Theses Doctoral

The Illogic of Naval Forward Presence

Panter, Jonathan G.

The United States Navy possesses a preeminent peacetime role in U.S. national security: “naval forward presence,” or the maintenance of combat-credible naval forces worldwide to deter adversaries, reassure allies, respond to crises, and perform constabulary functions for the global commons. To many, naval forward presence is nearly-synonymous with American grand strategy.But since the post-Cold War defense drawdown, forward presence has constrained the Navy’s efforts to prepare for great power war. To support forward presence, the Navy has organized its force structure around fixed-wing-capable platforms and their supporting multi-mission combatant warships. The politics and spiraling costs of building such ships have stymied efforts to expand the fleet.

Presence also requires that the surface navy remain continually visible and busy. Too few ships thus face too many demands. The resultant operational tempo overwhelms maintenance and training cycles, and grinds away at the economic viability of American shipyards. In this way, naval forward presence consumes the Navy’s structural readiness, or its capacity to engage in severe and sustained combat with a peer competitor, such as the People’s Republic of China. And in so doing, presence consumes its own promises – deterrence and reassurance.

Why, given its internal tensions, does naval forward presence remain a governing strategic concept for the U.S. Navy, even in the shadow of a major international threat? What lies behind the rhetorical consensus on the value of naval forward presence for U.S. national security? This dissertation takes a popular strategic concept to task, illuminating the ideas, politics, and organizational processes that sustain it, even as its costs and risks accumulate, and even as international conditions change.

The inquiry comprises three parts: a history of presence and its implementation; a theoretical analysis of presence through the lens of political science literature; and a case study of the reform agenda following the U.S. Navy’s surface ship accidents of 2017. I find that naval forward presence, as an idea, ran away from the Navy. Initially elevated to prominence for bureaucratic reasons, presence was sustained both by organizational processes outside the Navy’s control, and by policymakers’ belief in the very benefits the Navy had claimed presence could deliver. Naval forward presence is rooted in deep-seated American foreign policy beliefs that cross ideological divides. The idea that the nation, and the world, cannot survive without a navy whose peacetime roles include deterring adversaries, preserving national credibility through crisis response, and policing the international system, is a uniquely American conceit. Ultimately, it also abuts against a physical reality: a navy tasked to do all these things, cannot do them all well.

These findings have two implications. First, attempts to solve the trade-off between presence and structural readiness by building more ships are unlikely to succeed, as presence demands, sustained by the power of the idea and organizational processes resistant to change, will continue apace and even rise as the fleet grows. Second, the rise of populist nationalism may challenge consensus support for presence by calling alliance commitments into question. However, hyper-partisanship associated with this movement could doom efforts to restore Navy structural readiness regardless. Therefore, whether presence remains popular or not, presence must be substantially reduced to preserve the United States’ ability to deter, or if necessary, defeat China.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Betts, Richard K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 3, 2024