Writing in the US Naval Institute’s online blog, Barret Tillman asks, “Why do we need so large a Navy, if we scarcely ever use it?”
In defining “usage,” Tillman – perhaps intentionally - invokes the 19th century vision of Alfred Thayer Mahan‘s decisive clash of fleets at sea.
If we found ourselves with 320 ships tomorrow, what would we do with the extras? Or, in the public relations arena, does it even matter? Where public opinion counts, it’s not hard to conclude that perception trumps reality. As the popular Internet mantra says, “The Army and Marine Corps are at war. America is at the mall.” So where does that leave the Navy?
To many observers, it leaves the service hard aground in the post-naval era. If “the naval era” is defined as the era of sea control, it ended in 1945—the last year of Fleet-size combat operations. Because the most recent sea battle worthy of the name occurred in October 1944, we are now into the seventh decade of the post-naval era.
The global war on terrorism is essentially a rifle fight. As much as partisans rankle at the notion, navies are largely irrelevant to its conduct, and the Air Force has been marginalized. In fact, unmanned aerial systems represent the growth industry, approaching the importance of manned aircraft. Meanwhile, the air superiority mission is nearly extinct: American pilots have shot down only 55 hostile aircraft in 36 years, the last one in 1999.
Of course, Mr. Tillman is smart enough to understand that we haven’t engaged in fleet-scale battles for 60 years for much the same reason that our air campaigns have been so lopsided: There has been no peer competitor rash enough to challenge us, while our civilizational allies generally view the US Navy as a force for good (so long as we’re sober, or at sea – preferably both).
Building a capable oceangoing fleet is dauntingly expensive for all but the most technologically and economically advanced countries, which rules out anything but local area denial capabilities for Third World or emerging nations. It’s a capability wholly out of reach of GWOT-style non-state actors, even if they could forgo their notorious reluctance to put on uniforms and fight in the open like men.
But the oceans are the lifelines to international commerce, which is a part of the reason why the Somali piracy issue has been elevated to a level of public interest far above its intrinsic strategic impact. For an island nation like ours, hugely dependent upon foreign commerce, unfettered access to the sea is and will remain crucial, and no one else is stepping up to the plate to ensure that access.
Finally, we are “using” the fleet, using it every day, and not merely in kinetic operations over Iraq and Afghanistan (although the latter, in particular, provides an important demonstration that evil cannot believe itself safe within an inland fastness).
It’s good to have worldwide access to the maneuver space of the sea. When a carrier or expeditionary strike group enters the Western Pacific or Arabian Gulf, it not only provides that stabilizing presence without which rogue actors might be tempted to opportunism, it also becomes a potent display of capability and will. Allies are engaged through mutual self-interest, and absent a strong power to balance regional competitions, countries that now offer access to US ground and expeditionary air forces might be tempted to make alignments not in our interest.
Finally, our humanitarian assistance in Indonesia after the Boxing Day tsunami (just for one example) – while not the “knife in the teeth” vision that some people think they are signing up for in recruiting offices – probably took more potential enemies out of the fight than any number JDAM deliveries or door-kicking expeditions.
The mission of the US Navy will always be to fight and win, but deterrence and dissuasion are far cheaper over the long haul. The issue that Mr. Tillman is highlighting is not one of strategy, relevance or force structure, but rather message: Getting the American people to understand what it is they are getting for their tax dollar when a strike group leaves port.
If only there was some other channel to get the word out.