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No, the Navy Isn't Big Enough

Bryan McGrath

A new voice has joined the ranks of those concerned with the size of the U.S. Navy. Gregg Easterbrook, author and contributing editor at The Atlantic, wrote an op-ed at the New York Times on 9 March entitled “Our Navy is Big Enough”, in which he lays out why the U.S. Navy need not grow and why its funding is sufficient. His argument is a tendentious restatement of the poorly informed ruminations of others. He thoroughly misunderstands the role of navies in general, and the U.S. Navy in particular, and he inaccurately portrays the rising support of a larger Navy as a partisan wish of the Republican Party. Let us begin with that last point.

Two consecutive independent National Defense Panels charged with reviewing both the 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Reviews reached the same conclusion: that the U.S. Navy was not large enough to meet its global commitments. These conclusions were affirmed by two leading Democratic Party members of those panels, former Secretary of Defense William Perry (2010) and former Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) Michele Flournoy, the latter of whom is considered very close to the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton. Additionally, the current (Democratic) Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus is basing his entire legacy on growing the fleet to 300 ships by 2020, a fleet which on March 2 stood at 275 ships. Easterbrook’s suggestion that this is some kind of Republican cabal is simply not supported by the available evidence.

Moving beyond his misreading of the bipartisan nature of the support for a larger fleet, Easterbrook fundamentally misunderstands what the U.S. Navy does, and why it is sized and formed as it is. He falls into the common trap of comparing our Navy against other navies, as if there were another nation on earth with our global interests and global responsibilities. More correctly (and I credit my friend Ron O’Rourke at the Congressional Research Service for this approach), most of the world’s people, resources, and economic activity are not found in our hemisphere, but in Eurasia. It has been a cornerstone of our national security policy since the end of World War II to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon in either part of Eurasia. A good bit of our military looks like it does to accomplish exactly this, by which I mean a powerful Navy, long range bombers, and long range airlift. We are the only country whose military is designed to move itself to another hemisphere and conduct large-scale military operations there. Easterbrook’s citation of our number of carriers and comparing that to other nations fundamentally ignores the uniqueness of both our role in the world and our geography.

The U.S. Navy is sized in order to protect and sustain our nation’s globally dispersed interests and treaty obligations. This currently amounts to the provision of forward deployed credible combat power in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf and mission tailored forces globally. We do this with Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups, built around the “nuclear-powered supercarriers” of which Easterbrook writes. His citation of our present force of 10 carriers is correct technically, but public law requires the Navy to maintain 11, a law the Department of Defense sought temporary relief from until the USS FORD (CVN 78) joins the fleet. Even 11 carriers is insufficient, as the U.S. decision in the halcyon days after the Soviet Union fell to remove significant naval power from the Mediterranean has left this critical theater underserved as crisis after crisis occurred. The United States needs a minimum of 12 to ensure that it can keep three forward deployed at all times, with today’s fleet of 10 so insufficient that deployment lengths are routinely in excess of 10 months.

Easterbrook also errs by fixating on navy versus navy battle, as if this is solely what the U.S. Navy is sized and constituted to do. The destruction of enemy fleets is an important wartime role for the Navy, but so too is power projection ashore. As our land forces are increasingly returning to garrison in the United States, this globally available power projection capability is often our most flexible, powerful, and useful option available to the president when crisis occurs. Additionally, he completely ignores the role played by naval forces in providing peacetime forward naval presence, which assures allies, deters potential adversaries, and keeps global trade moving.

With respect to the threat, Easterbrook’s calm assurances of the limitations of the Chinese Navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) demonstrate a dangerous underestimation of the growing strength of this force. Our friends and allies in the region do not share his blasé view of China’s rising military might, nor should they. Moreover, Easterbrook fails to acknowledge that China does not have to build a navy bigger or more powerful than the one the United States operates; it simply needs to build one that is bigger and more powerful than the portion of the U.S. Navy that Washington can devote on a daily basis to the Pacific.

Finally, Easterbrook has a causation problem. He argues:

For many centuries, naval rivalry was a central aspect of great-power relations. Yet for more than half a century there has been no great-power naval rivalry — because the United States Navy rules. The last major sea battle was at Okinawa, in 1945. Piracy still occurs, but in the main, global trade has flowered because sea lanes are open and commercial vessels ply the oceans unthreatened by warships. Free commerce upon the oceans brings nearly all nations, including developing nations, higher living standards and less poverty.

What exactly is it that he believes led to the situation in which “the United States Navy rules”? What created the conditions under which “free commerce upon the oceans brings nearly all nations, including developing nations, higher living standards and less poverty”? It was the preponderance of the U.S. Navy, its overwhelming might, its ability to protect U.S. global interests and project power thousands of miles from America’s shores. This preponderance is the result of enlightened statesmen and thinkers who balanced what we needed the U.S. Navy to do with the available resources, not narrow-minded ship counters who compared our fleet with the regional navies of other nations. Now, with a competitor rising who actively seeks regional hegemon status in contravention of the bedrock of our national security policy for seven decades, Easterbrook would have our Navy decline while the first true threat to the conditions he waxes about above, gathers before our eyes. No thanks.

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