The U.S. Navy goes 'soft'

Its new strategy calls for more ships to aid poor nations and better ways to build trust with other navies.

Remember the US Navy? It feels a bit neglected after years of US land wars in Iran and Afghanistan. So it's been reinventing itself. This month it issued a new strategy (the first in two decades) that should be supported by a Congress that seems more bent on reforming the Army.

The Navy hasn't been left totally high and dry in the public eye.

It is ambitiously building up-to-date ships and submarines. The new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is an admiral. This month, a rare Medal of Honor was given posthumously to a Navy SEAL, Lt. Michael Murphy, for heroism (on land) in Afghanistan.

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And the Navy's first-strike troops, the Marines, have fought in Iraq to help a stretched Army – although the Marines now want to focus solely on Afghanistan and eventually return to being a fully sea-based force.

Yet the Navy sees a need to prove itself to Americans (as well as to budgetmakers in Congress). And it must adjust to new types of potential enemies in a post-9/11 world.

The new strategy calls not only for an upgrade of the Navy's ability to safeguard sea lanes and possibly fight conventional threats (such as from North Korea, or perhaps China and Iran). It also calls for proactively preventing conflicts and terrorism by attacking poverty, radical ideology, and a rising competition for water and energy.

To take on a nurturing role, it plans to use "soft power" in two ways: build trust and cooperation with the navies of many more countries, and devote more ships to humanitarian and economic aid.

Despite the dominance of its 277-ship fleet, the Navy recognizes that it needs other countries to deter war and build peace. The strategy, in fact, was unveiled before naval leaders from more than 90 nations this month. And it calls on the Navy to work more closely with the US Coast Guard and make these sea services operate seamlessly from blue water to green (coastal) water.

Arranging for young officers of different nations to meet often, it is hoped, can come in handy during future crises. "Trust and cooperation cannot be surged," the strategy says. (One ambitious goal: joint search-and-rescue exercises with China.)

The other "soft" focus – taking ships with medical and construction teams on port visits to Africa, Asia, and Latin America – was reinforced during the Navy's experience in providing emergency aid to Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Such goodwill in both disaster relief and reconstruction helps the US in the "battle of ideas."

Besides using hospital ships such as Mercy and Comfort, the Navy plans to outfit regular warships to transport hundreds of aid workers and engineers to needy nations and improve the qualify of life.

Elevating such soft power to the same level as war readiness may well head off local threats before they spread. At the least, it can show Americans that their Navy is not simply a passive deterrent force but needs constant investment and reinvention.

The world, too, needs to appreciate the role the US Navy plays in keeping the oceans safe for commerce – especially as a melting Arctic opens up a contest for shipping routes and natural resources.

There's far more value in a navy when it's preventing wars as a force for good.

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