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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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.