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From Strategy and Policy Department
Feb. 5, 2013

NEWPORT, R.I. — This week the Strategy and War (S&W) Course explored possible futures for maritime strategy. Much as they have throughout the term, students and faculty peered into the past in order to glimpse the future ahead. Alfred Thayer Mahan pioneered this approach in 1902, publishing an article entitled “Retrospect and Prospect.” As the title suggests, Mahan gazed back across the 19th century to identify trends he could project forward into the twentieth—gleaning insights into ongoing contingencies such as the Philippine War while catching sight of the more remote future. By connecting past with present and future, he foreshadowed the forward-looking nature of S&W.

Predicting the future was not the point of this week’s inquiries. No one can predict the future, any more than Mahan foresaw the world wars or the advent of transformational military technologies. Indeed, the future is not foreordained. It depends on strategic choices that thinking human beings make, on the interaction between clashing wills, and on the play of chance and contingency that Carl von Clausewitz emphasized in his majestic work “On War.” The object of the S&W Course is to make students as intellectually nimble as possible, preparing them for different alternative futures.

What might these futures look like? The main premises of the 2007 Maritime Strategy are continuity and cooperation. Over the coming two decades, that is, the maritime setting will resemble that of the past two decades in most respects. The U.S. Navy will be able to co-opt emerging naval powers or at least deter them from initiating major conflict at sea. Some observers dissent from these assumptions, postulating that the maritime future will resemble the period from 1904-1945, when multiple naval powers grappled for strategic advantage. Some fear that China, like Japan in the last century, will mature into a great naval rival of the U.S. They also worry that the People’s Liberation Army Navy, unlike the Imperial Japanese navy, will deploy radically asymmetric operations and tactics.

But a country need not be a top-tier naval power to turn technological change to its maritime advantage in ways that challenge the U.S. or disrupt the international economy. Consider Iran. It has been hostile to the U.S. since 1979 in a way that China has not. Its evident pursuit of nuclear weapons will likely make it an even more threatening adversary in the future. The Islamic Republic borders on a chokepoint of globalization—the Strait of Hormuz—and combines missiles and mines with fast boats and irregular forces under a radically asymmetric operational concept. Its military may be able to cause major strategic problems for the U.S. and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

During this capstone week of the course, students debated how U.S. and allied maritime forces can help prevent war along the Eurasian rimlands in the 21st century—and how to help win should war break out. Equipping them to bring history and strategic theory to bear on today’s controversies is the chief purpose of the S&W Course.