"Naval presence is a critical concept in our current strategic approach to national security. We explicitly and implicitly depend upon it to undergird the global economic system we have spent 70 years creating, and to deter those who would make themselves our enemy. For far too long we have treated it as something that has an ephemeral value, like air that is noted only in its absence, but this research demonstrates that we can model the effects of naval presence and measure the values of various naval platforms from submarines to aircraft carriers in various environments and scenarios within the model."Dr. Jerry Hendrix | senior fellow
Navigating the Future: An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Jerry Hendrix
on Naval Presence, National Security, and America’s Global Leadership
Q&A With Jerry Hendrix
First, naval presence is a critical concept in our current strategic approach to national security. We explicitly and implicitly depend upon it to undergird the global economic system we have spent 70 years creating, and to deter those who would make themselves our enemy. Second, we can “measure” its value to us. For far too long we have treated it as something that has an ephemeral value, like air that is noted only in its absence, but this research demonstrates that we can model the effects of naval presence and measure the values of various naval platforms from submarines to aircraft carriers in various environments and scenarios within the model.
We are called “the heartland” for more reasons than just the fact that we are the center of agriculture and manufacturing for the nation. At our nation’s core, its values and interests are very much the values and interests of the Midwest. We are not as sophisticated or nuanced as the coasts. In fact, we deliberately avoid sophistication and nuance in our approach to the world and each other. We have a commonsense pragmatism in our decision making that extends to defense and national security issues, and it’s important in a time when the world is increasingly dominated by “gray zones” of conflict, that people who still favor the sharp distinctions between right and wrong to have a voice in our national dialogue.
We have spent 70 years building a global economic system based upon a few key concepts, which include a belief in democratic governance, the right of self-determination, and free trade. Supporting these concepts has been a foundational belief in the concept of the free sea, the ability of nations, ships, and peoples to cross the open sea unmolested, moving goods in bulk from where they can be manufactured cheaply to markets where those products are in such demand as to command a profitable price. China’s threat to democratic-capitalist Taiwan threatens all these values, as it represents not only the “might makes right” approach to foreign policy of the traditional authoritarian state, but also the desire to dominate of a centrally controlled communist economy. If China were to succeed in conquering Taiwan, it threatens not only America’s interests in the far east, but also the legitimacy of the global economic system that we have built, which has lifted more people out of poverty than any other system in the history of the world. Currently the United States has sufficient capabilities to hold China at bay, but my report demonstrates that this could change in the blink of an eye through subtle shifts in global perceptions of American sea power.
The joining of China and Russia, along with their interactions with other authoritarian states such as Iran and North Korea, represents a modern “Pact of Steel” that is like the alignment that occurred between Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union in 1939. It should be alarming to all of us and certainly the recent naval exercise near the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska is concerning. They both recognize and have targeted the United States and its espousal of freedom as representing a threat to their authoritarian forms of government and centrally controlled economies. It’s also clear that they have questions about the current strength and resolve of our national will to oppose them and are seeking to test and probe us to ascertain how likely we are to resist them if they move against Chinese claims over Taiwan or Russian claims in the Arctic. However, as in the case of the original “Pact of Steel” there are long-standing historical and cultural tensions between the participants, particularly China and Russia, that can be stimulated through various means, including naval demonstrations, and that will eventually drive them apart. It must be remembered that while Hitler and Stalin had a non-aggression treaty at the beginning of World War II, eventually the dynamic tensions between the governing philosophies of German National Socialism and Russian Communism drove them apart, and Stalin soon joined the western alliance. Properly guided, a wedge can be driven between Russia and China, but probably not until Vladimir Putin is replaced in Moscow.
That was not the headline of the essay in the print magazine. It was the headline used online, and it was selected to promote interest in the essay (“click-bait” is the term of art I believe). The headline in the print version was “America’s Future Is at Sea,” and I think that better represents the arc of the argument within the essay itself. The essay generated a lot of interest, especially on Capitol Hill where members and their staffs reached out to me to discuss one idea within it — the “Ships Act” — and how that might be brought into being. These requests have come from both sides of the aisle. I have also had a series of presidential candidates as well as staffers from the current administration reach out to me to clarify the largest theme of the essay, that we can no longer afford to attempt to be both a continentalist land power with “boots on the ground” everywhere in the world, and the governing global seapower, administering the vast global economic system that we have built. I have argued that now is a time for choosing, and that we should make a conscious decision to prioritize sea power in our approach to national security.
We have not forfeited naval dominance. While China’s navy is larger than ours quantitatively, ours is better qualitatively, but our margin of superiority is shrinking rapidly and could be gone in the blink of an eye. We need to grow our Navy, but it should not look like the Navy we have today. We need to make major investments in missile laden submarines, unmanned systems (sub-surface, surface, and aerial) and new hypersonic missiles. We should take a serious look at a number of legacy systems, to include our nuclear aircraft carriers, and determine if they have maintained their relevance in future fights. We do need to maintain an ample supply of surface combatants such as our new Constellation-class frigates, because they will provide the day-to-day presence that is so vital to deterring our adversaries, but we must work to find the “Nash equilibrium point” between high-end war-winning capabilities and low-end peace-preserving capacities. This is one of the reasons that my report and the model it contains is so important in our current national dialogue.
We are very much an island nation, located upon a continent that is separated from the vast majority of humanity that lives on the large Eurasian “world island,” as described by H.J. Mackinder a century ago. We are a Mahanist people, a seapower nation, that must deal with Mackinder’s continentalist peoples, and the sea is both our ally and our enemy in this endeavor. If we cede the sea, we are lost as a great power. If we control the sea, we gain the ability to exert the influence of the periphery against the center that allowed first Great Britain and then ourselves to govern the world without dominating the world. We must strengthen ourselves at sea because our adversaries, who support centrally controlled authoritarian states that are opposed to individual liberties, have correctly seen the sea and the control of it as their path to global hegemony.