Very few Americans—or, for that matter, very few people on the planet—can remember a time when freedom of the seas was in question. But for most of human history, there was no such guarantee. Pirates, predatory states, and the fleets of great powers did as they pleased. The current reality, which dates only to the end of World War II, makes possible the commercial shipping that handles more than 80 percent of all global trade by volume—oil and natural gas, grain and raw ores, manufactured goods of every kind. Because freedom of the seas, in our lifetime, has seemed like a default condition, it is easy to think of it—if we think of it at all—as akin to Earth’s rotation or the force of gravity: as just the way things are, rather than as a man-made construct that needs to be maintained and enforced.
But what if the safe transit of ships could no longer be assumed? What if the oceans were no longer free?
Every now and again, Americans are suddenly reminded of how much they depend on the uninterrupted movement of ships around the world for their lifestyle, their livelihood, even their life. In 2021, the grounding of the container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal, forcing vessels shuttling between Asia and Europe to divert around Africa, delaying their passage and driving up costs. A few months later, largely because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, more than 100 container ships were stacked up outside the California Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, snarling supply chains throughout the country.
These events were temporary, if expensive. Imagine, though, a more permanent breakdown. A humiliated Russia could declare a large portion of the Arctic Ocean to be its own territorial waters, twisting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to support its claim. Russia would then allow its allies access to this route while denying it to those who dared to oppose its wishes. Neither the U.S. Navy, which has not built an Arctic-rated surface warship since the 1950s, nor any other NATO nation is currently equipped to resist such a gambit.
Or maybe the first to move would be Xi Jinping, shoring up his domestic standing by attempting to seize Taiwan and using China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles and other weapons to keep Western navies at bay. An emboldened China might then seek to cement its claim over large portions of the East China Sea and the entirety of the South China Sea as territorial waters. It could impose large tariffs and transfer fees on the bulk carriers that transit the region. Local officials might demand bribes to speed their passage.
Once one nation decided to act in this manner, others would follow, claiming enlarged territorial waters of their own, and extracting what they could from the commerce that flows through them. The edges and interstices of this patchwork of competing claims would provide openings for piracy and lawlessness.
The great container ships and tankers of today would disappear, replaced by smaller, faster cargo vessels capable of moving rare and valuable goods past pirates and corrupt officials. The cruise-ship business, which drives many tourist economies, would falter in the face of potential hijackings. A single such incident might create a cascade of failure throughout the entire industry. Once-busy sea lanes would lose their traffic. For lack of activity and maintenance, passages such as the Panama and Suez Canals might silt up. Natural choke points such as the straits of Gibraltar, Hormuz, Malacca, and Sunda could return to their historic roles as havens for predators. The free seas that now surround us, as essential as the air we breathe, would be no more.
If oceanic trade declines, markets would turn inward, perhaps setting off a second Great Depression. Nations would be reduced to living off their own natural resources, or those they could buy—or take—from their immediate neighbors. The world’s oceans, for 70 years assumed to be a global commons, would become a no-man’s-land. This is the state of affairs that, without a moment’s thought, we have invited.
Everywhere I look, I observe sea power manifesting itself—unacknowledged—in American life. When I drive past a Walmart, a BJ’s Wholesale Club, a Lowe’s, or a Home Depot, in my mind I see the container ships moving products from where they can be produced at a low price in bulk form to markets where they can be sold at a higher price to consumers. Our economy and security rely on the sea—a fact so fundamental that it should be at the center of our approach to the world.
It is time for the United States to think and act, once again, like a seapower state. As the naval historian Andrew Lambert has explained, a seapower state understands that its wealth and its might principally derive from seaborne trade, and it uses instruments of sea power to promote and protect its interests. To the degree possible, a seapower state seeks to avoid direct participation in land wars, large or small. There have been only a few true seapower nations in history—notably Great Britain, the Dutch Republic, Venice, and Carthage.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana and spent 26 years on active duty in the Navy, deploying in support of combat operations in the Middle East and Yugoslavia, both at sea and in the air. I did postgraduate work at several universities and served as a strategist and an adviser to senior officials in the Pentagon. Yet I have always remained, in terms of interests and outlook, a son of the Midwest. In my writings I have sought to underscore sea power’s importance and the reliance of our economy on the sea.
Despite my experience, I was never able to convince my mother. She spent the last years of her working life at the Walmart in my hometown, first at the checkout counter and then in accounting. My mother followed the news and was sharply curious about the world; we were close, and spoke often. She was glad that I was in the Navy, but not because she saw my work as essential to her own life. “If you like Walmart,” I often told her, “then you ought to love the U.S. Navy. It’s the Navy that makes Walmart possible.” But to her, as a mother, my naval service mostly meant that, unlike friends and cousins who deployed with the Army or Marine Corps to Iraq or Afghanistan, I probably wasn’t going to be shot at. Her perspective is consistent with a phenomenon that the strategist Seth Cropsey has called seablindness.
Today, it is difficult to appreciate the scale or speed of the transformation wrought after World War II. The war destroyed or left destitute all of the world powers opposed to the concept of a mare liberum—a “free sea”—first enunciated by the Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius in 1609. The United States and Great Britain, the two traditional proponents of a free sea, had emerged not only triumphant but also in a position of overwhelming naval dominance. Their navies were together larger than all of the other navies of the world combined. A free sea was no longer an idea. It was now a reality.
In this secure environment, trade flourished. The globalizing economy, which allowed easier and cheaper access to food, energy, labor, and commodities of every kind, grew from nearly $8 trillion in 1940 to more than $100 trillion 75 years later, adjusted for inflation. With prosperity, other improvements followed. During roughly this same period, from the war to the present, the share of the world’s population in extreme poverty, getting by on less than $1.90 a day, dropped from more than 60 percent to about 10 percent. Global literacy doubled, to more than 85 percent. Global life expectancy in 1950 was 46 years. By 2019, it had risen to 73 years.
All of this has depended on freedom of the seas, which in turn has depended on sea power wielded by nations—led by the United States—that believe in such freedom.
But the very success of this project now threatens its future. Seablindness has become endemic.
The United States is no longer investing in the instruments of sea power as it once did. America’s commercial shipbuilding industry began losing its share of the global market in the 1960s to countries with lower labor costs, and to those that had rebuilt their industrial capacity after the war. The drop in American shipbuilding accelerated after President Ronald Reagan took office, in 1981. The administration, in a nod to free-market principles, began to shrink government subsidies that had supported the industry. That was a choice; it might have gone the other way. Aircraft manufacturers in the United States, citing national-security concerns, successfully lobbied for continued, and even increased, subsidies for their industry in the decades that followed—and got them.
It is never to a nation’s advantage to depend on others for crucial links in its supply chain. But that is where we are. In 1977, American shipbuilders produced more than 1 million gross tons of merchant ships. By 2005, that number had fallen to 300,000. Today, most commercial ships built in the United States are constructed for government customers such as the Maritime Administration or for private entities that are required to ship their goods between U.S. ports in U.S.-flagged vessels, under the provisions of the 1920 Jones Act.
The U.S. Navy, too, has been shrinking. After the Second World War, the Navy scrapped many of its ships and sent many more into a ready-reserve “mothball” fleet. For the next two decades, the active naval fleet hovered at about 1,000 ships. But beginning in 1969, the total began to fall. By 1971, the fleet had been reduced to 750 ships. Ten years later, it was down to 521. Reagan, who had campaigned in 1980 on a promise to rebuild the Navy to 600 ships, nearly did so under the able leadership of his secretary of the Navy, John Lehman. During Reagan’s eight years in office, the size of the Navy’s fleet climbed to just over 590 ships.
Then the Cold War ended. The administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton slashed troops, ships, aircraft, and shore-based infrastructure. During the Obama administration, the Navy’s battle force bottomed out at 271 ships. Meanwhile, both China and Russia, in different ways, began to develop systems that would challenge the U.S.-led regime of global free trade on the high seas.
Russia began to invest in highly sophisticated nuclear-powered submarines with the intention of being able to disrupt the oceanic link between NATO nations in Europe and North America. China, which for a time enjoyed double-digit GDP growth, expanded both its commercial and naval shipbuilding capacities. It tripled the size of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and invested in long-range sensors and missiles that could allow it to interdict commercial and military ships more than 1,000 miles from its shores. Both Russia and China also sought to extend territorial claims into international waters, the aim being to control the free passage of shipping near their shores and in their perceived spheres of influence. In short: Autocratic powers are trying to close the global commons.
Today the United States is financially constrained by debt, and psychologically burdened by recent military conflicts—for the most part, land-based actions in Iraq and Afghanistan fought primarily by a large standing army operating far from home—that turned into costly quagmires. We can no longer afford to be both a continentalist power and an oceanic power. But we can still exert influence, and at the same time avoid getting caught up in the affairs of other nations. Our strategic future lies at sea.
Americans used to know this. The United States began its life purposefully as a seapower: The Constitution explicitly directed Congress “to provide and maintain a Navy.” In contrast, the same article of the Constitution instructed the legislature “to raise and support Armies,” but stipulated that no appropriation for the army “shall be for a longer Term than two Years.” The Founders had an aversion to large standing armies.
George Washington pushed through the Naval Act of 1794, funding the Navy’s original six frigates. (One of these was the famous USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” which remains in active commission to this day.) In his final address to the American people, Washington advocated for a navalist foreign policy, warning against “attachments and entanglements” with foreign powers that might draw the young nation into continental European wars. The strategy he advised instead was to protect American trade on the high seas, and advance America’s interests through temporary agreements, not permanent alliances. This seapower approach to the world became the sine qua non of early American foreign policy.
In time, conditions changed. The U.S. was preoccupied by sectional conflict and by conquest of the continent. It turned inward, becoming a continental power. But by the end of the 19th century, that era had come to a close.
In 1890, a U.S. Navy captain named Alfred Thayer Mahan published an article in The Atlantic titled “The United States Looking Outward.” Mahan argued that, with the closing of the frontier, the United States had in essence become an island nation looking eastward and westward across oceans. The nation’s energies should therefore be focused externally: on the seas, on maritime trade, and on a larger role in the world.
Mahan sought to end the long-standing policy of protectionism for American industries, because they had become strong enough to compete in the global market. By extension, Mahan also sought a larger merchant fleet to carry goods from American factories to foreign lands, and for a larger Navy to protect that merchant fleet. In a few thousand words, Mahan made a coherent strategic argument that the United States should once again become a true seapower.
Mahan’s vision was profoundly influential. Politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge advocated for larger merchant and naval fleets (and for a canal through Central America). Mahan, Roosevelt, and Lodge believed that sea power was the catalyst for national power, and they wanted the United States to become the preeminent nation of the 20th century. The swift expansion of the Navy, particularly in battleships and cruisers, paralleled the growing fleets of other global powers. Leaders in Britain, Germany, France, and Italy had also read Mahan, and they wanted to protect commercial access to their overseas empires. The resulting arms race at sea helped destabilize the balance of power in the years leading up to the First World War.
This is not the place to relate every development in the evolution of America’s naval capability, much less that of other nations. Suffice to say that, by the 1930s, new technologies were transforming the seas. Aircraft, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault craft, and submarines had all been developed into more effective weapons. During the Second World War, the oceans once again became battlefields. The fighting proceeded in a way Mahan himself had never envisioned, as fleets faced off against ships they could not even see, launching waves of aircraft against each other. In the end, the war was won not by bullets or torpedoes but by the American maritime industrial base. The United States began the war with 790 ships in its battle force; when the war ended, it had more than 6,700.
No nation could come close to challenging the American fleet, commercial or naval, on the high seas after the war. So great was its advantage that, for decades, no one even tried to match it. In concert with allies, the United States created an international system based on free and unhindered trade. It was the culmination of the Mahanist Age.
For the first time in history, open access to the seas was assumed—and so people naturally gave little thought to its importance and challenges.
A new seapower strategy involves more than adding ships to the Navy. A new strategy must start with the economy.
For 40 years, we have watched domestic industries and blue-collar jobs leave the country. Now we find ourselves locked in a new great-power competition, primarily with a rising China but also with a diminishing and unstable Russia. We will need heavy industry in order to prevail. The United States cannot simply rely on the manufacturing base of other countries, even friendly ones, for its national-security needs.
In 1993, Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry invited the executives of leading defense contractors to a dinner in Washington—a meal that would enter national-security lore as the “Last Supper.” Perry spelled out projected cuts in defense spending. His message was clear: If the American defense industrial base was going to survive, then mergers would be required. Soon after, the Northrop Corporation acquired the Grumman Corporation to form Northrop Grumman. The Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta became Lockheed Martin. A few years later, Boeing combined with McDonnell Douglas, itself the product of a previous merger. Among the shipbuilders, General Dynamics, which manufactures submarines through its Electric Boat subsidiary, bought Bath Iron Works, a naval shipyard, and the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company.
These mergers preserved the defense industries, but at a price: a dramatic reduction in our overall industrial capacity. During World War II, the United States could claim more than 50 graving docks—heavy-industrial locations where ships are assembled—that were greater than 150 meters in length, each one able to build merchant craft and naval warships. Today, the U.S. has 23 graving docks, only a dozen of which are certified to work on Navy ships.
The United States will need to implement a seapower industrial policy that meets its national-security needs: building steel plants and microchip foundries, developing hypersonic glide bodies and autonomous unmanned undersea vehicles. We will need to foster new start-ups using targeted tax laws, the Defense Production Act, and perhaps even a “Ships Act” akin to the recent CHIPS Act, which seeks to bring back the crucial semiconductor industry.
We also need to tell the companies we once encouraged to merge that it’s time for them to spin off key industrial subsidiaries in order to encourage competition and resilience—and we need to reward them for following through. In 2011, for example, the aerospace giant Northrop Grumman spun off its shipbuilding holdings to form Huntington Ingalls, in Newport News, Virginia, and Pascagoula, Mississippi. Adding more such spin-offs would not only increase the nation’s industrial depth but also encourage the growth of parts suppliers for heavy industries, companies that have endured three decades of consolidation or extinction.
Shipbuilding, in particular, is a jobs multiplier. For every job created in a shipyard, five jobs, on average, are created at downstream suppliers—well-paid blue-collar jobs in the mining, manufacturing, and energy sectors.
Most of the civilian merchant ships, container ships, ore carriers, and supertankers that dock in American ports are built overseas and fly foreign flags. We have ignored the linkage between the ability to build commercial ships and the ability to build Navy ships—one reason the latter cost twice as much as they did in 1989. The lack of civilian ships under our own flag makes us vulnerable. Today we remember the recent backlog of container ships in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, but tomorrow we could face the shock of no container ships arriving at all should China prohibit its large fleet from visiting U.S. ports. Today we’re proud to ship liquefied natural gas to our allies in Europe, but tomorrow we might not be able to export that energy to our friends, because we don’t own the ships that would carry it. We need to bring back civilian shipbuilding as a matter of national security.
To revive our merchant-shipbuilding base, we will need to offer government subsidies on a par with those provided to European and Asian shipbuilders. Subsidies have flowed to commercial aviation since the establishment of commercial airlines in the 1920s; Elon Musk’s SpaceX would not be enjoying its present success were it not for strong initial support from the U.S. government. Shipbuilding is no less vital.
Reindustrialization, in particular the restoration of merchant-shipbuilding capacity and export-oriented industries, will support the emergence of a new, more technologically advanced Navy. The cost of building Navy ships could be coaxed downward by increasing competition, expanding the number of downstream suppliers, and recruiting new shipyard workers to the industry.
Wherever American trade goes, the flag traditionally follows—usually in the form of the Navy. But the new Navy must not look like the old Navy. If it does, we will have made a strategic mistake. As rival powers develop ships and missiles that target our aircraft carriers and other large surface vessels, we should make greater investments in advanced submarines equipped with the latest in long-range maneuvering hypersonic missiles. We should pursue a future in which our submarines cannot be found and our hypersonic missiles cannot be defeated.
The Navy, however, is not just a wartime force. It has a peacetime mission unique among the military services: showing the flag and defending American interests by means of a consistent and credible forward presence. Commanders have identified 18 maritime regions of the world that require the near-continuous deployment of American ships to demonstrate our resolve. During the Cold War, the Navy maintained approximately 150 ships at sea on any given day. As the size of the fleet has fallen—to its present 293—the Navy has struggled to keep even 100 ships at sea at all times. The service’s admirals recently suggested a goal of having 75 ships “mission capable” at any given moment. Right now the fleet has about 20 ships going through training workups and only about 40 actively deployed under regional combatant commanders. This has created vacuums in vital areas such as the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea, which our enemies have been eager to fill.
The chief of naval operations recently called for a fleet of some 500 ships. He quickly pointed out that this would include about 50 new guided-missile frigates—small surface vessels able to operate closely with allies and partners—as well as 150 unmanned surface and subsurface platforms that would revolutionize the way wartime naval operations are conducted. The frigates are being assembled on the shores of Lake Michigan. The construction of the unmanned ships, owing to their nontraditional designs and smaller sizes, could be dispersed to smaller shipyards, including yards on the Gulf Coast, along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and on the Great Lakes, where ships and submarines were built for the Navy during World War II. These types of ships, combined with advanced submarines, will allow us to exert influence and project power with equal vigor.
Across the 50 years of my life, I have watched the importance of the oceans and the idea of freedom of the seas largely fade from national awareness. The next great military challenge we face will likely come from a confrontation on the sea. Great powers, especially nuclear-equipped great powers, dare not attack one another directly. Instead, they will confront one another in the commons: cyberspace, outer space, and, most crucially, at sea. The oceans would be battlefields again, and we, and the world, are simply not ready for that.
Some voices, of course, will argue that America’s interests, diffuse and global, might best be served by expanding our commitments of land forces to places like Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Korea as demonstrations of American resolve, and that air and naval forces should be diminished to pay for such commitments. Others—those in the “divest to invest” school—believe in the promise of future technology, arguing that more traditional warfare platforms and missions should be phased out to fund their newer and more efficient missiles or cybersystems. The first approach continues a path of unnecessary entanglements. The second proceeds along a path of promise without proof.
A seapower-focused national-security strategy would give new advantages to the United States. It would not too subtly encourage allies and partners in Eurasia to increase investment in land forces and to work more closely together. If they build more tanks and fully staff their armies, the United States could guarantee transoceanic supply lines from the Western Hemisphere. The 70-year practice of stationing our land forces in allied countries, using Americans as trip wires and offering allies a convenient excuse not to spend on their own defense, should come to an end.
A seapower strategy, pursued deliberately, would put America back on course for global leadership. We must shun entanglements in other nations’ land wars—resisting the urge to solve every problem—and seek instead to project influence from the sea. We must re-create an industrialized, middle-class America that builds and exports manufactured goods that can be carried on U.S.-built ships to the global market.
We knew all this in the age of Alfred Thayer Mahan. The Chinese are showing us that they know it now. The United States needs to relearn the lessons of strategy, geography, and history. We must look outward across the oceans, and find our place upon them, again.
This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “America’s Future Is at Sea.”