December 1, 2005  

The sleeping service

The Navy has a brilliant future — if it wakes up

If any service is out of sight and out of mind in our present wars, it’s the Navy. Even our Air Force, which has made almost every wrong decision it could, is more visible in our military endeavors. Meanwhile, the Navy refuses to strip for action and continues to add an ever more elaborate superstructure to its 20th-century approach to warfare: “net-centric warfare” appears to be far more net than war.

Given its intellectual crisis and time on the war-fighting bench, the Navy is apt to suffer far deeper cuts than our security needs can bear. Despite the misdirection provided by our current land wars, the United States remains primarily a maritime power. And the globalization of trade — an ancient phenomenon accelerating madly in our time — makes control of the sea more important than ever.

Unlike the Marines, with their relentless combat catechism, our Navy suffers from a selective memory and the sort of wishful thinking that characterized the Army in the 1990s. But the fundamental future requirement of our Navy has already been described — by Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz on the day of his 1948 departure from his position as chief of naval operations.

Quoting Sir Walter Raleigh, Nimitz observed that “whoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”

Our nation and economy are more dependent on international trade than ever before. The only saving grace is that our greatest potential enemy, China, is even more reliant on vulnerable shipping than we are — and far less able to secure the sea lanes vital to the Beijing government’s economic survival and prolonged war-making capability.

The Chinese realize it. Their activity on the Indian Ocean’s littoral, from Burma to eastern Africa, focuses on securing supplies of oil and other raw materials, and on denying the U.S. Navy port facilities in a crisis through diplomatic art and bonds of reciprocity. The Greater Indian Ocean’s shipping lanes are China’s strategic lifeline. By preparing the theater now, Beijing believes it can limit the U.S. Navy’s operating capabilities in what is, for the United States, the most distant, politically complex and strategically challenging maritime region.

The Chinese are not determined to fight us, but they are determined to be prepared for any future war that may occur. Beijing is thinking much further ahead than Washington seems able to do. They have the vision, but, thankfully, not yet the means.


A war between the United States and China would be terribly costly to both parties, and such a war is utterly unnecessary. But with sufficient stupidity on both sides — a quality never lacking in governments — we might find ourselves fighting that war in a future decade. Were such hostilities to open, their contours probably would be far different than those we now project.

As a former Army officer and a recent convert to the belief in the primacy of naval power, it appears to me that our Navy will have three overarching requirements in the future, only one of which has much appeal to sea-service officers. In order of importance, those demands are:

1 The ability to protect our maritime trade while interdicting that of an enemy; policing the sea lanes under the conditions of peace or lesser crises and dominating them through unrestrained power and strategic blockades in wartime.

2 The ability to promptly destroy or otherwise neutralize the naval capabilities of any enemy power or combination of hostile powers.

3 The ability to influence land warfare through massive firepower delivered anywhere on the globe, no matter the distance of the target from the sea.

At present, our Navy remains fully serious only about the second requirement, while the strategic issues of the moment make the third particularly appealing to those outside the Navy and to those within the service who are anxious, above all, to preserve funding. Yet, the decisive capability in a future great war would be the first requirement, with the second mission most useful in support of the broader control of the seas and the third an adjunct (if a critical one) to the operations of the other services.

While stressing again that a war with China is neither inevitable nor desirable, consider alternative historical analogies for how such a war might be waged and, ultimately, won.

First, the grand fleet action so appealing to those who command warships would be unlikely to resemble Midway or even the final naval battles fought as our forces neared Japan. A naval exchange with China, fought in strategic proximity to the Chinese mainland, would probably result in a second Jutland, a far more lethal and more dispersed exchange in which the Chinese, after inflicting more damage on our Navy than we allow in our war games, would nonetheless realize that the cost of doing so was prohibitive to their own force. The remaining Chinese fleet-in-being would become a fleet-in-hiding, bottled up and wary of further encounters.

The crucial naval activity in defeating China would be a rigorous, globe-spanning blockade that sweeps aside peacetime civilities and prevents China from receiving any resupply of raw materials, especially oil and gas. (A crucial indicator that the Chinese anticipate a war would be an attempt to accumulate massive, dispersed stockpiles of vital resources.) As China’s appetite increases, it will become ever easier to bring its economy to its knees by closing the sea lanes (and freezing its global accounts and investments, by any means necessary). Pipelines, no matter how ambitiously constructed, not only could not provide adequate supplies, but — as U.S. forces learned to their dismay in Iraq — are easy to interdict.

A war with China would be a long war (even with resort to weapons of mass destruction), involving the sort of blockade that starved Germany in the First World War, combined with a strategic pummeling of China’s vulnerable industrial base and its military. Just as Iraq is a boots-on-the-ground war, a war with Beijing would be a destruction-from-a-distance war, waged in the hope that internal rivalries in China would lead to the profound sort of regime change we saw in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1917. (Internally, China is becoming more unstable, not less so). Our grand strategy in such a conflict would be to turn the conflict inward, making it a Chinese-versus-Chinese struggle.

On the high seas, the role model for our naval captains would be less Bull Halsey and more Raphael Semmes — skipper of the Confederate cruiser Alabama, the greatest commerce raider of the Civil War. While it is hard today to imagine our vessels taking hundreds of merchantmen into custody — or sinking them — the issue of maritime trade will shape our naval future. In a globe-spanning war, shipping can only proceed at our sufferance. Faced with a war about our continued pre-eminence and even survival — enduring asymmetric Chinese attacks on our homeland — we will do what needs to be done, without regard for the niceties of international law or custom.

To remain with the First World War as a precedent a moment longer, recall that Britain’s grand battle fleet served only a negative purpose and experienced a largely passive war (as our own grand fleet might do after Jutland II, the Pacific version). Despite the German U-boat campaign, Britain’s naval power (and its no-nonsense employment) enabled the movement of troops and supplies between theaters. Without the command of the seas, the resources of the empire would have been meaningless, and the intervention by the United States would have been far more costly and protracted. Britain’s command of the seas did not make its victory on the Western Front inevitable, but it made a German victory impossible. Even in the Second World War, the inability of the Japanese fleet to penetrate and command the enduringly vital Indian Ocean allowed the British Empire a crucial lifeline between its surviving possessions. Our own offensive action in the Pacific meant that the Japanese Navy was running out of fuel by the war’s end.

Too often ignored by strategists in the nuclear age, the command of the seas remains the fundamental basis for American military power and our national security.


In this age of distinctly unpeaceful peace, our Navy is apt to find itself tasked to behave far more intrusively with foreign shipping and local maritime craft than would presently be comfortable to our National Command Authority, Congress or the Navy itself. Practical requirements, forced upon us by hostile actors, will dictate policy (despite Sept. 11, we still are not remotely serious about warfare). Policing the high seas is going to demand a Navy with more, if often smaller, vessels as the service reluctantly assumes the role of civilization’s global coast guard.

A worrisome trend in our Navy is the elevation of technology above personnel to a degree never seen before. It appears to an outside observer that the desire to reduce crew size to a minimum on the next generation of vessels may prove to be a prescription for sharply reduced capabilities, if not occasional disasters. Despite the notion that a warship might seal itself against an assault, a crew so small that it cannot defend itself will, sooner or later, find itself in a position where it cannot defend itself. Postmodern manning initiatives appear to allow for no vital redundancy. Yet, management theories and personnel-cost savings that sound awfully good at budget time in the Navy Annex simply replicate the false savings the Army garnered by reducing manning so severely that deploying units had to be augmented by raiding the personnel rosters of like units (or the Reserve component).

Warfare remains an endeavor of the people, by the people and for the people. The machines are means, not ends. While there is an obvious cultural divide between the Navy and Air Force, in which people support systems, and the Army and Marines, in which systems support people, the Navy must overcome its utterly false belief that all problems have technological solutions. People matter.

While we may be able to reduce the size of aircraft carrier crews without diminishing our capabilities, if we try to man tomorrow’s über-tech frigates or destroyers with skeletal crews, we limit our ability to perform many of the missions the future will demand in war and peace. Until robotics advances to the point where machines suffice for boarding parties and landing parties, we had best have crews of sufficient size to have a look for themselves.

This is merely a return to our naval traditions — if to traditions the big-war Navy slights. If the domination of commerce in wartime and its protection short of war is an essential requirement — which it is indisuptably — it would appear that we need far more vessels designed for independent operations (whether in the manner of the CSS Alabama or the British patrol vessels that interrupted the slave trade — the latter offering a sound and rigorous model for dealing with terrorists at sea). And those vessels need crew members in adequate numbers and sufficiently trained to function as naval infantry when required. Not every postmodern ship will have room for a Marine detachment, but designated sailors on every vessel should be trained for boarding duties and limited security actions ashore.

Meanwhile, the “grand fleet” will need to serve dual roles: first, that of defeating or containing the enemy’s navy and, second, delivering massive firepower to targets deep inland — the importance of putting steel on target in large volumes will only increase as the Air Force insists on putting ever-smaller payloads on ever-fewer aircraft. The myopic killing of the arsenal ship proposed in the 1990s was as much about naval wishful thinking as the Air Force’s self-destructive obsession with the F/A-22. While even the arsenal ship would not have approached the required level of redundant firepower, it would have been a beginning. It is essential for naval planners to address this issue, since our Air Force is on a path to quantitative incompetence to fight a war with a power such as China.

A crucial issue with strategic non-nuclear firepower is, of course, cost. The most desirable breakthrough for which we might hope would be the development of a means to deliver country-ravaging, yet accurate firepower on a grand scale — and affordably. One of the painful lessons of our otherwise-impressive march to Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom was that, even in a minor war, our stocks of hyperexpensive precision weapons are rapidly depleted. This need for an affordability breakthrough should cause us to mourn the essential demise of the arsenal system, since private defense contractors have little incentive to discover ways to do cheaply what can be done far more expensively and at greater profit.

The mission: Control of the seas and dominance of the global commerce that depends more on sea lanes with each passing day; the destruction or neutralization of opposing fleets; and the global delivery of overwhelming firepower. Obviously, each requirement relates to the others, yet, in the shorter term they will appear to be in conflict, posing different demands. The Navy is in a position similar to that of the Army, which longs to return to a limited range of missions, but will be unable to do so in our lifetimes. Fulfilling the requirements future crises will impose upon the Navy requires no-holds-barred, imagine-the-unimaginable thinking today. At present, an outsider senses a great deal of intellectual activity in the Navy — but directed toward renovation, not revolution. (As history has instructed us again and again, military technologies in and of themselves are not revolutionary — it’s their incisive employment that makes all the difference.)

Yet, a true revolution in naval affairs — a series of revolutions — is essential, in fields as diverse as reimagining the law of the seas and designing affordable ships that address the missions our Navy actually will have, rather than those it wishes to embrace. The future is the Navy’s to seize. One sees no sign of the Navy reaching out to grab it.


For all the criticism offered here, our Navy today is the finest that ever rode blue water. No fleet commanded by Nelson, or even Nimitz, could come close. Yet, our great Navy does not appear ready to recognize that the world is changing far more swiftly than our cumbersome efforts at military thought have been able or willing to address. The best reply one could wish to this article would be a response from a naval officer that tore the arguments presented here to shreds — then offered better ones.

Meanwhile, the figure of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan is re-emerging from the mists at sea. In a recent book, I argued that, while Carl von Clausewitz certainly remains worth studying, Mahan’s vision is far more relevant to the future of the United States. We don’t rely on coaling stations, of course, and major fleet actions will be few and far between. Many of Mahan’s details are dated, but he understood our enduring strategic requirement: the command of the seas. Mahan saw with all-American clarity that the United States can enjoy neither lasting peace nor prosperity without the control of the world’s sea lanes.

It is up to our Navy to secure our strategic future.