James Holmes

Will the Peace Dividend Sink the US Fleet?

With the benefits of supremacy remote, and the costs of a navy immediate, it’s difficult to sustain a fleet in peacetime.

Classes wrapped up this week with a review of maritime strategy past, present, and future. I like to kick off the closing seminar with a dramatic (he flattered himself) reading of Rudyard Kipling's "Dutch in the Medway."

The poet spins the tale of Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter's raid on Britain's Royal Navy into a parable about the wages of naval unpreparedness. During the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), de Ruyter led his fleet into the Thames. The intrepid Dutchmen towed away or burned much of the British battle fleet, which was laid up for want of funding. Imagine some American foe stealing into San Diego or Pearl Harbor, making off with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and burning some Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers at their moorings, and you get the idea. A seafaring nation that lets its fleet decay risks disaster.

It's been said that sea power is a conscious political choice. More than that, it's a choice that has to be remade, over and over again. Even a Great Britain, whose prosperity depended ineluctably on oceanic commerce and power projection, found it hard to sustain its mastery over time.

Why? A host of reasons come to mind. Here's one: the benefits of maritime supremacy are remote and abstract-seeming in peacetime, whereas the costs of maintaining the fleet are immediate and concrete. A dominant navy thus looks like an expensive luxury. Little happens if it accomplishes its goals. It deters rival navies from mischief-making while scouring important waters of lawbreakers such as pirates and gunrunners. If the system of free navigation appears self-enforcing, why divert resources from pressing domestic priorities, or from private enterprise?

In short, few value maritime supremacy until it's gone. The successful navy becomes a victim of its own success. This is where the United States finds itself today. The U.S. Navy's last major fleet engagement took place at Leyte Gulf in 1944. Seven decades is a long interlude of peace. It appears permanent. That tempts many pundits, and even many practitioners, to assume away challenges to American access to vital expanses like the Western Pacific or the Indian Ocean. In this setting, ventures like the U.S. military's AirSea Battle Doctrine, an initiative meant to assure access, look like efforts to invent new adversaries to justify lavish defense spending. Worse, such bureaucratic ploys could set a dangerous action/reaction cycle in motion, prompting regional competitors like China to accelerate their own military buildups in an attempt to set the terms of access to their nautical environs. Preparedness would look like provocation.

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Such are the travails that beset navies in times of peace. Explaining the fleet's purposes to laymen convincingly would try the rhetorical gifts of any naval commander or government official. Maybe America needs a Kipling all its own.