The Magazine

Don't Give Up the Ships

The Navy's flawed new strategy.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By SETH CROPSEY
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The war on terror is being fought almost entirely on land, and the public neither knows about nor appreciates the U.S. Navy's contribution to these conflicts. No terrorists have struck from the sea, and although China is seeking to transform its economic success into naval power the threat does not appear imminent. With the number of U.S. combat ships continuing to drop, the Navy's leadership needs to recapture public awareness of its role in protecting the nation's security and demonstrate that the fleet is relevant.

The U.S. Navy is a flexible and powerful instrument that can control the seas, defend the nation at a distance, apply power to foreign shores, demonstrate national will, and deter conflict. It does not, however, do all of this equally well. Deciding which missions to stress and which to minimize is among the Navy's leadership's most important tasks.

In October, the Navy published a new maritime strategy called "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power," which, as its name suggests, focuses on deterring conflict primarily by partnerships with other navies. The new strategy cites an "uncertain future" and identifies the possible threats of failed or failing states, religious fanaticism, social and demographic instability, drug trafficking, piracy, climate change, coastal flooding, and humanitarian crises such as pandemics and natural disasters. It argues that no single nation possesses the ability to "counter these emerging threats." The Navy--together with the Marines and Coast Guard--is to forge international partnerships, develop trust, and learn foreign languages and cultural awareness. (The new maritime strategy document is sprinkled with pictures of U.S. military personnel providing humanitarian assistance around the world.)

Increasing the U.S. military's ability to work with other nations' armed forces, and improving our own understanding of--and thus ability to influence--critical states and regions is perfectly sensible. Such a strategy could indeed help prevent some wars. But the new document never makes the case that its list of human and natural catastrophes represents a substantial change in the causes of war. Ambition, religion, fear, and revenge have an ancient track record; coastal flooding does not. Moreover, if the Navy is concentrating on preventing wars, what happens to its ability to win them should deterrence fail?

This is an important question, for the failure of deterrence is more likely today that it was during the Cold War. Martyrdom has an attraction for jihadist fanatics that those who held religion to be a drug never imagined. There are also questions to be asked about the new strategy's view of traditional deterrence. The document mentions by name the geographic regions of the North Atlantic, the Arctic, the Western Pacific, Western Hemisphere, Africa, and the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean, but the word "China" never appears. Indeed, the document contains the observation that "war with another great power strikes many as improbable." Not an endorsement of the view, but certainly a favorable mention consistent with the new strategy's emphasis on naval cooperation in the service of avoiding conflict rather than naval readiness to answer it.

China's purchases of advanced Russian anti-ship missiles and quieting technology have helped to turn the Chinese submarine fleet into a serious threat. We rely on sophisticated and complex "net-centric" systems to provide tactical information to ships and commanders, and those networks rely on satellites. China demonstrated its ability to shoot down satellites in January. The new strategy does observe that the "asymmetric use of technology" is a danger. Will shifting our strategic focus towards humanitarian assistance through cooperation with other naval forces address the asymmetry of a contest between China's ability to destroy satellites and our ability to communicate essential combat information throughout the fleet?

But if the new strategy's view of the causes and kinds of future war is perplexing, the potential consequences are downright troublesome. The idea for the U.S. Navy to cooperate with the fleets of other like-minded states in the cause of avoiding conflict was originally called the "1,000-ship navy." (The name alluded to Cold War maritime strategy with its the overriding goal of a "600 ship" combat fleet.) But the moniker did not survive the scrutiny of the State Department and the foreign governments whose cooperation the strategy seeks. An American-led 1,000-ship force sounded too aggressive, and so the concept was renamed the "global maritime partnerships." Under either name, the strategy encourages Americans to think that peace can be preserved by supplying humanitarian services and that a smaller fleet can do this because others will take up the slack. The 1,000-ship navy is an organism whose nucleus is American, but whose mass is not.

If endorsed by Congress, the new strategy would create a Navy that tilts away from controlling the seas and its choke points, and from Alfred Thayer Mahan's still-applicable idea that the ability to destroy or contain an enemy's fleets translates into victory, not just at sea, but in war itself. The new strategy's reliance on friendly cooperation will create and nurture political support for an even smaller fleet, and the U.S. Navy today already has fewer than half as many combat ships as it did in 1988.

The new strategy's silence about resources--including the number of ships required to implement it--does nothing to dispute the current notion that the U.S. fleet size and downsizing trend are acceptable for the nation's security. In this calculation it is oddly similar to a seminal naval document from 1902: the British Admiralty's "Memorandum on Sea-Power and the Principles Involved in It." The memorandum offered wisdom about the value of sea control that would have gratified its intellectual father, Mahan, but took Britain's naval preeminence for granted. It passed over the question of ship numbers and set the stage for Britain's decline. Desiderata trumped the means to accomplish them.

In 1902, the Royal Navy was also keen to build cooperative arrangements--with Japan's then-rising imperial navy, for example--to help protect their lines of communication through the Pacific and Indian oceans. Control of these was critical to the empire, and British strategists shifted the responsibility for them to others. The proposed U.S. maritime strategy does something very similar, and history proved Britain's shift to be an exercise in self-delusion.

Shifting our Navy's missions away from fighting wars towards preventing them, even if the futuristic and unproven assumptions of the new maritime strategy about the new causes of wars are correct, risks the self-deception that superior power has lost its ability to persuade. Such a delusion cannot improve the United States' security.

Still, the "Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power" may prove very useful. It could refocus attention on the Navy's critical role as a guarantor of the ocean's peace, a necessity that will survive long after the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end. A debate over maritime strategy could also remind the nation that the Navy's two-and-a-half decade contraction endangers our position as a superpower.

But adopting those parts of the new strategy that transform the Navy into an international relief agency that equates humanitarian assistance with the prevention of war would circumscribe existing U.S. naval power, and--by its dependence on others--unintentionally lay the political and intellectual foundation for a smaller fleet. The cure would be worse than the disease.

Seth Cropsey is a fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as an officer in the Naval Reserve and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.