The outlook for the navy and naval diplomacy improved with the arrival of President Ronald Reagan's energetic young secretary of the navy, John F. Lehman, Jr., who with forceful chiefs of naval operations (Admirals Thomas Hayward and James Watkins) pressed for an aggressive "maritime strategy" supported by a 600-ship navy composed of fifteen supercarriers, four battleships called back into service, 100 attack submarines, a powerful marine amphibious force, and numerous lesser craft. The program would increase by 20 percent the navy's combat ships over those in 1980. This aggressive strategy, however, did not rule out lesser actions to keep the Third World in proper order, such as the capture of the small island of Grenada (1983), a disastrous landing in Lebanon that ended with the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut (1982–1983), clearing mines from the Red Sea, protecting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf, denying with naval air Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's attempt to close the Gulf of Sidra (1986), the capture of Panamanian strongman General Manuel A. Noriega on charges of drug trafficking, and much more.
The decade of the 1990s was as revolutionary for the navy and naval diplomacy as had been the 1890s following the publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power on History and the shift of the navy from wood and sail to steel and steam. The 1990s opened with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the freeing of the nations of Eastern Europe to join the Western powers, and the disappearance of the Soviet navy as a serious challenge to the U.S. Navy on the high seas. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, this left the United States claiming to be the sole super-power, NATO deprived of much of its original reason for being, and the navy in need of either a greatly revised strategy or a wholly new strategy. All this and more can be summed up by the statement that the Cold War had ended. It ended as the navy was adding such high-tech innovations as the Aegis air defense system, new Ticonderoga-class cruisers that carry long-range Tomahawk missiles, Ohio-class submarines mounting improved Trident missiles, and much more.
The navy's new strategy substituted "power from the sea" for the older "control of the sea" or "sea control." Since the majority of the world's population lives within fifty miles of the sea, the navy developed a littoral mission by which it would mount "power from the sea" to control the world's coasts as well as dispatch terrible destruction deep into the interior. The new strategy assumed that the oceans were safe and that the navy, by attacking the land "from the sea" would prepare for unopposed amphibious landings by the marines and the army.
The new era opened in early 1991 with the outbreak of the Gulf War in which Iraq attempted to annex the neighboring Persian Gulf state of Kuwait, a move that threatened the stability of the strategically vital, oil-producing region of the Middle East. Like the Korean War, the Gulf War sparked a United Nations response in which the United States provided by far the largest land and sea forces. At the height of the conflict, 130 American naval ships were joined by 50 allied ships in a multinational naval force. The marines contributed 92,000 officers and service personnel, the largest marine operation in history. The United States initially reacted by concentrating six supercarriers in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and enough marines to afford protection for Saudi Arabia until the arrival of reinforcements, largely army, to turn the tide and drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. The navy and the marines also assembled an amphibious force in the gulf to prevent the Iraqis from evacuating Kuwait and joining the main battle of Operation Desert Storm. After the war the navy provided forces to enforce UN punitive sanctions against Iraq.
The vital importance of this region that holds 70 percent of the world's oil reserves was reorganized in 1994 by the establishment of a new Fifth Fleet whose water areas included the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Gulf. The Fifth Fleet was subject to the Central Command, located in Tampa, Florida, whose theater of operations extended inland to Central Asia. The fleet in January 2001 comprised seventeen ships, including a carrier group, and 7,700 marines with support facilities at Bahrain within the Persian Gulf and at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 was a very sharp reminder of the religious, drug, and other terrorist groups that the navy works with others to oppose.
By far the most powerful of the American fleets on distant stations at the turn of the twenty-first century was the Seventh Fleet, whose area embraced the western Pacific, especially East Asia, and the Indian Ocean. Notwithstanding the practical disappearance of Russian naval power, the Seventh Fleet in 2001 numbered fifty-one ships, including two carriers, and 29,000 sailors and marines mostly operating out of Japanese home ports. China was probably the most unpredictable major power in the area, and the troubled relations between China and Taiwan remained potentially dangerous. The Seventh Fleet lost important shore support with the return of the Subic Bay naval base to the Philippines and British restoration of Hong Kong to China. Numerous exchanges between the American and Chinese high commands to promote understanding were seriously jeopardized by Chinese outrage following the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the war in Kosovo. A port call by the U.S. cruiser Chancellorsville at Tsingtao in August 2000 brought public expressions from both sides that seemed to be evidence of a desire to return to stability.
With the passing of the Soviet Union, the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean lost one of its principal justifications. Its ships in January 2001 were down to fifteen, with no carrier representation. The eastern Mediterranean in particular included a number of potential trouble spots within the range of the navy's littoral strategy. Among these was the disintegrating Yugoslav state, which was a NATO concern, and therefore an American one. The ethnic feuds climaxed in the Kosovo war of 1999, during which American carrier air provided perhaps 50 percent of the guidance and support missions for the air force.
From 1794, when Congress voted for the construction of the first six frigates, the United States Navy was a prime support for American diplomacy as the nation's interests changed and expanded. During the nineteenth century, the navy was employed principally to show the flag on distant stations where pirates and potentates were not always respectful toward American missionaries and merchants. After 1890, as the United States came to claim the rank of a great power, the navy concentrated on building fleets to dominate the western Atlantic and the Pacific. The battleship age ended with World War II, from which the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union emerged as victors. After 1945, as the British Empire gradually came to an end, the U.S. Navy's role in the Cold War was dictated by the American determination to halt the spread of Soviet power and communism. The demise of the Soviet Union left the United States and the navy committed to helping in the solution of regional problems throughout the world. The United States, as in the nineteenth century, continued to follow a sort of distant-stations policy. Although Americans would deny that they aimed to form an American empire, American power inevitably provoked such protesting acts at the end of the twentieth century as the attack on the USS Cole off Yemen, the demands of Okinawans that U.S. forces withdraw, and New Zealand's quest for a nuclear-free South Pacific.