Lincoln Paine’s recent article “What’s a Navy For?” asks an important question, but his implication that the U.S. Navy does not have an answer is off course. Paine, a prominent maritime historian, correctly points out that fiscal uncertainty and a changing geopolitical scene mean that the navy -- like the other military services and indeed many other sectors of the government more generally -- cannot run on autopilot. But that is hardly what the navy is currently doing.

Like the U.S. Army, the navy is an instrument of national power and provides unique capabilities to the National Command Authority, conducting missions and offering policy options across a full spectrum of operations, from peace to war and back to peace. But its maritime focus and unique global presence give it a distinctive mindset. As Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus noted last April, “Whether ashore, in the air, on or under the world’s oceans, or in the vast cyberspace, the Navy-Marine Corps team operates forward, as America’s ‘Away Team,’ to protect our national interests, respond to crises, deter conflict, prevent war or, when necessary, fight and win.”

On January 3, 2012, U.S President Barack Obama signed the defense strategic guidance “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” -- the administration’s blueprint for the future of U.S. armed forces. This document set out ten primary missions: countering terrorism; deterring and defeating aggression; projecting power; countering weapons of mass destruction; operating effectively in cyberspace; maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent; defending the homeland; providing a stabilizing presence abroad; conducting stability and counterinsurgency operations; and conducting humanitarian operations. To chart its course and ready itself to accomplish these missions, the navy sponsors an ongoing discussion carried out across all forms of media, from books and blogs to congressional testimony and engagement with sailors, their families, and the public media.

The Chief of Naval Operations’ “Sailing Directions” constitutes a user’s guide to the navy’s mission, vision, tenets, and principles, serving as the foundation for the service’s planning. The CNO’s “Navigation Plan” highlights the required investments necessary to support the service’s operations. And the CNO’s “Position Report” provides an update on how things are proceeding and includes formal reports to Congress as well as up-to-date comments by senior civilian and military leadership. 

Regarding commercial shipping, the founding fathers realized the crucial importance of maritime trade and specified in the constitution that, although Congress has limited authority to "raise and support armies," it has full authority to "provide and maintain a navy." It is imperative that our navy be prepared to keep the global commons open for world trade -- a trade that is vital to our own national security and economic survival.

It is true that the U.S. Navy does not have enough ships to escort every U.S.-flagged merchant vessel across the global commons, but because the navy operates forward, it is ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat operations from the sea. Events such as the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in the Indian Ocean (the inspiration for the recent movie Captain Phillips) more often than not turn out in the United States’ favor. Operation Ocean Shield -- NATO’s counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa -- has averaged five warships and additional aircraft continuously on station in the region, and as a result, the piracy success rate there decreased from 44 percent in 2008 to less than 16 percent by 2011.

As for humanitarian missions, Paine suggests that the Department of Defense dominates the U.S. government’s forward-deployed humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief efforts, and that this is an inappropriate burden on the navy in particular. In fact, however, since 1993, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has coordinated the government’s international disaster assistance to both natural and man-made disasters. 

The State and Defense departments do play important roles in these efforts, and military officials work closely with their civilian counterparts. USAID’s Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation, established in 2011, oversees the collaboration, USAID staffers are assigned to the five geographic Combatant Commands, and joint exercises help prepare for future disasters. Additionally, the president may draw down defense equipment and direct military personnel to respond to disasters and provide transportation on military aircraft and ships, as well as request other government agencies to assist within their capabilities.

The question of whether the United States should have a significant forward naval military presence is a familiar one, dating back to the nation’s earliest days. In the years following independence, Barbary pirates seized U.S. merchant vessels and kidnapped their crews for ransom. Some feared the development of a strong standing military and felt it was smarter and more economical to simply pay the ransom; but others argued that a strong military was required if this new country was to stand on its own, and in 1794, Congress finally authorized the construction of six vessels. A few years after that, the U.S. Navy was able to take on its enemies in the First Barbary War.

Now, as then, a strong, capable navy has a crucial role to play in protecting and advancing a broad range of U.S. interests, from strategic to economic and humanitarian. It is true that the strategies and plans written for times past must be adapted for the future, and that a straitened budgetary environment will make tough choices necessary. But as the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, put it in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in November, “I understand the pressing need for our nation to get its fiscal house in order, and I'm onboard with that endeavor, but it's imperative that we do so in a thoughtful manner to ensure that we sustain the appropriate war fighting capability, the appropriate forward presence, and that we be ready. Those are the attributes we depend on from our navy.”

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  • WILLIAM J. PARKER III is a 2013-14 Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He commanded, most recently, the U.S. Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 23, based out of San Diego, California.
  • More By William J. Parker III