The Strategic Rationale for Navies

13 Dec 2016. The Strategic Rationale for Navies


[For a maritime state] not maintaining an effective naval force is tantamount to surrendering its sovereignty at sea.(1)

From time to time, it is useful to remind ourselves of the reasons why states maintain navies, and of the ways those forces can be put to work to protect their parent state and its people from harm. It is also important to remind ourselves of the many ways in which naval forces can support the state's foreign policy. Several recent postings to Broadsides have noted naval deployments that conform to traditional (20th century) concepts of sea power; as one points out, what is old is new again.(2) What follows is a summary of some of the most important points made in recent years on the strategic rationale for navies.

To be sovereign at sea a state must be able to control whatever takes place on, over, and under the waters under its jurisdiction. This applies to the territorial waters within 12 nautical miles of the shore, to the waters of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and to the adjoining areas of the continental shelf. And in some cases, this also applies to declared maritime "security zones" beyond the normal boundaries. Not maintaining the capability to control activities in those waters is the tacit acceptance that others may use them as they please without regard or respect for the law. This is an abrogation of sovereignty.

Protecting the waters a state claims as it's sovereign territory is the mission of navies and, in some cases, coast guards. But that is not the only role of navies. From the earliest days of organized military forces at sea, warships have been used diversely for self-defence, projecting military force, and as the means of diplomacy – a role that is more conspicuous today than at any time in history. Modern technology, especially information systems, increases the diplomatic potential of warships, allowing them to be not only the first response to crises as both eyes and ears but also in being able to provide assistance in the early phases of an actual crisis or disaster. Because warships are legal extensions of their parent state their presence is a clear signal of the interest or concern of a state (or of a group of states in the case of a multinational force) over a developing or existent situation.

The use of warships as instruments of foreign policy, which can be a contentious and frequently misunderstood role, draws on a unique attribute of naval forces in that they can represent force without its necessary application. This was explained well by the late Professor D.P. O'Connell,

[by] their ambiguity, navies alone afford governments the means of exerting pressure more vigorously than diplomacy and less dangerous and unpredictable in its results than other forms of force, because the freedom of the sea makes them locally available while leaving them uncommitted. They have the right to sail the seas and the endurance to do so for the requisite periods, while land forces cannot present a credible level of coercion without overstepping the boundaries of national sovereignty. (3)

It is largely because of this inherent ambiguity that navies have always been and will doubtless remain, political instruments of early choice -- to a far greater extent than either armies or air forces. The use of warships to further foreign policy draws heavily on the fact that under international law warships are regarded as extensions of their home state while also capitalizing on their inherent operational flexibility.

Although configured for war-fighting, warships have a natural flexibility that allows their use in a wide range of non-combat activities. Furthermore, they can deploy quickly -- in days rather than weeks, remaining in an area for extended periods without complex logistic support systems, and they can change roles quickly without loss of efficiency or having to return home to reconfigure and reorganize. Should a situation become violent, deployed warships can either extricate themselves quickly or remain “in harm’s way” to protect those entrusted to their care.

Yet, if a states wishes to employ naval forces actively for national security and to further its foreign policy, it must be constantly borne in mind that a navy is not a “turn-key” operation which can be switched off and on like a light bulb at political will when a crisis arises. It has to exist and be readily available to sail to be useful. As the late Sir James Cable concluded,

[A] navy exists and chance or an imaginative leader finds an unexpected use for it. This is at once the boon and the bane of the naval force. In an appropriate emergency, a navy is uniquely mobile and adaptable to political improvisation. But nobody devotes scarce resources to building a navy just because one day it might come in handy. (4)

It should be self-evident that for its operational versatility to be fully exploited, a navy must actually exist. Moreover, a navy needs an organization for its maintenance, training, and general support. Naval operational capabilities cannot just be bought “off the shelf” when needed or when it is time to replace them because the necessary individual and team skills take the time to build. Replacement and maintenance of ships and equipment require careful management. More importantly, once lost naval capabilities take a great deal of time to re-build. Hence, it is important that a navy is entrenched in the national fabric. This ensures its operational effectiveness through timely modernization programs and also prevents national security being sacrificed on the altar of domestic politics and ill-considered alternate strategies.

Contrary to popular belief, a navy is not an optional luxury. It is the means by which a maritime state such as Canada ensures its political and territorial sovereignty and carries its weight in maintaining the security of the international system and the global economy. The strategic rational for navies should never be swept under the political carpet as and inconvenient truth; rather, it needs to remain constantly in the forefront of the political debate on national security.

An effective navy is almost always a prerequisite of statehood; a country with an ocean but without a navy cannot claim to be truly sovereign.


  1. PeterT Haydon, "Why Does Canada Sill Need A Navy", Soundings, November 2007, pp. 4-6.
  2. For instance, see (1) "Putin's war games stoke fears of Baltic incursion to test Trump", posted to Broadsides on 28 November, 2016; (2) "A New Look at Seapower: What is Old is New Again", posted 14 November, 2016; (3) "Russia's naval task force: Power play or just theatre?", posted 21 October, 2016; and (4) "China establishes a military foothold in Djibouti", posted 19 October, 2016.
  3. D. P. O'Connell, The influence of law on sea power, (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1975), p.3.
  4. James Cable, The Political Influence of Naval Force in History, (New York: St. Martin's Press Inc., 1998), p. 172.

Amphion is an occasional contributor to naval strategy and sea power to the Canadian Naval Review


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