U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century: A New Strategy for Facing the Chinese and Russian Threat

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Release Date: 
May 15, 2023
Naval Institute Press
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“Sadler . . . understands the Mahanian dictum that ‘Great nations have great navies, and diminish without them.’

On October 21, 1805, Great Britain survived a challenge from France and Spain by defeating their combined fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle’s outcome was due in part to the superior training and seamanship of British sailors, but, more important, the caliber of Britain’s naval commanders, especially Admiral Horatio Nelson. The United States today is confronted by a “strategic partnership” of China and Russia and if it is to prevail against this current challenge to its maritime supremacy, writes Brent Sadler in U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century, it will need leaders of the caliber of Nelson. 

Sadler—a 26-year Navy veteran who served on nuclear submarines, did stints at the Pentagon, and worked as a military diplomat in Asia—understands the Mahanian dictum that “Great nations have great navies, and diminish without them.” He sees the United States today as engaging in a “triangular competition over global influence and power” with China and Russia. He fears that it is a competition that we could lose if we fail to do what is necessary to maintain our maritime supremacy.

Sadler references the classical works of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, and combines their theoretical insights with contemporary strategists such as Elbridge Colby, to promote his concept of “naval statecraft” for the 21st century. He identifies five “levers” of naval statecraft: “posture, presence, partner capacity building, treaties and agreements, and informational operations.” Each of these “levers” are essential, he believes, to prevail against the dual challenges of China and Russia.

We need a bigger navy, Sadler writes. Numbers and resiliency in conflict matter. We need to position that naval power so that we can deter conflicts and, if necessary, prevail in conflicts with both major adversaries. To that end, we need to improve our shipbuilding capabilities that have atrophied since the end of the Cold War. We need to partner with particular naval allies—NATO in the Eastern Mediterranean and Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and India in the Indo-Pacific. We need to improve the security of our supply chains and communications. We need to use the latest technology—unmanned platforms, robotics, artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, quantum computing—to strengthen our command and control and to weaken that of our opponents. And Sadler, with his vast institutional experience, gets into the nitty-gritty details of how to accomplish what is needed—both bureaucratically and politically.

Sadler calls for the creation of a “New Model Navy” (comparing it historically to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army). He advocates nothing less than a “revolution” in naval operations where naval platforms will have smaller human crews, more robots, energy weapons (lasers and rail guns), and will be part of “globally-networked fleets.” He also envisions the redistribution of our numbered fleets to correspond with the areas of greatest challenge by our great power competitors. The Navy leadership will have much to mull over in assessing his recommendations.

Above all, Sadler writes, we need a “Comprehensive National Maritime Initiative,” comparable to the Maritime Strategy launched during the Reagan administration by Navy Secretary John Lehman, which helped achieve our victory over the Soviets in the Cold War. Lehman was a visionary naval leader who received the support of National Security Adviser Richard Allen, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and President Reagan for implementing the Maritime Strategy.

Unfortunately, the current administration appears to lack such visionary naval leaders and statespersons. Our naval force, Sadler notes, is set to shrink over the next few years of this dangerous decade, while China and Russia continue to expand their fleets. Instead of a visionary like Lehman, the current Navy Secretary has identified “climate change” as our greatest national security threat. We should all heed the advice of the legendary J. William Middendorf II in the Foreword to this book: “The best way to prepare for war is to be prepared to win it . . . We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s weapons.”