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By Captain Adam Link, USMC

Late last year the question was put forth: what does seapower contribute to landpower[1]? Now it seems an appropriate time for a response given the recent New York Times Op-Ed by Gregg Easterbrook[2] attempting to explain why and how the U.S. Navy is “big enough.” Others[3] have addressed some of Mr. Easterbrook’s arguments more directly, but I’d like to address the bigger picture of what the U.S. Navy contributes to our ability to conduct operations ashore and why we do need a “bigger Navy,” just not maybe in the way we traditionally think.

Seapower may not always be able to “win” a war, but it can certainly lose one[4] and will contribute significantly to victory. Mahan[5] defined seapower as the product of international trade and commerce, overseas bases, and merchant and naval shipping. Mahan focuses much of his effort towards the “blue-water” Navy, while Julian Corbett[6], in contrast, focuses more intently on the connection between sea and landpower, and the limitations therein. However, both of these strategists are complementary to the aim of explaining the importance of seapower to landpower, and how a “larger Navy” is useful in that regard.

In many ways, the U.S. Navy since World War 2 has become more focused on the “war fighting” functions of a navy, rather than the broader purpose to which a navy can contribute to the strategic objectives of the state. While laudable, the U.S Navy has more to contribute to the projection and protection of American interests abroad than just our ability to launch planes, land Marines, or send in the SEALs. Mahan’s definition of seapower is illustrative of this point. As already stated, Mahan viewed seapower at the intersection of trade and commerce, overseas bases, and merchant and naval shipping. If we are considering how seapower contributes to landpower it is necessary to engage with all of these component parts in turn.

First, international trade and commerce is the lifeblood of the nation’s economy. The United States is a maritime nation, without question. The Navy, as the maritime military force of the nation, is tasked with keeping these important lines of communication and transport open so as to ensure the stability of the economy. As we all are keenly aware, the economy and money drive everything. Without a working economy the military, and the state, are unable to operate at a functional level and defeat in battle would soon become almost inevitable. This is the first, and perhaps obvious, contribution of seapower to landpower: Seapower, and by this I mean the effective maintenance of stability in the world’s shipping lanes, allows the nation to build and sustain its land forces for when war is forced upon it.

Second, the maintenance of overseas bases plays an important role in seapower’s contribution to landpower. The U.S. Navy maintains port facilities and support activities throughout the world, many of which are located in strategically important locations in order to support other operations. For instance, two of the most commonly used port facilities for the United States in the Middle East are Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates, and also the port at Mina Salman in Bahrain. Why is this important two landpower? For several reasons: First, these facilities provide ready access for U.S. Navy shipping in a vitally important shipping lane. Second, they provide access to maintenance facilities which allow U.S. Navy ships to remain at sea for extended periods of time. Also, these facilities provide a foothold for U.S. forces in the region should the need arise to execute that course of action. Taken together, the establishment of overseas bases of operation by a navy not only enhances a nation’s ability to operate on the “blue water,” but also provides a vital connection to strategically important areas on land upon which landpower forces could be called in support of the nation’s interests.

Further, once land operations are underway, these bases provide a vital link to the sea for land forces. Logistics is paramount. By establishing and maintaining overseas facilities the navy is able to provide the vital linkage of logistics to landpower forces. The location of the ports provides flexibility for the ground commander in operations by allowing logistical support to be routed in a variety of ways. By providing the land force commander with options, the establishment of overseas bases by a navy directly enhances the nation’s landpower abroad.

Merchant shipping is similarly vital to the maintenance of landpower in war and in peace. U.S. merchant shipping is, in many ways, the very trade and commerce which the more war oriented U.S. Navy is designed to protect. Merchant vessels transport goods between nations, within the United States inland waterways, and also act as a vital part of the defense infrastructure of the nation. Military Sealift command provides an example of a military civilian hybrid organization which provides a vital function to the prosecution of war, at sea or on land. The Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships located at sea, and various ports around the world add to this resource. What MPF ships provide is relatively quick transport of military equipment to a combat zone almost anywhere in the world. These ships are pre-loaded with various pieces of ground combat equipment which can quickly be put into combat after offloading at a port facility, or by other methods.

Additionally, the U.S. Navy provides much of this lift capability itself. Amphibious Readiness Groups (ARG) with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) are in constant patrol around the world. This MEU/ARG team is a direct bridge from sea to land for operations in support of national objectives, and can respond to a wide variety of crisis situations beyond combat. Here seapower allows for the relatively rapid transit of ground combat forces between points, it allows the commander to choose where and when to strike (or feint[7]), and it provides an immediate logistics chain to the Marines moving ashore.

The U.S. Navy uses its ability to maneuver at sea in order to employ its other assets in support of ground combat operations, thereby contributing to the buildup of landpower. The employment of aircraft from carriers and the ARG, the employment of naval surface fires, and the employment of defensive tactics at sea to ensure the enemy is not able to break the chain from ship to shore. All of this contributes directly to landpower, and eventual success in combat.

What does this mean for the appropriate size of the Navy? The Navy currently has 275 ships available for deployment worldwide. Ten of these are active aircraft carriers. While I concede that a challenge from a near-peer competitor is unlikely in the short term, especially in the “blue water,” the U.S. Navy will still be challenged in accomplishing the myriad tasks assigned it going forward. Should the U.S. Navy be larger? Yes, in my view. More ships would allow for more flexibility to support operations ashore, deter regional hegemony from developing where it will hinder U.S. interests, and ensure the free, unimpeded transport of commerce and trade in order to ensure the continuing success and stability of the U.S. economy. This means ships must be focused on providing specific capabilities to the commander, and the capability of the ship to do what the Navy does most often should drive development.

Technology, in this instance, does not always equate to capabilities. Technology is not a panacea, but truly capable, flexible ships would contribute to the maintenance of U.S. power at sea, and by extension our ability to project and sustain power ashore. While combat at sea must be remembered and trained for, it is not what the U.S. Navy has been called on to do most often, but they will likely be forced to do so again.

Why is Mr. Easterbrook’s argument relevant to landpower in the U.S. system? I would hope the answer is illuminated in the preceding paragraphs, but I recognize that my argument for the relevance and relationship between land and seapower is at best cursory in this brief article. Nonetheless, without the ability to project U.S. forces via the world’s waterways we lose a strategic capability that will severely hamstring the nation’s pursuit of its objectives and interests. Seapower, broadly construed, contributes to the maintenance of U.S. interests abroad, and allows flexibility for the commander when war is forced upon him in a given theater. Without seapower we are unlikely to be able to sustain our use of landpower abroad, except where we have the roads to travel.


Captain Adam V. Link is an active duty Marine officer (MOS 1802 Tank officer). He has deployed in support of OEF in 2010, and as part of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (2011-12).

[1] War Council Blog:

[2] Gregg Easterbrook, New York Times OP-ED

[3] See Bryan McGrath’s article at War on the Rocks, or Jim Holmes at Real Clear Defense.

[4] The Russo-Japanese war can be shown as an example of how the use of seapower, and the lack of it (by the Russians), contributed directly to the Russian defeat in the war.

[5] Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1890.

[6] Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 1911.

[7] The use of Marine units during the Persian Gulf War off the coast of Kuwait is a recent example of this tactic, and its potential to be effective.