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U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century: A Strategy for Facing the Chinese and Russian Threat

30 Jan 24

372 pages

Prof Geoffrey Till

The problem tackled in this book is the urgent need to recapitalise and reform the US fleet so as to fit it better for an era of enhanced great power competition. The author is Brent Sadler, a retired US Navy submariner who remains active in the US maritime community and is affiliated to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. Sadler sets about his task in an impressively methodical and professional way. There are 60 pages of nicely organised reference notes and a 12-page bibliography. The book is clearly written and logically structured.

The author starts by identifying what the fleet’s requirements and commitments in this new more confrontational age are likely to be, reviews the various challenges to its being able to meet them and provides some well-argued recommendations as to the way forward. The issue is that the US Navy is now having to recover from a long period when the US defence establishment was fixated on the conduct of insurgency-heavy land wars. This led to reducing budgets, a dangerously degraded maritime defence industrial base and a real struggle to maintain the maritime supremacy the US Navy has been used to for many decades. Given the rising power of the Chinese Navy, an increasingly truculent Russia and continuing problems with North Korea and Iran, a major US naval recovery programme is clearly required.

One of the particularly interesting parts of Brent Sadler’s analysis is his proposition that the Navy’s policy ought to be shaped by an awareness of the importance of what he calls ‘naval statecraft’. Clearly he has got the message that at sea everything is connected to everything else, and that this ought to be a guiding principle in the way in which naval power is both (re)constructed and used. This is entirely in line with the UK’s Integrated Security and Defence Review, and with the limited ‘Integrated Deterrence’ of the Biden administration. US naval fleet planners need to work alongside the Coast Guard and a rejuvenated warship and submarine building industry in a partnership that is constructive rather than adversarial. The effects of this must be coordinated with all the other levers of national power. Likewise, in its operations, the US Navy needs to nurture and make best of its alliance relationships. All this must be advanced under a clear and accessible vision of the kind of navy the county needs.

The value of a persistent but variable naval forward presence is emphasised, deployment tensions being mitigated by a focus on a few key areas, given the particular challenges posed by China and Russia. In light of the curious activities of the NewNew Polar Bear in the Baltic last October, it is interesting to see the stress given the protection of cables, pipelines  and shore and undersea infrastructure against ‘grey zone’ threats. Ensuring the supply of certain strategic materials such as tungsten and titanium warrant special attention. Overall, there is a sense of optimism that if US (and Western) energies are properly harnessed. US superiority can and should be restored, and the maritime initiative recovered. Detailed observations on how the fleet is deployed, (programmatics) designed and acquired are offered.

If there is some criticism it lies in the doubtlessly unavoidable fact that in this general canter over the whole field of US maritime endeavour some of the detail of exactly how this ‘New Model Navy’ is to be built and new technologies like robotics and genetic engineering incorporated is on the impressionistic side. Impressively the book nonetheless deals with the issue of how the defence industrial base in the United States and the West generally is to be reconstituted, especially in light of the shallowness and deficiencies manifest in its current support for the Ukraine war. Successive Congressional Committees have made the essential point that while the current CNO can urge as much as she likes the delivery of a Warfighting Navy for the United States (ALL AHEAD FLANK!), the achievement of such aspirations will prove difficult without the industrial muscle to support it. Sadler has some interesting observations to make about how the Navy can help by reforming parts of the procurement process. This reviewer was a little less convinced by the author’s insistence that the country should focus on the preservation of ‘competitiveness’ in the design, build and acquisition process rather than follow ‘China’s game’ of all round investment and ‘civil-military fusion’.

Overall though, “the goal of this book is to provide a framework for effectively competing with China and Russia, safeguarding U.S. national interests and the global rules-based maritime order”. Quibbles apart, it does just that and is highly recommended.