More Submarines and Less Aircraft Carriers: If the U.S. Navy Could Be Completely Rebuilt
Reinventing America's navy, in short, could involve reshuffling priorities for future acquisitions, tactics, and operations. A strategy premised on starting with sea denial, deploying unconventional techniques to incapacitate adversaries' sensors and weaponry, and relegating the surface navy to secondary status would have seismic impact not just on the navy's warmaking methods and force structure but on its very culture. But a cultural revolution may be what the service needs to fulfill its ends while operating on a shoestring budget in a menacing world.
Here's a thought experiment: would America build the U.S. Navy currently plying the seven seas if it were starting from scratch? Color me skeptical. If not, what kind of navy would it build, and how can we approximate that ideal in light of budgetary constraints, a slew of legacy platforms that can't simply be scrapped and replaced, and an organizational culture and history that frown on revolutionary change?
For the idea behind this exercise, a tip of the hat goes to Shawn Brimley and Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security or CNAS, who ran an item over at Foreign Policy last May wondering how the United States would reboot the armed forces as a whole. Brimley and Scharre dangle their query out there with a few remarks about organizational wiring diagrams and personnel policy. They hint at answers without quite giving them. They want to start a rumble within officialdom. In a novus ordo seclorum, would we create, say, a separate U.S. Air Force, or institute recruitment and retention policies reminiscent of conscription? Such matters are worth pondering.
(This first appeared in 2014.)
Last week, writing in a similar vein, Washington Post columnist and sometime naval enthusiast George Will asked what kind of navy the nation needs, and wants. That sounds like a technical question. And it is -- in part. Is the U.S. Navy outfitted with the right types and numbers of ships, aircraft, and armaments?
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Yet Will cuts to the heart of the matter. At bottom this is less a question about gadgetry or high-seas tactics than about national purposes and power. Nations, that is, amass military power to fulfill larger purposes. Martial strength helps advance their interests, ward off danger, and uphold their ideals. But does a listless American republic, "demoralized by squandered valor in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dismayed in dramatically different ways by two consecutive commanders in chief," even want to project power overseas?
If so, where, and to what ends? Today, maintains Will, "cascading dangers are compelling Americans to think afresh about something they prefer not to think about at all -- foreign policy. What they decide that they want will define the kind of nation they want the United States to be. This abstract question entails a concrete one: What kind of navy do Americans want?"
Good question. There's a canned quality to what-if exercises like this one. Two basic approaches come to mind. One, there's the tabula rasa. You could posit that the United States is only now rising to regional or world power, and thus is making itself a sea power for the first time. Such a scenario would be a throwback to 1883, when the nation started constructing its first steam-driven battle fleet. Americans could start from first principles, asking themselves what they wanted to accomplish in the world and what kind of naval might their republic needed to accomplish it.
Or, two, you could stipulate that the United States somehow made itself into the world power it is, blessed and burdened by its current array of foreign alliances and commitments, without ever having built an imposing navy to bind such arrangements together. The challenge in this unlikely scenario would be to field a fleet able to uphold commitments to Japan, Australia, NATO, and so forth. The demands of these two constructs are starkly different. For the fun of it, and to avoid a War and Peace-length discourse -- a zero-based look at U.S. foreign policy would consume page after page -- let's go with the latter. What kind of navy should Washington build to discharge today's commitments if starting afresh?