Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Seapower Advocacy: Time to Get Serious

Regulars here and at Midrats know the discussions we have had through the years on the scourge of navalists; seablindness, the Navy's retreat from the press, and the growing bunker mentality as we stumble from crisis to crisis. 

The last decade showed a series of events blend in to a general disconnect from the national conversation at a time when the challenge from China demanded a greater discussion of how our Navy brings value to the national security challenges we face. We were not driving the conversation and often were not even part of it. Others actors with other priorities drove the agenda and steered it in the direction they wanted. 

We need a sustained navalist message, but our present institutions are not able to do it - nor inclined to change to do it. 

Today's guest post comes from a navalists who has been looking at the challenge in a deep and broad context, Bryan McGrath.

Bryan, over to you.

Folks, I am worried. I am worried that as a nation, we are unserious. We are unserious about what a security environment pitting two global powers against us means, and we are unserious about leveraging the great advantages we enjoy in that contest. I am speaking of course, about seapower, and I think the time has come to honestly assess the various means through which American Seapower is explained and advocated for in the public square. In this piece, I argue for the creation of an organization focused on the advancement of American Seapower through direct participation in the democratic process. This organization would be unconstrained in its ability to disagree with a particular administration, Department of Defense, or even Department of the Navy should political considerations or bureaucratic infighting reveal those organizations to be unduly timid (or statutorily limited) in the pursuit and maintenance of dominant seapower. Some reading this may be asking, “Isn’t that what the Navy League is for?” or “Isn’t that what the Naval Institute is for?”, and these are good questions I hope I’ll answer by the time I’m finished.

The Problem

The problem, simply stated, is that at the very moment that the need for American Seapower advocacy is most critical, it is nowhere to be found. Ok. That is probably an overstatement. There is advocacy. It is, however, insufficient, ineffective, untargeted, uncoordinated, poorly resourced, diluted, and inadequately championed.

In a perfect world, the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations would serve as the spiritual and intellectual lead clergy of such advocacy, and the two of them—in addition to various four-stars and other subalterns—would devise and preach the Gospel of American Seapower. There would of course, be civilian organizations that would join the choir (see Navy League of the United States, United States Naval Institute), but the vicar and the curate of this congregation would be the senior civilian and senior uniform in the Navy.

But we do not live in a perfect world, we live in the National Security Act of 1947 world and more importantly, the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 world. These two pieces of bedrock national security legislation of accomplished many things, some of them positive. These laws also—in the period of time where both have been the active law of the land—have dramatically reduced the level of coherent advocacy for American Seapower, as doing so within the current rules of bureaucratic conduct is seen at best as a threat to “Jointness”, and at worst, a political threat to the unassailable power of the Secretary of Defense. This reality is not likely to change appreciably, and so hoping for a CNO or a SECNAV who is an unconstrained American Seapower advocate (they generally do the best they can within the rules of the game they play) is not a path to success. And so, across the past four decades, a vacuum of formal advocacy has developed, as the uniformed and civilian leadership of the Navy fell into line with the realities of bureaucratic life in the Pentagon. Outside organizations could have stepped into this void, but they have not. Let us start with the U.S. Naval Institute (USNI).

The mission of USNI is to be “…the independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to global security.” As such it serves as a professional organization inwardly focused on the needs and desires of its membership. Key to this mission are two additional statements on the USNI mission page: the first, is that USNI will remain “independent”, defined further as “a non-profit member association, with no government support, that does not lobby for special interests.” Second, that it will remain “non-partisan”, as “an independent, professional military association with a mission, goals, and objectives that transcend political affiliations.” Put another way, USNI serves a valued purpose in the constellation of organizations that consider American Seapower, but its MAIN purpose is to its members. It assiduously avoids lobbying, and it avoids the rough and tumble of American politics, as in this case, “non-partisan” and “apolitical” are difficult to discern. Under the leadership of VADM Pete Daly, USNI has become more visible across a number of fronts (public events and new media chief among them), but it has—as has been its historical practice—continued to stay out of active advocacy roles, which is as its membership desires.

Moving on then to the second logical outside organization to look to for aggressive advocacy and political activity—The Navy League of the United States (NLUS)—it is more difficult to see any real conflict between the organization’s mission and these pursuits. “The Navy League of the United States, founded in 1902 with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, is a nonprofit civilian, educational and advocacy organization that supports America’s sea services: the Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. As part of its mission focus, the Navy League of the United States:
  • Enhances the morale of sea service personnel and their families through national and council level programs.
  • Provides a powerful voice to educate the public and Congress on the importance of our sea services to our nation’s defense, well-being, and economic prosperity.
  • Supports youth through programs, such as the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, Junior ROTC and Young Marines, that expose young people to the values of our sea services.”

Clearly this mission statement contains the seeds for the kind of muscular, political advocacy required. And were the second of the three bullets above to be the primary focus of the organization, there would be little need for this post. But forceful, Washington DC-based advocacy and a relentless dedication to American Seapower policy formulation is not what NLUS either concentrates on or is successful in doing. And the deficit between what the organization says it is dedicated to, and what it does is not so much a function of desire, but organization. The real emphasis of NLUS is in the first and third bullets of its mission statement, in no small part because that is where the power and energy is within the Navy League by design.

By way of an anecdote, several years ago, I was contacted by a group of people who wished to see a more forceful and effective approach to American Seapower advocacy. There was at the time (and to be honest, it continues) a bit of envy when we looked at our ideological analogues in the air power and land power realms. The Air Force Association (AFA) and the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) both seemed to be more effective in influencing the debates on Capitol Hill than NLUS, and I set out to discover why. I had a meeting or two with the DC-based NLUS leadership team, and I came away with a few impressions that remain to this day.

For starters, the de-centralized, bureaucratic structure of NLUS governance militated against the kind of nimble advocacy and policy formulation that an effective Washington DC-based organization requires. The more I studied the by-laws then in place, the more I realized that the DC presence was not where the action is within the Navy League. The geographically differentiated councils dispersed power and authority broadly across the country, and the DC based Executive Director had insufficient authority to direct the efforts of the organization.

This became obvious when I brought up the possibility of the Navy League creating a “Seapower Think-tank”, analogous with the then rising-in-prominence “Mitchell Institute” of the Air Force Association. From around the table at NLUS headquarters in Arlington, VA, I got nods of agreement and bright-eyed enthusiasm for what sounded like an unobjectionable good idea. When we got to the discussion of how to make it happen, the bright eyes dimmed, and heads began to droop. There was in the room, a sense of powerlessness to make something like this happen for a few reasons. First, because there was within NLUS an inherent skepticism of central direction and execution, and this rendered the DC/Arlington presence relatively disadvantaged when trying to make decisions and move with alacrity. Second, such an effort would take funding, and while NLUS prized its relationships with industry sponsors, there was not an appetite for providing the seed money such an undertaking would demand or asking their donors to step up more aggressively in support of it.

Next, I came away from the meeting with the Arlington/DC-based executive staff with a sense of complacency, that all that was really being asked of them from a centralized execution perspective was to produce their (valuable, readable) “Seapower” magazine, and broadly support whatever budget the Navy, the Maritime Administration, or the Coast Guard put forward. Knowing what we already know about how the national security resourcing process works and the virtue of “Jointness” above all other virtues, the “advocacy” provided in supporting an administration budget submission is of little additional value to that which can be safely given by the administration representatives submitting it. Put another way, lobbying Congress to pass the submitted budget is not a great lift, and the degree to which Navy League lobbying efforts in any way deviate from the least-common denominator solutions put forward by federal agencies with skin in the seapower game is questionable.

I am told that the Navy League’s governance structure has changed in the six years since I last studied it, that there are fewer than the (if memory serves) scores of Directors that had a hand in making policy then. I did a bit of poking to find the current by-laws online but was unsuccessful. I have spoken recently with three persons who have in-depth knowledge of the current structure, and each indicates that the League’s priorities remain focused on the geographically distributed councils, rather than on federal influence.

What to Do?

The United States needs an organization dedicated to the development of sound policy in support of American Seapower and the advocacy required to bring that policy about. The center of mass of this organization must be the seat of the federal government in Washington DC, and its main audience is the Pentagon, the White House, and the Congress. It must simultaneously be a catalyst for policy development and education, and a powerful agent of American Seapower advocacy. While its efforts and emphases are primarily aimed at the federal government, this organization MUST have an effective outreach program utilizing all appropriate forms of media to inform and educate an American public grown distant from and uninterested in the degree to which their security and prosperity derive from seapower.

It would be correct to view the paragraph above as firmly within the Navy League’s current remit. It would be incorrect to assume that the Navy League either performs these functions or can perform them as currently organized. My preference would be for the Navy League to fundamentally reform itself and centralize authority (read: authority to determine where can money be spent) in Washington DC. I have little hope that this can or will occur.

And so I find myself believing that a new organization should be formed, and that this organization would have four broad lines of operation: research into the nexus between national strength and seapower, the development of seapower related policy, active advocacy for seapower in both the Executive Branch and the Congress, and dedicated outreach to civic minded Americans through targeted media and events.

This organization would occasionally disagree with the government agencies it advocates for and would look at budget submissions with skepticism rather than as marching orders. It would issue reports under its marque written by in-house scholars and free-lance researchers. It would provide for a stable of competent experts who would become the “go-to” voices on matters of seapower-related strategy, policy, and operations from a world-class, on-site media center and from the home-offices of the experts involved. It would populate and curate a website of seapower related thinking from around the world. It would host events either independently or with other organizations that raise and debate important seapower issues. It would fearlessly advocate for American Seapower without the level of suspicion under which traditional think tanks work because anyone (individual or corporate) who donated money to fund this organization would EXPECT policy advocacy. The quality of the work created would be the return on investment, and if the work were analytically rigorous and contributed to the advancement of American Seapower, the organization would be doing its job.

What I am suggesting is—for lack of more suitable comparison—the creation of a “Planned Parenthood” or a “National Rifle Association” for American Seapower: an organization that believes in the constitutional basis for its advocacy and connects the general population to its advancement. This organization cannot be apolitical; it would by nature be very political because the advancement of American Seapower is, a political process. It must, however, be non-partisan, and it must cultivate friends of seapower wherever they may be.

These are my thoughts. Most of the people who read this who might be interested in helping such a venture get off the ground, know how to find me. The time is now.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC defense consultancy. Neither his private clients nor his Navy clients were consulted on this essay, and his words and thoughts are his own.

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