James Holmes

A Cold War State of Mind?

While there is room for debate concerning the makeup of the U.S. Navy, certain comparisons warrant a bit of caution.

The Naval Diplomat went on NPR’s All Things Considered on Monday to discuss the size and configuration of the U.S. Navy. Among the people interviewed for the story was Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Reagan administration defense official. He reproached the Mitt Romney campaign for advocating a buildup of the navy’s amphibious fleet.

The U.S. Marine Corps maintains that it needs 38 amphibious assault ships to meet the requirements entrusted to it, whereas current shipbuilding plans project a 33-ship “gator” fleet. Because the Republican candidate is pushing to make up that deficit, Korb opined that a Cold War mindset holds Romney and his advisers captive. Why? Because the United States has not landed forces under fire since 1950, when General Douglas MacArthur masterminded the opposed landing at Inchon.

There’s plenty of room for debate about the makeup of the navy, but there are three problems with this particular bit of reasoning. First, amphibious landings were hardly unique to the Cold War. The Marines developed amphibious doctrine during the interwar years, publishing a Tentative Manual for Landing Operations as early as 1934. And check out the excellent HBO series The Pacific to get a grunt’s-eye view of what amphibious operations were like during World War II, when U.S. forces landed under murderous fire at places like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

Second, by Korb’s logic there is little reason to prepare for major fleet actions. After all, it’s been longer since the U.S. Navy fought for command of the sea than it has since the Inchon landings. The navy’s last fleet engagement was precisely 68 years ago, at Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Should the American leadership assume the sea service will never again confront a fight to the finish, simply because it’s been a long time since the last one? That would be quite a wager.

And finally, there’s a lot more to the amphibious fleet’s portfolio—and thus to its reason for being—than opposed landings. When I worked at the State Department in 1997, we joked that the amphibious helicopter dock USS Kearsarge was the United States’ floating embassy. Evacuating noncombatants from civil-war-ravaged Sierra Leone was only one mission assigned the Kearsarge during that busy year. Nor has the amphibious fleet been idle during the decade-plus of combat operations since September 11.

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Korb’s bottom line may be right. There may be good reasons for accepting a 5-ship shortfall between the Marines’ stated requirements and the actual inventory. Navy officials evidently think so. But reductio ad Cold War isn’t among them.