Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently

By Lauterbach, Toby | Air & Space Power Journal, March/April 2013 | Go to article overview

Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently


Lauterbach, Toby, Air & Space Power Journal


Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently by Roger W. Barnett. Naval Institute Press (http://www.usni.org/store /books), 291 Wood Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21402, 2009, 256 pages, $28.95 (hardcover), ISBN 1591140242.

In Navy Strategic Culture, Roger Barnett argues that the Navy has a superior strategic mind-set that comes from a unique strategic culture. This culture includes an appreciation of technology as a force multiplier and the intense male bonding produced by the isolation of naval service in the uniquely hostile oceanic environment. This combination produces an aggressive Navy that establishes sea control and power projection through a focus on expeditionary operations (pp. 59-73).

In addition to establishing a clear and provocative thesis, Barnett does a good job of presenting the Navy's operational philosophy toward warfare. He provides a concise, comprehensive, and informative outline of the legal, political, social, economic, and environmental context in which the Navy operates. The best part of his work addresses the unique relationship between the Sailor and the open seas; he paints a vivid picture of how the precarious and isolated nature of naval service is essential to the Navy's cultural makeup (pp. 13-17).

Ultimately, however, the author fans to make the case that the Navy's strategic culture is unique to the service or that it creates an organization with a broader, more nuanced strategic mind-set than any other group in the United States. In fact, the Navy's solitary, insular operations stand as an obstacle to broad strategic thought- far more so than the operations of any other service. Strategy requires a holistic appreciation of the larger geopolitical context- an understanding of the relationship between achieving the higher political object with the means at one's disposal. It is hard to see how Barnett's hermit-like Navy could develop a finer appreciation for the broader social, political, and economic contexts that frame the conditions under which military force must be hammered into an instrument that can realize specific geopolitical goals. Naval strategic culture appears predisposed to nourish a narrow parochial perspective. That is precisely the book Barnett gives us. His emphasis on the distinctive role of technology in naval culture is also suspect. The Navy's technical focus is not a specific cultural virtue of that service but a value that comes from American society and extends to the entire military.

At one point the author asserts that, given the Navy's self-sufficiency, it is perfectly acceptable for that service to take a lax attitude toward jointness. Indeed, he believes that apathy may actually be a good thing if jointness leads to the homogenization of naval strategic culture (pp. 107-8). In reality, knowing the requirements for winning the war and attaining political objectives is of primary importance. Since the Persian Gulf War, the Navy has had the principal role of serving as a facilitator of other services that bear the brunt of actual fighting. In light of the fact that Marines have conducted sustained operations inland and Air Force aircraft have flown the overwhelming majority of combat missions since 1991, winning demands a level of jointness transcending parochialism.

When Barnett observes that the Navy is best attuned to understanding the Iraqi insurgency because its nonlinear nature reflects "the migration over land of many of the characteristics of contemporary naval warfare" (p. …

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