October 1, 2007  

Dangerous waters: Ignoring operational art at sea could doom U.S. maritime strategy

The new U.S. maritime strategy to be unveiled this fall is expected to fill the lack of a clear and well-articulated vision of the role of U.S. maritime forces in defense and pro¬tection of the national interests at sea and of those of its allies and other friendly nations. However, the lack of sound theory and doctrine for the employment of maritime forces at the operational level of war might pose some serious limitations and ultimately doom the execution of the new U.S. maritime strategy.

This situation might not be acute in the case of the employ¬ment of U.S. maritime forces in operations short of war or to fight some weak opponents at sea, but in the case of a war with a strong regional competitor it will be quite different. The Navy urgently needs to address its lamentable lack of interest in the theory and practice of operational warfare; otherwise, it might find itself outthought and outfought.

Despite all the experiences of naval history, too many naval officers seem to believe that operational art is valid only for war on land, or even worse, has little if any utility for war at sea. Another major reason for the general lack of interest in and knowledge of operational art in the Navy is its traditional focus on technology and naval tactics, and tactical employment of single platforms and weapons in particular.

What is maritime strategy? In U.S. terms, depending on the predominant sources of national power to be used in accom¬plishing political strategic objectives, the distinction is made between the national security strategy and military strategy. The U.S. military strategy must be consonant with the diplomatic, political, economic, informational and other aspects of the national security strategy; otherwise, it cannot be successful.

The new maritime strategy should explain in some detail how the national interests at sea should be protected, defend¬ed and enhanced across the entire spectrum of conflict — that is, from peacetime competition to crisis, operations short of war to high-intensity conventional war. This task cannot be accomplished by U.S. national security and military strategies because they are concerned with much more diverse and broader sources of nonmilitary or military sources of national power. Like the U.S. military strategy, the new maritime strate¬gy must be all-encompassing. Afterward, the combatant com¬manders of maritime theaters should translate the objectives of the maritime strategy into maritime theater strategic objec¬tives — not an easy task. At the same time, the maritime strat¬egy must be in full harmony with the U.S. national security and military strategies; otherwise, it would not accomplish its stated purpose. The maritime strategy supports the accom¬plishment of the military strategy by focusing on those aspects of the military strategic objectives that pertain to the sea. At the same time, it also supports those nonmilitary aspects of the national security strategy concerned with protecting national interests in the maritime domain. Policy and strategy provide the framework and set limitations to national security and military strategies. Likewise, the maritime strategy must be fully subordinate to the national military strategy.

The scope and extent of the new maritime strategy should be large because of the sheer diversity and complexity of the real and potential threats facing the U.S. in the maritime domain. One of the most critical parts of any maritime strategy is to articulate strategic objectives at sea. Specifically, the new maritime strategy should focus on the role of maritime forces in enhancing strategic deterrence and on objectives in opera¬tions short of war and in a regional or global conflict at sea.

A critical but difficult part of the new maritime strategy is articulating a sound vision of and duration of the future con¬flict at sea. The lack of such a vision would make it difficult to write servicewide doctrine and thereby prepare maritime forces for a future war at sea. Also, the vision of the future war at sea plays a critical role in planning for the maritime forces’ structure.

war at sea

The new maritime strategy should also explain ways of enhancing the U.S. maritime geostrategic position by strengthening the existing alliances or coalitions and building new ones. These actions must be in harmony with the corre¬sponding aspects of the U.S. national security and military strategies. It also needs to address ways of enhancing deter¬rence and creating prerequisites to win the war at sea if deter¬rence fails.

The new maritime strategy should not ignore the possibility of fighting a high-intensity conventional war at sea. Such a conflict might break out because of the threats to vital U.S. national interests posed by a single or a combination of regional powers in a certain littoral area. A high-intensity con¬flict at sea also could ensue because of the need to roll back aggression by a rising major power at sea. Hence, the new maritime strategy should describe in some detail strategic objectives at sea in a single or multiple maritime theaters, determine whether war at sea will be offensive and/or defen¬sive, and determine which maritime theater should be the the¬ater of main effort. It should also determine in broad terms the distribution of the maritime forces among the various mar¬itime theaters. In the case of a regional or global conflict, the tasks of the maritime strategy are to articulate maritime aspects of the desired strategic end state and the timing and conditions for war termination.

In the modern era, victory in a war was the result of close cooperation among all the services of the country’s armed forces. Although the land forces invariably had the most deci¬sive role in winning one’s wars, such victories were difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without strong and effective sup¬port from one’s maritime and air forces. Traditionally, the strategic objective of the Navy has been, in the case of war or, sometimes, in operations short of war, to obtain and then maintain and exercise sea control in a specific part of the mar¬itime theater. These objectives will remain an integral part of a war’s overall objectives.


All too often, the Navy’s high officials claim publicly and in various official documents that the Navy enjoys so-called glob¬al sea control. However, no navy in history, even the Royal Navy at the height of its power in the 19th century, was able to have control in all the parts of the world’s ocean. The situation today is even more complex because of the proliferation of modern weapons and the ability of many weaker powers in the littorals to frustrate and possibly even prevent the Navy from achieving the desired degree of sea control. The Navy might be opposed by either a strong regional sea power or an inferior littoral navy that might use its limited strengths asym¬metrically and quite successfully against the Navy’s weakness¬es. In a war at sea, a blue-water navy such as the U.S. Navy would rarely achieve sea control in all three physical mediums (surface, subsurface and air) and over large areas of the world’s ocean and for the duration. As in the past, various degrees of sea control would exist. The extent and degree of one’s sea control is also subject to great fluctuations in the course of a war. For example, the Navy might obtain a general control of a large part of the Indian Ocean but only local control of the sur¬face and the air in the Arabian Sea or the Persian Gulf. That control might be temporary, not permanent, until the weaker side suffers substantial losses. These are the realities that the new U.S. maritime strategy should not ignore.

Sea control, properly understood, refers only to the strategic or operational, not tactical, levels of war. In practical terms, strategic sea control pertains to the entire maritime theater. Control of a major part of a maritime theater represents opera¬tional sea control. The Navy’s term “battle space dominance” clearly refers to a tactical, not operational or strategic, level of war at sea. It essentially deals with temporary control of a part of a maritime theater in which one’s forces are engaged in accomplishing some major tactical objective.

The new maritime strategy should also anticipate the possi¬bility that in the case of two simultaneous or nearly simultane¬ous regional conflicts, the Navy might not have sufficient forces to go on the offensive in both maritime theaters. In such a case, the initial strategic objective in one theater might be sea denial, not sea control. Only after sufficient forces were released from the theater of main effort would the U.S. Navy go on the offensive, obtain and then maintain/exercise sea control. British naval historian and theoretician Julian Corbett observed that when the command is in dispute, the general conditions might give a stable or unstable equilibrium. Then, the power of neither side preponderates to any appreciable extent. It may also be that the command lies with the oppo¬nent. Then both sides at sea operate at high risk, because their strength is approximately in balance. One side usually controls one or more parts of a given theater, while its opponent con¬trols the remaining part. Each side’s control of a specific sea area is usually limited in time.


Strategy in general is often misunderstood to also include the combat employment of one’s maritime forces. This was true until the late 19th century, when military art consisted only of strategy and tactics. However, because of radical changes in the character of war as a result of political and social changes and advances in technology in the 19th century, a new and intermediate field of study and practice emerged from the lower part of strategy. The term “operational art” was coined by the Soviet theoretician and former tsarist general Aleksandr A. Svechin in 1923. The same term was borrowed by the U.S. Army in the early 1980s and then adopted by the U.S. joint community.

Today, there is no common, agreed definition of what operational art is. However, there is a common understand¬ing that operational art is an intermediate field of study and practice between strategy and tactics. In generic terms, oper¬ational art at sea can be defined as a component of military art concerned with the theory and practice of planning, preparing and conducting major naval/joint operations and maritime campaigns aimed at accomplishing operational or strategic objectives in a given part of a maritime theater. Only by applying tenets of operational art is it possible to accomplish objectives determined by national strategy and policy in the most decisive manner and with the fewest loss¬es in personnel and materiel by friendly forces. The main role of operational art is to properly sequence and synchronize or orchestrate the use of all available military and nonmilitary sources of one’s power.

The executor of any maritime strategy is service doctrine. The Navy has written numerous naval warfare publications (NWPs) focused on tactical employment of naval combat arms and individual platforms. For the most part, they are well-written. However, none of these NWPs was based on the requirements of a servicewide doctrine; that is, one providing for the employment of the U.S. maritime forces at the opera¬tional level of war. The last servicewide doctrinal document, Naval Warfare, was written in 1947. Not until 1994, when the Naval Doctrinal Publication (NDP)-1, Naval Warfare, was published by the former Naval Doctrine Command in Norfolk, Va., was an effort made to fill the doctrinal gap between the tactical and opera¬tional levels of war at sea. However, this publication was deeply flawed because its focus was almost entirely on the tactical level of war. The new NDP-1, Naval Warfare, Rev, is supposed to remedy this problem by embracing tenets of operational war at sea. This publication is under review and is expected to be eventually adopted by the Navy. However, it would be a mis¬take to approve the NDP-1 Rev before its content is brought into harmony with the new maritime strategy; other¬wise, this document would be in dis¬connect with the larger framework pro¬vided by the U.S. maritime strategy. Without a sound servicewide doctrine focused on the operational level of war at sea, it is hard to see how the U.S. maritime strategy can be applied in both peacetime and in times of war. Afterward, the Navy should review and, if necessary, change, modify or rewrite all its naval warfare publications that deal with tactical employment of naval combat arms. The NDP-1 Rev should provide the much-needed overarching structure in ensuring that training for tactical combat at sea is in harmony with the larger objectives at the opera¬tional level and thereby also with the new maritime strategy.

The new U.S. maritime strategy can¬not be successful unless it is executed using all applicable instruments of national power in a synchronized fash¬ion. Clearly, the nonmilitary sources of national power should play the pre¬dominant role in the execution of mar¬itime strategy in times of peace and in operations short of war.

In operations short of war, such as support of insurgency or counterinsur¬gency and counterterrorism, the U.S. maritime forces would accomplish operational objectives by conducting a series of naval and air tactical actions over time in a specific part of the mar¬itime theater.

The main methods of obtaining sea control in a certain sea or ocean area have traditionally included the destruc¬tion or neutralization of the enemy fleet at sea and/or in its bases, and naval blockade. Destroying the enemy’s naval forces is the most direct and effective means of obtaining control of opera¬tionally or strategically important areas. The most effective and quickest way of accomplishing this is through the plan¬ning and execution of a series of major naval and joint/combined operations. The Navy can possibly accomplish the same objectives by conducting a series of tactical actions such as strikes and attacks. However, that would require much more time and would invariably result in larger losses for friendly forces. Only major naval/joint operations would allow the U.S. maritime forces to seize the initiative and destroy enemy forces relatively quickly and thereby bring about a radical change of the situ¬ation in a given part of the maritime theater. A major naval operation con¬sists of a series of related tactical actions (naval battles, engagements, strikes, attacks, etc.), sequenced and synchro¬nized in terms of place and time and aimed to accomplish an operational (and sometimes even a major part of the strategic) objective. Major naval operations should normally be planned and executed by a single commander (or Joint Force Maritime Component Commander/Combined Force Maritime Component Commander) and planned in accordance with a com¬mon operational idea (scheme). They are normally an integral part of a mar¬itime or land campaign, but they can sometimes be conducted outside of the framework of a campaign.

Today, major naval operations will be predominantly conducted by the Navy in the littoral waters and rarely on the open ocean. In the littorals, such operations will be predominantly joint or combined, because they will involve the participa¬tion of not only the Navy and Marine Corps, but also of the Air Force and the Army, and the services of our allies or coalition partners. In short, they will be joint and often combined in character.

Specifically, the main purpose of major naval/joint operations conducted by the Navy can be aimed to destroy or annihilate the enemy’s fleet at sea or in its bases, to neutralize the enemy’s fleet by establishing a naval blockade of a sea’s exits or the larger part of the enemy’s coast, to seize control of a strait/narrows or some other opera¬tionally significant position within an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea, or to capture the enemy’s naval basing areas.

The new maritime strategy can be successful only if the Navy embraces and properly applies tenets of opera¬tional warfare at sea. It is operational art that serves both as a bridge and as an interface between maritime strategy and naval tactics. The results of naval tactical actions are useful only when linked together as part of a larger design framed by strategy and orchestrated by operational art. By themselves, techno¬logical advances, numerical superiority, and brilliant tactical performance are inadequate to achieve ultimate success in war. A sound, coherent maritime strategy combined with operational excellence were the keys to winning wars in the past and will remain so for the near future.

MILAN VEGO is a professor of operations in the Joint Military Operations Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Defense Department.