevertheless a Navy perception.

    With regards