The Magazine

Anchors Away

Is naval supremacy a thing of the past?

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Is naval power back? Early in June, Russia announced that it would be permanently stationing an armada of ships in the Mediterranean, restoring a deployment that came to an end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This muscle-flexing is part of Russia’s effort to bolster the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and to stick a finger in the eye of the United States. China, for its part, recently introduced its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and the formation of carrier battle groups will eventually follow, enabling the Chinese military to develop long-range capabilities at sea. 

President and Mrs. Obama on board the USS Carl Vinson, 2011

President and Mrs. Obama on board the USS Carl Vinson, 2011

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As our major rivals expand their naval capabilities, America’s Navy has been on the way down. Today, the naval fleet is less than half the force it was at the end of the Cold War, and is roughly equivalent in size to what it was during World War I. And thanks to draconian cuts proposed by President Obama, the fleet will contract further in the decades to come. 

What does this mean for our future? A well-informed view—and not just a view but a cry of alarm—comes now from Seth Cropsey, my colleague, a former officer in the naval reserve, and deputy undersecretary of the Navy under both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The course we are on, he writes, “promises nothing except advancing powerlessness, the suspicion of allies, and global challenges to American security.” 

Mayday looks forward at these approaching perils by looking backward. It offers a capsule interpretive history of American naval power from the Revolution through the Cold War, with stops at some of the major conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is less a record of battles fought than the story of the evolution of American naval power, in practice and theory. 

Like any intelligent account of the American story at sea, Cropsey’s devotes a good deal of attention to the thought of Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), America’s naval Clausewitz. A historian, strategist, and admiral, Mahan saw American seapower as the essential prerequisite for establishing a stable commercial order on the world’s waterways. Seapower, therefore, was not to be understood in military terms alone. Rather, there existed a virtuous circle in which seapower was the guarantor of commercial dominance, while commercial dominance was in turn the guarantor of effective seapower. The advantage of the deployment of seapower over other instruments of military power was its unique ability to persuade competitors (in Cropsey’s summary) “to develop commercially and militarily in accordance with our strategic interests.” 

A glance around the world suggests that we have abandoned Mahan’s project. Our naval strategy is dictated not by the strategic concern of steering competitors into peaceful commercial relations, but by our budgetary shortfalls and a belief, founded on seemingly no evidence at all, that we will not pay a significant price for withdrawing from naval and other forms of military competition. 

If Seth Cropsey had his way, he would propose a “radical change in managing the nation’s defense assets,” which would include “recognition of China’s growing naval reach as a serious threat” and the “reinvigoration of U.S. maritime strength” to counter it. But Cropsey is not likely to have his way. Instead of reinvigoration, a great many pressures are pushing us in the other direction. “Responsibility for this unfolding strategic miscalculation,” he writes, “is nearly evenly divided between the leadership of both political parties,” who have devoted their attention to diversions in Iraq and Afghanistan while letting our finances slide into serious disarray. 

As a nation, we are now heading for “shoal waters.” When Americans had to be evacuated from Libya in February 2011, Cropsey notes, the Sixth Fleet was not in position, and the Obama administration had to rent a Greek ferry to get them out. An operation that might have entailed danger for American citizens was carried out on the cheap. 

That minor episode is but a taste of much worse that might come. Over the longer term, if we do not reverse course, the United States will

lose its ability to protect itself at a distance, [be compelled to] look on helplessly as control evaporate[s] over the lines of communication on which its economy in large measure depends .  .  . surrender the ability to influence events within the reach that its strategy encompassed .  .  . see its overseas allies scramble for stronger partners [and] stand by as its international prestige and global influence shrivel.

This is a bleak forecast, and Mayday, full of valuable suggestions for reversing our downward course, leaves one with a feeling that the author, in plotting a strategy to arrest our slide in naval power, is whistling in the dark. 

But that is hardly his fault. It is a problem of our time.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign: An Insider’s Account