A Guest Post: The 2014 Current Strategy Forum - 'Where's The Beef?'

We have a problem, it seems, developing a naval Strategy for the new century.  Long after the Cold War had supposedly ended (well, we thought it was over – events in Russia’s ‘Near Beyond’ may argue a different outcome) we were still using a variation of Forward…From the Sea and thinking from the E-ring Navy leadership offices was ‘Strategy?  I have a strategy – it’s Sea Power 21!’ – which was more an organizing construct than a strategy, and revealed a bankruptcy in strategic thinking amongst navy’s leaders.  The current Maritime Strategy was released in 2007 – and rather than re-hash ground previously covered, we would instead point you to the discussion that took place at the time under the Maritime Strategy category.  Additionally, Peter Swartz has published The authoritative work on the Navy’s Strategies which may be downloaded here and perused at the reader’s leisure.  

The problem we have is two-fold — on the one hand, there appears to be a continued diminishing pool of active duty officers who are given to the rigors of strategic thought (viz. LCDR B.J. Armstrong and his recent publication “A Twenty-First Century Mahan”  or a modern iteration of Peter to craft a new strategy.  Instead it is outsourced with predictable (by reports) results – formulaic, uninspired and destined for the dusty corner of the bookshelf.  Not at all like the Maritime Strategy that drove the navy in the 80’s to challenge the Soviets on the high seas and carried the fight to the bear’s lair.  No – today we can’t even openly discuss it for fear of getting a certain Asian power’s drawers in a knot.  Which brings us to the second issue — at the recent Current Strategy forum hosted by the Naval War College, CNO made great stagecraft at rolling up his sleeves and saying he wanted to get down and dirty and talk strategy.  Except he didn’t.  By all accounts the discussion was – desultory (look it up).  The refresh of CS21 wasn’t offered up for discussion – instead held for a small, selective group of senior officers who evidently had more interest in the marketing than the beef.  Which brings us to today’s guest author who is a carrier aviator and student at the Naval War College. He does not believe Navy leadership fosters an environment such that junior and mid-grade officers can write critically, yet respectfully of their seniors and has, well, a beef with how the Current Strategy forum went down.  His post follows – read, contemplate and then start banging the drums of advocacy.  To quote my fellow scribe and blogger at arms CDR Salamander  – ‘The CNO has asked for a “crowd sourced” discussion. I don’t think he is using that phrase right, but I know what he means. Well, I think he is going to get it.’  w/r, SJS

UPDATE (9 July): BJ weighs in from the top ropes re. the “refreshed” Maritime Strategy over at USNI blog.  A must read.


It’s been thirty years since Clara Peller uttered the now well-known phrase “Where’s the beef?” Having just attended the Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum, I’m left asking the same question. What was touted as an opportunity for the CNO to roll out his updated version of Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power (CS21) came and went with many asking another question: Did I miss something?

Admiral Greenert delivered an engaging and upbeat message addressing the importance of an “all hands on deck” effort to review and reexamine CS21. Suggesting that nobody has been seriously thinking about maritime strategy for the past few years, CNO took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, and announced that now is the time to get down to work. Unfortunately, getting down to work will prove difficult, because ADM Greenert chose not to share any of his CS21 updates with the hundreds of mid-grade and senior officers in attendance. Perhaps in keeping with his statement, “if you talk about it openly, you cross the line and unnecessarily antagonize,” he instead chose to assemble a small group of hand-selected officers for a late afternoon roundtable discussion. An attendee described the focus group as a perfunctory “check in the block” where the only topic discussed was the PowerPoint outline of what the strategy brief might look like – not the actual strategy.

Admiral Greenert kicked off the symposium by stating, “Everyone – from junior, mid, and senior officers, to scholars, civilians, and retirees – owns a piece of this [strategy].” The problem is that not “everyone” was provided the requisite material to get to work. Why?Is it so heavily classified that it could not be discussed in an open forum? If that is the case, it would stand in stark contrast from previous strategies. Further, if our governing maritime strategy is too sensitive to discuss openly, is it really focused at the strategic level, or have we again mistaken tactics for strategy? Has the CNO grown self conscious of, or as he stated, overly concerned with unnecessarily antagonizing the Chinese? If that is the case, the CNO might have been wise to cancel the entire Current Strategy Forum, since while much of what was discussed during the two-day symposium was enlightening, the overwhelming theme was one of PRC/US alarmism. Does the CNO not really desire an open, “crowd-sourced” discussion (as he suggested)? If that is true, one must ask why he went to such lengths imploring the audience to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Or, is it the case that there are no appreciable changes to the Navy’s grand maritime strategy, and that this version so closely mirrors each previous edition as to be indistinguishable from them, save for new platforms (read: LC$ and J$F procurement). This seems to be the most likely answer. After all, maritime strategy (and military strategy writ large) hasn’t actually been about strategy in a long time.

This bit of the tail wagging the dog is particularly concerning as we sail towards a horizon clouded with fiscal uncertainty. Previous versions of CS21 told us what we were expected to accomplish and to what effect, but came up short of explaining how, and certainly didn’t have an eye toward sequestration. The 2014 rebranding gave the CNO an opportunity to provide an increasingly skeptical Congress (as well as the country in general) reasonably specific objectives and justifications for the funding he’s requested, without trespassing the line of “unnecessarily antagonizing” the Chinese. In choosing to punt, the CNO leaves the door open for us to wonder whether we need LCS and JSF to execute our strategy, or if we’re writing a strategy to justify LCS and JSF.