Since 1986, the U.S. Navy has issued a relatively large number of documents that were termed as a strategy. With the exception of The Maritime Strategy of 1986, they were strategic vision documents. Common to all the strategy documents was an overemphasis on tactics and materiel, lamentably showing a profound lack of knowledge and understanding of the role and importance of operational art in implementing maritime strategy. Experience shows that maritime strategy cannot be implemented by tactics alone and, least of all, by exclusively relying on advanced weapons. Success can be achieved only by having a firm focus on the combat employment of the numbered and area fleets rather than on the tactical-size forces, such as the U.S. carrier strike groups (CSG), expeditionary strike groups (ESGs) and surface action groups (SAGs). Thinking operationally also means that the U.S. Navy must fully integrate other services in its implementation of U.S. maritime strategy.
The gap between tactics and strategy is too large. It is bridged by an intermediate component of the art of war, called “operational art”—theory and practice of planning and executing major operations and campaigns aimed to accomplish operational and strategic objectives. Operational art is not an artificial construct but the result of a long evolution of warfare. It emerged during and in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). Since then it has been adopted and practiced by all major militaries. In the early 1980s, operational art became the bedrock of the U.S. Army’s doctrine for the operational level of war. Since then operational art was fully adopted by the U.S. military. This is also reflected in the most important joint doctrinal documents (e.g., JP-3: Joint Operations and JP-5: Joint Planning). Moreover, both the Russian and the Chinese militaries, including their navies, are firm believers in the value and importance of operational art. This is also expressed in their doctrinal documents.
Among other things, the Allied victories in the Pacific 1941–1945 were not only the result of better strategy and greater industrial strength but also better operational thinking and skillful employment of the numbered and area fleets. In the prewar years, the U.S. Navy did not have a fully developed theory of operational art. Yet, its admirals who fought in World War II were well educated and trained. Most of them were graduates of the Naval War College where they took part in war games that envisaged the employment of large forces. Many of them took part in the large-scale exercises (dubbed “Fleet Problems”) that included carriers, battleships and other heavy surface combatants. Students at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. Studied both theory and history of warfare at sea. For example, the future admiral Chester W. Nimitz had a pretty good understanding of the differences between minor tactics (or tactics) and grand tactics (or operational art today). He wrote in 1982:
By hard conscientious training, not only of fleet units in minor tactics, but of prospective fleet commanders-in-chief in grand tactics [emphasis added] there is a very good chance of meeting on equal terms a fleet numerically superior, but in which those items have not received such serious attention. At any rate, such training will greatly stiffen the defense, when forced to so operate, and may possibly catch unawares an enemy who has somewhat neglected to train along the same lines.
In the 1930s, members of the staff of Operations Department at the Naval War College wrote a number of monographs on operational warfare at sea (e.g., Operations for Securing Command of the Sea Areas [obtaining sea control], Operations in Sea Areas Under Control [exercising sea control], and Operations in the Sea Areas not Under Control [disputing sea control]) which are used as required readings for students. In the Pacific War 1941–1945, the U.S. Navy conducted several major fleet-vs.-fleet operations and many amphibious landing operations. Some of our most successful admirals—notably Ernest J. King, Nimitz, William F. Halsey, Raymond S. Spruance, and Thomas C. Kinkaid—were operational thinkers and practitioners. All of them were also graduates of the Naval War College.
In broad terms, the two principal objectives of warfare at sea are sea control and sea denial. These objectives can be strategic or operational in their scale. Arbitrarily called “struggle for sea control,” it consists of three related phases: (1) obtaining or securing sea control in which the operational/strategic objective is accomplished; (2) maintaining sea control or consolidating operational/strategic success; and (3) exercising sea control or exploiting operational/strategic success. These phases are not fixed but overlap with each other. Many actions that normally predominate in the phase of exercising control, very often would be initiated as soon as a certain degree of sea control is obtained.
In discussing sea control, the U.S. Navy’s strategic documents are inconsistent and often incomplete. For example, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) issued in October 2007, described sea control as “The ability to operate freely at sea is one of the most important enablers of joint and interagency operations…” Yet sea control properly understood also means denying the enemy from freely using the sea for military and commercial purposes. CS21 listed sea control as a part of “expanded core capabilities” in implementing strategy, together with forward presence, and deterrence. However, this is an error because deterrence and sea control are not core capabilities but strategic objectives.
The revised and still current CS21R issued in March 2015 had a better definition of sea control than CS21. It explained that “Sea control allows naval forces to establish local maritime superiority while denying an adversary that same ability.” However, local sea control cannot be obtained without having a general control in the adjacent sea area. Also, the term “maritime superiority” is used to describe sea control in terms of the risk for one’s force (moderate to low). Normally, this term is not used together with local sea control.
CS21R confuses fundamental warfare areas with sea control. Its authors claim that “The essential elements of sea control are surface warfare, undersea warfare, strike warfare, mine warfare [actually part of undersea warfare], air and missile defense, maritime domain awareness, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.” For some reason, CS21R did not include anti-surface warfare, amphibious warfare, and maritime trade warfare. Maritime domain awareness, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are not warfare areas but part of operational support (or “functions” in the U.S. joint doctrine).
The U.S. Navy uses terms opposed to transit, anti-access, and area denial in visualizing actions of the weaker side. Take, for example, Naval Operations Concept 2010: Implementing the Maritime Strategy (NOC 2010), which explained that in the Opposed Transit: “An adversary seeks to deny U.S. and allied ability to use the sea lines of communications outside the theater of operations.” In Anti-access, an adversary “seeks to prevent or delay U.S. and allied ability to approach and access the theater of operations, especially littoral areas, from the open ocean.” In Area denial, an adversary “seeks to degrade or deny U.S. and allied operational effectiveness or freedom of action within the theater of operations by denying U.S. ability to conduct operations within and across domains, or U.S. ability to project power ashore.” NOC 2010 also asserted that “The employment of persistent ISR systems to cue time-sensitive targeting of fast attack craft, coastal defense cruise missiles and guided munitions systems that execute shoot and hide tactics is an effective way to suppress and eventually eliminate these threats.” Obviously, no thought is apparently given that the enemy might actually use some innovative concepts. Hence, the U.S. Navy’s response will be on using superior technology. This is a classic case of mirror-imaging. Perhaps a more serious problem is the assumption that the weaker side would be invariably on a strategic defensive and the U.S. Navy would be strategically on the offensive. Yet the reality is that a strong opponent at sea, as for example the Chinese or the Russian Navy, might also be initially on the strategic offensive and only after suffering high losses be forced to shift to defense. By assuming otherwise, the U.S. Navy runs the risk not to be mentally prepared for such a war.
NOC 2010 did not explain any operational or even tactical concept but instead focused entirely on the U.S. Navy’s technological superiority (superior warfare systems; a large number of combat-ready platforms; increased operational range and endurance; improved interoperability; resilient communications, navigation, ISR and targeting systems; and space/cyberspace superiority). Clearly, the U.S. Navy is focused entirely on various advanced technologies as the key prerequisites for obtaining sea control. However, experience convincingly shows the falsity of such thinking. Technology no matter how advanced can never replace the hands: commanders, staff, sailors, aviators, and marines. Generically, the main prerequisites for success in obtaining seas control include the following: favorable maritime strategic position; the favorable base of operations and an adequate number of naval/air bases; balanced forces; numerical/qualitative superiority; sound naval theory and naval doctrine; closest cooperation among services (jointness); basing/deployment area control, information superiority, and, last but not least, offensive spirit.
In operational terms, the main methods for obtaining sea control are as follows: (1) destruction of the enemy forces; (2) containment of the enemy forces; (3) choke point control; and (4) capturing important enemy positions & basing areas. Destruction of the enemy forces can be achieved by a decisive action at sea or against enemy forces at their bases and by weakening enemy forces over time or attrition. These two methods should be used in combination. The key is to preclude that attrition becomes the predominant method for obtaining sea control. The enemy forces are contained or neutralized by a combination of naval blockade, posing a threat to critical positions/areas, and diversions.