By all measures Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., is a maritime strategist and a supporter of the United States Navy. He is chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee. He has written extensively on the importance of sea power within the international arena.  So when he states that the Navy lacks both strategic thinkers and an intellectual foundation for war planning, people ought to pay attention.

The revelation of Forbes’ blunt letter to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert expressing concern over a dearth in strategic thinking within the Navy has laid bare a persistent challenge that has troubled the Navy for the past two decades: its inability to create a strategy and explain it to the American people and their representatives. 

The Navy has been almost uniquely successful in maintaining security upon the world’s oceans. It has been nearly 70 years since the last major maritime war. This era of pax Oceania can be largely attributed to the Navy and the international trade and freedom of the seas it protects, but that is not the story it tells. When senior admirals speak strategically, their message can be summarized as “we do what we do because we have always done what we have done. The oceans are peaceful, we created that environment, and there is no need to change the formula.” Hence, 72 years after the battle of Midway, our Navy remains dedicated to preserving the force structure and power projection strategy that it utilized during that battle, and seems incapable of imagining other approaches to the world or force structures to execute its strategy.

When senior admirals speak strategically, their message can be summarized as “we do what we do because we have always done what we have done. The oceans are peaceful, we created that environment, and there is no need to change the formula.”

This lack of strategic imagination can be attributed to a cultural war within the Navy that reached a climax a generation ago. Sometime during the 1980s a competition between the followers of Adm. Alfred T. Mahan, the noted 19th century American naval strategist, and the followers of Adm. Hyman Rickover, the engineering genius who created the nuclear Navy, was settled in favor of Rickover’s adherents. At the Naval Academy and in Naval Reserve Officer Training programs throughout the country, hard engineering and science requirements overwhelmed humanities studies, shunting the traditional sources of strategic thought to the side. Recently the CNO signed out guidance that these schools should funnel 85 percent of their students into STEM degrees. Even at the Naval War College in Newport, where Mahan taught, the study of naval war has been sublimated to satisfy Joint Professional Military Education requirements during the short time allowed within professional careers to complete a masters degree. No “Rainbow” War Plans, created in the 1930s in Newport to defeat our country’s enemies, are being developed there today. Today’s Navy managers look at strategic problems in much the same they look at the process that propels a ship through the water. It’s a power equation, but instead of heat and steam as components, its money, ships and aircraft, combined in a “plug and chug” fashion.

It was not always so. Aside from Mahan, the Navy created many brilliant strategic leaders with Raymond Spruance, Arleigh Burke, JC Wylie, and James Stavridis to name a few. One decade ago the Navy had four admirals with “strategic” PhDs. Today there is but one, and few officers with PhDs on a “survivable” career path coming behind – and if you don’t think degrees and credentials matter in the strategic realm, then you don’t understand the problem. Rickover, it seems, won.

If the Navy is to correct its strategic course, it needs to first recognize that it has a problem, and not just with communicating its mission to the American people.

If the Navy is to correct its strategic course, it needs to first recognize that it has a problem, and not just with communicating its mission to the American people.

That’s a public relations issue, not a strategic issue. A strategic review would reveal that we exist in a world that is very different from the 1940s, with threats and challenges that have moved well beyond our carrier strike group based solutions. We need a corps of strategic thinkers who can move beyond engineered responses to see the world as it is and create new approaches that place us inside our opponents decision loops rather than just responding to their initiatives. Such a corps requires the creation of a Naval Strategic Enterprise that first identifies strategically minded officers, and then creates a survivable career path that allows for promotion to flag rank outside of the aircraft cockpit or ship’s bridge. The Navy also has to put the onus of studying naval warfare back on the Naval War College, where it belongs. JPME is admirable, but ubiquitous, and apparently not additive to the consideration of future naval technologies, tactics or strategies. We need a Naval War College that is capable of working with the OPNAV staff, the Office of Naval Research and the Fleet to create a modern war plan. Lastly, create a “Strategist of the Navy” flag officer billet who would have responsibility for constantly examining the strategic environment and creating products for leadership. There is an Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy, does strategy deserve less than these disciplines?

Congressman Forbes should be applauded for bringing this critical shortcoming to the fore and the Navy would be wise to not just listen to him, but to take action to repair its rotting strategic keel.

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