Sea Power is of the utmost importance in terms of global control of both economic and geographical regions. Walter Raleigh wrote in the 17th century, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”
The US has remained the leading force at sea, and in recent years has re-affirmed its dedication to command at sea. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power lists sea control as one of the five essential functions of the navy. Sea control and sea power are terms written about in no short supply, and that are constantly highlighted by the leaders of our combatant forces. While sea power is by itself a complex issue, the means by which we achieve it are far more intricate.
The most important challenges faced by the US Navy in achieving sea power are not technological, but human. The current strategy laid out by the US on sea power is multi-faceted and dynamic, but does little to address the day-to-day challenges of our sailors. An expectation of being the most elite navy in the world is impossible to achieve through strategic placement of assets if we can’t properly man and train our assets.
When the navy decided to change the policy on female hair standards, training was completed across the fleet, statements were put out by the Chief of Naval Operations, and questions were addressed by leadership. When incidents at sea occurred during the summer of 2017, ships and shore commands across the fleet took an operational pause to examine safety and training. Why then, is there not a training for sailors regarding our strategic policies and involvements across the globe?
“The ability to engage in and respond to threats, must always be the underlying design of a navy”
The strategies of the US Navy are still heavily influenced by the 19th Century writings of men like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian S. Corbett. Both men have written extensively on the importance of sea power, as well as on how to achieve it. While each have distinct opinions, both agree that command of the sea serves national politics, and that it is not enough to merely have control of commercial shipping.
Battle, the ability to engage in and respond to threats, must always be the underlying design of a navy. We must ensure that we not only have the resources and plans to execute such decisive action, but also the human capability and training to do so efficiently. Corbett wrote in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, “it is not enough that a leader should have the ability to decide rightly; his subordinates must seize at once the full meaning of his decision and be able to express it with certainty in well-adjusted action.”
In other words, it is not enough that our combatant commanders know the central strategy and governing tactics that guide and shape our daily lives, they must also be able to communicate and empower their sailors to execute.
The navy is unique to most other branches of the military in that we train in the same environment that we fight in. Our day-to-day job consists of preservation and maintenance of the weapon, vehicle, and berthing in which we will deploy. While most forces train at home to prepare for the environment in which they will fight, we operate every day in the environment from which we will fight.
Marines and Soldiers must learn to manage their expectations for engagement as many who joined with the desire to fight on the frontlines may never step foot in a hostile environment. Sailors on the other hand, rarely asked to engage in hand-to-hand combat, will be “in the field” from the moment they pull out of homeport and will remain in a hostile, dangerous environment until their homecoming.
“Sea power must start at the deckplates”
Whether operating off the coast of Florida or transiting through the Straits of Malacca, navy ships are constantly engaged in mission-focused operations. Due to the environment in which we operate, we must remain vigilant and ready to execute combat missions at all times. This need for vigilance has been tragically embodied in the recent collisions at sea of the USS John S McCain and USS Fitzgerald.
The requirement for constant readiness to fight is demonstrated by the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were successfully launched into Syria in 2017, as well as countless other operations navy vessels are engaging in on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our ability to respond to the order to launch missiles was not met by our ability to safely navigate our vessels. Even more unfortunately, 17 sailors paid dearly for that imbalance.
Sea power must start at the deckplates. Naval officers and chiefs are taught that deckplate leadership is vital to ensuring that sailors are taken care of, maintenance is done properly, and ultimately that the mission is accomplished. Deckplate leaders are leaders that are constantly present in the lives of their sailors, who know what the orders they give actually mean, and who are engaged from the moment an order is given until it is accomplished.
This type of leadership must extend beyond the demands of routine maintenance and preservation. We need leaders on the deckplates who know and can adequately represent the strategic objectives of the navy to the sailors on whom that mission depends.
When Marines are training for a deployment to the Afghanistan, they train in simulated combat environments that help prepare them for the desert heat, as well as the intense atmosphere they will encounter. We must learn to adapt simulation tactics to our needs in the surface navy. Sending the bridge watchstanders to a simulator a couple times a year will not suffice.
“We need to do a better job at training the whole sailor and the whole ship”
Strategy is at the forefront of Marine Corps training, every Marine knows the impact he or she has on the mission, and the role they play. The strategy of the surface navy is on such a large scale, that it often is not felt by individual sailors in the way it can be felt by a Marine practicing tactical team manoeuvring or executing room-clearing procedures.
The tactics of the surface navy involve ships as a whole where captains and key watchstanders are sometimes the only people on board who know the role of the ship in the operational theatre. Many of those watchstanders do not even understand the role their ship plays in the navy’s larger strategy for sea power. Clearly communicating that role to every sailor on board is the only way that we can begin to operate at the elite level which our nation’s strategy requires.
What this means today, is that we need to do a better job at training the whole sailor and the whole ship. We need to impart on every sailor and officer the value and importance of their role and ensure every aspect of our mission is met. It is not enough to drive our ships well, nor is it enough to launch missiles with accuracy. Every sailor on board every ship in our fleet is important, from the ships forward deployed to the ships in the yards, it must be clear what we are working toward.
Small tactical mistakes, maintenance deficiencies, and lacklustre training must be treated with as much regard as a combat error. The only way to ensure that care is given to the smallest of tasks on board our ships, is to train and emphasise sea power from the deckplates up.
Olivia J Morrell is from Albuquerque, NM, and graduated with a degree in Oceanography from the Naval Academy in 2017. She is currently a Surface Warfare Officer onboard the USS Cole (DDG-67), in Norfolk, Virginia.