28 July 2009

Arms and Influence at Sea

Thomas J. Culora and Andrew S. Erickson, “Arms and Influence at Sea,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009.

To the Editor:

Robert Kaplan (“Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century,” March/April 2009) correctly underscores the Indian Ocean’s strategic importance. But in envisioning “dynamic great-power rivalry” between Beijing and New Delhi there, he is too pessimistic about the United States’ ability to maintain influence, too optimistic about China’s ability to exert influence rapidly, and too dismissive of India’s inherent regional advantages.

Kaplan contends that the United States must skillfully manage an inevitable decline by leveraging the support of allies. But the U.S. military has successfully sustained its level of operations in the region while expanding its range of missions. Washington is working intently with its partners to support cooperative maritime activities globally, as expressed in the maritime strategy released in October 2007.

The United States is shaping itself into an indispensable maritime balancer by deploying the right number and right kind of naval forces and establishing task forces and maritime headquarters that bring diverse partners together. These activities efficiently act as a tipping weight in the Indian Ocean, allowing the United States’ other forces to be used elsewhere.

Kaplan’s “elegant decline” argument also gives more weight to the number of U.S. ships, submarines, and aircraft than is warranted. The current versatility and capabilities of U.S. naval platforms, coupled with their useful employment in specific scenarios, is a clearer measure of their effectiveness than numbers alone.

Kaplan is correct that the United States must strive to be “continually useful,” and the U.S. Navy is doing so. Under U.S. leadership, the multinational naval coalition Combined Task Force 151 conducts counterpiracy operations in the Indian Ocean region, most recently rescuing a U.S. merchant captain taken hostage by pirates.

Moreover, the United States’ systemic indispensability is being nurtured through two key initiatives. First, the United States has established regional “maritime operations centers” around the world, partnering with other countries to plan, coordinate, and execute a wide range of mutually beneficial naval actions. Second, the U.S. Coast Guard, in concert with the U.S. Navy, has closely collaborated with interested nations through the Maritime Domain Awareness project to study the global maritime factors that affect collective security, safety, trade, and environmental interests. U.S. energy and leadership are essential here. This is not decline but preeminence (without domination).

Taiwan’s status, combined with other territorial and resource interests on China’s maritime periphery, will leave China’s navy primarily focused on Taiwan for the foreseeable future. Moreover, deploying a sustainable out-of-area expeditionary capability requires not only ships and ports but also extensive logistical support and high levels of training and experience. Ship steaming times to the Arabian Gulf from Chinese and Indian naval ports are 13 days and three days, respectively, making it comparatively easier for India to secure the sea-lanes there and respond to a crisis. India, which clearly enjoys a home-court advantage in the Indian Ocean, neither needs to solve the expeditionary problem nor possesses a strategic imperative similar to Taiwan that would bind its naval operations. No matter how much access to Indian Ocean ports China may gain, it cannot trump geography without a revolution in capabilities and strategic interests.

Chair, Warfare Analysis and Research Department, U.S. Naval War College

Associate Professor of Strategic Studies, China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College