Captain Pete Pagano, my old Strategy & Policy classmate from — gulp — 1992-1993, has a nifty piece over at the Naval Institute Proceedings this month wondering, “Have We Forgotten How to Fight?” Not quite. It’s actually worse than Pete lets on. Back in 1992 the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps leadership instructed the sea services to forget how to fight — or at least how to fight serious rivals on the order of the Soviet Navy or Imperial Japanese Navy.
Pete and I were lieutenants in 1992, when sea-service chieftains issued . . . From the Sea, their first strategic concept for the post-Cold War era. That directive was a real head-scratcher for us. The preamble to . . . From the Sea stated that with the fall of the Soviet Union, “the free nations of the world claim preeminent control of the seas.” With no one left to fight, the document’s framers maintained, “our national maritime policies can afford to deemphasize efforts in some naval warfare areas.” Indeed, the services “must structure a fundamentally different naval force,” undertaking “a fundamental shift away from open-ocean warfighting on the sea toward joint operations conducted from the sea.”
That’s a heckuva lot of fundamental change. In effect the service chiefs declared that maritime history had ended, much as Francis Fukuyama declared that same year that political history had ended with the Cold War. The U.S. Navy would never again have to fight for command of the sea, so it had little need to prepare for major combat. It could treat the seas as an offshore preserve from which to project power onto foreign shores. Small wonder the fleet deemphasized efforts in such disciplines as anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare.
The leadership decreed it should be so — and so it was.
In other words, the navy relegated these warfare domains to afterthought status, and is now struggling to catch up as China rises to great maritime power and Russia relishes its troublemaker role on the high seas. History does not like to be mocked. Let us resolve never again to proclaim that the demise of a peer force has repealed basic naval functions, and that we can use the sea with impunity. You do not regenerate hardware, doctrine, and habits of mind for such difficult arts as ASW and SUW overnight. They have to be in place at the onset of competition with some new antagonist.
History may take a holiday, as it did for a few years after the Cold War. But it never ends. If we have the good fortune to prevail in our strategic competition with China and Russia, let’s husband our combat excellence in the expectation that new challengers will come along sooner or later.
As they will.