James Holmes

How the US Navy Handles Budget Cuts

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James Holmes

How the US Navy Handles Budget Cuts

During the post-Civil War cuts, the Navy’s physical and intellectual capital declined. Not so in the interwar period.

So the Naval Diplomat is Sydney-bound to address the Sea Power Conference slated to accompany this year's International Fleet Review. Because of the uproar in a certain capital city along the Potomac, I'm taking part not as a professor at a college once headed by Alfred Thayer Mahan but as the Naval Diplomat, and under my affiliation as senior fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. Once again, as during this summer's furloughs, I am … the Naval Bulldog!!

See, there, that wasn't too caustic, was it? Nor should it be. In his memoir Mahan reported having to sell building materials for firewood. Things haven't come to that pass. Yet. But as my hero Admiral J. C. Wylie liked to say, lawmakers — and presumably presidential administrations — make strategic decisions through the budgetary process all the time, whether they realize it or not. What sorts of decisions about strategy are being made this year? Ponder.

Two previous naval dark ages come to mind that may provide a flash of insight into today's travails. One, the post-Civil War years that Mahan portrayed as an interval of "dead apathy," not just because of material decay but because of intellectual drift. Letting a promising U.S. Navy fleet shrivel into decrepitude was bad enough. Letting the art of naval warfare atrophy was unforgivable.

Or, two, there were the interwar years, when the American fleet remained below treaty limits fixed after World War I. While the navy remained small and antiquated until the 1930s, this was a time of extraordinary intellectual vitality — to the extent that Admiral Chester Nimitz could plausibly claim that the U.S. Navy encountered no surprises during the Pacific War apart from the kamikazes. That's a heckuva lot of foresight and hard thinking despite an era of budgetary stringency. So what's it to be, the 1870s or the 1920s?

Anyway. My hosts for the fleet review, the Royal Australian Navy, asked me to comment on Ken Booth's 1977 treatise Navies and Foreign Policy. Reviewing a book 36 years after it appeared sounded like a dreary task, so I reinterpreted my guidance to ask why on earth anyone would hold a fleet review. Consulting Booth on a topic ripped from the headlines made the project fun — and everything is about entertaining me, you know.

My punch line is that happy talk typifies get-togethers when foreign navies socialize or work together. The polite fiction is that a brotherhood of the sea has come together purely out of goodwill. No one likes to admit the obvious, namely that each country pursues its own interests at such affairs (and indeed in general), that they may clash with those of other seafaring countries, and that rivalry or even enmity may ensue. Give me candor any day, with prospective opponents at least as much as with close friends.

Booth breaks down naval functions into military, constabulary and diplomatic endeavors. I structured the paper using that trifecta. What do naval powers want when they congregate in Sydney or other ports of call? What messages do they hope to broadcast, and to what audiences do they mean broadcast them? What else do navies stand to gain from proximity to their foreign counterparts, and to our Australian hosts?

The Naval Bulldog will file an after-action report next week once the festivities have reached their end. Sparks will be struck!