Can U.S. Navy Shift to Pacific?

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Can U.S. Navy Shift to Pacific?

Shifting limited U.S. naval assets into the Pacific makes sense. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

You can expect some backsplash when you stir the pot. That was the case with my last The Diplomat feature article, on the future of the U.S. Navy’s venerable “two-ocean navy” construct.

In a nutshell, I maintained that the U.S. Navy may continue to shrink as the costs of ships, aircraft, and weaponry soar, budgets stagnate, and national priorities shift. In effect, if not by conscious strategic design, Washington may be dismantling the second navy it has maintained since the Second World War. If so, policymakers and commanders must think ahead about how to deploy scarce resources more efficiently. Severely reducing the Atlantic Fleet to assure a surplus of naval might in the Pacific appears prudent if the navy indeed remains in decline. This take on the situation occasioned a fair amount of pushback, mostly from sailors and officers on sea duty aboard navy warships and aircraft. One of the few downsides to serving as professor at the Naval War College is that faculty spend very little time on the “deckplates” conversing with the executors of U.S. maritime strategy. Hearing from seafarers doing business in great waters is always a pleasure, even when we part company on important matters.

The objections took several forms. First, some interlocutors inferred that I advocate a smaller navy. Far from it. Given my druthers, Americans would make the conscious political choice to preserve and extend their mastery of the seas. U.S. sea power has served the nation and the world well for seven decades. The U.S. Navy is smaller in raw numerical terms than it has been since President Woodrow Wilson vowed to construct a “navy second to none” nearly a century ago. Expanding the current 285 ship fleet to the 346 ships espoused by the 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review, or even the 313 ships the navy establishment deems minimally acceptable, would reverse the downward drift in U.S. naval power. Such an expansion, furthermore, should take place in balanced fashion—not just by adding less expensive platforms like the new Littoral Combat Ships now entering the fleet. Such vessels are adequate for lesser missions, but are unable to take much punishment in a serious fight. They can boost the fleet’s numerical strength on paper but dilute its overall combat capacity.

But strategists must accept and work within unpleasant realities rather than wishing them away. The process of drafting strategy and matching it with sufficient means is very orderly—in theory. Senior political leaders draft a strategy in concert with military commanders and Congress, and lawmakers levy resources to procure the means necessary to execute it. Political and fiscal realities being what they are, however, the process is seldom that neat. Rear Adm. J. C. Wylie, America’s foremost sea-power thinker since World War II, describes strategy straightforwardly as a “plan of action” that harnesses means—forces, in the military context—to  fulfil national purposes. Wylie observes that congressmen making budgetary decisions are making fundamental strategic decisions, whether they know it or not. If they set a dollar figure too low to fund the necessary means, the armed services may find themselves short on the manpower and hardware they need to reach the goals entrusted to them. The hard reality is that the U.S. Navy appears set to shrink further. Whether the United States will continue funding a complete navy for both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres is doubtful. It behoves naval leaders, public officials, and the electorate to whom they are accountable to think ahead toward a day when the U.S. Navy may remain second to none but can no longer do everything, everywhere, at all times.

Second, some of my correspondents objected to denuding the Atlantic coast of high-end naval forces. They commonly invoked the German naval menace during the world wars. In 1942-1943, for instance, U-boats rampaged within sight of the U.S. east coast and in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The Soviet Navy comprised a two-ocean challenge from the late 1960s through the 1980s. It provided the impetus for maintaining a two-ocean U.S. Navy until the Soviet downfall in 1991. U.S. naval strategists were startled at the massive Soviet “Okean” naval manoeuvres during the 1970s, when hundreds of Eastern Bloc men-of-war took to the seas simultaneously. A Soviet squadron dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean outnumbered the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. And so forth. But who plays the part of the German High Seas Fleet or Reichsmarine today? Where’s the counterpart to the Soviet Navy?

Nowhere. No “peer competitor,” or major adversary, looms over the Atlantic horizon, demanding that a major portion of the U.S. battle fleet remain in east coast seaports. Europe is friendly. Russia has made noises about staging a naval comeback, but its progress remains fitful at best. There are no serious naval powers in Africa or Latin America. The chief banes to navigation in Atlantic sea-lanes are nuisances like piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, drug-running in the Caribbean and Gulf, and—potentially—maritime terrorism. It doesn’t take an Aegis destroyer or a big-deck aircraft carrier to combat such scourges. So why not station low-end assets like Littoral Combat Ships and guided-missile frigates on the East Coast, where they can discharge constabulary functions, while shifting the main battle force to the Pacific? Augmented by a Marine expeditionary contingent centred on amphibious carriers and transports for humanitarian and disaster response, a police-like force could anchor the U.S. naval presence in “permissive” Atlantic waters. Let’s not allow strategic inertia or worst-case thinking to govern fleet dispositions.

Such a redeployment would conform to current strategic guidance. The 2007 U.S. Maritime Strategy calls on the U.S. sea services—the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard—to stage “credible combat power” in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future, remaining the dominant maritime force in East, Southeast, and South Asia. Yet some 40 percent of the navy remains in the Atlantic, where it risks becoming a wasting asset. It’s high time to reallocate forces in to support the Maritime Strategy, and to back up President Barack Obama’s pledge to keep the U.S. military number one in this critical region. China’s People’s Liberation Army would be the yardstick for a new “one-power standard.” Once concentrated in the Pacific—arrayed not only along the West Coast, Hawaii, and Guam but at forward bases in Japan and, preferably, in central positions like Australia—preponderant U.S. forces would dissuade China from mischief-making, much as Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” did vis-à-vis Imperial Japan a century ago. In the unlikely event a serious threat coalesced in the Atlantic, the fleet could “swing” into eastern waters through the Panama Canal.

And third, some of the critics intimated that I disregard intervening factors working against a wholesale shift of forces from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. Not so. Politics is a messy business. I harbor no illusions that this process will unfold strictly according to strategic logic. Myriad factors shape—and misshape—big, complex decisions like realigning the U.S. sea services. For one thing, it’s excruciatingly hard for large institutions to relinquish longstanding commitments. In a way, naval proponents had it easy a century ago: the navy was building up to a one-power standard rather than shedding loads.

Today, by contrast, scaling back commitments engages strong passions like fear and honor. Wouldn’t withdrawing from the Atlantic signal a return to isolationism, collapsing the edifice of U.S. leadership? And then there’s domestic politics. If the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process showed nothing else, it’s that closing military bases or shifting major assets around represents an uphill struggle. The thought of losing defense-related revenues renders lawmakers apoplectic. Legal challenges are commonplace. The Virginia congressional delegation, for instance, pitched a fit last year over proposed plans to transfer one carrier strike group—a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its entourage of escorts and support vessels—from Hampton Roads to Mayport, Florida. Imagine the uproar that would greet plans to move all such groups to Pacific or Indian Ocean seaports! A decision of such moment will be neither swift nor easy nor politically painless.

Strategy, it bears repeating, isn’t devised in some abstract realm where thinkers boasting forty-pound heads size up the strategic surroundings, set goals, and apportion funding and resources to attain those goals. But approximating such a process should be the objective.

In the final analysis, the American people elect their leaders to lead. One hopes they will choose officeholders wisely at the ballot box, with a view not only to advancing parochial state and local interests, but also to upholding America’s strategic standing.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. He discussed the two-ocean strategy on National Public Radio last Friday. The views voiced here are his alone.