Merchant Marine

The Merchant Marine and U.S. Strategy

Supplying an attacking and defending force has been an issue since the decade-long Trojan War. In more than 3,000 years, this has not changed. The U.S. continues to benefit from unrestricted resupply access in the Ukraine War.  However, future Eurasian conflicts will not resemble Ukraine.  The U.S. requires the capabilities to win the next war, not fight the last.  This demands, in turn, a Merchant Marine capable of sustaining the U.S. and its allies through prolonged combat.

The Ukraine War marks the beginning of armed Eurasian dispute between the American-led coalition and the authoritarian entente of Russia, Iran, and China.  Prior to 24 February, the U.S.’ adversaries poked and probed, but refrained from a direct challenge to the Eurasian military balance.  Even as Russia and Iran displaced the U.S. in the Middle East, there remained few direct conflicts between the U.S., Russia, and Iran.  The exceptions were remarkable instances of the shadow war bubbling to the surface. The 2017 and 2018 U.S. airstrikes in Syria, 2018 Battle of Khasham, and 2020 Soleimani Assassination, broke the norm of below-threshold intelligence and proxy conflict.

The earlier Gulf and Iraq Wars defined hostile military strategy throughout the 1990s and 2000s because they demonstrated the threat that the U.S. could pose when allowed time to establish massive nearby arsenals.  In 1990-1991, the U.S. built up a million-man coalition, including nearly 3,000 aircraft, in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and invaded Iraq after an extended air campaign that gained absolute American air supremacy.  In 2003, a far lighter force toppled Saddam’s regime, but only after an air campaign and, once again, a buildup in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The lesson was clear.  The U.S. Armed Forces were extraordinarily lethal, even without concentrating in overwhelming traditional numbers.  But U.S. forces had to build up over time in the combat zone, while a U.S. offensive required significant air-land preparation.  America could be defeated if it could be kept at arm’s length, unable to access a regional staging point.  Hence America’s adversaries turned towards long-range weapons and political disruption to bar U.S. regional access, with the result termed anti-access area denial or hybrid warfare by U.S. planners.

The Ukraine War will define adversary strategy in the 2020s and 2030s as the Iraq Wars defined adversary strategy from the 1990s to the 2010s.  For an autarkic enemy the Ukraine War’s central lesson is that the West cannot be allowed to transport decisive force to a combat zone unimpeded.  Russia could interdict American arms shipments in Western Ukraine if it felt comfortable penetrating Ukrainian airspace for targeting purposes or if it could stage an offensive towards Lviv.  But geographical and materiel constraints make in-country interdiction difficult, and even if Russia waged this campaign, it would risk a more active Western response, for example a No-Fly Zone that covered supply shipments to Ukrainian forces.  Escalatory risks therefore deter this action, allowing the U.S. and Europe to serve as a rear area for Ukrainian forces effectively immune to Russian attack.

This article originally appeared in RealClear Defense.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.

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