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Unilateral Naval Disarmament

We can't ignore our enduring strategic interests as a maritime power.

12:00 AM, Oct 10, 2007 • By SETH CROPSEY
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Nor has the Navy always helped its cause in pressing for a stable and appropriately-sized fleet. Amidst uncertainty and national attention deficit disorder, the best course would be clear, consistent, well-articulated goals with fixed target numbers for fleet size. The Navy has offered the opposite: shifting objectives for overall ship numbers, arguing for a fleet of indeterminate size between significantly different numbers, and presenting reasonable--if arcane--justifications for why platforms matter less than warfare capabilities; in all, confusing a public that is pre-occupied with the immediate problems of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Various intelligent ideas continue to be advanced to address the problem of a shrinking fleet. Surging ships from their homeports, shifting fleets, cross-decking crews, building on old alliances and crafting new ones--there must be dozens more innovations that can compensate for self-initiated and gradual unilateral naval disarmament. But fixes can only go so far. Spot-welding can repair a ship: it wouldn't make a very good one. At some point the U.S. will face the choice of maintaining naval supremacy or yielding it to others. Because decades are needed to build, train, and deploy powerful naval forces, climbing back after falling off strategically is a long process. In fact it is an historically unprecedented feat--one that would require the passive benignity of another power that had surpassed ours.

There is no inevitability to our enmity with China, but we strongly prejudice the case against a secure and balanced East Asia by encouraging a serious power vacuum in the form of our departure as the region's first naval power. Russian saber-rattling can be dismissed today. But the Russians remain an ambitious people with a yearning for the international recognition they once enjoyed. India strives to build a naval force to control the ocean bearing its name, the one through which much of the world's oil is transported. It is only a question of time until jihadists attempt to use the seas as a more effective alternative to the air routes whose assault has now been complicated by threatened nations' measures. The flexibility of powerful, wide-ranging naval forces offers protection for the civilized world against weapons of mass destruction in the hands of fanatics armed with long-range missiles. In each case, a strong Navy protects U.S. maritime interests which are now virtually inseparable from the broadest national security interests. The sum of these interests today, and all the more so in the future, amounts to this nation's future as the world's great power. Our current naval trajectory leads away from this future.

Others have descended the same avertable route. Disregarding the preeminent Athenian statesman, Pericles' intelligent strategy, Athens forsook her maritime supremacy and challenged Sparta at the point of that armed city's strength, her army--and eventually paid for this poor judgment by losing her position as a great power. Nearly two millennia later, another formidable maritime power, Venice, found the continental disputes of her warring city-state neighbors irresistible. She meddled in these while the growing power of the Ottoman navy attacked her bases and degraded her strategic and economic access to the eastern Mediterranean. Both Athens and Venice suffered a fall from power that could have been avoided by remembering their strategic dependence on maritime superiority.

We are following a parallel course. One voice raised against it is--finally--the Navy's. Its renewed interest in maritime strategy acknowledges the power of ideas in the absent debate over the nation's maritime defense. The ideas that must be re-placed before the public are that the global strategic environment is changing as Asia's rise in military spending flows inexorably into the space created by Europe's parallel decrease; that our international burdens require us to prosecute the Long War without ignoring our enduring strategic interests as a maritime power; that the future of the U.S. as a great nation depends on a large, healthy, world-class Navy; that this requires modernization and growth, the control of shipbuilding costs, the rejuvenation of the industry; and the intellect to create and execute intelligent strategy. The alternative--naval decay--is well-known to history.

If this is the course Americans want to set, it should be a deliberate one, not the unconsidered and un-debated one on which we are currently embarked.

Seth Cropsey is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. He was deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.