As discussed here previously, the new National Military Strategy released earlier this month has garnered a great deal of attention, earning both praise and criticism. Adding his voice to the discussion last week at War on the Rocks was James Holmes of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Holmes praised the “craftsmanship” of the document, but he also found its focus unsatisfying. He argued:

[T]he strategy is so determinedly — relentlessly — joint in outlook, from its garish purple cover (purple being the signifier for joint endeavors) all the way to its bitter end. “Jointness,” to use the awkward Pentagon term, connotes each armed service having a roughly equal claim on missions and taxpayer largesse.


Call it egalitarianism, military style.

As a committed navalist, Holmes’s critique is not surprising. The Navy has long been the military service most committed to its own autonomy, marshaling the greatest resistance to efforts to unify the military following World War II and to further centralization efforts in the lead-up to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.

More importantly, Holmes’s argument for the superiority of maritime strategy makes sense. Drawing on the work of noted American sea power theorist and imperialist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, he identifies America’s strategic interest since the end of World War II as maintenance of commercial, political, and military access to distant regions. Because such a strategy requires unimpeded use of the maritime commons, the Navy would therefore have pride of place in any national strategy. And although Holmes does not say so, given America’s weak friendly neighbors, any military threat to the continental United States not in the form of ballistic missiles or long-range bomber aircraft would have to traverse the two large oceans the U.S. Navy patrols—thus further bolstering his case.

However, as Holmes laments, because the military emphasizes jointness, no service is allowed pride of place in strategy. As Holmes’s fellow navalist, Bryan McGrath, noted in 2010, the Navy’s attempt to craft a service-specific strategy in 2007 met with fierce resistance from those who argued that the role of the services was merely to merely to organize, train, and equip their personnel to serve a joint strategy. In McGrath’s estimation, the conceit that jointness was always superior to service parochialism ignored the fact that there were times when one service’s parochial interest best served the national interest.

While both Holmes and McGrath are right that a single service’s parochial interest can often service the national interest, neither are likely to admit that services other than the U.S. Navy might be able to do so under different circumstances. Interests evolve and threats to them shift. The future will always remain unpredictable. Therefore, permanently giving strategic pride of place to the Navy is no wiser than relying on the ostensible harmony of interests among the services that jointness supposes exists.

A better way to deal with unpredictability is to create a marketplace of ideas for strategic planning. This would require allowing the services to compete with one another. As Professors Eugene Gholz, Harvey Sapolsky, and Caitlin Talmadge explain in their text on defense politics, the various services will provide different perspectives on potential threats based on their various capabilities and core beliefs about themselves. Gholz, Sapolsky, and Talmadge argue that the Navy would likely prioritize China, given the maritime geography of the Western Pacific and Northeast Asia. The Army would likely prioritize Russia given its land-based threat to Western Europe. The Air Force, given its belief in air power as a decisive instrument of warfare, would likely argue it could handle any and all threats to the nation’s interests—however narrowly or broadly defined.

None of the arguments in itself would or should be decisive. Together they would, however, give policymakers competing perspectives. Moreover, because the services would compete for budget share under a system that eschewed jointness, rivalry would provide a way better way to prioritize resources. As long as the services can pretend their interests are uniform, every supposed threat has equal claim to a share of always-scare resources.