TO PROVIDE AND MAINTAIN A NAVY: WHY NAVAL PRIMACY IS AMERICA’S FIRST BEST STRATEGY
Reviewed by: Cdr Damon Loveless USN; Dr Tim Benbow
Dr Hendrix’s book To Provide and Maintain a Navy: Why Naval Primacy is America’s First Best Strategy is a must-read for American citizens and the United States’ allies who are interested in the future of the liberal democratic order, and how the freedom of the seas – which is under attack and can no longer be assumed – directly relates to the quality of life we currently enjoy. His recently released book continues the growing and necessary debate on the future of American grand strategy and how we maintain or redefine the place of the United States in the future world order. His argument for a larger Navy is clearly explained and justified.
Dr Hendrix first lays out a brief history of the freedom of the seas, ‘mare liberum’, in the last several centuries, and how it enables a system of free international trade via seaborne commerce. He argues that history shows that every successful empire, including the British, was built upon a large and powerful Navy that deterred other potential adversaries, earning the descriptor ‘seapower’. He shows how a free sea and as a result, unhindered international commerce led to the establishment of the liberal democratic western order, and ultimately a rising standard of living worldwide. To bring the reader up to modern times, he cites that since the end of World War II, “this system [of free trade] … has resulted in the greatest increase in the global standard of living in human history”, (p.xxi) assured by a dominant United States Navy.
His main premise for the book describes what the United States and its allies should do in response to the challenge that China and Russia pose to freedom of the seas. He uses recent historical examples, excellently chronicling how China and Russia, respectively, have executed a series of actions below the threshold of war. These actions show how their holistic approaches and coordinated instruments of national power have incrementally created territorial claims that the international community essentially ceded through lack of counteraction. These represent large areas of the South China Sea for China and portions of the Arctic for Russia. Dr Hendrix then proceeds to explain how America’s focus on fighting the War on Terror resulted in a slowly shrinking US Navy that was forced to prioritise its limited resources, rightly choosing to focus on fighting two major conflicts in the Middle East. However, the rise of global competition with China and Russia has now clearly been defined as the top priority for the US military, and for many nations who rely on trade in the Western Pacific.
In simple terms, a larger Navy is accurately described as the number one strategic deterrent to forces opposed to free seas, which necessitates the United States increasing its current naval power. In comparison to the growing navy in China and the forces available to Russia, Dr Hendrix concludes his book with justification for the type, capabilities, and number of ships required to comprise his ideal United States Navy. As a naval aviator, I disagree about one small point, in which he suggests that US naval aviation isn’t interested in unmanned aircraft on carriers (p.77), implying that the future composition of the air wing isn’t being rigorously planned for. Even before the F-35C, known as the carrier variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, entered the Fleet, naval aviation had been planning for and expecting the next generation of aircraft to be incorporated into fleet operations. This minor disagreement doesn’t detract from the main point of the book and even adds some healthy debate to those who are experienced in the profession of naval warfare. His proposed battle force includes 450 ships (p.108), eerily close to the ‘Battle Force 2045’ plan that former Secretary of Defence Esper announced last September (Note 1), and that is also well represented in the 30-year shipbuilding plan that the US Navy released to Congress after this book went to press (Note 2). It seems Dr Hendrix was prescient in his forecast. He was also correct in his prediction that the Navy will get a larger portion of the DoD budget, as recently suggested by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Note 3).
These justifications for a stronger Navy can easily extrapolate to any leading military in the current liberal democratic order, especially in the United Kingdom where a renewed focus on the maritime is ongoing. Dr Hendrix’s argument for the United States as a seapower is compelling, and the dialogue is important for all stakeholders in national interests who desire free trade as a result of continued freedom of the seas. I strongly agree with his premise that a larger navy in the future is the best guarantor of freedom of the seas and all that that brings to the world order and encourage all interested in this bright future to read his book.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Navy, US Department of Defense, or the US government.
- Secretary Esper’s Battle Force 2045, https://news.usni.org/2020/10/21/secdef-espers-battle-force-2045-plan-still-awaiting-white-house-approval
- 30-year shipbuilding plan, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Dec/10/2002549918/-1/-1/0/SHIPBUILDING%20PLAN%20DEC%2020_NAVY_OSD_OMB_FINAL.PDF/SHIPBUILDING%20PLAN%20DEC%2020_NAVY_OSD_OMB_FINAL.PDF
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Navy funding – ‘CJCS Milley Predicts DoD Budget “Bloodletting” To Fund Navy’, Breaking Defense, 3 December 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/2020/12/cjcs-milley-predicts-dod-bloodletting-to-fund-navy-priorities/
This book is highly recommended albeit with a few reservations. It contains abundant food for thought; while pitched at the non-expert, it also offers much for the specialist to chew over with plenty of ideas and arguments packed into its 105 pages. Hendrix concludes that the US fleet should grow with the Navy getting a larger slice of the US defence cake to fund this expansion. More interesting and thought-provoking is how he arrives at this unsurprising conclusion, what he thinks the larger fleet should look like and what its roles would be.
His case is rooted in a big-picture analysis of the economic and strategic importance of sea power for the US, and its centrality in upholding an international order that has been so conducive to US interests and values, while also greatly increasing global wealth. His account of how freedom of the seas has underpinned the international system leads into his analysis of the existential challenge that it faces from Russia and China. These autocratic states seek not only to use the oceans in pursuit of their own interests but also to reshape the international order at sea as they seek the advantages of free trade without its unwelcome flipside of free navigation. They therefore aim to impose a new model of closed seas, based on extending continentalist thinking to the oceans – barring opposing states from what they depict as their seas (such as the South China Sea or the Arctic) with land-based weapons, fortified enclaves (in Kaliningrad or the new Chinese ‘great wall’ of artificial islands) and increasingly powerful navies which operate under these protective umbrellas as well as ever more globally.
Hendrix argues that the deep cuts in the US fleet since the end of the Cold War made room for this challenge: “A vacuum, created in weakness, offered an invitation to be filled” (45). A shrinking US fleet with no reduction in operational demands has meant fewer warships available for routine presence, with unfortunate results. His prescription starts with the need for the US to make a strategic choice. For Hendrix, the US has exhausted itself by attempting simultaneously to be a continental power and a sea power, and should unambiguously prioritise the latter. This entails eschewing continental commitments in the Middle East (which many NR members will welcome) and also in Europe (which might cause a little more alarm) – the US should provide offshore support to allies who would contribute the land forces. He also advocates investment in US shipbuilding, ship repair, internal transportation infrastructure, steel production and merchant shipping in support of his broad vision of sea power.
While Hendrix calls for an increase in the size of the US fleet from around 295 today to 456 in 2040, he is explicit that this larger fleet must be reshaped. He would retain 11 super-carriers, though clearly with limited enthusiasm – and he wants to see them smaller and with a return to the long-range strike capability of the Cold War period. Cruisers and destroyers would remain on broadly current numbers, though he would increase attack submarines from 50 to 62. He fully accepts the significance of this battle force, with its fundamental role of being ready to fight and win any war. More striking is the rest of his recommended fleet, optimised for forward presence – a role to which he attaches great significance in its own right, for upholding international order like the cop on the beat, as well as providing the first response in any conflict. This force would comprise 60 frigates (an increase on the 20 planned by the Navy, from none today) and 24 corvettes. Large amphibious ships would decline from 34 to 15 but would be supplemented by 40 small amphibious ships, better suited to presence and modern operations. There would also be 18 ‘large unmanned surface vessels’ and 21 ‘large unmanned underwater vessels’, plus medium vessels to add sensor range and magazine capacity to forward-deployed frigates. Readers might quibble with individual numbers but more significant is how they rest on a carefully thought-through ‘equilibrium’ to handle the range of interconnected tasks facing the US Navy in competitive peace as well as wartime.
There are many positives in the book, not least the acknowledgement of the centrality of naval power to the contemporary international order, which is too often taken for granted; Hendrix is keenly aware that fighting battles is only one purpose of navies. He also grasps the breadth of the challenge posed by China and Russia and rightly notes the slow but steady way in which they have undermined the position of the Western powers. He recognises just how broad the roots of national sea power are and includes recommendations to strengthen these vital foundations. The emphasis on forward presence, the everyday activities of navies to project influence, is also welcome, all the more so for being intertwined with the combat roles of the fleet.
Some aspects are less convincing. A few historical judgements made in passing are debatable and the author incorrectly states that one of the British ships sunk in the Falklands War was “the container ship HMS Glamorgan” (67). More seriously, the book rather glides over the challenge of how to persuade the US Army, with its many supporters in Congress, to accept a lower position in the pecking order; he might at least sketch out their role in this maritime strategy but this does not get even the cursory attention devoted to the US Air Force. He exaggerates the extent to which ideological threats to autocratic states emanate from the sea rather than from the media, both social and more traditional. Equally overplayed is the extent to which the growth of Chinese naval power has been driven by the ‘pull’ factor of US weakness as opposed to various internal, ‘push’ factors that would have been felt regardless.
More fundamentally problematic is the strategic objective that Hendrix sets, of “naval primacy”. By this he does not mean the US merely holding a healthy advantage over potential adversaries and safeguarding the ability to use the sea itself, but “prohibiting China’s and Russia’s rise” and assuring, “American access to and control of, movement across the global commons such as cyber, space and the world’s oceans” (97, emphasis added). The US did not enjoy this level of dominance during the Cold War; it is hard to see why Russia or, even more, China would acquiesce to such an aspiration. It is one thing to push back against their aggressive activities and to defend the existing international order against their attempts to undermine it but primacy defined in this way seems excessively ambitious. A more modest goal would preserve US core interests and freedom of action as well as being an easier sell at home and to allies – which raises a final point.
A short book cannot cover everything but it would have been interesting to see a little more about the contribution expected from allies – not least because it is the alliances of the US that are arguably its greatest asset for strategy in general and sea power in particular. On the one hand, Hendrix notes in passing that US allies will contribute their own naval capabilities; on the other, he also expects them to provide the land forces required in, say, Europe. Where should the balance lie for Britain? (He accepts the need to be more competitive with Russia and China outside of overt war, so would presumably support the thrust of the recent UK Integrated Review). This is just one of the debates likely to be provoked by this stimulating book.