The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Ebb Tide

American’s many post-Cold War land wars have obscured important strategic truths, among them the real value of the U.S. Navy.

Published on September 1, 2010

Only one statement can be made with certainty about the future of the U.S. Navy: Its strength is a necessary precondition of U.S. continuance as a great power. A robust, globally distributed and technologically superior naval force does not ensure the future of American international preeminence, but a waning fleet composed of fewer and less fearsome vessels guarantees the decline of U.S. influence in the world. Venice, Spain, Holland, France and England learned the identical lesson over the past 500 years: The loss of seapower paralleled and was in large measure responsible for their decline as great powers.

Seapower is an uncommonly flexible instrument of national power. It can and has been used to supply humanitarian assistance, as it did for the survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 and more recently following the Haitian earthquake in January 2010. It can be used to pummel an enemy, as carrier-based strike craft are doing today to our enemies in Afghanistan. The Navy critically supports the amphibious operations of the U.S. Marines. It also supports important national purposes that fall between disaster relief and combat. For example, it supports our trade in and access to strategic resources, keeps sea lanes secure in peace and war, and assures allies of our presence and commitment. By maintaining sufficient combat power to provide allies with security by deterring and protecting against ballistic missile attack, it reduces the incentives to proliferate weapons of mass destruction and lowers the prospect of destabilizing regional security competitions. And the Navy, last but not least, also reinforces U.S. diplomacy, collects intelligence and supports homeland security by monitoring the movement of potentially dangerous cargo destined for U.S. or allied ports.

A shorter, more conceptual way of putting all this is to say that U.S. seapower protects our vital interest in a benign international order, thus providing a global common good that simultaneously enables America to do well for itself and to do good for others.

Despite the critical role of the Navy, the prevalence of land conflicts in recent years—the 1989 invasion of Panama, the 1990–91 Gulf War, the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the post-September 11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and the ongoing counterinsurgency campaigns there)—have propelled American seapower into virtual obscurity. This is not to say that the Navy has not participated in all these conflicts, but that the historically unprecedented concentration on land warfare has led a generation of American lawmakers, their staffs, policy experts and the media to take U.S. maritime interests for granted. This has engendered an unprecedented ignorance of the political and broadly strategic role of seapower in providing American and global security. American Presidents from George Washington to George H.W. Bush knew from history and their own experience alike that America was preeminently a seapower, and that American security has been inseparable from the development of seapower and the ideas that govern it. It still is. Indeed, the demand for U.S. seapower will only grow in the years ahead.

It will grow, for example, if Iran becomes a nuclear power and the oil-rich Gulf states require shelter under an American deterrent umbrella. The Obama Administration has already increased the demand for naval force by promising to place a U.S. seaborne ballistic missile shield in the Mediterranean to protect Europe against intermediate-range Iranian ballistic missiles. But if Iran is a jihadist state with nuclear ambitions, Pakistan is an existing nuclear state with a potential to turn jihadist or to collapse. Pakistan’s shaky future and Turkey’s increasingly problematic descent into the hands of Islamist rule will almost certainly enlarge demand for U.S. deterrent naval force in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.

Then there is China, whose growing wealth, nationalism, ambition and need for energy and raw materials have prompted it to cultivate an expanding, increasingly powerful navy, one of whose explicit goals is to deny U.S. naval vessels access to the western Pacific. This is an objective that China’s growing inventory of sophisticated anti-ship ballistic missiles brings into the realm of possibility. The United States is, or at any rate ought to be, as resistant to an Asian hegemon as it was to a European or Eurasian one in the World Wars and the Cold War that followed.

To note that China is neither a liberal state nor likely to become one soon is not tantamount to searching abroad for monsters to destroy. Nor is it spiting hope to point out that regional balances against potential hegemons do not burst spontaneously into being. China’s brand of politicized mercantilism precludes meaningful partnerships with the United States on issues of strategic gravity. In that light, Chinese hegemony in East Asia would undermine or neutralize U.S. military, diplomatic and economic relations with nations ranging from Japan to India, exacting a cost to America’s international position that cannot be readily imagined. No single instrument of U.S. policy is more effective than a strong U.S. Navy at moderating Chinese behavior—behavior such as its challenges to U.S. intelligence ships in international waters, its belligerent and recently expanded territorial claims to the South China Sea, or its de facto support for Iran’s nuclear program. American power is a necessary ingredient in a peaceful balance of power and perception in Asia. A U.S. Navy that can defend itself, protect American allies and continue the stabilizing presence of American forces in the western Pacific is the best way to prevent major conflicts. Its absence or abject weakness would be an invitation to calamity.

We are in the process of extending that invitation, however. The size of a fleet is by no means a perfect metric for a nation’s naval strength; numbers do not equal power, reach or technological capability. But numbers are a good enough measure of where a fleet conforms in rough shape to national tasks and expectations. And for the United States, the numbers aren’t adding up. In the following year the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. combat fleet numbered 466 ships. By 2001, it had shrunk to 316. The decline continued throughout George W. Bush’s two terms to the current level of 285 ships. Since February 2006 the Navy has consistently maintained that it needs at least 313 ships to perform the missions assigned to it.

Note that the size of the fleet declined from 2001 to 2009 despite the Bush Administration’s avowals of support for a stronger one. Congress failed to make good on those vows, and now a lack of support from the Obama Administration means the declines will continue, and, very likely, accelerate. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told an audience at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas on May 8, “It is highly unlikely that we will achieve the real growth rates necessary to sustain the current force.” He observed that today’s level of defense spending—about four and a half percent of gross domestic product—“is relatively small in historical terms at a time of war. . . . But today we face a very different set of American economic and fiscal realities.”

Yes, the U.S. economy is still troubled. But a two percent annual increase in resources dedicated to preserving the U.S. military’s force structure amounts to about one percent of the economic stimulus money set aside so far, not including the amount Congress approved for the Administration’s health care plan. More important, Secretary Gates’s remark is an understatement of heroic proportions. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Obama Administration defense budget’s 2009–13 five-year defense plan allocates the same amount, $180 billion dollars, to procurement and research, development, testing and evaluation in 2013 as it does for 2009—in other words, no growth whatsoever over the entire period.

Gates’s speech at the Eisenhower Library also repeated a remark he offered to a Navy League gathering in Baltimore earlier the same week. “Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?” The answer, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, is “yes.” The U.S. Navy is a global force unlike any other, operating in all of the world’s oceans. It constitutes America’s ante to participate in the geopolitics of Europe, Asia and beyond. Most of the other 13 navies Gates referred to, especially those of our friends, merely have coastal or, at the most, regional missions. Patrolling the waters off one’s coast to prevent smuggling and protect sea lines of communication in one’s immediate neighborhood requires fewer ships and a lower level of effort than operating a transoceanic force.

Gates’s take on Eisenhower’s skepticism of the military budgets proposed by the services was equally ominous. He praised Eisenhower for husbanding U.S. national security resources, noting that in the time since Eisenhower’s tenure the United States has long since reached “the zenith of its strength and prosperity relative to the rest of the world.” Eisenhower’s appreciation of the nation’s limited resources, even during those halcyon times, rested on the understanding that “expending (resources) in one area—say, a protracted war in the developing world—would sap the strength available to do anything else.” Trade-offs between security and other goods must be made, of course. But today’s drift away from traditional military strength is as palpable as the Secretary’s confusion when he compares the size of the U.S. combat fleet to those that follow in its wake.

Gates’s reluctance to support more robust defense spending is consistent with the Obama Administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy, published later that same month. The document is like the torch song Marilyn Monroe purrs as a nightclub singer at the beginning of the movie Bus Stop: The words and timing work well together, but she can’t quite hit the notes. The 2010 National Security Strategy speaks respectfully of the importance of strong allies and “an unmatched military”, and approvingly of the need to shape the international system, but it also includes notes that are strikingly dissonant with a straightforward understanding of strategy. “We are”, says the document, “promoting child and maternal health. . . . We are supporting micro-finance to empower women globally.” To fight corruption “we will . . . bring greater transparency and accountability to government budgets, expenditures, and the assets of public officials.”

There’s nothing wrong with these and other worthy goals, to be sure, but their presence in this document shows the extent to which the Administration discounts a powerful military as an important foundation of U.S. national security. Instead, the Obama strategy shifts toward “whole government approaches”, “rebuilding our economy”, “deepen(ing) our cooperation with other 21st century centers of influence.” It also mentions China, India and Russia in tandem, failing to distinguish a friendly democracy from two autocratic competitors. Whatever the merits of the Administration’s shift in emphasis, it will do no good if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz, or events spin out of control on the Korean Peninsula, and the United States cannot respond accordingly.

The Navy’s future is not immune to this fuzzy strategic view of the world. In his May speech Secretary Gates also suggested that the Navy is inordinately concerned about its size, which is a good indicator of reductions to come. His praise in the same speech for “smaller, more diffuse weapons and units that increasingly rely on a series of networks to wage war” doubles as a warning about the future of large combat vessels—vital tools for maintaining a U.S. presence in the face of China’s growing challenge in the western Pacific.

The picture from inside the Navy is also worrisome. A decade of budget cuts since the end of the Cold War has not only reduced the size of the fleet; it has cut into research, operations and maintenance, and personnel. The Navy has responded by trying to save money where possible, extending deployments, decreasing crew sizes, and of course cutting back on the purchase of ships.

There are always consequences to such workarounds. In late June, the Navy Times reported on an independent investigation into manning, training and readiness headed by retired Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle. The investigation found that since the beginning of this decade more than 4,000 sailors have been removed from the crews of surface ships. Thus, in the late 1990s, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer carried a crew of 317; a decade later, the crew had been reduced by nearly a fifth, to 254. The sailors who remained were expected to put in a longer work week. The pressure to economize was applied in 2001, just the moment when the Navy started sending large numbers of sailors to support positions in Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate their value in the Global War on Terror. Individual augmentees, as they’re called, number about 10,000 sailors today. This has sharpened the problem of crew shortages just as the rising cost of personnel, notwithstanding the reductions in fleet size, added pressure to the Navy budget.

And the worse it got, the worse it got. As manpower diminished, the interval at which the Navy conducted burdensome but effective individual ship inspections rose from 3.6 to 5 years. The failure rate recorded by these inspections also increased over ten years beginning in the mid-1990s, from 3.5 percent to almost 14 percent. Insufficient maintenance aboard ships produces the same result as it does in cars: It shortens their useful life. Baslisle predicted that crew shortages and associated problems with the material condition of destroyers will shorten their service lives from the expected thirty and hoped-for forty years to 25–27 years. Fleet levels are calculated by multiplying the number of ships built annually by their anticipated length of service. If either number falls, so does the size of the fleet.

If Balisle is right, a significantly smaller fleet lies in our future. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead knows there’s a problem, but the solution is elusive. The Navy needs another 6,500 personnel to supply current deficiencies ashore and at sea. Evaporating resources sparked the search for efficiency; efficiencies contorted the fleet, and now the fleet needs additional resources to correct the contortions. So, like the children’s song in which repairing a hole in the bucket turns out after a long series of needed fixes to be impossible because there’s a hole in the bucket, the Navy’s options are circumscribed by the budget, existing manpower commitments and the upwardly spiraling cost of added personnel.

There are other causes of a diminishing fleet as well. Shrinking demand for naval vessels drives up their cost because it forces shipbuilders out of business and encourages the absorption by larger companies of those who were once their subcontractors. The decline in a once-robust shipbuilding industry increases the time it takes to produce critical parts, even as it decreases both the number of major shipbuilders and competitiveness among them. A 2006 study undertaken at the Navy’s request by RAND’s National Defense Research Institute reported that more than 75 percent of the suppliers for the Virginia-class attack submarine were sole-sources. So costs rise, orders decrease, the base of firms that can manufacture combat ships shrinks, the work force employed in such manufactures ages and retires, and the future of the U.S. naval industrial base looks increasingly dim.

The Navy also imposes higher costs on itself by adding requirements (such as more speed, combat capability or habitability) while a vessel is under construction. The same 2006 RAND study estimated that Navy-directed changes are responsible for half the increase in the cost of ships over time.

Increased costs in shipbuilding have substantial consequences. The Navy originally intended to build 32 ships as replacements for its current class of guided-missile destroyers. The purchase was subsequently cut back to 16–24 vessels, and then cut back again to seven. In the summer of 2008 the Navy reduced its planned purchase of the new class of destroyers to just three ships when the projected costs per vessel topped $3 billion dollars, with some Defense Department estimates showing a final cost that was orders of magnitude higher. A similar fate befell the Navy’s plan to modernize its cruisers.

Higher costs per ship diminish the number of ships that can be bought each year. A recent unofficial report by a Congressional Budget Office analyst noted that the average cost of a Navy ship has increased from $1.2 billion in the 1980s to an estimated $2.7 billion dollars per ship at the end of this century’s first decade. During the same period, the number of ships purchased on average each year has declined from 17.2 to 6.0. A planned increase in the purchase of Littoral Combat Ships—smaller, lower cost, high-speed, flexible ships intended to operate in waters close to shore—could increase the average number of ships the Navy buys each year, but this depends importantly on how much money will be available. During the first two years of the current Administration, the Navy’s expectation of funding for buying ships for the next three decades dropped from $27 billion to $15.9 billion per year.

This does not paint a pretty picture. An official Congressional Budget Office report from earlier this year states that if the Navy receives an average of about $15 billion annually over the next thirty years, the fleet will contract to 237 ships rather than meet the Navy’s current requirement to increase to 324 ships. That’s 17 percent smaller than the current size of the U.S. Navy and more than a quarter smaller than the fleet the Navy says is required to carry out its missions. Navy estimates for budgets and ship costs produce less dire numbers, but as former Chief of Naval Operations and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen warned in June, the current defense budget roughly equals the anticipated interest on our national debt in 2012: $571 billion dollars. Under this burden it would be no surprise if the Navy’s anticipated force structure assessment further reduces the size of the fleet that the service seeks to build.

If the Obama Administration wants a smaller fleet, it will get one. If it says it wants a larger fleet but does not alter its budget and operational projections, it will get a smaller fleet anyway. Most likely, the Navy will acquiesce in this, just as it will accept a much revised strategic justification for U.S. seapower. After all, in our system of government, democratically elected civilians tell the military what to do, not the other way around. That such a system is proper and enlightened, however, does not necessarily mean that it formulates sound strategies.

Thus the Obama Administration’s National Security Srategy refers to China as a would-be partner, a populous state, a subject for a deepening relationship and a receptacle into which our broader mutual interests can be poured. Nowhere does it suggest that strategic friction between the United States and China could re-shape the western Pacific. The Navy can only blame itself for a similar misjudgment in the strategy document it published three years ago under the title of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. The word “China” does not even appear once in the document, which emphasizes cooperative ventures with other navies in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as a foundation for preventing war.

Since that document was published, it is true, China’s public statement of its intention to keep the U.S. Navy out of the western Pacific has encouraged some naval circles to re-think things. But Administration policy clearly limits the extent to which the Navy can candidly discuss Chinese naval modernization, the dangers to U.S. combatants from China’s growing fleet of long-range bombers, the threat to U.S. aircraft carriers posed by China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, or the wider strategic consequences of a withered U.S. presence in the western Pacific. The same political deference to the Administration’s hopeful view of China as a partner curtails the Navy’s ability to articulate these facts as important reasons for maintaining the U.S. naval presence and power in the region.

The Navy’s future looks troubled. That is a serious matter for a nation that depends increasingly on safe and unchallenged passage across the seas for commerce, security, crisis response and great-power reputation. There is nothing inevitable about this troubled future, however, any more than enmity with China is inevitable. But there is no better prod to the latter than the former. Weakness invites aggression—miscalculation, too.

It is also worth bearing in mind that naval power once surrendered is extremely difficult, expensive and time-consuming to recover. Ask the Venetians. Just as we often assume that economic ties to China trump everything else, the Venetians assumed that their competition with the Ottomans beginning in the mid-15th century was merely economic. The Ottomans held no such view. They saw Venice as a strategic competitor and went about their business of building a large navy and acquiring bases with purpose and imagination.

The similarities don’t end there. Just as today we are preoccupied with Middle Eastern land wars, Venice, the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean, allowed itself to become enmeshed in the conflicts of the Italian city-states at exactly the moment when its great Ottoman rival was on the rise. The Venetians’ distraction from the maritime foundation of their fundamental strategic interests finished them off as a naval power and as a Mediterranean one. Not even the impressive victory at Lepanto in 1571 could save them. The United States is heading in a similar direction today, albeit on a much grander scale.

Seth Cropsey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations, and as a naval officer from 1985–2004.